A Distant POW Story: Italian WWII veteran tells riveting tale
Updated: Oct 19, 2022
• Related News — From A Far Shore: A different World War II story
This feature first appeared in Today Magazine, our monthly publication
Special to Today Magazine
World War II veteran Diego Mozzanica offered an exclusive in-person interview to Today Magazine editor-in-chief Bruce Deckert — this is the transcript
ENLISTS IN NAVY
Today Magazine: Tell us about your early life.
Diego Mozzanica: I was born in 1924 in northern Italy to a working-class family. I went to school until age 14, but because of economics I had no chance to continue — only the children of the wealthy could think about education.
Today: How did you find yourself fighting in World War II — were you drafted or did you enlist?
Diego: I volunteered at the age of 17 in March 1942 in Italy. Since I was young I was indoctrinated under Mussolini, and as a teenager while war was beginning in Italy, I thought that if I volunteered we could win the war and I could end up in America. The Fascist Party indoctrinated the people to believe that they were the greatest. • Editor’s Note — Benito Mussolini was the Italian prime minister from 1922-43 and the first of 20th-century Europe’s fascist dictators, according to Britannica.com
Today: So you enlisted.
Diego: I enlisted in the Navy.
Today: Was there a boot camp for training?
Diego: Yes, I was sent to Venice for boot camp and then schooled as a radio telegraphist through the spring of 1943. I turned 19 on June 1st. I was then supposed to be assigned as a radio telegraphist in Trapani, Sicily. I never got there — I traveled by train, but the British were bombing the railroads and I couldn’t proceed to Sicily.
So I was stopped in Naples, Italy, where I received orders to go to the port of Split on the coast of the Adriatic Sea — Split was then in Yugoslavia and today is in Croatia. I ended up at an Italian military base training in a radio station learning how to transmit signals. Eventually, I was stationed on a boat in the port.
On the 8th of September 1943, Italy surrendered to the Allies and the Americans arrived in Sicily. I was still in Split, in Yugoslavia. News arrived to our telegraph station at 6:40 pm that Italy surrendered to the Allies. My immediate chief and I received the news to surrender and then the station went dead — no way to communicate. Our first authority was our captain. He called the crew together and we, hundreds of us sailors, got together on land off the ship to decide what to do. We sat down for quite some time, hours, until night and waited.
Today: So you were the first line of communication?
Diego: Those of us in the radio stations received this order and transmitted this news, by Morse code, to our commanders.
Today: When you surrendered, did you become prisoners of war?
Diego: Not immediately. We were gathered with other military divisions, all receiving the same news. We remained in the harbor, thinking that Italy or the Americans would bring ships and transport us back to Italy. But there were no ships and we had no weapons because we were ordered to drop our weapons. Thousands of us waited for orders from Rome, but nothing came — there was no communication from Rome.
Today: What happened next?
Diego: In the middle of the night, the Yugoslavian Communist partisans appeared in their trucks and tried to persuade us to join them and fight against Germany. Our captain told us to refuse and wait, but several military men disobeyed him and chose to join the partisans and fight against Germany. We were confused, because at first we were with Germany and now we were asked to be against them.
The partisans left and a short while later a German tank arrived at the harbor. Its turret was pointed at us, and through a speaker and in perfect Italian language they said, “Italians, you have lost the war and you should join us” — and eventually be incorporated into the German military. My direct lieutenant said, “No — we are to remain here.”
Soon after that, a second German tank arrived followed by trucks with armed German soldiers. This time orders were given to stand up, line up and march. So my journey started. We walked about two days through Yugoslavia, and then on trucks or box-car trains loaded up like sardines — we had no idea where we were going and we had no other instruction whatsoever. Eventually thousands of us ended up in German territory outside of Cologne and we started our life under German control. We were sent to an internment camp.
Today: So from September 8, 1943 until the end of the war in May 1945, you were in this internment camp?
Diego: Yes — 20 months. Germany didn’t recognize us as prisoners of war but as internees, which means they didn’t have to treat us according to the Geneva convention rules. They treated us as pure manpower to operate whatever they needed done. They didn’t kill us, because that wasn’t convenient for the Germans — they needed the manpower to maintain the function of the war.
