Al Stapleton, 94, is visiting the fields of battle in World War II Italy this week as a member of Canada’s Official Delegation to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Italian campaign. He is our father.
This is his third visit to Italy. The second time was ten years ago for the 60th anniversary. His first visit was seven decades ago.
For the first four decades of our lives, we heard little about his wartime experience in Italy. It took a long time for the painful stories of war to emerge.
He arrived in July 1943 under the cloak of darkness and raging storms as part of one of the largest expeditionary forces in history. Departing from a troop carrier, he waded ashore on a beach in southern Sicily close to the sleepy villages of Pachino and Ispica. For the next 20 months, the Canadians, made their way north fighting the Germans in a historic war of attrition. The Allies won but there was a heavy price to pay – and not only for those who didn’t return.
Beyond frequent exposure to the loss of young lives, Al’s memories of his daily regimen on his first visit endure in sharp contrast to his present experience of comfortable hotels and restaurants, enjoying carpaccio and caprese.
During the war, meals consisted of ersatz fare served erratically while accommodations consisted of tents and slit trenches exposed to two cold, wet winters and the sweltering summers of 1943 and 1944. After he returned, he experienced years of undiagnosed illness that is now well known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). At the time, he was advised to deal with whatever it was on his own.
This week Al will visit three of the places where he experienced brushes with death – Cassino, Ortona and Rimini. At Cassino, Al was part of a major troop movement that inadvertently took a wrong turn when the officer in charge of the convoy misread the road signs and moved within range of the enemy. Dumbfounded Allied soldiers looked up in horror from their slit trenches as the Canadians entered into harm’s way. German soldiers looked down in confusion at the spectacle. An order was given to reverse course. Not a shot was fired.
At the Moro River in 1944, Al lived in a pup tent on the same field for two months during the wettest coldest winter in memory. Every Saturday night, two men received a pass to go south to the nearest town to see the movies. When Al got his turn, he returned to his camp to find that shelling had killed some men in his camp. The Germans used self-propelled guns that they would run up to the front line and set them in motion to shell the roads.
Near Rimini, in the small town of Russi, Al spent his off-hours in a local shoe repair shop that had thick stone walls. One day, enemy sympathizers directed shellfire from adjacent rooftops. He recalls being thankful for those stone walls. As an aside, Al also remembers the shoemaker yelling choice newly-learned English language epithets at a picture of the Pope when he hit his fingers with a hammer.
History tells us that the Canadian troops did themselves proud.
At the 60th commemoration in 2004, an Italian reporter asked:
“Did the Germans respect the Canadian army?”
Always one with high expectations of interviewers, Al replied,
“The German used volunteers against Canadians.”
Only when pressed, he explained, “elite soldiers”.
In the end, Al’s first return to Canada was not that noteworthy. Most Canadian soldiers in that campaign avoided spending eternity on Italian or Sicilian soil. What is remarkable is that he is participating in the 70th anniversary commemoration, one of 28 former soldiers out of the 94,000 that served in the Italian Campaign, a 1 in 3000 chance to return after 70 years.
Truth to tell, when he was there, he was just a number, an everyday soldier; however, time raises and equalizes status and those who endure return as 28 very important people, now equal in stature, to commemorate Canadian glory.
Al was one of the lucky ones. He was in the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals maintaining the equipment that decoded messages from the German Enigma machines behind Allied lines. But risk for a soldier is relative. Two of his buddies in the Signal Corps never made it beyond the second day in Sicily. They were shot dead not far from Al when a German Focke-Wulf 190 strafed the Sicilian shoreline with 50 caliber guns on July 12, 1943. Their bodies were not returned to Canada and Al visited them for the first time at the Canadian graveyard at Agira in 2004. If Al had not huddled beside a tough cactus plant, he would have joined the two men buried at Agira with whom he signed up at London, Ontario on September 10, 1939.
Without these chance events of survival, Al would not be here. And neither would we, which brings us to reflect on the vagaries of war. Our existence today is a matter of dumb luck. If Al had been killed on any of these three occasions, someone else could be telling this tale. We are grateful for this turn of fate.
Paul Stapleton is an associate professor at the Hong Kong Institute of Education.
John Stapleton, is a social policy analyst in Toronto.