A Child of War

Jun 1, 2023

A series of “fortunate” events flips the narrative from despair to promise

It was the 23rd of May 2011, and freelance historian Karen Storwick was in Italy honouring the 67th anniversary of her great uncle’s death in the battle of the Hitler Line – as she had been doing for several years. That year, on her annual pilgrimage travelling in the footsteps of Canadians in Italy, her first stop was in the region of Bagnacavallo, near Ravenna, where the Canadians fought their last battles in the liberation of Italy. Karen’s husband had a great uncle buried at the Ravenna Cemetery, so they visited his grave for the first time. He had been one of the last soldiers to die on Italian soil during the Second World War.

After what was, for them, a very emotional day, Karen, and her husband enjoyed a lovely dinner on the patio of Mariangela Rondinelli’s home, who had hosted them during their stay. Mariangela is a researcher and an accomplished writer from Bagnacavallo. She helps keep the legacy of Canadian service and sacrifice alive through Wartime Friends; an organization that fosters acts of remembrance rooted in the Second World War.

Once the dishes were cleared, and ­animated conversations filled the air, Mariangela revealed to Karen that she and her research team, Wartime Friends, were working on a very important project – the story of Gino, a little orphan boy who had been adopted by Canadian soldiers during the war. So far, she said, they had a photograph and a few details about his story. Understanding he was from the Province of Frosinone, they wanted to find out if he was still alive, in the hope of eventually piecing together what they believed was a remarkable story.

Karen had some friends and colleagues, researchers and historians, working in the Frosinone area, and wondered if they could help Wartime Friends’ quest for more information about the boy. On her return to Canada, she informed her contacts in the Frosinone area about Mariangela’s research on the little boy and pursued it no further at the time.

Research projects can take time to complete or end up being abandoned for any number of reasons. Such was not the case for this project. Wartime Friends applied their exceptional investigative skills to the task and diligently pressed on.

Coincidentally, in late 2012, when Karen reached out to Alessandro Campagna and Paolo Sbarbada, two of her research friends from Frosinone, they had a very exciting story to share with her. Incredibly, it was about Gino – the same destitute Italian boy Wartime Friends had been trying to identify. The research circle was complete, and now Gino, who had lost his identity many years ago during the war, had discovered it again. By now 75 years old, it seemed, he had truly been re-born under a lucky star. Karen became immersed in the story again, helping Wartime Friends edit English transcripts as the story was written.

Let us step back in time to identify another layer in this mystery. Giovannangelo Battista lived in the small town of Casalciprano, in the Italian Province of Campobasso. Shortly after WWII broke out, he was drafted into the Italian military. After Italy surrendered on 3 September 1943, Giovannangelo was among those immediately taken to a German prison camp. When the town was liberated by Canadians the following year, local authorities wanted to show their gratitude for the remarkably friendly care provided to the citizens by the Canadian liberators. Symbolically, they unofficially renamed Campobasso “Canada Town”, an appellation that was preserved for the remainder of the war. After his release, Giovannagelo returned to his hometown, married, and started a family. One of his sons was named Tony.

Following the war, when Tony was 10 years old, his whole family immigrated to Canada and settled in Montreal. He eventually joined the Canadian Armed Forces. Some 38 years later, and after a year in Afghanistan, Tony was posted to Rome as the Canadian Defence Attaché to Italy.

Shortly after his arrival in Rome, in the summer of 2012, and through the office of the Canadian Ambassador, Tony was handed an invitation from Gianni Blasi (teacher, historian, and researcher on the Second World War, living in the Province of Frosinone) to an event that would take place on 16 December 2012 in the small town of Torrice (Gino’s birthplace), and the ceremony had been organized with the express purpose of acknowledging Gino’s identity and remarkable wartime story.

The following is a brief hint of the incredible story that has been the subject of a book, and has also recently been made into a movie, which will be premiered on 1 July 2023 in the town of Torrice and, subsequently, throughout Canada.