Some internees were sent to coal mines, or as cleanup crews lifting concrete from bombings, clearing the roads — others, like me, were sent to factories to help with manufacturing war material like bombs, ammunition. There were 55 of us, Italians, sent to this internment camp within a small-caliber mortar bomb factory and foundry.
Today: Let’s circle back for a minute — you were an internee prisoner, and you were describing the different places the German war machine had you working. You said there were factories, coal mines, some people cleaning debris. So from September 1943 you were working in that factory or foundry?
Diego: Yes, we were confined there. We slept and ate there. For about 10 hours a day we worked making casings for small bombs from scrap metal which would arrive by train. This had to be manually unloaded along with coal. I never worked at the foundry, but the men who worked there were always covered in black soot.
"Germany didn’t recognize us as prisoners of war but as internees, which means they didn’t have to treat us according to the Geneva convention rules" — Diego Mozzanica
I worked instead after the rough bomb casings were made and needed polishing, drilling and packing. It was repetitive hard work for all of us. Women from the town did the packaging and labeling. The whole little town was employed by this factory and was made up mostly of women because the men were at war.
The dirty, heavy manpower was supplied by us. I never was in the foundry smelting area. I was in the other processing parts of the mortar bomb factory assembly line. My job was making the hole to add the explosive, another was putting items in the tumbler.
Today: What were the conditions like — did you have a break for lunch?
Diego: We had two meals a day. Enough to keep us alive and working. It was convenient to feed us because they needed us.
Today: What did they feed you — what kind of food did they give you?
Diego: From a big pot, usually some grainy, mealy stuff and a few vegetables — very little meat, just enough to keep us alive so we could work. We ate and slept in a two-story type of barracks at the factory. We slept on a wood cot with a hay mattress.
Today: Any showers?
Diego: We were lucky — by having a foundry, we had coal and coal means heat. In our barracks we kept cauldrons of water on a coal fire pit. We always had warmth and hot water to clean with, especially from the anthracite coal dust. There were two German guards watching us and making sure there were 55 of us every morning.
Today: How did you communicate with the guards if they were speaking German? There were two guards, but they didn’t interfere with you?
Diego: They were just a barrier for us. These were wounded German soldiers now assigned as guards. One with a false leg and the other had something wrong with his arm — they knew we were calm, obedient and followed directions. After a year, one of the guards actually talked to us, by sign language at first, but I was able to secure a pencil and a little paper and we wrote phonetic words to learn each other’s language a bit.
Today: How were you set free?
Diego: When the Germans surrendered in May 1945, we found ourselves one morning with the gate that contained us wide open and no trace of the two German soldiers guarding us.
We understood the war was over because some townspeople told us. So what to do? We, the 55 of us, decided to move toward the direction of the rumbling tanks from the east, figuring it was the Americans coming toward us.
Today: Were you concerned that you may be hit by oncoming fire from the Allies — and how old were you at this point?
Diego: It was just before my 21st birthday. And yes, we were very concerned about oncoming fire. But we kept moving toward the sound of guns and tanks, realizing this was the German military fleeing from the Allies heading west. We broke up into small groups, each on their own. I, being the youngest, stayed close to four other older more experienced men uniting us by our Milanese dialect. I don’t know what happened to the other freed prisoners.
We saw German tanks and armed foot soldiers going the opposite direction, so we laid low in the fields and were careful moving during the day. At night, when there was still the rumbling of the tank traffic, we hid by climbing the trees to get some type of rest, but we barely slept. We tied ourselves in the trees with our belts so we wouldn’t fall out, and we watched Germans moving below. They probably didn’t care that we were hiding — but there were thousands of them and we didn’t want to risk being shot.
Today: How long did this trek go on — did you eat in those two days?
Diego: We were on the move for two days and in the trees for two nights. We didn’t think of food because we were just trying to survive. On the third day we noticed a pause from the traffic of the German military.
We waited and heard another sound, a distinct sound different from the German tanks. We realized this must be from the American tanks — they were coming on the same route that the Germans left. As we saw the arrival of the American military tanks and trucks,
some men, more courageous than me, came down out of the trees or from the brush and approached the tanks in the middle of the road, so I joined too — with our hands up.
Today: So when you saw the Americans, how were you able to communicate with them?
