The story has been told for almost 70 years in the picturesque little town of Manziana, Italy: how four American GIs were killed by fleeing German soldiers, and how the grateful townspeople reverently blanketed their liberators' burned bodies with flowers where they lay on the roadside.
Yet it was only in 2011 that the townspeople learned the names of those soldiers who died in 1944. One of them was 21-year-old Constantino Chiea of Omaha, the only son of an Italian immigrant couple.
And only in late December 2012 did anyone from Chiea's family learn how he had died, let alone how the town from his parents' native country paid its respects.
They know now because a man in Manziana resolved to uncover the story and again pay respects to the fallen GIs. Vincenzo Lucherini, 59, a nuclear physics researcher, longed to put names to the memory of the American soldiers. He wanted those names to be remembered. And he wanted their families to know about it.
Lucherini made all those things happen.
“We are so far, but we have a bond,” he wrote in an email. “A blood bond.”
In early June 1944, the U.S. Fifth Army had German forces on the run north of newly liberated Rome. American forces freed towns as they headed north to capture ports, enemy airfields and other objectives. In the early days of June, they made quick progress through relatively easy terrain. The fleeing Germans put up light resistance — mainly scattered shelling and occasional attacks by tanks, infantry and snipers.
The First Armored Regiment, having negotiated the throngs of celebrating Romans in the capital on June 5, was assigned to travel ahead of combat infantry on one prong of the Army's northward push.
The regiment's troops included Pfc. Constantino P. Chiea. He had grown up in Omaha, at 6011 Binney St. He had attended Monroe Junior High School and Benson High School, where he was in Spanish Club and took mechanical drawing and industrial arts as electives. Though not a stellar student, he had perfect attendance. He attended summer school at Central High School and graduated early from Benson, in January 1941.
Chiea attended Creighton University for one year before joining the Army in March 1943. He graduated in August 1943 from armored force basic training at Fort Knox, Ky. The Army shipped him overseas in November 1943.
On June 7, 1944, Americans rolled into the town of Manziana, about 30 miles northwest of Rome. Chiea's armored car was in the lead, according to records Lucherini dug up from the U.S. National Archives.
In one part of town, women, children and old men — all who were left because the men of fighting age had been conscripted to fight for the Germans — ran out to greet the Americans.
But in another part of town, German soldiers lurked with a self-propelled gun near the main road out of Manziana. Eyewitnesses told Lucherini that the Germans fired once, hit the lead armored car, then fled.
Here is how the First Armored Regiment records described it:
“Just out of Manziana, the lead car of the 2nd Platoon was struck direct by anti-tank fire. The vehicle burned, and the entire crew was killed, including Lt. (Eugene C.) Steele, the platoon leader; Tec-5 (technician fifth grade Cpl. Doyle S.) Cobb; and Pfcs Chiea and (James H.) McElhenney.”
The official Army records didn't say what happened next. Lucherini first heard part of the story as a child from his mother, who was 14 on that fateful day. His father and most other men from Manziana were gone that day in 1944, either conscripted into Axis military service or hiding from German conscription.
The women were the keepers of the story. When Lucherini was a teenager, a woman named Maria Bucci, the widow of an Italian army general, told him what she had seen.
The story captivated him. He pursued it for decades, even while pursuing his education and career in nuclear physics research, marrying, and having children of his own.
When the bullets stopped flying in Manziana in 1944, Bucci saw four bodies and the burned armored car on the side of the Via Roma, an avenue near the main town square. Townspeople turned from celebrating their newfound freedom to mourning the slain liberators. Many people picked flowers, placed them on the bodies and prayed, Bucci told Lucherini.
“I still remember her telling me the story and then, looking at me, opening her arms, adding, 'ognuno gettava un fiore su di loro e tutti quei fiori alla fine li coprirono, come un tappeto … tanto che non se vedevano piu' (everyone threw a flower, and in the end they covered them as a carpet … so that you could not see them anymore),” Lucherini recalled.
An evocative image on its own, the blanketing of the bodies with flowers has an added cultural depth because of where it took place. In Manziana, as in many Italian towns and cities, people create an intricate carpet of flowers to cover the path of a religious procession during the Roman Catholic feast day of Corpus Christi.
Eventually the bodies were taken away and buried in a field of white crosses in an American war cemetery in Nettuno, Italy. The townspeople did not know that, nor did they know the soldiers' identities.
Back home, the soldiers' parents knew even less.
