Saturday, 14 November 2009

This one's for Bill and Jack

Like many New Zealanders, my grandparents´ generation was the one that lived through the Second World War. My grandad Jack drove trucks in the Pacific and died with shrapnel from a Japanese shell still in his leg, while my great-uncle Bill served in Italy, including during the prolonged, brutal battle of Monte Cassino. On the way south from Rome we visited the town.

Cassino was a key point on the road to Rome and during the battle for it 45,000 Allied troops and many Germans were killed, and most infamously, the historic hilltop monastery (founded in the 6th Century AD) was bombed into rubble by Allied bombing.

Today there´s little to remind you of the devastation. The town has been rebuilt as nondescript apartment blocks, while the new monastery again sits atop its steep, strategic peak. It´s part of the lovely backdrop to the town, along with the Appiennes rising in the near distance, the higher peaks covered in snow.

The town´s museum was closed for the winter and we didn´t time it right to take a bus up to the monastery, but the Commonwealth War Cemetary was open.

In this sublimely peaceful place are some 4000 graves, each with its words and symbols. There are crosses, Stars of David, verses from the Koran in Arabic, Hindu scriptures. There are the many emblems of the British regiments, the crossed knives of the Gurkhas, the maple leaves of the Canadians, the Springboks of the South Africans, even a solitary star for one of the Soviet Red Army. And row after row, more than 400 silver ferns.

In the New Zealand section, with Monte Cassino in the background.

There were two other visitors to the cemetary, an elderly woman wearing a poppy and her son. It was Remembrance Day in the UK and they were there to lay a wreath on a British grave. The ring of poppies was marked with a poem and a note with one word: Dad. He was 28. She probably barely knew him.

Grandad Jack died when I was too young to talk to him about the war, though I have his medals and memories of playing darts in the garage with he and my father. Uncle Bill I met once, on a trip to the South Island with Dad. He shared some war stories with us. I remember one about a little Italian girl raped and murdered by some Algerians fighting with the Allies, and another about Bill taking a body out of a tank. The man had popped his head out the top and a shell had taken it clean off, the heat sealing the wound.

Bill is gone now too. In the cemetary, surrounded by the graves on a beautiful autumn day, I thought about Bill and Jack and the others who went to war. This entry is for them.

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