Incidents of War - Captain Virgilio's Christmas
Christmas of 1943 found the Italian 139th “Bari” Infantry Regiment in Sardinia. The regiment’s initiation to war had been hard. It had shipped out from its home town at the end of October of 1940, and days of landing in Albania had become engaged in heavy fighting on the Pindus Front in Greece. From the beginning of November of 1940 through April of 1941, the regiment had taken part in the battles of Konitza, the Vojusso Valley, the Klisura Pass, and Hill 731, which changed hands repeatedly over more than a week. But with the surrender of Greece to the Axis, the regiment had returned to Italy to perform garrison and coast defense duties, and was sent to Sardinia in early 1943 in anticipation of an Allied invasion. When Italy joined the Allies in September of 1943, the regiment was lightly engaged in pushing German forces out of Sardinia, and then assumed defensive positions. By then morale was low. The troops had seen had enough of the army life, and most longed to go home. With Christmas approaching, Captain Pasquale Virgilio, a 31-year old with a doctorate in banking who commanded the 9th Company, approached the division commander, Brig, Gen. Carlo Petra di Caccuri, with a suggestion as to how to boost morale.
As with many Italian families, Captain Virgilio’s had a long tradition of building a “presepio” for Christmas. Introduced by St. Francis of Assisi in 1223, the presepio is a “Nativity scene”. But the Italian custom goes far beyond the handful of statuettes found in most homes in America. A presepio is a major work of folk art. The Captain asked the general for permission to have his men build a presepio of heroic proportions, as a way of both keeping them occupied and raising their morale. The general readily agreed, and told Virgilio to use all the men and materials he needed.
A large headquarters tent was provided. Under Captain Virgilio’s supervision, some troops built a platform out of large boxes for the foundation, while others gathered moss, cork bark, and other building materials. Other men painted scenery or carved and painted statues out of wood. Captain Virgilio himself wrote to his father, Michele Virgilio, a veteran of the trenches of 1915-1918, and asked that some of the family’s treasured presepio figures be sent so that he could use them in the final arrangement.
As the men worked, a great tragedy lent urgency to their efforts, for on December 2, 1943, the Luftwaffe sent 150 Junkers JU-88 bombers to attack Allied shipping in the harbor at Bari. Achieving complete surprise, the raiders sank 17 cargo ships, inflicted severe damage on the port and the city, and, unbeknownst to the public, in the process released mustard gas that had been stowed on some ships in the event the Allies had to retaliate against German use of the weapon, which had caused serious casualties among the civilian population.
The presepio was ready when Christmas came. It filled the entire command tent, and , by raising the flies could be viewed from 360 degrees. There were mountains, rivers, lakes, waterfalls, stars set in a sky painted on the overhead, and hundreds – perhaps thousands -- of statues, all in a setting that one could walk through, with a cave at its center in which lay the Baby Jesus, with his parents, with Mary and some of the other figures being the very ones that the Virgilio family had treasured for many years.
And so men of the 139th “Bari” Infantry had their presepio, to remind them of home.
Nearly a year later, in September of 1944, the regiment was disbanded and the men assigned to other duties or returned to their homes.
Captain Virgilio married in April of 1945, to a woman he met while viewing a presepio. Some years later they settled in the United States with their two children. Each year as Christmas approached, the children, joined by a third born in America, would help erect a presepio, with the same statue of Mary, as their father told them story of the Christmas of 1943.
--With thanks to the Virgilio family