RETURN TO CASSINO
By Stan Scislowski
Stan Scislowski was born in 1923 and enlisted in the Canadian infantry shortly after his 19th birthday. He did basic training at Stratford, Ontario, went to Camp Ipperwash for advanced training and boarded the troop ship Andes on 10th May 1943. After arrival in England, he was posted to No 3 Canadian Infantry Training Unit in Aldershot and went with a draft to the Perth Regiment on 5th August 1943. Stan served in Italy and Belgium until the end of the war, and was wounded in the Gothic Line fighting.
The author of his memoirs in Italy, Not All Of Us Were Brave (available from Chapters.ca) , Stan lives in Windsor, Ontario. During the 1970s he went on several pilgrimages to the battlefields, and the account below describes a visit to Cassino War Cemetery in 1975.
Thanks to Stan for allowing me to feature it here.
CASSINO AND THE WAR CEMETERY
The Cassino War Cemetery is situated close by the base of the height of Monte Cassino just a mile south of the rebuilt and relocated town of Cassino. If you were able able to pore over old battle maps of the area around Cassino you would see that the Cemetery lies inside the loop of the railway that runs just outside the town. It was all through this area that the New Zealand Division battalions fought pitched battles against Heidrich's tough paratroopers.
Where there's now tranquility, there was once a terrible blood-letting, a monstrous raging of man-made forces that seared and ravaged the towns and laid waste the valleys and the mountain slopes. Here, many many men came to kill each other, and every day they carried away their dead, wherever and whenever possible, and buried them in temporary graves nearby. Here men were brutalized to a point beyond comprehension. Four long and agonizing months it was that the killing, the maiming and the destruction went on. Nowhere could a soldier hide without tasting, hearing, and smelling the hot fetid breath of bursting shells and mortars. Nor could he shut out from sight and ears the fearsome slash of the murderous MG 42. Everywhere around him Death was present in the bloated remains of long dead men and mules. The suffocating stink of their rotting flesh permeated everything it came into contact with, and after a short time spent in this ploughed-up graveyard, this horrible garden of cadavers, a man soaked up enough of the stink till he smelled as though he too came from the grave. That a man's mind and his nerves could somehow maintain integrity under the extremes of physical conditions and the daily confrontations with violent death was in every way a miracle of the human spirit.
On this May day 31 years later, as we walk in the bright sunshine down the gravel roadway leading to the cemetery the air is clean and refreshing and the flowers are in full bloom along the once dangerous verges where the enemy had often planted mines. The fields around are sown in grain, and wherever you look you see vineyards and olive groves. The land is serene, and in every sense beautiful again. The appalling signs of destruction and the mangled bodies of the dead have long since been cleaned away and new homes have been built. Nature, in cooperation with man has healed the deep wounds the valley and the surrounding mountains had suffered. The intrinsic beauty that is 'part and parcel' of the Liri Valley is presenting its prettiest face to the visiting Pilgrims. Even the cemetery with all its symbols of death adds its own special kind of beauty to the scene. Peace in every way has once again taken up residence here in the lyrical Liri Valley.
The entrance to the Cassino War Cemetery is not an arresting one of archways or columns or marble panels, but of a simple design of granite stairs at both ends of a brick wall upon which is inscribed in white stone in bold letters the words, CASSINO WAR CEMETERY. As we enter the cemetery our eyes at once take in the wide spread of grave markers. A tightness come to my throat. A sigh, almost a sob escapes me, and I find it hard to hold back the tears. What catches my eye is the central theme of a long and narrow rectangular pool, along the four sides of which runs a mosaic tiled walkway. Along the walkway, squares of early blooming flowers in a riot of colours blend harmoniously with low-cut box hedges. Standing like tall guardsmen on both sides of the pool, seven to a side, are the 15 foot high slabs of polished green granite on which are inscribed the names by Regiment and Corps of the 4,054 men who died in the Sicilian and Italian campaigns and whose graves are known only but to God. 192 names are those of Canadians.
