I Remember Anzio
Memoirs of George (Aravich) Avery, Co A, 84th Cml Mortar Bn
ContentsBeginnings in Italy Salerno
Salerno to the Volturno River
Venafro: Volturno River Crossing
The Winter Line: St Angelo to Anzio
Landings to the Mussilioni Canal
Rome to the Arno River
Futa Pass - Gothic Line: Offensive to Reserve
Beyond the Gothic Line to the Po River Valley
War's End At Lake Garda
Liberty Ship SS Albert Moore
Fort Dix, New Jersey
Beginnings in Italy Salerno
I have to say here that I grit my teeth every time I hear the expression D-Day. I know that to most people that expression has only one meaning: the landings at Normandy Beach in France. But, you see, this was to be my third D-Day. And in the Pacific, every action undertaken by the Marines was D-Day.
The German's were not surprised by us at Salerno. The Allied invasion of Italy was expected, and both Allied and German planners chose Salerno as the logical landing area. So we came into a well-prepared German defense, September 9th, landing day, followed by five days of serious trouble. But on September 16th, the Germans withdrew northward from the beach head. Allied casualties at Salerno totaled 15,000.
We had joined the 36th Division and were carried by a British troop ship. Our landings took place at 3:30am. By plan we, the 84th, were to make our way to a staging area about ¼ mile inland, dig in there and wait for orders from 36th Div officers. We came to the beach in LCIs. The beach was alive, rocket boats were firing a path on the beach directly ahead of us, a great naval bombardment was in progress, the shells falling on German pill boxes 500 feet from the water's edge. Great fires were in progress that lit up the night. We were ashore and only dead Germans blocked our progress. The naval fire moved inland and we made our way in a matter of hours to the area allotted to us.
Every one dug in. The cruiser Philadelphia, close in to shore at this time, was firing broadsides, carpeting the area just ahead. 36 trucks carrying our mortars arrived and we were armed. In the dark, German tanks came within 6oo feet of our slit trenches and were driven off by naval guns. With the coming of light, the German air raids began. We were under low level strafing runs until American P38's arrived. Air battles took place, and strafing turned into the dropping of fragmentation bombs. We could see the great ship Savannah keeled over and burning, making much black smoke off shore. There was a lot of movement on the beach and the 84th was given a position.
We moved south to the banks of the Sele River and dug gun pits for the mortars and individual trenches for ourselves. We fired at targets so close to us that we were in danger of being burned by our own phosphorous shells. German tanks continued to fire into the beachhead from the far banks of the narrow Sele, which they were unable to cross. Tanks were kept at bay by rockets and mortars and those big guns on the ships off shore. Our tanks were not yet ashore, nor did we see them in the first three days. We dreaded and prepared for an infantry attack, an attempt to cross the river that had to come.
I can not remember how we slept, or ate, or went to the bathroom during the five days of the fight to get off the beach. There wasn't a restful moment. We all went as far underground as we could get. Our mortars were used day and night. My task at the time was to keep the phone lines from guns to post open and in repair. It took a lot of crawling and feeling around in the dark for loose ends. Three men are involved, one to repair and two riflemen to protect the lineman. We were constantly exposed to harm.
The expected major German attack came on the 3rd day, if I recall correctly. A naval and air bombardment was used to keep the attack blunted, and the sky was full of German and American planes. Tank duels were common, and the Germans did their best to drive us off the beach. Fire fights by riflemen were ever ongoing. By this time the 45th Div, which was held in reserve, was on the beach with all its attached units, tanks, antiaircraft, engineers, artillery. There was a crossing of the Sele River and we were on our way to the hills east of Salerno.
All these thousands of men in such close lethal contact. Where do they go when their attack is defeated? You start the 6th day expecting it to be like the 5th, but, excepting for that sacrificial line holding on to the front, all the forces behind them have melted away in the night to another defense position. And, unless there are fresh reserves to pursue the retreating forces (there were none at Salerno), the fighting forces are too exhausted to keep effective contact with those retreating. And the pursuit goes slowly. Because you have to sleep and lick your wounds.
To go back to the beginning: in our landing we crossed the beach at the ancient city of Paestrum; there were imposing ruins of an amphitheater and temples directly in our path and I have a memory of ancient paving stones under my feet.
Salerno to the Volturno River
How do they feed you in the midst of a battle? On the Salerno beachhead there was no such thing as a no-truck line, a point beyond which it was unsafe to bring trucks. We weren't going anywhere, nor were the trucks, so they were used to supply our needs. When the ammo is brought to your guns, the ammo train would drop off a case of 'C' rations. They came in a standard cardboard carton as canned food is delivered today to the grocery store. So when you felt hungry, you picked up a can and ate.
As the infantry went after the retreating Germans, we were given a respite and were left in a grove along the side of a road. We were left to enjoy the first warm meal since our landing. Rarely do combat soldiers complain about food because when a hot meal is offered, you are glad to accept whatever it is. Food is brought to you where you are, hilltop, gully, off the road, in a field. The meal is prepared in a field kitchen, packed into vacuum containers which were supposed to keep food warm, and is delivered to you rain or shine at whatever time is possible. No such thing as breakfast, lunch or dinner, just meal time.
In most instances, the meal would consist of spam in some form, powdered eggs, mashed potatoes with gravy, hot coffee and bread life-giving bread. You sit down where you are and eat from metal mess kits that go back with the containers for use some other lucky day.
