When Bill Lanza walks into Vinny’s Food Market on Malden Street every week, one would think he’s just like every other guy around the neighborhood.
He yucks it up with his buddies at the store, just like everyone else.
Who would know that all his life he’s been hiding a huge secret?
No one would guess the 93-year-old Ann Road resident once bailed from a bombed out Army fighter plane some 200 miles behind enemy lines, survived in a small cave for more than 60 days in Nazi-occupied Italy, evaded Nazi capture through the assistance of local Italian farmers, and then was sworn to secrecy by the government about those amazing events for five decades.
But recently, through the help of his nephew John Lanza, Bill learned that many World War II documents had been declassified in 1995, and that the documents that had held him to secrecy were no longer binding. In other words, he was free to talk about what had happened.
Having been cleared to speak of his experiences, Bill and John Lanza embarked on a project about four years ago to write an extensive book about Bill and the other crewmembers on that mission. The book chronicles each and every move that Bill Lanza made – including interviews from members of the Italian families that helped him and his friends during their ordeal.
“I knew my uncle had been missing in action,” said John, a Revere native and a retired banker now living in New Jersey. “I asked him what happened and he told me he couldn’t tell me much about the story, but he had evaded capture by the Nazis. He said he had been sworn to secrecy … The other three [crewmembers who evaded capture] died without telling their families anything. Their families never knew about what happened to them.”
However, through John Lanza’s research and writing, the entire story about Bill and all the other crewmembers has been confirmed, documented and published in the book ‘Shot Down Over Italy,’ which hit the stores this July. That book and Bill’s experiences will be discussed at a book signing in the Revere Public Library this coming Tuesday, September 14.
“I only planned this to be a book of 150 pages,” said John Lanza. “When I was two years into it, I thought that I could probably include all the men on the mission. That took another two years, but the point is, I did find them and there’s a story for each one…It turned out to be a great retirement project.”
Now, after reading Bill Lanza’s recently revealed exploits of some 60 years ago, the regular guy that likes to frequent Vinny’s Food Market doesn’t seem so regular anymore.
In fact, he seems quite heroic.
“That was 65 days of sweating bullets,” said Bill, wiping his brow for emphasis and then pretending to shake off the sweat.
THE 28TH MISSION
It was the end of May 1944, and Bill Lanza was preparing to embark on his 28th bombing mission over Nazi territory in Italy.
He put on his flight goggles, secured his parachute and put on his gunner’s gloves.
The sergeant had originally been an infantryman when he started in the war, but the military was desperate for men to operate aircraft guns, and Lanza signed up without much thought.
He had taken a crash course (no pun intended) on flying and had his wings in no time. For most of his missions, he was a gunner.
On that fateful day in May, he was working the guns in the tail of a B-25 Mitchell bomber.
They were flying deep into German territory – near Florence, Italy – to bomb out a bridge. All went well, Lanza said, until about 20 miles south of Florence.
Germans had spotted the plane and fired heavily on them – making a direct hit on the engines.
“We were in a dive at a 45-degree angle,” said Lanza in a recent interview with the Journal. “The co-pilot told my friend that he had one foot on the instrument panel and was trying to keep the plane from rolling over. When we got hit, the guns got knocked right out of my hands and when I turned around, my legs got knocked right up in the air. We tried to open the hatch and it wouldn’t come loose so we kicked it out. You knew we were hit badly because you could smell the smoke.”
The only problem was Lanza never had any training on bailing out of a plane.
The military had given him such quick training and got him in a plane so quickly, that no one ever bothered to show him how to jump from a plane, never mind how to operate a parachute.
“When your life is on the line, your mind becomes sharp; you become the smartest guy in the world,” said Lanza. “I never got instructions on bailing out, but yet I was the only one in the crew that didn’t get injured. I happened to remember a guy telling me years before that if you ever bail out, use your arms as a hinge, and that’s what I did.”
So, despite scraping the bottom of the plane as he jumped out, and not knowing how to operate or deploy his parachute, Lanza made it to the ground safely.
Sadly, the pilot did not make it. In order to allow the others to bail out safely, he had to stay at the controls, and he ended up sacrificing his life – going head-on into a mountainside.
HITTING THE GROUND RUNNING
Gravity brings one to the ground very fast when bailing from 7,000 feet in the air.
Lanza hit the ground running, literally.
“I landed in a field and there were no trees around,” he said. “When I hit the ground, my flying goggles were on my head. The lenses popped right out, cleanly.”
Lanza said he quickly dropped his parachute and began removing his cumbersome gear. As he did so, two young Italian boys came over to him and embraced him. Meanwhile, he knew the Nazis were on his trail – as the plane had gone down in a loud, fiery spectacle.
