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Sicily's Palermo Cathedral survived heavy wartime bombing by the Allies. (Photo by Gene Santoro)

For my father, as for many of Patton’s troops, Operation Husky was a surreal entrée to his parents’ homeland, which he’d never seen

Just after midnight on July 10, 1943, American troops crossed the 90 miles of Mediterranean separating North Africa from Sicily in one of the largest amphibious invasions to date. My father, a medical technician, shipped out almost two weeks later to Palermo—Sicily’s capital, and a major Axis supply point of arguable operational value for the Allies—where his 9th Division would join Lt. Gen. George S. Patton’s Seventh Army. By then Patton had charged north across the island’s middle to capture its capital, and was turning east to race his British rival, Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, to Messina. The Yanks beat the Brits by a nose; war-weary Italian soldiers surrendered to GIs by the tens of thousands; and the Germans, skillfully sabotaging as they withdrew, escaped Patton’s pincers across the narrow straits to Italy’s boot, where they fought for nearly two more years in one of the war’s more grinding attritional campaigns.

For my father, as for many of Patton’s troops (culled to be disproportionately of Italian descent), Operation Husky was a surreal entrée to his parents’ homeland, which he’d never seen. For Sicilians, the devastation wrought by Husky was another mala fortuna, the wheel of fate’s latest turn through a long, cruel history of invasion by the Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Muslims, Normans, Swabians, Aragonese, Angevins, Bourbons, Spaniards, Italians, English, and Germans. This spring, I went back to Sicily to retrace some of his, and history’s, footsteps.

After Mount Etna’s cataclysmic 1908 eruption, my grandparents joined the exodus fleeing downtrodden Sicily for the American Dream. The future looked brighter than they’d dared hope. But history, as Sicilians know well, loves irony. My grandfather died in a Mafia “accident” while working on the Brooklyn docks: nestled among emigrating hordes, the transplanted Sicilian bane was battling to control New York’s port. Mala fortuna. My grandmother spoke no English and had eight kids, the youngest two months old at the time. Four of her six boys served in World War II. My father went first, drafted in December 1940, slated to be discharged December 1941. Mala fortuna. He survived North Africa, Sicily, Normandy, the Bulge, and, like his GI buddies and island forebears, was a fatalist. Shipboard in Palermo’s harbor in 1943, he looked out on the smoking, cratered shoreline through hazel eyes clouded by war and the past.

For centuries, Palermo was Sicily’s most attractive, envied spot. Fronted by a gorgeous natural port, the Conca d’Oro, the city of almost 700,000 is somewhat off the beaten tourist track, but remains a historical, architectural, and culinary treasure trove. Carthaginians founded it; Greeks ruled it; Romans annexed it. Their traces linger at sites like Villa Bonanno, a beautiful public garden set amid the ruins of ancient houses. But Palermo didn’t become a major urban center until the saraceni, as Sicilians called Muslims, took the Vermont-sized island away from the Byzantine Empire in the ninth century.

To the ancient Greeks, Sicily’s first serious colonizers, cities like Siracusae (Syracuse) and Akragas (now Agrigento) were far more important. Under a timelessly brilliant Mediterranean sun, I walked the ruins of Akragas, the Valle dei Templi, where magnificent, remarkably preserved temples form the apricot-toned heart of a fifth-century-BC sandstone metropolis that stretches for three miles. A mile up the road at “modern” Agrigento, a medieval town with ridge-perched piazzas, I gazed down at the Greek monuments (spectacularly lit at night) and the Mediterranean, and pondered fate’s turns.

It was here that Patton allegedly found an Axis threat—his excuse to lunge west, then slash north with his 200,000 troops across the furrowed, treeless ridges of Sicily’s heartland (essentially the route my bus took to Palermo), plant the flag, wheel east, and head for Messina. At least, I thought, Agrigento had a bit of bona fortuna: Patton’s reconnaissance uncovered no enemy. That probably saved the ancient wonders and the medieval town, with its storied churches, switchback alleys, and stone stairways, from destruction. Then, claiming his orders to cover Montgomery’s flank were “garbled,” ex-cavalryman Patton rode hell-bent for Palermo. Seventy-two hours later, after he shot a poor Sicilian farmer’s mule for blocking his tanks on the road, what was left of the city was his.

