For 65 years his body lay in the Moro River Canadian War Cemetery near Ortona, Italy, beneath a grave marked “Known unto God.” Ortona and its surrounding area had seen some of the fiercest fighting endured by Canadians in the Second World War. The 1,614 other graves in the cemetery attest to that.
But while the body still lies there, he is no longer unknown.
In a simple Canadian Forces ceremony, delegates of a Veterans Affairs Canada pilgrimage to mark the 65th anniversary of the Italian Campaign and Canadian students from CCI Renaissance School in nearby Lanciano participated in the dedication of a new headstone for Lance-Sergeant John Aubrey Matthew. It replaces one that read:
A Soldier of the 1939-1945 War
A Sergeant of The Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment
Through extensive research by Matthew’s family and by the Department of National Defence’s Directorate of History and Heritage, it was decided conclusively that the remains in the grave could be no one other than Matthew from Stayner, Ont. Witnesses reported that Matthew had been wounded in the fighting on Jan. 30, 1944, when two companies of the Hasty Ps attempted a daylight crossing of the Arielli Plain, supported by air and artillery fire as well as six tanks from the Calgary Regiment. But in the heat of battle Matthew could not be evacuated.
When medics were able to return he could not be found. Eight months later, in September, a body was found by other Canadians who could only establish rank and regiment. These unknown remains were moved to the Moro River Cemetery.
Canadian Forces padre Captain Claude Lussier offered prayers and then Colonel John Mitchell, the Canadian Defence attaché for Italy, accompanied by nursing sister Betty Brown, a 92-year-old veteran of the Italian Campaign, placed a floral tribute at the foot of the new headstone.
As the late afternoon sun faded, a candlelight ceremony began. Each of the delegates and students were given a candle when they entered the cemetery. The veterans on the trip, Betty Brown, Henry Beaudry of the Saskatoon Light Infantry, Roland Demers of the Royal Canadian Engineers, David Morton of the Royal Canadian Air Force and William “Dusty” Miller of the Royal Canadian Navy lit the candles of the participants as they paraded past them. The participants then took their candles to the front of a chosen headstone.
The haunting words and melody of Amazing Grace, sung by students Brittany Tummers and Kay Petryk, were heard as participants gazed at the names on the stones before them. Last Post, the rouse and the lament followed. The youth then gathered to recite the Commitment to Remember:
They were young, as we are young
They served, giving freely of themselves.
To them, we pledge, amid the winds of time,
To carry their torch and never forget.
The ceremony was one of the most touching events during the Nov. 26 to Dec. 5 pilgrimage, led by then-Veterans Affairs Minister Greg Thompson. The veterans were joined by their caregivers and by senators Michael Meighen and Wilfrid Moore and members of Parliament Rob Oliphant, Peter Stoffer and Guy André. Leaders of the major veterans’ organizations included Dominion First Vice Pat Varga of The Royal Canadian Legion, Robert Ross of the National Council of Veteran Associations in Canada and Gordon Marsh of the Army, Navy and Air Force Veterans in Canada.
The delegation had gathered in Toronto, the city of Canada’s largest Italian-speaking population, for a send-off at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre (SHSC) that included veterans from the Italian Campaign, the SHSC and students from Leaside High School.
Thompson reminded the audience that it was Lady Nancy Astor who used the term “D-Day Dodgers” to describe those soldiers fighting in Italy as if they had chosen to fight there instead of Normandy. “Lady Astor couldn’t have been more wrong. History has recorded many of the great and tragic details of the Italian Campaign and how difficult it was. How 93,000 Canadians served…and how after 20 months of fighting, it proved to be the longest ground campaign of the Second World War; how three Canadians earned the Victoria Cross in that campaign; and how 6,000 Canadians made the supreme sacrifice in Italy—our greatest loss in any one country during the…war,” he said.
