Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Dad's Navy Days: September 1943 - Italy (14)

"(Pietro's) mother did my washing and mending for
a can of peas or whatever I could scrounge.
I was all set up." ["DAD, WELL DONE"]

[Photo from SIEGE: MALTA 1940 - 1943 by E. Bradford]

In 1943, while my father was in the business of ferrying war supplies to Italy - from Sicily, across the seven-mile-wide Strait of Messina - I'm told he lived in a large Sicilian home with other seamen and coxswains, most of whom were members of the Royal Canadian Navy Volunteer Reserve (RCNVR) and Combined Operations with the 80th Flotilla. Some nights he "slept on (a) hammock on a beautifully patterned marble floor." Other times he "slung (the) hammock, covered with mosquito netting, between two orange trees in the immense yard." And thanks to 'chocolota', the Canadian Navy boys - one with the nickname 'Do-go' - soon got to know some of the locals, including a Mrs. Guiseppe and her son Pietro, referred to below as 'Peepo'.

Father writes:

     Canned food was quite plentiful now and several young
     Sicilian boys, quite under-nourished, came begging for handouts,
     especially chocolota, as they called our chocolate bars. 

     I took a boy about 11 years old under my wing when off duty.
     In one corner of the yard was a low, square, cement-walled 
     affair complete with a cement floor, tap and drain hole. It was
     here I introduced “Peepo” to Ivory soap, Colgate toothpaste
     and hair tonic for his short, shiny, ringletted black hair. My
     name was “Do-go” which I am still called today at navy reunions,
     and this boy really shone when I had finished his toilet. Peepo
     wasn’t too keen on soap and water and it certainly was obvious,
     but not for long.

     I tried to learn some of his language, and he mine (the Canadian
     Marina). Although we were from countries thousands of miles
     apart, the war had brought us together and we got along famously.
     He and I also wandered about Messina. I went with Peepo to meet
     his Mamma. I took some canned food, chocolota and compost tea,
     a complete tea in a can exactly like a sardine can, with a key
     attached as well. Although the lad’s mother was forty-ish, she
     appeared older. Over a cup of tea, and with difficulty, Mrs.
     Guiseppe said she would do some laundry for me, and mending.
     [The Norwich Gazette, circa 1992]

Daily routines, with the help of some of the locals, became easier as days passed and occasionally father received a day off. What's a 23-year old from a small Ontario village to do with his free time in Sicily or Italy?

He writes the following in the same newspaper column:

     We operated our landing craft under (peaceful) conditions with
     skeleton crews and we enjoyed time off. Some of us went to Italy,
     hitched rides on army trucks, went as far as we were allowed to go
     and had a good look at some of Italy. We lived on the edge, because
     not far from the shoulder of the asphalt road were high cliffs and
     we could look down on the Adriatic sea, its beautiful beaches
     and menacing rocks.

[Map found at]

     I remember one of the many refugees of war, a barefoot lady dressed
     in a black sleeveless dress, carrying a huge black trunk on her head.
     I suppose it contained all her earthly belongings or it was very dear
     to her, and she walked along the coastal road back toward Reggio,
     to what, I’ll never know. I couldn’t have carried that load.

"We lived on the edge," he says. And it's true. A couple of times, when free from carrying loads across the strait in barges, he came close to breaking some type of law, once because he knew a few things about chickens his pals didn't.

More to follow.


Please click here to read Dad's Navy Days: September 1943 - Italy (13)

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