The mortar teams sometimes get a break after an engagement. You can not travel as fast as the infantry pulling your heavy little carts behind you. If you are needed, a jeep or two will be sent to pick up you and the guns and deliver you as close to the shooting as possible.
One hot meal and a night's rest and then we fell into the line of soldiers moving toward Naples. Remember that we were supposed to be in Naples five days after hitting the beach, but we were still at the Sele River bank.
Making our way up the road, we were searched out by trucks of the Rangers who brought us to Chiunzi Pass. It was a winding mountain road up to the position, the road and the pass under German artillery fire. Back to the war in two days. Very dark and no flat area to set up guns, so we ended up in a creek bed, set the guns, dug in and waited for light. The pass, and all the length of the road leading up to the pass, was under intense German artillery and mortar fire. Ranger patrols were sent out at night to find the location of enemy gun emplacements and it was determined that they centered in a hilltop village .What was wanted was smoke markers placed in the village. With dawn's first light, we fired smoke shells into the center of the village. And we spoke to a British person attached to the Rangers who was an observer from a British cruiser in the waters off Salerno. He brought naval guns into action against the hill top. Our mortars, and anti-aircraft guns that were brought up in the night routed these German-held positions and the Rangers moved to the attack, followed by infantry.
By midday, we made our way down the mountain road and continued following the coast road to Naples a walk in the rain. From this point to our entrance into Naples, our time was taken up by a series of small engagements fighting off rearguard troops and an occasional half hearted counter attack.
We passed through the city the afternoon of the 1st day of October, 22 days after the Salerno landings. The roads were mined and the Germans had left the night before. The city was in shambles, no water, no electricity. That evening we slept in an old quarry, a series of caves that were being used by the Italians as an air raid shelter. I hated the place, the smells, the absolute darkness, the feeling of not being in control. By now, I knew that for my own personal safety, I had to have as clear and unobstructed a field of view as was possible. I am left feeling uneasy even today when I give thought to this Naples night spent underground.
The march continued, we ate warm meals and slept in the open. It was a long unending line of soldiers, the 36th Div on the move. When we had been walking for more than a week, word came back that the Germans had fortified a line along the Volturno River and that the3rd Inf Div was to spearhead an attack. The 84th was released from the 36th Div. We were plucked from our position in their line of march, were loaded on trucks sent from the 3rd Div. and in very short time found ourselves up in the mountains in the outskirts of Acerno, our officers being briefed by 3rd Inf. We were wet and cold, high in the hills, sleeping in a rocky field.
Venafro: Volturno River Crossing
Approaching Venafro, as we were riding in trucks up from Naples, a truck hit a land mine which drove the engine through the cab killing three. There was rain in the mountains. We were traveling a road, the only existing one, that almost did not exist. It was very slow travel on this mountain road, certainly never built to carry what was moving over them now.
Venafro remains forever in my memory because it was the most vertical place in all our combat experience. We slept practically standing up and we were surrounded by rocks. It was like living in a fortress. How the infantry ever drove the Germans from this location has to be a story in itself.
Our gun positions were guarded by a platoon of infantry, a luxury we had never experienced before. We were a rock's toss away from the German line on the down side of this rock formation. There was no way this mortar position would be secret, thus the infantry assist.
The British, just a step away, had fought into the town of St. Angelo, and would cross the Volturno at this point.
Co A of the 84th fired 4000 rounds from their mortars using three guns in two days of fighting. Five of the 84th's men were wounded at this spot by counter-mortar fire. We were instrumental in successfully breaking up German counter-attacks and ended up with a letter of praise from the general commanding the 30th Inf Div ( British).
Things happen that are not supposed to happen when mortars are fired as they were at this location.Tthe fast firing heats the mortar tubes, and some times a shell dropped into the barrel suffers a premature expansion of the bands around the shell and the shell gets stuck in the tube before it hits the firing pin in the base of the tube. So two brave souls pick up the tube; a strong third man gives the tube a wack with a pick axe handle while the 4th man catches the shell as it drops out of the tube. Ordinarily, the mortar tube would be set aside to cool off, but if you are in the process of breaking up a counter-attack, you wack the tube.
It was here at St. Angelo that I passed my first year in the Army. And I marked the day in my letter home to Alice. I quote: "...my first anniversary a full year in the service. With old age and retirement just around the corner, I can look back at one full year of Army life. I suppose I look disreputable enough to be a "sojer" but, as far as I can see, there has been little change in the ol boy. I smoke too many cigarettes and make cynical remarks sometimes. If there have been any other changes, my memories of Mr. Aravich are too vague to let me know them. Just now I am spending my time resting. Don't worry about my health or about my whereabouts..."
As the Rangers moved forward beyond the Brits we moved into St. Angelo proper. Moved indoors, out of the rain. We took up quarters in a stone house occupied by an old couple who suffered the fate of civilians caught in the path of war. First the Germans then us. I was still running and maintaining telephone lines between guns and observer. In the house we shared, the old folks took our rations and cooked for us. One of the guns found a pig and they brought it to the house with dreams of cooked pig. But the old folks shouted with joy, tears, exclamations, etc. a member of the family (what was lost was found). So for a short time we lived in harmony, we, the "Old Folks" and the lucky pig. St.Angelo was being shelled and we received visits from the German air force who bombed the road into and out of town.
In early November, the 84th held a lottery, names placed in a helmet, 25 names withdrawn 25 names out of 1,000 men five days at a Naples rest camp. Our first chance at a break since coming to Italy. I was not one of the lucky ones.
