Fernando’s Footsteps

by Tony Carreño

 

"Por favor! Déjame explicar lo que ha pasado!"

Luciano implored the excited and almost manic Tampeños to please settle down so that he might explain Rafael's presence. They complied with his wishes. 

Luciano explained, with Rafael's help, that they had kept in frequent contact throughout each of their training periods. Good fortune intervened when Luciano was transferred to the Maxwell base for B-17 flight training. Located just outside of Montgomery, Alabama, the base was only a two-hour drive from Ft. Benning, which is adjacent to Columbus, Georgia. They had managed to occasionally visit each other whenever possible for the past several months. Fortunately, Rafael was able to arrange a leave that coincided with Luciano's week of training at Drew Field. Luciano was able to get permission for Rafael to hop a ride on his airplane to Tampa, and they decided to surprise their families. As Luciano was approaching Tampa, he had radioed the Drew Field Operations Center and they enthusiastically agreed to assist in their ruse. A good laugh was shared by all.

"Dios mío! Quien tenemos aquí?"

Rosa, in her somewhat broken Spanish, was overcome with emotion and surprise. She and Aaron had rushed over to hug Luciano, initially oblivious to Rafael's presence. When Rafael stepped into the Licata house from the front porch, she exclaimed "My God! Who have we here?" A frenzied explanation of the surprise was offered as she and Aaron embraced and kissed Rafael. This was followed by an almost infinite round of hugging and kissing from the many other relatives who had gathered for this most special dinner. Many of those in attendance commented that Luciano and Rafael had left Tampa as boys, only to return as men. 

Luciano's week of training was passing much too quickly for the Tampeños. They had established a routine which maximized the precious time they had left. Rafael, on leave, stayed with his family on the dairy. Luciano was usually free by late afternoon. Every evening a large dinner with various friends and relatives was arranged at either the Prendes or Suárez homes. Luciano was allowed a leave from duty on his last two days in Tampa, which fell on a weekend. On the Friday prior to Luciano's and Rafael's departure, the two men, along with their parents, gathered for an intimate dinner at the Prendes home. As the six Tampeños began eating, Rafael addressed the group.

"Luciano y yo tenemos algo que decir. En un mes, más o menos, nos van a mandar fuera del país. La verdad es que no sabemos adonde, pero sabemos que va ser afuera de los Estados Unidos. Además de eso no sabemos nada hasta el último minuto. Y hasta que nos dan permiso, no podemos escribiros."

Rafael had informed his and Luciano's parents that in about a month or so they were both being deployed outside of the United States. They themselves probably wouldn't know where until the very last minute. He added that once deployed, they could not write to them until given permission. It was impossible to know how long that might be. 

This announcement was initially met with silence, followed by Sofia and Pina weeping softly. Fernando and Ignacio comforted their wives. Luciano and Rafael followed with failed attempts at reassuring their parents that they would certainly be fine. They all knew no such guarantee could be given.

Luciano was scheduled to fly his plane back to Maxwell on Sunday, in the late afternoon. Due to heightened security, it would not be possible for visitors to accompany Rafael and him onto the base. The two families organized a large potluck lunch for midday Sunday. It was an opportunity for the many friends and relatives to see Luciano and Rafael, and to wish them well. At around 3:30 p.m. Rafael and Luciano said their goodbyes. Their parents escorted them on the short walk to the main entrance gate of Drew Field. Sofia and Pina each had one of their arms around their son's waist. 

As they got to the gate, Luciano told them that they would be taking off to the east, meaning they would fly directly over the Prendes pastures. This would happen in approximately an hour, and he promised that they would be able to recognize his airplane. Fernando wondered aloud how this would be possible. Luciano assured him that it would be. After lastly embracing each of their mothers, the two men turned and walked quickly to the guard shack, showed their papers, and disappeared from view. The two couples comforted each other.

Returning to the Prendes' home, the hosts gathered the remaining guests and ushered them outside and onto the pastures. Less than hour later, numerous aircraft began flying over their heads as they took off into the easterly winds. Still doubting Luciano's assurances, they waved at each airplane, thereby guaranteeing they would send their "boys" a personal goodbye. After a longer than usual pause between the aircraft departures, the Tampeños began walking back toward the house, assuming that the entire squadron had already taken off. 

Suddenly an unusually loud sound of aircraft engines caught their attention. Looking upward toward the source of the sound, they saw a B-17 at an unusually low altitude. As it passed over and beyond them it banked to the left and quickly completed a circular turn back toward them. As it passed overhead a second time, the plane dipped its wings several times in rapid succession and then began to quickly gain altitude. The Tampeños began jumping up and down, shouting out their love and good wishes for Rafael and Luciano. They knew this last airplane was Luciano's.

Three weeks later, Sofia told Pina that letters from Rafael were no longer arriving. Two weeks after that, Pina and Fernando stopped hearing from Luciano. Though this was expected, the silence and lack of information was more stressful for the families than they had anticipated. Several months passed, still with no word from or about Luciano and Rafael. While militarily the war was turning slightly in favor of the allies, the price paid was rapidly increasing American casualties. 

On the home front, the shortage of able-bodied young men and women resulted in a labor shortage. Ignacio's dairy business had benefited from a lucrative contract with the military to supply milk and milk products to several military installations in the Tampa area. In the spring of1943, the U.S. had sent troops to assist Britain in the battle against the Germans and Italians in North Africa, the first American ground troop deployment outside of Asia. As a result of this, the U.S. was now receiving prisoners of war (POWs) to be housed on various bases throughout the eastern part of the country. This included Tampa's Drew Field. 

Considered to be of minimum risk, many of the POWs were used to bolster the labor supply. POWs considered particularly "low risk" were allowed to receive day passes, allowing them to work off-base in varying capacities. Ignacio was able to secure the use of an Italian POW named Antonio Antinori, also known as "Nino". He was a native of Catania, Sicily. Prior to accepting Nino as a day worker, Ignacio had contacted Fernando, asking him if he thought Pina would be willing to act as a translator, explaining to Nino exactly what his duties would be. Fernando, somewhat hesitatingly, agreed. He anticipated that his wife would be opposed to any contact with "the enemy". 

"Pina, Ignacio necesita un favor de ti. Hay un prisionero de guerra, un siciliano, que puede ayudar a Ignacio y Anselmo en le lechería. El problema es que nadie en la lechería habla siciliano. Crees que podrías ayudarle como traductora? Ignacio dice que él entendería si no te sientas cómoda hablando con el enemigo."

Fernando explained Ignacio's request to Giuseppina, telling her that Ignacio would understand if she felt uncomfortable talking to the enemy. Pina's response both intrigued and pleased him.

"Como no, Fernando. Sería un placer. Los dolores y las pérdidas de esta guerra son iguales para madres en todos sitios. No tiene nada que ver con nacionalidades ni fronteras. Quiero creer que si Luciano o Rafael estuviera en una situación parecida, alguna madre alemana, italiana, o japonesa hiciera lo mismo para ellos."

Pina responded that she would be glad to help Ignacio with the translation. She said that the pain and losses of this war were the same for mothers everywhere and they had nothing to do with nationalities or borders. She told Fernando that she would like to think that if Luciano or Rafael were in a similar situation, some German, Italian, or Japanese mother would do the same for them.

Fernando reached over to Pina and kissed her on both cheeks. He had a new appreciation of Pina's devout Christian faith.

 

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This is a work of fiction. With the exception of references to known and publicly documented historical entities, the following apply:

Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. ©Tony Carreño 2020