CONVERSATION WITH ZDZISIAW JULIAN STAROSTECKI
FROM MONTE CASSINO TO "PATRIOT" WARHEADS.
from The Roots Are Polish
by Aleksandra Ziólkowska-Boehm
During my Delaware stay through the winter of 1995, I came across information about a former Polish soldier -now a resident of Sarasota, Florida - who fought at the Battle of Monte Cassino. Fifty one years have elapsed. I harbour a reverential awe for the historic importance of the battle which I featured in my book entitled "Na tropach Wankowicza," Warsaw, 1989 (In Wankowicz's Footsteps). As the proud owner of Melchior Wankowiczs archives containing soldiers' accounts of this famous Battle, I became curious about how yet another soldier, currently living in Florida, spent his war and post-war years. So, I decided to satisfy my curiosity and gave him a call.
Mr. Starostecki's life story is fascinating, full of out-standing war and post-war achievements. His modesty and self-restraint made him take some time to open up and unveil his rich life to me.
Aleksandra Ziolkowska-Boehm: - How did you find yourself in General Anders' 2nd Corps?
Zdzislaw Starostecki: - When the Germans invaded Poland, I had the privilege of flghting as a volunteer under the command of General Kleeberg near Kock. Following Poland's surrender, I tried to reach France by escape routes through Slovakia and Hungary. Twice, I managed to escape after being stopped by Russian NKVD's patrols. The third attempt failed and I ended up in a Gulag with an eight year prison sentence. Two extra years were slapped onto my sentence for my aborted escape. I was first sent to a penal colony in Komi and eventually to a polar gold mine in Kolyma. It was not until late 1941, that is in the aftermath of the signed Sikorski-Majski agreement, that I was able to do once again a
Polish uniform. I left the Soviet labour camp to be one of the first volunteers to join the tank battalion of the 6th infantry division under General Michal Karaszewicz-Tokarzewski in Tockoje. In November 1941, Antoni Dzieciolowski, a career officer of an armoured division, received the report wearing still his tattered camp outfit. Initially, we were a small group, a handful of emaciated former Gulag prisoners. Together with my commandant's brother, Kuba Dzieciolowski, I wrote the lyrics to our regiment's march "Gdy graja motory" (When the motors sing); our friend, Wladek Gryksztas composed the music. The march became the official anthem of the armoured forces:the Brigade and then the 2nd Warsaw Tank Division.
A.Z-B. - You took part in the Italian campaign and fought in the Battle of Monte Cassino, a legendary place in the Polish imagination - the very symbol of heroism Polish soldiers were capable of What contributed greatly to the propagation of this legend in Poland was a marvelous, 3 volume book by the well-known writer, Melchior Wankowicz, a war correspondent at the time, reporting on the famous battle. Blocking the road to Rome, Monte Cassino was an important strategic point in the German defence line. At the beginning, the Allies suffered a series of crushing defeats in trying to capture the German stronghold. Could you please give us an insight into the early stages of the Battle.
Z.S. - By the end of 1943, the Allied advance in the middle of the Italian peninsula was thwarted: the road to Rome was blocked by the "Gustav Line" and a 500 m high hill of Monte Cassino, a bastion of German resistance. By January and February 1944, in the aftermath of an unsuccessful British and American offensive, General Freyberg. commander of the 1st New Zealand division, made a decision to break the stalemate by launching a frontal attack against the Monte Cassino fortress, alongside the 4th British Royal Hindu division. The brave and risky attempt ended up in heavy losses and total defeat. In desperation, General Freyberg ordered the destruction of the Benedictine monastery. On February 17 and 18, the old monastery with its historic fine art collection was reduced to rubble by 500 American bombers. The bombing proved to be a serious tactical error. In a subsequent attack to capture the monastery, General Freyberg suffered yet another defeat. The bunkers and tunnels buries in the slopes were untouched by bombings and proved to be an effective barrier against any offensive. There is no doubt that this second defeat forced General Freyberg to abdicte his position from the Allied High Command.
In the meantime, the American troops landed north of the German “Gustav Lines” and were trying to by-pass Monte Cassino altogether and push northwards into the heart of the European mainland. Trapped for several weeks on the beaches of Anzio, they were systematically decimated by gun and mortar fire of the swift Wehrmacht reinforcements.
The ruins of the monastery with its German defenders holding on tenaciously, as well as the moribund offensive, became a symbol of the Allies' failure on the Italian front. In a critical comment, the British General Fuller stated bitterly: "tactically absurd, the worst strategic nonsense of the war."
Churchill, however, continued his endorsement of the Italian campaign aimed at overthrowing Mussolini and seizing the "lion's nest" from the South. The task was en-trusted to the British Empire Army commanded by General Alexander; it included the 8th Army under General Lee.