In 831, when the Muslims sweeping over Sicily took Panormus (the city’s Greek name), these newest conquerors immediately recognized the striking beauty and immense trade possibilities of the Conca d’Oro. They transformed the place they renamed Balerm from a Byzantine village into the island’s leading cultural and commercial center. As Arabs, Berbers, black North Africans, Greeks, Jews, Persians, and even Russians swelled the population to over 100,000, the warrenlike streets, interior courtyards, and isolated neighborhoods spread, as most of old Palermo still does, in the crooked way typical of Muslim towns.

But when Patton pulled into Palermo on July 22, 1943, it was mostly smoldering wreckage after relentless Allied carpet-bombing. He decamped to the Palazzo dei Normanni and prayed at the Cappella Palatina—two of the most stunning medieval structures in Europe, miraculously undamaged. Built by Byzantine, Arab, Sicilian, and Norman craftsmen, they combine wildly different ethnic and religious traditions in unexpectedly harmonized creativity.

Meanwhile, Palermitani mourned the destruction of 60 churches, dozens of palazzi, thousands of homes, the biblioteca nazionale with its rare books, and the atrium entrance of the museo archeologico with its priceless artifacts. Orphans begged and women sold themselves cheap in the rubble-lined alleys. Mala fortuna. No wonder the Allies complained that Sicilian welcomes faded rapidly after the initial euphoria. With starvation, disease, and poverty spiking in the invasion’s wake, the locals soon viewed their liberators as their latest harsh overlords. Unlike most European wartime sites, Sicily has almost no plaques or monuments commemorating Operation Husky. For years afterward, old Palermo was nearly a ghost town.

Today, Palermo’s ancient quarters are once more a vibrant warren abuzz with global immigrants. Living and operating businesses alongside native Sicilians are Nigerians, Ghanaians, Arabs, Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, and, especially in the port warehouse district, Chinese. South of Via Cavour, in the heart of old Palermo, the narrow, winding ways are festooned with street signs in Italian, Hebrew, and Arabic, celebrating the city’s cosmopolitan heritage.

At a surprising number of spots, though, the crooked rows of old buildings can suddenly resemble a gap-toothed mouth. That struck me especially around the Ballarò, the centuries-old serpentine outdoor market bursting with sumptuous fresh produce, fish, meat, cheeses, and dry goods, and in the neighborhood surrounding the galleria dell’arte regionale. These bombed-out husks, I discovered, are Operation Husky’s eerie legacy: in one more Sicilian irony, this isn’t all authentic war damage. From the 1950s on, reconstruction funds were channeled through the Mafia who, abetted by America’s fear of communism, burrowed deeply into the postwar Italian power structure. Surprise! Their “restored” buildings often fell down. Mala fortuna. Since the tangentopoli scandals of the 1990s blew the Mafia and the Italian political system to pieces, downtown Palermo, at least, is slowly being rebuilt, once again.

When You Go

There are no direct flights from the United States to Palermo; instead, change planes in Rome, Milan, or Madrid. The city is about a 30-minute bus, train, or cab ride from Palermo Airport.

Where to Eat
Sicily is probably where Persian noodles became Italian vermicelli, thanks to the Arabs. Those master agriculturalists also endowed the island with its wealth of citrus fruits and sugar—key to Sicilian desserts. In Palermo, try pasta Norma (eggplant and salted ricotta) or pasta alle vongole (clams in the shell), then enjoy fresh pesce spada (swordfish), calamari (squid), and gamberi (Mediterranean shrimp), excellent with nero d’avola, the rich, chewy local red wine, at Il Proverbio (Discesa Dei Giudici 24; 091 6173267) or Lo Sparviero (Via Sperlinga 25; 091 331163). Around Piazza Olivella, behind the museo archeologico, are more than a dozen eateries and lots of local color. For superb pizza, check out Pizzeria Bellini (Piazza Bellini 6; 091 6165691): its outdoor seating faces a Arab-Norman chapel and a Renaissance church. In Agrigento, Il Capriccio di Mare has excellent seafood and pasta (Via Nettuno 27; 092 2411761); the spaghetti al nero di seppia at Taverna del Pavone in Monreale is outstanding (Vicolo Pensato 18; 091 6406414).

What Else to See
A short bus ride connects Palermo to Monreale, a hilltop town with the most stunning Arab-Norman duomo and cloister in Sicily; in August 1943 GIs gathered here for a celebratory service. Cefalu, another Arab-Norman site, attracted hordes of GI tourists. Along the often-spectacular coastline between Palermo and Messina, occasional ruins of wartime bunkers peek out, visible from the train.

This article originally appeared in the November 2009 issue of World War II magazine.