“Braided in Fire tells the story of Lieutenant John Fox, a forward artillery observer and posthumous Medal of Honor recipient, who directed friendly artillery fire on his own position as German troops overran Sommocolonia, Italy, on December 26, 1944. Fox’s selfless sacrifice went unrecognized by the U.S. government for half a century simply because he was black. Solace Wales has invested decades in researching this instance of forgotten valor, producing a rich tapestry that interweaves the experiences of the black GIs and Italian villagers caught in the hellish maelstrom that engulfed Sommocolonia the day John Fox died. The result is a moving meditation on the cost of war and a tribute to the African Americans who fought for a country that treated them like second-class citizens.” — Gregory J.W. Urwin, Professor of History, Temple University, author of Facing Fearful Odds: The Siege of Wake Island
Bio of Solace Wales
Since 1975, San Francisco Bay Area art educator, Solace Wales, and her husband, have lived part of every year in the small Tuscan village of Sommocolonia. In Sommocolonia, Wales was enthralled by the daunting stories her neighbors told her about their WWII experiences. Speaking with her Italian neighbors over several years, Wales recognized that she must locate surviving African American veterans who had occupied the village in segregated troops and had been involved in the horrific Sommocolonia battle of December 26th, 1944. Through dozens of interviews and primary source research, Wales has woven together these oral accounts of veterans, villagers, their families, Italian history, official army record and her own very personal journey of discovery in her book, Braided in Fire.
For more information on the author visit her website at www.BraidedinFire.com
Following is my interview with Solace Wales, author of Braided in Fire:
At what moment did you decide you were a writer?
I remember vividly saying at age six, after my mother read me a bedtime fairy tale, “I want to write stories when I grow up.” “Do you want to write stories for children or adults?” she asked. “I don’t know” I replied. How could I know when I’d had no experience of stories for adults.
What’s curious about this incident is that I made this remark during the war — if not at the exact moment — very close to the time African American soldiers were in Sommocolonia, which of course I knew nothing about.
As a young adult I thought of myself as an artist, but I wrote very long letters and journal entries. Now, at 81, I’m longing to do more art so I’m still wanting to be both a writer and an artist.
When did you first write a story? What was it about?
My first fiction stories written in grade school were about horses — I had a passion for them. But my first non-fiction article, written in the seventh grade, was curiously about war. I say “curiously” because if anyone had asked me in the long interim between my twelve year old self and my fifty year self when I embarked on researching the Sommocolonia battle, I would have said that war was probably the last subject I would be drawn to write about.
I think my seventh grade assignment was simply to write about something historical. It was my father who encouraged me to research (in the Encyclopedia Britannica) the story of the many spectators from Washington, D.C., who, in 1861, rode out on horseback or drove out in carriages with picnics to watch what everyone thought would be a victorious battle by Union forces. The war in Manassas was a Sunday afternoon of entertainment—only things didn’t turn out as expected. It was utter chaos when the spectators impeded the Union soldiers’ speedy retreat.
Although the backdrop was factual, I told the story from the point of view of one family, characters I made up. In Braided in Fire, the villagers’ story is also told from the point of view of one family, the difference being that I didn’t make up either the characters or their experiences.
Who were your literary influences or inspiration for this book?
Braided in Fire is non-fiction and a number of books which inspired it were not literary — though some were.
The first book, the original seed planting my interest in WWII Italy, I read when I was age 19 and a Junior Year Abroad student. Our Smith College group stayed initially for six weeks in a villa outside Siena where we had introductory courses — one dealt with the Italian Resistance movement during WWII. Even with my then limited Italian, I was captivated by the slim, limited edition of La Storia della mia Morte (The Story of My Death) written by the brother of the Signora of the villa. Lauro de Bosis, who had been the Italian Cultural Attaché to New York, wrote the book just before he learned to pilot an airplane in order to fly a suicidal mission to drop anti-fascist flyers over Rome. I was very moved by this act and by the strong moral stance of other resistance fighters we read about. Several times, a Sienese woman, who had been a partisan, came to speak to us. I don’t remember what she said except that her partisan fiancé was killed in the effort. But still today, I can vividly picture the strong features of her face. I was in tears at the end of each of her talks.
