Return to Cassino
In Spring 2019, American Field Service ambulance driver John Wright, accompanied by his son Jerry, returned to visit a place and time like no other in his long eventful life
- Jerry Wright
- WWII driver
- WWII, The 2000s
75 years almost to the day after arriving in Italy’s Rapido Valley, American Field Service ambulance driver John Wright returned on a recent spring afternoon to visit a place and time like no other in his long eventful life. The Battle of Monte Cassino that raged in the Rapido and surrounding mountains and towns was one of World War II’s most brutal and protracted, and Dad arrived in April of 1944 to shuttle wounded soldiers from its vast, amorphous battlefield. For a couple of remarkable days last March, three-quarters of a century melted away as the memories of a 19-year-old kid in the deadliest of circumstances rekindled. Serendipity joined Dad in the cauldron of his youth to give him glimpses of the young man he was, and remarkable unscripted moments with members of a younger generation of Italians and British who grasp the enormity of what the men of Dad’s generation – more than 55,000 Allied soldiers fell in the fight at Cassino in the winter and spring of 1943-44 - endured. To see them try and convey to Dad their profound sense of unpayable indebtedness, their deep respect and appreciation for the legacy of freedom he represents, was a rare privilege.
We drove down from Rome on a Wednesday afternoon and five minutes after entering the famous monastery atop Monte Cassino Dad was, by virtue of an off handed remark about lousy British generalship, surrounded by a contingent of the British Royal Airforce in rapt attention on meeting a man who had actually been in the epic battle they were there to study. A day later by another twist of fate the mayor and city council of Sant'Elia Fiumerapido popped a bottle of prosecco to toast the old warrior in the street-level bar of the actual building – still standing - Dad had sheltered and lived in for several weeks all those years ago as German shells exploded in the town square outside. That same afternoon a group of Italian WW2 buffs, hearing of Dad’s presence in town, took us deep into the mountains north of Cassino to step into the actual German emplacements of the Gustav Line, and that evening we found ourselves on a bizarre quest, weaving through the tiny medieval cobblestone streets in the hills of Venafro for a personal tour of the craziest but most complete private museum/collection dedicated to the deadly winter of 1943-44 there is. And all the while Dad was peppered with questions through interpreters, people hanging on his every word, video cameras capturing it all because, hard fact, there aren’t many like him left.
For two days in southern Italy last March, John Wright, American Field Service ambulance driver, was a 94-year-old rock star.
During the war Dad was among the many thousands of men of a multinational force in the valleys and mountains of the Abruzzi Mountain range who were there to break through the vaunted “Gustav Line,” the German defensive position that stretched laterally across the Italian Peninsula from the Mediterranean to the Adriatic Sea about 75 miles south of Rome. Breaking through the Gustav Line was the key to the Allied capture of Rome, at the time the Allies’ purported goal in the Italian campaign. (The dubious strategic value of the entire Italy campaign of World War 2 has been debated since before it even began, but once in motion the fates that brought absolute destruction on this quiet corner of Italy were sealed.) The lynch pin of the Gustav Line was a spur of the Abruzzi Range that juts into a wide junction of three river valleys and is capped by an ancient Christian monastery, the home of the order of the Benedictine Monks. For 1,500 years the monastery has commanded the impressive heights over the valley below. The road to Rome from the south – the Via Cassolina - runs today as it did in 1944, as it has since the Romans built it 2,000 years ago, at the base of Monte Cassino, the home of the monastery.
Getting Allied tanks and trucks and men onto that road from a few miles south took four distinctive, major battles to achieve over six hellish months beginning in late November of 1943. The slaughter of young men and the stories of endurance and hardship during the six months of the Battle of Cassino are astonishing.
In the annals of military history few locations are as ideally situated to defend as the terrain afforded the Germans in the Battle of Cassino. Not to digress too far from Dad’s story, but the magnitude and profound significance of the time and place he found himself in the spring of 1944 is difficult to convey. Today the Battle of Cassino is considered one of the Second World War’s most brutal in terms of lives lost, opportunities squandered, wet, freezing weather in impossible terrain endured, lack of proper gear, ammunition, food and water, days and weeks of unending shelling, mortar fire, sniper fire, the stench of thousands of rotting bodies, flys, fleas, rats and a host of other miseries that from the comfort of 2019 are virtually impossible to imagine. And that was during the “downtime” BETWEEN the major battles.
