TRAVELING WITH A GROUP OF 29 CANADIANS VETERANS
Data: 26-06-2006Autore: KAREN STORWICK KOONARCategorie: CronacheTag: #today, canada, commemorazioni, melfa-fiume

TRAVELING WITH A GROUP OF 29 CANADIANS VETERANS

On May 21st, 2006 I had the great honour of traveling with a group of 29 Canadian veterans of the Italian Campaign of World War II, their family members and a number of interested historians. As an aspiring historian myself, the opportunity to walk the battlegrounds with the men who participated in the liberation of the land was incredible. I knew this trip would be interesting from a historical perspective. What I could not have anticipated was the depth of emotion that we would experience as a group as we traveled through the villages, battlefields and cemeteries with these old soldiers. Many knew it would be their last time back. So many of the men came with heavy hearts, determined to tell stories needing to be told, to find closure for unresolved memories. Throughout this tour we listened.

During our stay in Cassino, we visited the battlefields of the Hitler Line and the Melfa River, made all the more meaningful by the unique opportunity to meet with local historians and villagers. We were fascinated as we toured through old German defensive positions and points of Allied advance.

On the morning of May 25th, on the 62nd anniversary of the Melfa River crossing, the town of Roccasecca hosted a lovely ceremony to honour the veterans and unveil a plaque to commemorate the battle. We listened intently to the impassioned stories of some of the veterans as they spoke of the historical events. Major Jack Mahoney, Commanding Officer of A Company, Royal Westminster Regiment, had been awarded the Victoria Cross for his heroic leadership during this action. Despite being under heavy shell-fire for five hours and using weapons that could only be packed across the river on their backs, the Westminsters, with the help of the Lord Strathconas' Horse reconnaissance force, held the bridgehead. Lieutenant-Colonel P.A. Griffin, Commanding Officer, Lord Strathcona Horse, and Lieutenant Edward Perkins, Commanding Officer, of the reconnaissance platoon, which crossed the Melfa River in advance of the Westminsters, were awarded the Distinguished Service Order. Private Culling of the Westminsters was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) for taking out a German Mark IV tank and killing its crew while Trooper Jacob Funk of the Strathconas was awarded the Military Medal for taking out a menacing German self-propelled gun with a PIAT gun. This action effectively cut Highway 6 to Rome and was the last major battle before the Allies entered Rome on June 4, 2006.

This ceremony was particularly meaningful for our group, as most of the veterans on the tour were from the Westminster and Lord Strathcona’s Horse regiments and had been directly involved in the battles at the Melfa. Some were returning to Italy for the first time. When the tributes and speeches had come to an end, the youngest Italian schoolchild and the oldest Canadian veteran were positioned side by side. Together they pulled the cord and the plaque was unveiled.

Following a reading of poems by local school children, the guests were led to an old farmhouse near the banks of the river. The owner greeted the guests and reunited with several of the veterans who had been directly involved in the action at the farm. He remembered well the Canadians that had gathered there when he was a boy during the attack at the Melfa.

Later, we were led down to the banks of the river underneath the new highway where the residents of Roccasecca had prepared a beautiful feast. As we watched my son and my traveling companions’ son playing in the river, we reflected on the innocence of youth, at liberty to splash in the river due to the great sacrifice of the men who had fought here 62 years ago. As a poignant finale to the mornings’ events, our two boys were given the honour of tossing rose petals into the river as a tribute to the fallen.

After the ceremony in Roccasecca we had an opportunity to tour through the impressive Cassino War Memorial Museum, established in large part through the dedication and knowledge of Roberto Molle and Alessandro Campagna.

Our last stop of the day was the Commonwealth War Cemetery where the veterans formed up and marched to the cenotaph. Pristine and peaceful, each cemetery in Italy has its own beautiful atmosphere. One who has not been there cannot understand the visual power when standing amid the graves. We had a wide variety of people on our tour coming to Italy for touching personal reasons and it was in the cemeteries that most of these feelings emerged. We visited eight different war cemeteries in Italy, each an essential stop on our tour as we continued on to the areas of Ortona and Rimini, tracing the footsteps of the Canadian Army through the Italian Campaign. Each time, as the buses pulled up, the people streamed out with a determination to find those to whom they had come to say goodbye.

For myself, each time I tour the battlefields of the Italian Campaign I find it incredibly compelling. I breathe in the air, look up at the mountains, out across the fields and the countryside. I see the old through the new and am filled with awe and wonder. Not so long ago this land and its people were virtually shattered by war. There is no evidence of destruction now, 62 years later. The towns and cities, completely restored, are surrounded by lush farmland. The vibrant soul of the people has emerged intact. I look forward to my next opportunity to be moved by the power of the region’s history once more.

Karen Storwick Koonar

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