In September 1944, Howard Allred saw Florence, Italy, for the first time. In November 2002, he saw it for the second time, and, through a remarkable series of coincidences, reconnected with the family whose villa he had lived in more than fifty-years before.
In 1944, the young North Carolinian was twenty-two and fresh out of pilot training. "I think I wanted to be a pilot so I could have that good-looking hat and the silk scarf," recalls Allred M.Div. '52.
The retreating Germans had left Florence in August 1944, blowing up every bridge across the Arno except the Ponte Vecchio. Along with other officers, he was billeted several miles out of Florence in the Villa Ginori, the residence of a family that had owned a porcelain factory in the area for three centuries.
Assigned to photo reconnaissance, Allred flew a P-38 that had been stripped of all weapons and refitted with cameras. Pilots landed and took off on a makeshift runway--metal strips laid in a pasture that is now the site of Florence's Amerigo Vespucci Airport. The pilots flew solo, with only a sidearm for protection. Their motto was "Alone, unarmed, and unafraid."
When Allred was on a mission over Bologna, anti-aircraft fire shot out one of his two engines. Coming in on one engine, two wings, and a prayer, he landed his P-38 safely on those metal strips, a feat that earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross. "Well, I was surely alone and unarmed," he says, "but I don't know about the unafraid part."
After the war, Allred says he felt called to be a minister. He enrolled in Duke's divinity school and earned his master's in 1952. After forty years in the pulpit, he retired from First United Methodist Church in High Point, North Carolina. Allred, whose wife had died, began dating Ann Mayo Morris, a widow in his congregation. They married last year. The November trip to Italy on the Duke Alumni Education and Travel Program was their belated honeymoon, and a chance for Allred to pursue a part of his past.
Earlier, he had read in a national newsletter for pilots of an exchange of letters between Dave Toomey, also a photo-reconnaissance veteran, and Plino Cirri, an Italian who had been employed in the Americans' mess hall at the Villa Ginori. Cirri expressed a deep sense of gratitude to the Americans who had liberated his village and his country.
Allred sent his own letter to the villa's address, where it was collected by Cirro. Since the Italian doesn't speak or read English, he got in touch with an Italian army buddy named Bruno, who took the letter to his employer for translation. That employer turned out to be Peter Burian, a classical studies and comparative literature professor at Duke who was directing the Duke in Florence student program that fall semester. Burian was already scheduled to meet with the group of Duke alumni travelers.
Burian received permission to take the Allreds to visit the villa, and they were surprised to find the Countess Maria Teresa Ginori Lisci there to greet them. The Countess was a child when U.S. forces freed Florence, but she remembered the Americans who had been there. Although the family no longer owns the villa, the Countess had traveled from the Liscis' residence in the city to welcome the Allreds.
Cirri, Bruno, and the Countess' family shared their memories of the Americans' feats of flying. The countess' brother-in-law said he recalled it vividly, because a chunk of Allred's plane had fallen into his garden.
At their meeting, Allred presented both the Countess and Cirri with a photograph taken when he received the Distinguished Flying Cross. Allred said to the Countess, "I do hope that when you returned, you did not find the Americans had left your villa in bad condition." Smiling, she assured him that the villa was in much better condition than when the Germans left it.
Later, the Countess met the Allreds at the Hotel Baglioni, where the alumni group was staying in Florence, and they dined together at the Liscis' home. Ann Allred recalls that the gift of her husband's photograph had already been incorporated into the Countess' display of family photos.
Smith '50, who also attended the Duke alumni trip to Florence, is a retired columnist and editor at the Columbus, Georgia, Ledger-Enquirer.