Tonight on "The War" - The fight for Monte Cassino

Before heading to Edinburgh, Scotland for a year of graduate school, I knew I needed a primer in Continental Europe. So I left New Jersey on a one-way flight to Rome, and set out on a 30-day tour of central and western Europe. Early in this journey I visited the Italian city of Cassino and the famous Benedictine monastery that crowns a peak overlooking the town. Why Cassino? Because this town and its ancient abbey were caught in one of World War Two's most gritty and blood-soaked battles. From the heights of the abbey and nearby mountains, Germany guns and armor stopped the Allied advance up the Italian peninsula for weeks, then months in the winter of 1943-44. Finally, Allied commanders gave the order to bomb the abbey, which contains the tomb of St. Benedict, to smithereens. The destruction, however, had the result of creating even better cover for the German defenders. Not until May 1944--five months after the battle began--did a corps of Polish troops finally take the abbey. When I visited the re-built Monte Cassino in September 2000, I decided to approach the abbey in a pilgrimage of sort. I walked up the 3 miles of the steep winding road, arriving tired, sweaty, and appreciative of this great height assaulted and defended during the battle 56 years before.