Visit to commonwealth cemetery emotional experience for veteran

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Buddies for an eternity

It was 7:30 in the morning on May 31, 2004 when our bus pulled away from the Mederraneo Hotel right in the heart of Rome.

It was a beautiful Italian spring day, and we were in the ‘Eternal City.’

Little did I realize this was to be one of the most emotional days of my entire life an what I would see today would stir up memories that had lain dormant for 60 years.

First, however, let me tell you the reason we were in Rome.  Sixty years ago, on June 4, Rome was liberated from German occupation.  Our army unit, the First Special Service Force, was the first allied unit to enter Rome on that fateful day.  So, this was a very special day for veterans.

Our tour group was made up of 14 veterans of this special force. With us, were family and friends, 45 in all.

This day we were slated to visit the Commonwealth cemetery, close to Anzio, about 50 miles from Rome.

As we drove through Rome I had an eerie feeling of how old this city really was.  I now realized an appreciation of history you could never get from history books, movies, or post cards.  Some of these structures were more than 2,000 years old.

We drove by the Coliseum. It is a gigantic structure where 50,000 spectators used to crowd to watch the slaughter. In my mind’s eye I could visualize two well-armed gladiators battle it out until one man fell. I also was tortured by the vision of a group of Christians cowering in the center of the arena as ferocious lions leaped toward them.

 

    We drove by the Vatican, which we had toured the day before when Pope John Paul spoke to thousands of us standing in St. Peter’s Square. We had also gazed in awe at Michelangelo’s immortal paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  Our Christian faith will always be alive and fresh with the love and dedication shown by the Vatican.

About an hour and a half after leaving Rome we arrived at our destination, the Commonwealth cemetery, very close to the town of Anzio. In this cemetery there were thousands of headstones representing soldiers from England, Scotland, India, Canada and all parts of the Commonwealth.

When we entered this beautiful, well-kept cemetery, a reverent hush fell over our tour group.  We felt we were standing on hallowed ground, which indeed we were. The grounds were immaculate. The grass was trimmed to perfection, and gave the appearance of a lush, green carpet. The graves were well kept, with delicate, colourful flowers growing around them.

I started to read some names, names representing different Canadian Army Units.  I read, ‘West Nova Scotia Regiment, Carleton and York, Cape Breton Highlanders, Royal 22nd ’ and many others.

Suddenly I stopped in my tracks. For upon one of the stones I read, ‘First Special Service Force.’  The very unit I had served in. It was then I found a whole section that was devoted to our outfit. I recognized the names of six close friends of mine. Soldiers I had joked with, laughed with and fought beside, 60 years ago. A strange feeling came over me and I just couldn’t help myself, my eyes filled with tears.

An unbelievable thing happened then. I found myself standing beside the graves of two buddies. These guys had been inseparable all through their army life, and here

 

they were lying side by side. I stooped down to read the words carved in one cold stone that said, ‘R.G. Briddon, age 21.’  On the other I read ‘Sgt. J. MacIver, Special Service Force, age 20.’ At the bottom of that stone was the following ‘In life Loved and Honoured, In Death Remembered.’

These two, Briddon and MacIver, were the very closest of buddies, always together, always kidding around.

As I stared at these stones an amazing transformation took place. Two smiling young faces seemed to float out of the headstones toward me. Their eyes were sparkling; they were happy and full of the joy of life. And they were singing! These two comrades would sing at the drop of a helmet. Of course, the songs we used to sing were not meant for mixed company.  However, in training there never was any mixed company, it was just guys.

Briddon and MacIver would put their arms over each other’s shoulders and perform as if they were chorus girls. They would kick up their legs, which wasn’t easy with big combat boots, and they would sing boisterously:

 ‘There’s a burlesque theater where the gang love to go

To see Jeanie the queenie of the burlesque show

And the thrill of the evening is when out Jeanie trips

And the band plays the Polka, and she sttt-riiii-ps!’

The cemetery was quiet and reverently subdued, but I heard those two buddies belting out that song as if it was 60 years ago.

Just looking at their headstones had brought those two back to life for me. I felt happy, elated, like we were all back together again in a great and glorious crusade to bring peace to a troubled world. But our ultimate goal was to return home to our family and loved ones.

Sadly, this was a goal Briddon and MacIver would never realize.

It was then I had to let down my guard. I couldn’t express my feelings. My emotions had taken over my entire being. I knew if I spoke I would burst out crying. Crying for what?  I didn’t know. Crying for Briddon and MacIver, for my own lost youth, for the thousands buried here?  Only God knows. However, I was emotional, and no one can explain when and where your emotions will surface.

I left the Commonwealth cemetery with mixed feelings. There was a deep feeling of loss for all those gallant men, most of them boys, who had given up their future for a cause we know is beyond a price tag.

But strangely I also came away exhilarated.  Why? Well, I saw two of my closest friends

not even separated by death. There they were, lying side by side, buddies forever.

 

Herb Peppard is a longtime Truro resident. His column appears regularly in the Truro Daily News.

Organizations: First Special Service Force, Coliseum, Canadian Army Units Truro Daily News

Geographic location: Rome, Anzio, Eternal Vatican England Scotland India Canada Nova Scotia York Truro

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