The roads were littered with wrecked cars and rubble, and the sound of shelling could be heard in the distance.
These were common sights and sounds for Waimate man Don Johns when he served with the 6th field regiment in Italy and North Africa during World War 2.
Like many other men his age, Mr Johns was excited and determined to win the war.
“We didn’t know what to expect,” he said.
A week after turning 21 in 1942, he headed into battle.
About that time he also became engaged to his future wife, Gwyneth, and the couple kept in contact with each other by letter.
After spending time in North Africa, Mr Johns travelled with Allied forces to Italy, where he joined the bloody battle for Monte Cassino.
Holding the rank of gunner, he served as a jeep driver throughout the war.
Being a jeep driver was interesting as it allowed him to see the war in a different way, and like his comrades, he got used to the sounds of ear-piercing shelling in cities around Italy.
“If you heard the sounds of shells being fired, you’d take cover and hope for the best,” he said.
One memory that etched itself into his mind was when he drove a commanding officer to a cemetery in Italy.
During the drive, the pair encountered a burnt-out vehicle sitting on the side of the road.
“You could see this vehicle with this arm hanging out the side.”
The officer ordered him to drive around the vehicle, but Mr Johns felt in his gut something was not right, and told his superior they should be cautious.
In frustration, the officer raised his voice at Mr Johns, telling him to drive on, but the Kiwi defied the order. He stopped, got out of the jeep and inspected the scene.
He discovered the area had been riddled with mines, and passed on that information to a shocked officer, who said: “Christ, you just saved our bloody lives.”
Mr Johns had a second brush with death while serving in Italy.
He had worked a late shift to supply artillery units. There was one more run to be made, and a good friend offered to finish it for him.
His mate was killed by enemy forces on that supply run.
“I buried him that afternoon.”
That mate was “a great singer – you could hear him coming down the road singing The Old Rugged Cross at the top of his voice and the boys would all clap.”
There were some good times during the war.
Once Allied forces liberated Trieste, the last German-occupied city in Italy, Mr Johns took time off to visit Rome.
Back in Trieste, his squad spent many days drinking “grog” that was found hidden in a distillery.
“The boys partied and drank with girls from the city. That’s all there was to do.”
After returning to New Zealand, Mr Johns went home to Waimate.
He got married, and worked as a builder in the area, constructing countless houses.
Now 96, he spends most of his time with his wife around the house watching television, reading and relaxing.
In a bedroom within their house stands a shrine-like table dedicated to the war. The table stores photos of old war buddies and medals.
Although Mr Johns’ memory may be fading, the photos remind him of old friends, and more importantly, they serve as a reminder to never forget those who did not return home.