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Have won an award Salvatore Taranto, the Hero of Cefalu'

Story ID:2939
Written by:John Ward (bio, contact, other stories)
Story type:Family History
Location:Cefalu' Sicily Italy
Year:1915
Person:Salvatore Taranto
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Salvatore Taranto, the Hero of Cefalu'

Salvatore Taranto, the Hero of Cefalu'

Salvatore Taranto, the Hero of Cefalu’

I am very proud of my Sicilian heritage. When I hear the joke about one of the thinnest books in the world being “Biographies of Italian War Heroes” I am never offended because I believe it only proves that the Italians and Sicilians are rational people who instinctively understand that in any contest between bullets and human flesh, the bullets will always win. It’s a simple, but profound grasp of the obvious, something which, if everyone had it, would result in something called “world peace.”

My Grandfather on my mother’s side was a Sicilian who had the unfortunate distinction of having fought in both World Wars. Salvatore Taranto was about sixteen years old when the First World War broke out in mid 1914. On June 28th Arch-Duke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and Hungary was assassinated in Sarajevo by a Serbian activist and things went downhill from there. The next year, 1915, on the 26th of April the “Treaty of London” was signed committing Italy to the war on the side of the “Entente,” or Allies.

Salvatore Taranto was conscripted by the Trapani division of the Bersaglieri and was trained as a machine gunner, a fairly new concept in human slaughter, and later assigned to a machine gun team. All the members of his team were very young and had little to no experience when they were sent to the front against the Germans. Salvatore discovered that another member of this four-member team was from his home town of Cefalu’ in northern Sicily, (pronounced Chefaloo). This was quite a coincidence under the circumstances and no small comfort for both of them.

The Bersaglieri are a branch of the Italian Army that runs everywhere it goes, in parades, in battle and even between their barracks. This keeps them very fit. The word Bersaglieri means “Sharpshooter” and they were the brain child of General La Marmora in 1836, because the Piedmontese Army could not afford a lot of cavalry and needed rapid movement troops which could deploy and attack on command in short order. They were distinguished by their black and green uniforms and the black Capercaillie feathers on their helmets. Their helmets are wide-brimmed black hats and are, supposedly, sabre-proof. They are always worn at a jaunty angle, giving the wearers a dashing look. Less charitable divisions of the Italian army say the feathers are chicken feathers and that they run so they are constantly prepared to retreat.

The first posting Salvatore’s team of crack shots received was to the end of a ridge which rose about fifty meters from the ground in a hilly area near the front lines. Approximately seven meters up on the leading edge of that ridge was a cave and the machine gunners decided that would be a good place to wedge the gun struts and dig in. They requisitioned a long ladder made of stout wood and, with a little effort; they climbed up and pulled the big gun after them on a pulley. When they had stocked the cave with enough food and water to last a couple of days, they pulled up the ladder and waited for the imminent attack. The rest of the division departed to dig in to the west of their cave leaving them, suddenly and unexpectedly, in an advance position.

The ridge ran behind them to the west and south west. This wedge shape made it seem like they were nestled in the prow of a ship plunging east through the rolling topography towards the front lines. The distance from the top of the ridge to the mouth of the cave which was approximately forty five meters seemed, to the team, too great for anyone to reach their position from above. The cave was not very conspicuous from the front, but there was no vegetation around to disguise the opening in this ship’s prow any further, so the boys passed the time in a state of nervous controlled panic. However, they were “Bersaglieri” the sharpshooters, so they screwed their courage to the sticking point and made ready for battle.

While they waited the team played canasta and talked of their families back in Sicily. Two spoke of girlfriends who they would marry as soon as they could get back and start working again. Salvatore told of Maria Madalena Russo, whom he saw crossing a street one clear spring day after heavy winter rains. He said the street had been muddy and Signorina Russo had lifted her skirts slightly to keep her hem out of the mud. This allowed him a brief glimpse of her ankle! Oh the sublime joy, the excitement of that forbidden glimpse! That tiny revelation caused him to follow her all the way to her home and propose marriage. Her father, a member of the local mafia, was less sympathetic to his proposal and had given chase with a thick Sicilian olive branch, but Salvatore managed to avoid a concussion by darting into a small bakery, covering his head in flour and pretending to be one of the bakers until the man passed. Ghost-like he returned home and although he did not go back to Signorina Russo’s home that day, he remembered seeing a glint of amusement in her dark eyes so he resolved to try again when the war was over. “Her father is such a cuglione” Salvatore said, using a word that means testicle and is also an insult if used to describe a person. “How will you win him over?” asked Renzo, the other boy from Cefalu’. “I don’t have to” my cocky seventeen year old Grandfather said “she will convince him for me.” This is in fact what happened, but that’s another story.