By early November we were well past Venafro, following where the road led, past blown out bridges, long detours down one side of a mountain, across a stream, and climbing up to the road again. Hours of hard work to advance a short distance forward. Firing from a hill town called Traversa brought us a rain of German counter-fire that resulted in two dead and four sent to the hospital at one of the gun pits.
The Winter Line: St Angelo to Anzio
Winter had come to the mountains and Thanksgiving came a day late. One day after Thanksgiving Day, we were given a "traditional" holiday feast. Turkey, stuffing, gravy, sweet potatoes, coffee. It's easy to recall this meal because it was raining when it was served and someone had neglected to send up mess kits but I gratefully accepted my share served on a wooden board. Better yet, the same detail brought us winter combat suits and waterproof overshoes.
We were given back to the Rangers who were launching an attack in battalion strength against St. Pietro, resulting in a two hour fire fight between rifle companies. Serious casualties were taken by us and given to the opposing Germans. Someone was hit in our OP and it took litter bearers all the daylight hours to bring him down 1000 yards from our rocky hideaway.
By the end of November 1943, the attacks against the German lines continued without letup. Forward progress was very slow. We had left a destroyed and almost-leveled St. Pietro behind us and were entrenched in an olive grove on a mountain side. Opposition was so great that we were joined by all the companies of the 84th, and, for the first and only time, the 83rd Chemical Mortar Battalion joined our firing line. Some of the mortars were set up along the road and Italian children would come out of the woods to watch us fire. It was surreal. An incoming German shell resulted in a tree burst killing mortar sergeant Glass and sending two others to the hospital never to return to us in the field.
The action during this period resulted in our being under the command of, first the Rangers, then the 180th Inf Reg, 36th Div, and then the 751st Tank Battalion (fighting as infantry on the mountain) three attachments in 1½ months, Nov-Dec 1943. Small wonder our mail from home was slow in reaching us. The line' had almost reached the Rapido River. Arctic conditions had set in and the rain had turned to snow. It was truly cruel. Almost all actions, except the constant infantry probing, were coming to a halt.
Two sergeants were killed in the first week in December, one from our own mortar when a shell exploded in the barrel.
From a letter written to Alice 21 Dec 1943: "...Hans is back from the hospital and he tells me I have changed. Don't talk the way I used to, never smile, not friendly, etc. I have been given a new uniform today. Your boy had lice, my dear. I feel like a new man in my new uniform..."
My first combat Christmas was unforgettable. The day before, we were told that there was a chance we could be visited by some Red Cross women who wanted to see the line. Great excitement some of the men even made an attempt to shave. Two jeeps, drivers, three Red Cross women, a box of donuts and coffee did arrive the following day, Christmas. I will never know if it was a lark on their part or an act of selflessness. I accepted my donuts with gratitude and can only hope today that somewhere there are three elderly ladies telling their grandchildren of a Christmas Day once spent in the mountains of Italy with some very scruffy men.
The first week in January 1944 we had moved on to living in a stone farm house occupied by two old folks. From a letter written to Alice 2 Jan 1944: "...a friendly relaxed group back here. The sarge is heating water in his helmet for his weekly shave, my pal Gary throws his knife into the table so that it quivers in front of my paper, Still writing? Send this home: it's possible to get married by proxy.' The looie adds his two cents: She'll have to stop going to the U.S.O. first.' I just grin and keep on with my letter writing while Mama' sews up a tear in my shirt, chattering ten words a second..." All of our mail was censored and my censor was Lt. DeAmore who, because he had to read my mail, knew more about me than my mother did.
118 days after Salerno, the 84th was relieved and moved by truck to the tiny villege of Pianura. Attached to the 3rd Div, we were given 12 days of rest at an area prepared for our arrival.
From a letter written to Alice 15 Jan 1944 commenting on our new surroundings: "...When they begin to make an attempt at turning a sojer' into a soldier there is bound to be fun. We take to the garrison-like life with quite some difficulty. When you sleep in the mud with your officers and they try to hide in the same hole you are using we all feel more or less the same way. When they ask us to keep our beds in a certain way or walk around picking up bits of paper from the ground, it must seem as silly to our officers as it does to us. But orders are orders and we are in the Army, I guess..."
Just a word regarding officer-enlisted men in our particular outfit. Because we were so small in numbers and because we were moved so often from command to command, we had to rely on ourselves. But I am willing to bet that almost any combat infantry group would say the same. In the field there was no distinction as to responsibility. Each person knew his duties and performed them. In a very real sense, all were equals even though you heard the word "sir."
Landings to the Mussolini Canal
We were given short warning that we were to leave our camp at Pienura. And, as usual, rumors began to circulate: going to England, going to southern France, going home! It was a game I stayed away from. Maybe rumors were a form of hope, or self delusion or masochism. Secrets are kept very well in the Army, only shared with those with the need to know.
We moved as a complete battalion attached to the 3rd Inf Div and that fact alone let us know that wherever we were going it would not be pleasant. The 3rd were veterans of North Africa, Sicily and Salerno and were involved in every major engagement.
Driving into the seaport town of Pozzuoli, we headed directly to the docks where a massive group of ships was gathered at the piers as well as anchored offshore. Ships dockside were being loaded at a steady rate and it was apparent that we were some of the last to arrive. We were driven to an LST (Landing Craft Transport) and immediately boarded. Dozens of little kids were at dockside chanting Anzio, Anzio, Joe, and begging for cigarettes and candy. Adults were roaming the docks selling oranges, walnuts, cherry brandy and cognac. Old women were begging for food with outstretched arms.
