Wartime heroism binds the hometown of Italian marine Massimiliano Latorre to India

The expression of regret by the Mayor of Taranto for the killing of two Indian fishermen by Italian marines from the Enrica Lexie, and his offer to take up the responsibility of educating the bereaved children gains significance from the city’s historical association with India.

I discovered that association quite by chance in 1967 when I was an officer on board INS Brahmaputra. My ship was diverted to Taranto owing to a coup against King Constantine in Greece, our original destination,

The ship berthed in Taranto in the early hours of a Sunday. There was no one there apart from the shore berthing party of a few men.

As time went by, a large number of Taranto’s residents, including several senior citizens, started congregating near the ship. They carried placards welcoming the Indians to Taranto. It was a mystery to us as to why such a crowd was building up. We were told that the news of the Indian ship’s arrival was announced on the local radio. By the evening, the crowd had swelled. Several residents held placards inviting us to dinners, lunches and picnics.

I was invited to dinner by the family of the late Ms. Ines Ghosh, the Italian wife of the late Surgeon Rear Admiral J.N. Ghosh of the Indian Navy. Ghosh met Ines in Taranto where he was a prisoner of war. There I heard heart-rending stories of World War II. They narrated how when the British 8th Army comprising British, Australian, Canadian, Indian and troops of other nationalities invaded southern Italy in July 1943. The soldiers from all armies except the Indian Army indulged in rape, molestation and plunder.

One of the elderly ladies present told us how she was being chased by two Allied soldiers when an Indian soldier intervened and protected her. He told them not to harm her because she was his sister!

In another instance a posse of Indian soldiers voluntarily guarded an apartment building and prevented soldiers of the other Allied armies from entering it. There were numerous stories of heroism like this. These marvellous episodes bore testimony to the ethical standards and professionalism of the Indian Army.

The following day there was a special reception in honour of the personnel of INS Brahmaputra in the town hall. Meanwhile, invitations from the citizenry continued to flow, so much so that the late Captain Erach Debu, Commanding Officer of the ship, volunteered to keep harbour watch in the ship himself and let all his officers go ashore to attend the functions.

Several shops refused to accept money for the merchandise purchased by the ship’s personnel.

When the ship left port finally after four days, virtually the entire town was on the jetty with several bands in attendance to bid adieu. It was a very moving and emotional experience.

The Italian marines issue has cast an ugly shadow over the two countries. It needs to be resolved in the true spirit of Taranto and in the mutual interests of India and Italy.

(Raj Mohindra is a retired Captain of the Indian Navy)

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