By the time Dad arrived, three of the battles had been waged at a staggering cost in human life due largely to horrible decisions by generals who ignored the realities of the terrain, its defenses and the limits of their weaponry. And the Gustav Line held. Lessons of the First World War about the futility of sending repeating waves of flesh, muscle, bone and sinew into hurricanes of flying steal and lead were ignored. Despite many senior officers having been on the Western Front and acknowledging flat out the similarities of the stalemate at Cassino to what was faced in 1916-18, their tactics – and the results - were the same. Tanks and heavy armor were almost worse than useless in much of the battle, bogged down in a sea of mud, shell holes, bomb craters and rubble, leaving the infantry to charge fortifications that artillery barrages had barely dented with nothing more than the rifles in their hands and the inevitable bloody result ahead.
Knowing the road to Rome lay at its feet, the Germans had three months from the time the Allies landed in Italy in the early fall of 1943 to prepare the defenses around Monte Cassino and the three river valleys that come together below it. Three months to modify and fortify a landscape nature had already perfectly laid out for defense - a circle of high mountains overlooking rolling river bottoms that served as natural moats the attackers had to cross to get both to the highway north to Rome and to Monte Cassino, which had to be taken to deny the Germans the high ground. From the peaks near the monastery the German’s watched the surrounding valleys and called in an endless rain of artillery shells on anything they saw moving for miles in all directions. The highway itself was of no use until the German guns in the mountains around it could be silenced, and taking Monte Cassino was the key to shutting them down.
Prior to the Allies arrival, with meticulous Nazi engineering, the Germans had cleared river banks hundreds of yards back on both sides to provide clear lines of fire for machine guns placed in the dozens and dozens of cement pillboxes dug into hillsides at the top of the slopes on the far side of the rivers allied soldiers would have to cross. The pillboxes were strategically placed to allow for “overlapping fields of fire” for machine gunners – the same way you site lawn sprinklers to spray every inch of your yard. Then they buried tens of thousands of mines along the approaches, capped them with miles of barbed wire and made sure that the hundreds of field artillery and mortars in the hills around were sited on any and all roads and crossroads an attacking army would be forced to use. An Army coming up the valleys had to stay on the roads – also mined and booby trapped - because the Germans had blown up dams on the rivers to flood the valleys and turn them into a muddy morass. To move off the road meant instantly being stuck. Try and run several tons of Sherman tank in that mud and see how far you get.
As one US Army Major wrote in his official report to his superior officer after a detailed reconnaissance of the Rapido River in January of 1944 assessing the viability of a crossing before the first battle of Cassino:
First it would be impossible for us to get to the river. Second, we couldn’t cross, and third, if we got across the river there was no place to go» - this in an OFFICIAL document.
The officer in receipt of that report, Major General Fred Walker, confided in his diary the night before ordering the ill-fated attack on the very spot described:
«We might succeed but I do not see how we can. The mission assigned is poorly timed. The crossing is dominated by heights on both sides of the valley where German artillery observers are ready to bring down heavy artillery concentrations on our men….. So I am prepared for defeat. The mission should never have been assigned to any troops with flanks exposed. (Fifth Army General Mark) Clark sent me his best wishes; said he was worried about our success. I think he is worried over the fact that he made an unwise decision when he gave us the job of crossing the river in such adverse tactical conditions.»
That attempted crossing of the Rapido – ever after known as the Bloody River or Bloody Rapido – ended as both officers predicted. One company officer told a reporter afterwards in condemnation of high command:
«I had 184 men….. 48 hours later I had 17. If that’s not mass murder, I don’t know what is.»
Read about what those men endured sometime when you’re feeling put upon by an annoying glitch in one of your handheld devices.
And that was the valleys of the Rapido, the Liri and the Garigliano rivers. In the mountains lay trip wires, booby traps, more pill boxes, entire connecting bunkers blasted out of the mountains themselves. Hitler took a personal interest in the construction of the Gustav Line in the Cassino region and it was considered a defensive engineering marvel.
