Richard Phelan on Donald Mace Williams

Interlude in Umbarger reviewed


INTERLUDE IN UMBARGER:Italian P.O.W.s and a Texas Church.

In Umbarger, a little farm town near Amarillo, at the end of World War II, a group of Italian prisoners of war decorated the small Catholic church with murals (the Annunciation, the Visitation), a large oil on canvas (the Assumption of Mary), a wood carving of the Last Supper, and various ornamental panels of crosses and sheaves of grain. Shortly after the job was finished, they were sent home. The work they did is still there.

Almost no attention was paid to the artwork, outside the parish, until 1992, when the newspaperman Donald Williams published a book about how the work came to be done. It is a remarkable, even irresistible, tale about a community of German-American farmers, their Dutch-born priest, the Italian P.O.W.s, an Irish sergeant (in my view the good guy, the hero of the story), and the commander of the P.O.W. camp (twenty-six miles away, near Hereford) who reduced the prisoners’ rations to the point where, over a long haul, they would have died. The men were so weak and hungry they killed and ate the pets in their compounds — dogs, cats -along with whatever birds, lizards, and rattlesnakes they could catch and cook. The painters and carvers did the work at St. Mary’s chiefly because they were hungry. They wanted the huge farmhand dinners the church ladies cooked for them every day and served them in the basement.

Slowly, awareness of the book, the paintings, and the story has grown. Composer Steve Paxton and librettist William Wenthe are writing an opera based on the book, scheduled for production in 2001 at Texas Tech, where Paxton and Wenthe teach. The daughter of one of the P.O.W.s reports that a publisher in Italy has shown interest in having the book translated and published there. Next year, the Texas Tech University Press will release a new paperback edition.

The prisoners in the camp were all Italians. The head count varied, but at one time there were more than 3,000 prisoners at Hereford, in four fenced and guarded compounds: three for enlisted men, one for officers. Williams’ central character is Lieutenant Franco Di Bello, twenty-three years old, good-looking enough for the movies, taken prisoner in North Africa in 1943. He was a career officer, and an athlete who stood out in any soccer team he joined. Like nearly all the men at Hereford, he had been pressured to renounce his loyalty to his country and become a collaborator, and had refused. These men called themselves “Nons,” and despised their countrymen who did collaborate and were rewarded with freedom and jobs in military supply, engineering, and transportation. In return, the staff of their American prison (and perhaps most of all its commander) despised the Nons, or came close to doing so.

The cutback in rations began after V.E. Day, when Americans learned of the brutal treatment and starvation of Allied prisoners in German camps. Reactions varied, but quite a few people in this country favored suspending the Golden Rule and cutting the rations of prisoners in our camps. The Army in fact called for a cut. On May 4, 1945, the Eighth Service Command in Dallas ordered a limit of 2,300 to 2,500 calories a day for prisoners who did not work, and 3,500 for those who did: a significant cut, but not anywhere near what was inflicted on the Italians at Hereford. Williams notes of that camp, “If the (Army’s) order … had been meticulously carried out, the cats and dogs would have survived.”

But the commanding officer at Hereford, Colonel Joseph R. Carvolth, went far beyond what he had been ordered to do. Besides reducing the mealtime rations to slow-starvation levels, he stopped the sale of snacks and drinks in the canteen. He ordered returned all food packages arriving for the prisoners. And letters of complaint written to various officials were read within the prison and thrown away. Nearly all of this treatment was in violation of the Geneva Convention, which says that P.O.W.s are to be adequately fed by their captors. Carvolth was good at closing ration loopholes, but he left a small one: some of the men bought brilliantine at the P.X., fried grasshoppers in it on their woodburning barracks stoves, and ate the insects. Not much food value, but the detail does tell you this: they were hungry.

Prior to Hereford, Colonel Carvolth had been in command of the big camp for German P.O.W.s at Mexia. He wore a toup?e, was a meticulous dresser — in uniforms, of course — and carried a quirt — as close as he could legitimately come, perhaps, to the British colonial officer’s swagger stick. In prewar life he had been the top clerk in a Pennsylvania court and belonged to the National Guard. Clearly he liked being In Charge. At mess, he carved the meat and took the best cut for himself. He like to flick the back of Esther Klinke’s knees with his quirt. (She was a nurse in the hospital.) But, nearly forty years later, Klinke told Williams she liked Carvolth anyway: “He was a great guy.” Others thought otherwise: a medical officer at the camp told his wife the commander was “stupid and selfish.”

The cutback in rations began in May 1945, and went on and on. By late October, when decoration of the church began, the prisoners were hollow-eyed, listless, and thin. For lack of energy, many had given up sports, writing, painting — whatever they had been doing to get through the monotony of prison life.

