Last Thursday, three Americans gathered with a group of Italian officials and townsmen along with the lone survivor of the Partisan group who served with the secret American mission code-named “TACOMA.”
From the wall of a shed, we pulled away the Italian and American flags to reveal a marble plaque, which read in Italian and English:
To the Valiant Allied Military Mission OSS: TACOMA, AZTEC, EAGLE. SOE: SIMIA, FRA. 75th Anniversary 26-12-1944 26-12-2019
On this very spot, then a snow-covered pasture in the Dolomite Mountains northwest of Venice code-named “Drop Zone AZURE,” a British four-engine Halifax bomber crewed by Polish airmen droned overhead. Below the three recognition fires in the form of an inverted “L” hove into view and the three American soldiers in the belly of the plane were given the “get ready” red light.
Upon the green light, Captain Howard Chappell jumped British-style, straight as a pool cue, out of the four-foot diameter “Joe Hole” into the frigid winter air on the night after Christmas in 1944. He was followed by Sergeant Salvadore Fabrega and radio operator Corporal Oliver Silsby. A few weeks later, they were joined by Sergeants Charlie Ciccone, Eugene DeLaini and Eric Burkhart.
Together with the Partisans—whom they organized, trained, and equipped—they would proceed to raise bloody hell 350 miles behind the German lines, day after day until the end of the war. They blew up bridges leading to the strategic Brenner Pass, found hidden targets for the Army Air Corps, saved shot-down aircrews from capture, and struck from ambush at every opportunity.
The Germans responded with what the Partisans called “rastrallamenti” (rakings) by sending thousands of soldiers out across the mountains, shoulder to shoulder, trying to flush and kill the Americans and Italian patriots.
When betrayed by a double agent, the Germans managed to capture Chappell, Fabrega, and Silsby. Chappell killed his captor and rejoined his men. Frustrated, the Germans hanged all four Sciochett brothers who had helped the Partisans in the village of San Antonio Tortal and then hanged another dozen in the main square of Belluno.
On the run, Chappell and his force marched to the top of San Baldo mountain and fought it out until the skies opened with C-47s dropping them weapons, ammunition, and supplies. Then the rest of the Air Corps blasted the hell out of remaining the German and Fascist forces until the Americans and their Partisans could escape and regroup.
Undaunted, Chappell and his men kept fighting, harassing the Germans as they retreated northward. They managed to bottle up some 3,500 Germans in the mountain town of Caprile. Chappell and his Partisan counterpart “Ettore” bluffed the Germans into surrender, using a total force of four Americans and several dozen Partisans.
Now 75 years later, three Americans, all members of the OSS Society, joined their modern Italian counterparts in remembering: Charlie Pinck, whose father was an OSS operative in China in World War II, former U.S. Army officer Jack Chappell (Howard’s son), and me.
With us was Giovanni Perenzin, the regional director of the National Association of Italian Partisans, which hosted the commemoration. Present were the Mayor Milena De Zanet and Vice Mayor Edi Fontana of the town of Limana, in whose community the tiny mountain village of Valmorel belongs, and Giacomo Coppe, the last Partisan still with us.
The Italians paid for the ceremony and dinner, and made possible the lecture series in the afternoon and the symbolic lighting of the three fires of the Inverted “L” on Drop Zone AZURE.
They refer to our forebears as “i grandi Americani dai ceili” (“the great Americans from the skies”).
And then they applied that name to us as they thanked us for our help 75 years ago.
In this time of American national polarization, a simple ceremony like this, by folks 4,500 miles away, can certainly bring a smile of pride to all of us.