By Peter Binzen
This is a war story - actually an after-the-war story.
I was a staff sergeant in the U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Division, the so-called "ski troops" of World War II. It's true that we trained on skis in Colorado before shipping overseas.
But once we entered combat against the Germans in Italy's Apennines, skis were forgotten. We were ordinary foot soldiers. The 10th entered the fray in January 1945. The Apennines were white with snow and the fighting was static. My 81-millimeter mortar squad was ordered to relieve a British unit that had been occupying an Italian farmhouse. The house was the furthest Allied outpost in its section, some 75 kilometers northwest of Florence.
We lugged our guns, ammunition, and supplies up the mountain at night because the enemy was said to be "looking down our throats" from the surrounding peaks. For that reason, we rarely stirred from the house during the day.
Mostly we slept before the fire, played cards, ate Italian cooking, and slept warm on mattresses. All this was very different from the foxholes, screaming 88s, machine gun burps, cries of "Medic!" from injured men, and sleepless nights that we would soon encounter. Our life in the farmhouse was hardly typical of the bitter Italian campaign.
I had always wanted to return to the farmhouse because it held such pleasant memories before the horrors of war. In 1950, I spent a year freelancing in France and Western Europe. First I paid a call on the man who had been the 10th's commanding general, George P. Hays. He was deputy high commissioner in the American section of Germany in 1950. He and his wife invited me to stay for a spaghetti lunch. That was the kind of general he was.
To reach the Italian farmhouse, I took two trains out of Florence into the Apennines. I got lost after one turn too many, and for three hours I stumbled around sheep, goats, and ducks without seeing the house. At 6:30 p.m., I decided to head down to the flatland when, all of a sudden, there it was. I came from the German side, but I knew the house at once.
A woman appeared at the door. When I spoke, she cried out to her family, and 15 of them, more than in 1945, rushed to greet me. There were pumping of hands, drinking of wine, and reminiscences. I saw the fireplace where we sat with the blinds closed, the room where we kept our mattresses, and the observation post where we would see a German walking now and then one mountain over. On the side of a converted shed was a tired sketch of a scantily attired female. Luigi, one of the four sons of the house, pointed it out to me.
"Americani!" he said. Luigi was correct.
Sadly, however, the one member of our squad that the family asked about was the one who was later killed in action, Pvt. Marvin Liegey of Pittsburgh. He was buried in the U.S. cemetery outside Florence.
But my year ended in utter jubilation. On a ski holiday in Austria, I met the girl of my dreams: Virginia Flower of Brisbane, Australia. We fell in love on a visit to Paris, were married in London, and had 56 priceless years together. She is never far from the thoughts of my four children and me.
Peter Binzen is a retired Inquirer staff writer. Contact him via www.peterbinzen.com.