1945. The year World War II came to an end. Ever since Winston Churchill gestured the famous V sign, the world felt (for the first time in many years) a sense of relief, overwhelming joy and above all, peace. For years the world had been torn apart by a war so foul and led by men whom many believed came straight of hell itself, that the future had nothing to look forward to but death and destruction. Homes were destroyed, families ripped apart and for young boys, toys were taken out of their hands and replaced them with weapons; trained to kill another human being.
Back then, turning sixteen no longer meant you became a man; you were made a soldier overnight. Herbert Matthews was such a young lad. His best friend, Philip Newton, joined him when the call came to fight Mussolini and his Fascists in 1943. The battle would go down in History, remembered as “Operation Huskey”.
The plan was simple enough; enter and occupy Sicily, then move into the Italian mainland. When Hitler declared war in 1939, many adventurous, young men rushed to enlist. The idea of fighting in battle and returning home as a decorated war hero were always on their minds. The stories of World War I were still fresh in the minds of the previous generation who had fought in what was called The Great War, but their stories were too horrendous to discuss. Many never spoke of it at all.
Before the call came in 1943, Herbert and Philip had married their long-time sweethearts; Herbert marrying Catherine and Philip married Susan. It landed up being a double wedding and not long after, both wives were with child. But the call of duty came and could not be ignored. Herbert was rather hesitant in leaving his home in South Africa and with a child on the way; he had important things to think about now. Philip, on the other hand, was impulsive and couldn’t wait to enlist. Herbert owned a barber shop downstairs from his apartment while Philip inherited his father’s hotel and became its manager upon his father’s death.
“Come back to me soon,” whispered Catherine, on the day of their departure. “I mean alive, not in a box.” He held her gaze for a while and gently put his hand on her now protruding belly.
“I promise. Hitler won’t scare me as he had done to the world.”
“You’re not fighting him,” reminded his wife. “You’re going up against those who follow Mussolini; a man whose crimes are equal in measure to Hitler.”
Herbert shrugged. “Then I’ll smack him around so I can come home in time to see our child born!” Herbert was trying to make light of the situation; he too had heard of the atrocities Mussolini was getting up to and was the architect in creating the Fascist Party years before; a disturbing movement for any country deemed as “free”.
While he was saying goodbye to Catherine, Philip was having a hard time getting Susan to understand the meaning of duty. “I don’t care!” She sobbed. “I don’t want my husband fighting in a war he never started.”
“I have to!” Philip said, trying to look upset at the thought of leaving. “You don’t want a coward for a husband do you?”
“No! I want a husband who will be there for me, for us!” Hugging her belly. He tried to reason with her and replied, “Look, the First World War took four years; maybe this one will be finished by next year.”
He hugged her while she sobbed in his chest. “Please come home the minute you’re able.” she whispered in-between sobs.
Philip tipped her chin up and kissed her. “I will. I’ll be back before you even know I was gone!”
As the ship departed from the harbour in Cape Town to join the British, Herbert and Philip were waving to their wives. Catherine had one protective hand on her belly while waving her handkerchief and Susan was sobbing, waving as well.
“This is going to be quite an adventure!” Philip beamed, rubbing his hands in anticipation, as the ship began to sail out the harbour, towards its destination. “How are you feeling?”
“Homesick already.” Murmured Herbert.
“Come on! Where’s your sense of adventure!?” Philip said, clapping is friend on the shoulder. Herbert looked longingly in the direction of Cape Town, while Philip was smiling in the direction the ship was sailing.