The returning heroes slowly climbed the Tuscan hill town's cobbled streets. "Ben tornato!" the villagers of Sommacolonia called out to the elderly black Americans: "Welcome back!" The honored visitors were veterans and relatives of the U.S. Army's 92d Infantry Division, known as the Buffalo Soldiers. During World War II their top officers, all white men, slandered them as cowards. But the villagers have never forgotten the Buffalo Soldiers' courage and sacrifice. The segregated unit fought one of Italy's nastiest little battles of 1944 in a doomed attempt to stop the Nazis from retaking Sommacolonia.
Eight surviving veterans came back last weekend to help open the Fortress of Peace, a park dedicated to the fallen heroes of the 92d, in particular Lt. John Fox. An act of Congress finally awarded him the Medal of Honor in 1997, more than half a century after he died in action. On Dec. 26, 1944, two crack Austrian companies attacked Sommacolonia. Fox, posted on the hill as a forward artillery spotter, called for direct shelling of his own position from a gun emplacement down below, commanded by his best friend, Otis Zachary: "There's more of them than there are of us! In three or four minutes they'll be all over us!" Now 83, Zachary is haunted by the radio call. "I wake up a million times wondering: could I have done what John did?" With Fox calling the shots, taking the town cost 100 Nazi soldiers their lives.
Fox and some three dozen Buffalo Soldiers died here, too. No one knows exactly how many, or the names of most of them. The top brass of the 92d didn't bother with such details. "They didn't care anything about us," says Albert O. Burke, head of the division's veterans association. "Why would they care what our names were?" The 92d's commanding officer was Lt. Gen. Edmund Almond of South Carolina, now dead. "I didn't want you here," Zachary recalls him telling a group of incoming black officers. "You're here on the front line only because your Negro newspapers and your white liberal friends wanted you here." The townspeople felt differently. In the 1970s they placed a marker for Fox beside the graves of local partisans who died fighting the Nazis.
The guest of honor last weekend was Fox's wife, Arlene. She never remarried. On Dec. 15, 1944, their daughter, Sandra, turned 2. Arlene sent John a piece of birthday cake. In his last letter Fox wrote that he would save it for a Christmas treat--but he never got down the mountain to eat it. "This place and what it means have been on my mind for many, many years," Arlene says. "We never needed any medals. John just felt that we were as good as anybody else, and he was going to prove it, and he did."