By Sgt. Ralph G. Martin

Stars and Stripes Correspondent

Marsala, Sicily [By Cable]—It is a slow job, the rebirth of a dead town. The story of Marsala, on the western tip of this triangular island, is the story of villages and towns and cities all over Sicily. It is also the story of AMG (Allied Military Government).

Marsala died at noon on Garibaldi Day, May 11, 1943, when several hundred of our big bombers swept in low from across the Mediterranean Sea. Flying through flak in tight formations, they dropped their bombs on this city for almost two hours. When they left, Marsala looked like a squashed tomato.

marsala-sicily-amgThere had been ample warnings to the 30,000 people in this city of vineyards in the heart of the wine district. Allied planes had dropped thousands of leaflets, and Allied radios had told and retold of the impending attack. The people were advised to get out of town and head for the hills and suburbs.

It was two months later, on July 24, that American troops of the 3rd Division marched into Marsala after short, bitter fighting in the outskirts of the city. Marching with them was Capt. William Jequire, a British AMG official.

“I was told to take charge of Marsala.” He said, “but there was no Marsala. There were just bricks and rubble and the smell of the dead.”

A graying, balding man of 57, the captain had a determined tone in his soft voice. Before the war he was the general manager of one of the world’s largest perfumery houses, with offices in Paris, London and New York.

For four days, all alone and without communications, transportation or the assistance of MPs, Capt. Jequire tried to shape order out of the chaos. His job was doubly tough because the people of Marsala had spread out in a semicircle as far as 15 miles from the city when they fled from the threat of an Allied blitz.

As soon as they heard that American troops had taken over Marsala, they began to drift back in. “They all acted like a bunch of spoiled brats,” the captain said. “Somehow they had gotten the idea that the Americans would come marching in loaded with clothes and food. They were expecting new donkey carts, cigarettes, even new homes. It took a while before they understood.”

But the Sicilian “children” finally did understand. Under the captain’s direction they began to clear away the rotting bodies of the dead and fill in the bomb craters in the roads. They tied together broken bridges and pulled down the tottering, lonely walls of blasted buildings.

But the hungry had to be fed and the homeless had to be housed. For the 10,000 Sicilians who were without shelter, Capt. Jequire requisitioned every building still standing.

Now he was no longer working alone. The carabinieri and the mayor were giving their full cooperation. The mayor, who was the tallest man in town, had held his position for 13 years. He was also the owner of the biggest winery in Marsala until the bombs fell.

When trucks came into town with grain, Capt. Jequire found that there was no electric power to run the mills and make flour. He went on a scavenger hunt and came up with two old Diesel engines, which finally were made to work after considerable tinkering.

Most Sicilians ate simply. Some bread, spaghetti and a little wine were all they asked as food and drink. But there was a flourishing black market in certain luxuries and extras, Capt. Jequire discovered. He stepped in quickly to crush it. All prices were fixed and the “black merchants” were punished.

They were not given summary sentences, but stood trial before a regular court established by the captain to allow for a full hearing in each case. Typical violations of the law were possession of an excessive amount of oil and charging exorbitant prices.

The carabinieri were also instructed to look into other excesses and violations, such as looting and nonobservance of the curfew. They found that some of the Italian kids were playing ball with hand grenades and fisherman were going beyond the three-mile limit.

There were also a number of special problems that cropped up in the life of this Sicilian town. One was the horse-donkey stud system, which had been thrown into confusion by the abolition of the fascist regime. Under the old set-up, the state had owned all the stud horses and donkeys, renting them out to farmers for a 150-lire fee. The Sicilians implored the captain to continue this arrangement, and he agreed.

Then there was a girl, already several months pregnant, who wanted the captain to release her boyfriend from one of the American prison camps so that he could come back and marry her. And there was the family who brought in an old dead body they’d found somewhere and asked what they were supposed to do with it.

Five hundred people lined up outside the captain’s office every day with their problems. Some wanted passes to go to a different city, others wanted more simple things, such as instructions on mailing a letter to the United States. And of course some wanted to be sent to the States themselves. A lot of Italian men stood in line to tell the captain they were soldiers and wanted to surrender; they weren’t, really, but they wanted to be sent to prisoner-of-war camps in the States.

Today the people of Marsala are building a new city, and everywhere you can sense the new feeling of peace and order, and the new faith that the Americans will help them create a better Marsala from the rubble of the old. The people know that no one will be punished without a fair trial. They know that any of them can go to the captain with his complaints or problems. This simple fact of democracy continually amazes them. They are contented people now, these people of Marsala.

For More on the Battle of Sicily Check Out:

The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944 (The Liberation Trilogy)

The Battle of Sicily: How the Allies Lost Their Chance for Total Victory (Stackpole Military History Series)

For Related Articles See:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Past and Present WWII History Posts