I WALKED ON MY OWN GRAVE
By BOB RAIMONTO
My name is John Ryan. I was born in 1947. I am a Baby Boomer. I had heard all about World War II growing up in Queens, New York. Because the worst conflict in mans history concluded only two years before my birth, it was all over the movies, the sensational new medium called television and in comic books.
Especially comic books. I read them avidly. They were cheap enough, at 10 cents a copy, for a child to afford. I took advantage of their price to accumulate as many of these publications as I could.
I did find it odd, given what I knew of the war from other sources, that in the comics only the bad guys were killed the Germans, mainly, and the Japanese. Rarely was there even a hint that the good guys the Americans died in combat. I would learn that this was hardly true.
As I got older, graduated from a university and went to work as a college professor specializing in U.S. history, I recognized that the war exerted a strange hold on my emotions. Even the Vietnam War, in which several of my friends were killed but from which I was deferred as a student and as an educator, did not affect me as deeply as the war that my parents generation fought not merely for their country, but for humanity.
In keeping with my interest in the Second World War, I taught a number of undergraduate classes on the subject at my alma mater, St. Marys University, in my native borough. The courses were generally well-attended, and my reputation as a professor grew.
As I aged, I recognized my obsession with the war and with the continual passing of the men who had fought in that global conflagration deepened. I found this a disturbing mystery and wanted to get to the bottom of it. However, I could not think how to do so.
Until, that is, the day I saw a flier distributed on campus announcing that hypnotic regression sessions would be conducted by Professor Melissa Russo of the Psychology Department. The location: The large conference room in the building in which her department was located. The participants: Any members of the university community who wanted to be regressed.
I suddenly recalled reading that such regressions could lead a person to disclose details of his or her past lives. I should say alleged past lives because I was not convinced that the process proved anything -- specifically, the reincarnation of a soul from one life to a next.
Ms. Russo had written a number of widely praised papers on hypnotic regression and had achieved a certain prominence within her circle of psychology professionals. But I knew that I wanted no part of any public regression conducted by this colleague, regardless of her impeccable reputation. The more prudent course, I thought, and the one far less likely to generate gossip or ridicule on campus or in cyberspace, would be to have a private session under Ms. Russos guidance.
Accordingly, I overcame my skepticism about what I mockingly called trance-induced babbling and contacted her via e-mail. I told her simply that I had an issue that I wanted resolved and thought hypnotic regression could be helpful.
It might, indeed, be helpful, she said in her e-mail response. When we meet, we will of course go into further detail about your problem. Please understand that going under hypnosis can be a severe emotional experience. If you still want to go ahead with this, we can schedule a session for next Wednesday at 4 p.m. in my office. For this meeting, I will allot an hour, both for our initial talk and for the hypnotic session. Usually, the first one should be brief to get the subject in this instance, you used to the process and determine if you will indeed be receptive to hypnotic regression.
I answered that the day, time and conditions she set forth were acceptable and that I looked forward to meeting with her.
In the days leading to the session, I was afflicted with doubts. I came close to backing out on the arrangement, because I wasnt convinced of its efficacy as a tool to assist someone as overwrought as I was over the war. But ultimately I kept the appointment, if only to satisfy my curiosity. I suppose I took a What have I to lose? stance.
In that state of mind, I entered Professor Russos office in a building across campus from my own. It was a horrendous day, with rain whipped into a veritable squall by heavy winds. A large umbrella did not afford enough cover from the raw elements.
How dashing you look, Ms. Russo said, appraising my dripping persona.
How rotten I feel, I said, shaking off water like a dog emerging from a lake.
Amid gyrations, I noted that Ms. Russo was a short, curvaceous, pug-nosed brunette bedecked in light brown pants suit. By contrast, I was a tall, lean, hawk-nosed blond outfitted in khaki pants, blue sports jacket and white turtleneck. I liked the way she looked. She gave no indication that her initial inventory of me was favorable.
Ms. Russo sat behind a functional desk. I sat opposite her in the only other chair in the office. There also was a couch, with a video camera and light on a tripod positioned nearby.
John, why didnt you want to do the hypnosis in the group? Melissa asked. It can be entertaining as well as informative to witness other peoples experiences in a trance.
Frankly, I told her, I was afraid that I would make a fool of myself in public. If Im going to make a fool of myself, I only want to do it before an audience of one you.
OK, so you havent been under hypnosis before?
Are you totally sure that you want to undergo it now?
So why are you here?
To satisfy my curiosity and meet a responsibility.
To find out, to know, as much about myself as possible.
An admirable idea.
Dont thank me. Thank yourself. Youre the one with the curiosity one might say the courage to come here. And, as long as you are here, let me set forth the ground rules.
We will video-tape all sessions. What you will say will be most important, but to document how you say it will lend credence to your statements. Emotions oftentimes run high. I want to record any displays of those feelings.
I understand. I want complete documentation, the entire truth, as well. Words may be faked. Demonstrations of emotions are another matter.
Precisely, she said.
Any other ground rules?
