Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. “His Holiness Will Receive You in a Few Moments. I Could Have Dropped Dead!”

 

One of the touchstones of my life has always been the story of how my dad met the Pope, in Rome, on June 5, 1944. Truth be told, my mother always pooh-poohed the whole thing a bit (not unusual for Mum to do something like that, especially for an event in which she wasn’t the main focus). And given Dad’s legendary story-telling abilities, we did sometimes wonder how much of it was really true, and whether he’d gilded the lily at any point.

Apparently, not.

I’ve told the following story on Ricochet before, more than half a decade ago. Many of you weren’t here, so perhaps those who were will forgive me if I repeat it. Those of you who liked it then, I hope you still do; those of you for whom it’s new, I hope you enjoy it, too. The accompanying black-and-white images (except for the one of Dad’s letter, which I took from my brother), are from contact prints of photos Dad himself took during the war. Apologies for the poor quality, but the initial prints are tiny (click to enlarge the images).

Dad’s Army career spanned the Middle East, North Africa and Italy (including Anzio and Monte Cassino). But it was on June 5, 1944, the day after Dad marched into Rome with Mark Clark’s Fifth Army, that one of the most extraordinary episodes of Dad’s war took place.

Dad was fascinated with history. And he also loved pomp, circumstance, and costumes (a favorite story of Dad’s teenage years was that of his role as the Pirate King in the school operetta, during which he swung his heavy velvet cloak with great abandon and knocked all the footlights into the orchestra pit. The curtain had to be rung down while the mess was cleaned up and the wounded were tended to. This is an early example of what I mean when I say (as I often do) that things didn’t happen to Dad–Dad happened to things).

Anyway, Dad decided that he wasn’t leaving Rome without seeing the Pontifical Swiss Guard in their funny costumes and finery, and being Dad, he led an expedition of himself and a couple of his buddies to storm St. Peter’s and live his dream.

We’ve known the story that follows, apocryphally, for half-a-century. But, some time after Dad’s death, my brother, sister and I were sorting out his ‘stuff’ and we came across a heavy envelope containing a couple of letters and a rosary. The letters were from Dad to his mother, my grandmother. The rosary was blessed by Pope Pius XII.

So I’ll let Dad himself tell the story of June 5, 1944, the day he ‘happened’ to the Pope. (h/t to my brother for interpreting Dad’s execrable handwriting, and for posting it, along with images of the letters, and some other Dad stories, here).

Capt. D J Muffett 

1Bn Loyal Rgt CMF 8 June

My Dear Mother,

Well well things have moved haven’t they? I suppose you hear quite a lot these days from the air force. However we will hold off from the Second Front a bit and see how it goes and I’ll tell you instead of a remarkable experience that I have had.

On Monday I went into Rome to see the sights and have a look round. Unlike most Italian towns it is quite remarkable and reasonably clean (which is surprising) and doesn’t even smell (which is more surprising). Well I and another chap had a look at the Coliseum and the Temple of Vesta and the Forum and then wandered into the Palazza Venetzia where some Jocks [Scots] were playing themselves in as the massed pipes and drums. We were standing around watching when a lady (about 38-40) came up and said “Excuse me but are you English” we said “yes” and she said “oh I am so pleased, ten years ago I married an Italian and have been here ever since. I used to live in Barons Court.” She took us round the place and showed us the Tiber Bridge, etc.

Well we left her and chuntered into St Peters. Now comes the joke. We wandered around a bit and looked at the ceilings (Michael Angelo) and the statue of St Peter. Then I said I want to see a Swiss Guard. So we wandered outside and had a look at one (in his utility Blue uniform and got a smashing Present of a pike!! Well he said “straight up those stairs sir” and shot us inside where there were a couple more. (This time in full dress) who passed us up another flight of stairs, and a third lot shot us into a room where there were some very comfortable chairs so we sat down. Then a very charming Irish Priest came in and said “His Holiness will receive you in a few moments” – I could have dropped dead!! There were three of us in there (one was the doc) so we went into a huddle and worked out the drill.

About ten minutes later there was a crashing all along the corridor and in he came surrounded by the noble guard (magnificent uniforms). He came to each of us in turn (the correct thing is to drop on one knee and and kiss St Peter’s ring on the 4th finger R hand.) It is an enormous stone fully 1/2 inch sq. and Blood red.** (I was quite adept at this).

