Near Monte Cassino, Italy

brewing up some tea
a quiet time for thinking
before the assault

Near Monte Cassino, Italy | January 1944

Near Monte Cassino, Italy

The Allies had control of the air over Monte Cassino, so we didn’t need to disperse our ambulances. John Leinbach is having a smoke and a cup of tea while waiting. The tea water is boiling, desert style, in a well-blackened number ten can over a “desert stove” (right foreground). The stove is made of a cut-off flimsy tin with gasoline-soaked sand in the bottom. At such a quiet moment, while waiting to go in with the infantry on a deadly assault, naturally our thoughts flowed to our own mortality, home, and Mother. The sonnet “To Mother” by Charles P. Edwards, from the “War Poems” chapter of his book An AFS Driver Remembers, speaks deeply hidden truth to me and stirs my own long-suppressed feelings about these events, the details of which I have still no memory at all. Perhaps that was why I took this photo. At some level, I must have known that my mind would suppress these feelings and thereby preserve my sanity.

I have no photographs and almost no memory of the battle of Monte Cassino. Presumably the things I witnessed were too horrible to be recalled. A shadowy memory flashed into my conscious mind recently when I re-read the poem “Cassino” by Charlie Edwards (on page 114). One line, “the Gurkhas at night with knives swinging” reminded me of a little haversack kit attached to a big Gurkha kukri knife in its battered and torn leather scabbard that I had found abandoned in the back of my ambulance after a busy night. I knew that no Gurkha soldier would ever voluntarily become separated from his kukri, and I had heard that when they died they would be buried with their knife, for religious reasons. The next morning, I went back to the hospital tent where I had delivered a severely wounded Gurkha solder the night before. They made good coffee, which I enjoyed with them, but they could find no record of such a patient having been admitted, nor could they find any record of what might have happened to his body, if he had been dead on arrival. So I kept the kukri and brought it home, mourning for him. It still makes me very uncomfortable even to think about that bloody knife.

Fragments of Peace in a World at War