The story of how a 23-year-old GI saved the Leaning Tower of Pisa during World War II.
Completed in 1372, the Leaning Tower of Pisa is one of the most recognizable structures in the world. Only Pisa’s Cathedral and Baptistry are older than the tower in the famous Italian town’s Cathedral Square. During World War II, the town found itself under German control. The Tower was used as an observation post – a perfect location given the flat, coastal terrain surrounding Pisa.
The Allies struggled to get to the Tuscan town in the summer of 1944. Partly because of the marshy grounds surrounding Pisa, but mainly because the Germans were being quite stubborn in their attacks. Booby-traps lay at every corner as the Americans advanced with slow movements. It seemed the Germans were especially accurate in their missile strikes that Allies decided that the enemy must have lookouts in the tower.
Finally, the Americans neared the outskirts of Pisa, the last two-and-a-half mile stretch was nothing less than a killing zone. The top brass wanted to know how the Germans were using the infamous building and decided to send someone to scout it. Staff Sgt. Leon Weckstein of the 91st Infantry Division had remarkable powers of observation and would spend 16 hours a day manning forward observation posts and directed artillery and mortar fire. He became their guy.
“I really did have unusual powers of observation, particularly a latent aptitude for discerning a camouflaged Panzer tank or a dug-in machine gun position before anyone else could,” Weckstein later said. The tower’s fate laid in the eyes of a 23-year-old California native who, in 1942, was rejected by the Navy for being short-sighted. The infantry accepted him but, then again, “they take anyone,” he remarked.
Weckstein and his radioman, Tech. Sgt. Charles King, were informed of their new mission. It would be dangerous as they entered a no-man-zone between the American and German forces. If enemies were indeed using the tower, Weckstein had to radio in – “This is Able George Two… Fire!” – and Allied forces would have leveled the tower in seconds. His commander told Weckstein to call in fire at anything that looked suspicious while infantry gun batteries and an offshore destroyer waited patiently for the signal.
After smearing mud on their faces, King strapped on his bulky field radio while Weckstein grabbed his telescope and ventured into unexplored open fields and orchards. From an olive grove, Weckstein observed the tower that soldiers had nicknamed the “Tiltin’ Hilton” while King waited to relay information through the radio. “There wasn’t a single doubt in my audacious, 23-year-old mind that I really was about to do the deed, to direct sallies of doomsday fusillades against one of the world’s most famous monuments,” Weckstein later wrote.
Weckstein was methodical in his observations. “I focused first on the highest point, the broad circular campanile of the tower. I could easily make out the shadowy silhouette of the old bells, quiet now, but nothing moved. I took my time training the ‘scope ever so slowly up, down, and across each elaborately ornamented balustrade, attempting to discern anything that might be hidden within those black recesses and arches.”
For those few minutes, he had the power to decide the fate of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. By radioing in “fire” one of the world’s ‘wonders’ would, in Weckstein’s words, “have easily turned . . . to chunks of splintered marble.” As he sat there and took in the tower’s beauty, he was overcome and held off calling it in until he was certain.
Weckstein was still transfixed when shells burst overhead. The Germans had launched an airborne attack in Weckstein and King’s directions. They radioed back and were told to retreat back to camp. The top brass had already decided on different attack plan and the tower was spared. Whether the Germans were actually in the tower on that hot and muggy July day is still unknown. Looking back Weckstein stated: “You know something? I’ve had 50 years to think about it, and I’m pretty sure they were.”
Because of his actions during World War II, Weckstein was awarded many American and foreign awards including the highly esteemed Legion of Merit, Bronze Star, Infantry Blue Rifle Badge, Italy’s Croce al Valor Militare, Poland’s Bronze Cross of Merit with Swords and the city of Pisa’s Silver Medallion. After the war, he and his wife Mimi visited Italy a few times and Weckstein returned to that pivotal spot he was at in 1944. “I could easily have been looking at shattered marble ruins … if not for an act of fate,”
In his wartime memoir, Through My Eyes, Weckstein summarizes the extent of the Leaning Tower of Pisa mission and war’s effect on its surroundings:
As the only witness to what might have been a world-shaking, historic mission, King must certainly have realized how close we had come to destroying the monumental Tower. . . . [W]ithout Pisa’s magnificent logo, [it] would have become a tragedy of timeless proportions. Yet, at odds with that conjecture, if I could have been sufficiently certain that shelling the Tower would have preserved the life of even one of our comrades, I’d have done it in a flash without giving a second thought to the consequences. Such is war. Celebrated shrines and houses of worship had been declared out of bounds by the Geneva Conventions, but if the truth were known, that along with most other well-meaning peace agreements seemed to make little difference in the infantry’s height of battle.