The narrative will now be continued in another letter which I will send off at the same time as this.

Captain D J Muffett 1st Bn Loyal Rgt CMF

Well to continue. He spoke to each of us in perfect english and asked how we were, and had we heard from our families and were they well, were we married and had we been particularly uncomfortable and then we fell out after he had given the Papal blessing. Incidentally he gave each of us a rosary which I will send you as a memento by sea. It really was a memorable experience. What with the Coronation and that, I do clock for State occasions don’t I.

Well I am sure that you will be glad to know that I am unscathed and sound in wind and limb. A certain inevitable impression will indelibly remain but on the whole I have been very lucky.

The weather has been very good to us and is still boiling hot. I am working up a nice tan and am unfalteringly healthy. Will you please send me some Dettol. A tin if you can get it rather than a bottle. My love to Barney I suppose he looks grand. Encourage him to bring you things and perhaps about Sept Pa could arrange for him to go to a keeper for a month or so to finish off his training. Perhaps Mr Morton will know someone.

My love to Arthur and Joan and Maurice. Is he in the second front yet and haven’t they landed yet. Whatever happens you must keep your chin up and keep smiling. I am quite sure we will both be OK and anyway why worry.

I hope that the weather soon tunes you up and that you get fit and able to go out.

My only worry so far is that I have smashed my watch up which is a pity. However I will soon get another out here.

Well I have exceeded my quota this week by quite a lot this week and the well is beginning to run dry. So TTFN

All my love

David

In closing, I’ll just mention that Dad was not a fan of General Mark Clark. From my brother’s blog, quoting a Wikipedia article and this book:

 . . . Rome was entered in the early hours of June 4 with Clark holding an impromptu press conference on the steps of the Town Hall on the Capitoline Hill that morning. He ensured the event was a strictly American affair by stationing military police at road junctions to refuse entry to the city by British military personnel (emphasis added).

Apparently, as many did, before and since, usually to their cost, General Clark reckoned without Dad.

_______________

**Regarding the Pope’s ring: His “official” ring, or the Ring of the Fisherman, doesn’t have a stone in it, as it’s a ring that can be used as a seal. From what I gather from doing a little reading, Popes rarely wear it any more, and Pius XII was known for wearing a few different rings, each set with a large stone. I’m assuming one of these is the ring Dad kissed, and that he just misnamed it.

There are 27 comments.

  1. Nanda "Chaps" Panjan… Coolidge

    What a treat and a blessing, She! Thanks for sharing it and the great pics!

    • #1
    • June 5, 2017, at 12:07 PM PST
    • 7 likes
  2. Percival Thatcher

    One of the few tales Uncle Louie told about the war in my presence took place two days before your father’s audience. Louie was a spotter for the artillery. The job was made much easier by a little booklet (allegedly authored by the Mafia) that listed the exact location and the exact altitude of the tip of every steeple in Italy. If you have two known points like that, determining your exact position is easy, and there are very few points in Italy from which you can’t see two or more steeples.

    One such place was the tree-lined road Louie and his driver were taking their jeep down. They emerged from the trees and found 1) that they could see a whole lot of steeples, and 2) something they could not see was anyone else wearing the same outfits they were. The driver threw the jeep into reverse. Louie said that jeeps could reverse very fast, but for about a minute and a half it didn’t seem anywhere near fast enough. They got the jeep turned around and went bucketing back the way they had come until they ran into an American unit that seemed very surprised to see them.

    “Hey!” one said. “Did you know that just down that road is …”

    “Rome” said Louie. “Yeah, we know.”

    • #2
    • June 5, 2017, at 12:10 PM PST
    • 16 likes
  3. Doug Kimball Member

    I remember you telling this story. It is just as charming this time. Thanks.

    • #3
    • June 5, 2017, at 12:17 PM PST
    • 7 likes
  4. JustmeinAZ Member

    Great story! BTW your Dad looks like the quintessential Brit officer. He should have been in the movies.