Yes. What is said in this room remains in this room, unless both parties agree, in writing, to reveal the content of the sessions. Also, the videotape or tapes that come out of this meeting or meetings will be our joint property.
Thats fine with me.
Let me point out that you might not open up in the first session. We might have to overcome some psychological hurdles before you will be straightforward.
You will lie down on that couch and shut your eyes, I will turn on the video machine and sit on the chair alongside the couch and begin asking you questions. But first, before hypnotizing you and subjecting you to any queries, I want you to tell me what your problem is and why you think hypnotic regression could be helpful to you.
I told Melissa about my interest in the Second World War from childhood, fostered by the media. I also told her how I chose to teach courses on the war at the university. I further emphasized that what I found truly unnerving was its grip on my emotions and how it seemed to increase in strength over the years.
Did your father fight in the war? Melissa asked. Did any uncles or other relations?
No, I said. My father did not serve because of a bad back. Instead, he was a civilian clerical worker for the Navy. And none of my uncles were in the military either, for various reasons.
All right, John, so you picked up on the war because of a lot of interest in it in the 1950s and 1960s.
That would be a partial explanation. But I believe the war intrigued me in strange and strong ways that I could not and cannot comprehend before I even saw my first war movie or read my first war comic.
Then, Melissa said, it might be more fruitful to regress you rather than continuing a discussion on this subject.
I agree, I said.
I got up and lay down on the couch. She rose, turned on the video camera with light, moved the chair I had occupied next to the couch and sat down with notepad and pen.
With that, she quickly and easily put me in a hypnotic trance. With eyes closed, I was transported to a subconscious netherworld. What I now relate of the first session is taken from a transcript of the videotape.
Melissa Russo (MR): Do you see yourself in a previous lifetime specifically, the one just before your current life?
John Ryan (JR): Yes, I do.
MR: What are you? An accountant? A mechanic? A journalist?
JR: Im a soldier.
MR: In the American army?
MR: What is your name?
JR: Edward Costa
MR: What is your rank?
MR: Im a lieutenant.
MR: Where are you?
MR: What day is it?
JR: A day in March 1944.
MR: What are you doing?
JR: Crossing a beach and moving inland. I have other GIs with me.
MR: How did you get to Italy?
JR: On PT-boats and dinghies. From Corsica. At night. Were on a secret mission for the Office of Strategic Services. Its called Operation Penny.
MR: What is the objective of this mission?
JR: Were supposed to blow up a railroad tunnel. The north-south line is moving German troops and armor up and down the Italian boot and helping to block the Allied advance north toward Rome.
MR: Why has this team been picked for the mission?
JR: The tunnel cant be bombed from the air, so we have to destroy it on the ground with dynamite.
At this point, I became agitated and began to cry.
JR: I dont want to continue. I cant continue. Please bring me out of the trance.
She did as I asked, but appeared disappointed to run into this obstacle after I the avowed doubter -- unexpectedly opened up under her rapid-fire questioning.
Look, I said, I need a little time to see if I want to go ahead with this regression. Ill contact you by e-mail in a week or so, after I give some more thought to this.
OK, she said, Please take care of yourself.
I left her office, almost convinced I would not return.
But I did. My phrase, meet a responsibility, kept popping up in my head. I decided that my desire to find out as much about myself as possible outweighed any doubts or fears. I contacted Ms. Russo by e-mail, saying I wanted to be regressed a second time, at the point where I backed out in the first session. She was pleased to hear from me and we agreed to resume the regression in her office in two days. At that meeting, we quickly revisited the point in the initial meeting where I became agitated.
MR: Why were you upset?
JR: Because I didnt believe the operation would succeed. Because I thought we would all be killed. You must understand this: Any behind-the-lines mission is a long shot at best. Your resources are usually limited and reinforcements generally unavailable.
MR: Did you have these fears before leaving Corsica, and did you communicate them to your superior officers?
JR: Yes, I had the fears, but I was afraid to express them. We were a gung-ho group. A lot of bravado. We did not betray fear in what was a special-forces kind of unit. We thought we were better than the average soldiers, especially given the specialized training that we received, and acted and talked that way. Actually, we resembled paratroopers with our elitist attitude.
MR: After your group moved inland, what did you do?
JR: Because it was nearly daylight, we hid in an unoccupied house near the coast. We wanted to wait for the next night to destroy the tunnel. It did us no good.
JR: Because the Germans found us. A fisherman must have seen us come ashore, uncovered the dinghies and tipped off Italian fascists, who then got the Germans.
MR: Did you fight them?
JR: We exchanged small-arms fire with them for a while. There were no casualties on either side. But we realized the operation was foiled. We lost the element of surprise and couldnt escape in the face of superior numbers. So we surrendered.
MR: What happened next?
JR: We were disarmed, marched off to a nearby German headquarters under heavy guard and interrogated.
MR: Were you then sent to a prisoner-of-war camp?
MR: So what happened?
JR: All of us all 15 were lined up and shot. First eight, then seven. I was in the second group. So ended Operation Penny, as I dreaded it would.
