“You're not that serious.” The story of Salvatore J. Salemi recalled at the Giogo

  • September 28, 2023
1024 695 Gothic Tuscany aps

by Filippo Spadi

On 30 August 2023, as part of the event A DIVE INTO HISTORY, the re-enactment of Salvatore Salemi's wounding and transfer to a military hospital was staged on the sites of the Battle of the Giogo. The American soldier of Italian origin who preserved some relics of the Montecassino monastery, returned this year by his son Rosario [read article in NATIONAL DAILY].
Salvatore Salemi was an American soldier originally from Palermo, who found himself saved by his companions without ever knowing it. In fact, it was Henry “Henny” Yost (1916-1973) who changed the triage card to casualties collection point in the Po Valley following the explosion of a mine on the jeep where he was travelling, directing him toEvacuation Hospital where he was treated rather than left to die of his wounds.
Salvatore belonged to 2680th Headquarters Company with the task of interrogating prisoners of war. Salemi served throughout the Italian Campaign with the 3rd ID and then with 10th Mountain Division.
After returning from the war he then worked in his fruit and vegetable shop in Queens, New York until the last days of his life.

Salvatore J. Salemi, already known for having taken the relics to Montecassino in an attempt to preserve them, then returned this year by his son Rosario, was an Italian American originally from Palermo who was saved being by his comrades without ever knowing it. In fact, it was Henry who changed his triage card at the casualties collection point in the Po Valley following a mine explosion on the jeep where he was travelling, directing him to the Evacuation Hospital where he was treated rather than left to die from his wounds . Salvatore belonged to the 2680th HQ Co and his job was to interrogate prisoners of war; he served throughout the Italian campaign with the 3rd ID and later with the 10th Mountain Division. He worked in his grocery store in Queens, New York until the last days of his life.

We propose here the translation of an article written by Salvatore's son Joseph Salemi, relating to the relationship with his father, with "Uncle Henny" who his father saved, and with the poetic composition - Joseph Salemi is an established writer and professor of literature - the which has unexpected relationships with camaraderie and the rules of war against any temptation to solipsism. Thank you very much Joseph Salemi!

Henny and Sal: An Essay by Joseph S. Salemi

Henny and Sal: An Essay by Joseph S. Salemi

My father, Salvatore J. Salemi, was a G-2 (Military Intelligence) noncommissioned officer during World War II. Although he was 29 years old in 1942, he was drafted for a specific reason. The US Army knew that an invasion of North Africa, Sicily and Italy was planned for 1943 and that to interrogate Italian prisoners of war would require a large number of interpreters who knew both Italian and its dialect variants.

At that time in America, the only people of military age with those particular qualifications were young males from the many Italian American neighborhoods of New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco, and New Orleans. They were the children of immigrants who arrived here between 1880 and 1920. The US Army specifically sought out these young men, and they were drafted without paying too much attention to anything other than their language skills. They underwent basic combat training, but it was expected that their main task would be to interrogate Axis prisoners. The same was true for young males of German-American descent, whose knowledge of the German language would have been useful in interrogating Wehrmacht prisoners of war.

And so it was that 26-year-old Henry Yost, from the Bronx in New York City, was also drafted around the same time. Yost and my father served as an interrogation team in the 10thth Mountain Division, my father interrogated the Italian prisoners of war and Yost the German ones. Yost (whose nickname was Henny) and my father (whom everyone called Sal) became close friends, and their friendship lasted long after the war ended. As a child I knew Yost as “Uncle Henny” and his children referred to my father as “Uncle Sal.”

As our two families visited each other often, I heard endless stories about the war and the adventures of “Henny and Sal.” In addition to serving as interrogators, they saw real combat on many occasions, and both men were decorated with the Combat Infantry Badge, the Bronze Star, and, in my father's case, the Purple Heart for serious wounds. The stories they told us were sometimes scary, sometimes comical, sometimes bizarre, and sometimes horrifying. As Henny once told me in the 1960s, “Joey, I wouldn't do it again for a million dollars. But your father and I learned things that you could never have learned in any school.”