A troop transport direct from New York was moored close to us, and had been there for days. These troops were going unassigned to Anzio, having not yet set foot on Italian soil, and were destined to supply the replacement depots repple depple in infantry talk. Our hearts went out to them. And, for the very first time, we crossed paths with the 83rd Chemical Mortar Battalion. It had joined the war somewhere in Sicily, but had skipped action in Italy for reasons unknown, and was being loaded aboard a LST of its own.
Aboard ship we were invited to make ourselves at home. Part of the LST was occupied by some soldiers of the 3rd Div but, for the most part, we and they kept to ourselves. Having no sleeping quarters, we were fed hot Navy food on deck in mess gear with unlimited coffee served in galvanized garbage cans heated over gas burners and left on deck all night. I have never forgotten that thoughtfulness. I chose to sleep under a truck carrying who knows what on the open deck. We were issued bandoliers of rifle ammo, hand grenades and three chocolate bars.
Now we really knew. These chocolate bars were given to us almost always when there was to be a prolonged battle and food might be short. The chocolate is as hard as a rock, has to be cut to be eaten, never melts, can be carried in your pocket for days and substituted for food.
The following dawn the entire convoy (history says 50,000 American and British troops) set sail in a calm sea, on a beautiful cloudless sunny day. None of us knew where our destination (Anzio) was. Toward late afternoon there was friendly air traffic high above us that every once in a while made its appearance until night fell. Late that night, the sergeants were called by our officers and returned with maps and instructions.
Captain Seigling was to lead us ashore, a first for him. We were in the second wave to come in with our water-proofed jeeps carrying mortars and mortar ammo. The first wave, some minutes ahead of us on our beach, consisted of Rangers and Canadian Special Service Forces.
Dawn came and the land looked so flat and level. We were to go to a wooded area marked on the maps and wait for orders from the 3rd. As we approached a beach just at the edge of the city of Anzio, the naval guns were bombarding the Anzio-Nettuno area producing fires, black smoke and dense dust. For the first time, we experienced rocket ships firing hundreds and hundreds of rockets onto the beach. The German air force made an appearance with a bombing run that ended somewhere between our line of ships. The sky now was full of exploding shells and we all were in our helmets (what goes up, must come down). Guns from all the ships were firing at German planes, and we came under a shower of falling hot metal fragments. The noise was awful. Just ahead of us, a British transport had run into a sea mine, was overturned and burning, with the sea full of equipment and men.
We had grounded on the beach, as intended. The ramps were down, and off we drove, expecting to run into German fire. In the sea behind us the 83rd Chemical Mortar Battalion was caught in an attack bombing run, their LST aflame and sinking miles from shore. By now the battle was in the sky confused with American, British, and German airplanes putting us on the ground anxious as to where all these bullets were going.
No German artillery fire raked the beach and there was no rifle fire. The only Germans we saw were dead. We raced through the shambles that were Anzio, with no Italian in sight, no barking dogs, no pleading children. In a very short time we were in our wooded assembly area. We dug deep holes and twice that day were subjected to bombing and strafing runs. We had not yet fired a mortar round or used our rifles. As we were required to wait, and nothing seemed to be happening, we posted guard and went to sleep.
At dawn we were aboard a 3rd Inf Div truck on the way to a proposed gun position. The driver drove here and there never quite sure where he was. Lost! Parts of the beach were under heavy artillery fire. We set up two guns and fired some rounds at a road block, at last being of some help. In a very short time the infantry had advanced so quickly we were out of range. Night found us moving forward, pulling our mortar carts through the early night hours to a new position established on a railroad bed. I ran a phone line to an observer and we started receiving targets against German rear guard locations. For two days, we fired peacefully from this location without any return German fire. Soon we found ourselves out of range and moved again.
Our new location found us on the banks of the Mussolini Canal, and the nature of the fighting on the beach head was changing. Three German soldiers were shot behind our gun position that night which meant that patrols were out. It was here that we were given new carbines and surrendered our old .03 Springfield Rifles.
We did not know it at the time, but we had found our home on Anzio. The Mussolini Canal was about 250 feet wide, had earth banks and, if you stepped off the banks, you dropped into 10 to 20 feet of water. It was plain to us that we were going into a defensive position.
History informs me that by the fourth day of our landing, the Germans had eight divisions at the beach front line with five more divisions on the way from Germany. In North Africa we faced 100,000 German and Italian troops which equaled the number of Germans used to contain the Allies on the beach head.
We were now providing mortar fire, while still attached to the 3rd Inf Div, to Brig General Fedrick's Canadian-American 1st Special Service Force of 2,000 men (not to be confused with the American Special Services whose task it was to supply the Army's recreational needs). Also, this part of the front was held by sections of the 2nd and 3rd Ranger Battalions consisting of another 2,000 men.
To prepare for an attack that was to take place against Cisterna, we had taken some mortars and were walking at night to reinforce an already occupied mortar position manned by Co. B This location had earned the name, The Rabbit Farm but I don't know why. A large group of Rangers were passing through us and we were instructed to get off the road until the unit had passed. A ship exploded in Anzio harbor and lit up our area just about turning night into day. We were able to see in every direction. A desperate fire fight broke out just a few hundred yards in front of us. Germans were approaching the same point on the road ahead that the Rangers were going to fortify. All of us were exposed by the ship burning at Anzio, and the fire fight turned into a battle before a battle. We mortar men could not move because we had no cover to protect us. This fight went on through the night for about eight hours. We dug holes and were unintended targets of German flack wagons (self propelled anti-aircraft guns) that roamed the area firing 20mm shells into the line. We were given orders to return to the canal which we did as soon as it was feasible, or maybe even a little before, since we were afraid to be caught by daylight. Smoke shells fired from the Rabbit Farm marked the German position at dawn and scores of artillery pieces broke up the German advance.