A.Z.-B.- The previously mentioned Polish 2nd Corps in which you fought were part of the 8th Army. The capture of Monte Cassino was delegated to Poles. When did it happen?
Z.S.- In the early days of April, the Polish 2nd Corps took their position opposite the "Gustav Line," east of the monastery, relieving the British. It did not take long before the order to attack came. In his address to the soldiers, General Anders declared solemnly: "The time to fight has come. We have waited a long time to retaliate, to take revenge on our age-old foe. We will have the British, the New Zealanders, and the Canadians fighting along our side. The French, Italian and Hindu divisions will fight with us too. The glory of the Polish soldier's name will spread throughout the world. Missing in the justice of the Divine Providence we go forward, the holy war-cry in our hearts: God, Honor, Homeland”.
A.Z.-B. –You have an interesting story illustrating the conduct German soldier. Tell us about it.
Z.S. - Indeed, I witnessed quite an unusual event. It was in the early stages of the battle which claimed most of our mine- sweepers. There was an explosion nearby. I looked through the periscope and saw two wounded mine-sweepers lying on the path In front of us. I immediately jumped over carrying my first-aid kit. Upon seeing the serious wound inflicted to the soldier's stomach, I felt helpless with my meager supply of Band-Aids. He was semi-conscious I lift my head up and noticed the flag of the Red Cross bel1 hastily carried out of the rocky crevices higher up Next to it, a German helmet reared itself into my sight. I waved him over with my hand; he responded by coming down and soon, both of us were attending to the two wounded soldiers. The German had a well-equipped medical kit his gestures were revealing the routine of a well-trained paramedic. Once we took care of the wounded, he closed his kit and left without saying a word. Stunned by this unusual incident, all I managed to do was shout "Danke" watching him disappear in the rubble of rocks. He responded by lift mg his hand up without turning his head. It was the firs Wehrmacht soldier that I met on the battlefield since the October 1939 Battle of Kock. I was taken aback by the human touch of this German soldier, the spontaneity of hi reaction.
A.Z.-B. - You were among those who launched an offensive against the hill-top "Widmo." In the ensuing dramatic turn-of-event. you found yourself assuming the command over the troops that stormed the hill. You ended up as one of the heroes this attack. Why did the seizure of "Widmo" have such strategic importance?
Z.S. - While the enemy concentrated all its forces on fending C "Widmo" from the Polish onslaught, the British corps successfully forced their way across the river Liri and, on I eastern bank, captured the bridge-head positions. On April 17, just past midnight, after a week of heavy fighting, the defeated Germans, were forced to retreat. The sacrifice and bravery of the Polish soldier vanquishing the enemy in the name of Poland and their joint allied war effort won respect of the allied commanders. It was officially recognized by the 8th Army commander, General Lee, in his special address to the Polish troops.
On May 18, at 10 am, a detachment of the 12th Regiment of the Podole Uhlans entered the monastery and hoisted the Polish flag on top of the ruins. The subsequent battle at Piedimonte with a very heavy loses in men and tanks, fought by the 6th Tank Regiment (the so-called "Children of Lvov") taking a heavy toll, cleared the road to Rome. This victory also freed the Allied troops besieged in Anzio.
A.Z.-B. - The huge casualties were an exorbitant price to pay for the victory. You were yourself wounded three times; in action during the siege of Ankona, then, severely wounded in the offensive of the 2nd Warsaw Tank Division under General Rakowski and in the last attack on the city of Bolonia. You were honoured with a Virtuti Militari Order, the Krzyz Walecznych (Cross of Valour) and other distinctions. Meanwhile, Monte Casino became the resting place for the befallen. Have you gone back to visit the cemetery after the war?
Z.S. - The cemetery was built at the foot of the monastery with the labour and funds of surviving comrades. In it, in the majestic peaceful surroundings, rest more than eleven hundred soldiers of the Polish 2nd Corps. At the entrance, the engraving on the plaque proclaims to the world this emotionally laid credo:
For our freedom and yours
We, the Polish soldiers,
Gave our spirit to God
Our flesh to the Italian soil
And our hearts to Poland.
Many years went by before I revisited the place. The monastery has been rebuilt,
partially with the money provided by the 2nd Corps soldiers who agreed to have their
modest army pay levied towards a special fund. It was a symbolic gesture expressing
our intention of carrying together the weight of the responsibility for the monastery's
tragic fate. What is sad, unfortunately, is that the Benedictine monks are not very fond
of us. They blame us for the destruction of the historic collection of art and their centuries old
buildings, as if forgetting that the war was by the German Nazis and their Italian fascist
A.Z.-B. - After the war, you spent a couple of years in England. What was the reason you decided to immigrate to the United States?
