Borgo San Giacomo, Trieste — I am sleeping less than 100 yards from where my great-grandmother Maria Cescutti Nassutti died on June 10, 1944. She was 81.
On that day, a brilliant late spring day, a wave of B-24 Liberators, P-51 Mustangs and P-38 Lightnings of the US Army’s 15th Air Force attacked the city’s oil storage facilities. Unfortunately, these enormous oil tanks lay on the edge of the port just 500 meters down the hill from my great-grandmother’s home. Perhaps the bombardiers were new to their jobs. Perhaps their pilots had taken evasive action to avoid German anti-aircraft fire and veered a bit off course. Perhaps a rack of bombs didn’t release and had to wait for a crew member to manually pry them loose, the bombs falling out late and overshooting the target. Perhaps there were targets in the city itself, such as military barracks, train yards, or the Palace of Justice which housed the German headquarters in Trieste.
What is certain is that Maria had not gone to the bomb shelter three blocks away under Piazza Puecher. Perhaps she hadn’t heard the air-raid sirens. Perhaps she, as so many others that day, chose not to respond after dozens of air-raid drills conducted by the occupying Germans and the Triestine authorities with the express purpose of protecting the civilian population. It had been nine months since the Germans had occupied Trieste to secure its vital port and oil refinery. It had been three years to the day since Italy had entered the war on the side of Germany. This was the first time that Trieste had been attacked from the air.
One of those bombs spiraled slowly as it fell at terminal velocity and pierced the red-tile roof over my great-grandmother’s tiny apartment. The stone and mortar structure imploded onto Maria and half a dozen mules parked in the ground-floor stable by area farmers who were peddling cheese, milk and dried meats in town. 462 other people died under the bombs that day. More than 4,000 were injured or left homeless. 399 other buildings were destroyed or heavily damaged. Spared was an identical building joined to Maria’s by a simple breezeway covering the entrance to the stable.
It feels odd to me that my great-grandmother was killed by an American bomb delivered by an American airplane piloted by Americans.
I stand at number 38 Via dei Giuliani and look up at the plain concrete facade of the apartment building that rose from the rubble of Maria’s home. If I stand in the doorway, I am just 10 feet from where her body was found. To the left, that sister building remains, a mirror image of Maria’s, and I study it, trying to imagine her living there with my grand-uncle Amedeo and his wife Netti. And dying there.
This morning I visited Maria’s church, San Giacomo. According to my father Stelio, she came here every weekday for vespers and every Sunday for a full mass. Tomorrow I will visit the San Giacomo parish’s historian and its current priest to learn more about the day she died. The church hosted the mass funeral for the 463 victims. The central nave was filled with row upon row of plain pine coffins. Thousands filled the broad square outside, including my grandfather Umberto, my grandmother Ada, Stelio, Amedeo and Netti.
Another nine bombardments would strike the city before the end of the war, raising the death toll to just over 700.
A marble plaque on an outside wall of San Giacomo urges passersby to remember that day’s dead. I hope they also keep fixed in their memories the horror, tragedy and hipocrisy of war.