Herman Chanowitz, 93, is a World War II veteran and Naples, Italy, resident.

Herman Chanowitz, 93, is a World War II veteran and Naples, Italy, resident. (Sandra Jontz / S&S)

Herman Chanowitz survived three years of World War II unscathed by any bullet or mortar — from the battlefields of Africa to Italy, France and Germany — only to be shot by accident 10 years ago while walking the streets of Naples on his way to a Sunday morning music concert near Piazza Dante.

It’s a funny story now, he says — but one he’s reluctant to share.

The 93-year-old veteran would much rather talk for hours about the triumphs and hardships he and fellow soldiers of the 2nd Tactical Air Communications Squadron endured more than six decades ago.

But he relents to personal questions, and describes how, on the morning of May 17, 1998, he was walking along a path from the subway station to the music academy that led him in front of a local police station. There, a mobster from Naples’ Camorra clan was on furlough for the day to spend Sunday with his family. And there, too, mobsters from a rival clan, waited.

Shots rang out, the Camorrista was hit and killed, and Chanowitz recalls looking down to see blood on his right lower leg and shoes.

"I remember thinking ‘I’ve been shot, now what do I do?’ "

A passer-by on a motor scooter took him to nearby Pellegrini hospital.

A little anger lingers, 10 years later.

"They ruined my best pants."

Life of a survivor

Chanowitz starts his mornings just about the same every day. He listens to the news on AFN, lifts a few pounds of weights to keep in form, and has a breakfast of bran cereal and skim milk.

Then it’s off to the NATO base a few miles from his home — either on foot or in his beat-up gray 1989 Opel — to chat with friends and catch up on daily news reading the International Herald Tribune available at the base library.

His body lives in the present, yet his mind is all too happy to live more than 60 years ago — in the trenches near Cassino, Italy, for example, where he and fellow soldiers would go weeks without bathing, and often lived off the one-canteen-a-day of rationed water.

Chanowitz is one of 2.3 million surviving World War II veterans, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs as of November 2008. Some 16.1 million Americans served in the war, according to the department.

A captain in the U.S. Air Corps, Chanowitz joined the Army after earning a degree in applied science from Michigan State University, thinking that a military job in communications was close enough to scientific. "I understood well the world of communications during the war."

The squadron left Dec. 12, 1942, from the Staten Island Port of Embarkation aboard the Dorothea L. Dix, a "knife-keeled and wobbly troopship," as described in a yearbook the squadron assembled at the end of the war.

"In July 1943 the Squadron received its first baptism of fire as a unit on the beaches at Gela, Sicily. It was in Sicily that air-ground cooperation first reached full effectiveness, and a very great share of the air accomplishments in cooperation with the ground forces in Sicily must go to the 2nd TAC for its smooth work in furnishing the communication net between air and ground," reads the forward, written by Col. George L. Hart, chief of staff for the XII Tactical Air Command.

"Every officer and every enlisted man who is now serving or who has ever served overseas with the 2nd TAC Squadron may be justly prideful of his unit, and enjoy the deep satisfaction of knowing that he has served his country well."

Chanowitz thumbs through the book’s well-worn pages.

He’s proud.

He’s passionate about the intimate, detailed stories of the war. He tears up when asked why. "Do you know how many people died? How many graves?"

He sends a visitor to the kitchen to fetch a glass of water, to recover his composure alone.

Still learning

It’s stifling in the couple’s first floor, two-bedroom Bagnoli apartment, where he and his wife of nearly 63 years, Adriana, have lived for nine years. "She’s like the Vesuvius — a volcano when she speaks. Full of spirit," he chuckles.

"She likes it hot," he says apologetically of the apartment’s heat.

He then shuffles along the tiled living room floor and settles at a rounded kitchen table in front of the living-room balcony window: It’s here he likes to spend hours — gazing at the Tyrrhenian Sea lapping the beach some 200 meters from their home.

"Right now I’m reading this," he says, handing over a slightly worn copy of "A Scientist at the Seashore," by James S. Trefil. "I’m trying to figure out what the hell is happening out there.

"I’ve learned I don’t understand a hell of a lot," he chuckles.

Not a fan of television and the programs of "crap," he devours countless books, on subjects ranging from self-hypnotism, to volumes on how the human mind and body work, the sciences, economics and war chronicles.

A copy of "Computers for Seniors" sits among other computer-related books on the bowing top shelf of a wooden bookcase in his cramped and disheveled reading room.

"Five Equations that Changed the World: The Power and Poetry of Mathematics" remains one of his favorites — books he either checks out from the library, or orders the old-fashioned way: through catalogs.

"Oh yes. Of course," he says when asked if he’s familiar with computers, the Internet and e-mailing. "I’m old, not out of touch."

He doesn’t keep in touch with any of his former comrades.

"Most, if not all, are dead now," he says.

He has played tour guide often to a group of Texan veterans and families who traveled to Italy to retrace the war path the 36th Infantry Division took.

"Herman is one of my ‘guardian angels’ over the years that I have brought veterans and families to Italy to retrace the battles of the 36th Infantry Division," said Patti Stickle, daughter of "T-Patcher" William "Gregg" Wiley. The unit was known as the "T-Patchers" because of the large "T" in the middle of the blue arrowhead on the unit patch. The "T" represents the unit’s origin as a National Guard division mostly made up of Texans.

"[Herman] is, without a doubt, one of the most incredible people I have ever met. He is so active and such a catalyst for people to meet and join in common interests. He never ceases to amaze me and I only want to live into my 90s if I can be as active and involved as Herman."

A home abroad

Herman and Adriana’s romance began more than 60 years ago, when her family fled to the mountain town of Agerola, roughly 30 miles from Naples near the famed Amalfi Coast, to escape the Allied bombings in Naples.

One September day of 1943, a young American soldier passed through the town, seeking fresh tomatoes. He ran into one of Adriana’s brothers, who spoke no English. Chanowitz spoke no Italian. They both spoke a little German.

Her brothers liked him from the first moment, she recalls. She, though slightly smitten, was hesitant. The devout Catholic kept reminding her brothers that their darling American soldier was Jewish. They’d get him to convert, she recalls her brothers promising.

But Chanowitz’s unit moved on — to France and then into Germany. The couple wrote letters back and forth — which had to pass via his mother in the United States, to the Red Cross and the Italian postal system. Five to six weeks passed between each love letter.

When the war ended, Chanowitz returned to Naples. They married in November 1945. Three months later, they were Chicago-bound.

They settled in Highland Park, near neighborhoods where many Italians settled. But she delivered an ultimatum in 1977: Return to Italy with her or live alone in the States. She missed her family too much to stay away, though she visited roughly every other year. The couple tried to have children. Four times, she either miscarried or the baby died within days of birth.

"I knew God was telling me that if I had children, I’d never return to my home in Italy, to my family," the petite Adriana, 86, mumbles.

And Herman returned to the city some 25 miles south of his most intense war memories.

He landed a job at the NATO base teaching math and physics at University of LaVerne in the evenings, and working for an Italian electronics company translating technical documents.

Through the news pages of the International Herald Tribune, he keeps tabs on the nation’s current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are the obvious similarities and differences, he says: War is hell no matter where it’s fought. But today’s soldiers have means of instant communications back home.

He’s struck most by today’s lack of distinct battlefield boundaries.

"Back then, you knew who your enemy was. He wore a uniform. I can’t imagine a child being used to carry a bomb. We loved children."

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