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Former ‘Gladiators’ Tell of Secrecy, U.S. Contacts

November 20, 1990

ROME (AP) _ Every once in a while, Umberto Bilisco used to disappear for a few hours into the attic. His parents thought he was looking for a book. But Bilisco was on a secret mission.

Working alone, the young state employee would carefully set up sophisticated radio equipment. As his parents placidly watched TV downstairs in their home in the northern city of Trieste, Bilisco would practice calling the contacts he would need during a Soviet bloc invasion.

Bilisco was one of 622 Italians who belonged to an anti-Communist network recently exposed in Europe. Set up by secret services in the 1950s, in some cases with CIA help, it was coordinated through NATO.

Throughout Western Europe, men and women like Bilisco secretly trained for years in how to blow up bridges, conduct secret radio conversations and organize a resistance movement in the event of invasion.

The organization, in many cases, is only being dismantled now.

″I entered this organization with enthusiasm,″ said Bilisco, now 64. ″Here in Trieste, we had terrible moments after the war.″

Bilisco and a few dozen other members of the Italian organization have been exposed by the press since Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti last month disclosed the existence of the group, known as ″Operation Gladio.″

Those who agreed to interviews have described years of secrecy in which they were spirited off to military bases for training or contacted by strangers using code names.

Several say they met U.S. military officials during their training in the 1960s. Their reports contradict statements by some U.S. officials that Washington helped organize the units but had nothing to do with them after the 1950s.

Like Bilisco, most say they joined Gladio out of patriotism and fear of an invasion during the Cold War.

″Today, with things the way they are and the way Gorbachev has changed Europe, there’s no more need for a service of this kind,″ said Mattia Passudetti, 70, a former ″gladiator″ from Udine.

″But if conditions were the same as back then, there would be.″

Operation Gladio has caused an uproar in Italy because of speculation by politicians and newspapers that it might be linked to a series of unsolved terrorist attacks in the 1960s and 1970s attributed to the right wing.

But the members of Gladio - named for the swords carried by Roman gladiators - deny such assertions.

″All the things we learned were things that would help in a guerrilla movement, in the case of war,″ Bilisco said in a telephone interview. ″They never said anything about politics.″

The Italian ″gladiators″ received training at a base on the island of Sardinia and at a military installation near Rome, according to the accounts. Periodically, exercises were held in northern Italy.

It was during such an exercise that Gianmario Pierantoni, 60, worked with American soldiers, he said.

″I only know that it was a group coming from Vietnam, the Airborne Cavalry,″ Pierantoni said in a telephone interview from Verona.

″We did a training exercise ... a Viet-Cong type thing among the hills,″ he said. Pierantoni practiced escorting people out through enemy lines during the 1965 exercise, which involved four to five Italians and a squad of Americans, he said.

Passudetti said two American military men as well as some French- and German-speaking officers observed his training exercise in September 1962.

Unlike the others, Bilisco said he worked only with Italians.

The state land-surveyor entered Gladio in 1960 at the invitation of an old school friend, he said.

″I joined on condition it was an organization recognized by the state,″ he said. ″He assured me it was.″

Bilisco took a four-month night course at a local school to learn how to communicate by radio. Then, during a two-year period, a mysterious instructor who seemed to be a police officer came to Trieste frequently to train him further.

The lifelong bachelor went to a military base near Rome three times for instruction with others, whom he knew only by their first names. The last session was in 1980.

The group also held a practice exercise in the mountains near Bergamo in northern Italy, he said.

″My job was to receive messages and transmit the organizational plans,″ he said. ″We simulated a guerrilla situation. When a plane passed over, we had to hide.″

Bilisco has no regrets about his years in the secret organization.

″If by chance, during the training, I learned that there was something fishy, I would have resigned immediately,″ he said. ″I saw it was legal - secret, but of the state.″

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