Tears In Italy

January 1, 2005 by Natalie Salat

Clockwise from top left: Aboriginal veteran George Pambrun performs a graveside smudging ceremony; Smokey Smith VC places a wreath at Moro River Canadian War Cemetery in Italy; Polish veteran Zbigniew Gondek (far right) and others at Moro River.

“I have a sad story to tell you. If tears start to come, forgive me.” Former lance-corporal Maurice White, 79, of Edmonton, is talking with several Canadian teenagers and fellow World War II veteran Ed Page of Calgary in the lobby of a Sicilian hotel. It is the last day of an 11-day Veterans Affairs Canada pilgrimage to Italy (Oct. 25 to Nov. 4) and he is remembering the hellish Battle of Ortona, a milestone in the Canadians’ 20-month-long Italian Campaign. “On Christmas Day they brought our lunch to us—beef, mashed potatoes, gravy and a bottle of beer—and my outpost was up in the attic of a house. I’d knocked two bits out and I sat there all day on a rafter, looking out this hole. Some Germans came out, and I actually shot one of them on Christmas Day.”

White holds back tears. From Dec. 20 to Dec. 27, 1943, Canadian soldiers like White and Page fought against hardened German paratroopers amid the ruins of Ortona, a medieval town on the Adriatic Sea. White served with the Loyal Edmonton Regiment, among other things as a sniper. “I thought, ‘What the hell did I do that for?’ It damn near makes me cry every time I talk about it, but it’s important to know that we do have feelings and (the Germans) were people, too.” The teenagers listen silently. White was not much older then than they are now.

* * *

The duties of war brought thousands of young Canadians to foreign lands and made them do foreign things in the fight against tyranny. Some 93,000 Canadians participated in the Italian Campaign; nearly 6,000 lost their lives, 19,486 were wounded and 1,004 became PoWs.

For the 45 veterans returning to Italy, some memories are difficult to bear. Others are more pleasant, like those of pretty signorinas and first swigs of wine. The passage of 60 years may have dimmed the details, but the emotions remain. So does the camaraderie. Throughout the journey, on long coach rides or longer four-course Italian meals, the veterans share an easy bond, trading stories and jokes as if they’d known each other for years.

For the 13 youths from each province and territory who form an exuberant part of the delegation, the trip is one of few remaining opportunities to learn about the campaign from those who had been there. “We’re not asking young people to understand,” says Lance Bombardier Douglas Langtree, 85, of the Royal Canadian Artillery, who earned a Military Medal. “We’re asking them to remember,” adds the resident of Scarborough, Ont.

Several veterans observe that the 60th anniversary pilgrimage is a year late. Former lieutenant-general Gilles Turcot of the Royal 22nd Regt. (the Van Doos) landed on the island of Sicily with the 8th British Army on July 10, 1943. It was then the largest seaborne invasion in history. “When nothing happened on the 60th anniversary, I was very disappointed, but thank goodness (VAC) saw the light,” declares the Magog, Que., resident during the farewell dinner in Catania. Referring to the fact that Italian Campaign veterans became known as the D-Day Dodgers—a purported slight by Lady Nancy Astor (an MP in Britain) that the soldiers adopted with pride—Turcot adds, “They should have called us the D-Day Preparers.”

Dominion Vice-President Wilf Edmond says these veterans are finally getting the attention they deserve. “We all know they should have been recognized before, but better late than never.” Edmond was 12 when his older brother, Joseph, got wounded in Italy. On his return, Joseph never talked about it, despite Edmond’s encouragement. “I said, ‘Who did you ever tell about your service? You’ve got sons in the service and if you don’t tell them, your history is going to go with you.’”

Unlike previous pilgrimages, which mirrored the order in which the Canadians invaded Sicily and then proceeded up the boot of Italy through successive German lines of defence, the events are jumbled. This time, however, the D-Day Dodgers are getting more attention from the media and Canada’s government. There will be ceremonies at Cassino, Moro River and Agira war cemeteries, as well as plaque unveilings at Ortona, Cesena, Rimini and Ispica to ensure the Canadians’ deeds are remembered.

