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The incredible sacrifice of Salvo D’Acquisto

Just 22 when he gave up his life, the story of this young Carabinieri should be better known

By on Thursday, 26 July 2012


My last post about St Edith Stein brought to mind the figure of the Servant of God Salvo D’Acquisto, another martyr of love from the period of the Second World War. Back in 1995, I visited some of the places associated with him, and wrote an article for the print edition of this newspaper, which I have salvaged from the archives. I think people in the English-speaking world need to know more about this martyr, so here is the article, slightly adapted:

Modern Italy has few war heroes: Marshal Badoglio, King Victor Emmanuel, Mussolini – their names do not appear on public buildings. The attentive tourist will only see blank spaces where stonemasons have done their best to erase the past.

Only one soldier from the period is honoured today; he has squares, schools and streets named after him, He is an NCO named Salvo D’Aquisto, who died aged 22. He has a simple tomb in Santa Chiara, the most beautiful church, in his native Naples, and in Italy they are waiting for him to be canonised; when that happens Salvo D’Acquisto will be the first soldier saint of the Second World War. He is one of many buried in beautiful Santa Chiara. By the altar there’s Robert of Anjou; on the other side of the nave lies Blessed Cristina, Queen of Naples, surrounded by a clutch of Bourbons. Salvo D’Aquisto is in exalted company.

He was the eldest of eight children: three died in infancy, one in childhood; the youngest brother is still alive and living in Naples, and is now in his late seventies. The entire family, including a formidable grandmother, all lived in one large room in the Vomero quarter.

They were not particularly poor by the standards of the time. Their father worked in a chemical factory. Salvo himself was a studious child, even bookish, but still left school aged 14, as working-class boys did in those days.

At 18, the minimum age, having done a few jobs in the meantime, he enrolled in the Carabinieri, the oldest regiment in the Italian Army, which carries out the functions of a police force. Archbishop Giovanni Marra, Italy’s military bishop, describes Salvo as tall, athletic and with limpid eyes, “a true son of Southern Italy”; and so he was in more than just looks. No less than four of his immediate male relatives had enrolled in the Carabinieri a sure sign then that there were few alternative careers available for a talented but poor Neapolitan. He enjoyed the military life. There are facts all documented by the beatification process. In October 1939, as a young recruit, he stood guard outside Palazzo Venezia, where the vainglorious Duce was even then itching to enter the war.

He spent 18 months in North Africa on active service; he was recalled, promoted to NCO, and had his last posting in a little village north of Rome.

But these are only facts: one gazes at photographs, reads his letters home, and speaks to his brother. From these pieces a mosaic emerges of the life of the man who now lies in Santa Chiara. “So quiet you would hardly think he was Neapolitan,” a schoolmaster of Salvo’s says. Much given to the interior life, perhaps?

One sees the young soldier paddling in the Mediterranean, in grainy black and white; or wearing a pith helmet in Libya, smiling. “You are just the type of Neapolitan girl that I have always had in my heart and so much prized,” he writes to his madrina di guerra, a young lady called Maria, who, as was the custom, had sent him her photograph, along with a picture of the Sacred1 Heart, to bolster his morale. “I’ll keep them both next to my heart,” he tells her. In these fragments we see a life.

A typical son of the Italian South? Perhaps. Certainly devoutly Catholic. But there is more than that: his letters to his parents and to his madrina di guerra have a peculiar quality about them. No one could write them today. In seeking the man who lies in Santa Chiara one enters a lost world of purity and innocence. But he was not a plaster saint; unlike so many Italian soldiers, he did not have the good luck to be captured by the British.

When Italy changed sides in September 1943, Salvo was at his post at Torrimpietra, north of Rome; Victor Emmanuel and Badoglio had fled to Bari in a convoy of limousines, but Salvo stayed put. On 23 September, a Thursday, a day of special Eucharistic devotion, he went to confession, Mass and Holy Communion.

His commanding officer had been called to Rome that day, and Salvo was thus, at the age of 22, the senior representative of the Italian state in Torrimpietra. At eight that morning a party of Germans arrived, wearing the uniform of the dreaded SS. Salvo, ever polite, went to greet them, holding out a hand only to be struck by a rifle and taken away without even time to put on his jacket. What had happened was this; the day before, the SS, in occupying a medieval tower at nearby Palidoro had caused an explosion. One German was dead, two wounded, and sabotage suspected.

Despite the fact that the explosion was accidental, the commander of the SS had decided on reprisals. Twenty two local men had been rounded up and were going to be shot unless Salvo could point out the person responsible for the supposed crime.

