Mission 31: Time Traveling in Pompeii


Back stories from THE TAIL GUNNER, a soon-to-be released novel from Bering Street Books.

Pamphlet and tickets, Italy

The little green ticket to Pompeii was my starting clue.     KBL Family Collection

March 20, 2014 — In my dad’s box of WWII stuff, I found a little greenish ticket. “Tour C.I.T. Agency, Special Tours, Organized for the A.E.F. POMPEII, All fees included-Do not pay more.” It said. The ticket was No. 5853, torn from a book, probably at the rest leave office, and issued to curious soldiers. Knowing that dad had been a Latin major in high school (very surprising for a guy who spent his life as salesman), I wasn’t surprised to see that this, along with a ticket to the Vatican museum, was something that he’d saved.

The Forum at Pompeii

The Forum at Pompeii, painted in 1841 by
the Danish artist Christen Schjellerup Købke. Courtesy of J. Paul Getty Museum.

So I went there to find him, to see what he saw. I’d been working at the J. Paul Getty Villa with its plethora of ancient treasures from Greece and Italy, and I knew well a painting of ruins and a wall fresco that the Getty conservators had pieced back together from crumbled bits. Pompeii, buried under the angry ash of Vesuvius in AD 79, was the mystical place I’d heard so much about. Now its mystique grew as I searched for the place my father had visited and photographed some 60 years before.

Before my best friend and I left for Italy, I put together a little book of photos copied from Dad’s collection. In it were the places he’d visited and photographed that we were aiming to find.

Pompeii, 2009

The Forum at Pompeii in 2009. Stephanie Lile photo.

Once at Pompeii, shortly after we met our English-speaking guide, I showed him my little book of photographs and asked if he knew where in Pompeii the picture had been taken. I knew it hadn’t been taken on the market street, where giant pots had once held “fast food” olives, meat, fruit, and cheeses. It wasn’t in the villa section where visitors can peer through iron gates and spot the remains of conpluvium pools and inner peristyle gardens. It wasn’t near the brothel with recently restored wall paintings. The picture I had featured a small statue of Apollo and some pillars rising from the ruins.

Our guide studied the picture and smiled. “Oh yes,” he said. “This is the oldest part of Pompeii, the part built when Pompeii was a Greek colony,” explained our guide. And so he took us there.

I recognized the spot as soon as I saw it, and by this time, the people in our tour group were getting excited about my quest, too. The little statue of Apollo even took on added meaning; it was both ancient god and a symbol of perseverance to a young airman and his daughter who had followed his footsteps through time.

I should have been happy, there in that spot where Dad had snapped pictures at the end of the war. But in a way, it made me miss him more.

—Stephanie Lile

Join THE TAIL GUNNER crew! There’s a few days left to help fund production of the novel and save the WWII collection that inspired it.

Mission 31: Tracking the Tiber Terrace


The story behind THE TAIL GUNNER novel, based on the WWII experiences and collection of Keith B. Lile

Tiber Terrace, 1945

We set off with this 1945 photo in hand, looking for the AAF servicemen’s club in Rome called the Tiber Terrace. KBL Family Collection

March 17, 2014 — Before coming to Rome, I had wondered why dad and his buddies would have checked in at one place, only to bail and go stay “downtown.” After finding that Rome’s public bus only goes so far and hoofing it for miles along the winding Tiber River, we figured it out. In fact, since I hadn’t been able to find the place on Google maps, I’d pretty much figured the old Army Air Forces Tiber Terrace Club that had offered a plethora of activities to wartime soldiers had been torn down. After all, it was hardly “classic” Roman architecture–more along the lines of 1930s Deco does Showboat. But we were girls on a mission. So we went hunting anyway.

Girl with map

We thought we knew where we were going…

Our ingredients for discovery included photocopies of a couple old photos, a 1945 handout from said Tiber Terrace, and a map of modern-day Rome. The handout listed all the activities that had once been offered, and yes, the address. We were golden. All we had to do was find #89 Lungo Tevere Flaminio. No problemo, or so we thought.

