When 97-year-old Martin Adler landed at the Bologna Airport in Italy after a 20-hour journey from his home in Boca Raton, Florida, he was greeted by three elderly Italian siblings: Bruno, Mafalda, and Giuliana Naldi. Upon their meeting, Adler gave the siblings American chocolate bars just as he did when he first met them 77 years ago.
During WWII, Adler fought in Italy with the 339th Infantry Regiment, 85th Infantry Division. He landed in Naples in March 1944 and his unit began the bloody campaign to liberate the country.
On June 3, 1944, Adler's unit engaged in heavy fighting in Rocca Priora on the Alban Hills outside of Rome. During the battle, Adler rescued fellow soldiers who were trapped by enemy fire. His actions earned him the Bronze Star for valor.
By the autumn of 1944, the allies had advanced to the northern part of the country. In Monterenzio, a town to the south of Bologna, Adler and his unit were cautiously searching for Germans. "I had my good old Thompson submachine gun," Adler recalled in an interview with CBS Evening News. During the search, he noticed movement from a large wicker basket. Fearing that a German might be hiding inside, he aimed his weapon at it.
"The mother, Mamma, came out and stood right in front of my gun to stop me shooting,” Adler recounted. "She put her stomach right against my gun, yelling, 'Bambinis! Bambinis! Bambinis!' pounding my chest."
"That was a real hero, the mother, not me," Adler said. "The mother was a real hero. Can you imagine you standing yourself in front of a gun and screaming, ‘Children! No!?'"
The Naldi siblings, ages 3 to 6 at the time, emerged from the basket and met a relieved Adler. Giuliana is the only one who remembers the close call, though she didn't quite comprehend its gravity at the time. "We weren't afraid of anything," she said. Though, she did recall the chocolate Adler gave them and its blue and white wrapper. "We ate so much of that chocolate!" Adler and the three children took a photo together which he has treasured ever since.
Adler's daughter, Rachelle Donley, decided to track down the children in the photo during the COVID lockdown. She posted it online to veterans groups with information about her father's service. Italian journalist Matteo Incerti, an author on WWII, saw the appeal and traced the movement of Adler's unit through Italy. Along with clues from the photograph, he published Adler's picture in local newspapers until the Naldi siblings were identified.
Adler and the Naldis had a virtual reunion in December 2020. Following the easing of travel restrictions, he made the trip across the Atlantic to meet in person. "He just lit up, just seeing the kids," Donley said. "It means everything to him."
Adler's trip to Italy will retrace his journey during the war and includes stops in Florence, Naples, and Rome. When asked why he didn't pull the trigger, Adler answered, "God looked down on me, and God looked down on Italia."