Z.S. - In 1947, after being discharged from the army, I entered the London School of Business. As time went on, I had a growing feeling of "not having enough room" in England. So, with my wife, lrena and my two sons, Ryszard and Andrzej, we decided to move to the United States. The year was 1952.
A.Z.-B. - Tell us about your early days in this country?
Z.S. - It was not easy! I quickly realized that the professional skills acquired in England would not provide us with a better future. I landed in a factory. As a mechanic, I was able to earn three times more than in an office. A year later, I signed up for engineering night courses at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey. Following my graduation, I worked for a number of years at the Thomas Edison Research Center in Orange, New Jersey. My strong interest in engineering eventually led to my being involved In the construction of the "Patriot" warhead. In 1965, I found out about the Defense Department Research and Development Center offering employment and I presented my candidacy. After a number of interviews and a tough selection process, I was offered a job. It was a place where projects of the latest American Army weaponry were developed. It took three months before I was allowed to access the top secret sectors. It was a great privilege. And indeed, I enjoyed the company's trust ever since.
A.Z.-B. - You constructed the famous "Patriot" warhead, a weapon used by President Bush in the war against Iraq. Could you give us some insights into that matter?
Z.S. - I do not claim to be its exclusive constructor since the concept design of the system was developed by the company Raytheon. The Department of Defense, though, was responsible for the execution of the project. As the project manager reporting to the Department of Defense, I supervised the writing of the technical documentation of the Patriot" and its assembly. The acronym was based on the. technical principles of the system: Phased-Array-Trackingto-Intercept-of-Targets. A specialized team of top engineers was involved in the project. Our task consisted of developing the warhead and a receptive radar device based on principles of a new technology. Their function was to interpret signals bounced back off the target and to transmit the impulse to the igniter. I also worked on the igniter itself and an impulse coding-decoding system. Since the Soviet-made Scuds used by Iraq in the Operation Desert had a titanic coating protecting the guidance system, we had to use a very powerful explosive composition. Its explosion would cause a fall out of 21,500 bomb-shells designed to hit the target. For the first time in the history of war, tactic type missiles were deployed with the capability to destroy ballistic missiles. The "Patriot" was the crowning achievement of my long career. After I had retired, I worked for some time as a consultant to one of the best known armament companies Martin Marietta Aerospace Center in Orlando, Florida.
A.Z.-B. - You received a congratulatory message from the Congress.
Z.S. - Thank you notes also came from the American Army High Command. Some of the comments brought up the fact that the use of the "Patriot" saved the lives of numerous soldiers and civilians alike. On the anniversary of the victorious Gulf War, I received a letter of congratulations from the President and U.S. Congress.
A.Z.-B. - In the late 1970s, however, there was a point where the early development of a prototype was suspended. What were the ulterior motives for this decision?
Z.S. - Indeed, work on the weapon that was supposed to play a major role in the defense system against ballistic missiles was brought to a halt. It was in the mid- 1970s. My initial project was called SAMID, which was an acronym for the Surface-Air-Missile/in-Development. It was being developed at the Large Caliber Warheads Laboratory - the official name of my place of work. Today, I am allowed to say that, officially, SAMID was designated to fight high flying aircraft; whereas its potential use in anti-missile applications was at the time guarded behind the veil of double secrecy. The strict confidentiality of this project did not prevent SAM/D from being an object of interest to the Soviet intelligence. Marian Zacharski, a Polish spy working closely with the Russian "razwietka," was entrusted with the tusk of penetrating the system. There is an interesting twist to this highly publicized spy affair. A couple of years later, part of the documents containing my project for the "Patriot" were stolen by M. Zacharski's colleague, Lieutenant-Colonel Zdzlslaw Przychodzien, in California.
But let us go back to SAM/D: the results of the project were excellent. Within not even two years since we commenced the research, on several occasions, the system hit all designated targets. The so-called hit-to-kill effect was not taken into consideration for the target was destroyed automatically by the explosion of the shrapnels equipped warhead. The new type of radar proved flawless during field testing at the White Sands, New Mexico, missile range. So, we were even more astonished to learn the project was to be aborted and the documents locked up in a safety box. The official culprit was budgetary difficulties. As strange as this decision might have seemed during the ongoing "cold war,' no one associated it with the treaty being signed between the United States and the Soviet Union; the treaty aimed at limiting the production of anti ballistic missile weaponry (the ABM Treaty).
