John Abatecola, owner of Pizza Bella in Old Town, is proud of his pizza and quick to tell you about the time he won a three-way bake-off on a morning TV show for the "best pizza in America." Abatecola believes the essence of a man is in his word and how much he puts into whatever he produces, even if it's as mundane as a pizza.
But Abatecola's latest passion isn't culinary but literary. He's written and published a historical novel that documents a dark chapter in an otherwise heroic moment in military history: the Allied conquest of the Italian peninsula in World War II. He's not shy about declaring the impact he believes his novel will have. Pico: The White Paper Act, he claims, will be "the biggest thing to hit Old Town."
In personal terms, the book is already a success and as much a love story as an exposé of abuses surrounding the Allied liberation of his wife's hometown of Pico, southeast of Rome. After hearing what her family endured during the war, stories echoed by his own family history, Abatecola says, "I had to write it. The truth of the atrocities has to be told."
Until last year, Elena ("Ma Bella" to her customers) hadn't been back to Pico since 1948. Her memories fueled her husband's desire to write. "The people in these backcountry towns were the good guys," he says, "and what happened to them shouldn't have happened to bad guys."
When stories of the Italian peninsula's Allied invasion are told, usually the bad guys are Germans. In the spring of 1944, General Mark Clark, commander of the U.S. Fifth Army, was struggling with an experienced German army in the hilly terrain south of Rome. Working alongside the Americans, the French Expeditionary Corps, led by Marshall Juin, unleashed their champion mountain fighters, the Moroccan Goumiers, on weak points in the German line. According to Abatecola, "the brutally inclined Goumiers had the lowest moral values of anyone associated with war in the European theater." Their incentive to fight, he says, was to gain free reign among the Italian civilian population. While the Goumiers were successful in breaking through German lines, Abatecola accuses them of crimes against Pico's civilian population. "They raped women, they raped men, and when they got through with them, they raped animals." To Abatecola, his wife, and their families, the Goumiers were the embodiment of evil.
Abatecola's story hinges on General Clark's awareness of the Moroccans' brutality and his willingness to use their fighting talents to achieve his own glory. Abatecola says Clark felt pressure to break through the German bottleneck before other Allied forces closed in on Rome. At that time, Abatecola says, "the Moroccan Goumiers were the best mountain fighters in the world." In his book he argues that Clark signed off on what residents of Pico called "the White Paper Act," which traded their human rights for Clark's place in history. "If you're a general," Abatecola explains, "you fight for the glory of being remembered, and taking Rome was Clark's incentive. Rome had only been conquered from the south one time before, because the terrain was so tough. Clark was worried that he wasn't going to get to Rome first, so he traded these peasants for what he wanted." Military historians who have studied the battle agree that the Moroccan troops helped secure victory by penetrating the last of the German resistance around Pico.
The Battle of Monte Cassino is remembered as one of the most difficult and costly battles the Allies faced. The decision to bomb the ancient monastery of Monte Cassino has long been regarded as unfortunate and unnecessary. Abatecola says that the only German who entered Monte Cassino before the bombing was a commander who happened to be a lay member of the Benedictine order that ran the monastery. "He'd go there for Mass, all by himself. There was never a German within 700 or 800 feet of that monastery. The Allies bombed the hell out of it." After the bombing, the Germans found the ruins a useful military position.
While Abatecola's love story goes beyond World War II history, he stands behind its veracity. "It's 80 percent true," he says. "Some of the stuff I wrote happened to me when I was in Korea. And the part about the hero, I had to have him do stuff that a normal soldier could never do, so I made him special. But the part where [the hero] has to get 500 signatures for a petition to join the army because of some trouble he got into, that's true."
The story sounds a lot like the romance of Abatecola and Elena. His fictional hero, a "wild guy" who joined the army and made good, grew up, like Abatecola, in East Providence, Rhode Island. Elena came to the U.S. from Pico in 1948. "The main character, Angelina, that's about 70 percent Elena."
Abatecola has been hearing the war's horror stories since before he met Elena; his grandmother, also from Pico, lived through the experience. When the real stories of Pico's "liberation" surfaced, it changed everyone. "My father refused to go to church anymore. He said he wasn't going because of what happened to his mother. He blamed God for it."
Fortunately not all the stories were disheartening. "There's a part in the book where a girl talked the commandant out of shooting 20 people in the square for killing a couple of Germans. That really happened -- my wife saw it happen. My aunt told me that my uncle, her brother, led a whole bunch of town people up to the caves to hide. She told me when I was [in Pico] that she carried a baby on her back for hours but the baby was already dead from starvation. She couldn't give it milk; she didn't have any."
These stories have haunted Abatecola for years. When a Navy friend gave him a book about the military history of that campaign, Abatecola knew he must tell the other side. After finishing the book, he and Elena traveled to Pico -- she after an absence of 49 years; he for the first time. The trip secured his opinion about what took place in May 1944.
In the hills outside the small town, Abatecola walked the trails, envisioning the wartime struggle for control. While he was out prospecting one day, two old patriarchs from the village approached him, asking what he was doing. Gesturing toward a nearby hilltop, he spoke in Italian, surprising them with his knowledge of their town's history. "The Germans were over there." He told the old men how the Germans "had mowed the Allied troops down like grain." The locals, he says, were stunned. They wanted to know how he knew such intimate details about the battle.
Abatecola's insight encouraged them to recall their memories. After the battle, the old men remembered, the Goumiers and their Allied commanders were encamped in the valley. "They told me there was this American spotter plane going around and around, and then the shelling started. They killed them all with artillery launched from ships off the coast."
Whether or not the Allies turned their own cannon on the Moroccan troops and their Allied commanders, Abatecola believes Elena and her family witnessed horrors firsthand that haunted them for a lifetime. Neil Heyman, a professor of history at San Diego State, suggests that claims linking these events to the motivations of leaders like Clark "have to be approached with caution and skepticism. I never heard or read of anything like this before."
But Heyman would agree, along with Abatecola, that General Mark Clark's performance during the war was controversial. "He ended up being a hero, but he came out of the war with a cloud over his reputation." As for the Italian peasants, "they may not have had it quite as bad as some of the civilians in Eastern Europe," confirms Heyman, "but it was very rough. The history of the war in the Italian peninsula is full of stories of hardships and tragedy."
At Pizza Bella, Abatecola is happy to discuss his novel or tell you the bookstores that carry it. But the conversation will likely drift away from wartime atrocity and toward pizza-making. He wants you to know he is not a man consumed by vengeance; his passion is for life. As the hero in his novel says to his beloved Angelina, "Love is so powerful that it cannot be subdued."