Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Q&A with Solace Wales, Author of Braided in Fire: Black GIs and Tuscan Villagers on the Gothic Line - AUTHOR INTERVIEW


Solace Wales is a San Francisco Bay Area art educator. She and her artist husband have lived part time in the small Tuscan village of Sommocolonia since 1975. Over the years, she became enthralled with the WWII stories she heard in the village, particularly with the stories of the African American US soldiers who occupied the village in segregated troops and had been involved in the horrific Sommocolonia battle of December 26th, 1944.

Solace used her research of  local Italian WWII history and oral accounts of veterans and villagers to write Braided in Fire: Black GIs and Tuscan Villagers on the Gothic Line.

Solace talked with Rose City reader about her new book, Braided in Fire, and the history of Black G.I.s in WWII:

How did you come to write your memoir, Braided in Fire?

My interest in WWII Italy was sparked in 1958 by a 6-weeks course on the Italian resistance movement that I took at age 19 as a Junior Year Abroad student. I was moved by the strong moral stance of resistance fighters we read about, and every time a Sienese woman, an ex-partisan, lectured, I was left in tears.

This WWII interest lay dormant until 1975 when my husband and I, and our toddler daughter, began living part of every year in Sommocolonia, a medieval stone village in the foothills of the Apennines. Our peasant neighbors immediately began telling us about their hair-raising war experiences, but it wasn’t until 1987 that I saw I must preserve their history. I began interviewing them with a tape recorder.

Their full stories made me realize I must locate and interview the African American vets involved when Germans attacked the village the day after Christmas 1944. Once I did so, I knew that this joint history was important —it had to be written.

Although my inquiries play a role in the book, Braided in Fire is not a memoir. It focuses on the main protagonists, Sommocolonians and black GIs.

Your book is also the story of Black GIs who fought a village battle in Tuscany in WWII. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

There is confusion about which Black soldiers are the focus of Braided in Fire. The book’s main African American protagonists were not, as many assume, “Buffalo Soldiers” who belonged to the 92nd Infantry Division. They were members of the 336th Infantry Regiment, a well-trained, proud, all-Black regiment which was ‘attached’ to the 92nd Division for four disastrous months.

It was 366th soldiers, who were basically abandoned in the garrison of Sommocolonia, when, the morning after Christmas 1944, German forces attacked the frontline village in numbers three times that of the Black GIs and the Italian partisan soldiers present. Finding himself surrounded by Germans, Lt. John Fox, forward observer in the little mountain village, asked for artillery fire onto his own location. His request was honored in a few minutes, yet, because of the color of his skin, it took 52 years for his country to honor him posthumously with the Medal of Honor. The 366th GIs fought valiantly, but whether villagers or soldiers, all present had their lives either lost or changed irrevocably by the disastrous battle.

How does your story, the memoir part of your book, connect with the story of this almost forgotten battle in the village of Sommocolonia?

I have the reader follow how I became involved in telling the story. And then I share snippets of my interviews which allow the reader to become intimately acquainted with the books’ eight main protagonists, four villagers and four African Americans.

What is the meaning of the title, Braided in Fire?

Originally I was going to call the book Circle of Fire because a villager told me how terrible it was when they 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!”

But 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’d 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.

Did you consider turning your personal experiences and what you learned about Sommocolonia into fiction and writing your story as a novel?

Early on I did write a first draft of a chapter in novel form (not including myself), but I quickly realized that the true story was more remarkable than any fiction.

Who is your intended audience and what do you hope your readers will gain from your book?

Thus far Braided in Fire has captured the interest of people with widely different interests. I hope this trend continues as the wide audience is what I hoped for. Some choose the book because they are WWII military buffs and others simply because of its dramatic human story; Italo-files are attracted to it because of its setting; still others are interested in African American historical accounts.

However people come to it, I hope readers will learn about an amazing bit of American/Italian history. The story reveals truths about the suffering of two groups little is known about in regards 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.

Why is it important to know about this history? The extreme political danger, the terror and the hunger experienced by the Italian population during the war remind readers of the suffering wartime brings to those who today are experiencing war on their doorsteps.

And the indignities and dangers suffered by Blacks who were trying to serve their country and help liberate Europe are relevant to our current racial problems. In Italy these men were fighting two battles, one against the Nazis with their convictions about the superior Arian race, the other against their own white superior officers, who generally treated them with contempt and often appeared not to care if they lived or died.

It is my hope that in 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 appreciate the value of our Black citizens.

You have a terrific website that offers a lot of resources related to Braided in Fire. Can you describe some of them and tell us how you gathered all this information?

There are many resources on my website, Braided in Fire, because I’ve been involved with this story for over thirty years — in researching over time, information accumulates. It’s been a great boon that I have an excellent webmaster, Kris Weber, to organize the large amount of material so skillfully.

