Cassino Battles 70th
70th Anniversary - Commemoration of the Monte Cassino Battles SGT J Cox
I had been selected as a youth representative for the 70th Anniversary Commemoration of the Cassino Battles.
On Sunday 11th of May, I was introduced to some key personal and settled in for a couple of days of briefings and getting to know the veterans and care staff. I also helped out and got to know the MST (Mission Support Team) with weighing and labelling the baggage. This would become one of my main roles.
Early Tuesday morning, we got up and got ready start our journey to Italy. We landed in Darwin, and had enough time before dinner for a quick swim in the hotel pool, and then it was off to bed for another early start.
The next day we left Darwin for Dubai, landed on time and settled in to the amazing hotel. During breakfast the next day I was sitting with the Sergeant Major of the Army, when disaster struck. Many of the veterans had become sick, and were vomiting. Later that day, after waiting for the veterans to get better, it was decided that we would stay another day in Dubai. This gave me a chance to explore Dubai, and cool off with 3 people from the MST and Ceremonial group at a waterpark.
Most of the veterans got better overnight, and we flew out to Italy. I got off the plane in Italy perfectly healthy, and thought I had got lucky and avoided getting sick. Unfortunately I was very wrong, and missed the service of remembrance at the Cassino Railway station.
The next morning I was feeling healthy and got ready for the New Zealand National Commemorative Service. After a morning of rehearsals, and decorating all the graves with a poppy and flag, it was time for the service. The Service was one of the most special parts of the ceremony. It started with the delegation moving up to the seating by the catafalque, where the service was held. As we moved up the crew clapped and said thank you to the veterans, bringing a tear a few of their eyes.
During the service; prayers, poems and extracts were read, songs were sung. Wreaths were laid by several important people, including the Governor General of New Zealand, Chief of Army, Minister of Defence and Prince Harry. My role during the service was a wreath bearer; I had to bring a wreath to the person, and salute with them or for them after they laid it. I also got to lay a wreath as a representative of the youth of New Zealand.
After the service the veterans all got to meet Prince Harry. After they had all talked to him and the Governor General, I was asked to come and meet the Prince. After the crowd had dispersed, the veterans got a chance to see the graves of the people they knew and fought with. For one veteran, Mr Dungey this was very special, as it was his first time to be back to see his older brothers grave. Flowers were arranged so that he could put them on the grave, and the pile of poppies grew in size. Some of the care staff also got to see family members killed in Cassino.
The next day we attended the British/Commonwealth Service of Remembrance. Afterwards we were given another chance to look at the graves. The second time round was much more emotional, due to the lack of crowds. Mr Dungey spent the entire time next to his brother’s grave, where the pile of poppies had grown, and several people sat down next to the graves of family members, overcome with emotion.
That afternoon we went to the Abbey of Monte Cassino. We got to go up the ancient entrance to the Abbey, and after attending a tour of the Abbey, and seeing many amazing before and after photos (the Abbey was completely destroyed when Monte Cassino was bombed) was a highlight. The tour of the Abbey ended with a service in the incredible Cathedral.
The final day in Cassino was a rest day. I got to spend the day in the town and look around, including visiting a New Zealand art expedition in the library.
We were up very early the next day, ready to leave the hotel and start our journey home. The trip was an absolute trip of a lifetime, and something I will remember for the rest of my life. I got to meet some amazing people, both veterans and current serving personnel. I got to hear amazing stories, and watch as a veteran changed history, explaining that 2NZEF actually got further than historians thought. My only disappointment is that I will almost certainly never get to do something like this ever again.