How an Entire Village Hid in a Cave to Escape the Nazis Amid Operation Husky

An 85-year-old woman reflects on her childhood as World War II was raged outside her door.

Cecelia Maltempi had always admired her parents, especially her mother.

One of 12 siblings, the 10-year-old girl had never once seen her mom, Giovanna, look scared — not when a stroke left her husband, Carlo, paralyzed, or when she refused to salute fascist leader Benito Mussolini as he visited their small Italian town, or even when she had to send her sons to fight in Mussolini’s war.

But that all changed one hot afternoon in July 1943, at the height of World War II.
That day at lunch, a frantic Giovanna told Cecelia to stuff a pillowcase with all the belongings she could carry. Cecelia obeyed, but anxiety tugged at her heart. She’d never seen her mother so worried.
Carrying their father between them, the brothers and sisters packed up and left their home in the seaside village of Oliveri, Sicily, on foot for a cave just over an hour away. For a month, Cecelia, her family and more than 500 people from the town took refuge in the cave as the Axis powers battled the Allies for control of their tiny island.
This summer marks the 75th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Sicily, known as Operation Husky, an event that some historians cite as the turning point of the war in Europe.

It also changed Cecelia’s life forever.

Following a successful campaign in North Africa between November 1942 and May 1943, the Allied forces of America and Great Britain had their sights set on Europe, via Sicily. The triangular-shaped island is located just north of Tunisia and Algeria, and right next to the "boot" of Italy’s Calabria region in the Mediterranean, from which the Allies hoped to bolster their efforts to retake Europe.

On July 10, 1943, the Allied forces entered the island from the south in the first phase of Operation Husky. They would eventually make their way to the northeastern part of Sicily, where the battle for the island reached its climax at the port of Messina on Aug. 17.

As the Allies advanced, the Nazis moved north, flooding Messina and its surrounding areas, including Oliveri, and throwing people from their homes. It was amid that chaos that Giovanna told young Cecelia to gather her things and flee their house.

"The people didn’t know where to go," Cecelia, now 85, told from her home on Long Island, New York. Some headed for the mountains, but most, she said, took refuge in an enormous, but secluded cave along the water.

It was an adjustment for the then-10-year-old girl.

"We went there and I said, 'Mom, where are we going to sleep tonight?’ and she says, 'Here,'" Cecelia recalled. "The cave was dark. No lights, no water."


Life inside the cave was difficult and food was hard to come by. 

The family relied on the jarred and pickled foods they grabbed while fleeing their home. They found grapes and herbs growing outside the cave, and plucked peaches from nearby trees. If they were lucky, Cecelia’s brothers would catch fish in the nearby lakes. 

Cecelia said her mother did her best to make sure the children ate.

"'This is what you eat today; that’s all I can offer you,'" Cecelia recalled Giovanna saying. “We said, ‘Thank you, mom.’ I always respected my mother because she was the lady providing everything for us."

But as the days passed, the children grew restless. One day, Cecelia and her 8-year-old sister, Frances, ventured outside.

"It was a beautiful day that I will never forget," Cecelia said. "My sister says, ‘Come on, we got to go, we got to go get some fruit.'"

They ended up at their family home, which had been turned into a makeshift hospital. The girls peeked through a window and saw a Nazi soldier standing above an injured comrade in a bed. As they watched, Cecelia said, he pulled out a gun and shot the injured man. Shaken, the two girls bolted.

As they raced back to the cave, they grew tired and thirsty, and decided to stop at a well for water. When Cecelia lowered the bucket into the well, the two sisters were alone. But by the time she had pulled it back up, three Nazi soldiers had surrounded them, guns raised.

“My sister said, ‘We are going to die.’ I said, ‘Don’t worry about it. We’re not going to die.’ She was scared, I was scared,” Cecelia said.

“In the meantime, the soldier [behind me] pulled my hair and put my head in the bucket and told me to drink the water because he thought it was poisoned. He put the gun to my ear.”

She drank, and when the soldiers realized the water was fine, they let them go. To this day, Cecelia doesn’t know why.

On their way back to the cave, however, they heard the thunderous sound of airplanes overhead. Bullets began to fall from the sky like raindrops.

As they approached their temporary home, Cecelia noticed three girls on the ground.

“I said, ‘My God, Frances, they need help!’” Cecelia said.

She tried to tend to the injuries of the three girls, but it was too late — they were already dead. As she attempted to help them, she felt a rippling pain she had never experienced before.

“I saw myself full of blood,” she said. “I had been shot in the leg.”

The Allies, she realized later, had finally reached Oliveri.

