5 Jul,2018 By Jagabond
What if your native country had dark moments in its military history? Germany is the obvious example, yet Berlin clearly declares this with their many World War II museums. Granted it would be difficult to not address such an infamous example of evil.
What about Italy? Under Mussolini the Italians aligned with Nazi Germany. Towards the end of the war they flipped sides. This was a tricky situation, since the German and Italian armies were at the time working together in Italy. The Italian soldiers had few good options. They could become prisoners of the Germans, continue to fight along their side, or escape and flee back home.
The Winter Line was a German fortification near Molise, a region in Italy I recently wrote in great depth about. It also represented Germany’s last stand in the country, as they held back allied forces for six months. The Winter Line stretched across the mountains of Molise, nearby the town of Venafro.
No one would condemn a visitor for not realizing the deep military history in Venafro. It withstood a massive bombing during World War II. Why? A mistake, similar to what happened in Monte Cassino. A restaurant server recounted his grandmother still having wide eyes when thinking about that day. Other towns in Molise were also tragic casualties of war. Gazing through the arch in Venafro’s old town offers one no clues on what happened here all those decades ago.
The Molise region remembers this fight that happened in their back yard, and I traveled there to learn more. The history of the Winter Line is preserved not by the Italian government – who might choose to forget – but by locals. Men with unbridled passion for history searched the mountains of Molise, finding relics from this near forgotten time of World War II.
How does one create such a unique, incredible museum? Johnny Capone is the answer. His 38 years of perseverance, and conviction that memories are important, led to this. He literally built this with his own two hands, making it one of the most incredible war museums I’ve ever seen.
Armed with a metal detector Johnny roamed the mountains looking for remnants from the Winter Line. He found canteens, boots, and even original headstones for German soldiers who died. Their bodies now lie in the German cemetery outside Cassino.
Over the decades Johnny has expanded the museum to encompass all of World War II. He has traveled as far east as India in search of authentic military items. His uniform collection is most impressive. I took note of the alluring Red Cross volunteer and the wickedly fascist Italian soldier.
There was also the uniform of Staff Sergeant De Angelis, an American whose father was from Rochetta Nuova.
I didn’t ask how he got all his weapons, but it was impressive. First up was the small arms room, containing tommy guns, sniper rifles, and other toys that would make a military historian grin.
I couldn’t believe what he had outside in the back. Who doesn’t maintain an arsenal, you know…just in case? A howitzer menacingly stared down the nearby town.
Even more stunning was the working aircraft he acquired. This was a light attack plane manufactured in the U.S. and used by the American and Royal Air Force. In front you see a Jeep Willys, the first Jeep model ever made and produced solely for use during World War II.
A 12-year old boy spent hours looking through the hills of Molise, finding what others might call junk. He kept it up, and thirty years later Luciano Bucci has turned his discoveries into a museum. Unlike Johnny’s this one focuses solely on the Winter Line. As you enter, black and white photography recounts Venafro’s role in the conflict.
The theme of this museum is ‘in memory of every sacrifice.’ Being a war veteran myself I can appreciate this message. Politicians make decisions and soldiers do their duty and pay the price. The Winter Line might not be Italy’s proudest moment, but the sacrifices of the soldiers need to be acknowledged.
I wondered if there was any anxiety about finding grenades lying about. Luciano admits the Italian military cleared the ones on display.
Stephen Ryan, an American from the 4th Ranger Battalion, was wounded at Winter Line. Before his death he donated his purple heart to the museum.
There wasn’t an extensive collection of weapons like at Johnny’s museum, but I did find this really scary looking knife.
Luciano also had a collection of military uniforms. The ones below belonged to a French military unit made up mostly of Moroccans, Algerians and Tunisians. They fought valiantly at Winter Line for the allies, and the casualties are buried at the French Cemetery just outside Venafro.
This uniform represents an interesting alliance between the U.S. and Canada. The First Special Service Force was an elite unit nicknamed the ‘Black Devils’ by the Germans.
Venafro is located in the far west of the Molise province, nearby the borders of Lazio and Campania. You can combine this trip with the Monte Cassino Abbey and Polish Cemetery. Johnny’s museum in Rochetta Nuova is fifteen miles from Venafro. Visit Molise and see how these self taught and devoted historians help us to remember. All memories, even inconvenient truths, are necessary for us to progress.