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Veteran to cut ribbon for Italian Red Bull highway

Don Singlestad will be one of two to cut the ceremonial ribbon for an Italian highway honoring the Red Bull Infantry. (Jean Ruzicka / Enterprise)

At 92, Don Singlestad is writing a book, "Fighting Fool," recalling his experiences during World War II that led to his becoming the most decorated non-commissioned officer of the 34th Division of the Red Bull Infantry.

Come September, yet another chapter will unfold when Singlestad travels to Vernio, Italy for the dedication of a road honoring the Red Bulls.

He'll be wielding scissors this time (for ribbon cutting), not a gun.

Tech Sgt. Singlestad will be returning to familiar territory.

During World War II, he was recognized by the Italian government for his role in ensuring Rome was "preserved, rather than falling victim to the ravages of combat."

Singlestad received the Italian Military Medal of Valor Gold Cross - a citation equivalent to the Congressional Medal of Honor - for his role in operating with partisans behind enemy lines.

He is one of five persons and one of three Americans to be recognized with this honor during World War II.

Toward the end of the war, Pope Pius XII honored Singlestad at the Vatican for his part in freeing Italy from fascist rule.

"I could sure use a blessing," Singlestad recalls telling the head of the Roman Catholic Church. "The war's not over."

But he confided he was Lutheran, and perhaps his request was inappropriate.

"My son," the Pope told him, "we all go to the same place."

Extended tour of duty

Singlestad, who now resides at Heritage Manor, was living in Waseca when he enlisted in the Minnesota Army National Guard as a private in September 1940 with Company F.

His initial commitment was two years; he was eyeing life as a civilian and going into business with his father.

But those plans would be altered when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. His commitment was bumped up to six years.

He trained at Fort Benning, Ga. and Fort Dix, N.J., where he was married to longtime sweetheart Florence Schroeder. She was working in Washington, D.C. at the time.

"She drove up in her Ford coupe and we got married," he recalled. (He also remembers the fellow he hired to take pictures of the wedding failed to produce images. "I don't think he had any film in the camera, just took the money.")

The newlyweds were together for two days before he left for duty. They would not be reunited for three years. She would learn of military honors bestowed upon her husband via a Washington, D.C. newspaper.

'An inspiring example'

Singlestad participated in the first U.S. invasion of Africa and was captured by the Germans. He was sent to a French prison camp and wasn't released until the French joined the Allied forces in Europe.

Following action in Africa, he was shipped to the British Isles and began training to become a U.S. Army Ranger with British commandos on Shetland Island.

But his captain, having learned he was married, told him he was ineligible for service as a Ranger.

He rejoined the 34th Red Bull Division in General Patton's Fifth Army, where he remained until the war's end.

Singlestad took part in the first invasion of Italy at Salerno.

He was among three divisions of about 45,000 troops who pushed their way toward Naples.

His "extraordinary heroism in action" during the invasion would earn him a Distinguished Service Cross.

The commendation recounts the events: "On Feb. 4, 1944, Singlestad's platoon was attacked by a large force of Germans.

"In the fierce fight which followed, he and one of his squads were surrounded and cut off from the rest of the company.

"The technical sergeant fought his way free by moving toward and through the enemy, throwing hand grenades as he advanced.

"When he had expended all his ammunition, he used his rifle as a club against the enemy who surrounded him.

"Coming face to face with two Germans, he felled them both with his rifle butt, dived over a rock wall, seized another rifle and continued his advance to the company command post.

"Technical sergeant Singlestad gave his commanding officer valuable information regarding the enemy's strength, disposition and armament.

"He then reorganized his platoon and assisted in directing the fire to repulse enemy attack.

"The courage, fighting determination and resourcefulness displayed by Technical Sergeant Singlestad set an inspiring example for his men and reflect the highest traditions of the American infantrymen."

Reflecting on his experiences abroad, Singlestad said during the fighting he had no thoughts of decoration for his actions. "I went over there to get the war over with."

His involvement in the taking of Rome eventually led to his introduction to the Pope and being awarded the Italian Medal of Valor.

Singlestad entered Rome three days before American troops arrived. He went through German lines with three partisans and a radio operator. His mission: To set up communications in Rome to direct air and artillery to protect the Vatican and other ancient buildings.

The invitation to meet the Pope came as a surprise, he said. He toured the Vatican with the Pope as his guide.

Singlestad served in campaigns in Tunisia, Naples-Foggia, Rome-Arno, North Apennines and Po Valley. After the Tunisia campaign he was selected to carry the U.S. flag at the head of the 34th Infantry Division parade through the streets of Casablanca.

He was discharged from the Army and Minnesota National Guard in August 1945.

His career would move from soldier to clothier. He began marketing Penguin "car coats" with the product soon going nationwide.

He convinced Twin Cities clothing store mogul Don Dayton to introduce the coats - and they took off. Their business relationship bloomed to friendship.

Singlestad moved to Long Lake in 1997, learning Park Rapids was home to SFC Lloyd Hawks. Hawks was also awarded the Italian Military Medal of Valor Gold Cross.

Singlestad will be one of two with Red Bull affiliation when the ribbon is severed in Italy, come autumn.

He will be accompanied by Pat Skelly, the son of Walter Skelly who was with the 133rd Infantry and commanded their 1st Battalion in the winter of 1944-45. Skelly is writing the history of the 34th Division of the Red Bull Infantry.