"If I had been there, what, two or three minutes before that, or after, that would have been it for me. So all my gear was gone ̶ my mementos were gone; my pictures of my family at home, all gone. And so that was it. I felt really bad about that."
We landed in Naples [Italy] on an overturned ship. That was our landing platform. It was all on its side. So got into there, we got in parade and then we got to this one place, which wasn’t going to be my original place. And just shortly after that, Mount Vesuvius erupted [on March 18, 1944]. And you know, we had a hard time breathing and trying to even lift 100 pound shell was quite difficult because it took all the oxygen out of the air. And by the way, that Mount Vesuvius has never erupted since then. That was terrible. Oh, it was just awful. You just had to sort of grope your way around. And, of course, we didn’t have any masks or anything. That was unexpected.
So anyway, finally, a little while later, I found out where I was going and it turned out to be a regiment, it was called the 1st Medium Regiment [Royal Canadian Artillery]. We were [Breech Loading] 5.5 [inch] guns, which were quite large in size. And they were all, all the crew there, all the guys were from Nova Scotia, which we used to have a lot of fun with that because I was the only one that wasn’t a Nova Scotianer. So I used to call them a bunch of herring chokers and they called me the apple knocker. [laughs] That was kind of fun.
So anyway, things went on, we got into the battle of [Monte] Cassino, which was a terrible battle. And it was in the dead of night, everything was completely quiet. We all had our watches synchronized; we all sat in the dark, not a sound, except shells coming in from the Germans. So at midnight, away we went. We just kept up, loading up, firing our gun. You could have fried eggs on it. It was really quite amazing, from being so quiet to being so noisy. It was terrible.
We got through; and we took Rome. I was very lucky to get one of the first leaves in Rome, and they opened up a hotel, just for the Canadians. One of the first things I did, I wanted to go to see St. Peter’s [Basilica] cathedral. And so I was going through one of the big halls, looking up at Michelangelo’s mosaic tile work, and one of these Swiss Guards came up to me because they’re very colourful. I guess they’re still doing that because I went there in 1995 as well. And one of the guards came up to me and said, "would you like to have a private audience with the Pope [Pius XII]?" Well, I laughed at him. I thought he was pulling my leg. No, he said, "no, really." He wants a couple of Canadians and a couple Americans, or a couple of French-speaking Canadians. And so he said, I said, "oh, that would be quite an honour." So he took me into this room and shortly, His Eminence came in and gave us a little blessing, and also, after he finished, he gave us a little memento, which I had and I thought it was one of the unique things happening.
So anyway, about a month later, we were still in the front line; and I never slept on a bed for a year and a half. You slept wherever you could. Sometimes you’d get in underneath a little bit, below the level of the ground. But sometimes you’d get lazy or you’d get tired, and so I just put all my gear in the side of this barn. There was a house there and a barn here. So I threw it all in there. And after a little while, I just went in to pull my mess tent out, because the place was another … I had just left and I heard a German 88 [mm anti-tank gun] shell coming in and I just got out of there in time, but it got… If I had been there, what, two or three minutes before that, or after, that would have been it for me. So all my gear was gone ̶ my mementos were gone; my pictures of my family at home, all gone. And so that was it. I felt really bad about that.
And so then we went into Holland, into Arnhem, got through all that and a little while later, we, one night, I wasn’t on duty. We weren’t doing too much after that battle, and I was wandering through the town; and all of a sudden, some people said, saw us both walking together, and he said, "would you two like to come in for a cup of coffee?" I thought, well, that’s nice of them. Complete strangers we were, but I guess we were their liberators. So we said that would be very nice. We’d only been there maybe half an hour and one of their young daughters came running in, all excited, what’s going on? The war is over, the war is over. So that was really something. I just, the whole town just went berserk.
They pulled me out onto the street. I had a girl on one arm and another one on the other, and there was a lantern. Somebody had got a lantern; and we all went dancing all the way down the street. Took up the whole street for two or three hours. Two o’clock in the morning, I went back. Excitement.