James Papachriston tells his story

A SEPARATE PEACE - A surrender that preserves a sense of dignity is kept quiet to conform to the military demands of the time.

World War II was a conflict that called for the Axis powers of Germany, Japan and Italy to surrender "unconditionally" - to surrender absolutely without conditions or reservations. But I participated in a "conditional" surrender carried out very ceremoniously. It happened in Sicily in 1943. At the time, I was a radio/gunner in an armored vehicle, a member of the 1st Reconnaissance Troop, 1st Infantry Division. We were professional soldiers and highly trained. That's one reason I'm here today and able to tell the story. Our job was to be out front, find the enemy and report our findings to our division commander. We were known as the division's eyes and ears. My story starts when our troop landed on the beaches of Gela, a village in southern Sicily. We fought way north, skirted Mount Edna, which was smoking at the time, and came to a stop on a mountainous dirt road. On our left was a high mountain. To our right was a ravine several hundred yards deep. There was no room for much maneuvering. From our position, we could look down on a village, Rocche Del Castro. We had no idea how many of the enemy were in the village, but our troop commander sent word to the Italian commander to surrender. If they wouldn't, our commander said, every minute an artillery shell would be lobbed into the village. Soon, the Italian commander approached us carrying a white flag of truce. Our Commander met him halfway. They talked, and when our commander returned, he said the Italians had refused to surrender "unconditionally." The enemy troops would prefer to fight to the end. They would however, surrender "conditionally" under "ceremonious conditions," the Italian commander had said. Our commander agreed. As a radio/gunner, I was behind the machine gun as the Italian mountain infantry platoon advanced toward our position in a single file, weapons slung over their shoulders. They were led by a tall, slim, proud looking officer, walking erect, saber at his side. He made me think of a person of nobility, a person who would lay down his life before he disgrace the honor and good name of his family. The sight of him also made me think of our cadets from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He formed his troops on the left side of the road as our troops formed on the right, facing them. The Italian commander raised his saber and gave the command to his troops to "present arms". Our commander did the same. I remained behind my machine gun, watching for any signs of aggression from the Italians. After the troops came to "order arms", both commanders moved to the center of the road and shook hands. the Italian turned his saber over to our commander, and the Italian troops laid down their weapons. It was all over in a few minutes. The Italian commander was allowed to surrender with honor. Our commander was able to save his troops and a village from destruction. When I think back on this, I cannot help but feel it was a humanitarian achievement. But at the time, were were told not to reveal to anyone what we had done, not even our division commander. After all, this was a war calling for "unconditional surrender." As far as I know, this story hasn't been told before. Today, 56 years later. I keep wondering what would have happened if the division commander hand been told of the action of our commander. Would our commander have been court-martialed? Or would he have received a medal?

James Papachriston in 1944

(This article originally appeared in the Tampa Tribune in Tampa, Florida)

1st Americans to land on D-Day

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This page was last updated on 5 Feb 2017