Science-Fiction Classic Still Smolders

A-Canticle-for-Leibowitz

By Jon Michaud
The abbey at Monte Cassino is situated atop a rocky hill about eighty miles south of Rome and was founded in 529 by St. Benedict of Nursia. It was there that the Benedictine order established the principles of Western monasticism. From Monte Cassino, monks went out and set up monasteries across the Christian world. Generations of scribes labored in the abbey’s library to copy texts and preserve artifacts that dated to antiquity. According to “Monte Cassino,” a history by Matthew Parker, by the start of the Second World War the monastery’s collection had grown to forty thousand manuscripts, including the majority of the writings of Tacitus, Cicero, Horace, Virgil, and Ovid. While the monastery’s perch on top of fifteen hundred feet of rock provided security, its location, near the main road between Naples and Rome, made the structure an attractive strategic asset. The abbey has been sacked many times: by the Longobards in 581, the Saracens in 884, and by Napoleon nearly a millennium later. Each time, it was rebuilt grander than before. And with each reconstruction the abbey took on more of the characteristics of a citadel.

From November, 1943, to May, 1944, the hill on which the abbey stood was at the center of one of the largest and bloodiest battles of the Second World War. Monte Cassino was a crucial part of the Gustav Line, a string of fortified German defenses that bisected Italy. In anticipation of the Allied push toward Rome, Hitler ordered that the Gustav Line be upgraded to “fortress strength.” Seeing the opportunity for a propaganda victory, the Nazis helped the monks box up many of the abbey’s treasures and transfer them to safety before the fighting began. Most of the monks then fled. The Allied command, believing that the Germans were using the abbey as a garrison and ammunition dump, made the controversial decision to bomb Monte Cassino. On February 15, 1944, American B-17s, B-25s, and B-26s dropped more than four hundred tons of explosives on the monastery. (Film of the bombing can be seen on YouTube.) Hundreds of civilians who had taken refuge there were killed. A handful of monks and other survivors left the abbey the next day. The fighting continued for another three months before a group of Polish soldiers planted their nation’s flag among the ruins of the monastery, signaling an Allied victory.

One of the American airmen who participated in the bombing of Monte Cassino was a young radio operator and tail gunner from Florida named Walter M. Miller, Jr. Miller, who enlisted in the Army after the attack on Pearl Harbor, flew on more than fifty combat missions in B-25 Mitchells above the Mediterranean region and the Balkans. Following the war, he got married, studied engineering at the University of Texas, and converted to Catholicism. In the fifties, he began publishing stories and novellas in Amazing Stories, Galaxy, Astounding Science Fiction, and other magazines. Miller also wrote scripts for the popular television show “Captain Video and His Video Rangers.” The list of writers for “Captain Video” includes some of the biggest names in midcentury science fiction: Arthur C. Clarke, James Blish, Isaac Asimov, and Jack Vance.

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Avid Science Fiction & Fantasy Lover. Big fan of comics as well. Prefer the dark side to the light. That’s just how I roll.

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