Monday, May 19, 2008

Lynne and Peter Cobabe, friends of mine who live in both Florida and California, were in Rome for several days as my houseguests prior to their departure today for a 16-day cruise through western European ports to St. Petersburg and back to the Scandinavian countries. While I worked Thursday and Friday, they visited favorite spots in Rome and at the Vatican, and we looked at a variety of plans for how we could spend Saturday together. I had never been to Anzio, the site of the Allied landing in 1944, and Peter is a history buff - and all three of us love water and boats and port cities - so it seemed like a great way to spend the day without having to travel great distances.

I went online and printed train schedules to and from Anzio, and then printed a two-page history of the town so wed have something for a starting point.

We boarded a 12:07 local train for the ride of just over an hour to this town of 46,400 souls about 30 miles southwest of Rome, planning on having lunch at the port and then exploring this historic seaside town. Little did we know how our day would change through the simple act of a smile and a have a nice day!

As we were about to exit the upper deck of the train at the Anzio station, an older gentlemen seated a few rows behind us, looked at me with his twinkling eyes, smiled and said hello. I smiled back, saying hello as well. He then smiled at Lynne and Peter and said, Have a nice day! to which Lynne replied in kind.

This gentleman also got off at Anzio and less than a minute later we were chatting up a storm. We learned almost immediately that his name was Derek Ball, he was from Manchester, England, he had just turned 84 on May 11 and he had been with the British and American troops on January 22, 1944 when they landed at the Anzio beachhead!

All of a sudden we were in the presence of history! It truly was like a history book coming to life as Derek re-lived his time in Anzio, telling us fascinating stories about his months in Italy as we walked from the station down the main street to the center of town and eventually to the waterfront where there is a lovely monument to the historic and crucial - Allied landing.

As we were walking towards the town center, Derek stopped at a tall palm tree to point out some holes which he said were made by shrapnel from German planes that strafed this part of town! He said the trees - which were now perhaps 40 to 50 feet tall were only half that when he arrived in Anzio in March 1944 at the tender of age of 19. He turning 20 barely a month before the June 6 Allied liberation of Rome.

This was not Dereks first trip back to Anzio since the war. He has been here on a number of occasions and, in fact, has become close to a family that lives in nearby Aprilia, a family with whom he stays when he comes to Italy. Derek has not only lived modern history, he has become immersed in Anzios past, informing us, for example, that Roman Emperors Caligula and Nero were born here and that many emperors built vacation villas along this part of the Italian coastline. It seems, in fact, that Emperor Nero (54-68 A.D.) actually organized a residential area here for veterans and built a new harbor.

As we neared the harbor, Derek recounted his time as a signalman - a communications officer with the 2nd Battalion, Northamptonshire Regiment of the British Armed Forces. He told of the long days, the constant danger, the never-ending bombs that fell, many of which broke communications lines laid across the ground, lines which Derek and his buddies could only repair in brief pauses between bombings. He told us, We slept when we could, sometimes only minutes at a time. and tried to eat whenever possible. We always made sure we had biscuits in our pockets for energy. How did they do it, we asked? We were young and strong and healthy and had a war to fight. You do things without thinking of being tired or in danger.

He told us of the long, hard days in Anzio, of the even harsher trip north to Rome through enemy lines . which the Allied troops broke - and then of his happy arrival in Rome on June 9, 1944, three days after the Allies had liberated Rome and the Eternal City was rejoicing.

Overlooking the harbor, we saw the monument that the city had erected in 2004 to commemorate that long-ago Allied landing on the beachheads of Anzio and Nettuno (just a few miles down the road) on January 22, 1944. The wall tells the story, with the photos of the US 77, one of the LST that brought the troops to Italian shores. There is a tall pillar with a commemorative wreath and flowers at the base surrounded by stones that spell out, in Italian, Anzio to Its Fallen.

