NATICK — Cary Holmes, a reference librarian at Morse Institute Library, was reviewing records as part of a project to dedicate a memorial to the town’s fallen service members when he made a stunning discovery.
Crammed in the back of a dusty folder was a copy of a 2½-page, single-spaced typed letter from the Office of Strategic Services, or OSS — America’s first intelligence agency — to the widow of Army Sergeant Alfred DeFlumeri, who had died in World War II on March 26, 1944. It was mailed to 1 Harrison St. in Natick and dated Aug. 6, 1945.
The letter, which provides details of an ill-fated 1944 OSS operation behind enemy lines in Italy to destroy a German railroad tunnel, reads like a bestselling novel — with a tragic ending: All 15 uniformed US soldiers were executed, including DeFlumeri, a Natick native. The rediscovered letter came as a surprise to Natick and to Holmes, a retired teacher who has become the town’s unofficial military historian.
‘‘It was astonishing,’’ said Holmes, who found the letter a couple months ago.
The town had known that DeFlumeri had died in the war, and had even dedicated a bridge in his memory. ‘‘But why, the atrocity, that was unknown,’’ Holmes said.
Holmes showed the letter to Joe Keefe of the National Archives and Records Administration’s Waltham office. ‘‘I was shocked at the amount of detail in the letter,’’ Keefe said. ‘‘Coming from a spy agency, I’m surprised it made it past the censors. I’ve never seen anything like it.’’
The letter may have been an attempt on the part of the commanding officer to provide solace to the wife. ‘‘My guess is that he was probably very close to DeFlumeri and felt that he had to explain to her the details of his death,’’ Keefe said.
‘It may be some consolation to you to know the facts concerning Alfred which until now we either did not know or could not disclose.’
Ida C. DeFlumeri had been informed in a letter from the War Department that her husband had been captured and killed, but apparently had not known the details of his death until the letter from her husband’s commanding officer in the OSS arrived two months later.
‘‘It may be some consolation to you to know the facts concerning Alfred which until now we either did not know or could not disclose,’’ wrote Colonel Russell B. Livermore.
As the letter describes, DeFlumeri was in an operational group of the OSS designated as Company A, 2671st Special Reconnaissance Battalion. ‘‘In joining this unit he had volunteered for extra hazardous duty in carrying out such operations behind the German lines in uniform, as might be directed by the Army Headquarters,’’ said the letter.
In March 1944 the unit was based on the island of Corsica in the Mediterranean Sea. American planes were trying to cut German lines of communication ahead of a spring offensive to liberate Rome and push beyond Florence.
One important line was a coastal railroad from Genoa through La Spezia to Livorno. Bombing runs had failed due to the protective presence of mountains close to the shore and the railroad’s many tunnels. ‘‘Our unit was requested by the Army Headquarters to land a small force of men by boat to demolish or block a tunnel by explosives,’’ Livermore’s letter explained.
A first attempt to destroy a tunnel near La Spezia failed when the raiding party left Corsica in Navy PT boats and ‘‘rowed ashore in rubber boats but due to the extremely dark night’’ were unable to locate the target in time to blow it up. The party returned to Corsica.
The next attempt was made on March 22, and this time the men got close to the target, but one of the PT boats ran into a German convoy ‘‘and a running battle ensued.’’
One American boat was damaged and the other remained to help. The damaged boat was repaired, but by that time it was almost daybreak and too late to pick up the men.
‘‘In the ensuing days every effort was made to pick up these men,’’ the letter said.
Enemy patrols kept PT boats from getting close to shore the next night for an attempted rescue. On March 24 a storm prevented another attempt. A plane flew over the area but the pilot spotted no sign of the men and saw that the tunnel had not been damaged. A final attempt one day later failed. It was later learned that the men had been captured by the Germans on March 24 and executed two days later.
The United States Graves Registration Service exhumed and identified the bodies, and buried them in the US Military Cemetery at Granaglione in Italy. Services were conducted by a Catholic chaplain. ‘‘The act of the German command in executing these men was a wanton disregard of the rules of warfare and constitutes a war crime,’’ the letter said. ‘‘Every effort has been made to apprehend the Germans responsible for this act.’’
According to news accounts, the two officers and 13 enlisted men were discovered in a common grave with their hands tied behind their backs. Joseph A. Libardi of West Stockbridge, Mass., and Liberty J. Tremonte of Westport, Conn., were reportedly among those executed.
German General Anton Dostler, acting on a 1942 order from Hitler to execute commandos without a trial, had ordered the execution despite resistance from officers within his own ranks. He was found guilty of war crimes and was shot by firing squad on Dec. 1, 1945.
DeFlumeri, whose name is spelled differently in various documents, was born in Natick in May 1911, attended school there, and enlisted in December 1942. His mother and father were from Italy; the raiding party was composed of Italian-Americans, presumably at least some of whom could speak fluent Italian. The old newspaper clipping stated that DeFlumeri left behind four children, three brothers, and a sister. ‘‘The records here in town are sketchy at best,’’ Holmes said.
Ida DeFlumeri’s whereabouts could not be determined, and other family members either could not be located or could not be reached for comment.
The Natick Veterans Council is planning to dedicate a square to DeFlumeri in the fall, council president Ed Jolley said, with a location to be determined.
Paul Carew, veterans services director for the town, said the atrocity was beyond anything he had encountered involving service members in his territory.
‘‘I’ve heard a lot of stories about atrocities involving veterans, but nothing to this extent,’’ he said. ‘‘These men were executed in uniform.’’