It was to be a long day.

The Italian prisoners were ordered to dig a trench, some of them with their bare hands. The process of digging their own mass grave reduced many of them to tears.

Only Salvo kept calm and tried to reason with the SS. In vain. It was only at 5pm that he at last succeeded in persuading the SS to let their prisoners go. One of the prisoners stayed to see the outcome, while the others fled in gratitude. He was a 17-year-old boy, and the sole witness of Salvo’s death at the hands of the SS firing squad. For Salvo had convinced the Germans that he was responsible for the imaginary crime, and saved the lives of the 22 hostages in so doing. “You live once, you die once,” he had told the boy while they had been digging the trench that afternoon.

These are the facts, but behind them lies a story of generosity, bravery and Christian charity.

Here is one Italian who did not run away; one man who, in the sorry history of the war, did something immediate to save victims of unjust oppression.

He had been to Holy Communion early that morning; he made his thanksgiving by offering his life for his brethren. But unlike so many on the way to canonisation, the dust of the cloister does not hang heavy upon him. He lived in terrible times, but by his action of giving up his life for his friends, he redeemed them.

  • Veronica

    But it seems he is being canonized for telling an untruth…what would Mark Shea say?

  • http://xcontra.wordpress.com X Contra

    This man’s witness sounds like another saint, and a great saint: Maximilian Kolbe.  I thank you, Holy Spirit, for your grace.

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    I think that this case – telling an untruth to the SS or indeed to the Elizabethan poursuivants who were hunting down priests – is OK, and that there is an eleborate argument that justifies it. But I have forgotten what that argument is….

  • Lewispbuckingham

    So the SS shows up and asks ‘Are there any Jews here? You answer “No,not for the purposes you require them for’. the last bit not stated, this is a mental restriction.
    I don’t know the arguments in particular,but in this case to respond Yes would render to Caesar what is not for Caesar. The answer the actual question being asked  ‘Give me the Jews you hide ,if you hide them, so they may be killed?” would be a No, so truthful.

  • Lewispbuckingham

     ..The answer, should be to answer

  • Amy Mitchell

    Mmmm. Maybe taking responsibility for an”accident” because you are in charge of the town is not a lie. If you are responsible for the lives of the Italian prisoners, it may be your opportunity to be their deliverer. God send us more saints. 

  • mollysdad

    I think the argument that escapes you is that there is a conflict of duties. A duty not to betray someone to a murderer, and a duty not to lie. The lesser duty ceases to exist in that particular case.

  • Seminarian 2013

    There is no need to do mental gymnastics here. The object of the act changed from lying to giving his life for his friends. Let’s not forget that Our Lord died for a crime that he was falsely accused of as well.

  • Parasum

    That’s a dangerous argument.

    There is a valid form of this argument, if and when neither duty is being sacrificed to the other. What one can’t do, is to sacrifice the duty not to lie, to  the duty to save life. The good of not lying cannot be sacrificed to the good of saving life: both goods have to be treated as goods. One can’t treat either good as morally neutral, let alone as not good – because a good great or small, is still a good, even if it is a means to another good, or is less in  importance than another good.  

    Telling a lie to an enemy when it can prudently be foreseen that one’s own execution will result, is an act of injustice: to lie is unjust, and, it is unjust to the enemy, who are being led to soil their hands with innocent blood. They may not be culpable on that score – but they are still doing what is objectively wrong, as a result of being lied to. Killing the innocent is a great sin.

    *In the circumstances*, such a POV probably seems ridiculous, or worse, for all sorts of reasons – but if we start justifying one wrong, because it’s a “hard case”, there is a genuine danger that we shall start justifying other “hard cases” as well. It’s dangerous to make exceptions for a particular kind of activity – in this case, lying. To lie, even for a very good end, is for good to use poisoned weapons. It’s morally incoherent, and incoherence in morals or reasoning or the like always comes home to roost :(  If lying is sometimes OK in hard cases – what about equally hard cases in bio-ethics ? If lying in a hard case is sometimes tolerable – is it out of the question that euthanasia in hard cases  may sometimes be tolerable ?

  • Des McCarthy

    What a marvellous example of Faith,Commitment, and outstanding Courage.I am sure that he is enjopying his well-deserved joy in Heaven. Well done! Blessed Salvo D’Aquisito. 

  • James Uravil

    Thank you for the great inspiring story!

  • Gianna_51

    What a beautiful article, and what a brave man! May he watch over me ……

  • Edm11sak

    Heroism at its best. Deserves a sainthood with no delay. This is one of the most compelling examples of how little this world is against someone like (St.) Salvo.