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Rome under Occupation: A WWII City In Terror

Victor Failmezger, a retired US Naval Officer, explains how his love affair with Rome, Italy, led him to discover the lesser known story of how the city managed under Nazi occupation in 1944. He is the author of Rome: City In Terror, which is available to Buy Now
Published on September 10, 2020

American Troops at the Colosseum A famous photo of American M-10 tank destroyers driving around the Colosseum on the morning of June 5, 1944. Photo: NARA

I have long had a love affair with Italy and Rome. Before I knew anything about the Eternal City, I knew about the power of ancient Rome. Brought up as a Roman Catholic, I was fascinated by the Roman legionaries depicted on the Stations of the Cross around Our Lady of Lourdes parish church in Milltown, New Jersey. As I grew older, I became a fan of the 1960s crop of ancient sword and sandal movies, especially Ben Hur and Cleopatra. During my 1968 Grand Tour of Europe between my junior and senior years at university (SMU), a highlight was my visit to Rome.

Returning to Texas and spending some time with my World War II veteran uncle, Tommy Welch (1st Lt Thomas Peter Welch, 601st Tank Destroyer Battalion), I learned he was one of the first soldiers to liberate the city. In 1969, at the height of the Vietnam War, I enlisted in the US Navy and requested duty in Europe. Needless to say, I was delighted when I received orders to NATO, Naples, Italy. That meant I could return to Rome from time-to-time and explore the city.

Within a year I married a US Navy Nurse. Patricia too has loved Rome from the first moment we visited there together in February 1971. Several tours of duty later I found myself a lieutenant working as the Special Assistant to the Director of Naval Intelligence. The admiral, needing an assistant naval attaché in Rome, asked if Patricia and I were willing to serve in Rome. We jumped at the chance. Those years in Rome were our favorite assignment and we explored the city at every opportunity. While I escorted senior naval officers to official meetings and acted as interpreter, Patricia escorted other visitors around Rome. The result was that we both learned our way around the city.

My interest in the World War II history of Rome was piqued on June 4, 1984, the 40th anniversary of the liberation of Rome. I met many surviving Italian partisans and US Fifth Army veterans who had come to Rome for the ceremony. Wreaths were laid at the Porta San Paolo by those partisans and surviving veterans near the 1st-century white marble pyramid tomb of Caius Cestius. Scars from this battle were pointed out to me and can still be seen to this day on the ancient white marble. Later at a special reception for partisans, Allied wartime veterans and others, I spent some time with many US veterans, including the famous former US Stars and Stripes cartoonist, Sgt. Bill Mauldin.

After my retirement from the Navy in 1991, we visited Italy frequently and always spent time in Rome. One catalyst for my writing was the discovery of Uncle Tommy’s 150 letters to my grandmother and mother. Included among them was his account of entering Rome on June 4, 1944. Although Tommy had passed on, I realized that I had enough material to write a book and Osprey Publishing published American Knights in 2015, the story of Tommy and the 601st Tank Destroyer Battalion.

In the summer of 2014, I received an email from someone who Patricia and I met in 1971. We had shown him the ancient sights of the Campi Flegrei in the Bay of Naples. He added that he had used the photos he took during his visit throughout his subsequent career as an educator and wanted to reconnect. In a series of emails, I learned that he had served as secretary to Brother Robert Pace who had been instrumental in hiding escaped Allied servicemen in Rome during the nine-month-long Nazi occupation of the city. He felt Brother Robert’s story should be told and, looking for a new project, I decided to investigate.

Rome: City in Terror

We thought we knew the history of the city, but in exploring what happened during the German occupation, Patricia and I discovered that familiar streets held terrible World War II secrets. I quickly learned that there was much more to the story and it would involve discovering an aspect of the Eternal City that we knew little about. It became obvious that the history of World War 2 Rome is virtually unknown outside of Italy and so the book expanded. Since 2015, we made five special trips to the city to do research.

Rome is the major character of this book. The war affected all who lived in the city and caused everyone to constantly live in fear. From time-to-time this fear turned into stark terror. Hitler’s Wehrmacht, the SS, and the diplomatic corps in Rome were formidable forces. Mussolini’s Fascist government carried out its mission of repression with ardor. Against the steel reality of its armaments, weaker entities, hardly equal to the demands of this fight, stood in opposition: the monarchy of Vittorio Emanuele III; the Vatican under Pope Pius XII; the scattered aristocracy; the resistance among the Romans (from ardent anti-fascists to militant communists); pockets of infiltrators; foreign diplomats; Allied ex-POWs; and ordinary citizens, especially women, who were active but barely hidden from view. These disparate entities conspired to bring Rome out from under the clouds of war while preventing the destruction of the priceless buildings, artifacts and art that is the soul of the city.

Victor Failmezger is the author of Rome: City in Terror, published by Osprey Publishing. Click Here to Buy A Copy


The author with US Cardinal William W Baum The author with US Cardinal William W. Baum at the Basilica di SS Giovanni e Paolo, September 1983, for a Mass for US Cardinal Terrence J. Cooke, vicar for the US Armed Forces, who was unwell. Photo: American Embassy Rome, Author’s collection

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