By Luke Heikkila, producer for Twin Cities Public Television on assignment in, and around, Monte Cassino, Italy.
I have had a brush with Royalty. Not really. But I was within an arm’s reach of Prince Harry. Prince Harry gets around, don’t read too much into that. I am, after all writing this for Twin Cities Public Television and not some trashy rag you can buy at the check-out isle. What I mean is that he is one of the ceremonial heads of Britain and he makes special appearance after special appearance after special appearance.
Case in point. During a five day trip to Italy I saw him three separate times. He was at the Polish Cemetery for Mass and a ceremony of remembrance; he was also at the British Commonwealth cemetery twice for the New Zealand and British Commonwealth ceremonies, and so was I. These ceremonies marked the 70th Anniversary of the end of the WWII battle for Monte Cassino.
It is important to remember this battle because of the massive loss of life that occurred during it. Monte Cassino is a 1,500 meter mountain. On top of the mountain sits a Benedictine Abbey. The Abbey is enormous. It is debatable whether German forces were inside the Abbey, during the winter of 1943 and 1944, but the Germans, without a doubt, were able to hunker in to the hillside and gain the strategic advantage of having an elevated view of the Liri Valley below.
The 34th Infantry Division, along with numerous other Allied forces, needed to cross the valley and take the hill in order to continue their march to Rome. In January, 1944 the battle began. The 34th took many losses. In mid-February the decision was made to level the Abbey with an air attack. It wasn’t until mid-May that the hill was finally taken by the Allies.
It is important to remember the Polish soldiers, the New Zealanders, the Brits, the Americans and the Germans. Throughout the course of the trip I attended ceremonies for each group of soldiers. Each ceremony provided a powerful reminder of the devastation of World War II.
There, now you know a little about Monte Cassino, other than it being mentioned in the film The Monuments Men as the George Clooney character briefs an actor portraying President Roosevelt I would guess not many heard the words Monte and Cassino put together, let alone studied this history. I know I hadn’t.
Back to the Prince. I knew a few hours ahead of time that he would be attending the ceremonies at the cemeteries. My first reaction wasn’t positive. I’ll be honest. I initially thought this would create a huge inconvenience for me. And, yes, I realize it’s not all about me. Now I have never covered a visit of a dignitary before but many of my colleagues have and I had heard about early load-ins, security sweeps, lock-downs and massive security perimeters. I was assuming this would be the case during the Prince’s visit.
My assumption could not have been further from reality. The cemeteries he visited were open to the public. There were no metal detectors, no bag searches, no lock-downs, people could watch his arrival from their balconies, the Prince strolled amongst the people, it was as though he was just one of us. He did have a handful of security guards with him and I can only guess at how much advance recognizance they did, but to the layperson, or subject, in the audience this was not visible. He was. It was all about the Prince. It was as though it was just he, me and a few hundred other people standing around. This openness added to the feeling that we all had an opportunity to have time with Prince Harry.
The third time our paths crossed was during the British Commonwealth ceremony and a little bit of the novelty had worn off. I took an opportunity to take in the experience, not through the lens of a camera, but as a spectator. A question popped into my head, ‘how many photos of Prince Harry exist?’ I had taken, let’s say, 20 photos of him. If there were 1,000 people there and each person took, and I’ll be conservative, 5 photos of him during the one-hour ceremony there would be 5,000 from one single event. Prince Harry might make 500 appearances a year, some for large events, some for small events…I’m guessing there are millions of photos of him out there.
When does a guy yawn? How about scratching an itch? I guess we know when he takes his pants down in Vegas, but that’s not exactly my point. Prince Harry needs to always be ‘on’. Always look interested, even during a two-hour mass delivered in Polish, always look forward, always accept people with a smile. Always be Princely.
As an American guy I cannot lay claim to have ever caught Royal Fever, but after three very brief encounters with Prince Harry I can say that I enjoyed the opportunity to add to the millions, upon millions of times someone has stuck their camera in the air to blindly click away in hopes of capturing a moment with Royalty. For the record, I took 55 photos of Prince Harry. Don’t tell my buddies.
Note: this photos were captured during production of the documentary titled “Through a Soldier’s Eyes” that tracks the movements of the 34th Infantry Division through central Italy in 1943 and 1044. The documentary will air locally on Twin Cities Public Television in November of 2014.