Italo Damiani saw Bentio Mussolini twice. The first time was in 1926 or 1927 when Damiani was eight years old and the dictator visited his hometown in Italy. The people still loved Mussolini then. Everybody cheered. He was the great man who made the trains run on time.
A year after that encounter, Damiani left Italy for the United States where his father was working as a coal miner in Monongahela. Damiani grew up around Pittsburgh, worked on the railroad, and then was drafted into the army and shipped off to liberate Europe. That was the second time he saw Mussolini.
On that second occasion, Damiani was returning from R&R, travelling through Milan, Italy, with friends when they came upon the dictator and his mistress hanging by their heels in a gas station. Mussolini was not so great then. Damiani told his friends: "That's one more we don't have to worry about."
Dressed in his red jacket, ready to point confused visitors in the right direction, Damiani today is one of the most publicly visible members of the Carnegie Museums staff. He also is one of nearly 20 Carnegie guards who served around the globe during World War II, from the sands of Iwo Jima and North Africa to the heights of Monte Cassino and Berchtesgarden to the waters off Okinawa and the Philippines.
Off the battlefield, their experiences include encounters with tropical disease, typhoons, concentration camps, racism, Nazi collaborators and such historical figures as Mussolini, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and General George S. Patton, whose "blood and guts"speech Damiani heard before embarking for the beaches of Normandy. He said "with your blood and my guts, we'll go a long way,'"Damiani recalls. "I thought he was no good. He wanted to spill my blood, not his. He was always behind the lines. We were up front. They made the movie [Patton] to suit themselves. They didn't make the movie according to the way the war was fought."
George Schumaker has fonder memories of FDR and Eleanor. After completing boot camp in early 1942, 17-year-old Schumaker was among a detachment of 60 Marines sent to guard the president at a place FDR called Shangri-La and President Dwight Eisenhower would later rename Camp David for his grandson.
"We used to go into Hagerstown (Maryland) for liberty and people would ask us where we were from and we would have to say Shangri-La,"Schumaker remembers with a smile. "We couldn't say anything else."
During his tour of duty at Shangri-La, Schumaker often saw FDR and Eleanor. He says they were very friendly and frequently waved and spoke to the men. Churchill, though, was always on the move, speeding somewhere in a car when he visited the hideaway. Schumaker never did speak with him, but he did have a lot of personal contact with another famous figure of the period.
"We use to have to chase his [FDR's ] dog, Fala, down through the woods when he got away,"he says with another smile.
Like that fictional land for which the presidential retreat was named, though, Schumaker's relaxed days at Shangri-La eventually gave way to reality and he found himself in the South Pacific. He entered combat as a replacement on Bougainville, and then landed on Guam where in the middle of the fighting he came down with Dengue Fever.
"You're like a mummy,"he says. "You can't move your joints, you can't move any part of your body. You can't even move your eyeballs. About 30 of us got it from mosquito bites. We had lost our headnets the night before during a gun fight and the next day I started to get a fever."
The fighting raging around them, Schumaker and the others were laid out in foxholes and a machine gun set up to protect from the banzai attacks by the Japanese. During one such attack the Japanese had overrun a hospital and went through it killing the marines inside. Five days later the fever finally broke and Schumaker was immediately sent back to the front lines, something that he remembers "didn't feel too good." But it was just a preliminary for what was to come next.
The Battle of Iwo Jima cost the lives of 4,554 marines and 363 navy men. Considering the length of the battle and the number of men involved, it was the greatest American toll of World War II. All but a few hundred of the 21,000 Japanese defenders died.
Schumaker hit the beach on the afternoon of the first day. He remembers: "The back of our landing barge was hit on the way in. The coxswain and several marines were killed. We swam ashore. I lost my rifle and everything else. I had to pick up a rifle and pack from a dead marine on the beach. The beach was full of dead marines. We were walking over dead marines to get on to the first airstrip. The first waves that went in were just wiped out."
Fighting on the opposite end of the five-mile by two-and-one-half-mile pork-chop-shaped island from Mount Suribachi, Schumaker did not see the famous flag raising. He only recalls hearing that the flag had been raised. He remembers better, though, how the Seabees used Iwo Jima's hot springs to build showers for the men.
"They were a good bunch of guys," he says.
Four days before the end of the month-long battle, Schumaker was hit in the leg by shrapnel from a grenade. He was sneaking up on a pillbox when it happened. He never saw the Japanese soldier who threw the grenade, but the two marines who were covering him did and shot him. Then they ran up, grabbed Schumaker and blew up the pillbox. He ended the war in a hospital near Pear Harbor.
"You go through it day to day. You don't remember too much,"he says. "You're busy fighting all the time. Nothing sticks in your mind very much."
Army artillery man Damiani agrees. "You don't get much of a chance to think because you're on the go."He remembers a French girl who had collaborated with the Germans, having her head shaved and being tarred and feathered, but not thinking "much of anything."
Damiani now recalls the liberation of Paris as six days spent trying to destroy a railroad gun while other Americans used a dead German in a nearby foxhole for target practice. Dachau concentration camp for him is masses of bodies and an SS guard in civilian disguise with a bullet hole between the eyes; and Adolph Hitler's retreat at Berchtesgarden a place no bombs could hurt, and where he took some Iron Crosses that were stolen from his home in 1981.