    • #4
    • June 5, 2017, at 12:22 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  5. She Thatcher
    She Post author

    Percival (View Comment):
    One of the few tales Uncle Louie told about the war in my presence took place two days before your father’s audience. Louie was a spotter for the artillery. The job was made much easier by a little booklet (allegedly authored by the Mafia) that listed the exact location and the exact altitude of the tip of every steeple in Italy. If you have two known points like that, determining your exact position is easy, and there are very few points in Italy from which you can’t see two or more steeples.

    One such place was the tree-lined road Louie and his driver were taking their jeep down. They emerged from the trees and found 1) that they could see a whole lot of steeples, and 2) something they could not see was anyone else wearing the same outfits they were. The driver threw the jeep into reverse. Louie said that jeeps could reverse very fast, but for about a minute and a half it didn’t seem anywhere near fast enough. They got the jeep turned around and went bucketing back the way they had come until they ran into an American unit that seemed very surprised to see them.

    “Hey!” one said. “Did you know that just down that road is …”

    “Rome” said Louie. “Yeah, we know.”

    Wonderful story! Thanks for sharing it.

    • #5
    • June 5, 2017, at 12:23 PM PST
    • 4 likes
  6. She Thatcher
    She Post author

    Doug Kimball (View Comment):
    I remember you telling this story. It is just a charming this time. Thanks.

    Thanks! I really have enough stories that I should never have to repeat myself, but I think this is a particularly good one . . .

    • #6
    • June 5, 2017, at 12:24 PM PST
    • 7 likes
  7. JustmeinAZ Member

    She (View Comment):
    Thanks! I really have enough stories that I should never have to repeat myself, but I think this is a particularly good one . . .

    I really, really want to hear about the hermaphrodite dwarf!

    • #7
    • June 5, 2017, at 12:35 PM PST
    • 4 likes
  8. She Thatcher
    She Post author

    JustmeinAZ (View Comment):
    Great story! BTW your Dad looks like the quintessential Brit officer. He should have been in the movies.

    Thanks! Here’s a more formal shot:

    He was impressive. About 6’2″, smart as a whip, built like a tank, and strong as a horse. Truly a force of Nature.

    As with all parents, he was an occasional source of great mortification to his children. I’m just happy he lived long enough (to the age of 88) to see the three of us return the favor now and then.

    • #8
    • June 5, 2017, at 12:39 PM PST
    • 16 likes
  9. She Thatcher
    She Post author

    JustmeinAZ (View Comment):

    She (View Comment):
    Thanks! I really have enough stories that I should never have to repeat myself, but I think this is a particularly good one . . .

    I really, really want to hear about the hermaphrodite dwarf!

    Patience, my dear. I really have to get myself in the right frame of mind for that one. So far, I haven’t figured out exactly what it will take . . . .

    • #9
    • June 5, 2017, at 12:43 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  10. John Walker Contributor

    That’s a wonderful story—thank you for sharing it.

    Apparently it wasn’t unusual for the Pope to invite Allied servicemen visiting St. Peter’s Square after the liberation of Rome to meet him and be thanked and blessed.

    An investment analyst I used to read, Richard Russell, related a similar story. He was serving in the U.S. Army Air Corps as a B-25 navigator/bombardier flying missions out of Italy. Shortly after the liberation of Rome, his crew was on a short leave in the city and visited the Vatican. Same story: a priest approached them and asked if they’d like to meet the Pope. They were ushered into his presence, where the Pope thanked them for their part in the liberation. After a brief conversation, he said, “Come forward so I may bless you”. The other members of the crew stepped up, but Russell hesitated. The Pope asked if there was a problem. Russell said, “I’m Jewish.” The Pope immediately responded, “We all pray to the same God.”, whereupon he stepped forward and was blessed with the others.

    On the next mission, one of his crew members remarked, “We must be the safest crew in Italy. We’re flying with a Jew who was blessed by the Pope.”

    • #10
    • June 5, 2017, at 12:48 PM PST
    • 24 likes
  11. She Thatcher
    She Post author

    John Walker (View Comment):
    That’s a wonderful story—thank you for sharing it.

    Apparently it wasn’t unusual for the Pope to invite Allied servicemen visiting St. Peter’s Square after the liberation of Rome to meet him and be thanked and blessed.