That short course happened in the fall of 1958. Fast forward to the mid-seventies when Women of the Shadows by Ann Cornelisen came out. This book was of a literary nature and I was riveted by the author’s intimate portraits of the trials and heroism of the peasant mountain women she lived among in Basilicata. Although she was writing about life in southern Italy, an even poorer area than the villages of the Apennines where my husband Bill and I had settled part time, I realized I’d found a model to emulate when I got around to describing my own peasant neighbors. That it took me so long to make the attempt may have to do with the high standard Cornelisen set.
Other models of a literary nature were naturally the two classic autobiographies: Iris Origo’s War in Val D’Orcia: An Italian War Diary, 1943–1944. Boston: D. R. Godine, 1984. (originally published in London by J Cape, 1947) and Eric Newby’s Love and War in the Apennines. (First published by Hodder & Stoughton 1971.)
I did most of my interviews before my research but ended up consulting all the military books in both English and Italian I could find which mentioned the Sommocolonia battle. (See my bibliography under BOOK at braidedinfire.com.) Most gave it a minimal mention so I depended mainly on my interviews for specific information.
There were military books with information relevant to the Serchio Valley and the 366th that I examined carefully and returned to frequently. But the most helpful to me was an excellent oral history by African American Mary Pennick Motley: The Invisible Soldier: The Experience of the Black Soldier, World War II. published in 1975. Motley was a superb forerunner in capturing the black soldiers’ experience in WWII, some involving the 366th soldiers I was particularly interested in. I’m forever in her debt.
What about Italian books? There were many valuable ones, especially Bruno Sereni’s which describe what life was like in Barga during the war. One of his, La Guerra a Barga. (Barga LU: Edizione Il Giornale di Barga, 1968), includes interviews with local partisans which were very helpful as many of the partisans had died by the time I came to interview them. Early on, I was given a copy of Fabrizio Federigi’s Val di Serchio e Versilia Linea Gotica. (Roma: “Versilia Oggi,” 1979.) about the WWII military history of the region. It is the one exception to doing the research after the interviews. I studied Federigi’s book initially and returned to it innumerable times as it is both chronological and comprehensive.
How did you come up with your title?
I was going to call the book Circle of Fire because Irma Biondi, one of my villager interviewees, described how terrible it was when they were fleeing after the battle and saw that all the wooden farm sheds around the village were burning. “It was a circle of fire,” she exclaimed, “and we were on the inside!”
Titles are not copyrighted, but over time ‘Circle of Fire’ began to sound like a cliché to me. There are many paintings with that name from Kandinsky’s works to Tibetan mandalas. Johnny Cash’s song “Ring of Fire” is not the same, but close in feeling. When, finally, I checked out Amazon for books by that title and found that there were currently ten Circle of Fire books for sale, I I felt decidedly uneasy about using it.
Later, when I described the book I was working on to a professor of Italian from my Alma Mater, as the meeting of Black GIs and Italian villagers during WWII, she exclaimed, “Oh! You’re writing braided history!” I had never heard the term ‘braided’ applied to history, so she explained that historian Natalie Zemon Davis coined the term to signify the history of peoples encountering one another as opposed to the history of rulers, the famous and the powerful. My book follows the lives of ordinary people who came from two groups who lived worlds apart but were thrown together into the fulcrum of the Second World War. I knew immediately I wanted Braided in the title.
I quickly realized there was another reason why the word was appropriate. The book follows three groups or strands which are entwined together in the village of Sommocolonia: villagers, African American soldiers and Italian partisans.
How would you like to be similar to your protagonists?
There are eight main protagonists in Braided in Fire. I admire them each for different qualities, ones I would be thrilled to acquire.
Irma Biondi: solid competence accompanied by the heart
Berto Biondi: courageous good spirit and camaraderie
Adelmo Biondi: pacifist conviction combined with action
Anna Moscardini: generosity and spontaneity
African American soldiers:
Rock Smith: unwavering conviction in one’s own beliefs
James Hamlet: philosophical depth
Otis Zachary: humor and relatedness
‘John Fox: ability to meet the moment — to do what is needed despite the consequences
As people learned about your book, what unexpected things happened along the way?
