Big Al, a true tale of China, America and war-time Italy

I want to tell you the story of Big Al.


I had a part in it–made it connect, you could say–but just a small part.  It’s a true tale that spans an arc from Word War II Italy through pre-handover Hong Kong, via Shantou in mainland China and across to Colorado, USA.

I met Big Al in Hong Kong, when he was lecturing on systems analysis here at a time when I was giving talks across South East Asia.  You know those ‘before you go home’ questionnaires? Everyone who attended his courses gave him exceptional ratings.  Back in the USA, he lived in Colorado Springs, in a house with books layered two deep everywhere–even on the stairs–but for much of the time he traveled the world lecturing.

Al was tall, well-built with a wiry, gray-haired crew-cut and the bearing of a retired US Marine who kept in good shape.  If you didn’t know him, you’d assume he was a career military man but in reality, he was a Buddhist and conscientious objector.  This didn’t mean that he was a coward or non-patriot.  He had been in the thick of the Second World War fighting, as the Allies fought their way up the boot of Italy, taking it back from the Fascist forces.   The Allies–British/Canadian and American armies initially–had landed on Italy’s shores more than a year before, and the mountainous terrain provided good defensive positions for well-prepared Italian and Nazi troops. The fighting was tough and costly in lives.

Although Al would not carry a gun he did essential life-saving work as an ambulance driver, work that he could square with his beliefs.

He told me he did some …uh… “non-essential” work as well, scrounging for his unit and for locals in need.  On one occasion he was ferrying an illicit crate of scotch in his ambulance and had to pass through an army guard post.  He was called into the Duty Officer’s room and told that they were going to have to search the ambulance.  He pulled a bottle of scotch from his greatcoat pocket, slammed it on the desk and said “Sir! I’ll bet you a bottle of Scotch you’re going to search my ambulance!”  “You’re wrong, soldier, you lose your bet” came the reply as an arm swept the bottle into a drawer.  “On your way.”

I remembered the story for years.  Big Al came to Asia on lecture tours from time to time, and in between, we kept in touch by mail.

From Hong Kong, I went on occasional trips into mainland China as the country opened up, and one of them was an Easter trip to Shantou (Swatow) where my wife and I stayed in a hotel.  It had some odd features: For example, it was the only time I’ve seen live chicks in a hotel lobby, chirping away in a large tray–maybe intended as a way of making Westerner visitors feel they were celebrating Easter.

The hotel had a bookshop.  This sold mainly Chinese books, naturally, but I did find a shelf with five second-hand English books on it.  I browsed (didn’t take long), and one volume caught my eye so I bought it–it turned out to be the pivot that made this into an amazing tale.  The book, War in Val D’Orcia, was written by a Marchesa (wife of a Marquis) who had been looking after a band of orphaned children in Tuscany, Italy during World War II.  This group, inevitably, increased in size as the fighting went on.  The Marchesa d’Origo was English/American it seems, but had married an Italian aristocrat before the war, and lived on an estate with vineyards and and a great house that, from the description in the book, was something like a château in France.

Reading the first few pages immediately brought Big Al’s tales of war-torn Italy to mind, so I read on.

Italy, highlighting the area in question

As the Nazi forces were pushed north (the Italians had signed an  armistice long before), the front line approached the area.  The Marchesa thought about retreating troops passing through and finding the massive estate cellars, and the effects that drunken, nearly defeated soldiers would surely have on the estate and villages round about.  So she organized a working party to brick up and camouflage the finest wine, and then had everyone set about smashing the remaining bottles until the cellar floors were running red.

Then she gathered the orphans in her charge, from the very young to older children, and set out on an incredible and dangerous cross-country trek over miles of open country under heavy shelling.  She eventually got them to a mountain village where she felt they would be safe.   The Marchesa wrote this book in the 1950s from her diaries.

It was a good story and I enjoyed it all the more because of the small connection I felt with it through Big Al and his experiences of the time in the same area.  When I got back to Hong Kong, I sent the book to Al, saying that I thought he would be interested as he had been nearby.

Was he just! It turned out he had met the Marchesa and knew some of the story, but not the whole, and had heard it from her lips.

He had organized some food for the people in the area and heard from her tales of her exploits as a refugee-organizer, fending off the nastier type of Nazi soldier, and generally acting as the noblesse oblige supporter of the surrounding peasantry – it was all very feudal.

And this wasn’t just the nostalgic wishful thinking of good ‘ol Al.  It would have been easy for him to spin a tale, and say “Oh, yeah! I met her! Wonderful woman.”  But no, after a long search for the papers he sent me five pages from his diary of the period, pages with numbers in the hundreds, typed on a battered old manual typewriter with clogged letters. It described his meeting with her and the tales she told him, all of which tallied exactly with the latter half of her book.  In 1950 he had typed up this retrospective diary from letters he’d written home at the time.

This was Al’s response to me:

Al's letter 1

And this is an extract of his diary where he recounts meeting the Marchesa.  To fix the starting point precisely, “Wed. 2” referred to here is August 2nd 1944 :



  • Amgot: Allied Military Government of Occupied Territories
  • Goums, according to Wiktionary: “In North Africa, a squadron of the French army made up of native soldiers.”  They fought well but behaved so badly that after a victory parade in Siena, they were “sent home”.
  • “Marchesa d’Origi” should be “Marchesa d’Origo”, I think.


And how did that very old copy of the book (it looked like a 1950s volume) find its way to a hotel in China?  That would be another interesting tale to tell.

I’ll never forget Al or his anecdotes of wartime, and especially this extraordinary arc of space and time, spanning more than 50 years and two-thirds of the way round the planet.



If you enjoyed this tale, please share with a tweet or link.  Thanks!

(There’s another off-topic post – again a tale with a small personal connection – about the saving of Bolivian folk music.)


The pages above are from the bundle Big Al sent me. If you’re interested in more about the day-to-day life of American servicemen in wartime Italy, written as it happened, here are all five sheets.  To see the whole 300-or-so pages would be fascinating.







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A personal blog about a few of my interests … other than Visual Thinking