Thomas Wictor

Saint Catherine’s flamethrower boys

Saint Catherine’s flamethrower boys

What a weird, weird, weird, weird day. First I had a run-in with California’s next spree killer. Then when I came in to sit down and write, I thought that my bowels had given way without me knowing it. It turned out that as I fed the feral cats, I stepped in some of their droppings. Tracked it all through my house. Since today was a dizzy day, Tim cleaned my shoes for me. What a pal! Then I received my postcard of Saint Catherine’s flamethrower boys.

Before I talk about that, here’s a followup to an earlier example of total weirdness. When I bought a photo on eBay, it had a demented warning on it.


The International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) are the laws by which the US State Department implements the Arms Export Control Act (AECA). Needless to say, sales of photos are not in any way controlled by Part 121 of the ITAR. I wondered if eBay had been hacked, or if the seller were insane. Today I got my answer. The photo arrived intact.


It was intact because it was the most carefully packed, most difficult to open purchase I’ve ever received. It came in a envelope glued and taped shut.


Inside the envelope was a piece of cardboard folded like origami, each fold and seam closed with clear packing tape. I had to carefully dissect the origami with a razor blade, which revealed an airmail envelope taped to the inside of the cardboard and sealed. Inside the airmail envelope was a clear plastic envelope taped shut.


It took me half an hour to open it. During this period Tim was cleaning cat shit off my shoes and telling me more family secrets he’s discovered by weeding through our parents’ detritus.

After my shoes were clean, I went off to get my Paxil. Every night I say a prayer of thanks to Big Pharma. Without those greedy corporate bastards, I’d be dead. You’re under no obligation to try psychotropic medication, but those of you who hate Big Pharma? I’m living proof that this industry saves people. If you don’t believe me, we’ll go out to lunch together, and after you sign a non-disclosure agreement, I’ll tell you all about me.

When you’re done screaming, you’ll need to be hospitalized. Tim and I are the only two people on earth strong enough to not only survive what we know but also flourish. Give me a year, and I’ll give you a book you’ll never forget.

Saint Catherine’s flamethrower boys

I don’t collect images of World War Two flamethrowers. It’s not my field of interest. Some people love cars from the fifties but not the seventies. For me the steampunk aspect of World War One flamethrowers is what I find appealing.

And no, I don’t feel guilty or ashamed about being interested in these devices. They were psychological weapons that killed a tiny number of people. In fact, they saved lives by convincing the enemy to surrender without a fight.

Though not my usual fare, this absurd Italian postcard from World War Two was a must-have.


It shows a flamethrower sapper (engineer) wearing a gas mask during an assault. Behind him stands a creepy, androgynous, Emo rendition of Saint Catherine of Siena, one of Italy’s two patron saints. “Vincere!” means “Win!”


Oh, yuck. That’s…beyond belief, really.

The sketch of the sapper is quite detailed, but the artist had to shorten the flamethrower lance to make it fit on the card. A lance that short would burn off the operator’s face. Also, the gas mask isn’t accurate. See how short the hose is? You couldn’t turn your head to get it out of the way of the heat from that short lance, so your rubber mask would melt.


It’s grotesquely hilarious to imagine that a Catholic patron saint would approve of flamethrowers, especially since the fascist government of Italy saw the church as a rival. This card is extremely campy, which is why I snapped it up.

Speaking of grotesquely hilarious, Saint Catherine’s head fell off after she died, and it was saved. They call it “incorruptible,” but I don’t really agree.


I could be wrong; maybe she looked like that when she was alive. A better argument for a burqa I’ve never seen.

The guy who sent the flamethrower card was named Giuseppe De Bortoli, and he was a member of the Carabinieri, the national police that accompanied military forces. He was assigned to the 5th Infantry Division “Cosseria,” 5th 81 mm Mortar Battalion. Since the postcard was mailed from Russia on October 10, 1942, it’s likely that Giuseppe didn’t make it. The Italians were annihilated at Stalingrad in 1943, the few survivors shipped home in disgrace.

For whatever reason Italians tend not to be great fighters. This cartoon from The New Yorker dates from World War Two and illustrates what everyone knew. Five Italians and one German surrender.


World War One was different. The Italian front was the only area of operations where the combatants actually hated each other. The Austro-Hungarian empire was ruled by German speakers but comprised of Germans, Hungarians, Croats, Serbs, Romanians, Czechs, Slovenians, Italians, Poles, Jews, Slovaks, Ukrainians, and Bosnians. Both Italy and Austria-Hungary in World War One viewed the war in religious terms, so significant atrocities were committed.

I wonder about this photo of an Italian machine gunner being offered a cigarette by his Austrian captor.


All sides despised machine gunners, and the Austrian looks pretty grim. Who knows what happened after the photo was taken?

Both the Austrians and the Italians used outmoded tactics, and their commanders refused to adapt to modern warfare conducted with such deadly firepower. A German soldier who served on the Italian front called it the “Clown Apocalypse.”

In an act of Italian machismo, the army formed units of assault troops called arditi, or “bold ones.” They did things like this.


Yes, they actually pole vaulted over barbed wire.

It’s terribly sad to read about the battles on the Italian front. You can tell how futile these engagements were by their names. For example, the Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo. What I look for to offset sadness is people I call “sports of nature.” They defy the odds by being true individuals.

I bought a large photo that shows arditi marching past King Victor Emmanuel III. They liked to march on the run to prove how manly they were. Every single face is stern and soldierly…except for one.


“Lookit me! I’m marchin’!

Hopefully he made it and had a long, happy, funny life.

Assai ben balla a chi Fortuna suona.

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