When History Gets Personal

Twelve men were on the Flying Fortress on June 5, 1944. They had dropped their payload on German fortifications in Bologna when they were hit by anti-aircraft fire.

The pilot knew he couldn’t get back behind Allied lines. He was going down. At 5000 feet, he ordered the crew to bail out. James H. Longino, the young co-pilot from Hapeville, Georgia, was one of the men who jumped out of the plane and into enemy territory.

All 12 were alive when they hit the hill country of Maiolo. Eleven were captured by the Germans, but Jimmy Longino got lucky.

The Selvas were used to the continual drone of planes passing overhead as they worked their farm. They often had to run for cover to avoid getting hit by shrapnel from exploding shells or  planes destroyed thousands of feet above them.

The Selvas were kind in the way that people struggling to stay alive can be kind. If you see someone in need, you help them. Simple decency. Despite the fact that the Germans pillaged their village and killed those who aided the Allies, the Selvas would offer a meal to German soldiers passing their way. The young men were hungry and if you can feed someone in need, you feed them. Simple decency.

So, in the Selvas’ humble generosity, it  made sense to help Jimmy Longino when they found him sitting under this tree that June day in 1944.

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But the Selvas did more than offer a meal to a young American airman shot down behind enemy lines. They saved his life at the risk of their own.

Valeria Selva was just 16-years-old when her father and older brother, Dino, made the decision to help Jimmy hide from the Germans patrolling the Maiolo area.
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Thanks to Daniele Celli, an Italian engineer with a passion for WWII history, John and I had the privilege of meeting Valeria and the extended Selva family today. What an amazingly gracious and loving family!

Daniele contacted John a year ago to gain information for a book he was writing. The American in Daniele’s book turned out to be John’s first cousin once removed, James Henry Longino — a Delta pilot who died in a training flight crash in 1960. John provided Daniele with some information and through their correspondence, Daniele extended an invitation to come meet Valeria and her family.

Today, Daniele and a group of his friends, including Edi who kindly served as our translator, met us at the train station in Rimini and proceeded to take us on a journey in which history became personal in an inspiring testimony to decency, selflessness, and brotherly love.

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Initially, Jimmy stayed with the family, but an unexpected German patrol forced Jimmy out a back window and up an apple tree to avoid capture.

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To ensure Jimmy’s safety and that of the family, the men dug a hole in a field and camouflaged it with foliage native to the field at that time.

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The hole was big enough for two people to sit up in or for one, lanky American to lay down in. Jimmy spent his days hiding in the hole, emerging at night to stretch his legs in the woods and have supper with the family.

Valeria was responsible for taking food to Jimmy during the day, hiding the food underneath her clothes as she walked down the road to the field because Germans weren’t the only cause for concern. Valeria remembers that no one could be trusted during this dark time in Italy’s history. Neighbors reported neighbors to the Fascists/Germans who killed those giving aide to the Italian resistance or to the British or Americans. Sixty-nine years later, the fear is still tangible when listening to Valeria’s memories.

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Jimmy stayed with the Selvas for more than three months before they were able to deliver him to the Italian resistance who escorted him to the British lines.

But the overwhelming generosity, and yes, the love, that defines the Selvas still exists and my husband and I were the happy recipients of it today.

Valeria’s nephew, Carlo, brought the whole family together to visit with us. And what do the Longinos and the Selvas do when they get together? Eat!

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We were the guests of honor at a multi-course feast hosted by the Selvas — about 40 of whom, at least three generations, were in attendance. Magnifico!

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How do you thank someone who risked the lives of their entire family to save the life of one of yours? How do you thank someone who devotes his free time to keeping history alive,  documenting how “ordinary” people were, in all the ways that truly matter, extraordinary? “Gracie” isn’t sufficient.

I left the Selvas and Daniele humbled… touched beyond measure by their generosity and loving spirits. I left Maiolo feeling loved…an adopted daughter in a large, extended Italian family. I will never forget this day.

Love is a choice. Then and now, the Selvas chose love. What a blessing and an  honor to spend the day in the midst of it.

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6 Responses to When History Gets Personal

  1. Lisa says:

    Sounds absolutely wonderful. I’m glad there is someone with a heart to preserve that legacy.

  2. Diana Hatcher says:

    Amazing story. Amazing experience.

  3. Hi! I’m Stefania, and I’m a granddaughter of Dino Selva, the Valeria’s brother who kept James Longino in his home. I’m so sorry I wasn’t in Maiolo last saturday, it would have been such a great experience to meet you and your husband!
    Anyway, Internet allows us to keep in touch 🙂
    A little correction (Italian’s families are very intricate!): Valeria is Dino’s sister (Dino died about 20 years ago), during the WWII she lived whit his brother and his family*: Maria (Dino’s wife), Elio, Carlo and Ada (my mother). So, Carlo is nephew of Valeria, since she’s his aunt. Elio, Carlo and Ada were just children when they had James in their home, but my mother (who was just 6 years old) has a tender memory of him.
    Thank you for your beautiful pictures 🙂

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