Diego: With luck, when we saw the American tanks, we walked forward to an approaching tank that stopped and we shouted out that we were Italians. The first person we saw from the tank replied back in a Sicilian-American accent and we knew we were safe! He asked where the Germans were and we told him they passed several hours ago. He wanted to know if there were snipers, or mines that they might encounter — and we told him no, that the Germans also fled, we saw them retreating. The American convoy did not stop, but this soldier’s last words to us in his Italian dialect was, “Keep going” — so we kept walking as they passed by.
Today: So they didn’t take you in, you kept on foot?
Diego: Yes, he said, “Raise your hands, stay on the side of the road and keep going.” We walked a couple more miles and saw an empty truck later in the convoy that was arriving to pick us up. The first soldier must have called back to say that they encountered Italian prisoners and to pick us up.
Today: Where did they take you?
Diego: They took us to a huge empty space — it may have been some sort of a religious monastery, close to Cologne, and they unloaded us there. Day and night thousands of freed POWs of different nationalities arrived to this camp. We were all very hungry. The Americans fed us, but cleaned us first — thousands of us lined up in a processing line. We got sprayed with DDT to decontaminate us and they issued some clothing. We were interrogated by the Americans. They wanted to know what we knew and what happened to us — wanted to know how we were treated, if we were civilians or military people.
RETURNS TO ITALY
Today: When did you get to go back to your home in Italy?
Diego: In October of 1945 — remember, since July 1945 the Americans were repatriating freed prisoners back to their countries, right to their town by bus, truck or train. Older men with families were the first to get to leave. Young, single men were last, and so I was one of the last to leave. I finally was able to reach Milan, near my hometown, by October 1945.
Today: What did you do after you returned home?
Diego: After the war, my hometown was impoverished — no jobs, there was nothing for a young man to do and I was another mouth to feed for my family. I stayed home for a couple of months with no opportunities in sight so I presented myself to the authorities, told my story and asked to rejoin the Italian Navy and sign up for life as a career Navy man. This was around Christmas 1945. I received my papers to welcome me back into the military in the same rank and uniform in early 1946. The Italian Navy had to regroup as they were seriously damaged — the old Navy didn’t exist anymore. It was a Navy under reconstruction with the assistance of the Allies.
Today: So you rejoined in early 1946 — how long were you in the military then before you came to the United States?
Diego: For the next 10 years — I was in the service and assigned to different naval bases or ports in Italy from January 1946 until January 1st, 1956. I made a career out of it as a radio telegraphist, dealing with Morse code. I became Chief Petty Officer.
In the summer of 1952, however, in an exchange program through NATO and the United States, I was sent to Millington U.S. Navy school based in Memphis, Tennessee, for 10 months to be trained in radar. There were students from other nationalities — French, Spanish, Brazilian, all learning about radar. We were trained in radar so that we could bring this knowledge back to the Italian military, which was now part of NATO.
It was during this trip that I took two weeks off at Christmas 1952 and traveled to Hartford, Connecticut, to see my mother’s best friend and her family. That’s the first time I saw her daughter, Gloria, and she would become my wife!
Today: After 10 months in Tennessee, you went back to Italy and kept a long-distance relationship with Gloria?
Diego: Yes, I did. I knew I would marry her. She came to visit me in Italy in 1953. We wrote letters and continued our communication until we got married on July 7, 1955. A year later, I asked for a discharge from the military so I could pursue my life in America — and the rest is history.
We lived in Hartford, where my wife was born. I learned English, became a licensed electrician and plumber, and earned a living. We moved to Bloomfield in 1965 with our two daughters, Lydia and Christine. We still live in the same house, Gloria and I at age 98 — I do get around, a little slower than before. I communicate with my family in Italy and my Navy association on my iPad.
I still remain in contact with the National Association of the Italian Navy. They meet every year in Italy. The photo of the ship I gave you, Duca Degli Abruzzi, was a postwar cruiser ship, in 1950. This was just one I was stationed on every several months. I FaceTime my children and grandchildren every day. +
• Related Coverage — Timeline of Diego Mozzanica’s life
• Diego and Gloria's daughter Lydia and her husband Peter Tedone have been Simsbury residents for 35 years — Lydia Tedone has served as chair of the Simsbury Board of Education and Capitol Region Education Council and has been the president of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, and has also been a member of the National School Boards Association
• This article first appeared in the September 2022 edition of Today Magazine, our monthly publication