Solace Wales is the author of the new book Braided in Fire: Black GIs and Tuscan Villagers on the Gothic Line. It focuses on a small town in Italy during World War II. Wales is the former director of the International Child Art Center in San Francisco, and she lives in Sommocolonia, Italy, and Marin County, California.
Q: How did you first learn of the history you write about in Braided in Fire?
A: In 1958, when I was age 19 and a Junior Year Abroad student, our Smith College group stayed initially for six weeks in a villa outside Siena where we had introductory courses —one dealt with the Italian Resistance movement during World War II.
Even with my then limited Italian, I was captivated by the slim, limited edition of La Storia della mia Morte (The Story of My Death), written by the brother of the Signora of the villa.
Lauro de Bosis, who had been the Italian cultural attaché to New York, wrote the book just before he learned to pilot an airplane in order to fly a suicidal mission to drop anti-fascist flyers over Rome. I was very moved by this act and by the strong moral stance of other resistance fighters we read about.
Several times, a Sienese woman, who had been a partisan, came to speak to us. I don’t remember what she said except that her partisan fiancé was killed in the effort. But still today, I can vividly picture the strong features of her face. I was in tears at the end of each of her talks.
Then my interest in World War II Italy lay dormant for many years. I was a printmaker but spent my time primarily as an art educator. But my artist husband and I spent two yearlong periods living in Italy and eventually bought a stone farmhouse in a mountaintop village in the foothills of the Apennines of northern Tuscany.
Shortly after we moved into Sommocolonia in 1975 (our house hadn’t been lived in since the war), a neighbor told me that ours was the only house occupied when the village was bombed in December 1944. All the other villagers had fled, but the three old timers in our place couldn’t walk far and stayed put.
There was no food left, but the demi-johns of wine were full and all three elders were tipplers. When their relatives returned after the bombing —in which many village houses were destroyed— they found all three fine, but completely sloshed, wandering around in circles with their goat and chickens.
The old folk explained that there had been a terrible storm with a “whore’s wind!” that had broken their windows and cracked their chimney. They complained that no one had come by to fix these things.
There was only one house between theirs and the village’s 12th century church, which had been completely leveled in the bombing. The elders were totally oblivious of what they had lived through.
I later heard many stories from my village neighbors about their daunting wartime experiences, but none with the levity of that first one.
I was always interested in the stories, but it wasn’t until 1987, that I realized I had a role —someone had to capture these experiences before it was too late. I began doing tape-recorded interviews with my Sommocolonian friends during our summertime visits to the village.
The more I heard in detail, the more I understood that I must locate and interview African American veterans with a connection to the horrific Sommocolonia battle of the day after Christmas 1944. But I dragged my feet in attempting this.
Q: The book describes the events on the Gothic Line in World War II, but also your own experiences as a researcher. How did you choose the book's structure?
A: I didn’t really choose the book’s structure. I just started writing about the material —a long time ago. Much of what I wrote I threw out along the way. Or more accurately, I filed them away in “Old Braided in Fire” files that I’ve never looked at again. (I have difficulty with the finality of truly throwing things away.)
I was accustomed to journal writing so it was natural for me to include my experience in investigating. Actually there was much more of me in the book at the start and as I went along I peeled a lot of it away.
Even so, immediately before publication, I realized there was still too much of me. I wanted my protagonists to take central stage, so I contacted an editor I had worked with briefly 10 years before and she came to the last-minute rescue. She helped me to extricate the “me” in a few key places and that seemed to be enough. Or at least I hope it was enough.
Still, I’m glad that I did include bits about my interviewing because it allowed me to speak about the character of my interviewees in a more direct way than if I had kept everything in the past.
For example. when I went to Irma Biondi’s house to conduct an interview I wrote that after I banged the knocker on the tall chestnut door:
“I stepped back from the doorway, concerned about the ferocious sounding dog inside. Irma opened the door with a broad smile, one hand firmly on the collar of a large German Shepherd, seated quietly at her side. When I expressed my surprise that she had a dog, she explained that it was her grown son’s dog. “He’s really a one master dog,” she added. I nearly objected, having just observed how well the dog obeyed her. But I keep my thoughts to myself, reflecting on how this was just another example of Irma’s natural authority.”
It might not have been so easy to convey that quality when writing about Irma as a 22-year-old, though I have no doubt that she possessed that natural authority then too.
In terms of the basic structure of the book, I had quite a struggle in the beginning because many people, far more experienced writers than I, told me that I simply could not write a book about both the villagers and the black GIs. I had to choose one or the other. People who were interested in one of these groups would not be interested in the other.
I could write about Black GIs and the villagers would be in the background, but just as a backdrop. Or I could write about the villagers with the GIs just on the periphery of their experience. Several people suggested, “Why don’t you write two books?”
What these friends didn’t realize was that what motivated me was to write about what happened in this one tiny mountain village in a complete way. I wanted to capture the experience of Sommocolonia. At one time I considered calling the book One Village, One War.
I thought to convey the idea that if this much tragedy and destruction happened in this tiny unknown place, then multiply the experience and just imagine the scale of war! In Europe alone there were thousands upon thousands of villages, not to mention thousands of large cities which met unfathomable horror in World War II. And that was only one of the wars that the continent has seen.
Q: What surprised you most in the course of your work on this book?
A: As I said, after I had interviewed all the 21 Sommocolonian villagers old enough to remember World War II, I knew that I should try to contact African American veterans with a connection to the village. The villagers had spoken of these men with real fondness — they regarded them as their liberators. But I dragged my feet on doing this stateside interviewing.