In the afternoon, Derek showed us the Anzio Beachhead Museum, located in two rooms of the 17th- century Villa Adele, just minutes from the center of town and the railroad station. The Villa Adele this is the room you first see as you enter the museum - is located in a park and on a street by the same name.

The museum is run by a non-profit organization the Anzio Beachhead Research and Documentation Center, whose president, Patrizio Colantuono, is a native of Anzio and the author of a book called Anzio and Its Beaches, which features postcards and photos of Anzio from 1900 to 1960, with emphasis on the 1944 Allied landing. He welcomed us and made us feel right at home, telling us of his dreams to enlarge the Anzio museum. I bought one of his books for myself and another for Lynne and Peter, and bought a DVD of the Anzio story for Derek. We asked Derek to sign our books and, among the words he penned was A Miracle to Survive and that is how I got the title for todays column.

In this photo, on the lower right corner, you see 19-year old Derek Ball and you can perhaps make his name out on the left hand side.

Here is Derek as he points to a photo of U.S. General Mark Clark, whom he knew from his time in Italy.

Though small, the contents of the museums main room are surprising vast American, British, French and Italian uniforms, including those of Red Cross workers, equipment, letters and photos from the troops to their loved ones and vice versa, marching orders, official documents, photos of the liberation of Rome, military decorations, canteens, every type of gear imaginable used by the troops, including some of the very heavy backpacks used by communications officers, such as the one pictured here. There are badges, decorations, maps and battle plans and all sorts of articles used by troops in their everyday life.

The current museum was dedicated on January 22, 1994, the 50th anniversary of the Allied landing. In this photo you see an encrusted American military helmet found 9,500 miles off the coast of Anzio on August 2, 2000!

We wanted to visited the American Cemetery but learned that it closed at 5 p.m. and it was after 5 so that would have to be for another day. I did learn that, by the end of March, the Allies had lost 52,130 troops and the Germans almost the same number.

The day was getting away from us - we had had our morning history lesson with Derek, lunched at a restaurant called Lo Sbarco (The Landing) and walked along the waterfront and the beautifully restored center of Anzio and visited the Church of Saints Pius and Anthony, restored after being bombed during the war, and spent some time at the museum and we were thinking of returning to Rome.

Derek, too, had to return to the family where he was a guest, so we all departed Anzio on the same train. With every mile that brought us closer to Rome, however, Derek had another story. He would point to new homes, telling us that the land where they had been built had been, all those years ago, only thick forest. It was forest where the Germans lay in wait to ambush is, he said. And it was forest where we also waited, sometimes our hearts beating very rapidly at sounds we would hear in the night. He said the area between Anzio and Rome was very cold and wet and muddy in the winter and early spring.

He pointed to what he said was the flyover which American troops called the overpass and told us that was the battle line that separated the U.S. and British troops from the German troops. But not for long, said Derek, as we were winning the war and advancing on Rome. Here is a photo of U.S. troops arriving in Rome on June 4, 1944.

Dereks division was posted to Lebanon and Jordan after the Rome victory, and from there his unit was sent to Marseille and eventually into Germany where, after all the dangers he faced on the Italian front, he was almost killed in his foxhole near the Elbe river.

Derek S. Ball, a widower and a retired horticulturist, was in our hearts and thoughts and prayers for the rest of the day and he is, as I write these words. I have personally know very few people who were asked to make such a sacrifice, a sacrifice not for personal gain but rather for the freedom of millions of others. Some paid the ultimate price, and others, like Derek, are here to tell and re-tell the story, to remind us of what tyranny is, and what freedom is and what freedom can cost.

I hope our paths cross again, Derek, either in Manchester or Anzio. Maybe you will be here next January 22nd when Anzio marks the 65th anniversary of the Allied landing, and the start of the liberation of Rome. God sit on your shoulder!


  News Home
  Joan's Rome
  A Catholic Journalist
in London
  Inside EWTN
  Power & Witness
  Journeys home by Marcus Grodi
  Seen & Unseen
  Vatican Insider Podcast
  Joan's Rome:Video