By Katie Starr
KITCHENER — Harry Watts’ trip to Italy 70 years after serving as a motorcycle dispatch rider in the Second World War was agrodolce — bittersweet.
Bitter because he retraced his footsteps, visiting a cemetery where 61 Canadian soldiers were killed in just two hours of battle.
Sweet because he met new friends and reconnected with old ones, sharing with them stories, memories and bottles of wine.
(Full story by Katie Starr appears in Kitchener-Waterloo Record, May 30, 2013)
A week after returning to Canada, Watts sat in front of a room of captivated Grade 5 students at Wilson Avenue Public School to talk about his trip.
Some students were more interested in whether or not Watts, who just stopped riding his motorcycle last year, saw the Tower of Pisa (yes, he did, back during the war).
Others wanted to hear more about the tragedies he experienced as a 20-year-old from Ridgetown, Ont., involved in the Allies’ campaign in Italy.
“There’s nothing that prepares you for the terrible sound of battle, of your friends being killed,” said Watts, 89.
He remembers hiding from mortar rounds under a bridge. A comrade stuck his head out, dying instantly.
“That’s when the war became real to me,” Watts said. “I couldn’t save his life.”
But Watts’ trip to Italy — timed to honour the 70th anniversary of Operation Husky, the Allied invasion of Sicily in 1943 — wasn’t all painful memories of the war.
“There were some good, happy moments where you’d almost forget about the war for a couple hours,” Watts told the students.
One of the ways the Canadian soldiers were able to escape from the horrors of war was to focus on making life better for the civilians whose lives — and livelihoods — had been torn apart by the fighting.
“We tried to leave things a little bit better than we found them,” said Watts.
Sometimes that meant paying for an olive tree demolished by a tank. Another time it meant giving an Italian teenager a job with the Canadian Army.
That teenager is now 86 years old and still living in Rimini, on the east coast of Italy. Known affectionately as “Uncle Monty,” he hosted a barbecue at his villa for Watts and the 40 other Canadians on the trip, Watts said.
“Uncle Monty told me, ‘In October 1944 my house and my village was destroyed. But the Canadians gave me a job, white bread to eat, and a Canadian uniform. I’m a very lucky man,’ ” Watts recounted.
The veteran added with a laugh, “We didn’t even get white bread to eat, so I’m not sure where we got it to give to him!”
Seeing Watts reconnect with his past was a special part of the trip, organizer Ted Barris said from Ottawa.
The author and journalist co-ordinates tours to European battlefields. With the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Italy and Sicily coming up, Barris called Watts to ask if he would come.
Watts, who keeps busy with school visits and fundraising for the National Service Dogs organization, didn’t have to think twice.
“I had just been to the doctor who told me, ‘If you don’t fall down and break your neck you’ll live to be 100,’ ” Watts said. “So I said yes and I don’t regret one moment.”
Barris said Watts served as a human connection between the history books and the reality of the war.
“We were at the ancient Roman gates of Rimini, and Harry described passing under the gates, how the people were gone and the troops were trying to find shelter. He told us what it was like riding his motorcycle along the dusty roads from Rimini to Rome, and we felt like we were there,” said Barris.
“It was like time travel.”
Many of the people on the trip had relatives who had fought in the Italian campaign. Having Watts along on the tour brought a deeper meaning to the places they were seeing, Barris said.
“Harry shared his sense of humour and fun with us, but he also helped give us a sense of loss,” said Barris.
Watts demonstrated his Canadian pride whenever possible during the trip. He spoke with Sicilian teens who had mistakenly thought the Americans liberated them, and he made sure to always sit in the back of the tour bus next to the big Canadian flag Barris had brought.
Back at Wilson Avenue Public School, Watts spoke of his love for the country he fought for.
“My favourite thing about Canada is the freedom we have,” he told the students, who had prepared birthday cards and a cake for the veteran’s upcoming 90th birthday.
Watts, after all, knows how to balance the bitter with the sweet.