I had wanted to visit Cassino, Italy, where the Battle of Monte Cassino was fought from January to May 1944. It was a crucial engagement during the Italian campaign of World War II and has been referred to as the bloodiest and most intense battle of the war.
The Allied forces, comprising American, British, Canadian, New Zealand, Indian, and Polish troops, faced formidable German defenses anchored by the centuries old Benedictine monastery atop Monte Cassino. The rugged and mountainous terrain, poor weather, and strong/embedded German fortifications turned Cassino into a formidable fortress.
A small city of about 20,000 people, Cassino sat at the foot of a cliff-like mountain, Monte Cassino, which overlooked Highway 6, and was the final mountain barrier for the road to Rome. Whomever controlled the hills above Cassino, automatically controlled the town and valley.
Cassino posed immense challenges for medical personnel. The constant shelling, sniper fire, and harsh conditions created an environment where casualties quickly overwhelmed medical facilities. Medical Officers and combat regimental surgeons were faced with the daunting task of providing immediate and effective medical care amidst the chaos of battle.
American troops were unable to dig foxholes into the pure rock and granite of the 1,700 foot mountainside of Monte Cassino, leading up to the Abbey, so they piled rocks around themselves for protection. But when mortar and artillery fire landed, the rocky mountainside shattered, sending sharp fragments of metal and flint-hard rock in all directions and creating horrific shrapnel wounds, especially to the head and face. Many soldiers were blinded and disfigured. As a result, Field Surgical Units had to be supplemented by a specialized Forward Head Injury Unit, moving as far forward as possible, to deal solely with head and eye cases.
Read more about my father's experiences at Cassino in my book, A DOCTOR'S WAR.
There didn’t seem to be an actual plan for the Allies in Italy other than to “Get Rome!” The Allies’ 5th Army Rainbow Coalition of multi-cultural chains of command and forces from several countries (Britain, India, New Zealand) was not well coordinated – leadership and communications were poor, resulting in a stalemate, of sorts, with thousands of lives lost. In the mud, snow, and bitter cold, the killing went on for five months. Today, many historians note that General Mark Clark’s attempt to breach the Gustav Line was a blood bath and suicide mission, with no strategic gain. It is estimated that ~ 55,000 Allied soldiers lost their lives during that intense and bloody battle; the German losses were much smaller, ~ 20,000.
Through a random/serendipity connection, I was given the name of Pino Valente, an avid WWII historian and expert on The Battle of Cassino, and whose family has lived in Cassino for generations. Pino, is the founder and President of the Cassino Red Poppy Association, a nonprofit organization whose mission is educate, raise awareness, and tell the story of the Cassino area -- a story that gives adequate recognition and historical value to the area where so much destruction occurred and so many lives, both civilian and military, were lost. https://www.facebook.com/cassinomia1944asd
Communicating via email, Pino graciously offered to host my brother and me with a private tour of the area. My father's 168th Infantry Regiment and the 34th Infantry Division, had had a strong presence at Cassino and Pino was especially interested in Dad's letters home during the War. I realize now, how lucky my father was to have escaped serious injury or death during those intense days at Cassino.
Pino, is the founder and President of the Cassino Red Poppy Association, a nonprofit organization whose mission is educate, raise awareness, and tell the story of the Cassino area -- a story that gives adequate recognition and historical value to the area where so much destruction occurred and so many lives, both civilian and military, were lost. https://www.facebook.com/cassinomia1944asd
Upon arrival in Cassino and meeting Pino in person, I was thrilled to see that he had ordered and read my book, A DOCTOR'S WAR. His generosity of time and knowledge over the course of two days, extended to another very special mission of ours: to find the location of our Uncle Jack Hoyer's death on May 27, 1944.
Posted January 04, 2024
Pino Valente, owner of Hotel Pace (Peace), which he inherited from his father, is an avid WWII historian, and President/founder of the “Cassino Red Poppy Project/Association." This volunteer organization's mission is to educate, build awareness of, and remember what happened to this city during WWII, whose total destruction left no history for future generations. In February 1944, Pino's father, as a young boy, miraculously survived the bombings of the city and Abbey, by hiding in its underground catacombs atop Monte Cassino.
Hotel La Pace ("Peace") in Cassino, is located right below the famous Benedictine Monastery at the top of Monte Cassino. It's lobby is filled with WWII memorabilia and reminders of the infamous Battle of Cassino.
Since WWI, the blood red poppy flower has come to symbolize the sacrifices of war veterans, the human costs of war, and of remembrance.
Monte Cassino is directly across the street from Hotel La Pace. Here is Pino’s clever photo trick of taking a photo with the glass reflection capturing his own image as well as the Monte Cassino Monastery in the background.
I gave Alessio "Alex" Accardi, Pino's assistant, a 34th "Red Bull" Inf Div lapel pin that is the beginning of his own collection of WWII artifacts. “Alex,” a 20 year old student studying International Law, accompanied us on our personalized tour of the Cassino area with Pino.
Clearing the enemy from the hills above and around the city of Cervaro were key objectives for the 34th Infantry Division, in its approach to Cassio.
The Nardone family house made of stone was marked on the Allied staff maps as “Advanced Dressing Station." In February 1944, the dressing station served the medics and the wounded of the American 34th “Red Bull” Infantry Division. Inside these stone walls, atop of which the Red Cross flag was fluttering, hundreds of soldiers’ lives were saved. Among the medics, there were also chaplains who were dressing soldiers’ wounds, hearing their confessions and sending last messages to their families and friends. The medics and chaplains often stayed on the line of fire, transporting the wounded, burying the fallen under the rocks, and marking their graves. Many of them were killed along with soldiers.
One of the many "Red Poppy Association's" tributes" to the 34th Infantry Division's efforts during the Battle of Cassino.
Placing a red poppy at the base of the 34th Infantry “Red Bull” Division’s plaque in the town square.
"Wall of Remembrance" in Cassino's Town Square, listing the names of all civilians killed in Cassino during WWII.