"Mr. Parolini" (fifth part)

(To Gregorio Vella)

It was late in the morning of March that all the civil staff of the plant, with very short notice and without being given explanations, was summoned to the mess hall.

An inspection commission that came from the Ministry and was composed of a civilian leader, an army colonel and a secretary, had presented itself to the Director without any prior communication. They had the task of ascertaining, at the time, the attendance and absence of the staff, which for this had been sent to the canteen. The entrances were manned by the Carabinieri, who had also sealed both the personnel office and the time clock at the entrance to the plant. People were called, one at a time and the called employees had to be identified by presenting a document of recognition, after which they could leave and resume their activity. All absences detected and for any reason, had to be immediately and formally motivated by the Personnel Office.

They told me that it was not so frequent and that the last similar visit went back no less than three years before, when two employees, present but untraceable, had been arrested for six months.

Parolini was sitting at the back of the room, waved me good-bye and went to sit next to him.

It would take at least an hour, between preliminaries and call in alphabetical order.

  • Buondì Parolini, how are you? Finally a diversion. If you allow me to take advantage of this dead time and if you want to talk about I wanted to ask what was the job, what the other day had called "strategic" and that they did in Lochi.

  • Well, thank you Gregorio and good morning to you too. They had assigned me to the department where the melting and the loading of the TNT were carried out, in the depth bombs and, above all, in the torpedo heads.

At that time the Royal Navy was getting the record of having one of the largest underwater fleets in the world, with more than a hundred boats, almost all modern and good. So many torpedoes were needed; also because there was to be armed also the MAS, the aerosiluranti and several units of surface; take into account that from the entry into the war in the forties, up to the eighth of September of the forty-three, they would have consumed almost four thousand and the torpedo is a complex and very delicate, as well as expensive weapon. The torpedo was also a very decisive weapon, but its effectiveness was inversely proportional to the distance from which it was launched, it was not like today that they are wire-guided or self-employed. You think a lot of times in spite of the expertise and the daring of the crews and with the risk of leaving the skin, the torpedo launched from short distances went about its business and was lost or hit but did not explode.

It happened a lot of times. Malfunctions, even secondary components, but perhaps also approximate tests; he also heard of faulty materials or sabotage in production plants. Do you think that often the crews of the submarines, both to save torpedoes, since the allocation for each mission did not exceed ten, but also because they did not trust the weapon in a complete way, often preferred to emerge and do cannonades, with the piece from 100 that they had in the bow.

  • Parolini will be like that; but perhaps it was also because the science of quality control in those days was still in the Stone Age. It would have been born in those days but in England, with the first control papers on the assembly lines of Spitfires, when the British, who were incessantly bombed and isolated by the Germans, understood that if they wanted to survive they could not afford to do without, due to factory defects, I'm missing only one aircraft. It would then have been well developed by the Japanese, when in the post-war period they invaded the world with radios and all their made in Japan. At the beginning it was of low quality, but later and especially in photographic material, electronic and especially in the automotive industry, making quality almost a religion, they managed to impose themselves commercially, creating truly reliable products.

The concept is quite simple. The basic thing is that when you manufacture anything that a customer will buy, you must always have the fixed thought that the customer must be satisfied for the money he has spent, and then you have to organize the production accordingly, checking and certifying every single phase of the processing and extending the concept to suppliers of materials or components. It would seem like a complicated matter, and at the beginning it is, but once fully operational it works very well, creating a virtuous automatism of constant self-improvement and we tend to the condition that I will no longer need the final test on the finished product, because I can give evidence and traceability of having controlled well and certified both the materials and each single processing phase; and therefore it is lowered more and more until acceptable percentages, the probability that the finished product presents some defects.

  • Of course, I think he is right and I believe that in Italy on this subject we are still a long way behind, even with all our economic boom of the sixties; perhaps more than anything else it is a matter of mentality and culture, rather than technical.

  • I agree. But let's go back to his torpedoes and to the memories of Lochi.

  • Yes. In those times of silurifici in Italy there were three; there was that of Whitehead in Istria, I do not remember well if it was in Pula or Fiume; then there was that of Motofides in Livorno, which is still today and which is now called Whitehead Motofides and the third and largest, which no longer exists but which in the forty-three came to employ almost seven thousand employees, was in Baia near Naples. I was there when I was twenty; it was a huge settlement from the parts of the Phlegraean Fields, with annexed to the islet of S. Martino, the siluripedium that at that time was the largest and most advanced in the world. Do you think that when the plant was enlarged, towards the Fusaro plain, the old part with the new one was connected by an underground tunnel of a mile and a half, which besides serving as communication and eventual anti-aircraft shelter, would have allowed to continue the production in emergency, even in case of bombing.

  • But did not the torpedoes provide the already complete torpedoes with their explosive warhead?

  • Almost never. With all possible supervision, the Royal Navy did not trust to give the explosive to be loaded, even for security reasons. But it also happened that on failed and then recovered torpedoes, it was discovered that they had been loaded with junk. Of course there was no news that one found in the newspapers, but on the matters of the sabotage of rumors many circulated. So most of the magazines were charged to us, in the Valdilochi Munification Workshops. In that department I worked for almost a year, in the forty-one. If I had stayed longer I would have died. And it's not just because I survived a fire and three explosions, the difficult thing was to stay alive, not to the triton that breaks out, but to what does not break out.