Brown and Sunnybrook resident Don Stewart spoke of their experiences to the students and then answered questions. Brown remembered the landing in Sicily. “One of our supply ships was sunk by the enemy. We lost all our uniforms and medical supplies, but we made do. We wore men’s uniforms and the boys found medical supplies left behind by the enemy and brought them to us. We were able to set up a hospital until we could get more supplies.”
Asked whether she preferred serving in the army or another service, Brown was unequivocal: “The army was the best. If you were with the navy or the air force you served on the bases and treated patients there. In the army you went where the boys were. You were living under canvas or setting up in abandoned buildings, but you went where the boys were.”
From Toronto the delegation flew to Rome and then by coach to Cassino a few hours away. Getting to Italy the first time wasn’t such a speedy event for David Morton of Gibsons, B.C. As an aircraft electrician in the Royal Canadian Air Force, he followed the troops as they advanced through Italy, but it was the sailing that he particularly remembers. “They had us in tight quarters. There were tables that two fellows could lay on, toe-to-toe. Then there were the hammocks strung above. They would sag in the middle. So there would just be enough room for them to sag over the feet of the men on the table,” he recounted.
While the Veterans Affairs Canada delegation would not visit Sicily, the start of the Italian Campaign was described during presentations by two youth representatives, Nolan Hill of Calgary and Mélanie Morin of Drummond, N.B. Both had been participants in the Canada Remembers week at the Encounters With Canada program in Ottawa.
Well before the trip, Hill and Morin each researched a soldier who had died in Sicily and had no known grave. Their presentations came during the trip’s first ceremony which took place at the Cassino Memorial in the Cassino War Cemetery. The memorial, which consists of great slabs of green marble rising to a height of five metres, lists the names of 4,054 Commonwealth forces members who were killed in the Sicilian and Italian campaigns and have no known grave. The names of those chosen by the youth representatives—along with that of Lance-Sergeant Matthew—are there.
Hill, 16, a student at Bowness High School in Calgary, told the story of William Albert Gair, a farm boy from Strome, Alta., who joined the 49th Edmonton Regiment, a precursor to the Loyal Edmonton Regiment. Hill, who had found Gair’s attestation papers, presented a portrait. “Upon his enlistment, William was a healthy, tall and strong 22-year-old, standing six feet, two inches, weighing 167 pounds with no medical problem, perfect vision and a 40-inch chest. He had brown hair, blue eyes and a ‘ruddy’ complexion. Finally, after the forms had been signed (he) became Private William Albert Gair, service number M65268. He was a soldier.”
He said Gair was reported killed in action at the town of Piazza Armerina, July 16, 1943, just eight days from his 25th birthday. At the end of his presentation, Hill said, “I bring a jar of soil from the fertile grounds of Alberta and a flag from Alberta. William never made it back home, so it seems fair that he be reunited with his homeland again.”
Following the presentations, delegates participated in a remembrance ceremony at the cemetery’s Cross of Sacrifice. Of the more than 4,200 headstones in the cemetery, 855 are for Canadians. Throughout the morning, the place was shrouded in mist. As piper Sergeant William MacDougall of the Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa played the lament, the mist faded and the magnificent abbey far up on Monte Cassino could be seen. The original structure was destroyed during the war.
The delegation was later met by Professor Gianni Blasi. Born in Italy, he grew up in Ontario, and returned to Italy to become a professor. He is passionate about the area’s history and the wartime contributions made by Canadians. The professor led the group on a tour of the nearby museum and the next day pointed out where Canadians had fought. “The Germans controlled all the high ground and the Canadians had to fight through it,” he said pointing to mountains on either side of the Liri Valley. He spoke with bitterness towards the French colonial troops who fought in the mountains and who were notorious not only for the fierce fighting, but for their plundering and rape of the locals. He told of how his mother and her sister had fled from the Moroccans trying to reach relatives in the hills on the other side of the valley. They had no proper footwear to make the journey. They encountered Canadian troops. “One of the Canadians grabbed her sister, my aunt who was not a large woman, and took her to a tent. My mother was terrified and wondered why the other Canadian soldiers did not express any alarm. They came back shortly with my aunt wearing a pair of soldier’s boots. That is how the Canadians are remembered. They are remembered for their kindness.”