I’m proud of the Long Notes to be found under "BOOK." Many of these notes contain additional information not included in Braided in Fire so that scholars and others interested in deepening their understanding of people and events related to the Sommocolonia story can do so.

Under "NEWS & EVENTS" readers can find the Media coverage Braided in Fire has received as well as Readers Reviews. I was recently delighted by a letter written to me by Robert Brown, Jr., the son of an intelligence lieutenant who was with the 366th Infantry Regiment, someone I had interviewed. Among other things, he wrote:
The picture you paint is so detailed and descriptive that the reader feels transported back to that time and. . . you create a crescendo-like pace even though many of us readers know what will happen later, but the lead-up and background are essential to get the full impact of the story.
Under "RESOURCES" are many photographs of Sommocolonia and events that have taken place there, including of my reading on the 75th anniversary of the village battle, December 26, 2019 of my soon to be published book. Because of the pandemic, this is the only live book reading I’ve had thus far.

Also under "RESOURCES" are five of the related articles I’ve written:
“La Mulattiera” translates as “The Mule Trail” and describes (in English) various journeys up and down the important trail —the only wartime link between Sommocolonia on its small mountaintop and the larger town of Barga in the valley below. Travelers on the trail include various villagers, several 366th soldiers climbing up to be stationed on the frontline for the first time, John Fox going up in a jeep in 1944, and his widow, Arlene Fox & family walking down in 2000.

Can you recommend any other books about Black GIs in World War II?

"Buffalo Soldier" (a member of the 92nd Division) Vernon Baker led a successful attack on a seemingly impenetrable German stronghold in the coastal mountains immediately to the west of Sommocolonia. I highly recommend his autobiography (written with Ken Olsen), Lasting Valor: The Story of the Only Living Black World War II Veteran to Earn America’s Highest Distinction for Valor, the Medal of Honor (NY: Genesis Press 1997, Bantam Books 1999). Baker speaks with candor about his childhood and his civilian life as well as about the military action which eventually won him deserved recognition.

Another "Buffalo Soldier," Ivan Houston, also wrote an interesting autobiography. Houston’s book (written with Gordon Cohn) Black Warriors: The Buffalo Soldiers of World War II. (Bloomington, NY: iUniverse 2009) touches on his private life, but concentrates more on the military action he was involved in, including his participation in the liberation of the Tuscan city of Lucca.

A documentary film With One Tied Hand about Houston’s return to Italy when he was in his late eighties was produced by the Pacific Film Foundation with its premier in 2017. As an older vet, he received the same enthusiastic, heart-warming welcome he remembered as a young soldier when his African American unit liberated Italian towns.

There are two purely military books written by African Americans who had been Buffalo Soldiers with information also relevant to the 366th Infantry Regiment. I examined these carefully and returned to them frequently: Ulysses Lee’s U.S. Army in World War II: The Employment of Negro Troops. (Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History U.S. Army, first printed 1966 —CMH pub 11-4), 1990; and, Hondon Hargrove’s Buffalo Soldiers in Italy (Jefferson, NC & London: McFarland & Co., 1985.)

In my website article RACIST 92ND PERFORMANCE REPORT I quote freely from Daniel Gibran’s insightful book, The 92nd Infantry Division and the Italian Campaign in World War II. (Jefferson NC: McFarland & Co, 2001.)

A book that was especially inspiring to me is the excellent oral history by African American Mary Pennick Motley: The Invisible Soldier: The Experience of the Black Soldier, World War II. (Detroit: Wayne State Univ. Press, 1975.) Motley was a superb forerunner in capturing black soldiers’ WWII experience via interviews. A few of her interviewees were 366th soldiers —I was naturally particularly interested in these. I am forever in her debt.

What do you think people today can learn from the stories about WWII and, in particular, the black GIs involved? 

The agony and devastation of war is always worthy of contemplation, especially for those of us who have never experienced war in our own front yards. The message is clear: We must learn diplomatic ways to solve problems.

The abuse Black Americans suffered at the hands of their white superiors in the Army of WWII is very relevant to the Black Lives Matter movement of today. Though Black soldiers no longer suffer as many inequities in the current U.S. Army, prejudice continues to be expressed in myriad ways in American society. With BLM, white people are finally learning to become attuned to some of the nuances of prejudice. This book will further that understanding.

What's next? What are you working on now?

I’ve written a portion of a different story to do with Sommocolonia, one not centered in WWII. I think I will tackle finishing that first. It will not be a long book like Braided in Fire —perhaps 150 pages. It’s focus? I would rather not talk about it while I‘m just flushing out its direction in my mind.

I was a children’s art educator for forty years and have long had in mind a book on how to further creative thinking in children. Will I get to writing about this topic? I hope so, but I am 82 years old, so who knows.

Then there is my journal writing. I may use some of it in an autobiographical way.



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