Several years had to pass for us to know the true reason behind the decision, totally incomprehensible at the time. Fearing American domination in this weaponry, the Soviets pushed for a treaty and cannily outwitted Western diplomats and intelligence services. Roughly two years later, we began a project under code name "patriot," whose missiles, in accordance with the treaty, were not allowed to hit ballistic missiles. However, with a tacit agreement, recalling the success of SAMID, we incorporated all the technical advances of SAMID into the new project.
The project involving the "Patriot" warhead and a number of its components was well under way when, about two years into it, I became its manager.
A.Z.-B. - There were numerous interesting events during your work life. Once, you were called to personally dismantle the "Patriot"...
Z.S. - One Friday afternoon, I was late In leaving the office, with ether personnel having already left the lab after work. The phone rang. A pentagon general from the project supervision department was on the line saying he had been advised of a problem that occurred during the "Patriot" static, electronic continuity testing - static testing is designed to determine the performance of the electronic system before the missile is "qualified" for launching. Fearing an explosion, instructions were given to evacuate the entire area and the remaining missiles were to be removed. Since the technicians were not familiar with the construction of the igniter and detonator, there were waiting for the New Jersey Research Center specialists1 where I worked, to dismantle the warhead. The Pentagon general requested technical assistance be dispatched Immediately to the missile testing range. He obviously did not realize that my lab's staff had all practically left for the day. When I Informed him that it would not be easy to mobilize necessary crew over the weekend, he started to probe to find out whether I knew the detonating system well enough to dismantle the warhead myself. My reply was positive. A few hours later9 I was flying to El Paso, covering the distance of 4,000 km and 150 km by car (from the airport to the testing range).
The dismantling operation was complicated by the fact that there was no direct access to the warhead. After the rocket's fuselage section was open9 I was confronted with the challenge of the access to the warhead being limited by the length of the electrical wiring which allowed for only a blindfolded removal of the sensitive igniter. Fortunately, I knew the system well enough to safely remove the detonator: a possible explosion was averted. The entire operation took but a couple of minutes. I returned to my hotel in El Paso the very same day and advised the Pentagon that the problem we rectified.
By the way, let me mention that my intervention saved the Defense Department lots of money since one day at the Range costs $50.000. Some time later, during my visit to the University of Colorado, Denver, which I was associated with, someone told me the story of an individual from the Warhead Lab who had dismantled the "Patriot" and how, consequently, the missile; testing range technicians were able to go back safely to work and continue to prepare the three missile for testing.
A.Z.-B. - What can be said about the current situation in terms of new weapons development?
Z.S. - Based on public information provided by one of the industry's magazines, it is a well-known fact that the Defense Acquisition Board approved a missile system under code name ERINT (Extended-Range-Interceptor) after a series of tests yielding excellent results. It is a tactic-ballistic system similar to the '-Patriot" and based on the same principles. The difference is that the warhead destroys the target not with sharpnels but directly on contact, the so-called hit-to-kill effect. The ballistic testing conducted by the Loral Vought company was decisive in choosing the system. A recent firing. at the same New Mexico missile range where the "Patriot" was tested, engaged and destroyed in the circumterrestrial orbit a 38 cylinder space container filled with water called the Orbital Sciences Storm. The second round of testing brought the same results. Since the ERINTs warhead was smaller, it was possible to decrease the weight of the system and, consequently, increase its range as compared to the "Patriot."
It has been announced that budget permitting (which may happen If the Republicans reach a majority In the Congress), there Is a possibility of an Improved “Patriot-3" (code-name PAC-#3) being manufactured alongside ERINT. As I mentioned earlier, the above information is not confidential.
A.Z.-B. - After having lived many years in New Jersey, you eventually settled in Sarasota, Florida.
Z.S. - I wonder if anyone heard about the city widely referred to as the "Florida's Pearl?" It Is Sarasota. It is not a large city. Located on the West coast of the peninsula, it rightly deserves its name.
We are indeed very lucky as parents because our sons also found the city charming. The younger one, a lawyer by profession, a former administration law judge, moved to Sarasota from New York and became a banker.
The older one Is an atomic engineer, a former deputy secretary at the Federal Power Commission, responsible for the functioning and safety of fissionable materials production for the defense department. After working there for a couple of years, he resigned from his ministerial position and also decided to move to Sarasota. Here, he opened up a consulting office offering his services to industrial and atomic energy research centers. So, both our sons fell in love with Sarasota. As parents, we are happy that they decided to live close by.
This major portion of this chapter appeared in Zeszyty Historyczne (Paris) Nr 117, 1996 p.3-18.
It appeared as a chapter in the book “THE ROOTS ARE POLISH” (second edition 2004)
published in Canada under the care and with the support from the Canadian
Menu to writings of Aleksandra Ziólkowska-Boehm:
This story is presented here with permission of the author. -
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