Dad arrived in April of 1944 during the relative “lull” between the third and fourth battles of Cassino. Very relative. At no time did the battle ever truly pause during the six months of the conflict. For one thing the front itself was more than 20 miles wide, stretching from high in the mountains, through farms and orchards to the flats along the valley floors and through several unfortunate little towns, none more so than the town of Cassino itself. Where the Allied forces made small gains in the earlier major battles the front line troops of each side were often hunkered down merely yards apart for weeks, sniping at each other, throwing hand grenades, raiding each other at night in their own small but deadly dramas. On a theater-wide scale both sides lobbed shells on a daily basis from their big guns many miles away into areas where they knew or suspected their enemy was bringing up supplies or reinforcements or where, in the opinion of the guys on the ground, they could simply cause mayhem. Imagine the entire San Fernando Valley being watched from the highest peaks behind Sunland and giant artillery guns spread across the north valley able to drop shells as far away as the mountains behind Woodland Hills and anywhere in between with accuracy. German shelling by virtue of their possession of the high ground and the spotters watching all allied movement, was deadly.
Dad’s diary reflects the complete dominance German artillery held on the consciousness of those who lived those months under the gaze of the monastery. Virtually each daily entry for the month he spent in the Cassino theater mentions the near misses, the sound of incoming shells, the flames, the holes in the roads, the dust and particularly the shrapnel and what it ripped through, the damage it did, the stress, the terror.
Dad’s view in April of 1944 was the ruins of the monastery. Believing the Germans used it basically as a fort, the Allies destroyed the monastery on February 15 during the second Cassino battle in what the New York Times called “the worst aerial and artillery onslaught ever directed against a single building.” More than 350 tons of high explosive bombs levelled much of the monastery and left what was standing an arguably better place for the German’s to now defend and a harder place to attack because of the rubble. After destroying one of Christianity’s holiest buildings – an Italian said “what if Italy decided to bomb Westminster Abbey?” - in the face of international protest and personal appeals by the pope to spare it – the Allies had gained…. absolutely nothing. The Germans claimed, and evidence suggests it was true, that they had respected the Monastery’s neutrality and had confined their activities to the high peaks above and behind the monastery. No Germans were killed in the bombing but the ruins were now fair game and the German’s immediately moved in and held it for almost three months.
Dad said the building and afterwards even the ruins cast an aura of malevolence on the entire countryside it brooded over, practically the Eye of Sauron, and was held by many, illogical as it sounds, responsible for the destruction below. So in the theater its destruction was met with cheers.
In the decades after the war the monastery was rebuilt and from the outside there was little evidence of its destruction when we arrived last March. While standing in a pleasant courtyard looking out at the Liri Valley hundreds of feet below Dad and I talked about the battle and I mentioned how out to the west was where the British general Alexander botched the first battle. From the other side of Dad a good natured voice said “Hey Mate, watch what you say about the British.” I laughed and replied that the American general was no better, was in fact worse, and he began to explain that he and a group of about a dozen members of the British Royal Air Force were at the monastery to study the Gustav Line and the lessons of the aerial assault on the monastery in the Battle of Cassino.
«Well he was here,» I said pointing at Dad.
The guy looked at Dad incredulous - «You… were here? During the the Battle of Cassino?»
Dad nodded and said he was and within 30 seconds the dozen or so people who had been meandering in the courtyard had made a circle around dad and listened in rapt attention to a living testimony to what they had come to study. After several minutes of peppering Dad with questions and clear joy at their good fortune at running into him, their commanding officer told us the guy who we had first talked to was in fact about to deliver a mini lecture about the Gustav Line and Cassino and would we care to listen in.
Dad was encouraged to do color to the guys’ play by play – picture that - and the raucous laughter got the whole group kicked out of the monastery by the annoyed monks. Forced into the parking lot, the report ended but Dad’s lecture continued. I could not stop smiling as I watched these young soldiers pull stories out of him I had never heard. The fact that Dad, an American, was actually attached to the British as an American Field Service member made it all the sweeter for them.
To see the respect, unadorned delight and profound appreciation they expressed was priceless. We drove down the mountain with ear to ear grins, Dad repeating “well wasn’t that a kick.”
