MY FATHER, WILBER CONLEY, AND THE ITALIAN P.O.W.
By Duane F. Conley
My father, Wilber Franklin Conley (1919-1984), served in the Army Air Corps (predecessor of today’s Air Force) during WW II. He was in a ground crew unit, providing maintenance support for the bombing raids over Nazi-occupied Europe that were being staged out of North Africa. When I was growing up Dad used to tell me a lot of stories about his experiences during the war. Here is one of my favorites (as best I can remember it after so many years). It is a short and simple story, but to me it is an important part of remembering Dad.
Mussolini, Hitler’s European ally, had grand dreams of a second Roman Empire in North Africa. Unfortunately for him, Italian troops fared badly against the British in the early years of the war, resulting in thousands of Italian P.O.W.’s. One of these wound up in a work crew which Dad supervised (unloading supplies, as I recall, while Dad operated the crane). Apparently they chatted with each other from time to time. (I guess the prisoner must have learned pretty good English, because I don’t think Dad knew any Italian.) This prisoner had a wife and children in Rome, with whom he had not been able to make contact, so they presumably had no idea whether he was dead or alive.
Sometime late in the war, after most of Italy was liberated, Dad got a furlough that allowed him to visit Italy. When the prisoner found out about this, he begged Dad to look up his family in Rome, to let them know that he was alive and well. Rome was not on Dad’s itinerary (which was mainly Naples and the Isle of Capri, I think), but he agreed to give it a try.
Dad managed to hitch a ride to Rome and found the address, not without some difficulty given his lack of Italian. He found the family in one of the upper stories of some kind of tenement, not in the best neighborhood. You can imagine the wife’s astonishment and perhaps unease when a soldier showed up at her door in a U.S. uniform. After he communicated his message, she became ecstatic, crying and hugging him and trying to thank him in Italian.
When I was a kid hearing this, it pretty much went in one ear and out the other, like so many other stories, but from an adult’s perspective this one has stuck with me like no other.
It has been said that war brings out the best and the worst in people. In the great cauldron of WW II, millions of people from all over the world encountered one another, many of them far from their homes. The way I look at it, every one of them was kind of an ambassador, representing his home town and nation by his conduct. Some behaved badly, committing wartime atrocities. Some, like Audie Murphy of Texas, showed exceptional battlefield valor and became heroes in that way. In my eyes, by his act of compassion to this Italian family, my Dad became a hero in a different way. I am proud of the way he represented Cherokee, Texas and the U.S. of A. on that occasion.