THE NEW YORK SUBWAY SYSTEM ON THE ITALIAN FRONT –  A SOLDIER ESCAPES THE NAZIS

By Sgt. Newton H. Fulbright

WITH THE FIFTH ARMY IN ITALY—Perhaps some busy somebody has taken care of the matter—I haven’t been able to read anything much lately—but in case it hasn’t been done, I think the New York subway system should receive proper credit for its part in the war here in Italy.



I first came across this curious connection of the venerable and undramatic subway with the war here in Italy one morning shortly after daylight on the beaches of Paestum. I was standing behind and Italian farmhouse a little undecided about things. A German MG34 machine gun had been chattering a little while before across a corn patch, and was supposed to go in that direction. I was sitting there thinking about things when a little Italian farmer came up and started speaking English.

36th-division-salerno

Soldiers of the 36th Infantry Division land on the beaches Salerno, Italy.

The Germans had gone, he said, up the road they had gone.

“Thanks,” I said. “Where did you learn to speak English?”

“I work for the New York subway system five years,” he said.

Later in the afternoon a few of us from L Company and M Company plodded up the 3,500-foot slope of Mount Soprano, overlooking the beach. A battery of 88s had rained concentrated hell on us from the mountain since daylight.

Nearing the town of Capaccio, we slowed up a little. Red communication wire, Jerry’s sure trail, led around the mountain, where the forward observer had been, and along the rugged winding road to Capaccio, where the 88s were supposed to be. We didn’t know what was in front of us, so we moved along cautiously.

Then an Italian came out of a farmhouse and told us all about it.



“They’ve gone—all gone! Run away to the east. They all been drunk all afternoon. They get all vino in the town, then they run away.”

paestum italy wwii american soldiers

American soldiers pass ancient Greek ruins in Paestum, Italy.

He had worked for the New York subway system five years.

I met a Boston subway worker a night or two later.

Some of us had taken a patrol into Trentinara just to see if there were any Germans in the place. I found myself walking up a main street as dark as deep-land sorghum syrup and as crooked as the stick held by the crooked man who walked a crooked mile in the nursery rhyme; and the place was not only dark, it seemed completely deserted. Our artillery had been shelling the town and the natives had mostly taken to the hills.

I nosed along, followed by a few GIs who didn’t like the situation and plainly said so. Suddenly an Italian stepped out of the dark alley with outstretched hands and said “Hello.”

We had quite a conversation there in the dark street. Other Italians crept out of hiding timidly, and presently there was a small crowd of us talking and laughing.

The Germans had all gone. They had left the day before, 18 of them, dressed in civilian clothes.

“They throw away their guns, they go northeast,” one man said, pointing to a mountain. Tall and wistful and white in the daytime, it reminded me somehow of the Chrysler Building in New York. “No more Germans left in this whole country. The shepherds come in from the hills and report all Germans fleeing,” he said.

He wanted to talk more about Boston (he had helped build the Boston subway) and Brookline and all those Back Bay places.

Some days later when I managed to escape from the Germans about 100 miles behind their lines, I had the courage to stop at an Italian farmhouse largely because I remembered these incidents about the New York subway system.

I had been captured with five of my men while on reconnaissance behind enemy lines on Sept. 14 at the bloody battle of Altavilla. Five days later I made my escape and started back in the night toward our lines, far to the south.



WWII soldiers italy

GIs pass through the ruins of an Italian town.

Jerry was all over the country but principally on the highways, trying to withdraw his tremendous, ponderous equipment to new positions north of the Volturno River. I stumbled across country, dodging villages and dogs. Dogs sailed out every so often, yelping and howling. The moon was down; I was glad for that, and yet it was a hindrance. I was always bumping into things. Once I suddenly discovered I was walking down the principal street of a village, but I was able to back out of the place without being discovered.

After a few days of these mishaps, I decided to travel by day.

I picked out a nice-looking farmhouse, a couple of miles west of a village, and crawled into a strawstack to wait for morning.

The old lady who saw me first was scared out of her wits. She dashed for the doorway while I stood in the yard trying to smile and wiping wheat straw out of my beard.

In the farmhouse I discovered that no one could speak English. The farmer couldn’t, his wife couldn’t, his mother couldn’t, his sister couldn’t and neither could his three little daughters or a boy whose mother was dead.

I’d say something in Spanish or English or a mixture of both, and they’d just shake their heads and laugh. I would shake hands with every one again, point at myself and say like a bright Fuller brush man: “Americano! Me Americano! Americano and Italiano (stepping hard on the ano) friends! Good! Bueno!”

Suddenly someone entered the door.



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NEW POP. Pvt. M.L. Price, hospital guard with the Fifth Army in Italy, gets acquainted with Maria, a 5-year-old Italian orphan he’s arranged to adopt. She’s living with her aunt until such time as Price can take her back home to his wife in Martinsburg, W. Va. In the meantime he’s working hard on his Italian.

I turned and faced a bulky, heavy-set Italian with a red important-looking face, who held a pistol within a few inches of my stomach.

This should have been serious. Yet I wanted to laugh. The pistol was so small it looked like a cap pistol, and it was so completely covered with rust that I doubted whether it would fire at all. I stood there while the heavy fellow went through my trouser pockets. He hauled out the few items I possessed: a broken pencil, a fountain pen, a notebook, a billfold containing three genuine American gold-seal 10-dollar bills, and a picture of my girl.

After that he sat down on a little stool and put the pistol in his hip pocket. He didn’t seem to know just what else to do.

Then an old Italian with proud, graying mustache entered the door.

“Gooda de mornin’!”

“Good morning!” I shouted. I jumped up and grabbed him by the arm and started shaking hands as though I were an Elk meeting a fellow Elk in Amarillo. “But where in hell did you learn to speak English?”

“I work 17 years for the New York subway system,” he said. And from that moment on I was a firm believer in the New York Subway system.

We sat down and talked a long time. I got rid of my GI clothes and got into a ragged civilian shirt and trousers. I felt like going out and grabbing a hoe and going to work on the farm right away.

That night the mayor of the town and other influential Italians called on me.

One of them, a miller, pulled a yellowed sheet of paper out of his pocket and showed me an honorable discharge from the United States Army, dated 1918.

“I lived in New York before the war,” he said. “I was a doorman for the New York subway system.”

He opened his mouth and started shouting the names of the stations—Spring, Canal, 13th, 34th, 42nd. After that he sang songs that had been popular during the last war; “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up In the Morning” and “Are You From Dixie?” I remembered my aunt singing that one years ago.

I hid in the farmhouse for five days. Meanwhile the British Eighth Army was driving up rapidly from the south. When the flash of artillery could be seen plainly in the mountains and when the rumble sounded loud like spring thunder in Texas, I headed out for the wars again.

IT was tough going; I was 16 days getting inside our lines. And—well, there were other former employees of the New York and Boston subway systems along the road, or I probably wouldn’t have made it.

So my hat is off to the New York subway system. Viva the New York subway system, a great institution.



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