Monday, June 22, 2015

Canadian soldiers saving Italian waifs

I've been thinking about and researching my Uncle Robert Smith, who was killed in Italy during the war. (More on what I've found about him in a future post.) In the course of that research, I stumbled on this story that ran on CBC a year or so ago, about a bunch of Canadian soldiers who fostered an orphaned Italian five-year-old they found in the rubble of a bombed-out village. They later arranged to have him adopted by an Italian family before the war ended and they went home.

That story reminded me of a somewhat similar one that Toby Yull shared with me a couple of years ago about her Dad. I thought I had published it here as a guest post at some point. I hadn't, but am doing so now. It's a lovely story, told with typical Yull verve. You can hear Ralph and Kay in it, but also Toby, who wrote it up for her column in the Hamilton Spectator.


It’s become more rare to “look people up” when you’re traveling.  We’re shy; we don’t want to surprise or inconvenience people who are strangers; what if they’re washing their hair that night; what if they really don’t want company?  Here’s a story about dropping in on someone years later that inspires me to keep the connections I have with people, no matter how slim.

In September of 1943, Canadian troops in the toe of Italy’s “boot” were ordered north to meet the incoming German army.  My dad was in charge of a group of motorcycle dispatch riders moving up the boot towards the fighting.  

When the Italian army capitulated, soldiers were abandoned wherever they happened to be; no provision was made to return them to their homes.  My dad’s company encountered two young boys, only about 17, and asked them where they were from.  The boys had no idea where home was, so the Canadians “adopted” them into their convoy, heading north.
Giuseppe Insogna was one of them and he became a bit of a pet to the Canadians.  He foraged for food, ate with them, and taught them Italian songs (which my dad still sang thirty and forty years after the war was over).

Ralph Yull, wartime (background - exact date unknown)

One day along the dusty road, Giuseppe became very excited as he suddenly recognized the hills around his town.  You can imagine the emotional return.   The whole population turned out in the town square to celebrate and thank the “Canadesi”.

Daddy was conducted by a crowd of villagers to the home of “The American Woman”, for a formal thank you in English. Signora Capobianco had married an American and lived in the US before returning to her hometown.
Perhaps because her own son had been sent to the Russian front, the Signora took a great liking to the tall blonde Canadian on the motorcycle.  She cooked a chicken for my dad, in a coffee can over a fire, and he practiced his patchy Italian on her.  The happy visit lasted a day or two, and then the Canadians moved on.

Home after the war: Kay, Leo, Ralph

Fast forward to 1970 when my parents went to Italy together for the first time.  They rented a car and drove to Macchia Val Fortore, this time on a paved road instead of the 1943-era donkey path.  Again the whole town showed up to greet the newcomers and when my dad identified himself and asked if by any chance Signora Capobianco was still alive, the crowd hustled them up the street to her door.  Somebody knocked, then stood aside and a tiny old woman stepped out.  She looked at my dad, took his face in both her hands, and called out:  “Ralph Yull!!”

Her husband stood behind her, shaking his head and saying over and over:  “Raffaele”, “Raffaele”.

Of course Daddy asked for Giuseppe.  But that was not possible.  After the war, Giuseppe had decided to emigrate to Canada, maybe meet up with his old buddy Ralph, and make his life in the new country.  He wrote a letter, addressed to “Ralph Yull, Ontario, Canada”, and when it was returned, everyone assumed that my dad had not survived the war.

Convinced, however, of the warmth of Canadians, Giuseppe moved to Montreal, started a family and sponsored his parents over.

Back in Canada after their vacation, my parents drove to Montreal to meet up with the Insognas again.  There was a big dinner, then several more visits over the years.  The warmth was still there.  And when my dad died in 96, one of the cards we received was a very loving one from the Insogna family.

No surprise then:   on my first trip to Italy, you can bet I’m going to take a side trip - call it a pilgrimage - to a little hill town in the Calabria region.

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