Bishop's memories of World War II Army service in Italy still vivid

IMAGE: CNS photo/Archdiocese of Philadelphia

By Lou Baldwin

(CNS) — It is no accident that each year many films shown on television between
Memorial Day and the June 6 anniversary of D-Day center on World War II.

all, with more than 16 million men and women under arms, it was easily the
largest and deadliest war ever fought by the United States.

a tiny percentage of them are still alive, and one of them is a Catholic bishop
— retired Philadelphia Auxiliary Bishop Louis A. DeSimone, 95.

in 1944, he was Sgt. Louis DeSimone, a 22-year-old translator of Italian attached
to the headquarters of the U.S. Fifth Army. Joining it in Casablanca, Morocco,
during the African campaign and continuing through Sicily, up the Italian boot
to Montecassino and after that to the deadly Anzio beach landing, he arrived in
Rome a few days after the bloodless liberation of the Italian capital.

could not know it immediately, but this last event would affect his entire

DeSimone minimizes his wartime exploits by explaining he was not a frontline
infantryman, he was part of the support staff. But the young sergeant was
definitely in harm’s way, just a step or two behind the action. He saw things
he would rather forget.

Pennsylvania native born in Bridgeport in 1922, Bishop DeSimone is the
eldest and last surviving of three brothers. The thought of priesthood was on
his mind, but he wasn’t quite sure about it at the time.

he was at then-Villanova College, America entered World War II. A military
recruiter came to the campus telling students they could enlist to serve in the
branch of their choice but stay in school until they were needed.

chose the Army because my father (Anthony DeSimone) was an American soldier in
France during World War I,” Bishop DeSimone said. “I wasn’t sorry to go in, I
wanted to serve my country.”

was just one semester shy of graduation when the recruiters came back and told
him it was time. The reason became clear later. There was a need for young men
who could speak Italian fluently because the invasion of Italy was on the drawing

his stateside training — the only time he actually fired a gun — he was
shipped off to Casablanca and assigned to Fifth Army headquarters there as a translator.
He worked mostly under the chief chaplain, Father John Ryan, who was a major.

DeSimone’s task would be smoothing communications with the local population and
sometimes finding a priest who could celebrate Mass for the troops or refugees.
He also sometimes worked as an interpreter for other officers, including Gens.
Mark Clark and Alfred Gruenther.

leaving Casablanca in summer 1943, his first stop across the Mediterranean was
Sicily, then up through southern Italy with hard fighting all the way.

the Fifth Army worked its way north, Bishop DeSimone especially remembers the
swarm of planes thick as locusts on their way to bomb Montecassino. By this
time, the Mussolini government had fallen and most of Italy was occupied by
German army units, including those firmly entrenched around the historic abbey.

officers who had come over to the Allies, Bishop DeSimone recalled, advised
against the bombing because the occupying Germans were in caverns under the abbey
unreachable by the bombs. But it was bombed anyway.

the time Sgt. DeSimone arrived at the scene, the fighting had moved on, but the abbey
was just rubble.

was mostly people from the town who came up to the abbey for protection that
died,” Bishop DeSimone said in an interview with, the news
website of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

also recalled the deadly battle for Anzio not far from Rome, which began Jan.
22, 1944, where the Allied forces made a surprise beachhead landing. While
successful in the end, more American soldiers died in a single day in that
battle than any other of the war.

it all, “You could not miss the horror, not only the military deaths but the
starving people. It was an unbelievable experience,” said Bishop DeSimone.

went ashore after the heavy fighting, disembarking from a tank landing ship, known as an LST. It was a flat-bottomed landing craft
in use at that time.

in the area, he happened upon a local cemetery. Trucks were pulling up and
literally dumping the bodies or body parts on the ground, where burial crews
wearing masks were sorting them out by nationality for interment.

an Allied breakthrough near Rome, the German high command decided not to defend
the city and retreated, leaving it almost intact. A Fifth Army contingent
entered it June 5, 1944, and Bishop DeSimone said that when he arrived two or
three days later, the crowds were still cheering and blowing kisses to the
American soldiers.

of his first tasks was to accompany Father Ryan, the chaplain, to Vatican City,
a neutral party during the war. Its great plaza was blocked off by a high
wooden wall. They met with Vatican City’s president, Cardinal Nicola Canali, and
arranged for a victory Mass to be celebrated at Santa Maria Della Angeli, a
huge church.

had 10,000 troops there, Gen. Clark and Gen. Guenther also attended,” Bishop
DeSimone recalled.

Pius XII had several audiences for the troops. One particularly stands out in Bishop
DeSimone’s mind because he was given a front seat as an Italian speaker. The pope
actually spoke very good English.

Pius went down the line giving individual soldiers a warm greeting and asking them
what they did in civilian life.

he came to me and grabbed my hand, I told him I was thinking of becoming a priest,”
Bishop DeSimone recalled. Pope Pius replied, “I’ll pray for you.” Right then Sgt.
DeSimone decided yes, he would be a priest.

used that in my letter of application to St. Charles Seminary,” he said. “I
think that’s what got me in.” He also received a recommendation for the
seminary from Msgr. (later Cardinal) Francis Brennan, whom he met in Rome. The Philadelphia
priest and Vatican official opted to remain in Vatican City during the war.

he returned home, Sgt. DeSimone applied and was accepted. Meanwhile, his brother
Russ entered the Augustinians and a bit later his brother Sal entered the
seminary for the Diocese of Camden, New Jersey.

A. DeSimone was ordained to the priesthood by Archbishop John F. O’Hara May 10,
1952. He was named an auxiliary for Philadelphia in 1981, finally retiring in 1995.

the many wonderful events in his life, and of all the distinguished people he
encountered, it is that brief conversation with Pope Pius XII, after which he
said yes to the Lord, that is the most unforgettable.

well knows that just because he carried a carbine and didn’t fire a machine
gun, he very easily could have been killed at almost any time on that long
journey through Sicily and Italy to Rome. He wasn’t, and he thanks God for this
and for every blessing that followed.

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writes for, the news website of the Archdiocese of

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