Canadians trekking across Sicily to commemorate fallen WWII soldiers

More than 500 Canadian soldiers were killed during the six-week battle for Sicily 75 years ago, a sacrifice a group led by a Montrealer is hoping to commemorate this month on a trek across the Italian island.

More than 500 Canadian soldiers were killed during the six-week battle for Sicily 75 years ago

The group is taking part in a 320-kilometre trek across the Italian island of Sicily. (Operation Husky 2018)

History books often treat it as a footnote — and that's why Steve Gregory thinks it's so important to draw attention to Canada's role in the battle for Sicily during World War II.

In fact, Gregory, who lives in Montreal, said he only became aware of the sacrifices Canadian soldiers made on the Mediterranean island in 2006.

"The first thing that struck me is, 'My gosh, why isn't there more written about it?'" he told CBC Montreal's Daybreak earlier this week.

More than 500 Canadian soldiers lost their lives during the six-week battle for Sicily during the Second World War, which the Allies called Operation Husky.

The operation began on July 10, 1943 — 75 years ago this week — when Canadian forces joined an armada of nearly 3,000 Allied ships. After fighting across mined roads and rocky hillsides, an estimated 562 Canadians died there.

Today, ​Canadians "have a moral responsibility" to remember what happened, Gregory said.

Daily ceremonies held along the route

Gregory is currently leading a group of 10 Canadians, as well as 14 members of the Canadian military, on a 320-kilometre trek across Sicily to remember Canada's role in liberating Italy during the war.

Each day, the walkers will hold a remembrance ceremony for Canadian soldiers and Italian civilians who lost their lives during World War II. (Operation Husky 2018)

Dubbed Operation Husky 2018, the walk will end July 31 at the Canadian military cemetery in the Italian town of Agira.

That's where some of the operation's toughest fighting took place — and where 490 Canadians are buried.

Each day, the group will hold a remembrance ceremony in a town along the route. Fourteen Canadian soldiers will also be taking part in the trek, playing drums and bagpipes to announce the group's arrival in each place.

Once there, they'll lay a wreath and play the Last Post, a song typically played on a bugle or trumpet to commemorate fallen soldiers.

"Our job is to create a lot of attention and reclaim Canadian history; that's really what we're trying to do," Gregory said.

Some markers are being placed along the route with the names of Canadian soldiers that were killed, he explained, while plaques will also be erected in three Italian towns, and American and Italian troops will join the group at various points along the way.

Gregory said he also plans to commemorate the sacrifices Italian civilians made during the war.

"We want the Italians to know we also recognize the civilian suffering," he said.

'Men who have been forgotten for 75 years'

Darrell Hartman, a family doctor from Edmonton, says he decided to join the trip to send a message to his own children.

"I always wanted them to know exactly what has been done for them," Hartman said.

This isn't the first time Gregory has commemorated the Canadian military's role in Sicily.

Five years ago, on Operation Husky's 70th anniversary, he led a similar, 22-day trek across the island. He was later awarded a commendation from Canada's Minister of Veterans Affairs for his efforts.

Fourteen Canadian soldiers are taking part in the walk across Sicily, and they will be joined by U.S. and Italian troops at various points along the journey. (Operation Husky 2018 )

Earlier this week, Seamus O'Regan, the minister, highlighted the sacrifices Canadian troops made there.

"The courage and valour shown by our armed forces, past and present, have helped Canada through the long and arduous road to the fragile peace we now enjoy," he said in a statement.

For his part, Gregory said he hopes the walk will draw attention to this often forgotten chapter of Canadian history.

It's important to remember, he said, "for the souls of these men who have been forgotten for 75 years."

With files from CBC Montreal's Daybreak


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