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Italy Bringing Back World War II Remains

November 21, 2003

ROME (AP) _ With a rust-coated blade and toothbrush, Massimo Palleschi scratched away at 60 years of dirt from a military dog tag, revealing the name of an Italian soldier who perished on the Russian front in one of Italy’s most disastrous military adventures.

While last week’s loss of 17 members of Italy’s military mission in Iraq in a suicide bombing provoked an outpouring of public mourning, the relatives of some 70,000 Italian soldiers who never returned from the World War II Russian campaign are still dealing with private grief. After decades, they wait for their loved ones’ remains to come home.

By bringing back bones, military IDs and bits of uniforms from Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union, Italy is slowly closing the chapter on some of the most painful pages of its modern history.

The nearly quarter-million Italian troops sent by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini to help ally Germany’s forces largely lacked the warm clothing and cold weather survival skills of the Russians.

With most of their vehicles broken down or seized in battle, Italians trudged in retreat, often over hundreds of miles during the winter of 1942-1943. Many died in forced marches to prison camps. Others survived the cruel journey, only to die in concentration camps as far away as Siberia.

Palleschi’s work, in a tiny room in the Defense Ministry’s war memorial office in Rome, has been possible only since 1991. The collapse of the Soviet Union allowed Italy to sign accords with several former Soviet republics to search vast swaths of the countryside for mass graves or sites of WWII concentration camps.

On the same day as the Nov. 12 bombing outside Italian police headquarters in Nasiriyah, Iraq, Palleschi gave relatives a dog tag inscribed ``Palombi Mario″ and a star from a bar on the sleeve of a uniform showing rank. It was practically all that remained from the uniform of Mario Palombi, a radio operator in the campaign against Russia.

From accounts of a comrade who survived, the 21-year-old Palombi was killed by Russian cannon fire as the Italians were trying a desperate retreat across the frigid expanse toward Ukraine.

``In his letters, he talked about the immense cold, the immense, immense cold,″ said Angelo Palombi, two years younger than Mario. ``He was always asking us to send him wool garments.″

Every brief Russian summer, before the ground turns rock hard again with cold, a small team of Italian military officers oversees Russian crews who excavate sites where Italians were believed to be buried. Palombi’s remains were found this summer near a bend in the Don River.

His brothers and sister want his remains buried in Rome in the family tomb, where a photograph of Mario and the inscription ``missing since Dec. 15, 1942″ were placed more than a half-century ago over one of their parents’ graves.

``You never accept death. But now he is no longer missing. He is fallen in war,″ Angelo Palombi said.

Col. Giorgio Fajfer, who was on the team that found Palombi’s remains, said many relatives never stop thinking about those who did not return.

``Every day I receive some 10 calls from families asking if there is news. Some tell us they made a promise to their mother on her death bed to try to get their loved one’s remains home,″ the colonel said.

So far, the remains of 10,252 men have been found in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.

Some remains can’t be dug up, like those in a row of graves now under a lane of highway, said Fajfer.

The Italian search teams found an entire column of 230 men in a kind of underground vault where villagers store pickles. Fajfer said one family allowed their kitchen floor to be removed.

Most of the unearthed remains bear the designation ``unknown″ soldier. Palleschi does what he can to identify them. He uses a few drops of lemon juice to remove dirt from bits of stiff cloth from soldiers’ uniforms, where their names were written in indelible ink. When only some letters are legible, he punches the letters into a computer bank of the 70,000 names to try to find the complete name.

In many places, dog tags weren’t found.

Fajfer said many surviving soldiers tossed them away, believing the IDs of their fallen comrades would bring bad luck to an already cursed existence.

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