I need help identifying my grandfather’s World War II Italian army unit.
On a whim, we recently made an impromptu visit to my grandfather’s former home (he came to America in 1947 and moved back to Italy in the 1970s). The current homeowner surprised us with the photo above. She said her husband found it in a basement crawl space. We had heard stories of my grandfather’s service but had no evidence, until now.
He rarely discussed his service, and he probably hid the photo so no one would find it. He was captured in North Africa in 1943 and released from service in 1944. (Ironically, I had relatives in the U.S. Army in the North African theater serving at the same time.)
The unit portrait looks like it was taken in front of a barracks, and a message on the wall with Benito Mussolini’s name is visible on the wall. They are holding up what I presume to be a unit flag. I’ve also attached a cropped image of the divisional patch from my grandfather’s left uniform coat sleeve.
Editor responds: Jack, a thorough search of wartime Italian insignia turned up a match (see at left) for the patch on your grandfather’s uniform. He served with the 133rd Armored Division Littorio, which entered the war in France as a reserve unit, then participated in the 1941 invasion of Yugoslavia. Sent to North Africa in the spring of 1942, the unit was destroyed at the Second Battle of El Alamein that fall. Your grandfather may have kept mum about his Italian service in part due to its ties to the Mussolini government, but also because of his unit’s fate. He likely lost scores of friends in North Africa. The No. 3 pennant the men are holding in the image may be that of the division’s 3rd Artillery Regiment, or perhaps the III Cavalry Squadron. One more educated guess: As the portrait was taken during wartime, it’s possible that white mark across the top of your grandfather’s patch is a piece of tape used to conceal the word “Littorio” and thus the division’s identity.
[Re. “Death Before Dishonor,” by Jon Guttman, January 2020:] What a moving set of photos selected to illustrate what arguably was the biggest threat to strategic success our Navy has ever faced—the World War II kamikaze campaign.
The kamikaze concept was not universally accepted by surviving Japanese veteran pilots of both army and navy leadership—men like Imperial Japanese Navy Capt. Minoru Genda, who planned the attack on Pearl Harbor. Even some admirals and generals opposed it.
In spite of their unarmored decks, none of the modern U.S. Essex-class carriers were sunk by the kamikaze campaign, although many were hit. Several went unrepaired until after the war, while two, Bunker Hill and Franklin, were beyond repair and ultimately scrapped. As Guttman noted, superior damage control saved the day for the U.S. Navy.
The escort carrier fleet, built on merchant ship hulls, was much more vulnerable to kamikaze strike and suffered significant losses, as did our destroyers.
Col. Wayne Long
U.S. Army (Ret.)
Jon Guttman responds: Pleased to know the portfolio was to your satisfaction. I recall reading that roughly 70 percent of Japanese naval pilots volunteered for the honor of crashing into the enemy, whereas 70 percent of the army pilots did so only under direct orders. That said, the Japanese sometimes had to reiterate to their surviving fighter pilots with proven skill and experience the importance of not sacrificing their lives in “special attack,” but to fly the escort missions and try to keep the Grumman F6F-5s and Vought F4U-1As from slaughtering all those newly trained kamikazes before they got near the U.S. task force. Between what the Americans and British had and what the Soviets would unleash as of Aug. 9, 1945, there was no getting away from it—with or without this martial seppuku, Japan’s situation was beyond hopeless. MH