WWII vet shares his story for school project
NAPLES, Italy — Tullio Biagini feels he’s lived a thousand lives.
His eight decades of tales weave a living history book that begins in his formerly Italian hometown of Parenzo, which is now in Croatia. He shares stories of being held prisoner of war by the Germans in World War II, and being forced to work in a coal mine after he escaped but was recaptured.
He lived “the American dream” of traveling to the United States in 1951. Three years later, he joined the U.S. Air Force, in part to become an American citizen, in part to repay a debt he felt he owned for his freedom. American soldiers had secured his release from a German POW camp.
Those memories, and many more, will be recorded on video by students at Naples High School as part of a project called “Freedom from Fear: Stories of Service — WWII,” which captures veterans’ histories through storytelling.
“It’s shocking to hear all of the things he did,” said Jennifer Marziali, 15, who is of Italian heritage. “What we’re doing is so important so people can see and hear his history, and see the impact he made on America and everyone. So many people don’t get to share in these stories, and the history just gets lost.”
Some of Biagini’s tales are sorrowful. In 1943, his hometown of Parenzo, on the Istrian peninsula, shifted from Italian domain to Yugoslavia. He found himself without a home or citizenship. He was drafted into the Italian army to serve Benito Mussolini’s regime. Once Italy turned against Germany, he was captured by German troops while on a train from Pisa to Florence.
He escaped once from a German-run prisoner-of-war camp, only to be recaptured weeks later in France. His punishment was to work in a coal mine — 80 meters below the earth’s surface.
As a German prisoner, he was in Cologne when allied forces bombed. He struggled along with the rest of the people to find food.
“There was burning all over. It was real terrible,” he says, in perfect English but with a thick Italian accent. “We’d go to cellars of burned-out houses to find something to eat, maybe a potato.”
Toward the end of the war, Americans secured his release and he returned to Italy, where he worked for five years as a teacher near Venice.
Then came a chance to go to America. He took it.
As a “stateless traveler,” one with no citizenship, he traveled to Minnesota and found a job with a pizza maker. (You could do that back then, he said.) But the harsh winters in Duluth were too much. He headed to California.
He fell in love with America and sought U.S. citizenship by joining the armed forces. His teaching background landed him in the education field, and in 1955, the Air Force granted his request to be stationed at Aviano Air Base. He was an only child and sought to be close to his parents, who managed to make it to Trieste following the Yugoslav takeover of Istria.
As education adviser at Aviano, he established the base’s education center and taught Italian at the University of Maryland campus. He left Aviano in 1962 and served at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, and Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C., before returning to Aviano in 1971.
In 1976, when an earthquake devastated many towns in the Friuli-Venezia-Giulia region, the Air Force “lent” him to the State Department, where he worked on American-funded projects to build schools for Italians. He did the same in the Naples area in the 1980s following a series of destructive earthquakes — this time, retired from the Air Force and working for State.