(70) Italian heros at Incheon Foreigners‘ Cemetery
On Sept. 9, 1904, the Italian cruiser Marco Polo sailed into Jemulpo harbor. It was one of the newest and most powerful Italian vessels in the Far East and while its arrival would have normally generated a buzz of excitement; the large number of warships associated with the Russo-Japanese in the harbor had jaded the Jemulpo community. Few, other than the merchants, paid much attention to its approach.
As the Marco Polo dropped anchor, smoke was observed coming from below deck. The cries of “fire” — one of a seaman’s greatest fears — were heard and the well-trained crew immediately sprang into action. It was determined that the fire was in one of the powder magazines and, unless quickly extinguished, would soon ignite the powder and ammunition and destroy not only the Italian cruiser but possibly damage the nearby foreign warships as well.
Lt. Luigi Miraglia, the gun officer, immediately assumed fire control operations and ordered the ship’s flood valves opened in a desperate attempt to extinguish the fire. Steam and poisonous gas filled the lower decks as the water rushed in leaving the fire crew uncertain as to how successful their efforts had been.
Miraglia volunteered to go into the smoke-filled hold to determine the status of the fire — he was not alone. Officers, non-commissioned officers, and regular seamen all jumped forward to assist including fireman Fiore Summa. Summa, who appears to have been recovering from an illness, immediately rushed to the scene and volunteered to go with Miraglia.
It was through the desperate efforts of the crew that the ship was saved. In fact, the cruiser suffered very little physical damage but its human toll was quite high. The poisonous smoke immediately claimed the lives of fireman Angelo d’Ippolito and seaman Francesco Cuomo and sickened a great number of others — three of them, including Summa, seriously.
Throughout the night Summa valiantly struggled to survive but, already weakened by illness and the damage to his lungs, succumbed the following morning. Fortunately, the other two recovered.
Later that afternoon, the three fallen Italian sailors were buried side by side at Incheon Foreigners’ Cemetery, their funeral well-attended by their peers — both Italian and foreign sailors.
An investigation revealed that the fire was the result of the decomposition of the 152-millimeter cartridges causing them to spontaneously ignite. For just over a week the Marco Polo remained in Jemulpo harbor while its crew repaired the damage to its powder room and inspected, dried and reloaded the ammunition. The Marco Polo then returned to its station in China.
Four men, including Summa (posthumously) and Miraglia, received silver medals of valor; seven men, including d’Ippolito and Cuomo (posthumously), received bronze medals and nine others were cited for their bravery.
Summa, d’Ippolito and Cuoma were not the first Italians to die and be buried in Korea — that dubious honor belongs to Count Ugo di Malgra, the first Italian representative to live in Korea — nor were they the last. However, their graves, unlike many of the other graves at Incheon Foreigners’ Cemetery, are still remembered by their government.
Through the efforts of former Italian Ambassador to Korea Massimo Andrea Leggeri and his chief administrator, Dr. Marco Zagarola, the graves were repaired and now enjoy a yearly visit by the Italian embassy. It is a shame that only the Czech and Italian governments deem it important enough to honor the memories of their citizens and sailors who died in Korea so long ago.
Robert Neff is a contributing writer for The Korea Times.