What I particularly remember about Henny and Sal's post-war relationship was the “secret sharing” they always seemed to have. They looked at each other and smiled when something came up in conversation at the table, or when a casual comment brought up an old war memory. Sometimes they exchanged a word or two, which referred to a place, a person or a military situation, and said nothing else. As a child, I knew even then that my father and Henny Yost had a complex of shared experiences that could not always be explained or described to anyone else in the world. I remember how they briefly referred to “Borca di Cadore” and then laughed out loud, without saying anything else to the rest of us. Only years later did my father explain that this referred to the discovery of a huge cache of German Luftwaffe alcoholic beverages (rare wines, liqueurs and spirits from across Nazi-occupied Europe), stored in a deep cave on the side of a mountain in Borca di Cadore in northern Italy. My father said, “We found out, but we didn't report it to G-2 for three days. For that time we just got drunk. When we finally reported it, it took a fleet of Army transport trucks more than a week to empty that cave. The amount of liquor on that mountainside was staggering.”

My father and Henny once told me (after I had reached my teens) that when they interrogated POWs, the first half hour of interrogation was about which local women the prisoners had slept with, what they looked like, how good they were. women as sexual partners. , whether they were easy to approach and what their addresses and telephone numbers were. Once they had gathered the crucial information, only then did they ask them about troop movements, enemy strength, artillery positions, and all the other things that were only secondarily important to the twenty-year-old soldiers.

There were other, darker things: stories of bombings, of machine-gun nests, of artillery barrages, of strafing attacks by Messerschmitt fighters, of atrocities committed by both Allied and Axis troops. There were memories of the British and Canadian soldiers, the New Zealanders, the Italian partisans and the blood-soaked hell that was the Anzio beachhead and the Liri Valley. Above all, there was the tangible possibility and felt presence of death everywhere, ready to leap out, like an uncaged tiger, at any moment. It changed men forever, if they survived. And many did not survive.

Neither my father nor Henny could talk about their fallen comrades without feeling intense emotion, and so they avoided the topic most of the time. All of us in the family learned very quickly not to bring up the subject of the dead unless the two men mentioned it first. I realized that what the English call “Remembrance Day” is every day for war veterans. It was no surprise to me to learn that the writer Rod Serling, who served in the Pacific, woke up screaming from nightmares almost every single day of his life after the war ended in 1945. Or that when I visited Germany in 1970, the woman who ran my Gasthaus she showed me a dark room where her husband was staying, in total silence. She lowered her eyelids and said to me in a low voice Der Krieg… two words that explained everything.

For children growing up in America in the 1950s, World War II was a living reality. Nearly every adult male under fifty had experienced this in some way, shape, or form. Army and Navy stores were overflowing with surplus equipment and weapons from the conflict, and there were thousands of souvenirs and war memorabilia in pawn and curio shops, as well as in private homes. Some of my earliest memories involved understanding the difference between a German Luger pistol and a P-38, why “C” rations were better than “K” rations, and which emblems represented which American divisions. We made the Manual of Arms with our little toy rifles. Hitler and Mussolini were household names and everyone knew what happened at Pearl Harbor. If my brother or I got into some childhood trouble where we were wounded and bleeding, our father would comfort us, wipe away our tears, and then, humorously, pin his Purple Heart medal to our shirts to signify that we were wounded warriors. This has helped us in life, for some hidden psychological reason.

It took me years to realize it, but the war had given Henny and my father something that is painfully absent in many people today. What I mean is this: a rock-solid, indestructible psychic wall against solipsism. Solipsism is the belief that you, and you alone, are the only being in existence in the world and that everything and everyone else around you is pure illusion that exclusively satisfies your needs, whims and desires. Today we live in a world where millions of narcissistic individuals act on this assumption, even if they have not heard of the term. But spending years in combat, where you must face an absurd reality every single moment, and where death, dismemberment and terror are palpable and inevitable facts, makes solipsism impossible.

The experience of war not only sharpens your perceptions and speeds up your reaction times, but makes you acutely aware of your limitations and acutely aware that there may be an enemy soldier on the other side of the battle line who is much more determined about you. And paradoxically, the dissolution of personal solipsism makes you more aware of your own essence, your own definition, and your own irreducible self. You are in touch with extra-mental reality and because of this you are more genuine, more honest and more rooted in the unique human character that God has given you. Any kind of suffering or tribulation will do this, but war does it very quickly.

There is something new in the psychology of modern warfare that makes it different from premodern conflicts. In ancient epics, warriors belong to an elite aristocratic class and go into battle primarily to gain the honor and reputation that publicly certify their virility and social standing. In the Iliad, heroes such as Achilleus, Hector, and Ajax are driven by the desire to establish their own aristeia, or excellence as fighters. But in modern wars fought by masses of ordinary civilians something else is needed to motivate military duty. Politicians generate this motivation by talking about patriotism and demonizing the enemy. The generals do this by appealing to the esprit de corps. Fellow fighters are held together by camaraderie and loyalty in small units. But the deepest and most basic thing that binds one soldier to another is close friendship, and the bond that only shared danger and mutual protection can foster. To disappoint a companion (through cowardice, or shirk, or selfishness) is the supreme sin, and most men would rather die than be guilty of such neglects. The same goes for police officers, whose loyalty to their patrol partners is legendary. “We support each other,” is a common sentiment heard from a police officer about his partner.

