te/ e.. 1Y41 4 Wfifliff 1.1.* 1 Beth Epstein 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 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 of these, Brigadier General B.M. Bryan, the assistant provost mar shal, 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 remark able exchange follows, and they end up agreeing that the whole thing is just a morale problem among disgruntled Ital ,4* fans. Colonel Carvolth did not actually tell w7i, the investigating group that he was shocked shocked! to learn that his 4..M7 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. [ 14 THE TEXAS OBSERVER DECEMBER 24, 1999
You May Also Like
The documentary in Falfurrias is sinister and spiritual.