The retired aerospace engineering/technician was totally surrendered to the Lord. But for this fact, I would have found his war stories incredible. As he recounted them to me now, I understood his decades of silence on the subject; he had assumed no one would believe him.
I listened in awe as Vito Parisi spoke. During World War Two, he had been one of twenty-seven young men from his church called into the armed forces. The church devoted one night each week to special prayer for the protection and safe return of its boys.
Like most of the church's servicemen, Vito endured years of intense fighting. His twenty-six months of combat were served in Europe with the Thirty-fourth Infantry Division. He fought at Anzio and Cassino. At Cassino, his battalion suffered extreme casualties. From among some 1000 troops, he was one of only one hundred and ninety-eight men not killed or wounded.
He told of the unseen protector who overshadowed him throughout his war years, rescuing him, at least twice, from certain death. At Anzio, this protector saved his entire squad! During a battle on the beachhead, the squad had taken refuge in an abandoned house. Vito heard a voice ordering him to get his buddies from their room; German artillery was targeting that side of the house! Moreover, it instructed him to leave last of all!
No one else heard the voice, and the command was repeated three times before Vito, himself, believed what he was hearing. Finally, he pushed his friends from the room, insisting that a shell was going to hit it. They thought he lost his mind; until a shell came crashing through the wall seconds after Vito followed his buddies across the threshold! It exploded exactly where the soldiers had been resting, injuring no one.
Vito's unseen companion saved him at Cassino, too. Incessant strafing by German planes had rendered Allied supply routes useless. Severed from their support units, American troops on the lines were in urgent need of ammunition. The Americans learned of a trail that passed over Cassino's mountains. Narrow and steep, it was bordered by deep yawning chasms and impassable to motorized vehicles. Only by packing supplies on mule trains, some nine miles over this trail, could the Americans be replenished. And so, the events leading to Vito's Cassino adventure were set in motion!
Italian partisans, who handled the mules, required an American liaison who spoke their language. Unaware that various regions of Italy spoke widely divergent dialects, Vito's commanding officer asked for a G. I. who spoke Italian. Twenty-year-old Vito volunteered his New York version of the Sicilian dialect and was assigned to the partisans.
Vito's interpretative abilities greatly amused the partisans. Though they frequently teased him that what he spoke didn't begin to relate to Italian, a workable communication was established. Each evening he and the partisans loaded the mules at the ammunition dumps. Then, trekking through the mountains at night to avoid being strafed by enemy planes, they delivered the supplies to the troops on the line, returning to their bivouac area during daylight.
The night crossings were especially hazardous. A simple misstep could send one plunging over the precipice into emptiness. Unpredictable mountain storms were always imminent. Combined with darkness, they were dreaded as harbingers of sure disaster. Yet, remarkably, Vito and the partisans never were injured during these crossings.
Though time has dulled the details of most of Vito's mountain missions, one remains indelibly imprinted in his memory; a crossing - but for his invisible protector - from which he never would have returned!
On this mission, after the munitions had been unloaded, the Germans began pounding the American perimeter with heavy artillery. In the confusion of exploding shells, the partisans scattered for their lives, leaving Vito to return through the mountains without them.
Wending up the path, he discovered that the mountains had been deluged by torrential rains. Treacherous when dry, Cassino's peaks became lethal when drenched! Mud from the slopes above had oozed across the path into the canyon below. Shrouded in muck, the path had become a meandering bog!
Leading his mule, Vito proceeded cautiously. Navigating the path was a struggle. He was glad the leather thongs of his snopaks were firmly laced. The heavy boots provided dryness to slightly above his calves. He appreciated their snug warmth, but the sucking mire made lifting them an effort.
As he battled the mud, several times he considered straddling the mule; it seemed sure-footed. Still, he could not bring himself to trust the animal. He felt safer on foot.
Pulling against the muck, Vito inched his way up the mountain. He was almost at the crest when he encountered the obstacle he afterward dubbed, "the slit."
The slit was formed when rainwater, cascading from the slopes above, had washed a section of the path into a bowl-like hollow projecting from the mountainside. Several hundred feet in circumference and at least fifty feet deep, the hollow always had been empty during Vito's previous crossings. Now it was a quagmire, a deadly snare, brimming with mud endowed with the properties of quicksand!
Vito knew of no way around the slit. He thought of using the mule to vault across, then decided against it. "One wrong step by the mule, I'll end up in the mud," he brooded, "No one would ever know what happened to me!" He determined to jump alone.
With maximum effort, Vito leaped! A hurdle of some five feet was needed; and he made it; he reached the other side! But, skidding on the mud, he lost his balance and plunged backward into the hollow.
At first, he was only ankle-deep in mud. Vainly attempting to gain a purchase for his feet, he found that the mud seemed bottomless. To his horror, he gradually was sinking deeper.
Casting about frantically, he saw a bush at the rim of the hollow. Unearthed by the collapse of the path, it was almost completely uprooted. Its tenuous claim to the soil made it seem poised for a plunge into the mud. One of its branches, as slender as a man's smallest finger, stretched to within Vito's reach. He clutched it desperately; yet seeing the roots almost fully exposed made him reluctant to pull on the precarious lifeline. He feared his full weight would extract the bush from its dubious perch, leaving him no contact to solid ground.
His caution proved futile. Inexorably, the smothering mud climbed his body until it reached his belly. Vito knew it was only a matter of time before the hollow swallowed him completely, making him another battle casualty. He was beyond human help. Now only God could save him!
So Vito prayed; and how he prayed! Not in a whisper, nor with embarrassment; he was too desperate for these. Time permitted no worries that God wouldn't hear and answer; it afforded no concern regarding which format to use. Sinking fast toward eternity, Vito unabashedly screamed to God for rescue!
"God!" he screamed, "Get me out of here; no one else can get me out! If I sink here, I'll be gone forever; my family will never know what happened to me! Lord! Don't let me die in here! Lord! Help me! Take care of me!"
The earnestness of that prayer, so freighted with fear, cannot be doubted. God heard Vito's cry. Instantly, an unseen presence ordered, "Pull on the branch!"
It spoke audibly! Vito knew God had heard him, but he could not bring himself to pull on the branch. "Lord," he argued piteously, "the whole bush will come out! I won't have anything to hold on to!"
By now, he was down to his armpits in mud and sinking deeper. Horrified, he continued his screaming prayer. "Lord! Get me out of here!"
"Pull on that branch!" commanded the presence.
"But the roots are coming out!" pleaded Vito, "If I pull harder the whole bush will come out! I'll be lost!"
But the presence remained adamant. "Pull on the branch!" it demanded.
Finally, Vito yielded. "O. K. Lord. I'm doing what you said; here goes!"
With those words, he trusted his full weight to the line. Forcefully, he pulled to counteract the tenacious grip of the mud. So powerful was the suction that the mire swallowed one of Vito's snopaks. It was as though the mountain demanded a token for releasing its victim.
Ironically, after climbing to the correct side of the trail, Vito found the mule had made the leap successfully. Together, they returned to their bivouac area.
Vito maintains that, without God's intervention, his body still would be in Cassino's mountains. "When your up to your armpits in mud, you’re on your way down!" he remarked. "My snopak was left deep in the mud; that's a tremendous amount of pressure!
"When I was ordered to pull, I could see the roots coming out. I should have obeyed the first time. Sometimes God's way is hard, but its the only way."
Vito credits the prayers of his church for the safe return of all its servicemen. God answered by overshadowing them with His protection. None suffered serious injury!