US WWII veteran reunites with Italians he saved as children

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BOLOGNA, Italy (AP) – For more than seven decades, Martin Adler has treasured a black and white photo of himself as a young American soldier with a broad smile along with three immaculately dressed Italian children he is believed to have saved as the Nazis retreated north in 1944.

On Monday, the 97-year-old World War II veteran met the three siblings – now in their 80s themselves – in person for the first time since the war.

Adler reached out to grab those of Bruno, Mafalda and Giuliana Naldi for the joyous reunion at Bologna airport after a 20-hour trip from Boca Raton, Florida. Then, just like he did as a 20-year-old soldier in their village of Monterenzio, he handed out bars of American chocolate.

“Look at my smile,” Adler said of the long-awaited in-person reunion made possible by the reach of social media.

It was a happy ending to a story that could easily have been a tragedy.

The very first time the soldier and the children saw each other, in 1944, the three faces emerged from a huge wicker basket where their mother had hidden them as the soldiers approached. Adler thought the house was empty, so he aimed his machine gun at the cart when he heard a noise, thinking that a German soldier was hiding inside.

“Mother, mom, came out and stood right in front of my gun to stop me (from) shooting,” Adler recalls. “She put her stomach against my gun, shouting, ‘Bambinis! Bambinis! Bambinis! ‘ pounding my chest, ”Adler recalls.

“He was a real hero, the mother, not me. The mother was a real heroine. Can you imagine yourself standing in front of a gun and yelling “Kids! No !’ “, he said.

Adler still shakes when he remembers that it was only seconds to open fire on the basket. And after all these decades, he still suffers from the nightmares of war, said his daughter, Rachelle Donley.

The children, aged 3 to 6 when they met, were nothing but a happy memory. His company stayed in the village for a while and he came to play with them.

Giuliana Naldi, the youngest, is the only one of the three to remember the event. She remembers getting out of the basket and seeing Adler and another American soldier who has since died.

“They were laughing,” recalls Naldi, now 80. “They were glad they didn’t shoot.

She, on the other hand, didn’t quite get the nearby call.

“We weren’t afraid of anything,” she says.

She also remembers the soldier’s chocolate, which came in blue and white packaging.

“We ate so much of this chocolate,” she said with a laugh.

Donley decided during the COVID-19 lockdown to use social media to try and locate the children in the old black and white photo, starting with veterans groups in North America.

Eventually, the photo was spotted by Italian journalist Matteo Incerti who had written books on WWII. He was able to track down Adler’s regiment and find out where it was stationed from a small detail in another photo. The smiling photo was then published in a local newspaper, which uncovered the identities of the three children, who were themselves grandparents at the time.

They shared a video meeting in December and waited for the relaxation of pandemic travel rules to make transatlantic travel possible.

“I am so happy and so proud of him. Because things could have been so different in a second. Because he hesitated, there have been generations of people, ”Donley said.

Serendipity is not lost on Giuliana Naldi’s 30-year-old granddaughter Roberta Fontana, one of six children, eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren who descend from the three children hidden in the basket in wicker.

“Knowing that Martin could have shot and that no member of my family would exist is something very important,” Fontana said. “It is very moving.”

During his stay in Italy, Adler will spend some time in the village where he was stationed, before traveling to Florence, Naples and Rome, where he hopes to meet Pope Francis.

“My dad really wants to meet the Pope,” Donley said. “He wants to share his message of peace and love. My dad is all about peace.

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Colleen Barry contributed to this report from Milan.


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