Rome! The very name sent shivers along my spine. How I longed to see the Eternal City; to see the Coliseum where the gladiators fought to the death 2,000 years ago. I also dreamed of St. Peter’s Cathedral and the magnificent Sistine Chapel with Michelangelo’s unbelievable paintings on the ceiling.
This is something that’s hard to believe. The date was October, 1944. Five months prior I was just 20 miles from Rome. My outfit, the First Special Service Force, had broken out of the Anzio Beach Head. The ultimate goal was the liberation of Rome from the Germans.
The fighting, when we first left our fox-holes was chaotic. The most difficult thing to deal with was the artillery. We often got pinned down for a while. Then the barrage would lift and we would continue on our way.
After advancing for a few days and losing many of our comrades, we came to a hill on the outskirts of a town called Velettri. Captain Gray gave us some information that really excited us all. “We’re about 20 miles from Rome. When we get to the top of that hill we should be able to see the city of Rome.”
What an inspiration to all of us. However, as fate may have it, a certain German soldier was determined I would not get to Rome. I felt a terrific smash on my right thigh and I was knocked out of action. I had been shot. My buddies couldn’t stop; they had to keep the enemy on the run.
However, two medics soon came to me and patched me up as best they could. However, they said they had to carry the most seriously wounded out first and they’d be back for me in a couple of hours. Let me tell you, that was the loneliest two hours of my life.
After being in the Beach-head hospital – they were tents like you see in the TV show “Mash” – I eventually ended up in an army hospital in Naples. My wound was more serious than I thought. This was because infection had set in so this led to skin grafts and many, many operations. Fortunately for me, penicillin had just been introduced so that saved my leg.
I spent five months in hospital. During this time I must tell you I had a beautiful panoramic view from my hospital bed. The hospital was on a hill. As I looked out I saw a million dollar view. Below me lay the beautiful Bay of Naples and in the distance, I could see the cone shaped mountain of Vesuvius. Smoke was continually pouring out of the top of the volcano.
This view will be forever imprinted on my memory.
Then came the day I was released from the hospital. I was taken to a rehabilitation camp.
It was here we were given physical training so we would shape-up for when we returned to our unit. It was here that I also learned that my unit was now in Southern France. If I returned to my unit now I may never see Rome. Rome, the city of my dreams was just 120 miles from the rehab camp.
It was then I had to make a momentous decision – Rome or Southern France. Of course, I chose Rome. I decided to try the military and proper approach. I went to the camp commander and asked for a pass to go to Rome. He looked at me as if he couldn’t believe his ears. “Look soldier, it’s my job to train you men so you’ll be able to return to your units and return to your units as soon as possible. Don’t you know there’s a war on?”
I nodded yes, but he should have known there was a war on when he saw me walking with a slight limp. Then the officer snapped, “Request for a leave to Rome denied. However, I will give you an overnight pass to Caserta, a town close to here.”
I took the pass and went to the town of Caserta. Then I made the decision of a life time. It was ow or never, so I started to hitch-hike to Rome.
Getting a ride was no problem. There were many army vehicles heading that way. It reminded me of the saying, ‘All roads lead to Rome.’ It never hit home with me; the seriousness of my decision. Going AWOL in a war zone could be looked upon as desertion and that hand many serious consequences.
When we came close to the city we were stopped at a military roadblock. Six military police were standing there, checking each vehicle. The truck I was in had already stopped there so there was no chance of escape. My visit to Rome was about to be nipped in the bud when I had reached the very gates of the city. One military policeman came to check the back of the truck where I sat alone on a long wooden bench.
“Your pass soldier,” I handed him my overnight pass to Caserta, which was 120 miles to the south. He looked at it for a while and then with a shrewd glint in his eye said, ‘Do ya think you’ll make it back in time?
“Oh yes, definitely,” I said. But we both knew I was lying. The MP waved me through and I heaved a big sigh of relief. If I’d ever received a break in the army, this was it and from a despicable MP – my natural enemy.
Rome was all I imagined and more. To walk along the streets was to relive the Caesars, the early Christians and the Legionnaires. At home we were impressed if buildings were 100 years old. Here, they were one and two thousand years old. To a boy from a small like Truro, it was a sight to behold.
I went to St. Peter’s Cathedral, where Pope Puis the Twelfth gave an audience to hundreds of us, mostly military people. He spoke to us in Italian, French, Polish and English. I held up a rosary I had bought for my sister, Dorothy and he blessed it. Next, I visited the Sistine Chapel, where Michelangelo had painted pictures depicting stories from the Bible – stories I had read since childhood.
However, the historic edifice I longed to see the most was the Coliseum and see it I did. The stone seats could seat thousands of people. The arena was huge and I could visualize the huge lions rushing out to attack some terrified prisoners. The place where the gladiators prepared for battle was below the floor of the arena.
A fleeting thought went through my head: “Herb, you’re not in Truro now.”
I visited the catacombs, the tunnels beneath the streets of Rome, where Christians were buried hundreds of years ago. After a week of sightseeing, I decided to go to a stage show.
It was very entertaining. When I left the theatre, I realized I was getting low in cash. In fact, I was dismayed to discover that I was down to 288 lire – $2.88. I had no choice but to head back to camp.
I left Rome by the same gate I had entered but I skirted around the roadblock and walked about a mile before hitchhiking. The first vehicle that came along stopped. It was a command car with a driver in the front and had an officer, who was a major, in the back.
The major was English and insisted I get in the back so we could chat. The major had nothing but praise for the Canadian soldiers and the work they were doing. This endeared him to me right away.
We only drove a few miles when we came to a roadblock. I was surprised but not terribly concerned. I had spent seven glorious days in Rome and I was prepared to accept the consequences. The car stopped and the MPs crowded around. One asked for my pass. I sheepishly handed him my weekend overnight pass for a town 120 miles to the south.
Then he looked at me and with his fore finger beckoned me out of the car. The major, though surprised, kept his composure.
“Are you leaving?” he asked. I came smartly to attention and said, Yes Sir!
I was taken down to Naples, then taken aboard a ship, still under guard. We sailed for Marseilles. When we arrived there we were met by two MPs from my unit who took me to the camp where our unit was stationed. It was close to the town of Menton, on the French and Italian border. What a joy to meet up with old buddies and catch up on the latest news.
Then I received serious news. I would be up on trial the next morning before Colonel Akehurst, our Regimental Commander. I was very nervous and apprehensive as I was marched to the Colonel’s office. I was a sergeant and I knew I would be demoted for my crime. I also expected to serve time in prison for disobeying army rules.
I stood stiffly at attention and waited for the Colonel’s decision. Strangely, he looked puzzled and undecided. I couldn’t imagine what was going on in his head. Then he made everything clear.
“Peppard,” he said. “You are being charged with being absent without leave for seven days.
This is a very serious offense and usually brings harsh punishment. However, I also received information yesterday that you are to be decorated for bravery in action. You are to report to the parade square at 1400 hours, in full dress, to receive the Silver Star from
General Frederick. I have no alternative but to give you a severe reprimand and to warn you never to let this happen again.”
I left the Colonel’s office in a state of euphoria. I wasn’t going to get demoted. I wasn’t going to jail. I was going to be presented with a medal of bravery.
My life had unfolded as fate had planned. My favourite dream had come true. I had seen the city of Rome.