Sunday, November 23, 2014

Canadian veterans return to Italy for 70th anniversary of Second World War campaign


My story from 1994 about the 50th anniversary veterans' trip to Italy, Montreal Gazette.

News that Canada's Department of Veterans Affairs is taking 28 surviving Canadian veterans to Italy this week has brought back memories of a similar trip I covered for both the CBC and the Canadian Press as a freelance reporter when I was living and working in Italy.

The year was 1994, and I was a reporter based in Rome. Canada sent several busloads of veterans back to Italy for the 50th anniversary of the Liberation of Rome during the Italian Campaign.  I spent nearly two weeks traveling from the bottom to the top of Italy with the tour, interviewing the veterans, and the locals, (and sometimes acting as unofficial translator), while filing stories and covering the ceremonies and memorials from Pachino, to Agira, to Cassino through to Ortona.

The 1943 invasion of Italy by the Canadians -- who were often called the "D-Day Dodgers", a moniker that caused great resentment at the time -- saw nearly 6,000 Canadians lose their lives in the fighting to kick the Germans out of Sicily, and root them out of the mainland, including chasing them east into the Adriatic coastal areas of Ravenna and Ortona. It would take the Canadians nearly a year  before Rome was liberated, and until 1945 before the generals pulled the Canadians out to fight in other parts of Europe.

The 1994 trip took place in May, when the weather was a lot warmer, and might have been a bit easier for the then-younger veterans to endure. This week's trip is happening not only when they are twenty years older, but also during the late fall season of heavy rain and mudslides, which was nearly the same time of the calendar as when the Canadians became bogged down in house-to-house fighting, deadly mortar attacks, and raids across swollen rivers such as the Moro on the way to Ortona.

The two decades in between the trips also point out another difference, this time, a sad milestone: in 1994, there were nearly 60 veterans on the trip. This year, just 28.

As I was a Rome-based reporter,  veterans department officials from Ottawa weren't aware that I was going to cover their trip, which I did, for both the CBC and the Canadian Press.   In most places, I was the only reporter at all covering any of their ceremonies and remembrances.

In a thank you note, then-minister Gerald Merrithew said my presence was unexpected, but "most welcome."

"The resultant publicity that you gave our pilgrimage was invaluable," he wrote. "Until recently, few Canadians knew about this campaign and its significance to the Allied cause of the Second World War. Your presence with us on this trip helped change all that."

Twenty years later, today, I am now busy working on research for a new book, to be about the Canadian Jewish servicemen who were killed during the Second World War.  I know 43 of them are buried in Italy.

If anyone has information about, or is related to any Canadian Jewish servicemen or women who died, for any reason, in the Second World War, kindly please contact me, to help me put the information in my book.  ebessner@gmail.com


Thank you letter from Minister of Veterans Affairs, 1994.





Here are some of my other stories published at the time of the 1994 trip.

Italians issue comic book about Canadian liberators: Winnipeg Free Press 1994

Canadian veterans meet the Pope: thank you   - this one was from the 1991 Canadian pilgrimage, on the 47th anniversary.

Anzio, ceremony May 27, 1991, Ellin with Jack Callowhill, from Stoney Creek, Ontario, with the First Special Service Force. Callowhill was 90, just last year.

Anzio centre, memorial for First Special Service Force, 1991, Ellin is 5th from left.