The priest who started the project was Father John Krukkert, fifty-five, retired early (because of a chronic illness), and called back to service by wartime shortages as priests became chaplains in the military. He saw an exhibit of the prisoners’ art -paintings, drawings, crafts, sculpture — and negotiated with the camp commander to have seven prisoners decorate the many plain surfaces of St. Mary’s Church. He provided the materials, they did the work, and the parish women cooked their dinner.

One of the seven was Lt. Franco Di Bello. He was not heroic, or the leader, or the most senior, or even the most talented of the artists. (I hesitate to call them artists, but they were good men and did conscientious work that has served St. Mary’s’ parishioners for fifty-four years.) Di Bello was simply an honorable man who spoke good English, experienced it all, remembered it well, and survived — just what Don Williams needed.

And Williams was just the man the story needed. As a young reporter he had worked nearby at the Amarillo Globe-News. Through both marriage and work he had links to the Texas High Plains. He went on to teach journalism at Baylor and the University of Mississippi, and to writing and editing jobs on the Pine Bluff Commercial, Long Island’s Newsday, and The Wichita Eagle. He had known of the paintings since 1965 or so, but not of the hunger in the camp until he wrote to Di Bello in 1981 with a magazine article in mind. When he learned about la fame — the hunger — he decided it wasn’t an article that was waiting to be written, but a book.

Interlude in Umbarger is a lively book, full of good will, meanness, humor, tough times, and some satisfying outcomes. Williams starts the first day of work at St. Mary’s like this: “The prisoners jumped down from the truck onto unfenced earth and inhaled brisk civilian air.” He lists some of what the church women could offer:

…roasts, hams, sausages, salads, homemade breads, sauerkraut, mashed potatoes, homemade jellies and jams, and pies and cobblers from home-grown and home-canned cherries.

Then he describes the way the Italians alarmed the priest by the unbelievable amounts they ate. Father Krukkert feared they would damage internal organs. (The excesses lessened as the work went on.) He traces the gradual fading of reserve and growth of friendship between the Italians and the German-American farmers, both men and women. (Men came in to watch the painting and carving, and helped occasionally with tools and scaffolds.)

In casual, scattered sentences he records the loneliness, the yearning, of prisoners who had not been close to women for months or years. At the camp they stood along the wire fences of their compounds (their favorite song, Williams says, was Don’t Fence Me In) and looked and whistled at young women — secretaries, clerks, P.X. workers — as they walked to their jobs in the mornings along the prison streets. At St. Mary’s, teenage girls often helped their mothers in the kitchen and served the food at mealtime. They were for the most part prudently kept away from the men at work upstairs, or heavily chaperoned.

It didn’t always work. There was a period, once, of approximately a minute when the handsome Franco Di Bello was alone and unobserved with the eighteen-year-old Geraldine Skarke just outside the church:

Di Bello had not stood so close to a girl in over three years. The calls back and forth between him on the scaffold and the girl with the smile that squeezed up her eyes and arched her eyebrows had been as stimulating as extended hands that couldn’t quite touch. He took her in his arms and kissed her. That was all…. Jerry Skarke, for whom even Amarillo was too far from home, lay awake a long time that night, moved as never before.

Franco Di Bello and pretty Geraldine Skarke face each other in the book, in photographs made near the time of that kiss: Di Bello on the left page, Jerry on the right, but with ninety-three pages of text between them.

Some religious art is real art — Leonardo’s, Michelangelo’s, Raphael’s — and some is not: St. Christopher medals, the crucifixes and statuettes sold in religious bookstores. The work of the P.O.W.s is several cuts above the latter, but nowhere close to the former. Two of the men were professional artists, Di Bello a competent amateur. The wood carvers were craftsmen, and the sixth and seventh men were helpers. The religious scenes, if not copied directly from illustrations in a New Testament Father Krukkert provided, were at least based firmly on them. In the two big murals, the Virgin, angel, and friar are seen in Renaissance pavilions with marble floors, open (miraculously, one could say) to a landscape of High Plains wheat fields and Texas sky. The farmhouses in the distance are those of church members. Whose idea was that? The prisoners’, I hope, thanking the parishioners for those big meals.

On September 7, some six weeks before the church decorating began, the Bishop of Amarillo, alerted by a chaplain, ate lunch with the prisoners in their mess hall to check the food himself. He was Laurence J. FitzSimon, half German, half Irish, a native of San Antonio. He didn’t like what he ate, or what he saw. Asking for an investigation, he wrote to his congressman:

…we were served a bowl of weak, watery soup, containing pieces of gummy-like spaghetti, but absolutely tasteless, as the concoction was made without any salt, or so little that it was most unpalatable. After this dish-water soup, we each had a dry, over-salted herring. I saw some of the men hold back their soup for the herring course, and then dip a herring into the soup to give it a little salt. Then we had bread and water and that was all.