In a very short time, our holes at the canal were improved. They got deeper and roofs of railroad ties were added. As time passed, we connected holes with shallow trenches. The banks of the canal began to look like an ant hill. Almost from the beginning, there was the least possible movement at the line in daylight. Every observable movement brought gunfire of some sort. The mortars were in use every hour. We were targeting every known German position so that when the time came we would not have to search for targets. Nightly we were visited by a German plane dubbed Bedcheck Charlie whose deadly duty it was to strafe and disturb our sleep until driven away. Major activity of the German air force took place daily night and day at Anzio and Nettuno against the ships being unloaded there.
When possible, we were fed at night, with a hot meal cooked in our field kitchen in the rear and brought to us when the jeeps brought ammo for the guns. This service was not to be counted on, as priority belonged to the mortar ammo so, if room ran short, the guns came first.
The entire front was alerted for a major effort by the Germans that was designed to push us into the sea. We were issued an order that defined a do or die line and were shocked to learn that our group was already entrenched there! Five days of worry and stress before the attack materialized.
I myself, along with four mortars, 24 men to man them, four telephone linemen, two machine gun crews and Lt DeAmore, had moved in the rain pulling our little carts to a location known as The Dairy. It was already in use by some of our mortars and had gained a reputation. Once a farm community, the group of stone buildings had been pounded by German guns into a mass of rubble that served as a makeshift fortress. The cellars were intact and afforded a place where we could rest. A kind of sinkhole depression behind the buildings offered an ideal protected spot for our mortars. Only a direct hit coming from above could reach the spot but people died here nevertheless. From this spot, mortars had been firing against a number of attacks by the Germans against the canal and we were the cause of much death and destruction. This gun pit was so crowded that the forward guns could not fire if the ones in the second row were in use. The men of the 3rd Inf Div shared this hole, and tank destroyers would drive up at night using the shattered buildings for cover while they fired their 100 rounds into the German ranks, leaving before daylight. Ernie Pyle, the infantryman's journalist, wrote of the location calling it a war within a war. My hand trembles as I write of the memory. We were always subject to bombardment but one attempt to silence us took the form of a barrage of screaming meemies (our name for the German multiple rocket launcher) every 15 minutes for 18 hours. Unforgettable.
On the banks of the Mussolini Canal, looking at the vista before you, you don't have to be a general to know what the next step in this war would have to be. Off in the distance, before you can get to the highway that leads to Rome, you can see Cisterna, beyond that Cori, and at the base of the mountains, Valmontone.
Bracing for the German counterattack that must come, all were busy finding the range and zeroing in on every strong point known. Every conceivable target marked. Engineers working at night to build a field of land mines at the road junctions.
The Special Service force had sent out a night patrol that reached Cisterna returning with some German captives and information for a sheltered route up some ditches to Cisterna. The following day the 2nd Rangers were assembled behind a railroad embankment serving as their point of departure for an attack. The Rangers were comanded by Col. Darby. I had run a phone line from our nearest gun to his command post under a bridge at the line of departure, and carried a radio that linked with the 84th and 2nd Rangers in case it was needed. That night the 2nd moved off through a deep ditch and made their way to Cisterna as did the patrol before them. When dawn broke, the day was clear except for the ditch which was covered in ground fog along with heavy morning mists covering the Pontain marshes. Observation was not possible. Where the Special Service force's patrol had found lightly held strong points, the 2nd Rangers discovered that they were in the midst of a regiment of the Hermann Goering Panzer's, resulting in 767 Rangers caught in an ambush at a place called Compoleone (before Cisterna). A one-sided fire fight began from which they were unable to retreat, being cut off by tanks to their rear. Machine gun emplacement made it impossible to leave the ditch. A half-day fight went on against tanks, machine guns, mortar and rifle fire: 4 or 6 men returned to Col. Darby at the end of the day out of the original 767. I returned to our observation post well aware that someday we would be forcing our way into Cisterna.
A second attempt was made by the 3rd Inf. to reach Cisterna, and had penetrated its outskirts, but met such resistance no progress whatever was made. After the loss of 800 men dead, a retreat was called and the 3rd returned to their jumping off line.
One half of Co A was moved to the 45th Inf. at a location we called The Flyover, an underpass under the rail line at the front where we spent a night and a day firing our mortars into German ranks making an attack supported by tanks. We would drop white phosphorous shells onto incoming tanks and the resulting smoke gave aiming points for war ships firing from Anzio harbor. Their big caliber guns made an awful scream as they approached low overhead. Spitfire airplanes were used against tanks at this location. The Flyover engagement was the other side of the coin we could not take Cisterna and they could not get by this one small strong point. How much room does a road under a railroad take? Thousands of men were involved with the Germans dropping back on the third day. Complete exhaustion ruled. No pursuit was made. We were left to rest that night and the next day. We mortar men returned to our canal position the following night.