The next day Salvatore was tired. He hadn’t slept well the night before wondering if the Germans would attack during the night. At about two in the afternoon, after a nice lunch of gnocchi al pesto, he decided to go to the rear of the cave and take a nap. About an hour into his nap the ground developed slight tremors which turned out to be caused by a German division goose-stepping from the east towards their position. Upon seeing the Germans approaching their machine gun nest, the brave Bersaglieri decided discretion was the better part of valor and a tactical retreat was actually the best part of valor, so they dropped the ladder, forgetting about Salvatore completely and executed an intelligent, if not valiant, tactical advance to the rear. Unfortunately, they took the ladder with them.

After a few minutes the throbbing caused by the marching German division woke Salvatore and he scrambled to the mouth of the cave. The sight of the German army nearly paralyzed him with fear. He searched for his compatriots and immediately thereafter: the ladder. Then, finding neither, he returned to the machine gun at the cave’s entrance.

There he was, all alone with what looked like the entire German and Austrian army closing on him. He thought he should fire the gun, but then he reasoned: “I am a Bersaglieri, I might hit something and I don’t want them to get angry with me! But then, if I don’t shoot they will send a shell into the cave and I will have died for nothing.” As these thoughts passed through his fevered mind his nervous fingers squeezed the trigger and a burst of machinegun fire split the air. Suddenly the mechanical march broke up into a vast scrambling for cover. Salvatore wanted to stand up and say: “Sorry, sorry everyone, I just slipped, it won’t happen again, please go back to what you were doing,” but there was no going back at this point, he was committed. He swore at his treacherous finger for firing the burst without permission and looked for any group that might be setting up a cannon. He fired in blind panic at the enemy. The distance was too great for any degree of accuracy and tiny fountains of earth danced all around the leading edge of the German division as his bullets missed their marks. Then - the gun jammed! He was close to hysteria as he beat at the breech and remembered every prayer he’d ever heard. The barrel was hot despite being water cooled and somehow the belt had jammed the firing mechanism. They taught him to fire the gun, not mend it!

As he beat at the breech with a long bayonet he checked the movement of the Germans and to his utter amazement and relief they had turned and started moving away. He was stunned! The division was moving, quite rapidly, in an orderly retreat!

Breaking all rules of safety Salvatore stood up and stepped into the mouth of the cave to shout insults in the little German he knew. As he stood there cursing their ancestors and shaking his fist, relief and pride washing over him, he discovered the real reason the Germans had retreated. A thin, eerie sound penetrated his shouts, frightening him and shutting him up. This was a sound first heard by the enemies of ancient Rome, a sound that had been brought to England by the Romans and refined by the Celts into a hair-raising, heart-stopping experience for all who heard it. The thin but pervasive sound of bag pipes filled the air, inspiring the British and filling any rational enemy with abject fear. Behind Salvatore to the North West came several divisions of the British Army, complete with four rhomboid shaped tanks and armored vehicles dragging cannons behind them. Salvatore watched as the British moved up to the base of his position in the cliff. He watched as the rest of the Bersaglieri ran up to join them. He wanted to apologize for stirring up this hornet’s nest; then he saw his commanding officer speaking with the British commanders below his cave and watched as they lifted a ladder to him while the crowd cheered. Apparently, they were very happy with him.

On the ground he was proclaimed a hero and, relieved, willingly went along with the story his compatriots told of him sending all three of them to warn the rear guard about the coming attack while he bravely stayed to fight them off. There were many desperate winks exchanged, disguised as winks of congratulation, but Salvatore knew the three boys would be court marshaled if he revealed the truth. For his bravery he was to be sent home to Cefalu’ where there would be a celebration for their home town hero. From panicked battle instigator Salvatore was elevated to a battle hero who knew, privately, that he’d saved his compatriots from a terrible fate. He was elated.