Governor General Adrienne Clarkson and husband John Ralston Saul attend the first four days of the pilgrimage. Veterans Affairs Minister Albina Guarnieri, who was born in Italy, returns to Canada two-thirds of the way through, as the Liberal minority government requires her vote in Parliament. Conservative MP Betty Hinton and NDP MP Peter Stoffer similarly depart. The task of leading the delegation in Sicily falls to Senator Gerard Phalen of Nova Scotia. Ontario Senator Consiglio Di Nino, Bloc Québécois MP Marcel Gagnon and representatives from national veterans organizations are also along.

Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2004

“In May of 1944, Canadian and British forces engaged in a fierce battle for Cassino, and won it at great cost. This victory was necessary to pierce the Germans’ Gustav Line. It was one of the most outstanding feats of the war.” The Governor General inaugurates the pilgrimage’s first ceremony at Cassino War Cemetery, the second largest Commonwealth war cemetery in Italy. Here lie 4,266 Commonwealth soldiers, 855 of whom are Canadian. A monument bears the names of more than 4,000 Allied soldiers who fought in Sicily and Italy and have no known grave. Among them are 192 Canadian names.

Looming over the cemetery is Monte Cassino, a 1,700-foot-high mountain on which stands a Benedictine monastery, resurrected since the war. The original was obliterated by the Allies in February 1944, an unfortunate event, as the Germans used the ruins to their advantage. “We used to say the way the Germans had the mountain set up, they could shoot a flea off the back of a mouse,” observes former signalman Jim Curtis, 84, an erudite Torontonian who was a wireless operator in Italy from January 1944 to February 1945 for the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada and the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry.

Four battles were necessary to crack Cassino en route to Rome’s June 1944 liberation. The invasion of Sicily had forced the Germans to retreat to the mainland in September 1943, after 38 days of fighting. Though Italy’s fascist government had surrendered, the Germans seized control, focusing their defences around central and northern Italy. The Allies, including the 1st Canadian Inf. Division and the 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade, had a relatively easy time traversing southern Italy. Soon, however, they would contend with not only the impossibly hilly topography and conditions of extreme heat or torrential rains, but gritty German tactics.

The Americans and New Zealanders fought unsuccessfully to take Cassino at the start of 1944. A mix of nationalities, including Canadians and Poles, then joined the fight. Finally, on May 18, the Poles raised their banner over the abbey’s ruins. Eighteen-year-old Zbigniew (Robert) Gondek, then a sergeant in the Polish Second Corps and now a Canadian resident, fought his way to the top, one of the few who survived the three-day slog up the mountain. “You didn’t pick up guys who were wounded. You just went.” Gondek later earned the Polish equivalent of the Victoria Cross. But the war exacted its price—he lost part of his left arm.

During the ceremony, the morning mist clears to reveal the monastery just after Reveille.

Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2004

On a warm, sunny day—unlike the monsoons Canadian soldiers encountered crossing the Moro River on their muddy trek to Ortona in December 1943—the veterans attend a remembrance ceremony at Moro River Canadian War Cemetery, where 1,375 of their comrades are buried. The cemetery is packed. Besides the VAC delegation, there are several dozen more Canadian veterans (VAC provided a travel subsidy of up to $1,000) along with hundreds of Ortona citizens, former partisans wearing feathered caps, honour guards and schoolchildren, who proudly wield Canadian flags. This scene repeats itself in Cesena, Rimini, Agira and Ispica.

“Every grave here marks the price of Canada’s contribution to victory and the Allied breakthrough to Rome,” declares Guarnieri. “Every marker is the cover of one man’s life…. We know that one chapter was the crossing of the Moro River and the liberation of Ortona. What we will never know are…the pages of life left blank.”

The Governor General tells the delegation that “the name Ortona is written in Canadian blood.” Some of that blood was shed by John Gallagher, a former tank sergeant who served with the Three Rivers Regt. The Ottawa resident was wounded in Ortona. He was so focused on the town’s closed-in streets that, “I didn’t even know we were by the sea—you wouldn’t know it, from where we were.”