At the far end of the pool a platform of gleaming white stone supports a three tiered hexagonal pedestal above which stands the twenty foot high Cross of Sacrifice. On its face is fixed a large bronze sword, its length more than half that of the stone. All around this magnificent central theme of Remembrance are the grave markers, row upon row, mute testimony to the terrible legacy of war. Of the 4265 burials here, 855 are Canadian. Tall pines and acacia trees are planted all through the cemetery, their leaves gently rustling in the light breeze.
On our right as we face the Cross of Sacrifice, rises the great mass of Monte Cassino, its crest capped by the rebuilt Benedictine Abbey. It was an impressive and dominating sight, visible to us from far down the Liri Valley on our approach along the via del Sole. The Benedictine Abbey is not the original, the one that had so impinged itself on the minds of the suffering troops whose misfortune it was to find themselves within the shadows of its menacing hulk. The original was destroyed in the pinpoint bombing administered by American B-17 Flying Fortresses, Mitchells and Marauders on the 15th of February, 1944. The destruction was so great, no one who had seen the mountain of rubble in those days of the war would have thought, even had they stretched their imagination to the limit, that the Abbey could or would ever be rebuilt. But, as it turned out, it was rebuilt, block for block, window for window, archway for archway, column for column it was put back together, an exact replica of the Abbey founded by Pope Benedict in 529 A.D. A stupendous feat of civil and architectural engineering sustained through a burning faith by the Italian people in the ultimate resurrection of the building.
Even those in the tour who had not been here when the slaughter and destruction was in full vent could see at once why the gate to the Liri Valley had taken so heartbreakingly long to be flung wide open. It was the Abbey on the Monte Cassino crest, like a fierce predatory beast glowering on the fields and slopes where men were killing and being killed that American, British, Indian, and New Zealand troops blamed for their troubles. The threat was always there, affecting all men's thoughts and imaginations. What was not known, however, at the time the first two battles ebbed and flowed across the slopes on Monte Cassino and on the heights behind it, was the fact that the Abbey was not occupied by the Germans. The monastery was not responsible for all the calamitous things happening to the Allied infantry and machines of war moving about in the valley or on the slopes around it. But the men over whom it held so much sway, firmly believed that the Abbey indeed was being used by the enemy. Nothing could convince them otherwise. It was the ideal artillery observation post and the Germans would be stupid not to use it as such, so they thought. Setback after setback finally influenced General Bernard Freyberg, Commander of the 2nd New Zealand Division into believing that the only way to throw the valley wide open was to destroy the Abbey from the air, to obliterate the enemy observation points there. He was sure that every move his men made, the Germans observed from their vantage points in the Abbey, and so after much wrangling in the caravans of the mighty it was finally agreed that the only way out of the impasse was to bomb Cassino and the Abbey.
On the cold, but clear windy morning of February 15, 1944, 143 B-17 Flying Fortresses came over at 18,000 feet, followed a quarter of an hour later by waves of Mitchell and Marauder medium bombers. In the short span of no more than twenty minutes 576 tons of bombs rained down on the huge building and on the surrounding slopes and also on the town of Cassino itself. For all of its massive construction of stone the Abbey was blasted and churned into a smoking hell of rubble and dust. It was learned not long after, that there'd been only a dozen monks and close to 1000 civilians inside its walls. The Italian peasants and Cassino inhabitants still remaining, had sought refuge from the fighting going on around their homes. Not a single German soldier, it was found, had been inside the Abbey. When the last bomb had fallen and the last numbing blast's echo had faded away into the hills and valleys, over 300 people lay dead beneath the huge mounds of rubble. The wounded exceeded three times that of the dead.
It has been proven since, that the few Germans who had entered the Monastery in the weeks before the bombing, had gone in to arrange for the transfer to Rome for safekeeping all art works, books, and religious documents. It was only after the Monastery had been reduced to rubble that the Germans took over the ruins and utilized it in their defence system. And as those of us who've read the books about the battles fought here know, the enemy utilized it to the utmost. In retrospect, they'd gained through a great Allied high-level blunder what proved to be an outstandingly strong fortress position. Once the building was destroyed the Germans had no qualms about using the ruins for defensive purposes. In the months that followed, the Allies were bled white trying to dislodge the enemy from the ruins and the surrounding heights, with little to show for their efforts. Only in the fourth and final battle which began one hour before midnight on May 11th did success finally come. Even then, the Monte Cassino Abbey, or the ruin thereof was not wrested from the paratroopers until seven days later when the Poles firmly planted the Polish Eagle flag in the rubble.