The expected German counter attack came at dawn on 16 Feb. The entire beachhead was alive with artillery fire. Much movement was reported in front of the canal but the major thrust fell on the British miles away, in the center of the line. We fell under a sustained barrage and the German infantry (the Lehr Infantry Regiment) were up out of their holes and on the move toward the canal protecting us. They faced an unbelievable rain of artillery fire. Every gun on the beachhead had prepared for this and, whenever a concentration of German infantry was reported, dozens of guns were turned to that area. Behind the approaching German infantry were tanks and mobile half-tracked self-propelled flack wagons bringing us under fire from 88's, 20mm guns and machine guns. Crashing shells, machine gun fire, exploding grenades, flaring star shells and tracer bullets made the night alive. German tanks were working their way up the road from Aprilla. The 84th was firing in two directions against tanks and I saw our shells bouncing off of tank turrets. We named the road from Aprilla The Bowling Alley since it was as straight as an arrow. It was a clear shot at anyone riding that road. Of course, they also had a clear shot in the opposite direction. Many tanks and tank destroyers were engaged this day. A tank burns for days if it is hit and their smoke added to the haze that was forming over the battlefield from dust thrown up, fires burning and guns firing. The German air force was active and presented a great danger to us men in the holes because of strafing. By the third morning, the battle had gotten so close we were shooting Germans at our gun pits. No words can give you a picture of the fire power being expended in this attack. For the British, the afternoon of the second day was so decisive that the entire fire power of the artillery was concentrated on the road at Compoleone. Allied air power from the entire Italian front was called to action at this spot. From our position at the canal the effect of these air strikes was like a volcano in full eruption.
Casualties appeared to mean nothing to the Germans as the Lehr Regiment continued its forward movement in front of us. They advanced simply through weight of numbers. Then, as suddenly as it began, the Germans started to pull away from their contacts all along the 10-mile beachhead front line, leaving behind their dead, equipment, guns and ammunition, carrying very little back with them.
They were not pursued. It had been three unbelievable nights and days of death and destruction. We ate hot food, the engineers replaced disrupted mine fields that night, and the following night almost everyone on the lines assisted in the stringing of barbed wire.
Between 16-20 February, the U.S. VI Corps lost 5,000 men killed, wounded, missing or from exposure. German casualties were considerably more. General Lucas, who never left his underground headquarters at Nutteno was replaced by General Truscott on 20 February. We did not know it at the time but the battle for Anzio was to turn static after this major thrust. A state of siege was to set in.
The Germans had exhausted themselves in the last major effort to drive us into the sea. That is not to say that it became peaceful on the beachhead after these attacks and counter attacks. Far from it. Nightly air attacks were the norm and could be counted on no matter what the weather strafing runs against the front line, bombing runs against the ships in the harbor. German artillery was active day and night, directed toward any target that could be found.
But the nature of the battle had changed. It was no longer a battle of attacks and counter attacks. That type of action was replaced by patrolling, with some patrols in company strength. All daylight hours were spent trying to keep out of the sight of German observers and we did not move about on the line unless some action was required. Patrolling became the ceaseless night activity on both sides.
In going into defensive positions, the agony of Anzio became something more personal, more confined, and generated great nerve strain from being in close proximity to the enemy for long hours that turned into days, the days into weeks, and the weeks into months. The bulk of casualties were caused by enemy air raids and artillery fire, most especially artillery fire.
The 84th found itself in a most fortunate situation at this time for this type of warfare. We were sharing the line with the Canadian-American 1st Special Service Forces who's specialty (and reason for being) was patrolling behind enemy lines. And this regiment was so effective in what they did that the Germans were forced to distance their established line 1,000 yards further from the canal at our location.
As time passed, new procedures, never seen before, surfaced in our fighting at Anzio. Artillery was so organized, and communications between units became so web like, that the more than 450 big guns, and the naval guns from the harbor, and our heavy mortars, were able to fire by one command. A fire command post existed that had the ability to calculate ballistics so that if German infantry were spotted assembling in an area, an order came to us requesting fire at a given coordinate at a given time to the minute. Even though we would fire but a single round, our shell was timed to land at the same moment that hundreds of others arriving at the target. The procedure was dubbed TOT (Time On Target) and, when used, was an awesome thing to observe. Every one was interested when a TOT was scheduled. The night became alive with shells passing overhead at the same moment, the great flash as they fell to earth, the sound like a roar and rumble, the smoke and flames of destruction. You had to feel for those whose lot it was to fall under this deadly shower!
The proximity fuse for artillery shells was introduced by the artillery on Anzio. In place of the shell hitting the ground, exploding, sending earth and shrapnel in every direction, the shell had a special device that was set so that the shell would explode at some predetermined height above the ground, raining shrapnel down onto all those below it. Barrages from artillery using the proximity fuse looked like anti-aircraft fire, with all those black puffs of smoke brought to almost ground level.
An airfield (which I never saw) was established just outside of Nettuno where Spitfires with American pilots landed to refuel, saving the hundred mile trip to the Naples area. These Spitfires were airborne during daylight hours providing protection to the ships in the harbor. But at dusk they left for their Naples home.
Bedcheck Charlie was the name given to the German plane that arrived each night to strafe and bomb the ten-mile beachhead perimeter. I can not remember if any one ever shot down one of these planes.
Bouncing Bettys was the name we gave to a bomb dropped from German airplanes that exploded high in the air, scattering an assortment of smaller bombs, some exploding when they hit the ground, some bouncing back up into the air to explode at the height of a man, others burying themselves in a scattered pattern in the ground where they acted as land mines waiting for someone to step on them before exploding. This bomb was feared because you could not move around until the land mine parts were located.