Beyond my extraordinary interviewees, I met a number of interesting people as a result of my long research. One of them, Ivan Houston, a Buffalo Soldier veteran and successful businessman from Los Angeles, arrived in Sommocolonia in the fall of 2012. He had not been stationed in the village as a soldier but had been part of the 370th troops (92nd Buffalo Division) that had liberated Lucca.
Ivan had returned to Italy with two of his grown children and their spouses for the most extraordinary reason. The owner of a villa on the outskirts of Lucca, Mattea Piazzesi, had been given his book, Black Warriors: The Buffalo Soldiers of World War II. (Bloomington, New York: iUniverse 2009.) Because Ivan mentioned in the book that his unit had been billeted in her villa, Mattea wrote him a letter and invited him to visit the villa with his family. They came, and the Piazzesi and the Houston families soon became fast friends. Ivan was invited to speak about his book in Lucca and elsewhere and invited to participate in a major way in the September 2 festivities remembering the liberation of the city.
At a 2012 Sommocolonia luncheon ceremony in his honor, I gave him a copy of my Braided in Fire manuscript in its current state. He was later to read a more finished version and to write the first endorsement for the book.
In 2013, Ivan returned with members of his family, this time, accompanied by a film crew. The Houstons and the Piazzesi had hatched a plan for a documentary film following Ivan’s movements as a soldier, concentrating especially on the enthusiastic welcome they would receive when his unit would liberate a town. The way he described it to me was: When our troops would liberate a town, the citizens would swarm around our jeeps. They would climb up, male and female, to embrace us. They showered us with kisses and wine. As African Americans it was a response unimaginable from a white population. From his book, “We were fighting to defeat Nazi Germany, and we were fighting to free the Italians, who were the real victims of the war in Italy. We won the hearts and the minds of those that we freed. You could see it in their eyes and gestures. You could feel it in their voices and hearts as we captured town after town, village after village. . .Our color was no issue at all, and they were not critics.” Ivan Houston p 202 – 203
The film was also intended to capture his current day welcome. Older Italians of the area have a nostalgia for the Buffalo Soldiers and younger Italians were thrilled to meet the real thing.
Ivan had some questions about what had happened in Sommocolonia, so they invited me over to the Piazzesi villa to spend the night and be interviewed on film. Ivan asked me how it was possible that high command knew there was to be an attack the morning after Christmas and yet they abandoned a small number of 366th troops in the village. I explained that it was a complex story, but that a white OSS (secret service) lieutenant asked a similar question on Christmas Day 1944 of a high-ranking white officer and received the response, “Let ‘em fend for themselves!” This exchange made it into the trailer of the film “With One Hand Tied,” but not into the documentary itself because the film was about Ivan Houston’s experience which, after all, did not include Sommocolonia. (The Pacific Film Foundation’s documentary premiered in 2017 in Long Beach, CA.)
Never mind that Sommocolonia wasn’t mentioned in the film, there was such naturalness and spirit of camaraderie in the group at the villa, including the film crew, that I loved the experience. And, as a result, Mattea Piazzesi, Ivan Houston & family became good friends of mine. Thereafter, Ivan returned to Italy every year, and we would meet at a Lucca restaurant for lunch or in Bill’s and my Sommocolonia garden.
Ivan Houston died on March 4, 2020 — a huge loss for all who knew him. Mattea Piazzesi wrote, “A pillar has fallen.” I was just glad that he had made it to Lucca to be the center of attention on September 2nd, 2019, the seventy-fifth anniversary of the liberation of the city.
Tell an anecdote about an interaction between you and one of your more articulate fans?
My publicist, Mary Bisbee-Beek, sent an advance reader’s copy of Braided in Fire to an old friend of hers, John Mulholland. He eventually posted an excellent review of the book on Amazon. But what bowled me over was his initial reaction to the book through e-mail correspondence.
He wrote Mary that he was
TOTALLY seduced by it. . . This lady hit me on so many levels — the story and the research are off the Richter scale. The effort and diligence she dedicated to her opera magnifica leave my mind swimming. But perhaps where she touched me most was in her description of Italian contadina life with so many examples that resonated particularly with me because of my personal experiences in Tuscany. One thing I didn’t tell you is that our home near Florence is almost on the Gothic Line, about 80 miles to the east of Sommocolonia. Needless to say, I’ve run into lots of people, just as Solace did, who had incredible stories to tell about the Germans and the fights in our area during WWII. In fact I collected a little library on books about the fight over the Gothic Line.
