According to most experienced foreign travelers, one should avoid a midsummer visit to Italy (to Rome, especially) like the plague. This year, in particular, a trip to the Holy City should have been more of a trial since, in addition to the usual crush of tourists, some two million pilgrims from all over the world were expected for the regular, quarter-century Holy Year celebration.
In spite of such warnings, Luther, Mary Will Wolff and I have just returned from Rome where we attended the 31st anniversary, 5th Army Reunion and a medical meeting of the Excelsior Surgical Society. Rome is always crowded, and adding even the pilgrims and the 5th Army returnees to its usual bustle and confusion didn't seem to make that much difference. Unbelievably, the weather, instead of being hot and suffocating, was pleasantly cool, clear and spring-like for the whole week we spent there.
General Mark Clark, who led the triumphant 5th Army into Rome in June 1944, was, again, the featured attraction this year. Now, at almost 80 years, he is still the straight, tall imposing figure, still the ultimate diplomat, and still capable of delivering in a forceful voice inspiring addresses modulated with just the right touch of humility and humor. A remarkable man.
We did not always feel so charitably toward the General. To many of us who had come up through North Africa and then served under Patton with the 7th Army in Sicily, our experiences with Clark's 5th Army in Italy left something to be desired. In later years, however, we've come to realize that the 7th Army's problems were almost non-existent as compared to those of the 5th. In Sicily the campaign was short, the weather dry, and we were chasing Germans whose only objective was to get out swiftly by deliberate plan - an objective they accomplished quite efficiently according to their own well worked-out schedule. Patton and the 7th Army undoubtedly took too much credit for the quick Sicilian victory. In contrast, the 5th Army faced Germans who were determined to resist, and who retreated only to reach their well-prepared line of defense. In addition, the allied troops had to endure the miserable weather of two falls and winters, flooded rivers, knee-deep mud, and impassable mountain ranges without the benefit of modern helicopter service. The 5th Army Command also had to contend with the problems of coordinating the movements and pacifying the conflicting interests of such disparate troops as the British, Australians, Indians, Canadians, New Zealanders, South Africans, Free French, Moroccans, Algerians, Turks, Greeks, Italians, Italian Partisans, Brazilians and Poles. It also suffered the chronic lack of support of secondary front constantly competing for men and material with the build-up the invasion of Normandy, which came off just one day after the delayed capture of Rome. But to the lowly infantryman who had breezed jauntily through North Africa and Sicily, the discomforts, confusions, seeming-chaos and turtle-like progress up the Italian peninsula was a frustrating and inexplicable change. Unfortunately, General Clark (admittedly more of a diplomat and public relations expert than a specialist in military strategy and tactics) often got blamed for whatever went wrong.
Anyway, this visit to Rome, under the umbrella of General Clark and his 5th Army command group, was an experience that no ordinary tourist could ever hope to duplicate on his own. This was a 5 day gala that included a spectacular welcoming cocktail party at the Villa Maiani on a hill west of the city, with all of Rome, bathed in golden evening sunshine, spread out beneath it; an outdoor special audience with the Pope in St. Peter's Square (the first descent of a Pope from his balcony onto the square itself in 35 years); a reception at the Barberini Palace given by the Italian Minister of Defense; a colorful and emotional memorial service on July 4th in the American military cemetery at Anzio-Nettuno, followed by a two-hour luncheon at an outdoor terrace restaurant overlooking the sea, and followed, still later, by a diplomatic reception and party at the Villa Pariola as guests of U.S. Ambassador Volpe and his wife. A final cocktail party and banquet the next day reassembled all of the guests and dignitaries on the Via Vittorio Veneto at the Excelsior Hotel which had served as General Clark's temporary headquarters thirty-one years ago in Rome.
Medically, we were also well entertained. The small group of Excelsior Surgical Society members, all of whom had been in Italy during the war as part of the 2nd Auxiliary Surgical Unit attached to the 5th Army, were guests of the Surgical Staff at Rome's Polyclinic in the University Medical School. Dr. Pietro Valdoni, the retired chief (whose name commands the same respect as that of a William Mayo) and Dr. Paolo Biocca, the present surgical division head, presented an excellent scientific program one day, and give us a comprehensive tour of the facilities there on another day.
In the second week, the various individuals and groups that made up the 160 or so 5th Army returnees, scattered throughout Italy, Europe and the Mediterranean area in pursuit of their own interests. Our small Columbus contingent, along with Dr. and Mrs. Charles Rife from Milwaukee, rented a car and toured, revisiting old spots remembered from the war years, and eventually headed north through Italy into Southern Switzerland.
One medical highlight of our personal excursion was a visit, in Pavia, with Dr. and Mrs. Aldo Moschi (who had spent last year here in Columbus learning the secrets of athletic knees from Professor Jack Hughston) and an extensive tour of the University of Pavia Medical School. Another was a visit to the luxurious Villa d'Este at Cemobbio on Lake Como, where Wolff, returning to the elegant quarters he once ruled over as sole American Commandant of the former Luftwaffe hospital, swapped stories with the concierge, who had also been there during the war years.
Except for a flat tire on the way back to Rome and the airport, the whole trip went off without a hitch. And if anyone tells us again that a visit to Italy in the summertime is not worth the trouble, there are three of us, at least, who will certainly disagree.
(c) The Doctor's Lounge, Muscogee County (Georgia) Medical Bulletin, Vol XX, No. 1, 1975, p20