It was at Venafro where where Gen. Mark Clark's Fifth Army found the ‘going' a hell of a lot tougher. Not only did his men, espec-ially the infantry find the enemy resistance stiffening, they also found the conditions under which they had to do battle miserable in the extreme. Under the pelting rain and sleet and snow and cold of early winter the Americans and British troops fought their way slowly up one mountain only to find another one even more daunting, across the valley. They paid for their gains heavily in men and materials as they slugged it out every foot, every yard, every mile of the way through the mountains that winter, fighting as soul-destroying and heartbreaking, as any battle fought on land by any army before and thereafter. As we rolled along through Venafro's streets we could see at once why the Yanks had been bled white here in this wild and untracked region of precipitous heights and deep gorges.
A short drive along the road and we come to Isernia where the French Expeditionary Corps under the tough and inspirational leadership of Gen. Alphonse Juin speared its way through what looked to be nearly impassable mountains and defended gorges. The 2nd Moroccan and 3rd Algerian Divisions left behind them a trail of dead—their own and the enemy's, as they fought from peak to peak through the wilderness all the way to Monte Cifalco six miles north of Cassino. We passed by their cemetery just outside Isernia. Once again we could see the steep price in flesh and blood the war exacted The wide expanse of white crosses was mute testimony to what had gone on here.
Our route through the Abruzzi section of central Italy was a remarkably scenic one of towering snow-capped mountains and densely wooded hills. At almost every turn in the road we came upon new, and increasingly breath-taking vistas that brought the cameras out and had us tripping the shutters all along the way. Since most of us on ‘B' bus came from the mainly flat countryside of Western Ontario it was understandable why we allowed ourselves to become carried-away at seeing close up all these towering mountains, when the highest piece of geography we ever get to see is nothing much more than a pimple in the landscape.
The road, a narrow one, ran along the rim of deep valleys where on one side of the bus we could look straight down a sheer, grey wall of rock while people on the other side looked almost straight up to a craggy pinnacle a thousand feet or more above. Every mile presented some new enrapturing scenery. Far across a painter covered valley I saw a rush of water cascading along the natural flume of a desolate hillside. After several turns in the road we come to an open tract where the mountains stand well back from the road, perhaps ten miles or so, the snow on their crests a sure indication that they were even higher than any we had passed farther back along the way. The part of the country we were now entering was flat, but the soil was poor, fit only for the hardiest of grasses and weeds. From what we could see, very little in the way of crops could be sustained on this impoverished ground, yet people lived here and thrived in a fashion within the limits of what the land could yield.
On and on we rode. It got so that we began to wonder if the Italian ‘boot' wasn't a great deal wider than what we had always thought it to be. And who would have thought back down the road a hundred miles or so that it would be possible for us to become bored with all the stunning scenery that unfolded before our eyes? But, after all, how many mountains and and scenic valleys can we gaze upon in rapt attention before they all begin to look exactly alike? It was at this point we started singing to relieve ourselves of the monotony of looking out the windows, and the creeping ennui that was overcoming us.
With the finely tuned voice of Art Hoyland leading the way, we sang, and we sang, and we sang some more. The miles passed by without notice as we sang with great spirit all the songs we used to sing when we were in the army. Yes, with great verve did we belt out the songs, like “Roll Out the Barrel' — ”You Are My Sunshine” — and real ‘oldies of World War 1 vintage, “Mademoiselle From Armentieres” and “It's a Long Way To Tipperary.” After a few of these lively tunes we toned down a bit as we got into “The Old Rugged Cross” and “Onward Christian Soldiers”, and then ended up on a sentimental note with Dinah Shore's two most popular hits “I'll Be Seeing You” and “I'll Walk Alone”. And when we ran out of the older tunes we turned to new ones like Engelbert Humperdink's “Release Me”. One thing we knew for sure, and that was, ‘there's nothing like singing that can chase away the “blahs”.
