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45TH THUNDERBIRD INFANTRY DIVISION HEADQUARTERS SALERNO, ITALY.
SEPTEMBER 25, 1943
Captain Edward Anders leaned under the warm shade of a fig tree, a lit Lucky Strike hanging from his lips, and stared down at the beachhead below. His troops had been in the first wave of the attack to capture a city whose name he had never heard before the war. It took the combined forces of American and British troops nine days to advance past the beach and up the side of the sloping mountain where he now stood, smoking the last cigarette in his pack. Behind him, a command post had been set up inside a long series of brown tents. Inside the main tent, there were 3,500 sets of dog tags scattered in four wooden boxes, waiting to be mailed Stateside for eventual delivery to the relatives of the men who had been lost in a fight for sand and rock. Anders stared at the mountains above him, up toward Cassino, then back down toward the city of Naples, and knew there was still a lot of hard fighting left.
"Hey, Cap," a voice behind him said. "Word is you want to see me."
"It was more like an order," Captain Anders said. "But let's not stand on formalities."
Captain Anders turned to look at Corporal Steve Connors as he stood at attention and held his salute, the Gulf of Salerno at his back. Anders brushed away the salute. "From what I've seen, you have as little patience for that shit as I do. Which probably means neither one of us is going to get far in this army."
"I just want to get far enough to go home, Cap," Connors said.
"Will Naples do you in the meantime?" Anders asked.
"What's in Naples?"
"Most likely nothing. From the reports I've seen, the city's already nothing more than a ghost town."
"But still, you want me to go," Connors said.
He removed his helmet and wiped the sweat from his brow with the sleeve of his uniform. Steve Connors was twenty-five years old, a college graduate and second-year law student from Covington, Kentucky, the first in his family to earn a degree of any kind. He was just shy of six feet tall with a middleweight fighter's rugged build, topped by thick strands of dark hair, brown eyes and a wide smile that balanced out a hard edge. He had fought under Anders's command for fourteen months, pounding and slashing his way from one blood-drenched beachhead to the next, always the first in line, always the first to fire. He had a street fighter's instincts for battle and survival and was, as far as Captain Ed Anders was concerned, the best soldier for the task at hand.
"It might just be a ghost town with two of our men in it," Anders said. "We had a handful of G.I.s helping the Italian resistance--or whatever the hell was left of it. Most of them slipped out before the evacuation. Two didn't. They could be dead. They could be hiding. They could be back in the States for all I know. But we've got to find out."
"I go in alone?" Connors asked.
"You'd like that, wouldn't you?" Anders said.
"Very much, sir."
"I'd like a bowl of my wife's white bean soup," Anders said. "But that's not going to happen, either. You'll be part of a three-man team. You go in, as quiet as you can, check out the city and see if you can find our guys."
"Who else is on the team, sir?"
"If our soldiers are still in there, they might be hurt. So you'll take one of the medics, Willis. And then another good rifle to cover your back. That'll be Scott Taylor."
Connors winced at the sound of Taylor's name. "Every man out here has a rifle, sir," he said. "Not just Taylor."
"But not every man's going," Anders said, raising his voice. "Taylor is. I know you two rub each other the hard way, but this ain't the senior prom. If it gets tight, he's somebody good to have on your side. Neither one of you has to like it. You just have to do it."
"Yes, sir," Connors said. "Anything else I need to know?"
"Not a damn thing." Anders reached into the front flap of the younger soldier's shirt and pulled a loose cigarette from his open pack. "Just radio back what you see. We'll do the rest."
"And if we don't find our men?" Connors asked. "What then, Cap?"
"Enjoy your stay in Naples," Captain Anders said as he turned and headed back up to his command post.
16TH PANZER DIVISION HEADQUARTERS
FIFTEEN MILES OUTSIDE ROME, ITALY. SEPTEMBER 25, 1943
The eighty Mark IV tanks sat in long silent rows. German soldiers were scattered about, searching out shade and a cool place to doze. Colonel Rudolph Von Klaus stood in the open pit of his tank and stared at the note in his hands. The words on the paper had been passed down directly from Adolf Hitler himself. They were as simple and direct as any order he had received in his twenty-five-year military career. "Allow no stone in Naples to stand" was all it said.
