Friday, March 8, 2013

For The Lost of February '44 - Part III

For The Lost of February '44 - Part III: We Will Not Forget

How would my father react to the revelations regarding his father's disappearance?  After all, Damiano was lost almost 70 years ago.  My father was only an infant when Damiano went off to war.  Therefore, he had no memories of him.  His mother had passed on 20 years ago, and thus, another link to Damiano left with her.  My father's life was now occupied with the travails of aging and the joy drawn from his grandchildren.  What place, if any, would the news of Damiano's fate have on his present reality, or for that matter, on his future?

When I decided to share what I had learned with my father, I did not expect an emotional moment worthy of a Steven Spielberg epic.  On the contrary, I expected a barrage of skepticism grounded in seven decades worth of perceptual defense.  However, without meeting my eyes, he just asked that I leave behind some documents so that he could examine them when he was alone.  Anyone who knows my father would have been confused by this reaction.  My father has never been known for lukewarm responses to anything, let alone news of this nature.  Initially, I misinterpreted his reaction as a dismissal from a man who had no desire to reopen old wounds.  However, during a subsequent visit, I realized the truth.  Unprovoked, he asked me if there had been any new developments.  Then with an uncharacteristically calm, serene manner, he asked me to inform him if he could be of assistance as we work to ensure that the perished POWs of the Oria shipwreck are remembered properly.  It was then that I understood that he could not provide an immediate response to the unexpected news.  He needed to deal with the discoveries on his own terms and in his own time.   No doubt, after all this time, who could blame him?  He deserved to confront the news how he saw fit.  All the loved ones of these lost POWs deserve that much.

As I was sharing this new found information with my family, our international group took on numerous initiatives to raise a broader awareness so as to provide others unknowingly connected to the Oria the same opportunity for closure.  The website became a central portal for consolidating information and erecting a virtual memorial.  Many of us (too many to list without risking unintended omissions) took on projects large and small to raise awareness.  These have included newspaper articles, speaking engagements, conferences, and pieces for Italian television.  Most recently, the Italian television program, La Vita in Diretta, did a follow-up piece on the 69th anniversary of the shipwreck this past February 12th.

As a result of these efforts, many people have learned the truth about lost loved ones.  It is tragically too late for many family members who deserved closure, but as the video above testifies, many daughters, sons, grandchildren, and even siblings are finally able to relieve themselves of the burden of seven decades of painful ambiguity.  Furthermore, additional eye witness accounts have been gathered.   Amazingly, this includes former Italian POWs, now in their 90s, who were almost boarded on the Oria and were then forced to endure the poorly managed efforts of recovering and burying human remains after the shipwreck.

Though much has come to light, there is still so much more to accomplish.  As of this writing, only 115 of the more than 4,000 Italian POWs have been identified and memorialized on the virtual Wall of Honor.   Numerous formal letters and emails have been dispatched to federal and local Italian institutions respectfully requesting assistance with matching passenger list names with records of soldiers missing in action.  Sadly, the response has been a mix of condescension and bureaucratic apathy, which has only intensified as Italy's political and economic turmoil churns.  Most responses simply assume that we seek monetary assistance, which is quite frankly insulting.  A mere authorization to release data pertaining to Italian soldiers missing in action during the period and vicinity of the shipwreck would be a godsend to our efforts. 

Besides Italy's continuous political and economic challenges, we can only speculate as to why the Italian authorities have not offered any proactive assistance.  Regardless of the cause, the response to date sets a disturbing precedence.  Furthermore, what message does it send to current Italian serviceman and their families?  If financial concerns are at the core of these responses, why not propose gestures that cost nothing, such as a dedicated moment of silence during a ceremony on an existing national holiday of remembrance?  If formal assistance cannot be provided for objectives such as preserving remains and artifacts or erecting a memorial, why add insult to injury?  Why not focus on what can be done rather than on what cannot?

Despite these obstacles, simply being a part of these efforts has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.  Each emotional message from someone who is just learning the truth about a missing brother, grandfather, father, etc. has only strengthened our resolve to continue our efforts.  Next February, the 70th anniversary of the shipwreck, I plan to visit the site of the tragedy personally on behalf of my father, grandmother, and all those who knew and loved Damiano.  I look forward to personally thanking Telis and other friends who have done so much.  I hope to honor the lost of the Oria with as many other family members of victims as possible.  These men were lost to their families, and they were almost lost to history.   Now, we can ensure that they will not be forgotten.   Their memory will live on as another reminder of the incalculable costs of war and the consequences which ripple through time.

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