In early June 1944, following a deadly battle between Canadian and German Armoured units in the town of Torrice, near Frosinone, Paul Hagen and Ike Klessen, two soldiers of a Royal Canadian Army Service Corps Unit from the 5th Canadian Armoured Division were conducting re-supply tasks at night. They found an almost naked little Italian boy close to the battle ruins. He was obviously malnourished with a badly bloated stomach. His name, he said, was ‘Gino’.

After caring for his wounds and giving him food, the Canadian soldiers tried to locate relatives but eventually determined that this little boy was now an orphan and there was no one to feed or look after him; he was homeless. Most people from the surrounding villages were destitute: it was far better for him to stay with ‘i Canadesi’.

Four Canadian soldiers – Lloyd ‘Red’ Oliver, Paul Hagen, Mert Massey, and Doug Walker took little Gino under their collective wing and became his mentors and tutors. He was given a uniform and became the mascot of the Royal Canadian Army Service Corps Company. Red taught Gino the English alphabet, numbers, and the Bible. The little boy learned quickly and very soon was able to speak English and go around the camp on a little bicycle as a dispatch rider. He went North with his Canadian ‘guardian angels’, as he would call them, and spent Christmas 1944 in Ravenna.

In February 1945 the Canadian soldiers left Italy to join the rest of the Canadian Army in Western Europe. Gino could not accompany his Canadian ‘guardian angels’ and was left near Ravenna with a US Army friend (Tony Monti) and was later adopted by a young local couple (Antonio and Rina Farneti). The Canadian soldiers had collected enough money to send Gino to school and stayed in touch with him and the Farneti family for many years. However, with the passage of time, they all lost contact with each other until ‘Red’ Oliver managed to reconnect with Gino in the 1970s.

Gino did not have a birth certificate or other documents. He went to school but could not be officially enrolled because no one knew his real name or date or place of birth. He was a real person but, in legal terms, he did not exist. In 1954 the local court in Ravenna gave him the name of Gino Farnetti (unfortunately with a double-t, instead of his adoptive family name, Farneti). Ten years after he was rescued, Gino finally did legally exist, albeit with an adopted name!

It would be many more years and much research before his identity would be uncovered, and that story eventually led to the 2012 ceremony mentioned earlier.

During the ceremony, Gino was presented with his baptism certificate – proving his true birth date (26 April 1938) – he now knew he was 74 years old.

Gianni Blasi and Mariangela Rondinelli, other local researchers – Paolo Sbarbada, Costantino Jadecola, Maurizio Federico and Alessandro Campagna, as well as Ernesto Raio (mayor of Torrice), Eugenio Solda (the Prefect of Frosinone) – and many others were in attendance. It was here that Tony met Gino and his lovely wife Rita for the very first time. Tony was captivated by Gino’s story.

Following the event in Torrice on 16 December 2012, Gino and Tony became best friends and continued to meet many times, both in Italy and in Canada. Captivated by this compelling story, Tony suggested they work together to produce a film about Gino’s story. Humbled, Gino vowed to support Tony’s dream on condition the film honour his Canadian guardian angels by showcasing – to their families, to future generations of Canadians, to Italians and, indeed, to the world – their amazing human kindness.

The idea quickly gained momentum and on 4 May 2013, Gino and Tony were again together in Torrice and in Frosinone, meeting with a small group from Canada – a group that included Karen Storwick. This was the very first time Karen and Tony met and, fortuitously, it occurred in Gino’s presence! It was through her talents as a cinematographer and project manager that Tony’s dream to produce a film of the Gino story and his guardian angels would eventually come true.

Fast forward to 2022 when Tony reached out to Karen and her Combined Forces Production team, including talented film director Robert Curtin, about the possibility of documenting Gino’s story into film. They accepted and unreservedly rose to the challenge.

