‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.'
This quote by the famous 19th century novelist Charles Dickens sums up my two trips to Italy perfectly.
My most recent journey, a 12-day adventure which concluded earlier this month, was a wonderful, exciting experience. On the other hand, my Second World War military experience in December, 1943 was one of terror and disbelief.
During my latest trip to Italy, I was proud and overjoyed to have my children with me. My son, Herbie, who lives in Australia, met up with us in Rome. My two daughters, Lark and Rosalee, accompanied me from Canada.
It was a magnificent warm day as we gazed up at the gigantic, splendor of Mount La Defensa. As I stood there with my family around me, I felt this place was one of God's most perfect creations. Birds were singing, the fields at the base of the mountain were covered with scarlet poppies and puffy white clouds hugged the top of the mountain that towered 1,000 feet above us. What a perfectly peaceful setting.
That was now. Not so nearly 69 years ago. At that time our objective was to secure a mountaintop held by the Germans. The mountain was Mount La Defensa. It was a cold and rainy that night. We couldn't see far ahead of us as we started up the imposing mountain. With full pack, weapons and ammunition we found it very difficult to stay on the narrow path. We kept slipping, sliding and stumbling.
Suddenly we heard an explosion ahead of us. We soon learned it was artillery. The shelling came closer and closer until we started to suffer casualties. I was terrified!
Besides that I couldn't quite figure it out. We came over here to Italy to fight the enemy. But where was the enemy? There wasn't a German in sight! It was revealed to us later the enemy causing us so many casualties were manning big guns probably one mile or a mile-and-a-half away from us. This is not what I figured war would be like.
However, with the groans and screams of my wounded comrades I soon learned the reality and terror of modern warfare. We suffered so many casualties we had to retreat back to the bottom of the mountain and set up base camp. Here we would nurse our wounds and make future plans.
The next morning at base camp we awaited future orders. I was sitting on the grass and looking out at the valley below me. The ground was bare of trees so you could see miles away.
Suddenly, I saw a man come out of a house and walked along a furrowed stretch that looked like a garden. Then I saw a terrible sight. It was an explosion. I didn't know whether it was a landmine or artillery. Didn't matter. One minute the man was there and the next minute he wasn't. Then, a pathetic, heart-wrenching thing happened. The farmhouse door opened and out came a woman and two small children. I saw them running and stumbling over the uneven ground to where the explosion occurred. I felt in my troubled 23-year-old mind that this first 24 hours was a cruel introduction to warfare.
The officers then asked for volunteers to go up the mountain to bring down the dead and the wounded. The wounded would go for medical attention and the dead would be buried at the base of the mountain. Later, they would be recovered and go to a military cemetery.
I volunteered to help bring down the dead and wounded. It was a gruesome task indeed. It was an interesting eye-opener for me. I learned there is some chivalry in warfare after all. In spite of the killing, torture and inhumanity, there was a code the enemy respected. Before going up to carry down the dead and wounded we were to leave behind all of our weapons. Also, we were to wear a cloth band on our arm with a red cross prominently displayed on it. And do you know? In spite of all our fear and apprehension the enemy never once fired a shot at us. Such is war.
On our present day trip we were gifted to have as our guide Gianni Blasi who became our mentor, advisor and friend. He had lived for some years in Toronto. However, he returned to Italy to live among his friends and relatives.
Over the years he had grown to respect the unit I served in during the war - The First Special Service Force. He made a study of the places we served and where we fought. In fact, I swear he knew more about our outfit and its accomplishments than most of us veterans did.
Gianni spoke both English and Italian fluently and he even knew the place where we set up our base camp on La Defensa. I told him my story of the farmer who met a terrible end and the heart-wrenching picture of his wife and small children running out to where the explosion occurred.
"That's remarkable!" said Gianni. "Because that house is still standing!"
It seems that because he knew where our base camp was he could picture the valley I saw below.
Gianni took me and my family in his car to a spot about 50 yards from the house. It looked to me as it did 69 years ago. It was an emotional time for me. War is hell.
We viewed many battlefields and many cemeteries. We went to Anzio and saw the Anzio beachhead where we landed. During the war the Germans held the high ground and they had us pinned down for three months. Finally we broke out of the beachhead and pushed on to Rome.
One of the most amazing places I visited on my trip was the Abbey at Monte Cassino. The last time I saw it, during the war, it was being bombed by the Allies. It was being bombed because it was believed the Germans were inside the building. It was later learned that wasn't the case. However, at this time it was bombed mercilessly. Then the Germans went in and used it as a fortress. With its underground chambers, it was a perfect defensive position.
When I visited it recently I was filled with awe and respect. We were in the church part of the building and it was magnificent. It is 600 feet long, 200 feet wide, and it stands four storeys high. How many times had this beautiful edifice been destroyed and rebuilt? Many times.
One whole day we enjoyed the splendor of Rome. When my daughter, Rosalee, entered St. Peter's Cathedral and saw the La Pieta, (the statue of Mary holding her son, Jesus, after the crucifixion), she couldn't hold back her emotions. She just burst into tears.
On the other hand, when my other daughter first saw the magnificent structure of the Trevi Fountain, (she had imagined it to be much smaller), she in turn burst into tears. This is the place and the scenario that I had dreamed of for years. I wanted our family to stand in front of the gleaming fountain, make a wish and toss a coin over our shoulders into the gleaming, shimmering water. Then, I knew for certain our wishes would come true.
So, this was two of my visits to Italy. The first was dark, cold, cruel and hateful, full of killing and suffering. The latest was peaceful and beautiful. I had my beautiful family with me. I was surrounded by a joyous feeling of love and belonging I'd never experienced before. Thank God for family. This was ‘the best of times.'
I'm counting on that little coin I threw into the pool to make my wish come true!
My wish? I'll never tell!
Herb Peppard has lived most of his life in Truro. His column appears regularly in the Truro Daily News.