The Chandelier was a device dropped by a German pathfinder plane on those nights that we were subjected to an air attack in force. Dropped from a great height, it floated down slowly, supported by parachutes, and lit the entire beachhead in a very intense bright white light exposing all. It took minutes to float to the earth, minutes that seemed like hours.
Anzio Annie was a gigantic caliber gun (280mm) that fired mostly into the rear areas making an awesome hole in the ground. It fired from such a great distance we did not hear the initial blast or see the muzzle flash, but we did hear it passing overhead and could see the monumental explosion at its landing. Our air force was never able to silence this long range gun. It was abandoned by the Germans after our breakout.
Axis Sally was an English-speaking disc jockey who transmitted from the German side, providing us with the latest popular American music, and could be heard on almost every frequency on our radios. Sexy voiced, she taunted us soldiers on Anzio, assuring us that all the draft dodgers were having a good time with our girls back home while we lay in the foxholes on Anzio needlessly. Why not drop your guns and come over to the German side. Each new outfit that arrived on the beach at this time was greeted by Axis Sally by the outfit's name. That made an impression.
The Ladder was a special artillery firing order that was perfected at this time to protect the line from any tank movement that was reported on the Bowling Alley, that straight stretch of road leading from Cisterna to the front line. When the ladder was called, artillery shells fell in the ditches on both sides of the road, and at a given distance, like the rungs of a ladder, shells fell in a line across the roadway. It turned out to be a most effective tank stopper.
The Snake was developed by the engineers and was used to clear mine fields placed by the Germans in front of positions. The engineers fashioned long lengths of pipe that they filled with explosives. These pipes were pushed by a tank into the mine field and the tank gunner would use his machine gun to fire onto the pipe exploding it and the land mines around it for yards. A very effective but sensitive device since sometimes the snake exploded before it was supposed to.
But best of all was a unit that the 3rd Div set up in Padglione Wood where we would be sent, five at a time, to get a hot meal and a hot shower and a change of uniform. I used these facilities once in four months so you can understand how welcome the chance to go to the showers were.
I became ill with malaria which gave me a fever and hallucinations and so I spent some days at a hospital on the beachhead. We called this hospital Hells Half Acre. It was semi-underground with the tents set up in pits surrounded with sand bags. This area received some shelling and nurses died there. Malaria at that time was considered a non-battle casualty and, when my fever broke, I returned to the canal.
Part of my job at this time was to take a telephone out ahead of our position some nights as ordered, to see what was to be seen and report back via the phone. I dragged the phone wire as I moved forward from a spool resting on my back in a special harness that allowed the wire to unwind as I progressed. This particular night, as I was moving out into the field, a star shell went up so I laid still until it burnt itself out. This happened two more times before I realized that because I had a defective spool of wire, which made a clicking sound in its sprocket as I moved ahead, the Germans in front of me were trying to find the source of this metallic sound in the night. I dropped into a hole, hooked up the phone and called back to tell the observer what was happening. He told me to abandon the wire spool and return. A small tank was cruising the field in search of the noise and a fire fight developed over my head with mortars firing at the tank and infantry firing into the darkness (both sides) just in case some one was attacking. I returned shaken.
The 3rd Div (our boss, you remember) set up a system whereby individual soldiers from different attached outfits were pulled from the front line by lottery and were sent off the beachhead for a 7-day rest. I was lucky enough to be chosen from Co. A. So about 600 of us, all strangers to each other, were loaded onto a LCI (Landing Craft Infantry) and were carried back to Caserta, the headquarters of the 5th Army. On the trip, which only took a few hours at sea, I gave a sailor a German hand gun, a P38, that he offered to buy from me. In a very short time he returned and gave me an entire baloney and a gallon tin of fruit salad. A group of us sat on the deck and ate the whole thing.
Caserta was a town we had fought for and it was strange to be back there under army restrictions So many officers, so many places off limits. But nice to get warm showers and clean clothes. I do not recall much about these seven days except that there were movies to go to, books and magazines to read, cots to sleep on, and a mess hall to eat in with dishes on the table. And, of course, no one shooting at us.
When I returned to the beachhead on 18 May 1944, I was promoted to corporal. No more wire pulling now. I had only to use the phone.
Could you believe that I was glad to be back with my group? Something strange happens to you when you are relieved from the line. After not standing during the day, and always moving at a half crouch when you do move, as you work your way to the rear, you begin to feel more and more at ease so that when you reach the area where the tanks and artillery are stationed, you walk upright and unconcerned. By the you reach the area where the cooks, medics, and ammunition handlers work, you walk upright, straight and tall, whistling, knowing that no one is trying to kill you. And it is very humorous to see men actually nervous in these areas.
Every day was a busy day. Patrols every night, attempts to get behind enemy lines by both sides. The Germans working without letup to fortify their positions, we sending out patrols to discover these strongpoints. Strafing and bombing runs were daily activities by both air forces. With only a ten-mile front line, these air attacks were dramatic. Most active were the artillery units. 25-minute barrages would be fired against portions of the German line which resulted in an alarm on their part and bringing return fire, shell for shell. This type of activity became very common and, after a while, the German return fire was much less intense. I suppose that the Germans could not use firepower as we did. A group of tanks would drive up to our positions at the canal at night to fire into German ranks only to withdraw before daybreak. The Germans in turn would employ their flack-waggons in retaliation, firing into our ranks.