As for the link-up with the Russians, Damiani remembers it as a chance to make some money. "We sold them everything we could get our hands on,"he says. "They had a lot of money because they only got paid once in the whole four years they were in the army. They would buy anything, wristwatches, shoes, anything. A lot of the guys filled five- gallon gas cans with water, put a little gasoline on top and sold it to them."
Always being on the move and too busy to think or take in much is a thread that runs through many of the guards' stories. Ray Allan, a radio operator on the destroyer escort USS Charles E. Brannon, still recalls with surprise that he did not become seasick when Admiral William S. Halsey sailed the task force the Brannon was part of into a typhoon off Okinawa. The storm was so violent the cruiser USS Pittsburgh lost its bow.
"I never thought I'd see dry land again,"Allan says. "But I didn't get sick. I don't know why I didn't. It must have gone on for two or three days."
On his crawl up the boot of Italy, army artilleryman John Miller remembers wearing out six barrels firing more than 15,000 rounds, hundreds of them on Monte Cassino, and how the Italians were always willing to play to the winning side.
"When the American troops went through they waved little American flags,"he says. "When the Germans went through they waved swastikas. A lot of times it went back and forth, so they changed flags for whoever was in power."
Miller also learned that one of the axioms of combat is not true. "They use to always say a shell never lands in the same spot and tell you the safest thing was to jump in a shell hole,"he explains. "Well, we got hit one day and the next day another shell went in the same hole."
But another axiom, that you never hear the one that gets you, did prove true. "You can't hear the shells coming in on you, only those passing overhead,"says Miller, who was wounded in the hand. "If you can hear that whistle, you know you're safe. It's going beyond you. If it's in you area, you only hear the explosion."
Al Nemchek, a staff sergeant in the air force, saw firsthand the lie behind the myth of the Aryan superman while transporting top Nazi prisoners, the hard core of the party, to prison camps in Georgia and Michigan.
"They were so glad to be in the U.S.A. that it wasn't funny,"Nemchek says. "They got three meals a day. They got clean clothes. They got all the medical treatment they wanted. We never had any problems with them. Not one of them tried to escape. They knew better. Everything was, "Yes, sir! Yes, sir! Yes, sir!' No B.S."
Although stories about American soldiers using dead German soldiers for target practice and swindling their Russian allies may disturb some people, they are understandable within the context of the moment. But what Chandler Sirmons experienced is more difficult to comprehend today.
As a black man in a segregated Army, Sirmons found himself fighting two wars. Despite examples to the contrary that go back at least to the Civil War and the 54th Massachusetts Regiment portrayed in the movie Glory, it was still believed during World War II that black soldiers could not fight.
"We weren't considered fighting troops,"says Sirmons. "We were very well trained for combat. We had good officers, who were white. We knew we could do the job, but nobody else did. And I don't know why that was. I never could understand it."
The British, though, had none of those prejudices. And half a century before politics dredged up a debate about U.S. troops being placed under United Nations' command in Bosnia, Sirmons' unit was detached to the British Army fighting German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel's Afrika Corps.
"They [the British] were glad to have anybody who was going to fight,"Sirmons says. "We didn't have any problems. The British were good to us. They treated us with respect and we treated them the same way. I got better treatment under the British than I did with our own troops. The only thing I have to complain about with the British was that their food was terrible. They had the worst food I've ever had."
Accustomed to the well-cooked vegetables he grew up eating in Pittsburgh, Sirmons thought the British vegetables tasted raw. But even worse was their stringy "Bully Beef"and mutton. Sirmons ate so much mutton that to this day he will not touch the meat. As a member of an anti-aircraft gun crew, Sirmons was out in the open during bombing raids and admits to being "half scared to death"the entire time he was in North Africa. The worst was when the Stuka dive bombers appeared.
"They came straight down at you and made a helluva noise,"he explains. "It was a real loud whining noise and it was very scary. It was hard shooting at them, too, because they came down straight at you, and then got out of your trajectory so fast that you couldn't drop your guns fast enough. But we got some, not many. But we got some."
None of Sirmons' valuable combat experience, though, meant a thing after the Nazis surrendered and his unit was shipped to New Guinea to fight the Japanese. Even though combat troops were desperately needed, Sirmons' unit was left to sit on the beach, fish and play basketball, then assigned to unloading ships.
"What they thought of us hurt,"he says. "It hurt."
Other Carnegie guards who served during the war include Charles Belk, Stan Fajerski, Kevin Griffin, Harold Haupt, Joseph H. Miller, Joseph Murray, William Rockar, Paul Sidelko, and Roland Steele.
Museum guards are the most visible World War II veterans at Carnege Museums, but many other vets are associated with the institution. At the Carnegie Science Center, the success of the Requin submarine program is largely due to the volunteer work of navy veterans. Two retired staff members in the Section of Anthropology of Carnegie Museum of Natural History have rich World War II memories. Curator Emeritus James Swauger was a captain in an artillery unit in Europe and wrote a book about the subject entitled My Life as a Dog. Stan Lantz, a recently retired staff archaeologist, was a ball-turret gunner in a B-17 and took aerial photographs over enemy territory. Most World War II veterans have left the workplace, but the guards at Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, many retired from past full-time jobs but nevertheless continuing to work on a part-time basis, still represent living access to the great events of World War II.
Mike Sajna is author of The Allegheny River: Watershed of the Nation, and Buck Fever: The Deer Hunting Tradition in Pennsylvania.