Nothing is so contagious as example; and we never do any great good or evil which does not produce its like. — Francois de la Rochefoucauld (1613-1680).
Heroes for liberty are not particular to any region of the world or to a particular time period or to one sex. They hail from all nationalities, races, faiths, and creeds. They inspire others to a noble and universal cause—that all people should be free to live their lives in peace so long as they do no harm to the equal rights of others. They are passionate not solely for their own liberty, but for that of others as well.
In my last , Real Heroes: Inspiring True Stories of Courage, Character and Conviction, I wrote about 40 individuals whose views, decisions, and actions served this cause in various ways. That book planted the seed for this new weekly series to be published each Thursday at FEE.org. But this time, others from around the world will do the writing, and I’ll be content to do the editing while keeping that to a minimum to preserve the author’s voice. It is my hope that when all is said and done some months from now, the literature of liberty will be greatly complemented by this collection of short biographies. The authors will be writing about heroes for liberty who are (or were) citizens of each author’s own country. Each week’s installment will be added to the collection .
The subject of this week’s essay in the series is a man I was privileged to meet in person on Lake Maggiore in Italy on April 12, 2018. His name is Pino Lella. He’s 92 today. At age 17 in 1943, he began a two-year war-time experience that is the subject of a recent and riveting Amazon bestseller, Beneath a Scarlet Sky, by Mark T. Sullivan.
I read the book in December 2017 and then posted about it on my Facebook page. A friend from Montana, Ann Koopman, commented, “The author lives right here in Bozeman!” I contacted Mr. Sullivan and asked if he might arrange for a friend, Kendra Shrode from Michigan, and me to meet Mr. Lella during an April vacation in northern Italy. He put me in touch with Mr. Lella’s son Michael, who lives in California. Michael and his wife Norma and I became good friends when I visited them in late March. Michael arranged for Kendra and me (and another friend, Luigi Manzione from Rome) to meet Pino on April 12, and he is the author of this very moving essay about his father Pino.
--- Lawrence W. Reed, President, Foundation for Economic Education
A son’s account of his father’s role in Amazon’s #1 Best Seller, Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan.
If you were 17 and growing up in Milan, Italy, in 1943, more than likely you would have been forced, indoctrinated, and brainwashed into Fascism. The dictator of Italy responsible for it, Benito Mussolini, had been in power since 1922.
My dad, the protagonist of author Mark Sullivan’s 2017 Amazon bestseller, Beneath a Scarlet Sky, was born in 1926. The voice and image of “Il Duce” (as Italians were obliged to call Mussolini) were ubiquitous in Italy at the time. Mussolini would ultimately drag the country into the Second World War on the side of Germany’s Adolf Hitler. My father is now 92 and lives an hour north of Milan, and his name is Pino Lella. His last two years as a teenager are inseparable from the war and the fall of Fascism.
A Young Man from Milan
If you had to pick a time to be a teenager in Milan, 1943 would have been the worst of choices. In June, as my dad was nearing his 17th birthday, the British began an intensive six-month bombing campaign. It left a third of the city’s population homeless (about 400,000). My father and his younger brother (my Uncle Mimmo) narrowly escaped death one night following the bombing of a movie theater. They were there to see You Were Never Lovelier with Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth and witnessed many casualties.
My dad was singled out by Father Re and trained to become an Alpine guide.
My grandfather Michele, in an effort to keep his boys from becoming victims of the continued bombing, sent my father and uncle to a Catholic Boys School. They were familiar with it because it was there that they had learned to ski and to love the mountains as children. The school was located high in the Alps, above Lake Como, not far from the Swiss border. It was called “Casa Alpina” and was run by a courageous priest by the name of Father Luigi Re (pronounced “Ray”). Being the oldest of the boys, my dad was singled out by Father Re and trained to become an Alpine guide.
At first, my father knew nothing of the brutality of the Nazis against Jews and others. In fact, he had learned to respect the Nazi High Command, many of whom were customers of his family’s leather goods store. They had occupied Milan as “brothers-in-arms” to defend Milan from the British bombing. But my dad became brutally aware of Nazi crimes in September of 1943 when word came of 52 prominent Jews being rounded up by the Nazis and executed in the village of Meina on Lake Maggiore. Their bodies were thrown into the lake for the local citizens to see.
Smuggling Refugees Through the Alps
It was then that many Italians rebelled and began hiding and protecting their Jewish-Italian friends. They formed an “Underground Railroad,” a network of escape routes similar to the one that was developed to save American slaves before and during America’s Civil War. One of the network’s routes went through Casa Alpina, where the Lella brothers were sent to wait out the bombing of Milan.
My father guided many Jewish refugees across the Alps into neutral Switzerland to escape Italy.
For nine harrowing months while at Casa Alpina, from the fall of 1943 through June of 1944, the month of his 18th birthday, my father guided many Jewish refugees across the Alps into neutral Switzerland to escape Italy. He risked his life evading Nazi patrols, surviving avalanches and grenade attacks. He was robbed by bandits disguising themselves as anti-fascist partisans. He often carried the weak and elderly on his back in the dead of winter over the top of the Alps, some of the world’s most rugged mountain terrain. Some had embarked on the journey with my father Pino in such a hurry they wore street shoes—not exactly hiking gear for the Alps in below-zero temperatures.