The bishop also visited the kitchens to check the prospects for dinner. They were bad: “I saw some tubs of pig’s feet, sacks of moldy-looking potatoes and a basket of overripe tomatoes.” In the prison hospital food was passable and no patients complained. But they were only a handful. In the compounds, many hundreds of men were thin, listless, and unendingly hungry.

That was where Sergeant John Coyle helped out — only a little, but he did what he could. He drove the Italians to St. Mary’s every morning, from the prison, past the town of Hereford, to Umbarger, in an Army truck. He guarded them during the day (or rather trusted them through the day, and nobody tried to escape), ate lunch with them in the church basement, and drove them back when the day’s work was done. He was a skinny kid from Pennsylvania. Off duty, he lived with his young wife in a rented room in Hereford. She was Lutheran, he was Catholic. St. Mary’s for him was a kind of home territory. He had quit school in the eighth grade and gone to work, eventually at a knitting machine, in a mill that made socks. It was seemingly an undistinguished background, but from it, or from somewhere, had sprung something good: he was a generous, decent man.

He kept his gun concealed from the seven Italians, spoke to them cheerfully, and talked to them through Di Bello, who spoke good English and rode with him in the front. He was not like the camans: the men who guarded the prisoners in the compounds and on work details. They got their name because “Come on!” was about all they ever said to the Italians, as they urged them into formation for head counts, or into trucks which took some of them to work on local farms.

Knowing of the hunger in the camp, Coyle arranged with one of the farmers to be driven over his pastures, sitting on the front fender of a Model A, shooting with a borrowed shotgun the jackrabbits which were pests numerous enough to compete with the livestock for grass. Coyle and the farmer skinned and gutted the rabbits, and the painters suspended them inside their pants legs on strings tied to their belts. Coyle drove them from St. Mary’s to the prison, where they smuggled the contraband past the guards at the entrance. On those evenings, a few of the hungry men ate roasted jackrabbit.

Coyle, if caught, could have lost his sergeant’s stripes and spent time in the guardhouse. The work at St. Mary’s might well have been stopped by a wrathful Colonel Carvolth. But the jackrabbit smuggling went on and on. Many were at risk, and only a few inside the camp benefited. But Coyle and the artists did it anyway. In part, they were thumbing their noses at the mean-spirited Colonel Carvolth and his guards.

With his letter to Congressman Gene Worley, Bishop FitzSimon got results. The subsequent investigation involved people from the Italian Embassy, the Red Cross, and the State Department. They found that the average weight loss in the prison, over seven months, was twenty pounds per man. This was among young men, soldiers, who were not overweight to begin with.

Williams does a thorough and entertaining job of tracing out the Army’s techniques of investigating the situation on its own and finding itself innocent. In this he is as much historian as journalist, searching archives and even finding transcripts of old telephone conversations. (The Army appears to throw nothing away.) In one of these, Brigadier General B.M. Bryan, the assistant provost marshal, calling Carvolth from Washington, told him, “We’re getting a little hot about your camp down there, but I don’t want you to get worried because I am going to bat for you whole hog.” A remarkable exchange follows, and they end up agreeing that the whole thing is just a morale problem among disgruntled Italians.

Colonel Carvolth did not actually tell the investigating group that he was shocked — shocked! — to learn that his prisoners had been hungry for months, but he came close. He simply did not know, he said, that anybody under his command was hungry. Of this claim, Williams writes: “If the commander did not know how little food the prisoners were getting, and of what wretched quality, he should have known…. He saw the prisoners’ letters, even if the intended recipients did not…. He could easily have gone into a prisoners’ mess and eaten, as FitzSimon did.”

Decorating the church took forty-one working days. That project, and the roughly seven months of short rations in camp, ended at about the same time. The paintings and sculpture were dedicated in December, with the artists and Sergeant Coyle sitting in the front row at St. Mary’s. The war was over. The Italians went home, the people of Umbarger stayed put, and the whole peculiar story paled and faded.

It is impossible not to wonder what happened to these people after the war, and in an epilogue Williams tells us. He checked out Umbarger and its people, and he went to Italy. There, Franco Di Bello, who after some indecision returned to the army and
became a general, introduced him to other men who had been prisoners at Hereford. That was in 1981. A number of them, including Di Bello, have since died.

The book, and the forthcoming opera, are likely to be with us for some time. But they are recent; they are accounts of what once happened. In a few years, the only remaining elements of this bit of the human comedy which are of the original time and place will be the paintings and the carvings at St. Mary’s.

Richard Phelan is the author of Texas Wild. He lives in McGregor, and is an occasional contributor to the Observer.