Polish 2nd Corps
With his family, Romuald was forcefully deported from their home in the pre-WW2 eastern borderlands of Poland to the depths of Siberia by the Soviets. Released on 'amnesty', they made their way south where the Polish Army was being formed in the Soviet Union. After recovering from serious illnesses, Romuald eventually followed the battle trail of the Polish 2nd Corps, throughout the Middle East and Italy, including the harrowing Battle of Monte Cassino. . After the war, Romuald pursued his studies with as much dedication as he had pursued his military activities. Romua;d ended up raising a family in the United States, has been a life-long member in the Polish veterans association, and continues to give talks at schools and local events.
Romuald wrote his autobiography for his descendants, and we are truly honoured that he has agreed to share his stories and his photos with us.
1. LIFE in the KRESY
I was born on July 25, 1925 in Myszyniec, near Lomza, Poland. I had a sister, Janina, and two brothers: Tadeusz and Wladyslaw. My father was a railroad physician, my mother was a midwife, and we were considered middle class by the Polish standards of the time. Three times a year, we had free 2nd class railroad tickets, so we traveled extensively. The railroad allocated a comfortable apartment, with a large yard and a garden, for the family. We had a telephone, which were quite rare back then.
My father played the violin and my brother played the guitar, so there was always music in our house.
I had two passions: reading books and playing chess—we all played chess. My friends and I played military games, cops and robbers, and cowboys and Indians. I liked to go to the movies, and remember seeing American cowboy movies with Polish subtitles. One of my favorite pastimes was tree climbing; there were several trees in our backyard and I spent hours sitting up in them. By 1939 I had finished the 1st year of “gimnazjum” – the equivalent of 7th grade.
We knew that war was imminent; there was a general mobilization of the armed forces, the radio was full of audacious slogans like “we won’t give up a single uniform button”, and there were constant reports of the critical economic situation in Germany, etc. The adults were always talking about the war, and I could see that they were very concerned about it, but as a 14-year-old, I didn't really grasp the seriousness of it all.
Yet it was a cruel reality when it finally erupted. We were living in the suburbs of Brzesc nad Bugiem, in close proximity to farmers’ fields, and took shelter in those fields so as to be further from the railroad station, which was being repeatedly bombarded. I once saw a railroad car go up in the air as a result of an explosion, and I was very frightened. I looked up and saw small points in the sky, which looked so innocent, and yet were causing such devastation. I didn't see anyone killed at that time, but everyone was running in every direction, in great panic.
One day, we heard guns nearby and we spent that night at a farm house. We heard guns throughout the night; by morning all was quiet the Germans had occupied the city. For us, the fighting part of the war was over. But the Germans didn't stay in Brzesc for long. On 17 September 1939, the first Soviet troops entered the city, and the German troops retreated beyond the Bug River.
Soon, remnants of the Polish army began to arrive: uniformed soldiers, unshaven, hungry, confused, wondering all over the area, asking for food, directions, information. One of us was always coming home with a stranger, so one room was designated as a "hostel" for civilian or military refugees. A great many people came through our house. We put straw mattresses on the floor of that room and "guests" slept side by side. Mother prepared dumplings in a big kettle, and everyone lined up to get some. This was our main diet, 3 times a day.
Trainloads of captured Polish soldiers passed through Brzesc, going east, and my father tended to the sick or wounded, and helped some of the soldiers escape. One day, my brother Wladek came through on such a train, and the railway workers managed to have him released. He eventually made his way to France, and then joined the Polish Paratroop Brigade.
Meanwhile, my brother Tadek became involved in an anti-Soviet organization at school, and he had to leave the Russian-occupied area of Poland or face arrest. He made his way to the German zone, with our sister, and our half-sister and her family. He eventually escaped and joined the Polish Second Corps in Italy.
I remained alone with my parents. My father was soon dismissed from work and we moved to a single room. Father continued to look after railway workers, who paid him, so we were not hungry. I missed the 1939/1940 school year, but school reopened for the 1940-1941 session. Subjects were taught in Polish, but Russian and German were added, and the syllabus was modeled on Russian schools. Religious holidays were no longer observed, and anti-religious propaganda was rampant. My friends and I dreamed of a time when we would chase the Soviets out of our country.
They came at about 2:30 am; an NKVD officer and two privates. They gave us an hour to pack. It was the night of June 19-20, 1941. Freight cars were waiting at Brzesc Central station, and they loaded about 50 people per box car. Most of the families were without men, so we were lucky to have my father with us. When the train set out the next day, I could not know the dramatic consequences of this moment on the rest of my life.