Now don’t get me wrong. We found Via Flaminio, no problemo. But number 89 was a bit more elusive. We saw some bus drivers hanging out and ran to ask them if they knew where it was. They waved their arms down the street telling us in English as broken as our Italian that it was waaaaaaaaay down thata way. We kept walking, and soon spotted a couple of construction workers taking lunch break on a bench overlooking the river. We showed them the old pictures. “Had they seen this place?” we asked. They looked then shook their heads without a word. So we kept walking. At long last we came to a section of river that had a number of buildings in that signature 1930s-40s style. It felt like we were getting close.

Tiber Terrace notice, 1945.

This was the line-up of fun things to do at the Tiber Terrace in March 1945. KBL Family Collection

We found #79. Another block and we’d be there, surely. It had to be right here. But where? There was no sign of such a building in sight. Instead, all we found was a hedge, and behind the hedge an open lot. I’d been right. It obviously had to have been torn down. Disappointed but used to such discoveries in my History Geek day job, I wandered along the hedge, peering into the hidden zone, speculating about what had been. There was a bridge nearby, so that was where I headed to go get a “Now” picture of the late great Tiber Terrace.

I soon discovered the bridge–a monument in it’s own right–turned out to be the gateway to the 1960 Olympic Stadium. We’d had no idea. Just as I had no idea that once out on the bridge, the ancient gods and goddesses of curiosity would turn my head the other way–to look away from the vacant lot, beyond the bridge, across a tennis court, and through the tree cover to a rounded outcropping of a building that was so familiar I knew at once that I’d been mistaken.

Tiber Terrace, Rome

The Tiber Terrace as it looked in World War II—a rest leave club in Rome. KBL Family Collection

It was the portholes that gave it away. The old Tiber Terrace was there, sans the old signage, in full glowing color. That’s the one thing you miss in old photos, the color. But here in the afternoon light, the terracotta paint job gleamed. I’m pretty sure the clouds parted and the winged statues on the bridge began to sing.

Tiber Terrace, Rome

Standing on the bridge to the Olympic Stadium, I turned to find the very building I was looking for—the Tiber Terrace. Once a club for servicemen, now a sports club for everyone. Stephanie Lile photo, 2009.

We ran from bridge to front door of what was now #16 Via Flaminio (what happened to #89 we’ll never know) prepared to beg our way in. But we didn’t have to. Thanks to a big birthday party, we just charged right in like were invited (which we were, only the guys were long since gone). It was a hot day, and the basketball court-turned pool called to us. The roller skating rink and ping pong tables seemed to have long since disappeared, but the spirit and function of a recreation center certainly remained.

Tiber Terrace entrance.

The street-side entrance didn’t appear the same at all, no wonder it had been hard to spot.

One guy, who looked like he ran the place, kept eyeing us as if wondering whether we were spies. Was it the camera and the fact I kept taking snap shots? Was it the determined way Han followed him into the “staff only” area? Was it that we perched under a tree near the birthday party happenings but carried no birthday gifts? Who knows? All I really cared about was that we’d found the prize, lived it, and photographed it in the “now.”

Tiber Terrace games, 1945.

Recreation abounded at the Tiber Terrace in 1945. KBL Family Collection.

I suspected this Tiber Terrace was the place where Dad had picked up a pamphlet titled “A Soldier’s Guide to Rome,” where the pictures of him roller skating were taken, and where he’d done a little dancing with the local girls despite having left a fiancee back in the States.  But like him, we picked up our gear, grabbed a bottle of water, and headed back into town.

We were set to meet a tour group the next day, and Dad had a plane to catch back to the island of Corsica, back to battle.

—Stephanie Lile

Next Post: Letters From Home

Mission 31: Rest Leave in Roma


The story behind THE TAIL GUNNER novel, based on the WWII experiences and collection of Keith B. Lile

Rome vista

The rooftops of Roma. Dad stood in nearly this exact spot back in 1945. Stephanie Lile photo, 2009.

March 16, 2014 — I feel pretty darn certain that Dad purchased his little red diary while on rest leave in Rome. He and a couple of buddies hitched a flight to the Eternal City and stayed there for about three days. He was about 30 missions in and was no doubt more than due for a little break. Lucky for me he left enough notes and pictures for me to follow his trail.

Armed with Dad’s diary from 1945, a few photos, and selected addresses from tickets and papers in Dad’s collection, I went to find a pair of 60-year-old footprints amongst the millions in Rome.  It was June 2009, and I had three destinations in mind. Thanks to my best friend and many-time Roma Traveler, we found them, but not without a few hiccups.

