Forget the newsreel images of elated Neapolitans welcoming American liberators in 1943. That reality lasted perhaps an hour or two ̶ the people of Naples were cheering through their tears. Worse was in store for them.
My colleague Alfred Cardone and I viewed Naples ’44, a new documentary based on the wartime journal of British officer Col. Norman Lewis. While the film was true to some of Lewis’s accounts it left out much of his experience. Nevertheless, by the end of the film, and even more so his book, the viewer is left with a numbing pride in the shear grit and resourcefulness of Neapolitans.
Assigned to an American division, Lewis saw up close the havoc visited upon Naples by American air strikes and retreating German troops. The city was in rubble. The airstrikes had killed some 20,000 civilians and destroyed the water and sewer systems. Meanwhile, the Germans had demolished the remaining vital services and left time-bombs to detonate long after they fled.
Naples bore the brunt of German and Allied wrath because on September 8, 1943 the Kingdom of Italy switched sides after ousting Mussolini. The Germans now considered Italians traitors and occupied the peninsula. Caught in between, Naples became a battleground. Its young men had been killed or captured in the war, or demobilized elsewhere in Europe. Its women were now a commodity.
Prostitution and theft became the sole means to survive under the Allied occupation. The Allies estimated that 42,000 “nubile” women out of some 150,000 in Naples sold their bodies for cash or canned goods. Lewis states that strepococci and gonococci were reintroduced to Italy by American troops. Typhoid, cholera, and starvation were a daily curse. Fisherman were confined to shore. Neapolitans lived on one meal a day of poor quality bread dipped in olive oil. Apparently, the Americans had no contingency plans to feed the population, so Neapolitans began siphoning off U.S. military stores to survive.
Lewis relates the story of one cocky old man who was arrested for theft by the Americans. He told the judge, ‘When the Germans were here we ate once a day, now with the Americans only once a week. We’ve been screwed by both.’
The film failed to mention the campaign of rape by French Moroccan troops, which was covered in Lewis’s book. One of many atrocities occurred outside of Naples in May, 1944. Fifty Italian women were raped, each by two men simultaneously, “…as these were not enough to go round, children and even old men were violated.” In retaliation, Italians lured five of the “Moors” to a house with food and poisoned them. Before they died the Italians castrated and decapitated them. This story was the basis of the movie Two Women with Sophia Loren in 1960.
Lewis details other outrages by the Allies. The American Military Government (AMG) hired Camorra chief Vito Genovese – a deported U.S. gangster who lived in nearby Nola. Suffice it to say, the Camorra had a resurgence under American rule.
Another event the film did not contain was the Neapolitan insurrection against the Germans prior to the American arrival. Famously called the ‘Four Days of Naples,’ the revolt was set off by a German round-up of Neapolitans for export to German war factories. From September 27-30, 1943, all of Naples rose up and successfully drove the Germans out of the city – the only successful revolt in World War II. The Allies arrived at an open city.
Amid all the chaos and deprivation he witnessed in Naples Lewis, an Intelligence officer who spoke Italian, truly lived and worked among Neapolitans and had this to say in the film: “A year among the Italians had converted me to such an admiration for their humanity and culture that I realize that were I given the chance to be born again and to choose the place of my birth, Italy would be the country of my choice.”
Enough said. -JLM