To a precise and proud officer, the order read as nothing more than a complete waste--of a city once bold and beautiful, of a Panzer division that had fought too hard for too long to be reduced to a mop-up unit, and of time, of which there was precious little left before this wretched war would reach its ruinous conclusion. Naples had already been contained, its streets emptied. Aerial bombings had destroyed any buildings that could possibly be of future use to the enemy. It was a mission of madness. Just one more foolish request springing from the unhinged mind of a leader he found lacking in military logic.
Von Klaus folded the order into sections and shoved it into his pants pocket. He gazed around at his troops and took some comfort from the fact that as inane as the order was, its simplicity would at least guarantee that he would not have to leave behind any more of his men, lying dead or wounded on a battlefield. After the Naples mission, Von Klaus was scheduled to head back home, to a wife he had not seen in two years, a daughter who would now be eight and a son too young to remember the last time his father cradled him in his arms. Von Klaus was only forty-six years old, but felt decades past that. Nothing, he believed, aged a man more than having to face the reality of inevitable defeat.
"The tanks are repaired and fueled, sir." The young soldier stood several feet across from Von Klaus, half-hidden by the shadows of dangling tree limbs. He looked to be months removed from his teenage years.
"Good," Von Klaus said. "And the mules have been fed as well?"
"Yes, sir," the soldier said. "Earlier this morning."
"Check on them again tomorrow," Von Klaus told him. "Until then, enjoy this warm Italian sun."
"Sir, if I may, some of the men were wondering when we would be moving on," the soldier said.
"Do you have a girl back home that you care about, Kunnalt?" Von Klaus asked him.
"Yes, sir," Kunnalt said, surprised at the question. "We plan to marry once the war is over."
"Then go and find a large rock, sit down and write her a letter," Von Klaus said. "Make it a long one and take your time doing it. I'm in no rush to leave. The empty buildings of Naples will wait for us."
SEPTEMBER 25, 1943
Two hundred boys and girls were spread out around a large fire, the flames licking the thick, crusty wood, sending sparks and smoke into the star-lit sky. Their clothes were dirty and shredded at the sleeves and cuffs, shoes held together by cardboard and string. All their memories had been scarred by the frightful cries of war and the loss that always followed. The youngest members of the group, between five and seven years old, stood with their backs to the others, tossing small pebbles into the oil-soaked Bay of Naples. The rest, their tired faces filled with hunger and sadness, the glow from the fire illuminating their plight, huddled around Vincenzo and Franco. They were children without a future, marked for an unknown destiny.
Vincenzo stepped closer to the fire and glanced up at the sky, enjoying the rare evening silence. He looked down and smiled at two small boys, Giancarlo and Antonio, playing quietly by the edge of the pier, their thin legs dangling several feet above the water below. He glanced past them at a girl slowly making her way toward him, squeezing past a cluster of boys standing idle and silent. She was tall, about fifteen, with rich brown hair rolled up and buried under a cap two sizes too large. Her tan face was marred by streaks of soot and dirt. She stepped between Vincenzo and the two boys, her arms by her side, an angry look to her soft eyes.
"Where do we go from here?" she asked.
"The hills," Vincenzo said with a slight shrug. "It seems the safest place. At least for now."
"And after that?" she asked in a voice younger than her years.
"What's your name?" Vincenzo asked, the flames from the fire warming his face.
"Angela," she said. "I lived in Forcella with my family. Now I live there alone."
Forcella was the roughest neighborhood in Naples, a tight space of only a few blocks that historically had been the breeding ground for thieves and killers and the prime recruitment territory for the Camorra, the Neapolitan Mafia. "Forcella?" Vincenzo said to her. "Not even a Nazi would be brave enough to set foot on those streets."
"Especially after dark," Franco said, laughing.
"But they did," Angela said, lowering her eyes for a brief moment.
"What do you want me to do?" Vincenzo said. "Where do you think we should go? Look around you. This is all that's left of us."
"So we run," she said, words laced with sarcasm. "Like always."
Vincenzo stepped closer to her, his face red from both the fire and his rising anger. "There is nothing else to do," he said. "You can help us with some of the little ones. A lot of them are too sick to walk."
