Sadly, there will be little if any notice in this country of two equally ferocious World War II battles that had just begun 70 years ago this week in Italy and, like D-Day six months later, riveted the world’s attention.
But two dozen history-minded tourists from Marietta did what they could to rectify that oversight in the course of a two-week vacation trip last fall that also included happier destinations like Rome and Florence (more on them later). Our trip began at Salerno where Allied troops first landed in September 1943, and retraced their invasion route northward toward Rome.
We had it a lot easier than they did, traveling by Mercedes motor coach. They made the trip by foot, slogging their way through the freezing rain and mud up the mountain-choked spine of Italy during the winter of 1943-44.
The Germans held the high ground, with their main line stretching clear across the peninsula and anchored on Monte Cassino. The steep mountain afforded a panoramic view of a river valley below that Allied troops had to traverse and was the strongest defensive position in Nazi-held Europe. Every inch of the valley could be swept by German artillery and also was heavily mined.
To approach Cassino, U.S. troops first had to capture the nearby town of St. Pietro, which commanded the strategic Mignano Gap. The town was obliterated in the fighting that December and was rebuilt at the base of the mountain after the war. The overgrown ruins of the original hug the hillside and are haunting to wander through. The only sounds are those made by the breezes whistling through the vines where thousands once lived.
A month later, Jan. 17, 1944, the assault began on Cassino itself and was easily repulsed. The Allies also launched an amphibious left hook further up the Italian peninsula at Anzio on Jan. 22. It stalled as well. Cassino withstood successive attacks in the next four months by U.S. troops, British troops, French-Moroccans, New Zealanders, Canadians, South Africans and Nepalese Gurkhas.
Atop Cassino was the sprawling, 900-year-old Benedictine Abbey of Monte Cassino. The German commander prohibited his troops from occupying the abbey or using it as an observation post. Allied commanders, frustrated by their inability to batter their way past, contrived to claim German troops had been spotted in the abbey — and then used that as a pretext to bomb it. The 30-minute attack left the ancient complex a pile of rubble and the Germans were then quick to fortify it.
The mountaintop was finally captured that May by Polish troops while U.S. troops broke out at Anzio. Rome fell just weeks later on June 4 — a victory quickly overshadowed two days later by the news from Normandy.
Unfortunately, Anzio and the battle for Monte Cassino seem to have fallen into a collective “memory hole.” Few here seem to know, or care, that 60,000 Allied troops and 50,000 Germans were killed in Italy during that war (along with 153,000 Italian civilians and thousands more Italian troops, many of whom by mid-1944 were fighting for the Allies).
We visited U.S., British Commonwealth, and German military cemeteries in the course of our trip and typically had them to ourselves, unlike those we visited a year earlier on a similarly-themed trip to D-Day and Battle of the Bulge sites (and which we plan to revisit again this July).
The exception on this trip, in terms of visitation, was the Polish Military Cemetery in the shadow of the now-rebuilt Monte Cassino Abbey. A commemorative Mass was being led by a Polish priest, including the singing of several somber hymns by the hundred or more Poles in attendance. I found it quite moving.
A few days later, we visited the U.S. Military Cemetery in Anzio, fully prepared to find the gates locked. Our trip coincided with this fall’s government shutdown, you see. And we were right. They were locked.
But as we exited our tour bus to peer through the fence a few of us noticed a young couple parked by the gates.
“Are you Americans?” the driver asked out his window.
Assured that we were, he told us to “hang on” as he made a call on his cellphone.
The next thing we knew he was unlocking the gate, adding, “You didn’t see me do this.”
We saw it — and we appreciated it.
And even more, we appreciated the sacrifices and bravery of those who fought their way up the Italian “boot” in 1944 and “45 and did more than their part to unshackle Europe from Hitler.
Joe Kirby is Editorial Page editor of the Marietta Daily Journal and author of “The Lockheed Plant” and three other books on Cobb history.