Reunited: Ulster war hero and the Italian family he liberated in 1944
Arthur Smith was only 20 at the time — but there are some things you will never forget. Like the close-up, in-your-face horror of World War II, and especially those last bloodstained months when the Nazis were on the retreat but remained as merciless as ever.
Yet despite his tender years, Mr Smith regarded himself as a veteran of sorts. He had, after all, signed up for the Navy two years earlier, in 1942.
And in the subsequent 24 months in war-torn places such as Malta, Gibraltar, Algiers and Yugoslavia he saw enough good, bad, evil, tragedy and bravery to last a lifetime, which has now clocked up 86 years.
But one operation transcends all others and that was when the Co Armagh man landed on the small Italian island of Ischia, near Capri.
The memories are lasting and tangible because they are encapsulated by one of the terrified families he helped liberate — a family he still keeps in contact with to this very day.
And now, in his twilight years, the Markethill-based war veteran has a batch of fresh memories from the picturesque island — having travelled back to meet the Contes for what will almost certainly be the final time.
A grant from the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return 2 programme allowed Mr Smith and his wife Freda to catch up with their old friends.
“I look back with pride to have served my country alongside some of the best pals I’ve ever known and to have made a difference to the lives of the people of Ischia, especially my friends the Contes,” said the father-of-two.
“I have such fond memories of Ischia. It was very moving to go back there and see those children grown up and doing so well in their lives.
“There’s only two of us left now from the ship, but I know that all the lads would be so happy to see how the island is thriving.”
Back in 1944 a young Mr Smith was a crew member on ML 567, a lightweight motor launch that carried out mine-sweeping missions and submarine patrols in the seas of Europe during the bloody six-year conflict between the Allies and the Nazis.
The ship was part of a flotilla that docked at Ischia in May 1944 after helping free the island from the grasp of the German Navy.
And little did Mr Smith know as he stepped off the boat and was greeted by a nine-year-old boy named Pippo Conte that this was to be the start of a friendship that would last for the next 66 years.
“We were sent on a mine-sweeping mission to Italy in the months before D-Day to push back the German Navy,” the grandfather-of-two said.
“Our job was to sweep away the mines that the Germans left on the ocean bed.
“We would cut the cables and the mines would float to the surface and then we blew them up.
“It was dangerous work; only a few months before we had buried nine seamen from another ship off the coast of Algiers.
“There was great camaraderie among the crew and we would sing songs and keep each other’s spirits up — but we were well aware of the dangers involved.
“Our ship was just made of wood and had a copper bottom — looking back we were so lucky that no-one on board was badly injured.”
He continued: “When we docked at Ischia I was greeted by young, smiling children who treated us like heroes and offered to do odd jobs like sewing and washing. I got to know one of them really well, his name was Pippo and I quickly struck up a close friendship with him and his family.
“They were wonderful. They were so poor but they welcomed me with open arms. I remember visiting their home for dinner and they presented me with egg and chips — while they ate spam and dry bread.”
Mr Smith repaid the friendship shown by the Contes by giving them rations from the boat like bread, tins of corned beef, chocolate and coffee.
“It was the first time they had tasted coffee and they really loved it — they told me they felt so spoiled!” he said.
Kent-born Arthur never forgot the generosity shown to him by the Conte family.
He has returned to see his old friends on several occasions and Mr Conte and his wife even came over to the UK when Arthur and Freda celebrated their golden wedding anniversary a few years ago.
“I'd never have thought, all those years ago, that such a friendship would still be going strong today,” said Mr Smith.
“The Contes believe I saved their lives; I believe their dignity and humility taught me to be a better person.”