After 12 days, we arrived at Barnaul, the capital city of Altaiski Krai - a beautiful landscape, resembling Vermont or New Hampshire. We were brought to "Vostochnyi Poselok" or Eastern Settlement, near the Ob River. At first, our group of 400 occupied temporary barracks while permanent ones were being built. My mother and I volunteered to work on these, so as to have priority for a room. I carried mortar to the plasterers.
The barracks consisted of a long central corridor with one-room units on each side. Each room was about 8' x 12' feet - just large enough to put two narrow beds against each wall and a small table in the middle. A communal kitchen was located the end of the corridor. The inside and outside surface of the walls were made of two layers of 1"x 6" boards, separated by studs, leaving a 4" space. This space was filled with wood filings, as insulation. Inside walls were plastered. In time, the wood filings settled, and the upper part of the structure was un-insulated.
The 180 rubles per month that I earned did not buy much, so I would fish at the Ob River, catching 15‑20 lb. of fish at a time. We dried some for the winter, unaware that we would not spend even one winter here. We were also getting 500 grams of bread per day.
My first experience of a Russian bath was unforgettable: it was a large room, with a pile of hot rocks in the middle. A fire kept the rocks hot; water thrown on the rocks filled the room with steam. People sat on benches arranged like an amphitheater, and bathers flagellated themselves with twigs. Disrobing in a locker room, we got soap and a towel from a woman on the way in. As a boy of fifteen, standing naked in front of a woman was a very painful experience, but entering the women’s bath by mistake on my way out, was even more painful !
When ‘amnesty” came, my father wrote to the Polish Army, volunteering as a doctor, my mother as a nurse, and I as a helper, and we were directed to Tashkent. My father convinced the Poles at the camp to go to Tashkent: if not to join the Polish Army, then to gain the protection of the Polish authorities there - 54 people agreed. Each person contributed about 250 rubles to hire two box cars that were attached to a train going south. We left in October, having spent 4 months in Barnaul.
We reached Kokand, 200 kilometers east of Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and the NKVD sent us to Kirghizstan, to the “Pravda” collective farm, near the Chinese border. We were allocated a large room that we shared with two elderly ladies, and two Jewish men. Since this was winter, we did not work. Everything was very primitive. Every day, the locals took their blankets outside to kill the lice, and one of their main occupations was removing lice from each other's heads. Lice were everywhere. You could not even buy a train ticket without going through a delousing machine (where you put your clothes into a steam-enclosed area) and producing a "Delousing Certificate."
In February 1942, the Polish Army HQ moved from Buzuluk to Yangi-Yul, and my father was accepted as a doctor, my mother as a nurse, and I as a volunteer. We were sent to the 9th Infantry Division in Margelan, Uzbekistan, but I came down with typhoid, so my mother and I stayed in a rented room in Gorchakovo while I recuperated, and so we missed the first evacuation out of the USSR. We were part of the second evacuation from Krasnowodsk, on a ship named “Zdanow”. Every inch of the deck was occupied, and many people were sick; some could not even move, and were lying in their urine and feces. It was a pitiful sight. In order to use the latrines, one had to climb on a narrow wooden platform jutting out over the water, then squat, holding the wooden railing, and relieve himself directly into the sea.
3. MIDDLE EAST
We reached Pahlevi in about 30 hours, and people were praying, hugging, kissing the sand on the beach, and crying with emotion. Our clothes were burned, we were given new clothing, we were disinfected, and we bathed in the sea. The food consisted of fatty mutton and rice, which was disastrous for stomachs that had digested so little for so long. Diarrhea was rampant, and the stench around the camp was awful. Luckily, we avoided the worst of these consequences.
I soon found friends of my age and we started to behave like normal people. After staying on the beach for about three weeks, we boarded open trucks for the trip to Teheran. The road across the Elburz Mountains was wide enough for one truck, only allowing two trucks to pass at specific points. The Persian drivers drove at break-neck speed, and one could see the wreckage of vehicles hundreds of feet below.
In Teheran, we were located in Camp No. 2, about five kilometers from the city. Families were allocated a number of beds in the barracks, and hung blankets for privacy. The camp kitchen distributed food.
The Polish authorities started identifying and listing the refugees. Some verification was required, such as two witnesses, or some written document. But there were those who pretended to be someone else. One man declared that he was a priest, and listened to confessions, celebrated masses, married couples, but was later discovered to be an imposter.
Father was soon discharged from the Army, and got a job at the Polish hospital in Teheran. I attended school in a brick garage, with cubicles for each classroom. The only equipment was a blackboard on a tripod. Everyone sat on bricks, and we were given writing paper and pencils. Our teachers were recruited from the camp population, and did their best to put some wisdom into our heads.
