Very few Italian heroes from the Second World War are well known in the English-speaking world. But surely the story of Salvo d’Acquisto deserves to be known and celebrated. As a young officer, he condemned himself to certain death so that others might have the chance to live. Indeed, so great was his sacrifice that there are strong campaigns for him to be made the first soldier saint to emerge out of the bloody conflict.
By all accounts, Salvo had a typical Nepalese childhood. Poverty was rife in the southern Italian city and so he lived with his seven siblings, parents and grandparents in a single-room apartment. He left school at the age of 14, as was normal for boys from his neighborhood, and enrolled in the Carabinieri, a unit of the Italian army which serves as a police force. The first few years of his career took him to Rome and then to North Africa. And then, when war broke out, he was sent to keep order in Torrimpietra, a small village just to the north of Rome.
Salvo was on duty on the morning of 23 September 1943. He had just been to church for mass when he saw a group of feared SS soldiers approaching. Their officer immediately refused Salvo’s greeting, striking him hard instead. The SS man informed Salvo that one of his own soldiers had been killed in an explosion in a nearby village. He suspected sabotage was to blame and wanted revenge. The Nazis had chosen 22 local men. They would all be shot if Salvo could not find the man – or men – responsible for the alleged sabotage.
Salvo had to watch as the innocent men were made to dig their own graves. He tried to comfort the condemned and to reason with the SS officer. Eventually, Salvo himself ‘confessed’ to the crime, saying he had caused the explosion and had acted completely alone. He stressed that the other men were innocent and should be let go. Perhaps surprisingly, the SS man took Salvo at his word. The 22 men were released and Salvo was to face the firing squad alone. He was shot just before dusk, with just one of the freedmen staying around to watch his final, dignified moments.
After the war, Salvo’s actions became widely known. He was posthumously awarded the Gold Medal of Military Valor, Italy’s highest military honor. Streets have been named after him and stamps made with his face on them. He’s also been the subject of numerous biographies and movies. Perhaps more fittingly given his own strong Catholic faith, Salvo is being considered for beatification and is widely regarded as Italy’s most important Catholic martyr.