When my father was seriously injured by a landmine in Northern Italy, he had to deal with the terrifying “triage” system that involved the treatment of maimed soldiers. Those with only minor injuries were treated quickly and sent back to the line as soon as possible. Those whose injuries were more serious but non-lethal would be evacuated to military field hospitals. And those whose injuries were irreparably serious were simply made comfortable and left to die. The distinction between these last two categories could be fluid and vague, and undoubtedly many soldiers who might have survived were left in the third category, especially when the combat situation was critical and urgent.

My injured father was placed in the third category. But Henny and some other companions would have none of it. They went to get him quietly, changed his triage label, and unofficially placed him in the second category by going to a field hospital, where he was treated and survived. I never knew anything about it until the late 1960s, as it was considered the kind of thing that could only be shared by those who had been a part of it. Henny told me about the incident only once, in passing, and made it clear to me that I was not to tell my father that I knew. Some things in friendship are as private as the intimacy of marriage.

So it was with Henny and Sal, for they never met without the strongest expressions of friendship and joy. And their wartime experiences were so detailed, so intricate, so complex, and so unforgettable that the memory of these events served as a complete world for them, a world that outsiders could only occasionally glimpse from their stories and reminiscences. And I think it was from these glimpses that I began to understand something about the world of literature, and fictional mimesis in general.

Like the various war experiences, the literary composition is not at all simple, but complex and intricate. She often does unexpected things and can be transgressive and upsetting. It has its dangers. He despises conventional, bourgeois pieties and pays them little attention except as satirical targets. It demands from its creative participants the same kind of obedience to orders and rules that the military demands of soldiers, but within those confines it does whatever the hell it pleases. Like battle-hardened veterans, she is self-contained and proud, and does not crave an audience.

What are the required “orders and rules”? Well, there are genre categories, and in poetry the additional restrictions of meter, along with multiple tropes and figures. Then there are the fixed demands of one's language: its grammar and syntax, its different ranges of diction, its levels of use, and all the stylistic peculiarities that make up an individual writer's character on the page. Put it all together – inherited formulas, generic expectations, the vast ammunition dump of language, and individual style – and you have the quasi-military experience of fictional mimesis. It's like going into combat, but always with the certainty that your comrade in arms will have your back and be there when needed.

Who is that comrade? He is your inner audience. It is the unique mix of aesthetic principles and preferences that belong only to you and are a living part of your creative self. It was created by years of work and endless false starts, by linguistic labors so demanding that it's hard to imagine ever doing them again, and by your pride in the best you've done. And here's the crucial point: nothing you write will betray him, or dishonor him, or ignore him. He is your friend (the English would say “your companion”). And you and him have been together for too long, and through too many things, to not change or break up. And you have a private relationship with your inner audience that is off limits to anyone else.

And something else, very important. You are, like a good soldier, incapable of being a solipsist. You are acutely aware of an external world of harsh and recalcitrant reality, but at the same time you know that as an artist you can manipulate and reconfigure that world in whatever fictional way you choose. The world may be hostile and dangerous, but you have your weapons to deal with it.

One thing about my dad and Henny. You could never inflict bullshit or falsehoods on him. They saw it immediately, with the penetrating beam of a laser. I was often nervous when speaking to them, because I feared that any slight tone of falsehood or pretentiousness in my speech would elicit their laughter or sarcastic ridicule. So I trained myself to be brutally honest and open, concise and direct like a Spartan.

So I recognize that my father (and Uncle Henny) played a real role in my character, my outlook on life, my thinking habits, and certainly my weaknesses and preferences. And what would my poetry be without those things? I would never have written a line if it hadn't been for the example of two young men from New York who went to fight. If I have a sharp and perceptive side I owe it to them. Thank you very much! And Vielen Dank!


Joseph S. Salemi  he has published five books of poetry, and his poems, translations, and scholarly articles have appeared in over one hundred publications worldwide. He is director of the literary magazine TRINACRIA and writes for  Expansive Poetry Online . He teaches in the Department of Humanities at New York University and in the Department of Classics at Hunter College.

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