Angela glared at Vincenzo for several moments, lowered her head and then turned back into the mouth of the crowd.
Vincenzo walked in silence around the edges of the fire, the sounds of the crackling wood mixing with the murmurs of the gathered teens. They were all children forced to bear the burden of adults, surviving on the barest essentials, living like cornered animals in need of shelter and a home. They had been scattered throughout the city, gutter rats in soiled clothing, enduring the daily thrashings of a war started by strangers in uniforms who spoke of worlds to conquer.
They had been born under the reign of Benito Mussolini and his fascist regime. As the United States suffered through the pangs of a Great Depression, Italy lived under the warmth of economic prosperity. Its fields were flush with crops and its factories filled to capacity with products that brought the country headfirst into the modern age. Now, the fields were burned and barren, the factories bombed and bare. Where there was once hope, there now rested only hunger. Where once visions of great victories filled Italian hearts, there was now nothing more than the somber acceptance of a humiliating defeat.
"Naples has always been ruled by outsiders," Vincenzo said, stopping alongside Franco and tossing two more planks of old wood onto the fire. "We've always been someone's prisoner. But in all that time, the people have never surrendered the streets without a fight. This war, against this enemy, would be the first time that has ever happened."
"Who are we to stop it?" Franco said, staring into his friend's eyes.
Vincenzo stood in front of the flames, his shirt and arms stained with sweat, light gray smoke filling his lungs. He then turned and walked away, disappearing into the darkness of the Neapolitan night.
A HIGHWAY ROAD, TWENTY-FIVE MILES OUTSIDE OF SALERNO
SEPTEMBER 26, 1943
Steve Connors shifted gears on the jeep and eased it gently past a large hole in the dirt road and onto a long patch of brown grass. He killed the engine, grabbed a newspaper off the passenger seat and stepped out of the jeep. He lit a cigarette as he walked and folded a four-week-old edition of the Cincinnati Enquirer over to the sports section. He scanned past the headlines, searching for the baseball standings and the box scores.
"Why we stopping?" Scott Taylor asked, sitting in the front seat of the jeep. Taylor was twenty-four, a year younger than Connors. He was tall and muscular with short blond hair and pale skin that was quick to redden under the Italian sun, a high school football star back in his hometown of Pittsburgh. The two had known each other since basic training and shared a mutual respect for their respective battle skills and a dislike toward one another for almost everything else.
Connors flopped down under the shade of an old fig tree, leaning his head against its rugged bark. "Germans mine everything," he said. "A road leading into Naples is one they wouldn't miss. Which means we have to drive on grass. Which means before I start, I need a break."
"I don't need convincing," Willis, the medic, said, jumping out of the backseat of the jeep and walking toward Connors and the shade. Willis was still a teenager, even though he tried to act older. He was the only child of a single mother who worked as a schoolteacher back in Davenport, Iowa. Willis was slight, had thin brown hair and walked with a farmer's gait. He was a good medic and never panicked under the rush of battle. "Besides, you can only ride in these jeeps for so long. Makes your whole body numb."
"I'll wait here," Taylor said, stretching his legs out and lighting a cigarette.
"That's a good idea, Taylor," Connors said, his eyes still shut. "I'd hate to have some sheepherder come along and drive off with the jeep."
Connors tipped his helmet down across his face and allowed his mind to drift back to the many lazy afternoons he had spent across the river from Covington, sitting in the cheap seats at Crosley Field. With a youthful and still innocent exuberance, Connors would cheer the Cincinnati Reds to victory, savoring the win even more if it was brought about by the exploits of his favorite player, first baseman Frank McCormick.
Connors didn't have much nostalgia for home, other than the normal longing for family and familiar faces and places. But not even the brutal events of a war could diminish his love for baseball. He longed for a game that was at once so simple yet so strict with its traditions and its rules. He loved the finality that embraced the two teams at the completion of nine innings, only to see each one grasp a new beginning with the start of the very next game. He lifted his helmet and gazed out at his surroundings, craters and rubble dotting a landscape once rich with vineyards and villas, and knew that such simplicity never could be applied to the much harsher rules of war.
From the Hardcover edition.