Cecelia remembers waking up in a hospital with her leg bandaged. Medical staff showed her how to clean the wound and, after just one night in hospital, she returned to the cave.

Today, a scar from the bullet marks her upper thigh. 


“When I saw the Americans, I saw liberation,” Cecelia said. “I was full of joy because I knew they were there to occupy Italy, not just me, but a lot of people.

"We were going to get out of the cave."

The bulk of the Allied troops arrived in Messina and the surrounding areas on Aug. 17, 1943, about a month after Cecelia and her family first sought shelter in the cave.

As the American tanks and heavy artillery rolled into the port, the Allies expected a massive battle, but most of the Axis forces had already fled the island and headed to the mainland. The Allies occupied Messina for another month, but the fighting on the island was finally over.

The people of Oliveri tried to rebuild their lives as the Americans and their leader, Gen. George Patton, prepared for the invasion of Italy.

Cecelia’s family returned to their home to find it empty.

“It was a different life. We didn’t have any bread still. We didn’t have any clean water. We didn’t have anything,” she said. “I think Sicily needed to pray after the war … for some peace, a lot of houses were destroyed. It was really difficult.”

And just because the fighting was done, it didn’t mean the hardships were over.

On the morning of Aug. 27, Cecelia’s 17-year-old brother, Nino, went into the kitchen of their home and told Giovanna he was going to play soccer with his friend on the beach.

Giovanna begged Nino not to go to the beach because both militaries had left landmines behind in the sand. But Nino didn’t listen.

“We hear an explosion,” Cecelia said. “My mother [had] already figured out something happened to her son.”

The family rushed to the beach, where they saw Nino’s friend Carmelo, "in a thousand pieces," Cecelia said. Nino, however, was still alive.

With help from neighbors, they brought Nino to a hospital, but doctors said there was nothing they could do to treat his severe injuries. So they brought Nino back home, where a priest came and read the teenager his last rites.

He died a few hours later.

"Nino was a like a father [to me]," said Cecelia, fighting tears. "He was 17 years old but was a big man. The courage he had. My brother helped my mother with anything he could."


Nino’s death hit the tight-knit family hard, and at first, it seemed like more bad news was still to come.

Two of Cecelia’s older brothers, Steven and Dontino, returned home from serving in the military, but the family couldn’t find out what had happened to a third brother, Rosario, who had been taken prisoner in Russia years earlier.

After they left the cave, the family was notified by the Italian government that Rosario had been killed in a prison camp. They were devastated.

Then, rumors of a man who looked like Rosario began circulating around Messina and eventually Oliveri.

"He showed up in Messina," Cecelia said. "Somebody told us they saw Rosario. He had been gone for three years, maybe more. I said, 'My brother is alive?'"

The family rushed to Messina, where they spotted Rosario sitting in the city square with a long beard and dirty clothes. He looked as though he’d been to hell and back.

Rosario had managed to escape the camp with other members of his captured battalion and make it home.

It was good news welcomed by a family that had suffered such heartache.


When World War II ended in Europe in September 1945, Sicily was in an economic decline and money was scarce.

In 1948, Cecelia’s father died and Giovanna did not want to stay in Oliveri any longer. She, together with eight of her children, gathered whatever money she could and packed her bags for New York City.

At the time, Cecelia was in love with a local police officer and had no interest in American life. She stayed behind in Oliveri with her sister Frances and their youngest brother, John. A year later, however, an unexpected package arrived at her front doorstep. It contained three tickets to America, sent by Giovanna. Their mother didn’t feel complete without the rest of her family.

Cecelia had to make a choice, and decided to leave her boyfriend behind.

"He didn’t come," she said. "He said, 'I am going to marry you.' I said, 'No, I want to live with my mother and my sister and my family.'"

In December 1953, Cecelia and her siblings boarded the S.S. Nassau and headed for America.


Cecelia’s new American life was not what she expected. She had never seen so many different people from so many different backgrounds.

The family settled on Coney Island, where Cecelia had an opportunity to get a job at a factory making handbags, something uncommon for women in Sicily. She eventually found work as a model, making serious money for the first time in her life.

With that money, she was able to enroll in school, where she learned English. It was there that she met the man she would marry, a fellow Sicilian named Carlo, like her father.

Together, they had four daughters and opened a restaurant together in Long Island, which they moved in 1960. The couple went on to have eight grandchildren.

In April, Cecelia became a great-grandmother, something she had desperately hoped to experience but wasn’t sure she ever would.

Speaking to with her great-grandson, Lucas, in her arms, she shared her message for future generations.

"I wish they won’t go through what I went through," she said. "I wish they lived in peace and love — especially the children."

Cecelia Maltempi is reporter Salvatore Bono's grandmother.