We did the things that teenagers do: play volley ball, go to the movies, going for walks and so on. We received a shipment of clothing from the USA and I was given a pink suit, so I was somewhat of a landmark in the camp.
In January 1943, I was drafted, but I was allowed to finish the school year, then we were loaded onto trucks and shipped to Irak, where the Polish Army was stationed. That trip opened a new chapter in my life: the military service.
In Khanaquin I was assigned to the 12 Podolski Lancers Regiment, stationed in Quizil Ribat in the middle of Iraq. This regiment had American armored cars and British infantry carriers. I joined a mortar platoon; there were three men to one mortar, and six mortars in a platoon. Each mortar had one carrier, which was a small vehicle on tracks, with a driver and a gunner. We had to squeeze three men into the vehicle and take as much ammunition as possible. Soon after reaching Quizil Ribat, I was accepted to 4th year high in a school organized by the army.
In August, the Second Corps was moved to Palestine and again I went to school. We had few books; teachers taught from memory and we took copious notes. After 1½ months we returned to our regiments, for 2 weeks of exercises with British troops. We were then given books and told to study for future exams. In mid-December, we boarded transport ships for Italy.
4. ITALIAN CAMPAIGN
There were many ships in our convoy, surrounded by destroyers looking for U-boats. We reached Taranto on 21 December 1943, and spent 6 weeks preparing for combat. In mid-February, my platoon was assigned to Pescopennataro; our first combat position. The first casualty I witnessed - a soldier killed by a mine - had a sobering effect on me, making me realize that we were not just playing at soldiers.
In April we moved to the central part of Italy where we again underwent extensive physical training. We reached Cassino on 30 April 1944. The valley below the monastery was covered with red poppies. Later, during battles, I often looked at those distant beautiful flowers; the poppies were in striking contrast with the immediate surroundings, where there was so much death: trees with bare limbs, no grass, and dead bodies littering the ground - decomposing, covered with lime. The odor was suffocating. And flies were everywhere. Such a sharp contrast to the valley of red poppies far below!
After dark on 31 April, we started our march towards the hills. On the way, some shells exploded right where our regiment had just been. A few minutes earlier and there would have been massive carnage. I had several close calls during the ensuing battles. Each time, I experienced claustrophobia – an overwhelming desire to get out into an open field, away from any enclosure. Common sense told me that it is safer to stay put, but I really wanted to get out.
We left the area of the Monastery on 24 May. As we left, we passed the temporary cemetery. Long columns of bodies wrapped in blankets were waiting for burial. It had a chilling effect on us all. We realized that we could have been among these less fortunate, who not long ago were young men, full of vigor and dreams about the future.
After Monte Cassino we were sent to the Adriatic coast, chasing the retreating Germans. We were in constant action from 15 June until mid-September, when I was sent to officer-cadet school. The school was located near Peruggia. We stayed in tents and there was mud everywhere. We later transferred to a building that used to be a monastery. We learned to command a platoon of tanks, to drive every type of vehicle, and to shoot every firing device. I graduated on 7 May 1945, and returned to my regiment with the rank of corporal. One had to serve as corporal for a time, before being promoted to second lieutenant.
I returned to my regiment on the Adriatic coast, where our platoon was transformed into a regimental battery and were given 88 mm guns on half-tracks. The Iron Curtain was falling on Europe and we were hoping that we would tear it down. For this reason there was intensive training in every part of the Second Corps
I soon learned that a school was being organized for those who had completed 4 years high school. I was accepted and spent four months in southern Italy, in intensive study, covering two years of classes, with a particular emphasis on mathematics and physics.
Before I knew it, it was October 1945, and I was awarded a certificate of completion.
Once again, I returned to my regiment and my previous duties, but soon learned that technical courses were being organized, to teach practical skills such as drafting. I applied, but was advised to go to University instead. Italian Universities had agreed to accept Polish soldiers with completion certificates. I enrolled in chemical engineering.
5. MY STRUGGLE FOR EDUCATION
I soon headed for the Polytechnic in Turin, and one of the happiest periods in my life: complete freedom of movement, and good financial support, in a nice town. The curriculum was very extensive and highly theoretical, with two examination periods per year. But our contentment was short-lived. The puppet government in Poland forced the Italians to repeal their recognition of our leaving certificates, and invalidated our enrollment. However, we were given the option of taking exams, and were given several months to prepare. We hired tutors and studied like mad, and I passed the exam.