At the base of the steep, switch-back road to the monastery we dropped straight into the town of Cassino proper which has been there since the Roman era. It butts tight to the lower slopes of the mountain with streets and neighborhoods running for at least a mile along its base. The mountain rises very steeply, in some places vertically, right off the streets of town. Unlike all other Italian towns we visited there were no old stone buildings and narrow cobblestone streets, none of the medieval flavor that is so much of Italy’s charm. Everything was relatively modern – post war. In the third battle of Cassino, the Allied bombers that had flattened the monastery above the town a month earlier came back to flatten the town itself in hopes of destroying the tenacious German defenses that had defied ferocious attack after ferocious attack by infantry and artillery. On the morning of March 14, 575 medium and heavy bombers and 200 fighter bombers – the largest air forces ever assembled in the Mediterranean theater, dropped nearly 1,000 tons of high explosives on the roughly one square mile of what was the town of Cassino. After the bombardment to the astonishment and dismay of the New Zealand forces tasked with mopping up the rubble and finally taking the town – meaning the critical approach to Monte Cassino and the ruins of the monastery - a significant number of Germans survived the bombing in caves and bunkers and emerged from the wreckage to continue the fight. Once again the German defenders had the advantage and the bombing had actually made it easier for them. In the absolute chaos of rubble that had been the town, attacking infantrymen could not coordinate or organize in groups of more than two or three because there was no room to move as units, there were no recognizable landmarks and new obstacles lay everywhere. And once again, tanks and armor were off the table, completely unable to maneuver around massive bomb craters and mountains of rubble where no roads existed. For three days after the bombardment that was assuredly going to wipe out German resistance, the New Zealanders fought for movement forward that could literally be measured in yards. The attack was called off and the third battle ended with the Germans still holding critical parts of what had been the town and a low grade but no less lethal battle of attrition ahead.
Dad was one of the first people other than combat infantrymen to see Cassino after the final German retreat two months later:
«I wasn’t mentally prepared yet for the town itself,» he writes on May 18. «it looked, literally, as if some giant hand had picked up the entire village, crushed it between its fingers and then, brushing both hands together, let the rubble drop back helter skelter where the town had been. There were bodies everywhere. American bodies were sunk down level with the rubble. Kiwi bodies, black with weeks of exposure to the weather, but no Jerry bodies. I was angry because I wanted to see lots of dead Jerries after seeing the Kiwis and American bodies. One I particularly remember was a Kiwi crouched behind a ledge, what was left of a wall, with his rifle in his hands and only half a head. Evidently he was a sniper and had his head blown off just as he raised his head to take a shot.
There was the abandoned paraphernalia of war everywhere: PIATs (British anti-tank guns), mortar shells, hand grenades, bayonets, rifles, helmets, ammo of all types, food cans, gasoline cans, parts of uniforms, shovels all lying around in the rubble.
Damn it! The wreckage just can’t be adequately described. For instance in all our wanderings I couldn’t tell whether we were walking on houses, streets, or what it was all just rubble. The highest walls were only two or three feet high and it was impossible to tell what had been there before because the rubble was almost uniform. If ever there was a dead town this is it.
Some of the Kiwis here went into the town about 1800 and came back with the “Cassino” stamp from the post office. They gave us directions to the post office.
‘Pass three brewed up (burned out) tanks, left at a blown up dugout, then down what appears once to have been a street. Pass seven New Zealand bodies that were stopped by a Jerry anti-tank gun, since knocked out and lying beside them. In front of you will be a four-foot high wall with no building behind, machine gun cartridges everywhere underfoot. This is the Post Office.»
We drove along the base of the mountain northward out of Cassino and into the countryside for the five-mile drive to the town of Sant’Elia where Dad spent much of his time in the Cassino theater. Sant’Elia was and is a classic small Italian town with a town square around a fountain, tight cobblestone streets and churches. Dad’s most vivid war memories are of Sant’Elia and environs, none more so than the three-story building on the edge of the square that when we arrived had a handful of guys in their 20s sitting out front drinking beer, the downstairs storefront being that wonderful combination bar, coffee house, café that Italy does so well.
We parked across the road and walked by the fountain, Dad pointing out that when he was there a burned out (brewed up) Sherman tank was lodged against the fountain the whole time. We stood looking up at the building as Dad described events that had happened there. He approached the group that was looking at us curiously and in his surprisingly workable Italian explained that he had been in that building during the war. Three of the group showed mild disinterest but one was very interested – interested enough on discovering the limitations of Dad’s Italian to place a phone call to the city offices across the square and track down Roberto, who was to become our newest bestest friend for the next 36 hours.