At Ortona the delegation visited the Price of Peace Monument at the Piazza del Plebiscito, the central square that had been turned into a killing ground during the fighting. The monument depicts a soldier tending to a wounded comrade.
It was in Ortona that Canadians invented a way of urban warfare known as mouse-holing. The troops would move from house to house by entering a building and clearing it of enemy soldiers. They would then blow a hole through an interior wall connected to a neighbouring house which would also be entered and cleared. It was a smart idea because it meant soldiers did not have to go outside where they would be easy targets for snipers. “Ortona is where Canadian courage and determination came together in a truly remarkable victory—in a grim and costly victory, earned against almost impossible odds. It is also a place where Italy suffered some of its greatest devastation,” said Thompson. “The price of our victory can be seen just a short distance away where almost 1,400 Canadians lie buried. This monument before us, a joint effort between our two countries, is a powerful and lasting reminder of the terrible loss our nations suffered more than 65 years ago.”
Sisters Francesca and Maria LaSorda were hidden near the square along with 24 other Italians during the German occupation. Since the unveiling of the monument in 1999, the two sisters made it a daily ritual to place flowers on it. Maria died in January 2009.
For this special ceremony, Thompson, Canada’s Ambassador to Italy James Fox and local dignitaries placed floral wreaths. Then Francesca LaSorda was invited to place the first flower. One by one, all members of the delegation and many townspeople came forward to do the same until the monument was covered.
Among those gathered in the crowd that day were two soldiers, Corporal Kyle Yarston and Cpl. Matt Swanston, from today’s Seaforth Highlanders of Canada who were on leave from service in Afghanistan. “We wanted to come to Ortona where the Canadians and [Victoria Cross recipient] Smokey Smith served with such distinction,” explained Yarston.
The next day the group departed for Rimini, but not before a stop at nearby Casa Berardi. It was there, on Dec. 14, 1943, that Captain Paul Triquet led his company of the Royal 22nd Regiment across an area known as the Gully to take the hamlet of Casa Berardi and establish a bridgehead.
According to his Victoria Cross citation in the London Gazette, Triquet—with 50 per cent of his company wounded or dead—shouted: “There are enemy in front of us, behind us and on our flanks, there is only one safe place—that is on the objective.”
A plaque to his accomplishment hangs on an outside wall of the Berardi family home, and a monument to the regiment is located a few feet away where the delegation was greeted by Colonel Lanfranco Berardi. “My grandfather, as a sign of friendship, used to offer the officers and soldiers an excellent red wine he would draw from a big barrel. They would often stain their clothes so they would replace the stained uniform with a new one and throw away the old one. My mother would collect these uniforms and very skilfully turn them into clothes for me and for my brother made from those warm woollen uniforms. I can therefore say that as a five-year-old, I had the honour of wearing a Canadian uniform.”
The stop was one of three made by the delegation to commemorate the Canadians who received the VC during the Italian Campaign. At a monastery outside Cassino it paid tribute to Major John Keefer Mahony of the Westminster Regiment. He had led his company across the Melfa River in daylight under heavy enemy fire in order to establish a vital bridgehead. Mahony continuously organized his men to withstand several hours of counterattacks even though he had been wounded in the head and twice in the leg. He refused medical aid until the remaining companies of the regiment had crossed and even then he refused to be evacuated.
Before stopping in Rimini the delegation visited Cesena and placed a wreath in front of a plaque dedicated to Private Smokey Smith in the Piazza del Popolo. On the night of Oct. 21-22, 1944, the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada crossed the Savio River swollen by torrential rains. During the fighting, Smith and two others encountered enemy tanks. With one comrade wounded, Smith stood up and from a distance of only 30 feet fired a Projector, Infantry Anti-Tank (PIAT) gun at one of the tanks, disabling it. When soldiers jumped off the tank and ran at Smith, he turned his Tommy gun on them, killing four and scattering the others. “Almost immediately,” reads the citation for the Smith’s VC, “another tank opened fire and more enemy infantry closed in on Smith’s position. Obtaining some abandoned Tommy gun magazines from a ditch, he steadfastly held his position, protecting his comrade and fighting the enemy with his Tommy gun until they finally gave up and withdrew in disorder.”