That General Freyberg had been proved wrong in ordering the bombing, is only hindsight. Anybody can be the perfect commander after a battle has been fought and the facts brought out. Under the circumstances, I feel he made the right decision. His only mistake, or rather his lead Brigade Commander's mistake was in waiting too long after the bombing before attacking the ruins of Cassino town. The delay cost them the battle and resulted in an almost three months continuation of the fighting.
As our bus made its slow and twisting way up the mountain-side we got a close-up look at the kind of ground over which our troops had to fight. It was easy to see why the Germans were able to hold onto their positions for so long. In my estimation, even second-rate infantry could have done a creditable job of holding on to this rock-ribbed bastion. What made it harder for our troops was that it was no slap-dash bunch of nondescript infantry in position here. It was the best of the best German fighting soldiers, the 1st Parachute Division who had made it so brutally tough for our men. They were the same son-of-a-bitches that fought it out toe-to-toe and eyeball-to-eyeball with our Seaforths and Edmontons in the streets of Ortona. They were the same guys who stopped the Perths and the Cape Bretons in their tracks in their battle baptism in the valley of the Riccio River close by Ortona. Yes, we Canadians knew them well.
The parachute boys were not ordinary soldiers, not by a long shot. They used their battle skills to the very hilt, turning every rock pile into a miniature fortress, every cave and thicket into a hornet's nest, and made every minor height an unassailable barrier. To couple with their battle savvy they displayed a dogged determination not to give up what they held even if it meant certain death. These brave men had courage of the highest order, and the soldiers of every nation that had come up against them would, no doubt, be quick to agree with me on this. The paratroopers, almost to a man, deeply believed that to die for their Fuhrer was the greatest honour they could achieve. As a result, taking terrain and the first-class soldiers they were, ready and willing to die for a cause and a leader they worshipped, it was understandable why the fighting at Monte Cassino had been so bitter and protracted. Along with the high quality of the German army command structure from top to bottom one can readily under-stand why it had taken us so long to break through to Rome.
Above all the singing of high praises for the enemy troops who defended Cassino and the mountains around it and barred our armies' way on the Rapido River we shouldn't overlook the tenacity and bravery of our own troops who fought here: first the Americans, then the Ghurkas, the Punjabs, the British, the New Zealanders, the French, and the Poles. The living and the dead who once populated these hellish acres were just as heroic for it was even tougher for them, since attackers almost always suffer more casualties than the defenders. Just to obey orders, and it was common knowledge that at the front most orders were unpopular and at times even loathsome, was enough to put the stamp of courage on a man's character. Now, so many years removed from the fighting, as we look around we realize just how formidable a job it was for the infantry trying to move forward into the teeth of machine-gun fire, to grub their way over rocks while showers of grenades explode all around them, and then there were the mortars, a steady rain of mortar-bombs, the most fearsome weapon they faced. They did far, far better than could be expected in the very worst of possible circumstances.
As the ceremony commemorating our Dead was about to begin, a stillness descended upon the great throng gathered around the central theme in the cemetery. One cannot say exactly when it fell and when it was lifted, but it was there in the briefest of moments, a communion of Remembrance between soldiers. What matter is it that so many lie as moldering bones beneath the green sod while others stand in full life, head bowed, remembering? It was a communion which not one of us could hope to explain. Sufficient to to say that there was a 'coming together' in which time, death, and lost youth could not hold back. I felt the emotional moment, and I know that all those around me, now some-what humbled by the years felt it too.