  • Why Parolini? I do not follow her. Since I've been here, I've dealt very little with blast explosives and detonating explosives, so I know little about it, apart from what I've read about chemistry books at school. For now I'm instructing on launching and propellants, especially in terms of chemical stability. Problem that those of explosion, as the TNT or pentrite, it seems to me that they do not have because they are very stable. As far as I know, when they find unexploded bombs from the last war, apart from the primers, they almost always find them perfectly active.

  • Yeah, I do not want to teach you anything, but TNT is an ugly beast. It's like a bad monster, asleep and sleepy. The explosives call it dull, because to make it explode it must "provoke" and usually it is done with a small amount of another explosive, less "dull", like the tetrile that is in the quill as a detonator. Yes, because if it takes a plate of pure TNT to hammer it is difficult for something to happen; and even if you burn it, but as long as the temperatures of the mass do not get too high, it burns slowly like wax, making only a red and sooty flame. But if something is exploded inside, it "wakes up" and decomposes instantly, releasing a staggering power and generating a detonation front that proceeds to eight thousand meters per second.

  • Does this mean that if I had an eight-kilometer tritole stick and I explode it at one end, does the explosion reach the other end in a second? I do not want to bother her but I do not understand the fact that she said before, that is, she survived the TNT that does not break out.

  • That's right. The TNT is charged by melting. It arrived inside the wooden barrels, in scagliette, from the Biazzi production plants, which at that time were, I do not remember well if in Cengio in Valbormida in the Savona area or in Colleferro, from the BPD factory; they put the TNT into two hundred-liter fusors, which worked with a warm water shirt. The TNT just above the 80 grades melts, becoming mellow and pourable. Pure ammonium nitrate and aluminum powder were added, because aluminum burning in the explosion greatly increased the temperature and thus prolonged the expansion of the gases and their destructive pressure on the lens. The mixture so composed that it was called "tritolital" and was intended for underwater weapons; it was kept under constant and slow stirring with mechanical mixers and then poured into the casings of the torpedo heads which were previously heated to a temperature slightly higher than that of the molten mixture. The heads after being loaded were placed in a bain-marie or wrapped with several woolen blankets to let the cooling take place and then the solidification as slowly as possible; it was to avoid the cracks of the explosive material, which becoming solid contracted. Everything was done in a segregated place that became a kind of hellish bolgia, because of the exhalations. At that time it was not that there was so much attention to the hygiene of work and then the fact of being at war amply justified the sacrifice of the people, who for many hours a day breathed toxic stuff. The air intake was never sufficient, even if the process temperatures did not vary too much. Someone who had taught us how to breathe through a damp double cloth, that I tied behind the nape of the neck and put some coal dust between the two clothes.

  • Of course! it is the principle of adsorption with activated carbon. Brilliant! You had anticipated at least twenty years a very useful find and that today is used fluently; also in the hoods of the kitchens.

  • We did not know anything but obviously it worked and I always thank those who taught it to me. For coal I always had a black face, like that of train drivers, but at least I stayed alive. Many workmates got sick and many left their skin, even after so many years that they had stopped. It began with the skin turning yellow, then the hair, which first turned yellowish green and then fell.

  • But certainly Parolini; I remember that in school, a reaction called xantoproteics was studied in organic chemistry. The name comes from the Greek xanthòs, which means yellow and the color comes from the skin and hair proteins that react with the nitric groups.

  • But it was not just this. It reached the point to completely alter even the sense of taste. Whatever you ate, even a piece of candy, you felt it bitter and spit it out. Someone could no longer eat and decay. Then the liver got sick, after the kidneys, and it was done. That's why I say it was a department as a punishment, even if you tried to rotate the staff as much as possible. But you could not do without the expert workers who were so sacrificed. As if they were to lose. Today all this is gone, fortunately the processes are all automatic and remotely controlled. In Italy then we do not produce even TNT, since the Americans, when they left after the war, they left it so much that they did not know where to put it. As is well known, the TNT lasts almost eternally; you think that what remains for years underwater, at the bottom of the sea is also reusable.

  • But in Germany or in the nations that were enemies at the time, was it the same? How did they do it?

  • I believe that for the good of his country, suppergiù was the same thing everywhere. Maybe except for a little bit in America, that there have always been a bit advanced in everything. In England I understand that it was even worse. There was the phenomenon of "canary girls", which is not that they called them because they could sing. It was because as these works, and especially during the First World War, made them to women, since the men were all fighting, these girls were distinguished at first sight because they were as yellow as canaries and several even half-bald and with wigs. It was said that they would give birth to children who were just born yellow as well. And then the British, besides the TNT, used a lot of other explosives too, which was picric acid and did the same damage, but which was perhaps even more harmful. I remember an almost amusing detail. To go to Lochi in the Establishment, every morning at a quarter to seven the train departed from the Morin promenade in Viale Italia, which then routed on the viale S. Bartolomeo. At the start they came to say goodbye and to chat with us a number of former colleagues, pensioners and even someone who was a licensed man; it was a very beautiful thing, as if the work united us again and kept alive a continuity and a bond of feelings, as well as friendship. It happened then to see the yellow workers, who talked about the work almost always with the yellow pensioners.

  • PAROLINI! IS THERE PAROLINS? - called one of the controllers out loud.

  • Excuse me Gregorio, I have to go that it's up to me. I'll see you.