#8 Via Bellasario, Rome

Number 8, Via Belasario in Rome in 2009, 64 years after my Dad stayed in an apartment there on a 3-day rest leave pass. Stephanie Lile photo.

We began with the search for Dad’s “room in town at Via Belisario 8, Apt 18 – 5th floor. $1.50 p/night.” I’d Googled the address before flying halfway around the world so had discovered that there was actually a B&B there now as well. We found the place easily enough, even a directory near the door showing an Apt 18. But the building had transformed from “apartment-hotel” of the 1940s to individual residences with the B&B Pars located there in one downstairs unit.

#8 Via Bellasario, Rome

At the door, we pushed the call button for #18, but there was no answer. Finally a nice lady who ran a B&B opened the door. Stephanie Lile photo.

We pushed the call button for Apartment 18, but there was no answer. The owner of the B&B, a delightful woman who spends time both in Italy and Canada, was kind enough to greet us instead. She had been there two years and claimed that the building had never been a hotel. But the abandoned Porter’s office and curved-glass clerk’s booth in the building lobby gave away its past. Even the old key and message boxes were still intact. I imagined my pop grabbing the key, tossing it into the air, and catching it again as his buddies ran up the five flights of stairs to Apartment 18. Rome was waiting. All those hours he’d spent studying ancient history in high school Latin club were about to pay off.

The trip was paying off for me, too. After my first travel writing job that required me to write about places I’d never been to, I vowed to ever after go to the places I was writing about. Call me a “method” writer, but there is no better way for the sounds, smells, and human interactions of a place to become ingrained in the story than to go there.

St. Peter's square, Rome

In 2009, it was difficult to get close to the statue. Stephanie Lile photo.

Saint Peter, 1945

The statue of St. Paul as it appeared in 1945. KBL Family Collection.

From the apartment in Rome, we followed Dad’s footsteps to the statue of St. Paul we found in his photo. The statue stands outside St. Peter’s Basilica and presides over St. Peter’s Square adjacent to the Vatican. We were able to identify the statue in Dad’s photograph by the scroll he held. The square’s namesake, St. Peter, holds “the keys to heaven.” This photo was key to finding the very location where Dad had taken his picture.

From that spot, we were not far from the Vatican Museum, the ticket to which Dad had saved for nearly half a century along with his “Soldier’s Guide to Rome.” For those of you who enjoyed the recent film “Monuments Men” you’ll be happy to hear that Major DeWald, Director of the Monuments and Fine Arts Sub-Commission was its author. In fact, there were many monuments men and women who worked together to save art all over North Africa and Europe. You can still join that hunt through the Monuments Men Foundation.

Pamphlet and tickets, Italy

Maybe Dad saved these tickets and guide to prove he was actually there. The Soldier’s Guide to Rome and tickets to the Vatican Museum and ruins of Pompeii, were proof enough for me. KBL Family Collection

In the forward of the soldier’s guide, General HR Alexander says, “Let us remember that Rome is the first capital city to be entered by us in our task of liberating Europe. Rome is the heritage of all the world and not only of Italy — Rome is the fountain of civilization. The eyes of all the world are upon our actions in the “Eternal City” and we will show the world by our example the high standard of conduct and bearing of our victorious Allied Armies.

English-Italian phrase book.

This English-Italian phrase book served as inspiration for sending the characters Sylvie and Pen to Italy. In the book, they use it much as it was no doubt intended for WWII servicemen.

With my ticket to the Vatican Museum, I followed Dad and hundreds of ghostly soldiers through the hall of maps and into the Sistine Chapel. For all of my years of studying art history, I couldn’t help but be astounded at how “small” the chapel was. Even DeWald states that, “Michelangelo felt cramped by the enclosing space of the vault, so he painted out the vault and painted in an extra story of architecture to make the ceiling seem higher, and in between and on top of this architecture he painted figures which look like the sculpture.”

No doubt Dad was as fascinated with Rome as I was. Along with its ancient treasures, it was also a city of modern style. Dodging between ruins and majestic sculptures to get back to our bus stop, we decided that the next day would be devoted to finding Dad’s “Tiber Terrace,” a rest leave club for enlisted men.

—Stephanie Lile

Next Post: In Search of the Tiber Terrace (March 17)