Roberto had worked and lived in Detroit for a decade many years ago and spoke fluent English, which out in these non-tourist parts of Italy was a valuable commodity for us. He came over and heard Dad’s story and communicated it to the folks in the bar and another small audience gathered to meet a traveler from another time. Roberto took us over to his office and was a wealth of information regarding lodgings and travel business and we chatted for a while before getting ready to leave to find a small nearby hotel. His phone rang and he had a brief conversation and upon hanging up said:
«Are you going to be around tomorrow around noon the mayor would like to meet you.»
Who turns down an audience with the mayor of Sant’Elia Fiumerapido, Province of Frosinone, Italy? Not us!
The following morning we drove the two roads I have heard about since childhood in which the ruins of the monastery watched each and every turn and the mental weight of an impending shell was upon you every second you were on them. They are still there, little changed except for the addition of asphalt, connecting little towns that predate by centuries the landing at Plymouth Rock. We drove from Sant’Elia about 20 minutes to Valerotunda, the first town in the area mentioned in Dad’s diary. This was truly a step back in time – the final approach weaving steeply up on roads no wider than the car between ancient buildings to the little town square at the top of the hill the town occupies. They don’t see tourists here and there were very few people. It was sunny but the wind was cold and you could see the distant mountain and the Cassino monastery in the distance. They felt a long way away. But the German’s shelled this little town too – the church Dad sheltered in –circa the 1300s – is still there and he remembers and his diary talks about - ducking back in as shells dropped in the surrounding square and they cursed “that damn monastery.”
From there we drove further uphill into the barren rocky slopes of the Abruzzi mountains to a lonely windswept pass that takes you over the top and down another small valley to the town of Aquafondata. Here just past the ridgeline you were at last out of the German’s line of site. A few miles further down we came to Aquafondata. Blind to the Germans the whole area was staging for Allied efforts to get supplies and men into the theater and obviously the wounded out. Being out of sight did not prevent the Germans from lobbing harassing shells into the area on a regular basis.
Sant’Elia, Vallerotunda, Aquafondata – this was the route Dad used to ferry the wounded out of the Rapido Valley and the Cassino theater of operations as it ground up soldiers in a daily battle of attrition through the Spring of 1944
What I never grasped from Dad’s stories and even the books about the battle is how rugged, steep and imposing are the mountains where the “mountain” component of the Battle of Cassino was fought. On the maps in the books you see little arrows where the different battalions and companies flowed around these towns and it all looks pretty simple and clean. Standing on the barren, rocky, wind-swept peaks looking down the sheer walls to the valleys miles away and back up to the higher mountains beyond, still capped in snow that the little arrows tell you men climbed and fought in, leaves you stunned. Imagine fighting up the flanks of Mount Baldy or the steepest peaks and deepest valleys of the San Gabriel mountains in freezing rain, sleet and snow, taking a peak, being counterattacked, losing the peak and many of your men, then fighting to take it back again, all after marching for weeks with inadequate winter gear and running low on food, water and ammunition.
The one Allied general who distinguished himself in the battle, unfortunately subordinate to his incompetent seniors, was French General Alphonse Juin. Seeing clearly the futility of attacking the Germans head on into the most hardened parts of the Gustav Line, he argued for flanking maneuvers in the mountains to the north of Cassino where Dad and I stood looking toward the scene of the battle. Unlike his British and American counterparts who had grown enamored of tanks and armor in the desserts of North Africa where they were very effective, Juin knew Italy’s rugged mountains and boggy river valleys required a completely different, more timeless approach. In January of 1944 his Morrocan and Algerian forces swept into and through the mountains using pack mules, porters and astonishing grit to carry all the material of war – ammunition, machine guns, mortars, food, shelter – that other armies needed trucks and tanks and roads to move. You can’t possibly grasp what these guys accomplished, what they overcame until you see the terrain and the road less distances they went in the harshest of winter conditions, fighting the entire way. Juin and his men came a hair’s breath of breaking through more lightly defended portions of the Gustav Line high in the mountains which would have allowed them to flank the Germans on the whole spur above the monastery, cut them off from the Liri Valley and the road to Rome and end the battle. But his appeals for reinforcements were turned down by generals Clark and Alexander. Juin’s exhausted forces simply ran out of steam and by early February the opportunity was lost. They, like all the forces the length of the Gustav Line, found themselves stuck in a deadly stalemate/war of attrition with the Germans. Not that anywhere along the line that brutal winter was less than horrendous, but Juin’s troops, stuck on the snowy, rocky, exposed, denuded slopes high in the mountains with Germans above and to the sides, was probably the worst.
