A 97-year-old World War II veteran reunited with three Italians he almost shot as children during the conflict’s final months.
Private Martin Adler was roving the small central Italian village of Cassano di Monterenzio in October of 1944 when he entered what he thought was an abandoned home.
The then 20-year-old Adler and another U.S. soldier named John Bronsky went from house to house searching for hidden Nazis.
They entered the home and noticed a movement inside a large wicker basket. The two Americans pointed their guns at the basket and prepared to shoot, thinking it was an enemy soldier in hiding.
At that moment, a woman came out to stop them from shooting.
“The mother, Mamma, came out and stood right in front of my gun to stop me [from] shooting,” Adler told AP. “She put her stomach right against my gun, yelling, ‘Bambinis! Bambinis! Bambinis!’”
“That was a real hero, the mother, not me. The mother was a real hero. Can you imagine you standing yourself in front of a gun and screaming ‘Children! No!’” he said.
Three little children—two girls and a boy—then emerged from the basket where their mother had hidden them as soldiers approached.
Adler and Bronsky laughed in relief, and the former asked if the youngsters could take a photo with him. Their mom agreed on the condition that she could dress them in their finest clothes first.
Adler’s unit, the 339th Infantry Regiment, stayed in the village for a while. He would come by and play with the children on some days.
When their unit left the village, Adler assumed he would never see them again. But last December, his daughter, Rachelle Adler Donley, shared the black-and-white photo of her dad and the siblings in several World War II veteran Facebook groups in hopes of tracking them down.
Adler Donley started her search to cheer her father, who was in isolation with his wife, Elaine, in a retirement community in Florida.
Matteo Incerti, an Italian journalist who had written books on World War II, saw her post and alerted local newspapers and television stations about it.
The search proved to be successful. One of the children’s family members recognized the siblings as Bruno, Mafalda, and Giuliana Naldi.
They were between 3 and 6 years old when Adler first met them. Now, they are octogenarians with grandchildren and great-grandchildren of their own.
Adler and the Naldi siblings initially reunited over a video call last December. When the COVID-19 travel restrictions eased, the veteran made the 20-hour journey from Boca Raton, Florida, to Bologna Airport, where he saw the Naldis in person for the first time in 77 years.
The war veteran said his “heart is bursting” upon their meeting. He wore a T-shirt printed with the image taken in 1944 and handed each sibling a chocolate bar—just like he did when they first met. Back then, he offered the kids chocolate wrapped in a blue-and-white wrapper.
Bruno, Mafalda, Giuliana, and many of their family members were there to share in their joy.
“Knowing that Martin could have shot and that none of my family would exist is something very big,” Roberta Fontana, Giuliana’s 30-year-old granddaughter, said. “It is very emotional.”
Adler plans to travel to the Naldi siblings’ hometown of Monterenzio before visiting Naples and Rome, where he hopes to meet Pope Francis.
“My dad really wants to meet the pope,” Adler Donley said. “He wants to share his message of peace and love. My dad is all about peace.”
According to Adler Donley, the years following the war hadn’t been easy for her father. He suffered from PTSD and still has nightmares from the war. It was a difficult tour, and his chance meeting with the siblings stood out as a happy memory that he cherished over the decades.
“Adler said this is the nicest thing that has ever happened to him,” said Incerti.
See their happy reunion in the video below.