Living in Italy meant fighting against the Allies for young Gino Ascenzo
We have all heard the stories of how our Canadian fathers, brothers, uncles or grandfathers fought in the Second World War. Stories of heroism, survival, deprivation, heartaches and hardships abound.
This is not just a story from the other side of the war, the enemy, but of a young man with hopes and dreams like everyone else. All dashed with the declaration of a world war.
Luigi Ascenzo, Gino to his family, was just 14 years old, the oldest of the five children, when news arrived that their father had been killed in the Second Abyssinian War. A war thousands of miles away from Italy, a war that the Italian people had no idea of “why.”
It was 1936 and Gino was now expected to go out to work and provide for his family. He worked in rock quarries, in olive groves, in farm fields and on road crews, to bring home money so that the family could eat.
Two years later, the Second World War broke out, with Italy joining Germany on the promise that, once victorious, Italy would become a world power.
By 1940, the war in Italy was well under way with German and Italian forces fighting the Allies. Mussolini was pressed hard by the Germans to recruit more and more men into the Italian forces.
Gino, at the age of 18 was drafted into the Italian Navy and sent from his small village outside of Pescara to La Spezia, south of Genoa. He was not supposed to have been conscripted as he was classified as the head of his household on the death of his father. The rules were ignored.
When Gino was sent away, he left behind his mother, two sisters and two brothers. One brother was only 10 but the other brother was 15, a dangerous age when German patrols could scoop him up and set him to work in their labour camps in Italy.
That is exactly what happened. Antonio spent the war as a slave labourer in Italy and then was transported to Germany in the latter years of the war to the work camps.
The younger brother, Nicola, and his two sisters, Rosa and Maria, scavenged for food every single day. Anything they did manage to find was more often than not stolen by German soldiers or Fascist gangs. Their life was very precarious, hunger was ever present.
In 1943, when Italy surrendered to the Allies, Gino was put into another dangerous situation.
While on shore his ship was sunk in the harbour by the Germans. This sinking was to make the La Spezia harbour useless to the Allies. Gino’s immediate commanding officer gathered the men on shore and told them straight up – Italy had surrendered to the Allies, their ship was sunk, they were on their own.
Gino and his good friend Gaetano, also from San Valentino in the Abruzzo province, decided it was time to head home. They had never been out of their small community and now they were on the northwest coast of Italy, trying to figure out how to escape the madness.
There were enemies everywhere they turned. The Fascists were working with the Nazis. They turned in anyone whom they deemed suspect: Jews, gypsies, gays and soldiers of the Italian forces, who were now on the run, were all targets of the Fascists' patrols. There was also the German regular army, the Communists and even the Allies to elude.
The two friends first had to get rid of their uniforms. Gino said he had never stolen anything in his life but now his life depended on theft. His only solace was that he left his navy uniform, made of good material, behind when he stole clothes off of a wash line.
Gino and Gaetano walked by night and hid by day. Sometimes they got rides with farmers, sometimes they managed to hop trains. On one train, as they were approaching a town, an elderly man told them Germans were boarding the train looking for young men. They jumped off the train while it was still in motion to avoid capture.
They went from La Spezia to Bologna, over to Rimini and then down the Adriatic coast toward Pescara. As they got farther south, they started to see more action between the Allies and the Germans.
Their fear heightened, their hunger got worse and they looked like skeletons with clothes hanging off of them. They finally reached the port of Pescara and then headed inland to San Valentino.
For Gino and Gaetano, reaching home was a blessing and another trial for them. They couldn’t stay in their village so they headed up into the mountains, La Maiella, where they hid in caves. Food was scarce, the cold was merciless and the snakes were plentiful. Gino had a fear of snakes for the rest of his life.
They stayed hiding in those caves like hundreds of other men until Rome was taken by the Americans in June 1944.
It was after the war that Gino found out his family had been helped by Canadian soldiers who saw their plight – young children with no food. His decision was made, Canada would become his home.
After five years of working in the Belgium coal mines, Gino had enough money saved to travel to Canada with his wife Assunta and two young sons, Cam and Gabe. They arrived at Pier 21 in Halifax in July 1955 with just two suitcases for the four of them.
They reached their final destination, Toronto, by train. Gaetano and his family followed Gino to Canada in 1960.
In 1962, Gino and Assunta proudly earned their Canadian citizenship. Over the years they lived the life of an immigrant family with the big Canadian dream: A home, a job and a good education for their children, all of which came true.
Gino died in 2009, very happy to say Canada gave him and his family the opportunity to enjoy the life he worked hard for.
Canada was forever his home.