On a warm, sunny Saturday in mid-May, all seemed calm in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Annandale, Va., where Col. Romuald Lipinski has lived for half a century. There was no warning that a special convoy would soon arrive to show appreciation to the 94-year-old Polish World War II veteran on the eve of the anniversary of a battle that influenced his life forever.
Col. Lipinski is short in stature, but he carries himself confidently. Long white hair — longer than usual given the COVID-19 shutdown — jutted out from beneath his black military beret adorned with the Polish eagle. He wore his usual veteran outfit: a freshly pressed white shirt, blue tie and blue sports jacket. On the left side of his chest hung his military medals, over a half-dozen Polish and British decorations, as well as an insignia of his regiment, the 12th Podolski Lancers. Next to that was a lapel pin with the flags of Poland and the United States. On his shoulder, a red patch with white lettering that reads “POLAND.”
The Colonel prepared two plastic lawn chairs in front of his house that day and was joined by a Polish radio correspondent who had made an appointment with him, ostensibly for an interview. But in reality, the set-up was a ploy to prepare the colonel for a tribute.
In 1941 Lipinski was a teenager in Poland when he was forcefully deported along with his family to the Soviet Union. War had come two years earlier, when Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union invaded and partitioned Poland in half. Lipinski’s family lived near Brześc — known today as Brest as part of Belarus — and was included in the final wave of Soviet deportations, on the night before Nazi Germany’s invasion of the USSR in June 1941. Once the geopolitical situation changed, and the Soviet Union became part of the Allied side of the conflict, Lipinski and his family joined the nascent Anders Army being formed out of Polish deportees in the Soviet Union. They, like most Poles, were determined to escape the Soviet Union’s grasp. After their evacuation, Lipinski trained with the Polish Army in Iraq, Palestine and Egypt, during which time he also enrolled in high school classes organized by the Polish authorities. From Egypt, the Polish II Corps was transported to Italy in early 1944.
Italy’s Monte Cassino is a rocky summit near the town of Cassino, some 80 miles south of Rome. At its peak sits a grand Catholic abbey, founded in the 6th century. During the war, Monte Cassino was a crucial anchor in the German Gustav defensive line that had held up Allied forces for months. Between January and May 1944, four bloody Allied assaults were waged against Monte Cassino.
By the time the Polish forces arrived, the area surrounding Monte Cassino was a hellscape. As Lipinski describes in his memoir, “The area was a living testimony of what war is all about. There was not one tree that had its branches green with leaves. There were only naked limbs, stumps, sticking out here and there. Grass had also disappeared. Bare rocks, covered with dust were everywhere. Also, there was a testimony of what was there in the past — dead bodies.”
The forces of the Polish II Corps, under the command of famed Gen. Wladyslaw Anders, who had led them out of the Soviet Gehenna, were tasked with taking the rocky summit. After fierce fighting that lasted several days, the Germans finally abandoned the ruins of the monetary under the cover of darkness. On the morning of May 18, a Polish flag was hoisted above the ruins by a patrol from Lipinski’s unit, the 12 Podolski Lancers. The hill had been taken, but at a staggering cost. The months-long engagement at Monte Cassino cost 55,000 Allied casualties, including nearly 4,000 Polish soldiers.
As Lipinski recalls, “I will never forget when we were leaving the Cassino area, we passed close to the temporary cemetery. Long columns of bodies wrapped in blankets were laying, waiting for burial. It had a chilling effect on me and on my buddies. We all realized that we had all been very close to be among these less fortunate, who not long ago had been young men, full of vigor and dreams about the future, having somewhere somebody dear who was praying for their safe return, that would now never come about. Our regiment had not suffered losses as heavy as those of the infantry battalions. Total casualties were 93 soldiers, which was one-quarter of the total manpower engaged in the combat.”
The Battle of Monte Cassino, and the Italian Campaign writ large during World War II, is often overlooked in American society today. But to Poles, it is a legendary event in the modern Polish national saga. While the outcome did not impact the fate of post-war Poland, which had been decided weeks earlier at Yalta, the battle is seen as another example of Polish solidarity with Allied forces, as Poles fought “For your freedom and ours.” Alas, only the former part of the slogan came true at war’s end. The battle is all the more symbolic, and tragic, in that most of the men from the Polish II Corps, like Lipinski, were from Eastern Poland, lands that had been annexed by the Soviet Union and would never again be part of Poland. And yet still they fought, far from home, hoping that one day they too would be able to liberate their homeland. As is inscribed at the Polish cemetery in Monte Cassino, “We soldiers of Poland gave our lives to God, our bodies to the soil of Italy, and our hearts to Poland.”
And so, as the 76th anniversary of the victory at Monte Cassino approached this May, an idea took hold to commemorate the battle, and those who fought in it.
As Lipinski, from his front lawn in Virginia the day before the anniversary, began answering the Polish journalist’s questions about his wartime experience and his recollections from that bloody battle, a few blocks away cars filled with appreciative friends, acquaintances and strangers began to gather at a neighborhood elementary school. As the clock approached the meet-up time, the lot began to fill, until it soon was packed with over 30 vehicles. Drivers fastened Polish flags and decorations to their vehicles, and two Fairfax County Police Cruisers arrived to lead the convoy.
With everyone ready, the convoy began to leave the parking lot en route to Lipinski’s house, only to find a stream of another two-dozen or so cars that could not even fit into the parking lot. It was then that it became apparent just how impactful the show of support would be for Col. Lipinski.
When the wails of the police sirens interrupted their interview, the Colonel looked confused. The journalist, yelling over the noise of the sirens, explained “they came here for you” and only then, after a few moments, Col. Lipinski realized what was happening, as car after car slowly drove by, adorned with Polish flags, shouts of thanks and homemade signs. The cars — carrying neighbors, members of the Polish-American community, journalists and diplomats from the Polish Embassy, including the Defense Attaché Maj. Gen. Cezary Wisniewski — would stop briefly in front of Lipinski, united in showing a humble hero that 76 years later, his courage and sacrifice were not forgotten.
As Lipinski stood on the sidewalk and greeted each car with a salute, he began to tear up. Later, he would recall, “I am stunned by what is happening here today. I did not expect such a display of gratitude from my countrymen. I accept it in the name of all my fellow soldiers, not all of whom were lucky as I to get out in one piece.”
Speaking through the face mask he wore, he added, “I am so moved … all that I did was fulfill my obligation. I am not a hero.”
But those in the dozens of cars driving in front of his house begged to differ.
On July 25, 2020 Col. Lipinski will be celebrating his 95th birthday. All wishing to send him a birthday greetings can do so by writing to:
Polish Defense Attache
Attn: Col. Romuald Lipinski
2224 Wyoming Ave. NW
Washington, DC, 20008
This article was published in the July-August 2020 edition of the Polish American Journal