San Francisco Bay Area art educator, Solace Wales, and her artist husband, have lived part of every year in the small Tuscan village of Sommocolonia since 1975. In Sommocolonia, Wales was enthralled by the daunting stories her neighbors told her about their WWII experiences. Speaking with her Italian neighbors over several years, Wales recognized that she must locate surviving African American veterans who had occupied the village in segregated troops and had been involved in the horrific Sommocolonia battle of December 26th, 1944. Through dozens of interviews and primary source research, Wales has woven together these oral accounts of veterans, villagers, their families, Italian history, official army record and her own very personal journey of discovery in her book, Braided in Fire.
▪︎ ▪︎ ▪︎
Solace Wales’ interest in WWII Italy was sparked at age 19 when she was a Smith College Junior Year Abroad Student in Siena & Florence. After college she had a long career as a children’s art educator. She was Director of the International Child Art Center in San Francisco and then ran a children’s art school in Marin County, California. In addition, she sometimes taught art education classes at San Francisco State University.
While continuing to live in Marin, in 1975, Wales, her artist husband and toddler daughter began also living part-time in Sommocolonia, a small mountaintop village in northern Tuscany. There she heard daunting stories from her village neighbors about their experiences when Sommocolonia was on the Gothic Line. Wales was instantly enthralled, but it wasn’t until 1987 that she realized the urgency of pursuing the story formally while some of the older villagers were still alive. Over several summers, she tape-recorded interviews with 21 of her neighbor friends. In 1996 a book of excerpts of these interviews was published in Italian.
The villagers’ stories informed Wales that she must locate and interview the black American veterans who had occupied the village in segregated troops and been involved in the horrific Sommocolonia battle which took place the day after Christmas, 1944. During the 1990s Wales spoke with veterans from all across the country, ending up with 21 in-depth interviews, coincidentally the same number as villagers interviewed. Realizing that she had happened onto a little known piece of history of considerable importance, she retired from teaching at the end of the 1990s and devoted herself to making this story known.
In 1997 Wales was invited by the White House to attend the long overdue ceremony where President Clinton recognized African Americans serving in WWII with the Medal of Honor — including Braided in Fire’s protagonist, Lt. John Fox. In 2000 Wales instigated and organized the return of black veterans involved in the area for an honoring of their service and an initiation of a monument/park to peace in Sommocolonia. This event, hosted by the local governmental seat, the Comune di Barga, attracted front page articles in The New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle, and a special on NBC’s Evening News with Tom Brokaw.
The author was a consultant for filmmaker Jim White, who produced INVISIBLE MEN OF HONOR: The Legend of the Buffalo Soldiers originally aired in 2005 on TVONE in Houston. She was the primary consultant for Karen Saillant in developing her score for her IOT (International Opera Theater) production Buffalo Soldier Opera which premiered in Città della Pieve, Italy in 2012. She was a participant in Pacific Film Foundation’s documentary, With One Hand Tied which premiered in 2017 in Long Beach, CA.
To further Sommocolonia’s monument/park ‘La Rocca alla Pace’, Wales has participated in fundraising efforts, among them a talk she gave at the San Francisco Italian Cultural Institute which included some of her veteran interviewees — a happily crowded, successful event. She has offered encouragement to the Sommocolonia community’s long effort to develop a new WWII museum in the village, assisting not only with fundraising, but by writing explanations for the museum’s displays and articles for the village’s website: www.associazionericreativasommocolonia.it The site is in both Italian and English. The new museum building is currently in progress on the La Rocca alla Pace land. Soon to appear on braidedinfire.com will be photos and information about this exciting project.
Though involved with many things related to the story over recent years, the author has mainly devoted herself to telling it vividly and accurately in book form. Along with studying American military and other books addressing the period, she has researched extensively local Italian WWII history and weaved this information together with the oral accounts of veterans and villagers into narrative non-fiction in Braided in Fire: Black GIs and Tuscan Villagers on the Gothic Line.