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Albert O. Burke




World War II- 92nd Infantry Division- Buffalo Soldiers

The black veterans and their Italian hosts have more than war memories in common. Just as Mr. Burke and his comrades and relatives cannot shed their bitterness over the United States' long refusal to recognize the combat records of black servicemen fully, many Italian veterans cannot forgive their own countrymen who fought against them more than 50 years ago.

Sommocolonia, a dying mountain village of fewer than 50 inhabitants that overlooks Barga in Tuscany, wants to forge out of its ruins some sort of peace memorial to honor Lieutenant Fox and all those who died: black soldiers, village civilians, Italian partisans, and Italian and German troops. But that still hazy plan has resurrected old rancors.

''Peace is always won through liberation from oppression, and you cannot put together oppressors and liberators,'' said Moreno Salvatori, 67, who withdrew from the ''Fortress of Peace'' committee in protest. His father was taken prisoner by the Germans during the war and died in captivity. ''It's a mixing of memories that I cannot share.''

Perhaps the only thing that everyone agrees on is that Lieutenant Fox was a hero whom all sides must hurry to honor here before those few left who remember his heroism die.

It was that sense of urgency that led Solace Wales, an American writer who has commuted between Marin County, Calif., and Sommocolonia since 1972, to invite ''Buffalo Soldiers,'' the name first given to black servicemen in the 1860's, back to Sommocolonia for a memorial ceremony on Sunday, even before the town had agreed on what kind of monument to build.

Ms. Wales, who began 20 years ago to research the history of Lieutenant Fox and the other black soldiers who fought around Sommocolonia, is a little like Frances Mayes, author of ''Under the Tuscan Sun,'' only in addition to fixing up her 16th-century villa and garden Ms. Wales wanted to restore Sommocolonia's place in history. ''Somebody had to tell the story,'' she said. ''It had been in the shadows too long.''

Unrooting the story of Lieutenant Fox was not difficult here, where survivors warmly recall the black soldiers. They were part of the Allied forces seeking to keep Axis troops behind the so-called Gothic Line, which in 1944 stretched from the Ligurian Sea to the Adriatic.

The surprise German attack was part of a somewhat desperate attempt to push through Allied lines and take the port of Livorno. An Austrian unit captured Sommocolonia and Barga on Dec. 26, but proved too weak to hold its gains. By Jan. 1, the Allies had more or less re-established their original positions. Some military historians credit Lieutenant Fox with buying time as the Americans retreated so that other men could be saved.

On the Piazza Martiri della Resistenza, a memorial in a wooded park at the top of Sommocolonia, seven stone slabs commemorate slain Italian resistance fighters. Next to them another memorial reads, in Italian, ''John Fox. Lt. American Army. 26.12.44'' It was erected in 1979, three years before the United States Army, under pressure from black veterans associations, awarded Lieutenant Fox the Distinguished Service Cross.

''They were wonderful, so nice to us,'' said Irma Biondi, now 77. ''My little brothers followed them like shadows.''

''We had never seen so much food,'' she added, remembering the chicken, rabbits, chocolate and cheese that the more than 60 black servicemen stationed here gave out on Christmas Day, 1944.

She also vividly recalled the sound of the stomping boots of Austrian soldiers under German command who began storming the town that night. ''We fled out into the streets, passing over the bodies of dead Americans and Germans,'' she said.

At least seven civilians died that day. German war records show that 43 members of the Austrian Fourth Mountain Division died in the fighting. United States Army records are sketchier, but historians say about 40 black American soldiers died here.

''We still have fellows who should be recognized now,'' said Mr. Burke, president of the 92nd Infantry Division World War II Association, a Buffalo Soldiers veterans association, talking about lingering discrimination against all black veterans.

Reminiscing earlier at their hotel in Barga, the three men joked as they recalled petty injustices inflicted by their senior officers, who were white. But when Mr. Zachary, still cocky at 83, reached the tower, he too was overcome. After trying to console Mr. Burke, he collapsed himself.

''Burke,'' he keened, ''I see him in the tower, I see John.''

Arlene Fox, the widow of Lieutenant Fox, arrived on Thursday to stay with Ms. Wales in Sommocolonia, accompanied by her sister-in-law, her daughter and two grandchildren. But she did not go with her husband's comrades on their first tour of the crumbling fortress. ''I have a lot of unresolved feelings about being here,'' she explained. ''Its so beautiful, and people have been so kind, and that helps. But it is not easy.''

That was what Antonio Nardini, 79, said, only he was talking about dealing with his own experience as a soldier in Mussolini's army. Mr. Nardini, who volunteered in 1939, was taken prisoner by Italian partisans in 1945, and said he was rescued from execution by the Americans.

''Before 1943, Italy had 40 million Fascists,'' he said, citing the year Mussolini was overthrown and Italy switched sides. ''Afterward,'' he said sarcastically, ''there were 40 million anti-Fascists. Except one: me.''

Several former partisans said that it was time to get over wartime enmities and to honor all the dead, including the Fascists and Germans. Mr. Nardini, who is president of the Barga chapter of the Lucca Historical Society, agreed. He, like most other former Fascists, mourns his fallen comrades in private ceremonies.

''There is a lot of demagoguery about the resistance,'' he said. ''But there is no debate about Fox.''

''His gesture may have been futile,'' he said, noting that the Germans took the town anyway. ''But he acted like a real soldier.''

In tiny Sommocolonia, the desire for a monument is not just about Lieutenant Fox, or even the war. It is about surviving postwar demographic shifts that have turned a once vibrant village into an almost deserted retirement home.

''We need something alive, for the town, not a museum for the dead,'' said Dario Giannini, who is coordinating the weekend activities. ''The bombs didn't just destroy the fortress, they killed the hope of the entire village.''

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