Canadian Soldiers Brought Me Back To Life

Mr. Farnetti-Bragaglia officially recognizes Operation HUSKY soldiers that saved his life.

Italian town of Torrice, Canadian soldiers Paul Hagen and Ike Klassen investigated the sounds of what they believed to be a dog in distress. Instead, the two men stumbled across an almost-naked little boy near the battle ruins from a deadly encounter between Canadian and German armoured units. The five year old child was covered in filth, cowering in the middle of the wreckage and rubble of the quarry and so malnourished his belly was distended.

This is the story of Mr. Gino Farnetti-Bragaglia, now 76 years old. It is also the story of the brave and compassionate soldiers of C Platoon who tended to the boy’s wounds and fed him. The men managed to decipher that the boy’s name was Gino and his father had been killed in the rampaging war, while his mother had wandered off into the woods and could not be found.

In June of this year, Mr. Gino Farnetti-Bragaglia travelled from his native home in Italy to Canada to honour four Canadian soldiers from WWII Italian Campaign who touched his life when they rescued him from the ravages of war more than 70 years ago. Paul Hagen, Merton Massey, Doug Walker, and Lloyd ‘Red’ Oliver survived the war, but have since passed. Gino met with family members of his rescuers and reunited with members of his own extended family that he only recently learned reside in Canada.

“I often go back to those days during the war. This was an incident that changed my life completely,” explained Gino through an interpreter during an evening affair held at the Canadian War Museum on June 18, 2014. Of the time prior to being rescued, Mr. Farnetti-Bragaglia recalled, “My most important concern before I was found was about food. When I could find food, I could satisfy my needs.”

The Italian Campaign codenamed “Operation HUSKY” began in July 1943 with Canadian and allied troops landing in Sicily, a southern Italian island. The region was extremely dangerous and troops had to maintain a continuous stream of transport and supplies to the allied partners under the cover of darkness and the noses of the enemy.

By 1944 the battle for Sicily was won. In a fortunate twist of fate, June 1944 would see Canadian troops north of Frosinone, and in particular, C Platoon soldiers, who would go on to play a pivotal role in the life of an orphaned Italian boy. Deciding they could not leave him alone, the soldiers returned to base with Gino who spent his first night with the platoon, in a tent with Paul Hagen and Ike Klassen. His presence was only reported to the Platoon Commander, Lieutenant Smith the following morning.

“What I remember most is the care and love the men immediately had for me as soon as they found me,” recounted Mr. Farnetti-Bragaglia.

Lt Smith quickly located Gino’s village and people who knew him. The soldiers were told there were no known relatives. Due to the war, most of the villagers were destitute and few of them could feed their own, let alone an additional orphaned child. It was decided Gino would stay with C Platoon as they were better positioned to care for him.

Gino moved into the larger tent belonging to Lloyd ‘Red’ Oliver and Merton Massey, and the two Canadian soldiers became surrogate father figures, mentoring and tutoring him. The little orphan quickly won over the hearts of all his rescuers. He was taught English, numbers and the Bible passages by Red Oliver, was promoted to Corporal and became jokingly the mascot for C Platoon. He was often seen riding a bicycle around the base, doing his duty for the war effort as a dispatch rider.

“The soldiers were good to me. They had fun with me. They brought me back to life,” he recalled with tears welling in his eyes.

When the platoon moved locations, he moved with them, but Gino, who had no official documentation, could not leave the country. When it came time for the soldiers to leave Italy, Red Oliver, who had developed a particularly strong bond with Gino, received special permission to travel with Gino to Viserba, Italy.

On arrival, Oliver made arrangements with the town mayor and the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) unit under the leadership of Tony Monti to care for the boy.  An Italian partisan who was also part of the OSS unit adopted Gino and welcomed him into their family. It wasn’t until 10 years later that the courts would allow Gino to use the family name Farnetti.

Researchers who stumbled across his story three years ago were so intrigued they traced Gino and two of the Canadian soldiers, Paul Hagen and Red Oliver, and Gino’s adopted mother Rina Farnetti. The missing pieces to Gino’s life before his rescue were solved when a researcher found a christening certificate for Gino Bragaglia, son of Giuseppe and Filomena. With this vital piece of information they were finally able to trace the family roots.

In October 2013, Mr. Farnetti-Bragaglia travelled to Torrice, Italy for the first time since leaving in 1944. He met with his nieces and nephew and visited the cemetery where his parents and a brother are buried. He was given honourary citizenship of the town in December 2013 and has finally come full circle, filling in the missing pieces of his heritage.

Former Canadian Defence Attaché to Italy, Tony Battista, was instrumental in the coordination of Mr. Farnetti-Bragaglia’s visit to Canada. He worked with The Peace Through Valour Committee, which raised funds for a permanent monument to Canadian soldiers who helped liberate Italy, and organizers of Operation HUSKY 2013, an initiative that retraced the route that Canadian soldiers took during the Italian Campaign, to ensure the success of Mr. Farnetti-Bragaglia’s visit.

Many Canadians are unaware of the great contributions made by our soldiers during the Italian Campaign and even fewer are aware of stories like Gino’s. Like all Canadians who have fought in wars before or since the rescue, Paul Hagen, Merton Massey, Doug Walker, and Lloyd Oliver demonstrated compassion and selflessness. It is the mission of all Canadians to ensure that stories like this are remembered and shared, so we never forget the sacrifices, often hard won in the fight for freedom and the rights of all peoples.

By Helen Bobat
Army Public Affairs