In Cefalu’ the Taranto family made certain the streets would ring with Salvatore’s name. All the townsfolk came out for this day of celebration and rejoicing. Even the old befana: Adriana Zampone, famous for being the grumpiest woman in Cefalu’, joined in the festivities. Anyone who has been in Italy when the Italians have won the Soccer World Cup can attest to the fact that Italians celebrate their victories, great and small, equally and with more gusto than anyone on earth. This celebration coincided with a new release of Sicilian wine bottled just south of Cefalu’ and the combination resulted in a celebration that would cause anyone to think Italy had just single-handedly won the war.

Salvatore was ushered into the local tailor who gave him an oversized, second hand, classic suit for a reduced price which he would be permitted to pay at a later date. He had no underwear, so the tailor gave him a vest to protect the suit from his perspiration.

On the day of the festivities, Salvatore, resplendent in his new suit, waited to be called as the guest of honor by the local Mayor. The brightly colored, donkey drawn, wooden carts positioned themselves around the main piazza and the statue of Santa Rosalia, which normally came out only on the 14th of July, took her place off the shoulders of her exhausted bearers. Then the Mayor called the townsfolk to order and the speeches began. Salvatore was hailed as “Our Hero” – “Nostro Eroe” and “the finest specimen of Italian fighting man; an example to all who would seek to avoid conscription.” He listened to the Mayor recount his tale and his embarrassment grew. Finally, the Mayor introduced his family and called for the Hero to be ushered forth. The crowd screamed their approval.

Salvatore stood and felt the loose fabric of the suit pants flapping around his skinny legs. He stepped out into the bright Sicilian sunshine and raised his hands, smiling at the volume of applause and cheering. Stepping up onto the Mayor’s platform Salvatore joined his hands in the victory clasp and that set the crowd cheering even more loudly. When the crowd was quieted down by the Mayor’s outstretched arms and a few Carabinieri standing on the periphery, Salvatore started to speak. He had to shout as there was no public address system, but most people in the piazza heard him and those that didn’t cheered just so they could appear to understand.

“Amici” he began, “I am grateful to the honorable Mayor, the other dignitaries and to all of you, for this wonderful tribute, but mostly to the Bersaglieri for allowing me to come home for a few days!” The crowd burst into applause at that. He continued: “What I did that day, any of you would do, believe me! I thank my compatriots for running to tell the main force that the enemy was attacking. Without their actions I would never have been up in that cave ready to fight the Germans. Now, let us taste the wine, eat the prosciutto and joke with the girls. Let joy be unrestrained – Viva l’Italia!” The entire piazza burst into song and several Tarantellas erupted spontaneously throughout the crowd. Salvatore was told to sit on two long planks that had been brought to the Mayor’s platform. The ends of the planks were shouldered by four men who started to walk through the crowd with their heroic paisano held high for all to see. To keep his balance he was obliged to hold onto the sides of the planks tightly.

People cheered and reached out their hands to touch their local hero, but as he was carried through the crowd the loose suit pants allowed his testicles to fall between the two planks. Unfortunately his bearers were often not in agreement about which direction to move, so the planks’ edges began to collide and see-saw. Poor Salvatore screamed: “Aieee! I miei cuglioni!” The crowd was so loud that his bearers couldn’t hear him and those he passed thought he was insulting himself for modesty’s sake so they shouted even more loudly “No, Eroe!” And so the procession wound around the piazza and through the town, my Grandfather holding on for dear life, his head thrown back with his mouth open in excruciating pain shouting: “Cuglioni” and the crowd responding “Eroe!” to the joyful sounds of a local marching band.

Fortunately for Maria Madalena Russo, whom he married upon his return from the front, the crushing effect of his celebrity did not cause any permanent damage. After a few days allowance to recuperate, Salvatore was sent back to the front to show others how a brave Bersaglieri faces the enemy.

In that war he was gassed so badly that he suffered phlegm filled coughing fits the rest of his life. He was shot, but survived and with my grandmother, Maria Madalena Russo, he fathered my mother, one aunt and three uncles. The last Uncle, Ezio was killed by an Allied bomb when just a baby during the Second World War, but Italo, Nino, Loretta and my mother Giuseppina, survived to live full lives in Italy and then Africa.