Gino’s story represents the best of humanity. It demonstrates the incredibly strong will for survival of the human spirit during what was, arguably, the greatest calamity the world has known. As we continue the study of war in search of knowledge and lessons on how to mitigate and hopefully avoid wars, we are shocked by the unfathomable devastation, sheer destruction, and brutality that humans can inflict on each other. Those of us who have been impacted by war on a personal level understand the power of emotion triggered by the discovery of even small details that led to piecing together amazing stories from this not-so-distant past.

Gino’s story triggers such emotions and serves as a bridge between Italians and Canadians. It points to strong bonds whose roots run deep because of events and actions that occurred during the Second World War. It is a poignant reminder of the human experience, binding us beyond borders.

Many Canadians who have had siblings, fathers/mothers, aunts/uncles, grandparents and other relatives answer the call to serve in the Second World War, for a cause that was not only just but crucial to the survival of human decency and compassion, feel the need and, yes, the duty to remember them – at least on Remembrance Day – and sometimes by rereading pages in a diary and looking at long forgotten medals, photos of those proud and handsome young soldiers in newly issued battle dress, or by visiting a cenotaph in their honour.

They were called “The Greatest Generation” because of their unfailing demonstration of self-sacrifice for the greater good. Many of them still in high school or working on a family farm, would have been excited about the adventure they were embarking on. It is also true that, almost without exception, they willingly walked away from loved ones and the comforts of home to be part of something greater, the preservation of a certain way of life. They witnessed the horrors and scars of war, confirming what they had perhaps heard from their fathers and relatives who had marched off in 1914.

Gino’s story touches many Italian and European families. It reminds them of the terrible tragedies their towns and villages were subjected to. It rekindles memories of occupation, fear, and starvation. It also reminds us that these tragedies occurred not so long ago, and that we are in constant danger of forgetting that they really did happen and, sadly, continue to happen!

It is also a tribute to the dedication and perseverance of many quiet researchers, like the Wartime Friends group, who are passionate about not allowing us to forget the sacrifices of so many, and providing Gino, his guardian angels, and their families the gift of healing and closure.

At long last, the book, and the companion docu-drama film, chronicling the story of Gino Farnetti Bragaglia and his Canadian guardian angels from the Second World War will be unveiled this year. The Wartime Friends collaborators initially chronicled their research in a 2012 book called ‘Il Bambino in Divisa’. Through further research and collaboration, both in Italy and Canada, the English version of this book ‘The Little Soldier Boy’ and its companion film, entitled ‘Gino: A Child of War’ were born.

Gino is a thankful man; he is at peace; he is grateful. The book and the film are a tribute to him and to his guardian angels. Their incredible journey of survival, courage and hope is one that, in many variations, was forced upon hundreds of thousands of innocent families in the third and fourth decades of the 20th century. This is a story of human dignity, respect, and hope. Born out of the ashes of war, this story has now come to light to be preserved for present and future generations.

As one can imagine, many more people were involved in the telling of this story, including research and interviews by Marco Battista over the past several years. With personal financial support from a longtime Montreal friend, Steve Gregory, and Tony Battista, Marco added much documentation to the Gino story and his guardian angels, through extensive interviews with Gino, Mariangela, Gianni Blasi, Paolo Sbarbada, families of the Canadian soldiers who saved and nurtured Gino, and many others. Marco also put together an initial short documentary that eventually became the genesis for the professional film.

Readers will no doubt be fascinated by how the book documents the amazingly diverse series “fortunate” events that have followed Gino and his Canadian friends. beginning with the days of his rescue and continuing for the 11 years since his true identity was recovered.

The book and film are also a tribute to the human values of our Canadian sailors, soldiers and airmen and women. They crossed the ocean to fight against the terror of an evil regime; they displayed humility, compassion, dignity. They extended care to their fellow human beings. This is still true today, and something for which we can be most proud. Let us remember to teach these values to future generations.

Karen Storwick, a military historian with expertise on the Italian Campaign and the war in Afghanistan, is the Producer of the film: Gino: A Child of War.

Tony Battista is a Canadian military veteran of 40 years, former Canadian Defence Attaché to Italy and Executive Producer of the film: Gino: A Child of War.