The delegation places wreaths at the Cross of Sacrifice. The veterans visit lost comrades and share memories with the Italians, who embrace them. We are met with the same warmth at the Canadese restaurant. During a lunch overflowing with wine, pasta and more pasta, Lanfranco Berardi presents a sentimental urn to the Governor General. It was the wine urn his mother used to offer to Canadian soldiers, its neck dotted with holes. When the soldiers drank from it, the wine would stain their uniforms. Mrs. Berardi used these discarded clothes to make new ones for her children, including five-year-old Lanfranco. Berardi’s ties to the Canadians are strong. His father’s nearby estate, Casa Berardi, was taken over by the Germans. The Van Doos reclaimed it in 1943, in a bold action that would earn Major Paul Triquet a Victoria Cross.

In Ortona’s Piazza Plebiscito, a standing-room only crowd gathers for a tribute to ‘I Canadesi,’ including the unveiling of a plaque. The maple leaf hangs from many balconies and applause erupts when the veterans march to their seats. Among those cheering is diminutive Francesca LaSorda, 84, who witnessed the destruction of her town and who puts fresh flowers on the Price of Peace monument in the piazza every day. Ortona’s citizens treat the Canadians to a feast at the Battle of Ortona Museum, created as a testament to the hardships suffered by soldier and civilian alike.

Thursday, Oct. 28, 2004

Our buses wind through the countryside, an idyllic scene of vineyards and olive trees, to Casa Berardi. Lanfranco Berardi spends time with the veterans as they survey the deep gully and hills where they fought. Former sergeant Harvey Brush, 80, of the Lorne Scots Regt., plays the pipes, adding atmosphere to many occasions on the pilgrimage.

Former squadron quartermaster Philip Thornhill, 86, of the Ontario Regt., points to a hill in the distance where a pink silo once stood. He and his tank crew thought it was a German fortification. “We shot machine-gun bullets at the silo, and they just bounced off. So we put a 75-mm cannon shot into it. It blew up and there was nothing in it. The hay all came tumbling out.” On the way to Rimini, teenagers Maureen Story of Saskatoon and Lizann Garbutt of Rapid City, Man., enthuse about their tour of former battlefields. “We visited a house across the gorge with a view of Casa Berardi,” says Story. “We went into the backyard and a woman came out and started talking really fast to our driver.” The woman promptly brought out Canada Dry and cookies for the teenagers, and practically wouldn’t let them leave. “She was cool. Canadians don’t even like Canadians that much!”

Friday, Oct. 29, 2004

Cloudy skies take nothing away from Cesena’s fairytale-like Piazza del Popolo, where the Government of Canada pays tribute to Canada’s veterans with a ceremony and gourmet reception. The guest of honour is none other than the Seaforth’s Ernest Alvia (Smokey) Smith of Vancouver, who earned his VC on the banks of the nearby Savio River. A young Seaforth wheels the witty veteran’s “staff car” onto the podium, between Clarkson and Guarnieri.

Speeches toast Canada’s only surviving VC. Long-time friend Bob Cassels of the Army, Navy & Air Force Veterans Association in Canada describes Smokey’s action on the night of Oct. 21-22, 1944: “Equipped with a shoulder-borne PIAT (Projector, Infantry, Anti-Tank) gun and a Tommy gun, he took out a German tank and many enemy soldiers, all within 30 feet of his position. The Germans thought they were up against more than one soldier.” Guarnieri declares: “Here in Cesena, Smokey’s legend is cast in bronze, but the man behind the legend is the true gold inscribed on our memory.”

Mayor Giordano Conti says “the people of Cesena feel Smokey is their friend.” He extends heartfelt thanks to the veterans. “The arrival of the 8th Army in Cesena in October 1944 marked the end of a seemingly endless nightmare and was greeted with relief by the townspeople. Thinking back on all of this, all I can say is thank you for all you did then, thank you for your sacrifices.”

During O Canada, the veterans salute and sing with a quiet pride.

Saturday, Oct. 30, 2004

Boarding the bus for visits to Commonwealth cemeteries, George Gallagher, 83, a former platoon commander with Ontario’s Perth Regt., announces with a smile, “Each day gets tougher, but I’m not giving up yet.” The Port Severn, Ont., resident turns sombre at the sight of row upon row of graves at Coriano Ridge War Cemetery. “When you look at all this… what a waste.”

