On Remembrance Day this year, many Canadians will be reflecting on the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. Among those will be war amputee veteran Bob Gondek, of Toronto, who also carries a physical reminder of that pivotal time in history.
At the age of 96, Bob can still vividly recall serving alongside the Allied Forces with the 2nd Polish Corps during the Italian Campaign. “We were climbing a hill, heavily laden with equipment carried by mules,” says Bob. “Germans were above and could easily see us. Their machine gun fire pinned us to the ground. We had to deal with completely unknown terrain and extreme darkness. Finally, I found a soft spot where I could seek temporary shelter. In the morning, I realized I was laying on corpses, buried in shallow graves.”
In 1944, Bob was based outside Loretto, Italy, when heavy gunfire broke out. “Without any order, I crawled up to them [the enemy] and threw a grenade,” says Bob. “I acted instinctively.” After a short period of silence, the enemy began firing mortars. “I remember an explosion and the smell of gunpowder,” he says. “I then realized that my weapon was gone and, in the place where my hand held the machine gun, there was nothing – I had lost part of my left arm below the elbow. I felt like I was dying because my whole life flashed before my eyes.”
Bob also had extensive injuries around his leg and hip and spent five months recovering in the hospital.
He was awarded the Virtuti Militari, the Polish equivalent of the Victoria Cross, for his valour in destroying two enemy machine-gun nests. He also received the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Polonia Restitua from Poland, the Cross of Valour, Merit Cross, Second Corps Army Medal and Monte Cassino Commemorative Cross.
In 1954, Bob immigrated to Canada where he became a member of The War Amps, an Association originally started by amputee veterans returning from the First World War to help each other adapt to their new reality as amputees.
Bob has dedicated a lifetime of service to The War Amps, holding various positions within the Association. He also became an inspiration to other amputees, showing them that an amputation is not a barrier to living a full and active life. “You have to teach by example,” says Bob. “I don’t have an arm, but I enjoyed playing golf.”
Over the years, Bob has helped educate the younger generation about the horrors of war by going to schools and giving speeches to students. For the last 50 years on Remembrance Day, he has also laid a wreath to honour his comrades.
“I’m grateful that I have been able to take part in these ceremonies. It’s important to me that I pay tribute to my fellow veterans and all those who lost their lives,” says Bob.