"They lined up 22 of them and shot them. Oh, I know practically all of them. There was one of my cousins there, young Mario Rapino was in that bunch. I had a couple of professors that taught me at school that were in that bunch. I had one of my best friends."
I was in senior third at 11 years of age and that’s when I went to Italy, in September of 1936. And I’m an only son, I’m an only child, rather. Well, it’s rather cloudy but as far as I can determine, my dad suggested that I go to Italy and get a couple of years of schooling over there.
I went to school both in Pescara [Italy] and Chieti [Italy] but when I first got there, I went to a private tutor and then at Christmastime of that same year, she put me into her own class and then in June, I graduated from there and I went on. That was grade five and that’s the last of the elementary classes over there. And then I went to what is called the intermediates for three years in Francavilla [al Mare, Italy] and then I went to Chieti for one year and Pescara for one year, for two years. One was a prep year, called a preparatorio, and then the next one was first year high school. And I finished that in 1942.
Up until that time, there wasn’t that much of a problem there, you know, you hardly knew there was a war on. All you knew that there were a lot of young men that weren’t around anymore because they were in the military and they were in the navy or whatever. But other than that, things were going rather normally.
They [German soldiers] used to come around and do what they called rakings. In other words, they used to do the rakings to gather all the young people that they could and send them down to Vasto [Italy] which at that time was the front line, just to dig trenches for them and stuff like that, to do menial jobs. So this one day, this one German fellow that was doing a patrol along a small river called the Alento, in Francavilla, he looked down in the water and saw a German soldier with his head cut off. So right away, he went back to where they were staying. It was on top of a hill called La Monache and up there, this is where they kept all these men that they would take down to Vasto every day and bring them home at night. They lined up 22 of them and shot them. Oh, I know practically all of them. There was one of my cousins there, young Mario Rapino was in that bunch. I had a couple of professors that taught me at school that were in that bunch. I had one of my best friends.
One Saturday morning, I am at home and I hear a knock on the door and I go and open it and there are two young men there, about 17, 18 years old, that were in what was called at that time Opera Nazionale Balilla. That was Mussolini’s youth organization and they wondered why I was still at home, why I wasn’t on the parade ground. Every Saturday morning, we were expected to go and report on parade to learn to be a soldier.
So I went and every Saturday I was going and I said to myself, “Well, these people are telling me what to do, march here, march there, stand straight and all this sort of stuff, why can’t I be one of the guys that does all this commanding?” So I started to move up in the ranks. And I got to be a squadron leader, then I got to be a centurion. They, they used all types of Roman descriptions for the youth. So I got to be a centurion, which is I had 100 men that I was in charge of. And then after that, I went to Rome for one summer and I became a cadet in this Gioventù Italiana del Littorio. And that was it.
Then when I went to be medicaled for the military service at age 18, in 1943 in April, they assigned me to what was called Battaglione San Marco, which is the equivalent of the United States marines. And I was to report on September the 23rd to Venice [Italy]. However, Mussolini capitulated on September the 8th and the country was all in turmoil, there was nobody that was in control, anarchy all over the place, so I never did report for military service.
And that’s when, in the early part of 1944, I was still working, I was a telegraph operator by this time in the Italian railways so I stayed working in the Italian railways until early 1944 when the Germans took over because they had occupied Italy after Mussolini capitulated, they took control of the country. So I worked with them until the early part of 1944 when they had to retreat and the allies came through. And that’s when I started to work with this major from the allied military government at Europe, AMGOT [Allied Military Government for Occupied Territories, form of military rule administered by Allied forces during and after the war within occupied European territories], it was called.
On one of the expeditions we had, we went back to what was called the Italian Canadian headquarters in Avellino, Italy. That’s where I went and met Captain Cameron of the 48th Highlanders [of Canada] and I told him I would like to join the Canadian army. And he said to me, “Well, I need to know who you are.” So I told him. He said, “Yeah, well, that’s not enough, I need some proof, like in a birth certificate or whatever.” Well, I didn’t have anything with me because my mother had destroyed everything in fear of it being caught by the Germans.
So one day I got this terrible toothache and I said to the sergeant major, “Do you think I could have this looked after?” And he said, “Well, go down to the clinic and tell them I sent you.” So I went to this clinic in Avellino and this little French Canadian doctor, his name was Doucette, he worked on me. And when I was done, I got off the chair and started to walk out, he says, “Well, hang on soldier, I need your regimental number.” I said, “Well, I don’t have a number, I’m a civilian, I just work for Sergeant Major Clareidge and he suggested I come here and have this work done.” So while I was telling him, well, he says to me, “Well, how come you speak English so well?” So I went on to explain to him that I was born in St. Catharines [Ontario]. Well, when I said St. Catharines, there was another doctor working on another soldier on the next chair and it was Dr. Goffin from St. Catharines. When he heard St. Catharines, he come running over and he said, “Did I hear you say St. Catharines?” And I said, “Yes.” So I went on and I told him my story, how I found myself in Italy at the time. So he said, “Well, what do you want to do?” And I told him, I said, “Well, I’d like to join the Canadian army but I don’t have any identification that I can prove who I am.” He said, “Well, don’t worry about it,” he says, “I’ll write to my dad, he’s the superintendent of Welland Vale Manufacturing in St. Catharines and I will have him look up your dad and see what he can get for you.” So that’s what he did. And then they went to the church that I was baptized at and they got my baptismal certificate and sent it over to me and, lo and behold, in February of 1945, I was enlisted as a 48th Highlander.
We were in this big wooded area this one day and somebody said, “Fire.” So we all ran out and, sure enough, the woods were on fire and it was advancing because the wind was strong, so we all got on these bicycles and tried to get out. But on our way out in the clearing, like when we saw there was a road, but you couldn’t see very well because of all the smoke, well as we got onto the road, a motorcycle hit about six of us and that’s how I got hurt.
So they sent me to England, they put me in 24th Canadian General Hospital in England. So while I was there, I went to the Canadian consulate and told them my story and told them that my mother was still in Italy and they said, “Don’t worry about it, we’ll take care of it.” So they phoned my mother, they took her to Naples, it took about a year for this, but they took her to Naples and they sent her to England, to South Hampton, and on the first war bride ship that sailed out of South Hampton [RMS Aquitania], my mother was on that ship in July of 1946, a year after I got home.