    An investment analyst I used to read, Richard Russell, related a similar story. He was serving in the U.S. Army Air Corps as a B-25 navigator/bombardier flying missions out of Italy. Shortly after the liberation of Rome, his crew was on a short leave in the city and visited the Vatican. Same story: a priest approached them and asked if they’d like to meet the Pope. They were ushered into his presence, where the Pope thanked them for their part in the liberation. After a brief conversation, he said, “Come forward so I may bless you”. The other members of the crew stepped up, but Russell hesitated. The Pope asked if there was a problem. Russell said, “I’m Jewish.” The Pope immediately responded, “We all pray to the same God.”, whereupon he stepped forward and was blessed with the others.

    On the next mission, one of his crew members remarked, “We must be the safest crew in Italy. We’re flying with a Jew who was blessed by the Pope.”

    Another wonderful story! Thanks.

    Apparently, there was a photographer there when Dad met the Pope, whose name (Dad swore) was Mr. Gluckbein (the photographer’s name. Not the Pope’s. Sorry) . He was taking photos of the Pope, not of Dad or his friends, and Dad always insisted that, when Mr. Gluckbein had what he considered the perfect framing and the perfect shot, he shouted out in a strong New York accent, “Hold it, Pope, that’s fine!” and took his photos.

    • #11
    • June 5, 2017, at 12:52 PM PST
    • 7 likes
  12. Percival Thatcher

    Reporter to Yogi Berra: “I understand you had an audience with the pope.”

    Yogi: “No, but I saw him.”

    Reporter: “What did he say?”

    Yogi: “You know, he must read the papers a lot, because he said, `Hello, Yogi.'”

    Reporter: “What did you say?”

    Yogi: “I said, ‘Hello, Pope.'”

    NEW YORK – 1960: Catcher Yogi Berra #8, of the New York Yankees, poses for the camera at Yankee Stadium in New York in 1960. (Olen Collection/Diamond Images/Getty Images)
    • #12
    • June 5, 2017, at 1:19 PM PST
    • 14 likes
  13. Valiuth Member

    John Walker (View Comment):
    That’s a wonderful story—thank you for sharing it.

    Apparently it wasn’t unusual for the Pope to invite Allied servicemen visiting St. Peter’s Square after the liberation of Rome to meet him and be thanked and blessed.

    An investment analyst I used to read, Richard Russell, related a similar story. He was serving in the U.S. Army Air Corps as a B-25 navigator/bombardier flying missions out of Italy. Shortly after the liberation of Rome, his crew was on a short leave in the city and visited the Vatican. Same story: a priest approached them and asked if they’d like to meet the Pope. They were ushered into his presence, where the Pope thanked them for their part in the liberation. After a brief conversation, he said, “Come forward so I may bless you”. The other members of the crew stepped up, but Russell hesitated. The Pope asked if there was a problem. Russell said, “I’m Jewish.” The Pope immediately responded, “We all pray to the same God.”, whereupon he stepped forward and was blessed with the others.

    On the next mission, one of his crew members remarked, “We must be the safest crew in Italy. We’re flying with a Jew who was blessed by the Pope.”

    Ha! That’s a great story too.

    • #13
    • June 5, 2017, at 1:25 PM PST
    • 4 likes
  14. Arahant Member

    Thank you, She. This is priceless.

    It is also part of the Quote of the Day Series. If you would like to share a favorite quote, you can sign up for a date here.

    • #14
    • June 5, 2017, at 4:06 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  15. MarciN Member

    What a great story. Thank you.

    • #15
    • June 5, 2017, at 5:33 PM PST
    • 4 likes
  16. tigerlily Member

    Great story She! I’m glad you re-told it for those of us who weren’t around the first time.

    • #16
    • June 5, 2017, at 5:46 PM PST
    • 4 likes
  17. Philodemus Inactive

    Wow.

    • #17
    • June 5, 2017, at 5:59 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  18. PHCheese Member

    Great story. I was on the Mark Clark expressway today I 526 around Charleston. How was it your father served under him?

    • #18
    • June 5, 2017, at 6:55 PM PST
    • 1 like
  19. Jules PA Member

    ❤️Love❤️

    • #19
    • June 5, 2017, at 6:56 PM PST
    • 4 likes
  20. She Thatcher
    She Post author

    Jules PA (View Comment):
    ❤️Love❤️

    Beautiful, thank you.