John wrote in his first communication with me:
I recently finished “Braided in Fire” and, not surprisingly, a couple of tears rolled down my cheeks at the end. Your book grabbed me from page one to the finale with Major General Hamlet’s letter, all framed by what’s going on in our streets today —it was a gut-wrencher and tear-jerker all wrapped into one. Only, for me, your book was much more so. Let me explain by telling you a little about myself to understand why your book touched me on so many levels.
Do check out Mulholland’s review of Braided in Fire on Amazon.
Where would your dream book signing occur?
I’m fortunate because my dream book signing has already occurred. So how many books were sold? Zero, which was precisely the number I expected.
This requires some explanation: To be accurate, it was a book reading, but not a signing. The latter was impossible because the advanced copy of the commemorative edition didn’t arrive in Italy on time. The copies of this 50-book edition were not for sale in any case. They were to be gifted to my interviewees’ families and to all those in the community who assisted me with my research for the book. (The books arrived and were distributed the following month.)
Though the book did not, I arrived on time to do the reading in the tiny village of Sommocolonia on a date I had known since I began my very long writing project that I wished to be present for. (I did have with me a mock-up of a book with the correct cover that people photographed.) It was December 26, 2019, the 75th anniversary of the Sommocolonia battle which is the center piece of Braided in Fire: Black GIs and Tuscan Villagers on the Gothic Line.
I knew the book should be launched in the location of the story and should be offered first to the village community and the larger Barga area it is situated in.
The event was all I dreamt of and more: a spectacular warm, clear day, costumes and pageantry honoring those who had died in the village battle, a band playing partisan tunes, a responsive audience of people I knew intimately which included the local Barga mayor. It was precisely because of this intimacy that it was so important to me to be in my adopted village on this commemoration day. I was thrilled knowing I was in the right place at the right time, the perfect launching pad!
Unexpectedly, it turned out to also produce good publicity. The well-known Italian journalist, Enrico Deaglio, attended and wrote an article about it in La Repubblica which is posted on my website braidedinfire.com in both English and Italian under MEDIA & NEWS. In the same location there are photos of the event.
Why should people want to read your book & how would you like your book to change the world?
People should want to read Braided in Fire to learn about an amazing bit of American/Italian history. The story reveals truths about the suffering of two groups little is known about in regard to WWII: black GIs and Italian peasants. At the time, both groups had strong oral traditions, but not written ones. As a result, their experiences have, with a few exceptions, gone unrecorded.
The political danger, the terror and the hunger experienced by the Italian population during the period is known by older generations in Italy, but little known elsewhere. Not much has been written, including in Italian, about the peasant experience in the countryside. Even villages as small as Sommocolonia were torn between armed resistance to Fascism by joining local partisans or collaborating with the Fascists (and later the Nazi’s) with their sinister ideologies. Neutrality was not a possibility.
The book also reveals the astounding multitude of ways in which African American soldiers suffered prejudice in the U.S. Army of WWII. A black soldier gazing in a shop window who did not see the approach of a white officer would be arrested for not saluting. Far more lethal were situations where the soldiers were used as cannon fodder by officers who sent them on suicidal missions, apparently not caring about their fate. (Edward Brooke, who later became a Massachusetts Senator, is quoted in the book describing one such situation encountered by his unit.) Why is it important to know about this history? It gives the reader a vivid background to the indignities and dangers suffered by blacks who were trying to serve their country and help liberate Europe. In Italy these men were fighting two battles, one against the Nazis with their convictions about the superior Arian race, and the other against their own white superior officers, who generally treated them with contempt.
Though American black soldiers no longer suffer as many inequities in the U.S. Army, prejudice continues to be expressed in myriad ways in American society today. With the Black Lives Matter movement, white people are finally learning to become attuned to some of the nuances of prejudice. This book will further that understanding.
It is my hope that revealing the heroism of these black soldiers who, despite the appalling treatment they received, gave their all in the cause of liberty, will help Americans to fully recognize the value of our black citizens.