Thursday, January 17, 2008

Why I Owe My Life to Italian Technology

Several years ago while I was clearing out some papers after my father died, I found a paper weight that my father had kept on his desk. I knew it was the fuse from an artillery shell, but I always assumed it was one of those things that dad made to pass the time during his naval service. He was a Chief Machinist Mate and often used the ship’s machine shop for home projects. We have several examples of this free time activity and this seemed to be just one more. I put the paper weight on a book shelf and forgot about it.

Recently, I happened to pick it up and noticed that the bottom of it had been stamped “PALERMO SICILY MARCH 3 1944 DUD”. Now this was a bit of a mystery. My father had been on the USS Ericsson (DD 440) during the war. I knew that his ship had supported the Sicily invasion, but I had never heard any story about this particular artillery fuse. My curiosity lead me to consult with the archivist at the D Day Museum here in New Orleans and I spent an afternoon trying to compare this fuse to their collection of artillery shells without any luck. We noticed that the fuse had what appeared to be a corporate logo engraved in it. It was “GNUTTI” within an oval. After an internet search, I found that there are several companies in Italy with the name Gnutti. Gnutti Sebastiano and Figli is one of them, and in their web site, they admit to producing fuses during WW II. They now produce plumbing fixtures.

So, part of the mystery solved. But how did it come into my father’s possession and why did he keep it for so long? It had to have some meaning for him because he went to the trouble of de-arming it, filling it with lead, stamping the memorial information on it and then keeping it with his papers. Therefore, I assume that this particular shell must have landed within the compartment that he occupied, failed to explode, and that he then decided to keep it as a memorial to the event and his salvation.

I try to imagine what it was like back then. We forget the kind of courage that the WW II veterans displayed as part of their daily lives during the war. Dad was a Chief Machinist Mate. That meant he probably spent his time below decks tending to the engines. They were below decks and below the water line. They were locked in because their compartment had to be pressurized with large blowers to force feed air to the boilers. The only way out was through a small air lock. They were surrounded by pipes carrying high pressure, superheated steam. If one breaks, you will be horribly burned. They had no idea what was going on above them on the surface but knew they had to keep the propellers turning in answer to the commands from the bridge. A shell exploding in their compartment could kill in several different ways: the blast, burns from ruptured steam lines and drowning. This shell had to have caught their attention and they probably spent the next several hours anxiously watching and waiting for it to explode. No place to run, no place to hide. I can imagine the ordinance man finally disarming the thing and then telling dad, “You are one lucky Son of a Bitch, Robbie” and then giving him then fuse as a memento.

It might not have happened that way, but I like to think that it did. Because if it had exploded, I might not have been born some 5 years and 6 months later. If I ever get to Italy, I’m going to look up Gnutti Sebastiano and Figli and thank them.

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