    • #20
    • June 5, 2017, at 6:59 PM PST
    • 1 like
  21. She Thatcher
    She Post author

    PHCheese (View Comment):
    Great story. I was on the Mark Clark expressway today I 526 around Charleston. How was it your father served under him?

    Dad would probably take exception to the preposition, and I’m not really the military historian of the family, but according to my brother, the 1st Battalion of the Loyals was attached to the American Army through parts of Italy. We did have a bit of a discussion on another thread about this yesterday (@alfrench, this post is the story I mentioned).

    • #21
    • June 5, 2017, at 7:04 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  22. She Thatcher
    She Post author

    Some of the notes from my brother’s blog, on yet more unlikely-sounding, but true, Dad stories. (I’ve told a couple of these on Ricochet). I lived through numbers 4, 5, 6, and 7, and I know 1 and 2 are true because I’ve seen the evidence. That leaves only #3. I believe it because I know the other six are true.

    1. My father’s losing his lower lip to a swinging tank-barrel and having it reconstructed with a graft from his bottom, so he was always talking out of his arse.
    2. The man-eating lioness which he tracked and shot precisely and fatally in the anus, and which we had as a living-room floor rug and on the head of which I used to sit.
    3. Floating Land Rovers across rivers by wrapping them in tarpaulins.
    4. Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto, who so loved my Mother that he ordered two silver rings to be made, gave one to her, wore the other, and smashed the ring mold in front of her so no more could be made
    5. He also offered to adopt my sisters – way before I was born – in the instance that anything should happen to Dad, though in the end he himself was brutally murdered in the 1966 Nigerian coup; Dad himself was on a number of death lists.**
    6. That Kissinger was dad’s lunch buddy at Harvard.
    7. The shotgun-wielding nutcases who tried to usurp a Canadian campground.

    **As was my mother, and as were I and my sister. Never a dull moment, when the old man was around . . .

    • #22
    • June 5, 2017, at 7:11 PM PST
    • 14 likes
  23. RightAngles Member

    She (View Comment):

    JustmeinAZ (View Comment):
    Great story! BTW your Dad looks like the quintessential Brit officer. He should have been in the movies.

    Thanks! Here’s a more formal shot:

    He was impressive. About 6’2″, smart as a whip, built like a tank, and strong as a horse. Truly a force of Nature.

    As with all parents, he was an occasional source of great mortification to his children. I’m just happy he lived long enough (to the age of 88) to see the three of us return the favor now and then.

    I can see his personality shining through! Like I said, you’re the winner of the Most Interesting Family Contest. I loved it!

    • #23
    • June 5, 2017, at 8:33 PM PST
    • 7 likes
  24. Judge Mental Member

    I love this story! And the others you’ve inspired here.

    • #24
    • June 5, 2017, at 11:06 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  25. Casey Inactive

    She (View Comment):

    1. a number of death lists.**

    **As was my mother, and as were I and my sister. Never a dull moment, when the old man was around . .

    Wow, @saintaugustine, you…. this is some crowd I hang out with.

    Great story!

    • #25
    • June 6, 2017, at 8:33 AM PST
    • 6 likes
  26. She Thatcher
    She Post author

    Thanks.

    I had an armed guard who went with me everywhere for over a year. And one evening it was discovered that venomous snakes had been put into the beds. The Emir (bad guy in this scenario) also put about at one point that he’d had Mum and Dad killed in a car crash (we were all in England at that point, so he probably figured it was a safe bet to say so.) But this was actually what occasioned Sardauna’s offering to adopt my sister and me, as my brother relates in the quoted section of comment #22. Fun times.

    • #26
    • June 6, 2017, at 9:05 AM PST
    • 9 likes
  27. She Thatcher
    She Post author

    Here’s the photo from another post (shameless self-promotion alert) in which you can see Dad (unmistakable), Uncle Maurice (far right–he drove a tank transporter, as a Private in the British Army (“the lowest form of animal life,”) says Aunty Pat (standing between Maurice and Dad), who’s the only one of the family still living). My grandmother (to whom Dad wrote the letter) is seated with Grandpa. Oh, and in the lower right–that’s Barney, who Dad writes about, too.

    • #27
    • June 6, 2017, at 1:26 PM PST
    • 5 likes