It was 7:30 in the morning when the bus pulled away from the Mederraneo Hotel. Our hotel was right in the heart of Rome. The date was May 31, 2004. It was a beautiful Italian Spring day and we were in the Eternal City. What could be more perfect?
Little did I realize this was to be one of the most emotional days of my entire life. Little did I realize that what I would see today would stir up memories that had lain dormant for 60 years.
First, however, let me tell you the reason we were in Rome. Sixty years ago, on June 4, Rome was liberated from German occupation. Our army unit, the First Special Service Force, was the first allied unit to enter Rome on that fateful day. So, this was a very special day for us veterans.
Our tour group was made up of 14 veterans of this Special Force. With us were family and friends; 45 in all. This day we were slated to visit the Commonwealth Cemetery, close to Anzio, about 50 miles from Rome.
As we drove through Rome I had an eerie feeling of how old this city really was. I now realized an appreciation of history you could never get from history books, movies or post cards. Some of these structures were more than 2,000 years old.
We drove by the Coliseum. It is a gigantic structure where 50,000 spectators used to crowd in to watch the slaughter.
In my mind’s eye, I could visualize two well-armed gladiators battle it out until one man fell. I was also tortured by the vision of a group of Christians cowering in the centre of the arena as ferocious lions leaped toward them.
We drove by the Vatican. We had toured the Vatican the day before, and were there when Pope John Paul spoke to thousands of us standing in St. Peter’s Square. We had also gazed in awe at Michelangelo’s immortal paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Our Christian Faith will always be a live and fresh with the love and dedication shown by the Vatican.
An hour and a half after leaving Rome we arrived at our destination – the Commonwealth Cemetery. In this cemetery there were thousands of headstones. There were headstones representing soldiers from England, Scotland, India, Canada and all parts of the Commonwealth.
When we entered this beautiful, well-kept cemetery, a reverent hush fell over our tour group. We felt we were standing on hallowed ground – which indeed we were. The grounds were immaculate. The grass was trimmed to perfection, and gave the appearance of a lush, green carpet. The graves were well-kept, with a delicate colourful flowers growing around them.
I started to read some names – names representing different Canadian Army Units. I read: West Nova Scotia Regiment; Carleton and York; Cape Breton Highlanders; Royal 22nd; and many others.
Then suddenly I stopped in my tracks. For upon one of the stones I read: First Special Service Force. The very unit I had served in. It was then I found a whole section that was devoted to our outfit. I recognized the names of six close friends of mine. Soldiers I had joked with, laughed with and fought beside 60 years ago. A strange feeling came over me and I just couldn’t help myself. My eyes filled with tears.
Then an unbelievable thing happened. I found myself standing beside two graves – the graves of two buddies. These guys had been inseparable all through their army life and here they were lying side by side. I stopped down to read one stone. Carved in the cold stone were the words: R.G. Briddon, age 21. On the other I read Sgt. J. MacIver, Special
Service Force, age 20. Carved in the bottom of that stone was the following:
“In life Loved and Honoured
In Death Remembered.”
These two, Briddon and MacIver, were the very closest of buddies, always together and always kidding around. As I stared at these stones side by side, an amazing transformation took place. Two smiling young faces seemed to float out of the headstones toward me. Their eyes were sparkling, they were happy and full of the joy of life. And they were singing! Yes! These two comrades would sign at the drop of a helmet.
Of course the songs we used to sing were not meant for mixed company. However, in training there never was any mixed company. It was just us guys. Briddon and MacIver would put their arms over each other’s shoulders and perform as if they were chorus girls. They would kick up a leg, which wasn’t easy with big combat boots, and they would sing boisterously:
There’s a Burlesque Theatre
where the gang loves to go
To see “Jeannie the Queenie”
of the burlesque show
And the thrill of the evening is
when out Jeannie trips
And the band plays the polka
and she stri-i-ips!
“Take it off! Take it off!”
all of the customers shout
“Down in front! Down in front!”
while the band beats it out
But she’s always a lady,
even in Pantomime
And she stops – but only just in time!
The cemetery was quiet and reverently subdued, but I heard those two buddies belting out that song as if it was 60 years ago. Just looking at their headstones had brought those two back to life for me. I felt happy, elated. I felt we were all back together again – back together in a great and glorious crusade to bring Peace to a troubled world. Peace, Yes! But our ultimate goal was to return home to our family and loved ones.
Sadly, this was a goal Briddon and MacIver would never realize.
It was then I had to let down my guard. I couldn’t express my feelings. My emotions had taken over my entire being. I knew if I spoke I would burst out crying. Crying for what? I didn’t know. Crying for Briddon and MacIver? Crying for my own lost youth? Crying for the thousands buried here? God knows! However, I was emotional and no one can explain when and where your emotions will surface.
I left the Commonwealth Cemetery with mixed feelings. There was a deep feeling of loss. Loss for all those gallant men, most of them boys, who had given up their future for a cause we all know is beyond a price tag.
But strangely I also came away exhilarated! Why? Well I saw two of my closest friends lying side by side. They were together all the time in life, and now, not even death could separate them.
There they were, lying side by side – buddies forever!