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Miracle at St. Anna (Sept. 26, 2008)

World War II has been a constant source of inspiration for Hollywood over the years, and filmmakers have responded with countless tales of G.I.s landing in Normandy, and Marines slogging their way over Pacific islands. Yet despite the abundance of films on the subject, Spike Lee’s new movie, Miracle at St. Anna, introduces us to aspects of World War II not previously explored by filmmakers.

Lee chronicles the story of African-American soldiers who were part of the all-black 92nd Infantry division, sent to fight the Nazis in northern Italy in 1944. The story follows four soldiers who, thanks to an act of kindness toward an abandoned Italian boy, find themselves behind enemy lines and forced to seek refuge in a Tuscan village. Their encounters there with the Italian villagers, and their collective struggle against the advancing German forces, transform all their lives.
Based on James McBride’s novel of the same name (McBride also penned the screenplay) the historical accuracy in Miracle at St. Anna  reflects the years McBride spent researching the war in Italy. But it was initially inspired by the stories McBride heard as a child from his uncle, who served in the 92nd. ”While the story is fictional,” the author has said, “there is truth at its core.”  Below are some questions you may have on the real-life history to be found in the film.

Q. Were black soldiers usually kept out of combat?  
A. Yes. In the segregated military of World War II, African-American units were frustrated to find themselves disproportionately assigned as laborers and support troops. Of the 900,000 black soldiers serving in the Army in the European theater, only one black division saw infantry combat – the 92nd Infantry Division, known as the Buffalo Soldiers division.

Q. Why were they called “Buffalo Soldiers?”
A. The name originated in the 1870s, when black soldiers volunteered to serve in the U.S. cavalry. Their Indian enemies grew to respect them, and gave them the nickname. Some say the name stemmed from similarities between the curly hair of blacks and the hair of a buffalo. Other attribute it to the buffalo robes many black soldiers wore to supplement their skimpy, army-issued clothes in the cold winters on the Plains.   

Q. One of the film’s flashbacks shows black soldiers being refused service in a Louisiana diner where German POWs were welcomed. Did that really happen during the war?
A. Unfortunately, numerous incidents like that were reported throughout the Deep South. In 1944, a black soldier named Rupert Timmingham wrote an angry letter to Yank magazine, describing a similar incident in which he and eight other black soldiers were refused service at a lunchroom of a Texas railroad depot, and told they could get coffee only if they “went around back to the kitchen.”  As they did, "about two dozen German prisoners of war, with two American guards, came to the station. They entered the lunchroom, sat at the tables, had their meals served, talked, smoked, in fact had quite a swell time. I stood on the outside looking on, and I could not help but ask myself why are they treated better than we are? Why are we pushed around like cattle? If we are fighting for the same thing, if we are to die for our country, then why does the Government allow such things to go on?”  To its credit, Yank published the letter, but could offer no good response to Timmingham.

Q. The film shows Axis Sally broadcasting from a truck on the Italian front. True?
A. That part’s a bit farfetched. Axis Sally, a.k.a. Mildred Gillars, was an American turned Nazi propagandist whose sultry voice was well-known to Allied soldiers. But though the Nazis sent her radio broadcasts around Europe, she herself stayed put in Berlin. The film does nail the tone of her broadcasts, though --her warnings to American soldiers that their wives and sweethearts were cheating on them, and her urging them to lay down their weapons to save themselves from certain death.  

Q. Did the Nazis really issue an order to shoot ten Italian civilians for every dead German?
A. As the numbers and daring of Italian partisan fighters grew in 1944, so too did the Nazi determination to destroy them. That particular order had its roots in an incident in Rome in March, 1944. After partisans attacked and killed a group of thirty two SS officers, a furious Hitler ordered a massive retaliation. 335 Italians were rounded up and taken to caves, where the SS shot every one of them, then dynamited the caves shut to conceal the atrocity.

Q. So, the massacre shown in the film actually happened?
A. Though the German motivation for it is different than shown in the film, that infamous massacre did take place. In August of 1944, the SS rounded up 560 villagers and refugees – primarily women, children, and old people -- in Sant’ Anna di Stazzema, and gunned them all down. And though the film implies differently, there were, sadly, no survivors.

Q. Where can I find more information?
A. McBrides’s novel is great, or look at Italy at War by Henry Adams.

Cathy Schultz, Ph.D., is a history professor at the University of St. Francis in Illinois and writes a syndicated column on historical films. You can reach her at cschultz@stfrancis.edu

Black G.I.s bond with an young refugee on the Italian front in World War II.

© 2004 History in the Movies