By this time we were beginning to wonder how much longer we'd be cooped up on the bus. What brought this on was that all of us were suffering from inordinate distensions of our bladders, which in simpler terms meant that we had to visit the ‘john'—but soon! More than a few in our group were in a state of near panic, a distress that unmistakably said that if they didn't get to a ‘john' soon they'd sure as 'shootin' be wetting themselves. Lucky for these unfortunates that Sulmona, our next stop was just another few miles down the road. Had the journey continued much past that, the whole lock, stock, kit and caboodle of us would have forced our driver to pull over to the side of the road. If that had have happened, passersby in other vehicles would have been treated to a bus load of men and women shamelessly relieving themselves by the side of the road. We were that desperate. Modesty be damned! Thank God we were spared the indignity!. But just when we thought relief was near at hand our bus drivers found themselves going the wrong way on a one-way street. That could only spell F-I-A-S-C-O! In good Canadian Army language it would be F-A-F-U or S-N-A-F-U— I think you know what I mean.
It was rush-hour and we were going nowhere in a hurry. Coming straight at us is this mass of furiously beeping Fiats and other assorted vehicles all trying to work their way around our street blocking bus convoy. There was no way the buses could turn around in the narrow street, and they certainly weren't about to back up. It was a test of wills. And our drivers won out. Sing loudly the praises of their stubborn souls! Straight ahead our lead bus forced its way slowly into the teeth of the raging traffic, scattering the homeward bound every which way. Some determined Fiat handlers tried to slip by, by climbing the curb and driv-ing along the sidewalk. No go. All they managed to accomplish was to scare the hell out of a lot of people who threw themselves into store doorways along the road to escape being run down. It was a delicate situation, and strangely, in all the excitement, we completely forgot about our pressing need to answer Nature's call.
The travel brochure states an interesting fact in that Sulmona is in the heart of the Abruzzi, and that it lies within an area highly subject to earth-quakes. When I read further that there had been many strong earthquakes here, even severe ones in the past several hundred years I wondered why it was selected as a ‘stop-off' in our itinerary. Aside from this undoubtedly negative feature, however, Sulmona is known far and wide for the production of sugared almonds, called confetti. Certainly nothing to get excited about, but a fame of a sort to the people who make it their home. The only other notable feature about the town I was able to glean out of the pages of the brochure was that the Roman poet Ovid lived here between the years 45 B.C. to 18 A.D. I had never read the works of Ovid so I don't known anything about the man, and therefore can't say anything about him here except that a statue of the poet stands in the centre of the little square next to the hotel.
We dined in the Italia Restaurant where a very nice buffet luncheon was laid-out for the ravenously hungry and thirsty way-worn travelers. Each table had a bottle of wine, supposedly the very best of all the wines made in the district. And to make the occasion an entertaining one, two very attractive young local belles dressed in colourful and traditional costumes of the region walked amongst the tables dazzling the males with their engaging smiles and sparkling dark eyes. They were pretty, petite, and most certainly out of reach for the younger and more libidinous bucks, but you couldn't blame them for a little fantasizing and making a 'play' for them. At best, all that was possible for the gay blades, and there were more than a few, was to have their pictures taken with their arms around the lissome young ladies. On the other hand, the wife chaper-oned types had to content themselves with merely observing the scene, though with some noticeable envy, while the ‘sports' were doing their thing.
We passed through Francavilla just outside Pescara, arriving in Ortona a half hour later. I don't think there's a man who did his share of fighting in or around Ortona in that Christmas season of 1943 that was able to identify the city of today with that of the city of evil memories. After all the years since the heavy street fighting that had taken place here, like Cassino and a hundred other towns and cities in Italy, it had undergone almost complete rebuilding. Although most of the buildings were repaired to a state much as they had been in when the 1st Div. fought it out tooth and nail with the paratroopers, the high-rise apart-ments on the northern limits of the city most certainly were recent developments. Also, the city perimeter had, by natural growth over the years pushed outwards and I was surprised to see how many of homes were built along the styles of our modern homes back in Canada. What a change from the picture that had etched itself on our minds! The war had destroyed all vestiges of the Ortona we once knew.