From Montana to the Morrone – My Freedom Trail by Phil Petrilli

I live in Montana, USA, but my roots are in Sulmona. My paternal side of the family (Petrilli) left there in 1897 to come to America, and my maternal side (Cicerone) is still there. A while ago I decided that I wanted to learn about my heritage and, in doing so, realised that I was eligible for dual citizenship. That started a ten year journey with many dead ends, tracking down family and learning the stories that go with that. We are now dual citizens.

In the process, I met my family in Sulmona – Tonino Cicerone and his family and their friends. That has become a wonderful association, with annual visits back to Sulmona that have opened my eyes to beautiful Abruzzo and all that it offers. Short visits turned into longer stays – as long as three months. In the course, Tonino told me the story of the partisans in World War II , of the part played by his father, and of Campo 78.  I’ve even met some of the few, dwindling survivors.

A couple of years ago, my wife and I were finally able to plan our visit to be there for the three- day event. In fact, we were there early enough that I helped in the logistics work that led up to the march itself. Loading and unloading food supplies, gathering with the local townsfolk to break down the foodstuffs to last over the three day event. Lastly, just before the commencement of the trek, assembling the individual meals for the hundreds of hikers to sustain them on that first day, until they reached the first night’s camp. In other words, I not only experienced the hike as had the hundreds who did the hike, but so much of the behind- the-scenes work and commitment that goes to make it successful. It is a strong statement by those who volunteer to keep alive a wonderful tradition and what is also their powerful statement in memory of the many brave men and women who actually experienced the events of that time.

We assembled the morning of the first day and marched into town for the opening ceremony. Public officials, military, survivors of the war, descendants, and participants – old and young alike. I had never witnessed anything like it before, but it attuned me to the fact that others in Europe also keep alive the memory of what the Allies did to help. More than that, and starting with a few books only available in Italian, I began to research the history behind Campo 78, what the partisans did, and how they bravely contributed to bring the war to an end.

There are so many individual stories about the heroism of so many locals and how they helped and shared what little they had, all in the name of saving those Allied troops who managed to escape. But those are perhaps material for more stories to be shared in the future.

Well, back to the hike. We started out from the centre of Sulmona – hundreds of us. The more experienced keeping the pace for the rest of us. There was a new sense of friendship and association, happy young people walking in small groups, some individuals walking alone. A beautiful day, eventually breaking into open fields, then resting mid-day and beginning the upwards climb. I  marvelled at what we were doing when well equipped and with safety in numbers, versus what hardships the escapees and their guides faced. The escapees did it once, the towns people did it multiple times, guiding different soldiers, all to evade the Germans. In some cases they did not survive, lest we forget that.

In Campo di Giove, a gorgeous mountain town, there was a welcoming ceremony for the hikers, flags flying, the town had prepared food and drink and even music for the hikers. Then on to the camp site, where tents had been erected with large food tents to prepare and serve a delicious meal that had been carefully planned and paced so that everyone was fed.

Those who have not done the hike should try to take part. It is a wonderful experience to engage in. It also helps to bridge the gap between the memorial aspects – especially for the younger people who can experience that it was not an easy thing that these brave people did back then, and under much worse conditions.

My wife and I continued by taking part in the awards ceremony for the young students and even met the English and American military representatives who are sent by their countries to be sure the tradition stays alive and as a means to thank the Italian people for helping the escapees.

We hope that our children might participate in the trek some day and that it will be possible to continue to share the story of the brave people of Sulmona.

Phil Petrilli