No fun and games at Cassino
Do you know the difference between a casino and Cassino? It’s a lot more than an extra “s”. The first is a bright and cheery place famous for fun and games, where you sip cool drinks and play games with the hope of winning a lot of money. The other is a place in Italy famous for one of the most brutal battles of World War II. It was a violent town where the only game was to fight desperately against a desperate enemy. For the soldiers who fought there, winning meant simply coming out alive – and with that, the chance to risk your life another day in another violent battle.
For Gordon Zimmerman of Greenville, the road to Cassino started when he joined the 34th Infantry Division in North Africa in mid-1943, shortly after the African campaign had been won. Life there was no picnic. In fact, it turned Gordon and his buddies off picnics for the rest of their lives.
“You would go and sit down cross-legged to eat out of your mess kit,” Gordon said. “A gust of wind would cover it with sand. If there was no wind, flies as big as your thumbnail would come off the camel dung and land in your food. You’d pick it up and dump it into the garbage can. We said when we get home we’re going to have screens on every window and every door and we’d never eat outside.”
The 34th Infantry Division trained in Tunisia for the invasion of Italy at Salerno, which began on September 9, 1943. Once the beachhead was secured, the Division started its relentless campaign up the entire length of Italy. The new troops in the division could not have imagined the ferocity of the fighting they would have to endure. They used everything available to combat the enemy.
“At one point we had no hand grenades and no ammunition,” Gordon said. “We broke chunks of rock off the stone fences and threw them at the Germans.”
Then came the battle for Cassino against an enemy entrenched in a nearly perfect defensive position. The mountains were high, pockmarked with concrete bunkers and machine gun pillboxes, and they were surrounded by every imaginable obstacle such as barbed wire and minefields, even flooded fields that acted like moats. The 34th Division fought there for nearly a month before being relieved by other units.
At Cassino, Gordon Zimmerman won a prize that no soldier really wants – a Purple Heart for a shrapnel wound in his leg. His wound, however, did earn him a reward of sorts. He was made a gunner on with an anti-tank unit so he could ride in a truck rather than walk the rest of the way through Italy.
After Cassino, the 34th Division was able to get a brief respite from the fighting. Then it was moved into the Anzio beachhead.
“The First and Third Divisions had made the invasion, and then they were pulled out to make the Normandy invasion. We moved into their positions.”
There Gordon spent 59 days in the same foxhole. His comment on the experience reveals a lot about a soldier’s life and attitude: “We had a great time there, but it was hell.”
The area occupied by the American army was flat agricultural land ringed by mountains that were occupied by an entrenched, well-trained, and well-equipped enemy. “From the mountains, the Germans could see everything we did. They just shelled us continually.”
It wasn’t until May that the army broke out and started the push to Rome. Many of the soldiers were small-town kids like Gordon, who had grown up peaceful places like Stoneboro. Most probably had a high school sweetheart as Gordon did, worked part-time through high school in businesses like Isaly’s in Sandy Lake where Gordon had worked, and graduated from high school around 1941. None of them could have been prepared for what they witnessed in Italy.
“Just south of Rome,” Gordon said, “there were a lot of dug wells, about five or six feet in diameter, 20-35 feet deep. As the Germans retreated, in about three little town, they shot every male from the grandfathers down to the littlest babies. They put them in the well, shot a dog, and threw a dog on top of them.”
That wasn’t even the worst thing they saw.
“I’ve never told this to anybody. One little town we came into, the Germans had shot eleven women and laid them in a room, took their bayonets and cut them wide open. Their guts were just laying there. That is the kind of atrocities that went on in World War II and nobody knows anything about them.”
Gordon feels strongly that people today should be told about them.
“Two-thirds of this country is under 50 years old. Those people don’t give a damn what happened 60 or 65 years ago. What would have happened to the United States if Germany and Japan had won? We wouldn’t be sitting here today. But the younger people don’t know that. They don’t know anything about war, and they think the world will go on like this forever, which it won’t.”
Gordon came back from the war with a Bronze Star medal to go with his Purple Heart, his Campaign Medal with four battle stars, and his World War II Victory Medal. He is proud of the fact that he is the most decorated veteran in the Reynolds VFW post.
But what makes Gordon’s life meaningful is not so much the exceptional things he and his buddies endured during World War II. Rather, it’s the fact that he could manage to come back live what some might call an ordinary life since then – as well as fulfill a variety of leadership roles including president in the Optimist Club in Mercer and Trinidad, Colorado; King Lion in the Stoneboro Lions Club; and Master of the Masonic Lodge in Sandy Lake. (He is now a 32degree Mason.)
His “ordinary” life resumed in November, 1945, three weeks after his discharge from the army, when he married his high school sweetheart, Jane Parker. He went back to work at Cooper Bessemer, where he had been working when he was drafted. He and Jane eventually had three children: Carol (now Wiercinski, born in 1947), Tom (1950), and Beth (now Fodor, 1953). About the time their third child was born, Gordon started working for the Post Office. He was a city carrier in Grove City for a short time, then a rural carrier out of Mercer until 1971. He enjoyed not just delivering the mail, but also helping out the people who lived along his route.
“I used to pay people’s telephone bills and electric bills. They would give me the money on a trip and I would pay it and take them the receipt. I would buy groceries for some of the older people. They would give me a list, and in the afternoon I would buy the groceries and take them out the next morning on the way delivering the mail.”
In 1971 Gordon left the mail service to pursue a dream.
“I just got it in my head that I wanted to own a motel,” he said, “but didn’t know how to go about it. I went to a real estate agent down in Pittsburgh. That was all he did – sell motels across the United States. They put me in contact with a realtor in Denver who sold motels in Wyoming, Nevada, and Colorado.”
He bought a 23-room motel along I-25 just north of the New Mexico-Colorado border.
“I loved the motel business,” he said. “It was meeting and greeting people every day. We made lots of great friends. People from Texas would come up four or five times a year and go to the horse races down in Raton, New Mexico. Other people who would stay when they were on their way to Montana.”
After seven years there, both Gordon and his wife became ill. They sold the motel and moved to Kansas City. They both worked in an apartment house, Jane as manager and Gordon as maintenance man. Four years later, Jane’s mother became terminally ill with cancer, so they moved back to Pennsylvania to take care of her.
Gordon himself has had several major health problems. In 1992, he was struck with Guillain-Barre syndrome, a viral infection that kills the coating on all the nerves in the central nervous system.
“I was a vegetable,” he said. “I couldn’t move a finger, move a hand, I couldn’t do anything. I could move my eyelids and I could talk, but I couldn’t move.”
It took him eleven months to recover. Then in 1994 he had the aortic valve replaced, and in 2000 had stints inserted after a heart attack. In 2005 he received a pacemaker.
But after surviving Cassino and many other battles, Gordon is not one to give up on anything, especially life itself. After his wife Jane died in May, 2000, he met Eileen Dorfeld at the Greenville Senior Center. Her husband Fred had passed away a dozen or so years earlier. Gordon and Eileen got married four years ago. They are happily continuing their “ordinary” life together.
Excerpt from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 2, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2008.