“An Italian farmer came to me and in the meantime, I could hear the German vehicles on the road coming my way,” he said. “The farmer just pointed in a direction – saying to go that way. So I ran in that direction towards an area that was wooded…I got to the top of a big hill and I was exhausted. I had to stop and I found some leaves on the ground and, being an infantryman, concealing and camouflaging was number one. I got into a little depression in the ground and covered up with the leaves. I only had my mouth sticking out.
“The Germans came and I could see them and they couldn’t see me,” he continued. “After a while, their shooting and their voices got farther and farther away. Then they were gone.”
Three other men in the crew had also evaded the enemy. However, two men ended up getting captured and spent more than a year in a torturous Nazi prison camp, Lanza said.
“They suffered a great deal for more than a year,” he said. “It was tough for them.”
Luckily for Lanza, his parents had been Italian immigrants.
He had grown up in East Boston and moved to Prospect Avenue in Revere with them in the 1930s. Needless to say, the Italian language was a staple in Lanza’s home, so he knew enough Italian to communicate well with the Italian farmers he met.
He had also been taught in military training that the Italian farmers, known as partisans, were often helpful to the Allies; that many of them could be trusted to help in a time of crisis.
That was just the case for Lanza.
Entrusting his well being to an Italian sharecropper named Riccardo Becattini and a landowner named Goffredo Sarri, Lanza was able to survive in hiding and finally get back to safety.
Becattini had been the farmer that told Lanza to run, and later he and his family had summoned the help of Sarri. They dressed him in the common clothes of the Italian countryside and walked him through the local village, in some cases going right past German soldiers.
“I was right by the Germans and I said to myself ‘Am I dreaming?’” said Lanza. “I walked right by them in that village and he took me to the farmhouse where he lived and that’s where I stayed for 65 days – in a cave on his land.”
Sarri, Becattini and their families would often covertly visit Lanza and another crewmember that was also hiding in the cave, brining them pasta, soups and a lot of bread. They would ask questions and tell them about what was going on with the Germans.
However, Lanza didn’t need anyone to tell him about the Germans. He could see them from where he was hiding.
“The Nazi headquarters was about 100 yards from where I was hidden,” said Lanza. “They never knew I was there, but I definitely knew they were there. I could see them doing calisthenics every morning from my cave…I could hear their machine guns going all night. They had a very fast sounding machine gun – much faster than the American ones – and it drove me crazy.”
And while it was dangerous for Lanza in his little hiding spot some 200 miles behind enemy lines, it was just as dangerous for the Italian farmers who were helping him.
“When people there got caught helping Americans – it was no questions asked,” said Lanza. “There were a lot of atrocities. They killed about 200 that I heard of.”
ON TO SAFETY
Two months had passed since Lanza’s plane went down, and the Germans were slowly pulling their troops out of the countryside.
That’s when Sarri prepared Lanza and others for an escape.
The farmer had sent a letter to the German commander telling him that he was going to be escorting some miners through the area. The miners, however, were Lanza and another American crewman.
The biggest test was crossing a bridge outside of the village that was heavily fortified with German soldiers.
“The Germans were in foxholes and they were shooting at planes that were bombing the area,” said Lanza. “They must have thought we were nuts because bombs and bullets were flying everywhere as we walked by. They couldn’t be bothered with civilians and we were in regular clothes and looked like refugees.”
Distracted by the fighting, the German soldiers paid no mind to Lanza and the others as they crossed the bridge. However, just as they were in the middle, an American plane buzzed the bridge – distracting everyone even further.
“On the other side were a bunch of Germans and a bunch of their trucks,” said Lanza. “They assumed we had been challenged on the other side of the bridge. We hadn’t been, so we got through. We walked right past the Nazi trucks.”
From there they stayed in the sub-basement of a Silesian church with several Jewish families that were also in hiding. The next day Lanza was able to find safe harbor with some English soldiers.
The ordeal was finally over.
BACK HOME, BIG SECRETS
Lanza said that several days after being rescued, he was interviewed by military intelligence about the events. He told them who had helped him and how he had survived.
Upon his return to America, he said he was interviewed again in a room at LaGuardia Airport in New York. It was there, he said, that he again signed paperwork that indicated he could not disclose anything about his experiences in Italy.
The secrecy was mostly employed to protect the Italian farmers that had helped him evade the Germans. After the Allies left Italy, many of those who had helped Americans were subject to violent attacks – even many years after the war had ended.
In 1975, the American government recognized and awarded Sarri for helping Lanza and others. However, the documents that detailed their story remained classified until 1995.
Lanza never spoke about the details of his experiences until just four years ago.
Never did he mention it to his wife, Yola, or to his three daughters, Patricia, Suzanne or Anne Marie.
He simply went back home to Revere and became just another regular guy, albeit a regular guy holding in a very big secret.
Now, however, with the help of his nephew, John, the secret is out, and Lanza said it feels good.
“I am enjoying the publicity after all these years, but really, war is awful, really awful,” he concluded, directing his eyes to the ground.