Russ Ringsak

Monte Cassino

September 5, 2013

This year's PHC summer cruise began with a jet flight to the port of Barcelona, where we boarded a ship for Marseilles, Monte Carlo and Livorno, Italy; the fifth stop was the dock at Civitavecchia, the railroad link into Rome. As mind-boggling and glamorous as those first cities were, my private focus was Monte Cassino, a 90-minute train ride southeast of the Eternal City.

It was there my father suffered an on-the-job injury while at work. He was commander of the Second Battalion, 6th Armored Infantry, First Armored Division, when a piece of shrapnel brought him his fifth and last Purple Heart and made him such a wreck they had to send him home. This after the division had landed in Africa, beat Rommel at Kasserine Pass; landed in Sicily and then in Italy and fought their way up to Mt. Porchia, just east of Cassino.

The possibility that I might actually go there didn't dawn on me until we were onboard the plane over the Atlantic. I had this computer along and became obsessed with finally getting to that storied mountain. I thought I'd figure it out once aboard the ship. There would be tours and guides and such. But the seaboard wireless connection was beyond my comprehension and the plan became two trains into an unknown city with a language barrier and no connections whatsoever, not even a hotel name. Hope and luck would find a taxi to run up the mountain.

At the old Cassino rail station a cab driver named Antonio knew just enough English to take us to the Monaco, a sweetly sophisticated small hotel in the city center. It was Sunday and very quiet. We found a corner bar and had a beer at a sidewalk table.

I generally limit my travel advice to diesels and breakfast but I can now say that if you're a guy heading into an unknown land it's not a bad idea to take along someone of the fairer gender. An older man came over and we talked of history and the time of that terrible second world war. Cassino itself had suffered greatly from the intensity of the four battles it took to drive the Germans out.

1st Armored Division tanks pushing towards Cassino, 1944.
1st Armored Division tanks pushing towards Cassino, 1944.

My dad was there at the first battle in January of 1944, in the thick of extraordinarily bitter combat on the southeastern approach to Monte Cassino, when a fragment of German steel ripped through his helmet and into the top of his skull. He was paralyzed on the right side and the Army shipped him back to Bethesda Hospital in Maryland, where they put a steel plate up there.

Seldom free of pain, he survived to earn a law degree and became a well known attorney and state senator. He received the Handicapped Person of the Year award in 1974 from President Gerald Ford, a most decent man whose hand we the family were privileged to shake at the White House.

There is also a permanent memorial to him at the UND Student Union in Grand Forks, as one of the nation's most decorated soldiers in WWII. And there is a life-size statue in Branson, Missouri of fifty soldiers in a line two by two, one from each state in the Union, in full combat gear storming an objective; he's the one from North Dakota. At 28 he was the youngest colonel in the entire army. Ernie Pyle wrote a column about him and said his troops called him the Old Man. My mother raised us to be proud and to consider ourselves lucky. So we did.

Had that chunk of metal taken a slightly different course and killed him we might have stayed in Minneapolis; if it had veered just slightly and missed him we would have remained a military family and seen the world.

And had either of those happened my three children would not be here at all, at least not in this version, and we five siblings would have grown up somewhere else. Nothing would have been as it is. The head wound that caused the army to retire him and send him home is why we moved to his hometown in North Dakota. Which is probably also why he mentioned Monte Cassino more than other places. And why it became my compulsion to go there.

Cassino was a lynchpin in the Gustav Line held across southern Italy by Nazi Germany. Even if you could overrun the rest of the line it would be dominated by that great high fortress of a monastery. In over a thousand years of history Rome had only been taken once from the south. There were four battles this time. When the monastery finally fell it had become one of the fiercest battles of the war, with 55,000 Allied lives lost there. The Germans began a retreat and Italy switched sides and helped drive them out of the country.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

We walked the downtown that Sunday evening and couldn't find a restaurant. It seemed strange until we heard they didn't open until 8:30. And then the quiet valley town rose up and the streets filled with cars and scooters and motorcycles and it quickly became Saturday night in Dodge City, full of beautiful girls and young men on a mission.

A street in Cassino with the abbey up on the distant mountain.
A street in Cassino with the abbey up on the distant mountain.

We found a just-right indoor-outdoor restaurant with a menu in natural Italian. We were seated next to a table of two couples and one guy saw us trying to deal with the list and offered to translate. We accepted and fell into conversation. He's an attorney, born and raised there, and knew the war history and offered to take us up to the monastery in the morning and come back in the afternoon.

He later said that that he's been planning a trip to the U.S. with a couple of friends. They would fly over and rent Harleys and ride Montana and Wyoming, which by a bizarre coincidence is exactly the trip I like to take year after year. I might be giving a guided tour next summer.

He picked us up at 9:00 the next morning. The monastery is stunning. It doesn't look spanky new but it also doesn't look anything like the shapeless grey pile of bombed and fractured chaos it was after the war. It somehow looks natural and right, rich and lush, as if rising from the actual bits and pieces of rubble all magically restored.

The abbey buildings are worth a trip to Italy by themselves:

White doves in the first garden.
White doves in the first garden.

The stairway to the cathedral.
The stairway to the cathedral.

The cathedral, standing over incredible vaulted basement rooms covered in mosaics.
The cathedral, standing over incredible vaulted basement rooms covered in mosaics.

On the way back to the ship we stopped in Rome with time to check out the Coliseum and then shipped on to Naples and around the heel of Italy to Kotor, a living medieval city in Montenegro. We then made the mandatory visit to Venice and from there caught the big airplane home. For an old trucker it was the run you don't forget.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

My younger brother, himself a two-tour Vietnam vet, took the trip to the Abbey in 1971, when the Old Man was yet alive. I arrived here forty years too late for the Colonel to notice, but I like to think that although he never made it to the top of Monte Cassino, both his boys did.

© Russ Ringsak 2013

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