Finding Uncle Eugene … and moreOver the last 14 years, Bob Anttila has been to Italy five times and made numerous friends while searching for the places his uncle Eugene Anttila spent the last days of his life, fighting the Germans in World War II.
By: Jana Peterson, Pine Journal
It all started with a photograph. For decades, an April 16, 1945 copy of Life magazine was one of the Anttila family’s most cherished items, as it contained the last photo ever taken of Pfc. Eugene W. Anttila.
Cloquet’s Bob Anttila never knew his Uncle Eugene. Although his middle name was taken from his uncle, Bob was only nine months old when Eugene died, fighting the Germans along the “Gothic Line” in the mountains of northern Italy as a part of the 88th Division, 349th Infantry Regiment.
The photograph in Life magazine showed Eugene, the lower half of his face blackened, leaning against the wall of one building while another soldier crouches nearby. A sign on another wall a few feet away and perpendicular to Eugene’s wall reads “Halt, About Face,” warning soldiers that the open area between the buildings is under enemy observation. Anyone who crossed could be picked off by the German machine gunners.
Growing up in Deer River, Bob Anttila was fascinated by his uncle’s story. At the same time, he was very aware of how much sorrow his death had brought to the family, especially his Grandma Hillina, who sat with the other Gold Star Mothers – whose sons had also paid the ultimate price in the war – each Memorial Day.
They didn’t know much about how or where Eugene had died. What little they did know (date and location), the Anttila family later discovered, was wrong.
It would be nearly 50 years before Eugene’s nephews began filling in the gaps in his story.
In 1994, Bob’s brother Gary Anttila wrote a letter to the newsletter for the 88th Division, asking if anyone had known Eugene.
Two weeks later he got a reply from Trego, Wis.
“All these years, Eugene’s platoon sergeant had been living 50 miles south of Superior,” Bob said. “He told us, ‘Yeah, I knew him. He was my machine gunner. And he died in my arms.’”
Clifford Nelson explained how, after a terrible bombardment of a ridge called Furcoli and the adjacent mountain knob called Monterumici, the men of the 4th Platoon, Company A, 1st Battalion, 349th Infantry Regiment, 88th Division and the rest of the battalion had stormed the ridge and mountain, where the Germans remained behind their defenses of minefields, mortars, caves and machine gun nests. The attack began at 10 p.m. April 15, 1945. Sometime during the next day Eugene was hit by machine-gun fire and pulled to the relative safety of the entrance to a hillside cave, where he died shortly thereafter, with Sgt. Nelson holding him.
Between them, the two brothers visited Nelson (now deceased) several times. On one visit, Nelson showed Bob a video he’d taken in Italy, when he’d gone, as Bob puts it, to settle “the ghosts of war” a couple years before.
“He said, ‘That’s where [Eugene] died, right there,’ and showed me the cave. Then he told me about these Italian people he’d met, and gave me their address,” Bob said.
Bob wrote a letter to those Italians, Erminio and Rita Lora of Bologna, and soon got an invitation to come visit. He traveled there in 1996, determined to walk the same ground his uncle had strode, climb the same hillsides he’d fought for and visit the cave where his life had ended, 51 years before.
Little did he know that this quest to learn more about the place his uncle died would not only answer all those questions, but ultimately find Bob an honorary citizen of the county where Eugene’s life ended in war.
Between 1996 and now, Bob has made five trips to Italy and has made even more friends. His story of his uncle has been published in an Italian book, and the story of his search for Eugene made the paper in Bologna, a city of more than 370,000 people.
Still, each of his stories starts with someone he met in Italy, who introduced him to other people, who introduced him to even more. Happily, they were all eager to help this American who wanted to know more about this shared history.
Meeting Erminio and Rita Lora led to an introduction to Marinella Caianiello, who was writing a book about the villagers in the mountains during the war and their experiences. (Caianiello ended her book with Bob’s chapter about his uncle, and with this quote from Bob, which she loved: “As a young child I remember my grandmother’s sorrow. As I grew up, I realized how many mothers suffered as she did after their sons on both sides died during that war.”)
Caianiello next introduced him to engineer/amateur historian Giancarlo Rivelli, who has been Bob’s best “sleuth-friend.” Rivelli has introduced him to others whose avocation is wartime history, and more who simply lived through it.
Still, even with local contacts, the task of “finding Uncle Eugene” wasn’t as simple as one might imagine. Lots had changed in 50 years, and memories aren’t always correct.
For example, while Eugene’s best wartime buddy, Dan Cornett of Florida, did vividly remember the events of that long-ago day, he was calling the mountain ridge by the name of the village where the attack had begun.
As well, when Bob first went to Italy, the cave itself was inaccessible, the land fenced off by the current landowner. He could see the cave from one angle, and stand 100 feet above it on a mountainside, but it wasn’t until six years later, in 2002, that Bob actually got to stand there.
Again, it happened with the help of his friends in Italy. Rivelli talked to the landowner, who met Bob and Caianiello at the gate and let them in.
However, the biggest challenge of all was finding the place where the cherished last photo was snapped. In the end, it took seven years to figure it out.
“Giancarlo found some photos that didn’t get in the magazine,” Anttila explained. “And the mountains don’t change. So he went in April [the same time of year the photos were originally taken] and looked at the mountains and the ridges. That was one way he narrowed down where the house was.”
It was April 16 of this year that Bob got the e-mail from Rivelli, telling him he’d found the wall.
“Eugene is not forgotten,” was the subject line, written on the anniversary of the veteran’s death.
The wall where Eugene was leaning in that Life magazine photo is now the inside wall of a bathroom. The building itself still stands in the village of Ca’ di Giulietta – about a mile from the cave as the crow flies – but the family who bought it had added a bathroom onto the back.
“That inner wall is 18 inches thick,” Bob said, chuckling as he hands over a photo of himself and Rivelli, standing in a modern-looking, white-tiled bathroom, holding a copy of the magazine photograph.
That moment was not the icing on the cake, however. That came later in the trip, when the residents of the small village held a reception for their American friend, attended by the current and former mayors, county commissioners and even the big city newspaper. A number of dignitaries, including Bob, gave speeches. Then they made him an honorary citizen of Monzuno, the county where his uncle spent the last months of his life and that his nephew has now gotten to know so well.
“These guys, now they’re friends,” Bob said, gesturing to the photos spread out across the table. “Maybe that’s a better thing out of all this than finding where he died. Maybe the best thing is finding all these wonderful people I met.”