With the last, sad notes of the Lament signifying the closing of the ceremonies; in ones, twos, threes, and in small groups we drifted apart to walk solemnly along the long rows of grave markers. Each of us, men and women alike walked slowly along, pausing to read the inscriptions thereon, looking for names of those we knew, of buddies we had left behind in that tortured valley below Cassino town. There were widows and there were mothers amongst us who came to honour the memory of their loved one. As I paused to read the name on a stone bearing the Maple Leaf design I looked to the grave on my right and saw a woman, a touch of gray in her hair kneeling beside the stone. A widow, a sweetheart, a sister? I didn't know which. Her right hand rested on top the stone where she had placed a short stemmed rose. Her head was bent in prayer. She knelt there for perhaps five minutes, and then, as she braced herself to stand I saw teardrops kiss the flowers on his grave. Tears welled up in my eyes and I turned away lest someone see. I was sensitive about such things. Why I should have been ashamed to show the sadness that came over me I'll probably never know. Many others shed tears as well.
I'm sure most of the campaign veterans had a list of names, some short, some long, either on paper or in their minds, of comrades who lie buried here in Cassino War Cemetery. At the top of my own list was Sgt. Pete McRorie. Next was Cpl. Bob Adair. It took me only a few minutes to find Pete's marker and another few before I stood at the foot of Bob's grave. Pete had died only seconds after I'd said "Hi, Pete!" when we crossed paths on a dusty wagon track up at the Isoletta reservoir near Ceprano. Bob died in the blast of the same Teller or box-mine that killed Pete. It was May 26th, a beautiful spring day, warm and bright with sunshine, hardly a cloud in the sky, one hell of a day in which to die. But then, what day wasn't a hell of a day in which to die ? Holding back the tears I read the inscription at the bottom of Sgt. McRorie's stone.
UNTIL DAY BREAKS
AND THE SHADOWS FLEE
I stand by the marker, looking down as so many others in the cemetery are so doing at other markers. I try to say a prayer, try to say something appropriate, but no words come to mind. I grope for a few meaningful words but nothing comes. Why is it that I've never found it hard to express what I want to express at lesser moments, but here when it would mean so much, I'm speechless? Only my memory speaks. It brings to mind that awful moment when Pete and Bob died and how close I came to being killed along with them. Only a few seconds and a scant few feet, the difference between life and death. Words seem to be irrelevant at this moment.
I linger at each marker only long enough to read the names thereon, names of buddies I had marched with in England, went on schemes with, sat in canteens with, and when the time came to do what we had been trained to do, went into battle with by their side. I stood before their markers, each one of them, paused to pay my respects and then I continued along the row. I've never been moved in a cemetery as much as I had been moved here, except of course that day long ago in 1932 when we buried our father.
I hadn't come here, however, only to honour the memory of those of my Regiment who lie here, I come to honour all those whose last resting place is here. As there are far too many inscriptions to read I can only pause to read so many in each row. Capt. GEORGE CLARKE. Capt. Clarke was a Lord Strathcona Horse troop commander. I try to visualize what he might have looked like and how he was struck down. Was his death clean and quick, a solid shot from an 88 straight on? Or did he die a slow and agonizing death trapped in the hull of his burning Sherman? At Plot 1V, Row D, grave No.20 I read the name, Gnr. NICK KOLINIAK, and below his name, 8 Field Regiment, May 24, 1944, Age 20. So young to die. And one plot over, Plot V row C grave 9, I come to the marker of a young lad from my own Dog company of the Perth Regiment, Pte. WILLIAM PATRICK SIMPSON. May 27,1944. Rusty topped Simpson fell victim to a sniper's bullet at Ceprano. Age 22. On and on we go, row after row, plot after plot-names, names, names-18 years old-19- 20-21, so many, so young. All the way up the ladder of eligible years. And then my eyes fairly jumped when I came to a stone that read, L/Cpl. JOHN JANZEN - RCCS, age 48. How in heck he managed to hang onto his place in the Sigs, especially up at the front at that age I couldn't understand. I thought they sent them home a lot younger than that.
And then the impact of the deaths of these men and all the many others lying side by side; a country's future. Most were young, too young. I think for a moment on what their lives might have been had there been no war-the years of love they missed and the families they would have raised. Therein lies the biggest tragedy of all. I walk slowly away tears running freely down my cheeks.