Dominion First Vice President Pat Varga had the great pleasure of knowing the VC recipient. “He was a wonderful man who served his country well,” she said, noting she had been at Smith’s state funeral in Vancouver in 2005 and had placed a poppy on his casket. “Just to be in the area where his footsteps had been in such a troubled time was an honour.”
The final ceremony for what had become a very emotional trip was at Coriano Ridge War Cemetery near Rimini where 427 Canadians lie among 1,940 Commonwealth graves. Rimini was crucial to the German defence since it was a seaport and the railway link to the industrial north. Reaching it meant breaching the Gothic Line. To do that the Canadians had to cross a half dozen rivers as Roland Demers, 87, of Tecumseh, Ont., of the Canadian Engineers remembered. “First you had to clear the mines before you could build the bridges. Once you found one you pulled it up out of the water and neutralized it by pulling the fuse out. Of course, after a while the enemy started tying two mines together. If you pulled one up it detonated the other.”
The Gothic Line was strongly defended from the ridge. The 1st British and the 5th Canadian Armoured divisions fought a weeklong battle, going house to house to take the ridge. When Rimini was finally reached, the Germans had fled, but the city was nearly destroyed by allied air raids and more than 1,000 of its citizens had been killed. “For the past week, we have retraced the footsteps of some truly remarkable Canadians. We have followed the path of 93,000 Canadians who earned the right to be counted among our nation’s truest heroes,” said Thompson. “This is where their courage led them to the Gothic Line, which represented the Germans’ last line of defence separating the Allies from Northern Italy.”
Here an unexpected event occurred as the Legion’s Pat Varga and Ron Griffis of the Canadian Association of Veterans in United Nations Peacekeeping accompanied Henry Beaudry, an 88-year-old resident of the Sweetgrass First Nations Reserve in Saskatchewan and former prisoner of war to the podium for the Act of Remembrance. The Dominion First Vice spoke in English, Griffis in French, and then Beaudry turned to Varga and asked to speak. He approached the microphone and thanked the Creator and the government for the opportunity to return to the land where he lost so many comrades.
The surprised crowd rose in a standing ovation.
Beaudry’s words served to sum up the importance of the long journey, as well as the need to never forget those who served and those left behind in the Italian Campaign.
My Meeting With History
by Nolan Hill
As he embarked on a journey to mark the 65th anniversary of the Italian Campaign, Encounters with Canada youth ambassador Nolan Hill of Calgary was invited to write about the experiences he gained as part of the Veterans Affairs Canada pilgrimage.
My trip to Italy to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the Italian Campaign was a life changing experience. I was able to see with my own eyes the impact the Second World War had on Canada. The opportunity to meet and speak with war veterans and listen to their stories was incredibly informative and rewarding. I heard stories of camaraderie, bravery and overcoming insurmountable odds. All of this remains with me today.
The most rewarding experiences during the Nov. 26 to Dec. 5 Veterans Affairs Canada pilgrimage involved speaking with the veterans. They were so open and honest, and this gave me incredible insight on what it must have been like to be there. I learned more about history in my conversations with them than I have learned from any history book. I will always remember the veterans and their stories. They truly did change my life.
The most memorable experience was the trip to Cassino War Cemetery, the largest Second World War cemetery in Italy. On panel 15 of the Cassino Memorial I found the name of Private William Albert Gair who was killed July 16, 1943, in Sicily. I had researched his life prior to heading overseas, and while in the cemetery at Panel 15 I was privileged to talk about his life and service. The ceremony was very emotional for me and for the entire delegation.
My experiences in Italy will remain with me forever. They have affirmed my sense of responsibility to ‘carry the torch’ and I intend to do so. I will never forget the D-Day Dodgers.
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