Gradara War Cemetery is tough for Walter Barnum and Ed Gray. Barnum’s brother Harlin (of the British Columbia Dragoons) and many of Gray’s fellow Royal Canadian Dragoons are buried on this hillside. They were killed during the advance from Ancona to Rimini, in the fight to break the Gothic Line and force the Germans out of Italy. Gray, the only veteran travelling without a caregiver, climbs to the top tier of headstones accompanied by Nathalie Bédard of VAC. He places flags at more than 30 RCD graves, including that of George Tingley, one of his closest friends. “He was shot by a sniper. He died in my arms. Machine-gunned in the stomach.” He bows his head and places his hand on top of Tingley’s gravestone.

Barnum, 91, takes out a picture of his brother Harlin, a handsome young man whose tank got hit by a shell. The force of the blow killed him. “He paid the price,” says the veteran, who was a sergeant with the Westminster Regt. A keen fiddler and past president of Parksville, B.C., Branch, Barnum spent two years in Italy. As part of the 5th Division’s mobile infantry, he earned the Military Medal for his actions on Nov. 30, 1944, near San Pancrazio. His platoon was ordered to clear the enemy from houses on the south side of the River Montone. Barnum took his position to the final objective, occupying a house. But “the (Germans) come in at night with the bright idea they’re going to drive us out. We thought otherwise.” The enemy counter-attacked with 20 men, two bazookas, three machine-guns, rifles and grenades. Barnum put the bazookas out of action with his Bren gun from the upper floor. On his way downstairs he killed two more Germans who had fought their way inside. Barnum then directed the clearing of the house. Only nine of the original 20 Germans managed to retreat.

Monday, Nov. 1, 2004

The delegation is in sun-drenched Sicily. On the way to Agira Canadian War Cemetery outside Catania, 17-year-old Albertan Tanner Frere, wearing his cowboy hat, chats boisterously about life on the family farm in Trochu. He was raised to be tough. “I never cry. I didn’t even cry when I fell off my horse in front of a bunch of girls.” But a few hours later, Frere is back on the bus, fighting back tears with little success. “Dammit.”

The sight of P.E.I. veteran Ken MacKay at the grave of his younger brother, Leigh, pierced his shell. In 1943, MacKay was serving in Italy with the P.E.I. Light Horse as a driver when he learned that his 17-year-old brother, a gunner, had contracted polio and died in Sicily. Frere thought of his 12-year-old brother, Dryden. “You gotta look after ‘em,” he says, choked. The experience was all the more poignant because P.E.I. youth delegate Erica Lynn Perry, 17, had presented the story of Leigh’s life at the young soldier’s grave.

The morning’s ceremony brought tears to many eyes, as it was here in Sicily that many in the delegation first saw action, first witnessed friends getting killed. Agira is the final resting place for 490 Canadians.

Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2004

On the last official day, after a plaque unveiling amid the palm trees of Ispica, another long lunch and a wild goose chase by coach, the veterans return to the beaches of Sicily, near where they landed at Pachino. Seaforth Sgt. Bill ‘Skull’ Worton, 85, of Vancouver, nearly drowned in the Sicily landing because he “couldn’t swim a stroke.” He recalls with fondness the friends he made during the Canadians’ long years of training in Britain between 1939 and active duty in 1943. The fact that it was a volunteer army made all the difference. “The men were going because they wanted to go.” But he lost a lot of buddies in the hills and towns of Sicily and Italy—and still mourns their loss. “I realize now I’ve been very lucky. You often wonder why some get killed, and some don’t.”

Life has taken these veterans down many different paths since the war. Some chose to stay in the forces, like Spitfire pilot Cy Yarnell of Belleville, Ont., who became military attaché to Czechoslovakia during the 1970s, and Ted Slaney of Truro, N.S., who wrote a book about his regiment, the Cape Breton Highlanders. Others, like Gene Baycroft of Orillia, Ont., contributed to inventive pursuits such as the Avro Arrow. Some, like Douglas Armstrong of St. Catharines, Ont., and André Rostaing of Boucherville, Que., have sustained happy marriages for nearly 60 years.

At the farewell dinner, where current Forces members cheer each veteran’s entrance, Yarnell speaks of the bond between those who served: “My brief message is to all you veterans. For the past two weeks you have helped me relive a camaraderie that is inexplicable to anyone else. Thank you so much.”

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