After the horrendous storm that hit Barga and the Garfagnana area of Tuscany on October 20th-21st, and the storms that have devastated the south of the United Kingdom recently, my thoughts turned inward and I reflected on my lucky escape from serious injury. My thoughts also settled upon another violent storm which raged in this area of Tuscany many years ago.
As I stand on the terrace of our Barga home and watch even more leaves fall from the trees, I glimpse the village of Sommocolonia looking down on me. The more leaves the trees shed, the more the hilltop village can see me. Sommocolonia reminds me of another storm which raged here almost 69 years ago to the day. But, unlike the recent storms which have battered Barga, that storm was very much man-made.
In December 1944 ferocious fighting took place between the Germans and the Allies in the Serchio Valley. Operation Winter Storm, part of the Battle of the Garfagnana, raged in the valley’s small towns and villages. The battle to wrench Italy from the grip of the Nazis was in full flow.
Buffalo Soldiers in Tuscany
In the early hours of December 26th 1944, a small group of 70 black American soldiers, part of a reconnaissance group from the 92nd US Infantry Division, were caught unawares as mortar fire soaked the village of Sommocolonia. Twenty nine year old Lieutenant John R Fox, an artillery spotter, saw the streets of Sommocolonia swarming with soldiers from the elite Austrian 4th Mountain Battalion. They expected little resistance as so many Allied troops had been recently moved from the area. Much more than ‘little resistance’ was encountered, though.
By 9.00 am there was hand-to-hand fighting in the narrow streets Sommocolonia. Black American soldiers, together with 25 Italian Partisans, realised that they could, at best, only slow down the German offensive.
Orders to retreat were radioed from Barga but, by that time, two thirds of the Americans were dead or wounded. With the wounded still inside, the Austrians burnt houses Sommocolonia.
Covering artillery fire (covering fire from the Americans came from Barga as Lieutenant John R Fox radioed the co-ordinates. It drew closer and closer to his position.
No one knows exactly what happened at the end, but several men at Barga HQ heard Fox’s last call for a smokescreen to allow the surviving American soldiers and Italian Partisans to escape, and then for heavy artillery fire to rain down onto his position. HQ hesitated to fire onto his position but Fox, according to the story, yelled “Fire It!”
That night, the surviving villagers were rounded up by the Austrians and forced to leave the village of Sommocolonia. Ironically, it was back in Allied hands by the turn of the year. The priest told of seeing Fox’s body in the rubble, along with the bodies of about 100 Austrian soldiers. Of the 95 GIs and Partisans, only 18 made it from Sommocolonia to the lines of the US 5th Army.
Shortly after the end of the war, Sommocolonia’s grateful villagers erected a simple memorial to John R Fox. They even named one of the streets in the village after the “Buffalo Division” of which Fox was a member.
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The “Buffalo soldiers” were part of an US army unit that served in both World Wars and before. The Unit, formed in 1917, was made up of African American soldiers; the only white personnel being senior officers. It was the only “black” unit to see combat in Europe in WW2.
Sommocolonia and the Serchio Valley rightly honoured John R Fox and his fellow soldiers, but in the USA it was a different matter. He, and the other 69 black GIs almost completely vanished from the War’s official records for almost fifty years.
In the early 1990s, after much protest and lobbying, it was determined that African American soldiers had been denied consideration for Medals of Honor solely because of their ethnicity.
In 1997 Lieutenant John R Fox was posthumously awarded this honour for his actions on that distant, bitter and ferocious day. Black American actor, Morgan Freeman, said ” Dr. Martin Luther King is not a black hero. He is an American hero.” Change the name to John R Fox and the same can be said.
Finally, John R Fox, long hailed as a hero in this region of Tuscany, was recognised as a hero in his own homeland.
By Jenny M Want
For Jenny, living in Italy is a dream come true. A retired teacher, she now lives in scenic Barga in Tuscany with her partner David.
Immersed in Barga life, Jenny passes her time writing, researching, observing and learning.
Jenny has written a fun book for children set in Barga, Tuscany – The Bat of Barga.
Photographs by Alessandro Mogliani