INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. - There’s a banner stretched across the outdoor deck of a Franklin Township home that announces, “Welcome Uncle Tommy and Family.”
If not for the courage and cunning of a World War II Army Ranger from Indianapolis, there would be no family to welcome him home.
Former Private Tommy Mascari who turns 95 Monday, and celebrates Independence Day the day after, recalling the daring leap to freedom he made from a German POW train rolling through the mountains of Italy in 1943.
“Every boxcar had a guard and ours didn’t,” Mascari recalled, sitting on a swing in a shaded backyard surrounded by family. “I put the word out, ‘I’m leaving. I’m leaving.’”
Mascari had plenty of train hopping experience as a boy on the south side of Indianapolis during the Great Depression.
“There was a railroad there and the trains would go through there very slow and we used to hop that train,” he said. “Jumping off that train was no nothing for me because I used to ride the box cars going fishing.
“We pulled the door loose, got the wire loose, and as the train was going slow up there and I decided to slide out and I went.”
Three other GI's joined Mascari in the leap to freedom, and their great adventure was on.
Mascari’s squad of legendary Darby’s Rangers was captured while trying to cut a German Army supply line in battles after the landings at Anzio and the Italian Campaign in 1942.
“We knew that when we went through that line we could hear the Germans talk early that morning,” he said. “What happened was all hell broke loose because tanks started coming at us and we were using our ammo and what sticky grenades we had. We tried to wipe those tanks out. Didn’t work. We ran out of ammunition.”
Then, Mascari said, the word came down the line that it was every man for himself.
“’Retreat! Retreat! Retreat!’ And what end up here comes the Germans and they told us, ‘Lay down your arms Americans. Lay down your arms,’ and they had us.”
What followed was six or seven months in a lice-ridden POW camp in Italy and then word that everyone was to board a train headed for Germany.
That’s when Mascari and his pals went on the run and hooked up with friendly Italians and partisans who would hide the allied troops at great risk to themselves.
“They were always…the SS…they were looking for us up in those mountains,” said Mascari. “Any of those places that the Germans found were harboring any American or Englishmen where I saw it, it happened, they burned this one farmhouse down where two Englishmen were helping them there and staying there and they found out and burned it down and the elderly guy didn’t make it. They shot him.”
Armed only with a small Beretta pistol, Mascari traveled and hid out with the guerrillas.
“A lot of times in the cold evenings we was in the barns, they call them cabanas, with the sheep and the animals were because it was warm in there or some of the time we was up in the caves. We had an upper one and a lower one and that’s where we slept a good percentage of the time when the Germans were either after us and we would hide in there.”
Mascari’s grandparents hailed from Sicily, and while his parents were born in the United States, he came by his Italian looks and smattering of language naturally in a ruse that helped him hide literally under the noses of German troops.
“At times I could walk down the city street and the German guy was riding a bicycle. If they were not looking for you, and I looked like an Italian, they didn’t bother to question me.”
Finally, after six months on the run, as the Allied push moved northward, Mascari and an English counterpart spotted a British patrol approaching and within months the Hoosier was headed back to Indianapolis and his grandparent’s market on South East Street not far from Holy Rosary Catholic Church.
“I walked up the street and surprised my family when I walked through the door.”
Years later Mascari reunited with the son of the partisans who risked their lives to hide him in the Italian mountains.
Now he’s back in Indianapolis to celebrate a birthday with a family that might have never been but for his guts and gumption he displayed while on the run in the Italian mountains all those decades ago.
“Well, I just prayed every night that I was gonna make it,” Mascari said. “Looking like Italian helped me a lot.”