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STORIES FROM THE ATTIC: Spoils of war

U.S. Army soldiers raid Benito Mussolini’s closet

January 12, 2017
By ANDY FLYNN (aflynn@lakeplacidnews.com) , Lake Placid News

WATERTOWN - In the final days of World War II in Europe, soldiers from the U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Division reached Italian dictator Benito Mussolini's summer villa on Lake Garda and were soon wearing jackets and hats from Il Duce's closet.

A photo from this light-hearted raid - after heavy fighting - was captured for posterity and can be seen on the 10th Mountain Division and Fort Drum Museum's Facebook page. Soldiers kept some of those objects from the closet, and they are now on display at the museum.

"At first glance, it's nothing more than an 8-and-a-half by 11 piece of paper that's framed in a really nice frame, protecting the paper that's inside," said museum curator Kent Bolke. "There are two rows of what most people would recognize as ribbons. They are very odd looking, nothing that you'd expect on an American soldier's uniform. And there's one shoulder epaulette at the bottom of the paper."

Article Photos

Ribbons and an epaulette from Italian dictator Benito Mussolini’s uniform
(Provided photo — Andy Flynn)

On letterhead from the Office of the United States High Commissioner for Austria, the letter reads:

"The above military decorations were taken from the uniform of Mussolini, the wartime Italian dictator, on May First, 1945 by Lieutenant Colonel Halvor O. Ekern and Lieutenant Colonel William S. Lueck. The uniform was found in Mussolini's summer palace on the shore of Lake Garda in North Italy; Mussolini himself was meanwhile in the captivity of Italian partisans nearby who shortly afterward executed him.

"Ekern and Lueck were members of the Tenth Mountain Division which captured Lake Garda and the surrounding area, including Il Duce's villa."

The objects help tell the history of the 10th Mountain Division, which was formed as a ski troop division, fighting through some of the harshest mountain terrain in Italy. Officially designated on Nov. 6, 1944, the division entered combat on Jan. 28, 1945 in Italy's North Apennine Mountains.

"The final combat for the 10th Division took place in the vicinity of Lake Garda, a canyon lake at the foothills of the Alps," states the website for Fort Drum, home of the 10th Mountain Division. "On April 27, 1945, the first troops reached the south end of the lake, cutting off the German Army's main escape route to the Brenner Pass. The drive was delayed by destroyed tunnels and road blocks. Using amphibious DUKWs, these obstacles were bypassed and the towns of Riva and Tarbole at the head of the lake were captured. Organized resistance in Italy ended on May 2, 1945."

The letter on display at the museum isn't totally accurate, as Mussolini was captured on April 27 and killed the next day; therefore, he could not have been in "captivity of Italian partisans" when the soldiers reached Mussolini's villa.

"They didn't have access to history books per se at the time," Bolke said, "so they're running off their recollections of time, which is what they were trying to record by typing it up. ... So the dates are a little bit off, but then again they weren't present for the actual execution and it's not like they had access to go back through the newspapers at the time because they are in Austria."

One of the most fascinating stories about these Mussolini artifacts is the way they arrived at the museum.

"This arrived, believe it or not, in a standard, legal-sized envelope with no padding in the regular U.S. mail," Bolke said. "About six years ago, it just arrived. I opened up the letter, and I started to read it and then I realized what it was and I set it down. I put my gloves on, and then I proceeded to walk it up into my safe place. ... It was with one of the families for a number of years, and finally they decided it was time to donate it to the museum."

Eventually, the letter was sent to a paper conservator in Lockport who disassembled everything, treated the paper so it would not see any further degradation and then had it framed in Plexiglas with a UV filter to help prevent any further fading of the paper and objects inside.

Why did the letter come from the Office of the United States High Commissioner for Austria?

"After the war, the division disbanded," Bolke said. "Both of them (Ekern and Lueck) were pulled out of the division and did not head back to the United States in preparation for the attack on Japan because they were intelligence officers. They were sent to Austria, where they were then in charge of trying to help rebuild the government post-World War II."

These artifacts from Mussolini's closet mark the end of World War II in northern Italy. During the 114 days of combat against the Germans, the 10th Mountain Division had 992 of its soldiers killed in action and 4,154 wounded.

The division was tapped to be used for the invasion of Japan, but those plans were scrapped due to Japan's surrender on Sept. 2, 1945. After occupying Italy for a short period of time, the division was sent to Camp Carson, Colorado, where it was disbanded on Nov. 30.

"This is definitely one of my favorite artifacts, not only in the matter in which it just kind of arrived, but there's a connection to a world leader from the Axis powers," Bolke said about the Mussolini ribbons and epaulette. "More so is this really strong direct link to soldiers who were there."

From 1948 to 1958, the division was known as the 10th Division, without "Mountain" in the title, and it was officially reactivated on Feb. 13, 1985, at Fort Drum as the 10th Mountain Division (light infantry). Since then, soldiers from Fort Drum have served around the globe in places such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Haiti and Bosnia, and more soldiers will soon be on the way to eastern Europe as part of Operation Atlantic Resolve to reassure NATO allies of America's commitment to Europe after Russia's 2014 intervention in Ukraine.

 
 

 

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