News from war zones traveled much more slowly then than now. Details of deaths were kept secret.
In early July 1944, John and Lucy Chiea were informed that their son had been killed in action on June 7. A requiem Mass was celebrated for him at St. Bernard Catholic Church.
“Killed in action” was all they learned of what had happened, recalled Natalie Goodkind, a close friend of Chiea's sister, Domenica, and Catherine “Tizz” Connell, Domenica's daughter.
Chiea's mother died soon after receiving the news, said Connell, a longtime Council Bluffs resident who now lives in Minnesota. In October 1944, just three months after hearing her son had been killed, Lucy Chiea suffered a stroke while attending Mass at St. Bernard.
“I think she died of a broken heart,” said Goodkind, who was in church that day and now lives in Waterloo, Neb.
As the years went by, Connell's own mother — who went by “Minnie,” short for Domenica — rarely spoke of “Tino” or of his death. Connell's impression was that her mother, now deceased, never got over her brother's death.
“I'm not sure she ever accepted it,” Connell said.
Goodkind said the reticence might have reflected resignation to a fact of life during World War II.
“There were so many boys dying left and right at that time,” Goodkind said. “It was just wartime. Minnie didn't talk much about Tino. He was gone, and that was it. …There isn't really too much you can do about it. You just mourn it and go on.”
Goodkind, now 87, remembers Tino from childhood. Her family and the Chieas were two of three Italian families in Benson at the time, as Goodkind recalls it. The children always played together. One day in the 1930s, when the children were about 5 to 7 years old, an errant dirt clod tossed by Tino left a mark.
“I remember Tino,” Goodkind said when a reporter called and asked about Chiea. “He put a scar on my forehead when I was little. He threw a piece of dirt and there was a rock in it. He didn't mean to hit me with it. He just threw it, but there was a lot of blood and I still have a scar on my forehead that reminds me of Tino.”
As was the case concerning a lot of men back then, the war quickly left nothing but memories of the boy next door.
“We were always around each other, because that's how it was then,” Goodkind said. “All of a sudden the war broke out, and he was gone.”
As the years passed and Constantino Chiea's parents and sister died, memories of him faded, though bits and pieces endure. Five of Connell's children and stepchildren have served in the military — for seven years straight, at least one was in a war zone. Some of the children have taken an interest in their great-uncle Tino and have been given safekeeping of the few known artifacts that testify to his existence.
But there were few stories to tell.
Now, there are more.
Lucherini finally found the names of the dead soldiers in 2011. He said he received help from Stephen Johnson, a researcher at the U.S. Department of Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office.
Lucherini suggested in 2011 to Manziana's then-mayor, Lucia Dutto, that the town erect a memorial. She accepted the idea enthusiastically, supported by all at City Hall.
The town quickly put together a ceremony for June 2011. It was near the anniversary of the liberation of Manziana, and at the same time as celebrations for the 150th year of the Unity of Italy.
The town placed a commemorative plaque on a stone wall near the place where the soldiers were killed. It was dedicated June 14, 2011, in a ceremony involving U.S. military and diplomatic officials, Italian authorities and the townspeople of Manziana.
Meanwhile, Lucherini continued his research. He found relatives of all four soldiers. None knew the story, he said. Though Constantino Chiea's name was the first Lucherini had discovered, he found Chiea's relatives last.
Connell, who recently moved to Crookston, Minn., after many years of working at the Iowa School for the Deaf in Council Bluffs, received an email from Lucherini just before Christmas.
She almost didn't open it. It looked like spam.
“I decided to open it, and then I realized this guy was really looking for me,” she said.
In email exchanges over the next few days, she learned much more than the family had heard in 68 years.
“Never knowing anything about his death before, the story was just incredible,” Connell said.
She said she would like to take a trip to Italy with her husband, Richard, to see the memorial, meet Lucherini and thank him. “It just amazes me that he stuck with it,” Connell said.
For Lucherini, it's gratifying that relatives of the soldiers now know what happened that day.
“I feel right that the relatives knew that their siblings are remembered and honored in Italy for their sacrifice,” Lucherini said.
Few of Chiea's relatives survived to hear of it. “It's kind of bittersweet,” Connell said. “But still, it's really nice to know that the townspeople cared that much.”
Contact the writer: 402-444-1057, email@example.com
Correction: In a previous version of this story, the photo of a Memorial Day ceremony at the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery in Nettuno, Italy, was flipped.