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Scott Graber

The unhappy war is largely forgotten

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It is Wednesday and I’m in Umbertide, Umbria — a town and a province in the warm and (currently) dry hill country just north of Rome.

Susan and I are staying in a stone-walled, tiled-roof bed and breakfast just outside the uneven medieval walls that surround and once protected Umbertide.

Our simple, white-painted rooms also border a railroad track that links Perugia in the South with Sansepolcro to the North. A tiny, two-car, wildly graffitied passenger train rumbles past our green-shuttered windows just about every hour.

Our rooms also overlook a bridge that spans the lime green, slow-moving water of the Tevere River, aka the Tiber. In April of 1944 — just about a year before I was born — this bridge was of some interest to the 5th US Army commanded by General Mark W Clark.

Clark had brought his infantry ashore at Anzio and met stiff resistance as he moved inland toward Rome. The Wehrmacht had dug-in along the Rapido River, and at Monte Casino and behind a fortified line called the Gustav Line. Clark found that breaching Gustav Line was harder, much harder than anyone anticipated.

The old bridge that crossed the Tiber in Umbertide — the bridge just outside our windows here in Umbertide — was important to the resupply of the increasingly desperate German troops in the south.

The U.S. Army Air Force had been supporting the American 5th as it fought its way north. It used relatively small B-26 Marauders when it bombed Rome. But the pilots in those bombers were careful to avoid the Vatican; and to stay away from the Roman ruins if they could. Clark had insisted on putting the best bombardiers in the lead aircraft. In fact, many of these Roman monuments did survive the war and would become foundational for Italy’s post war tourism.

On April 15,1944, 12 Curtis P-40s followed the Tiber as it snaked its way past Perugia and other hill towns in Umbria. The P-40s began their bombing run just south of Umbertide, hoping their ordinance would destroy the ancient bridge supports as well as the vaulted stone trestle attached to the bridge that got the trains around Mt. Acuto.

But this time their aim was off, the bombs were released prematurely, and most of the bombs fell into the walled City itself. Seventy-two Italian civilians were killed in an instant.

Today that targeting error is memorialized on a seldom-seen slab of white marble listing the 72 that died in the raid. That slab is attached to a three story apartment building that overlooks a parking lot full of Fiat Cinquecintos and Volkswagen Golfs. That parking lot is on few tour itineraries, the slab mostly ignored, but the next door piazza is full.

Yesterday I sat in Piazza Matteotti, with my wife, Susan, where we consumed tiny tubs of gelato with tiny plastic spoons. While we ate (limone and caramello) we talked about the raid and watched a dozen men playing cards at Bar Mary; the old men living out their retirement years under large umbrellas.

The owner of Bar Mary tolerates these T-shirt wearing retirees but, apparently, they don’t drink that much espresso. She does charge them a fee for the cards they use during the long, hot afternoon.

Most of the young folks seem to favor the Cafe’ Centrale on the other side of Piazza Matteotti — young folks who prefer an Aperol Spritz in the late afternoon and who have absolutely no recollection of World War II.

There is also a large expat community, mostly British, who live in the hills overlooking the town. They have long departed London and have brought their retirement incomes to Umbertide. They too migrate to Matteotti in the morning having to make a decision between the older Bar Mary crowd; or the younger, louder kids at Cafe’ Centrale.

The Mayor of Umbertide, Sindaco Luca Carizia, tells me that there is automobile manufacturing in Umbertide’s industrial suburbs. I know there is also factory that makes remarkably maneuverable bucket trucks that provides employment for some of the kids at Cafe’ Centrale. But the walls, moat and the town’s Roca (tower) that must have been the landmarks for the P-40s in April 1944 remain intact. And that ancient fear of unexpected and violent siege is still conveyed by Umbertide’s watchtowers.

But the Allied raid, and the unhappy war that took so many citizens away, is largely forgotten.

Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. He can be reached at cscottgraber@gmail.com.

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