My parents had spent the war in Lebanon, and I applied for a furlough to visit them. Their six children were in different parts of the world, and all were involved in the war, so they were anxious to see us. During my visit, we discussed the fact that my studies would again be interrupted when the Polish forces withdrew from Italy, and they suggested that I apply to the French University in Beirut, which I did. I moved to Beirut and started to attend lectures. In the summer of 1947, I received orders to rejoin my regiment that had moved to England, so my time at the Beirut University came to an end. I had no choice; I left for Egypt and boarded a ship for England.
In England, I sent a letter to 18 colleges and universities, and was admitted on scholarship to the Leicester College of Arts and Technology. I enrolled in civil engineering. My challenge was my poor knowledge of English and inadequate high school education. Soon after arriving in Leicester, I was demobilized from the Polish Army.
I shared the proceeds of my scholarship with my brother Tadek, who came to live with me, and we barely scraped by from month to month. We attended some of the same classes, and I tried to help him as much as possible.
Our parents arrived from Lebanon to England, and lived in a camp in Lincolnshire, and later came to Leicester. They received a small pension, sufficient to cover the most expenses of daily life. They rented a room in the same house, but we soon realized that this was expensive for all of us. We decided to buy a house large enough to rent room, and found a partner to purchase half with us. It was a large house, with eight rooms and a kitchen. In the past it might have been used as a boarding house. We divided the rooms and the costs with the other family. Four rooms were ours: Tadek and I occupied one, our parents another and two rooms were rented, which supplemented my scholarship substantially.
That year, I failed the University exams, and lost my scholarship. I put all my energy into studying and teaching myself practically all of the high school material, which had been covered in such an abbreviated fashion in the army. My results improved on the next exams, but I still failed. I finally passed three subjects, with a weakness in one, in July 1950. By November, I passed the last subject, and my scholarship was restored.
This period of my life was very difficult. I knew very little English, so I had to first translate, then study, every page of every text book. Education became an obsession, resulting in life-long insomnia, and nearly led to a nervous breakdown.
My life revolved around my studies for the next year, until a major event in November 1951: I met Iza - Izabela (Iza) Zienkiewicz! My brother Tadek had moved to Manchester, and I went to visit him in order to attend the Polish Independence Day event. A dance at the SPK was the venue that brought her into my life. What attracted me most about her, were her eyes: the most beautiful eyes I had ever seen. Big, fiery, beautiful, surrounded by perfect eyebrows. From the very moment that she looked at me, I was under her spell.
I went back two weeks later, and spent an evening with her at an SPK dance. By the end of that evening, we both knew that we wanted to spend the rest of our lives together. Iza and her parents were scheduled to leave for the U.S. as soon as they received their visas, and our future looked grim. I saw her again in Manchester on New Year’s Day and asked her to marry me, and she accepted. The following weekend, she came to Leicester to meet my parents. She left for the USA with her parents on 15 January 1951. I resumed my studies, but we wrote frequent letters, and dreamed of the day we would be together.
Iza returned to England in August 1952, and we were married 3 weeks later. We were married on a Saturday, and I was back at school on Monday. In July 1953, Iza returned to the USA and immediately applied for me to join her. By September I was advised that the US Consulate had issued a visa for me, and there was a berth on a ship available for me in December. I arrived in the USA on 23 December 1953.
6. LIFE IN THE USA
Early days in the USA were not easy. My first job was as a junior draftsman in a small New Jersey company. I enrolled in evening classes at the Newark College of Engineering, and continued my studies. In 1957, I graduated with a B.Sc. in Civil Engineering. I immediately started evening classes towards a Masters in Civil Engineering, which I received in 1961.
During this period, I changed jobs several times, and passed the test for Engineering Registration, which gave me the right to supervise and approve projects.
In 1956 our son, Adam, was born and in 1959, our daughter Eva, followed by Yolanda in 1964. In 1965 I was hired by the US Navy in Washington, D.C. and we moved to Annandale, Virginia where we remain to this day. In 1969 I started to work for the US Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), which later became the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). This was very challenging work, involving the design of nuclear plants, testifying at public hearings, and writing standards for the design of nuclear plants.
Soon after moving to the Washington area I received an offer to teach mathematics and engineering at the University of Virginia. Consequently, I resigned from my plans to pursue a Ph.D. and combined a teaching career, with a solid position at the AEC/NRC.
That is how I started my career as an Adjunct Professor. I have taught at the Graduate School of the US Dept. of Agriculture, and the Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA). In 1989, I resigned from the NRC, and worked six years for Idaho National Engineering Laboratory. Then I retired for good, and have since been tutoring math students from high schools and universities.
I am also active in the local Polish Legion of American Veterans (PLAV) where I am a National Color Guards Commander. I represent PLAV at various ceremonies, such as veteran commemorations at the National Arlington Cemetery, meeting dignitaries from Poland attending events at the Polish Embassy, etc.