The task seemed daunting. How would I locate men who had been stationed in the Serchio Valley decades before? (The Serchio Valley is the general region where Sommocolonia is located.) I knew I couldn't just phone the U.S. Army and ask for their addresses.
And I wondered if I would be capable of prompting honest, heartfelt answers from people I’d never met. (I’d known the villagers intimately before I began interviewing.)
Even more to the point, why would these veterans want to tell their war experiences to me? I’m a woman who does not share their military background and, as a white person, I do not share with direct experience the pain of racial prejudice in our society.
I figured that these men would feel they had little in common with me and would not be forthcoming. I kept postponing doing what I knew was the next step.
Finally in the summer of 1994 I came upon a very brief account of Lt. John Fox’s action in the Sommocolonia battle in an American military history, Buffalo Soldiers (Sunflower University Press 1990).
The book informed me that Lt. Fox was a black American who had sacrificed himself heroically in Sommocolonia. This discovery finally galvanized me to engage in making the attempt —however difficult, I had to try to find Fox’s fellow soldiers.
I wrote to the author of the history, Maj. Thomas St. John Arnold, who suggested that I contact Jehu Hunter, then president of the 92nd Division's World War II Veterans’ Association. To my amazement, as a communications officer, Hunter had been billeted in the villa of friends of mine in the valley, so we could talk about the very room he’d filled with communication equipment.
Hunter gave me the phone numbers of a few friends, who’d been in the Serchio Valley in December 1944. They in turn gave me the names of others.
I couldn’t travel all over the country to do the interviewing, but I later realized that the telephone was the best media for my mission. It was the way these vets stayed in touch with one another so it was natural.
Of course from the moment I said hello, they knew I was a white woman, but as we weren’t looking at one another, our difference in race wasn’t highlighted. I found it surprisingly easy to talk, even with new interviewees, about their encounters with prejudice. The vets seemed to immediately intuit that I wouldn’t be calling if I weren’t a sympathetic listener.
Apart from the media, another fortuitous thing about my interviewing was its timing. Many World War II veterans, black or white, were reluctant to talk about their experiences, but I approached my subjects when they’d reached an advanced age.
By then some were clearly relieved to finally talk about it. I often discovered that the vet’s own children hadn’t heard the stories I was told. I always sent my interviewee a copy tape of our interview so that he could share it with his family if he wished.
The response I received telephoning these men out of the blue, eliciting often upsetting memories, was an experience I shall never forget. Of the many calls I made from my California home, 21 developed into in-depth interviews (coincidentally the same number as with the villagers). I was greeted with extraordinary warmth, candor, and patience.
Just as I’d learned major facts of Italian World War II history from the villagers, I now learned about military organization and World War II equipment from the veterans.
I’m now certain it was an advantage that I was female and that I was not savvy about the military. My interviewees were the experts. (I later consulted every military book I could find in both English and Italian with information about Sommocolonia and its environs.)
I had worried about interviewing people I didn’t know; it had never occurred to me how well I would get to know them over the telephone. I spoke with several of my main protagonists over a period of years and met them in person on various occasions. We became close friends.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?
A: People who read Braided in Fire will learn about an amazing bit of American/Italian history.
The story reveals truths about the suffering of two groups little is known about in regard to World War II: black GIs and Italian peasants. At the time, both groups had strong oral traditions, but not written ones. As a result, their experiences have, with a few exceptions, gone unrecorded.
The political danger, the terror, and the hunger experienced by the Italian population during the period is known by older generations in Italy, but little known elsewhere. Not much has been written, including in Italian, about the peasant experience in the countryside.
Even villages as small as Sommocolonia were torn between armed resistance to fascism by joining local partisans or collaborating with the Fascists (and later the Nazis) with their sinister ideologies. Neutrality was not a possibility.
The book also reveals the astounding multitude of ways in which African American soldiers suffered prejudice in the U.S. Army of World War II. A black soldier gazing in a shop window who did not see the approach of a white officer would be arrested for not saluting.
Far more lethal were situations where the soldiers were used as cannon fodder by officers who sent them on suicidal missions, apparently not caring about their fate. (Edward Brooke, who later became a Massachusetts senator, is quoted in the book describing one such situation encountered by his unit.)
Why is it important to know about this history? It gives the reader a vivid background in the indignities and dangers suffered by blacks who were trying to serve their country and help liberate Europe.
In Italy these men were fighting two battles, one against the Nazis with their convictions about the superior Aryan race, the other against their own white superior officers, who generally treated them with contempt.
Though American black soldiers no longer suffer as many inequities in the U.S. Army, prejudice continues to be expressed in myriad ways in American society today. With the Black Lives Matter movement, white people are finally learning to become attuned to some of the nuances of prejudice. This book will further that understanding.
It is my hope that revealing the heroism of these black soldiers who, despite the appalling treatment they received, gave their all in the cause of liberty, will help Americans to fully recognize the value of our black citizens.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: It’s only a month since Braided in Fire was published, so I’ve been busy responding to people like you who are interested in the book for blogs and articles. Others have written me personal comments and I like to respond.
Plus I have 30 years’ worth of contact information on people who are interested in the subject and I’ve informed only about a fourth of them of the book’s publication.
What are my next writing projects? I’ve written a portion of a different story to do with Sommocolonia and I think I will tackle finishing that first. It will not be a long book like Braided in Fire—perhaps just over 100 pages. Its focus? I would rather not talk about it at this juncture while I‘m just flushing out its direction in my mind.
I taught art to children for 40 years and have long had in mind a book on how to further creative thinking in children. Will I get to writing about this topic? I hope so, but I am 81 years old, so who knows.
Then there is my journal writing. I may use some of it in an autobiographical way.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb