B-26 Marauder 320th Bomb Group


Return to Florence
by Benjamin C. McCartney, 443rd Bomb Squadron


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Five Years Ago the Place Was Doomed


I had last seen Florence almost five years before. Then the stifling heat was the same, and the hills were the same. Even the timelessness was the same. But in that week, five years before, the stage was being set for the broken bridges and the guns in the hills. The radios of Europe and the news tickers were jabbering with the German threats to Poland and with the long speeches of European statesmen.

In America the stock market had been jumpy and the ticker had fallen minutes behind, for it was August, the dangerous month. In Florence we had heard the radio only dimly through the heat, and somehow Florence had seemed outside the stream of events, the hurry, and the insistence of the voices. Three weeks later, September 1, 1939, the German armies had crossed over into Poland.

It was not easy now to identify an afternoon five years before. In five years of war my mind had jumped too rapidly from one place, or one event, to another, flicking over names or countries, over innumerable battles and incidents. For several days in Florence now, waiting for the marshaling yards to be cleared of the enemy, I had been trying to recall precisely how the city had looked that week five years ago. But the broken bridges, the shelling, the military vehicles, the tenseness of the little Allied position on the north side of the Arno had interfered.


"Civilians of Florence Murmured 'Americani' and Asked a Thousand Questions"

The author (left) and his pilot, Capt. Leonard S Ackerman, who had been flying together for a year were, in the words of the War Department, "a perfect team and great friends." In liberated Florence they inspected rail yards they had bombed from the air. Right: a Partisan's armband.

Captain Ackerman and I had been among the first handful of Americans to come into Florence, and everywhere, as we walked around the occupied section of the city and looked at the famous buildings and the lovely streets, little groups of civilians had applauded, had murmured "Americani," and had asked us a thousand questions. "Was Cassino completely wrecked?" "How about Gaeta? Is it possible to go back to Gaeta to live?"

Our pockets were filled with odd scraps of paper on which were written the names of sons and daughters and relatives in America to whom we had promised to write that we had seen mother or uncle or cousin in Florence, that all was well, and that they were full of courage.

Once a woman came up to us with a shy 16-year-old daughter and told us in English that she had waited to speak to the first Americans in Florence. She turned to the daughter and took two almost wilted roses and handed them to us.

"We have been looking for Americans to give these to, and you are the first. We are happy now."

It was with a sense of deep embarrassment and responsibility that we took the roses, for, if we had had a part in the eventual liberation of Florence, we could not be sure precisely to what we had liberated anyone. From what we had liberated them we knew. But to what was still a very searching question.

Perhaps it was best that for the moment only we who were doing the liberating knew how searching that question would become with time.

Everywhere we stopped to chat and, whenever we offered a cigarette, the crowd increased. With deep grace and beautiful unself-consciousness the crowd accepted our cigarettes until the pack ran out. We got out another and that ran out, too. Here there was none of the fawning disavowal of Mussolini, none of the mendicant cursing of the Germans that we had found in Sardinia. These people knew that we knew how they felt and let the absurd past drop. For us it was a relief. (Continued)

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