Echoes of the Dolomites – James Dwyer
I was born in a valley so green it would make the fields of Elysium envious and self-doubtful, with mountains higher than Olympus and a small town that would shame any the south had to offer. But when the war came, like every young fellow with milky eyes and open smiles I joined up to defend country and people, or at least that’s what I thought. Now, May 2nd, 1945, the allies are now at our doorstep and as we advance on my former home, the mountains and the green look like a black and smoky, hellish landscape.
“Get in the house!” the German attaché shouted in broken Italian to the people in the market square. As I saw old friends scrambling for shelter I was reminded that this square, used to be full of vibrant dancing and celebration and now seems desolate like a lonely husk. After the town, had been secured, we returned to our camp, the small collection of tents stained by the scent of spilled oil and powder. “Mein Herr” I shouted as the chain continues down, sounding us off to our Hauptman (Captain). Even though this is the brave army of Italy, our officers and orders are German, I suppose they couldn’t trust us “italieners” and our language. Though this came as no surprise to me, for only 40 years ago I pledged allegiance to an Emperor and the “italieners” saw us as the “foreigners”, in our own land, being an Austrian in Italy. I seem to be a man without a nation. “We are moving out” echoes the German officer as the petty conversations suddenly die down. “Sir, where are we going” some private stutters nervously. No answer, just a standard military blank look that told you everything and nothing.
8th of May 1945, we march north towards the Austrian border in some futile hope of liberating the “Fatherland”, but one can see the dreary and dead expressions that grace the young as they realize that in the week we have been outside communications range, the war is probably over. After 2 hours, we marched over a large hill and rested at the top of the rocky slopes where all could see the majesty of the Dolomites looming like a high castle over the luscious valleys. I had thought much about desertion before but a sudden feverous and spine-tingling sense of release pulsed through me, fanned by the cool alpine breeze. With a life-changing leap of faith, I bolted down the steep incline slope and tripped and rolled into the thick darkened forest waiting at the bottom. I didn’t look back as I heard gunshots ringing out and smashing into the trees behind me, getting fainter and less numerous until I was surrounded by silence.
For some 10 hours, I snuck around in the isolated world of trees and small clumps of leaves until I saw the moon shining off a piece of gravel road and slowly stumbled past into an open space. I almost kissed the ground as I lay on the inlet and the side of the road attempting to catch my breath when I see a yellow shine. “Hand up come on” some American yells at me as I race to my knees with my hands the straightest I ever tried to make them. The Americans patted me down and when they found nothing they gave me something to drink. “Wh… Why are you doing this?” I said in what broken English I could muster. “Why silly the war’s over since yesterday, no reason to harm you!”. That hit me like a brick at first to think of my old comrades who were now marching to their doom but then that brick a whole mountain at that seemed lifted off my back.
A few days later after a quick stint in a POW center I returned to my little village, my little slice of heaven. I was always grateful to come back, albeit somewhat nervous. I wasn’t sure how the people I grew up with and trusted me would react to me returning to the village I had helped to almost destroy. It’s only a small town, 300 people, everybody knows each other but there was no one in the market square like I remember. Knock, Knock. I wasn’t sure if my mother still lived in the same house we shared 5 years ago. But my prayers were answered and in only a few seconds she embraced me as her son. All I could do was weep with joy. I was home now.