We drove back down to Sant’Elia, Dad commenting that one of the pleasant memories of his time in the Rapido Valley was that the roads were all a dazzling white set among the greenery of early spring. Very little outside of the cobblestone of the towns was paved back then but the roads are all paved now with asphalt. Several times he mentioned how despite the circumstances he couldn’t help but notice how damn pretty the little Italian valleys were with their bright white roads. We drove to the German Cemetery of the battle near the town of Caira a couple of miles from Sant’Elia deeper into the foothills, and there was a pile of what you might expect if you took white marble and crushed it into a coarse powder. It was being used to line a lovely little one-lane road deeper into the hills nearby. It had a clean, pleasant feel in your hands and left no residue, almost like a coarse beach sand and the color is, well as Dad said, beautiful. He has a vase full of it now on a shelf at home in Ventura.
The weather was beautiful when we pulled into Sant’Elia and parked by the town square and the building Dad had stayed in during the war. We met Roberto in his office and went upstairs to meet the mayor and several of the town council members. We went through the routine of Dad delivering in very nice Italian “I was here during the war with the Germans in 1944,” so nicely delivered in fact that the logical assumption was that he spoke Italian. The response, fully unintelligible to Dad who had just pretty much shot his Italian wad, then required the ever patient Roberto to step in and assume his interpreter role.
It happened quite a few times.
After introductions and pictures the mayor proclaimed that this demands a toast, and we all traipsed down to the bar/café in Dad’s building across the square. Prosecco popped, Dad was toasted and we enjoyed being feted by Sant’Elia’s officialdom. When the mayor ordered another bottle – it being all of 1230 – I realized, not to diminish Dad or anything, that maybe it didn’t take much to set the mayor to toasting and popping bottles of prosecco.
After the mayor headed back to work – or a nap - Roberto said a group of World War 2 buffs wanted to know if we would like to head into the nearby mountains to see the bunkers and hardened emplacements the Germans had built in anticipation of the allied assault – actual remnants of the Gustav Line.
While killing an hour before meeting up with this group we wandered to a nearby park where a large statue of two soldiers atop a high marble foundation caught my eye. It looked pretty old and I read that it was a memorial to soldiers of “The Great War” – World War 1 before they had to start numbering them. Oddly, there were dozens of small, dime to quarter-sized holes in the thick metal soldiers that made them look moth eaten. Walking closer I noticed the marble foundation itself was covered in little pock marks. Dad always talked about his image of Italy as all the buildings being pock marked by shrapnel from shelling which blasted chunks out of stone, mortar, brick, wood, – whatever it hit. If you look closely at buildings predating the war in towns where the war was fought like Ortona which we visitied later, you can see repairs and small marks but the damage has mostly been repaired. (Ironically Dad’s building had been repaired but in the 1960s a movie called “The Devils Brigade” was filmed in Sant’Elia and they actually pocked marked the building back up for the movie – which Roberto says he was in as a little Italian kid riding on the side of an American tank.)
I realized looking at this WW1 statue that the holes and pocked marble were from the shrapnel of shells falling into this poor little town during the second world war.
The four WW2 buffs in one car, Roberto joined me and Dad as we drove high above the towns of Valvori and Valleluce on the slopes above Sant’Elia. We wove on ever narrowing dirt roads into the woods until the road basically gave out on the edge of a ridgeline overlooking the valley with the monastery in the far distance. The Germans had blasted tunnels and emplacements into the side of the mountains here, now largely overgrown, reforested and forgotten. The slopes below is where Juin’s forces ran out of gas and when you see how heavily the Germans were dug in even here the thought that they might have been overrun gives you pause.
Coming out of the mountains we “stopped for a coffee” in the tiny town of Valleluce - a very Italian thing to do. It was after four and I was tired - Dad had to be even more so but we had one final adventure ahead on this day of days.
