Healey’s Rome visit prompts post-war memories

Unlike Gov. Maura Healey, I never met a Pope, although I did wave to one.

It was a long time ago, although it is still fresh in my mind because I’ve written about it and have photos of myself in the Vatican outside of St. Peter’s Basilica with my fellow G.I. buddy Joe, who I met at a bar in Rome.

The memory came back upon the news that Healey is in Rome today meeting with Pope Francis.

She went there to attend a papal-sponsored summit on saving the planet — not from sin, mind you, but from climate change.

We lost out on the war on sin a long time ago, but perhaps we have a better shot at climate change. Either way we will have to wait for a Healey press conference to find out what gives.

Anyway, it was the year 1955, only 10 years after the end of WWII and Europe was still in tough shape. Wreckage from the war was still evident  — smashed villages, smashed roads, smashed everything.

I was on a 10-day leave from my unit base in southern Germany where I served as a soldier in an armored cavalry (tanks) regiment assigned to patrol the border with Czechoslovakia.

It was during the Cold War and the Russians were on the other side of the border.

I was fascinated by WWII in Europe, and under the influence of Ernest Hemingway. I wanted to see as many battle sites as possible in France, Germany and Italy while I had the opportunity.

So, I went down to coastal Salerno in southwestern Italy on the Tyrrhenian Sea, south of Naples, which the U.S. and the British invaded from Sicily on Sept. 3, 1944.

Stymied by stiff German resistance the U.S. and its allies launched a second invasion further up the coastal boot of Italy at Anzio, just south of Rome on Jan. 22,1944.

In both cases, debris from the assaults in the form of landing craft and ships was still visible offshore.

Led by U.S. Lieutenant General Mark Clark, commander of the U.S. 5th Army, U.S. forces captured Rome on June 4, 1944, after the Germans retreated north. It was an important victory, one that was supposed to make Clark famous. Cheering Italians greeted him as a successful returning Roman emperor as he rode into Vatican Square in a jeep ahead of a U.S. convoy.

Unfortunately for Clark, the U.S. led invasion of Normandy took place two days later and overshadowed practically everything that Clark had accomplished.

So, after a bottle or two of wine Joe and I decided to visit the Vatican and the site where Clark had arrived with his convoy. As an added incentive, the waiter told us that Pope Pius XII was expected to bestow his blessings on the people from his balcony.

There were very few Italians around and hardly any tourists when we got there. International commercial air travel was still in its infancy. Although we wore civilian clothes, everybody could tell we were American G.I.s

As we stood by the Vatican obelisk taking in the dramatic vista, a thirtyish-looking Italian man in a dusty double-breasted suit approached. He looked beaten, like the Italian Army.

Looking around, he asked, “Americani?”

“Si, si.”

He came closer and opened the right side of his jacket. Pinned inside were four or five rosary beads.  “You wanna buy rosary beads?”

“No, no,” we said.

He gave a furtive look over each shoulder and then said, “How about a gun?”

He opened the left side of his jacket. There were four small Beretta semi-automatic handguns pinned to the lining. “Ten dollars, no lira,” he said.

“Let me see this one,” Joe said. The Italian unpinned the gun and handed it to Joe. Palming it, Joe said, “I’ll take it,” and handed him the money. “What about ammo?”

“Bullets extra,” the Italian said.

No sooner was the criminal act completed when Pope Pius XII came on the balcony to bless the sparse crowd.

That is when I waved to him. But he did not wave back.

Can’t say I blame him.

Peter Lucas is a veteran political reporter. Email him at:

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