At the time, my dad simply did “what he was told to do” and thought little of it. Father Re instructed him to take people to safety and so he did it. He knew it was dangerous, of course, but even to this day, he doesn’t think of what he did as “heroic.” He had faith in doing “the right thing” and such high regard for Father Re that he would have done anything for him. But the missions gave him an identity, a meaningful purpose, and an opportunity to lead. And like many 17-year-olds, with reckless abandon, he thrived on the excitement and adventure of it all while it lasted.
What happened next was almost unbelievable.
In June of 1944, my father turned 18, the age at which young Italians were drafted by the state into the military. He had two choices. He could join Mussolini’s Fascist army and quite likely end up on the Russian Front. His other option was to conscript with the German Army. His aunt and uncle had connections that might land him a secure and hopefully safer job in the “Organization Todt,” the armament and construction division of the Third Reich. For his safety, but against his wishes, Pino’s father and mother (my grandparents) talked him into enlisting in the German Army. Pino reluctantly donned the military uniform with the Nazi swastika and was ordered to the Todt Boot Camp in Modena.
What happened next was almost unbelievable.
Through a series of extraordinary circumstances, including his wounding during an Allied bombing raid, my father was ordered back to Milan to convalesce for two weeks. Then, with a little help from family and the abilities to speak French and drive a car, he landed a position as the personal driver and confidant for one of Hitler’s most mysterious officers in the German High Command. He was a man so powerful in Italy that he responded directly, personally, and only to Adolf Hitler. His name was General Hans Leyers, the Plenipotentiary of the Italian Sector for Organization Todt.
My father, still a teenager, as the new, personal driver for a top Nazi commander, became a spy known to the Allies as “The Observer.”
To Pino’s aunt and uncle, his assignment as the driver for such a powerful figure was a serendipitous opportunity of a lifetime. It could help change the direction of the War. They understood the importance of it because they were already working in secret for the Allies and the Italian Resistance. The kind of information their nephew now would have access to could be critical for the fight against the Germans. My father, still a teenager, as the new, personal driver for a top Nazi commander, became a spy known to the Allies as “The Observer.”
For the last year of the War, while driving General Leyers around northern Italy, my dad learned the locations of tank traps, land mines, ammunition tunnels, and every fortification between Florence and Milan. He observed the building of the Gothic Line, the Germans’ main defensive positions. He secretly documented troop movements. He took notes and photos. And he fed mounds of that crucial information to the Allies by using his uncle’s shortwave radio.
More than once, Pino was nearly caught, which would likely have led to his torture and execution. But he kept the trust of an unwitting General Leyers. My dad personally witnessed the Nazi persecution of Jews as well as the working to death of slaves from many faiths and nationalities in work camps, hoping and dreaming that one day he could testify against those responsible.
From Observation to Action
At midnight on April 24th, 1945, upon orders from the Resistance, my father single-handedly arrested General Hans Leyers and delivered him to the American Command, led by 5th U.S. Army Major Frank Knebel. For the next five days, he became Major Knebel’s personal guide and translator, at last discarding his uniform and the Nazi swastika.
My father was asked if he would “do America a favor” and accept a final mission.
On April 28th, Pino and Major Knebel witnessed a hideous moment in Italian history: the public desecration of Mussolini’s body in Piazzale Loreto amid the hysteria and fanaticism of frenzied Italian mobs. Hitler killed himself in Berlin two days later. With the deaths of the two fascist dictators, my dad thought he was done with the war. But in fact, the war wasn’t quite done with him.
In early May, the famous Brenner Pass through the Alps was the most dangerous corner of Europe. The German Army was retreating from Italy through the Pass into Austria. Thousands of Nazi troops who refused to surrender were on-the-run, being chased down and cut off by Italian Resistance fighters and the U.S. Army. In the midst of this, my father was asked if he would “do America a favor” and accept a final mission.
The Americans asked my dad to be a guide one last time, leading one final escape from Italy. His mission was to drive an important, high-ranking Nazi from American custody to the Austrian border where he could be safely interrogated for the intelligence he possessed about Hitler’s Reich.
Who was this top commander my dad was enlisted to escort to safety? None other than the very man he had driven for, the very man he had arrested and turned over to the Allies just weeks before—General Hans Leyers.
Like many of that “Greatest Generation,” the experience and the weeks preceding the War’s end continued to haunt him for the rest of his life.
Distraught and tormented over the events of the last week of the War, Pino accepted that final mission. You can only imagine the conversation in the car between my dad and General Leyers. By evening of that same day, May 3, my dad delivered General Leyers to the Americans waiting for him on the Austrian border.
That final escort ended my father’s involvement in World War II, but like many of that “Greatest Generation,” the experience and the weeks preceding the War’s end continued to haunt him for the rest of his life.
And without spoiling it, let me say that you’ll have to read the book (Beneath a Scarlet Sky) to know the rest of the story. A television mini-series based on the book, starring British actor Tom (“Spiderman”) Holland as my dad, will premiere in a year or two, and I hope you will want to see it. I know that my dad, and all of us in the Lella family, are looking forward to it!
(Editor’s Note: The picture at the top of this article, of Pino Lella and his son Michael, includes a Spiderman mask next to copies of Beneath a Scarlet Sky. Just one week before my April 12, 2018, visit with Pino on Lake Maggiore (pictured below), British actor Tom Holland, the most recent Spiderman in two major motion pictures, visited with Pino to meet the man whom he will play in a forthcoming television mini-series based on the book. Filming begins soon. – LWR).