The young man who first introduced us to Roberto the day before had also relayed that he was contacting his friend Lucianco who ran a World War 2 museum we really needed to see. We never talked to the guy but word had gotten to him via this network Dad and I had fallen into and we had an “appointment” lined up for 6 that evening. I told Roberto we could just go by the next day on our way east toward Ortona on the Adriatic coast. He said it wasn’t that kind of museum where you just show up, whatever that meant, and two of our companions in the mountains who had never seen the museum were anxious to join us. So…in for a penny…. The other two spoke not a word of English and Roberto was begging off to go home, so I told him Dad and I would just follow the other car, it being extremely tiring to try and carry on conversation when no one can understand one another. Off we headed into the growing dusk for Venafro which we’d been told was just down the road, but 20 minutes later as it was getting dark we were headed into a long tunnel through the mountains and I thought where in the hell are we going?
Finally we entered a medium sized town with a busy main street a blend of medieval and modern. The car ahead pulled over and waved for us to wait while the driver talked on a phone. He turned left off the main drag and up several streets getting further from the business district and pulled over. Two well-dressed guys leaned into the car’s window, stood, looked back at us, waved, we waved back, they got in the other car and we continued our pursuit, now completely baffled by what we had gotten ourselves into. Up into the hilly cobblestone streets weaving among the medieval buildings of Venafro we drove feeling like Alice falling down the rabbit hole.
They pulled over at last and we were introduced to Luciano who spoke good English and explained that he had grown up in the area and since his early youth had been collecting the military paraphernalia that littered the nearby mountains where pre curser battles to the Battle of Cassino had been waged. Venafro and environs were part of what is called the Winterline, a German defensive position that was to delay the Allies before they crashed headlong into the much more formidable Gustav Line. The Winterline saw its share of carnage and carries a mystique of its own for those who study the winter of 1943-44. From the middle of October into early December 1943 the Allies fought their way through these mountains in the steadily worsening winter before banging their heads into Cassino.
It was cold and now dark when Luciano and his friend unlocked a door in the side of a nondescript ancient building with no signs indicating museum. We stepped into a beautifully lit, immaculate white hallway with giant photographs of the war on the walls, the entry to the museum, and we followed them further down the centuries old hallway and into a series of offset rooms and narrow stone stairways to hundreds of museum-quality displays depicting all facets of that phase of the war. All participants including the Germans are represented. Life size dioramas with mannequins in actual period uniforms with actual weaponry, one of the Algerians with mules loaded with bazookas climbing a rocky trail into the snowy mountains, collections of the myriad types of mines the German’s deployed everywhere in the region, munitions, uniforms, helmets, first aid kits, toothbrushes, skin cream tubes, hand grenades, camping gear, guns and more guns, walls of knives and bayonets – all immaculately organized and displayed in an amazing labor of love by a small group of amateur historians. Once again Dad’s every word was videoed as we moved from room to room, the old building so cold you could see your breath, the men respectful and so appreciative of Dad’s part in the history they feel compelled to preserve.
Leaving Venafro we laughed about the unlikely events of the past 36 hours, Dad feeling more than a little embarrassed by all of the attention and ready for it to end. But we were mostly tired and wanted to get back to the hotel.
The following morning we checked out and made one last trip up Monte Cassino on the way out of town, focusing on the hills behind the monastery where the heaviest fighting of the final battle to take the critical ridgeline raged. The remarkable multinational nature of the Allied effort strikes home when you see that the major battle cemetery on the hill is Polish. Poles were assigned the final push to take the hills around the monastery which drove the Germans off at last, and a large and moving cemetery to the hundreds of Poles who paid the ultimate price for that victory occupies several acres of the hill. It’s a nice place to hike and as with all battlefields, the effort to put yourself in the boots of those who fought there is as inevitable as it is futile. There’s no way to know, you can only shake your head in awe.
Dad waited and read in the car for an hour while I hiked in quiet, peaceful solitude the ground that had taken months and tens of thousands of lives for our side to claim, and tens of thousands of lives on the other side to fight to hold but eventually surrender.
On a quiet spring day 75 years later it boggles the mind trying to fathom why.
The old guy waiting in the car – one of the few remaining who was actually there and who has had a lifetime to consider the question – doesn’t have an answer.
«What it is,» he says taking a stab anyway, «We are not the HomoSapiens, the ‘WiseMen,’ we are supposed to be.»
Link to John Wright, WWII driver