On Scene with Bill Wilson Rebuilding Italy 1945-46

By Bill Wilson
Sentinel Photojournalist
Bill Wilson © 2011

During World War 2 my uncle served as a conscientious objector. He had several assignments here in the United States, but when a cousin became an ambulance driver in Europe with the American Field Service my uncle decided that was something he wanted to do. He eventually got an assignment overseas. He was among the first to liberate the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen. That experience forced him to reevaluate his beliefs on a fundamental level. So when the opportunity presented itself for him to go back to Italy and help the reconstruction effort he jumped at the chance.

The following is taken from a chapter of an unpublished memoir my uncle wrote in 1996 some fifty years after the events. The quotes are from letters he wrote home. The photos were in an old shoe box I discovered while going through some file cabinets.

US navy Blimp over Toulon, France November 1945
Photo by Conrad Wilson

In November of 1945, I was sent back to Italy, where I joined a small group of AFSC (American Friends Service Committee) volunteers working together with the British Friends Ambulance Unit in the Abruzzi region in the southeastern part of the country. I traveled over on a small merchant vessel called the SS Imbodensee, an American ship which was carrying a small number of passengers. The trip was a very different from my earlier crossings. The ship had a grumbling crew and an evil- tempered captain who seemed to resent the few passengers aboard.

Heading toward landing at Genoa, Italy
Photo by Conrad Wilson

We entered the Mediterranean through the Strait of Gibraltar and headed northeast past the Balearic Islands, to Toulon near Marseillles, where we pulled into the harbor but did not go ashore. Finally we landed at Genoa which was where Columbus came from, originally.

From Genoa I traveled by land that along the coast through the Italian Riviera which had not fared as badly as southern Italy in the war. On my way to Rome I stopped in Florence to spend an afternoon the Peterichs , who seemed truly delighted to see me. I promised to try my best to return for Christmas, then continued across Italy to the Adriatic coast where at a place called Ortona Al Mar – Ortona by the Sea- I was stationed with an international group of volunteers.

Ruins at Ortona.
It took me a long time to realize there are three groups of people in this photo. The child in the center. the group of people on the left are evident, but you have to look closely to notice the young and old people standing on the pile of rumble at the right of the photo.
Photo by Conrad Wilson

The focus of our project was the Aventino Valley, a remote mountainous area which opened into the Adriatic at Ortona. Two years earlier, in November of 1943, a group of mountain villages in this area had been intentionally leveled by three retreating German army to prevent the Allied forces from finding winter quarters. The villagers were not taken prisoner, but taken out of the village by the Nazis who then destroyed everything with land mines and dynamite.

What the Nazis left of the Cupola of San Tommaso in Ortona. The words. SANTVS DOMINVS DEVS are Latin for Holy Lord God
Photo by Conrad Wilson

Thousands of these villagers had fled to refugee camps elsewhere in Italy. Now they were returning. I remember seeing women, many of them barefoot, carrying huge burdens on their heads- one woman who stands out in my memory was carrying a sewing machine in this fashion. There were also villagers who had remained, and had been living in great hardship among the demolished buildings.

Church at Ortona in ruins.
Photo by Conrad Wilson

With a war over people were eager to rebuild their homes according to centuries-old methods, with the walls of stone and traditional fluted-tile roofs. The factories that made the tiles and other building materials were located in Ortona, but they’ve had no fuel to run their furnaces and kilns. The people in the ruined mountain villages didn’t have much, but they did have access to timber that which could be used as fuel to get the factories back into production. And the AFSC devised a barter system, in which the people in the mountain towns agreed to cut the wood and load the logs onto our trucks in exchange for roofing tiles, bricks, cement and other materials they needed to rebuild their homes. I was to be one of the group of AFSC drivers providing transportation for this enterprise.

The truck I drove was a ten wheeler, a Studebaker, one of a fleet of half-ton truck the Quakers had acquire from the British army after the war.

Twisting mountain roads
Photo by Conrad Wilson

Each day I would out from the coast with a load of building matrerials and travel up the Aventino Valley to the farthest village – Palena I think it called. The valley was only 50 are 60 miles long, but the mountain roads were tortuous – steep twisting corkscrews that you sometimes had to back up to get around. The workdays were very long. We awoke early in the morning, had breakfast at six and left by the seven for the day’s work. “By the time we get back to Ortona it is dark and we are tired. Often we do not return until eight pm or later”

It was early December when I arrived. The city of Ortona had been heavily damaged, but there were enough buildings standing that our group as able to find shelter for the winter months, though our main work was in those destroyed villages back in the Aventino Valley.

Street scene.
Photo by Conrad Wilson

“We are living in Ortona for the winter. Snow has begun today in the mountains, but here by the sea there are still some flowers in bloom and oranges on the trees. It is rather damp and cold, however, and I am glad that I bought some good, warm clothes. We are living there with a unit of International Volunteer Service for Peace which is doing similar work. They are mostly English. The unit consists of four women and six men. They are leaving in January, so that will leave just our unit in the area. The IVSP had a group here when I arrived., students from the University of Rome who came out for ten days of volunteer work. We had t great fun in the evening singing and talking and playing games. I was sorry to see them leave.

Meanwhile, the United Nations was getting its own reconstruction work under way. I hadn’t been on the job too long when some people from a U.N. relief agency called UNRRA – the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency – visited Ortona to observe the experiment the American Friends Service Committee and the British Friends Ambulance had started. When they saw how well it was working, they offered to take the project over and extend it to other regions of the country.

People of the town of Ortona.
Photo by Conrad Wilson

See Related On Scene with Bill Wilson Archive

Sentinel Photojournalist
Bill Wilson is a San Francisco-based veteran photojournalist. Bill embraced photojournalism at the age of eight. In recent years, his photos capture historic record of the San Francisco LGBT community in the Bay Area Reporter (BAR), The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The San Francisco Examiner, SFist, SFAppeal. Bill has contributed to the Sentinel for the past seven years. Email Bill Wilson at wfwilson@sbcglobal.net.

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