In the run-up to Pope Francis’ visit on All Souls Day (November 2nd) to the American military cemetery of Nettuno near Anzio in central Italy, a U.S. veteran from the 1944 battle of Anzio relived his memories of that bloody campaign. Aged nearly 93, John Shirley is one of the last few surviving veterans who took part in the battle around Anzio and the campaign to liberate Rome from the Germans. Now living in California, Shirley is a much-decorated war hero and wrote a book about his war-time experiences entitled “I remember.” He was interviewed by Susy Hodges and began by describing how he came to write his book.
[ Audio Embed Listen to this interview with John Shirley:]
The Sicily-Rome American military cemetery near Anzio in central Italy is the final resting place for nearly 8,000 members of the U.S. military who gave their lives for their country during the Second World War. Stretching over 77 acres, the American cemetery is located just outside Anzio where U.S. troops and their allies landed in 1944 at the start of the campaign to liberate Rome and expel the Germans from Italy. Shirley told us that his very “first day of combat” was on a spring day in 1944 when the Allied troops broke out of their beachhead at Anzio and met fierce resistance from German troops.
“Real big battle”
He was transported close to the frontline by “a battle sled” and recalled how they then crawled on their stomachs through a field of grain with this “real big battle” raging around them. Shirley described the boom of the heavy artillery and spoke of how the machine guns were firing “just above our heads.”
“Blew him up into the air”
It was at this time that Shirley witnessed for the first time a man killed in action. “My squadron sergeant hit a mine and it blew him up into the air 4 or 5 feet right in front of me,” he recalled.
“We all prayed”
Asked whether he had a religious faith and if it sustained him during his war-time experiences, Shirley said as a Christian he prayed and all the others as well … “everyone was praying.”
“Thanked Pope Francis”
Shirley said if he could have been at the American cemetery near Anzio during the Pope’s visit he would have “thanked him very much (for coming there) and for remembering “all the people who died” in that battle around Anzio.
“Lots of my friends were killed” but “I feel lucky to have survived,” he concluded.