MR: Do you remember the names of the men who died with you?
JR: Just one that I care to recall: Tom Ruggiero. He was a corporal. I was in charge of the rifle unit that was to protect the demolition experts setting the charges at the tunnel. Ruggiero served under me. He was a fine man. Look, I dont want to talk anymore right now.
And so I didnt. Melissa did not try to force me to continue. She retrieved me from my trance. She was as emotionally spent as I was.
Im glad you ended the regression, I said.
I realized it was time to end this session for both of us, she said. You wanted to go just so far and no farther with your recollections.
We then watched the videotape together. I am stunned by the information that poured from me about what appears a previous lifetime tragically cut short by war. The OSS? An American Army lieutenant named Edward Costa? I fought in a prior existence for the forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency? It seemed too preposterous to believe.
I am aware of the OSSs role in the war, I told Melissa. But I have read nothing about the details of specific missions mounted by that agency in Italy or anywhere else. I suppose I have focused almost exclusively on major, conventional battles that determined the outcome of the war, not undercover missions that barely merited several paragraphs in respected histories of the conflict.
Well, please look into this aspect of the Allied war effort, Melissa said of commando raids and the like. It might help us determine if your memories of this mission, and yourself as a member of the sabotage team, are grounded in a long-ago reality or merely the imaginings of your subconscious.
I did just as she asked. I immediately launched an intensive research effort that focused on OSS missions during the war. What I uncovered was startling. There was, indeed, a raid aimed at destroying a railroad tunnel in Italy. It was, indeed, called Operation Penny.
Here is what else that I learned about the mission. It took place in March 1944:
There were 15 men assigned to the commando party. All were of Italian background and most could speak the language fluently, which would help them communicate with any locals they encountered behind the lines.
PT boats transported the operational group from its headquarters on Corsica to near the Italian coastline at night. The men then left the PT boats and took four dinghies, loaded with several hundred pounds of dynamite as well as their human cargo, to the shore. The dinghies were to take the men back to the PT boats after the mission. These craft had been carefully concealed, but they were discovered anyway by an Italian fisherman. He alerted fascist militiamen, who summoned the Germans.
The Germans and their Italian comrades found the Americans hiding in a house and engaged them in a firefight. Shortly thereafter, the OSS soldiers surrendered without coming close to blowing up the tunnel. The Americans were questioned, after which a German general ordered them executed as saboteurs even though they were in uniform and unarmed after capture. The German authorities conducted no hearing or trial. The 15 GIs, in groups of eight and seven, faced a firing party of 10 and had their bodies buried in a large, common grave. After the war, their corpses were uncovered and the general who ordered them shot was himself executed as a war criminal for violating Hague Convention rules governing prisoners of war. The 15 Americans each received the Silver Star posthumously, and their sacrifices were recognized in memorials near the site of their execution in Italy and at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va.
Incredible, Melissa said when I told her about Operation Penny and its tragic outcome for the U.S. servicemen. Much of what you related under hypnosis, including the missions name, was confirmed by your research.
It really is incredible, I said. But theres more.
The names of the men who were members of the raiding party.
I read off 13 names from the list of the missions casualties. This information was contained in the OSS histories that I had consulted as part of my larger research regimen.
Wait, Melissa said. Thats not all of the names. There are two more.
You are very sharp, I said. Tom Ruggiero is one of the other two names.
Melissa stirred in her seat.
The last name is Edward Costa.
Melissa gasped. I sobbed.
This is obviously hurtful for you, Melissa said. This is one of those times that Im uneasy helping patients discover their past lives.
I sobbed again, but calmed myself and continued haltingly.
Theres more. After the war, the bodies of American servicemen could be repatriated home if thats what the families wanted. The remains of Costa and Ruggiero were among the seven or so from Operation Penny that were shipped to the States.
Where were Costa and Ruggiero from? Melissa asked.
Both were from Manhattan, I said. But were both buried in a cemetery in Queens.
Which one? Melissa asked.
St. Anthonys, I said. The same one as my grandparents.
How did you know that? From your research?
No, I had actually seen their graves for years, I answered. But on those occasions I was unaware of their association with each other or much else about them. Costa and Ruggiero are buried in family plots only about 150 feet from each other, and both are near my grandparents gravesite near enough that I had seen them whenever I visited the cemetery.
Extraordinary, she said. What are the chances of two soldiers killed on the same mission being buried so close to each other in a cemetery thousands of miles from the site of their deaths? And what are the chances of your having previously encountered their graves, or having any connection to either man.
The chances are remote, at best, I said. It all seems inexplicable, incomprehensible. But thats not all.
Costa is buried about a dozen headstones from the location of my grandparents grave. To reach their gravesite all these years, I have had to pass Costas grave. If we are to believe what we have uncovered in our hypnotic- regression sessions and I believe that what we have uncovered is true and that I was reincarnated from Edward Costa to John Ryan then we are confronted by this remarkable reality:
For years, I have been walking on my own grave.