In memory of Pvt. Daigle: Carson man visits the battlefield where his uncle was killed
Three weeks ago, I wrote about following in the footsteps of my uncle, Pvt. Richard E. Daigle, in Italy for Memorial Day. He was a member of the First Special Service Force, an American/Canadian unit during World War II and was killed in 1943.
We arrived in Rome at 11 a.m. on May 30. After clearing customs, we met Gianni Blassi, our Canadian/Italian tour guide. We loaded our luggage and ourselves onto the bus for a two-hour ride south to Cassino. Along the way I noticed how similar this part of Italy is to San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara, Calif., with rolling hills accented by terraced vineyards, beautiful flowers, numerous palm trees and citrus, fig and olive trees.
As soon as we arrived in our hotel room in Cassino, I looked out the front window at Monte la Difensa about 15 miles to the south. From another window to the east I could see Monte Cassino with the Benedictine Monastery about a mile away. That evening we learned what large meals the Italians eat so very late in the evening!
The next day, we rode about 10 miles to the town of Mignano Monte Lungo, the closest town to Monte la Difensa. As we walked around taking pictures, Gianni told us the story of the First Special Service Force in this area. The bus then took us to a smaller community at the foot of la Difensa. After lunch, we visited the nearby British Commonwealth War Cemetery. This cemetery had a manicured lawn and flowers at each grave marker. Visiting here was an emotional time for the Canadians in our group who had one or more relatives buried at this location. For some it was their first visit to their relative’s grave.
As soon as I got out of bed on June 1, I went to the window. There was la Difensa with some morning fog near the base. This is the day we climb la Difensa! Just after breakfast, 28 of us boarded the bus with a sack lunch. The fog had burned off. We began our hike on the same rugged trail the Germans used to haul supplies to their troops at the top. The trail had a similar degree of incline to that of C Hill in Carson City.
An hour into the hike, I turned around to catch a panoramic view of the beautiful Liri Valley. Thirty minutes later, we reached the top of la Difensa. This was a special moment for me. As long as I can remember, Monte la Difensa was some place in Italy thousands of mile away where my uncle went and never returned. I had always vowed I would go there someday. Now, I have reached my goal.
The top of the mountain has a saucer shape. Though smaller than what I had pictured in my mind, the saucer was an oblong about 30 yards by 40 yards. We walked to the north side to see where the Second Regiment (my uncle’s) climbed the steep part of the mountain to surprise the German troops. It must have been a fierce firefight between both sides.
I explored the top of the saucer. Rocks were still in place for protection where the German troops had machine guns to defend the mountain. John Hart, a Canadian whose father served in the FSSF, brought up a couple of bottles of wine and plenty of plastic cups to toast the men of the force and the men and women of our services today. The first toast was to the members of the Force. One member of the group had an international cell phone, and asked me if I would like to call someone. I was so excited about being on the top of la Difensa that without thinking I called my son in Reno. It was 3:30 a.m. in Reno! In conversations with several in our group, I was not the only person who climbed la Difensa that day for a relative.
On June 2-5, we visited towns in the Liri Valley that were destroyed in the campaign to liberate Rome. Towns like Cori, Venafro, San Pietro, Artena, and many others were casualties of the war. We met residents of those towns who were young during the war. They told us their stories of hiding from the bombing for days with little or no food or water. A woman in her 70s told us the sad story of her sister who was cut down by gunfire after carrying water up the steep hill to their home. We visited the United States Cemetery near Anzio where some members of the First Special Service Force rest in peace.
The 37 members of the tour were from Canada and the United States. We had never met before arriving in Italy. We shared a common denominator, a relative who was a member of the Force. In eight days we had grown close to one another. On June 7, we did not want to say good-bye.
I saw a lot of history and did a lot of reflecting during the tour. As I walked past each headstone at the cemeteries we visited, I noticed the age of the deceased. Many of these men were in their late teens or early twenties. One soldier was a sergeant and 17 years old. Many of them, like my uncle, never became fathers. Of the ones who were fathers, most of their children were not old enough to know or to vividly remember their fathers. So here’s a toast to the fathers who served and are still serving, and to those men who never get a chance to become fathers and see their child born or hold them in their arms.
Happy Father’s Day, you are truly loved.
Ken Beaton, 67, of Carson City is a retired teacher and is the membership coordinator for the Carson City Chamber of Commerce.