April brought a great deal of cold rain and the slit trenches became muddy and water logged. All the while new outfits were arriving at the beachhead. In a reserve line formed a short distance behind us, the 100th Hawaiian Battalion was digging in. These soldiers came from the islands and were made up of Hawaiian-Americans (not to be confused with the famed 442nd. Japanese-American Regimental Combat Team made up of Japanese-American soldiers, the most decorated single outfit in WWII). A jeep loaded with mortar shells being delivered to us was hit by the Germans as it was passing through the Hawaiian's resulting in 3 dead and a spectacular explosion.
In early May, after the rains stopped, the ground began to dry. The ammo trains, in their nightly visits, gradually built up a dump of 2,000 mortar shells at Co. A's old position at the railroad bed. Life went on and we continued to live our underground daytime existance and our night activities already described. Some of the nights were hauntingly beautiful: pitch darkness with flashes of light from the artillery pieces interrupting the darkness. We tried to remain as quiet as possible and those sounds that reached us from the distance were muted as though carried over water. I would lie at an observation post, at peace, watching tracer shells being fired at an invading airplane and could find enjoyment in the scene.
The time came when we were told to move the mortars to the railroad site and join the stockpile of shells waiting there. The following day our ditch was filled with first aid men, litter bearers, combat engineers carrying mine sweepers, and riflemen from the 3rd Inf. The following dawn the attempt to break out of the beachhead was to take place with Cisterna the first scheduled to fall. We were told that the 1st Armored Div was to spearhead the attack and would pass through our line along with the Special Service task force. The infantry always prefers to begin an attack before dawn because the chance for surprise is in their favor but armored units always want, and need, enough light to see the cross hairs on their guns. When the 1st and the Canadians were on their way, they were to be followed by a tank destroyer battalion, an AAA automatic weapons battalion and an armored field artillery battalion. This armor and attacking 3rd In. was followed by the 504th and the 509th Parachute Inf (fighting as infantry on Anzio), with the 6615 Ranger force covering the rear.
20 May 1944. Just before dawn, a 45-minute barrage was fired and the tanks were advancing as the last of the barrage was falling. In minutes, we were being given targets by this advancing column of tanks long before the last of the tanks and men had passed the railroad enbankment. Tens of thousands of men were up out of their holes and on the move. In the breakout battle, I can only write about that small area that affected us. This was a total attack and the entire fighting forces were put into action. The mortar can drop a shell from a few yards in front of us, as we did when we were required to stop a counterattack at the Sele River at Salerno, to an extreme range of about 2 miles. So, to be effective, the mortars have to follow the infantry. From early sunrise to near noon, we had fired a thousand rounds at Germans who had been found by the infantry. But now the attacking forces were beyond us. The mortars were thrown into jeeps along with some shells and we rode cross-country. Destroyed tanks littered the fields 100 tanks and armored vehicles were destroyed by German fire in our area this day. There were dead in the fields and litter bearers working their way to the rear. The smell of the dead was in the air. But my sharpest memory was of being thirsty. Mid-afternoon we were paused at the outskirts of Cisterna, no firing of mortars here, and the infantry was fighting a cellar-by-cellar fight to rout out the Germans who had been unable to retreat. Hundreds of Germans who had given up were being marched to our rear. A thousand German soldiers gave up in Cisterna. When we passed into the city, we could only use a marked route. The infantry took two days to clear Cisterna of its remaining German troops as we left them behind and moved forward. Cisterna was an utter ruin, not one building untouched. The rubble was so bad that the tanks had compacted a roadway above the original road when they passed through the city. Beyond the city in the open fields there were few Germans in sight. We were on the paved road to Cori, and tanks using flails (long lengths of heavy chains on drums beating the road) were looking to explode mines. Very low in the sky above Cori, there was a small number of fighter bombers hitting targets in the city. Cori was the first fair-size town after Cisterna and straddled a road leading us to the base of the Lepini mountains from which the Germans had been observing our movements all these months. We dug holes on the outskirts of Cori, ate a can of C- rations, searched for water and found none and prepared to spend the night, our closest neighbor a tank force. We ran telephone wires to their command to keep in touch, sleeping in turns, as we prepared for a counter attack that did not materialize.
Our ammo handlers brought more shells in the night along with 5 gallon cans of water. Cori had been evacuated during the night but a strong rear guard was left to slow the advance This force was destroyed in half a day and to me, seemed to serve no purpose. Another destroyed city and we were on our way to Valmontone. 3rd Inf trucks had picked us up to catch up to the front, carrying our mortars and shells. We were now traveling a hillside road and our line of trucks were spotted by some sharp eyed American airman. We were far in advance of our last reported position and were attacked by this airplane. A truck was destroyed and dozens of people were hurt. You are supposed to carry colored smoke grenades to mark yourself as friend but we did not have any. So: collateral damage, as they say these days. The same thing happened at Cori, at the same time Americans were in Cori and were attacked by P-40 airplanes.
We were within ten miles of Valmontone where the Germans had retreated and were preparing to make a stand. There is no choice of roads to Valmontone and our front, so narrow these past months, had opened up but we were still in a very congested area. The Germans had seemingly vanished from sight but a fierce rear guard action was being fought on the road to Valmontone. We were pulled from our positions in the midst of this action, switched directions to Velletri, at the base of the Alban hills and rode down the same road in which we were caught in the friendly air attack. We took part in a 30-minute barrage before Velletri which was being defended by very heavy machine gun fire. Germans in great strength were not retreating from this rear guard front and we spent a number of days here.
At Velletri we were given a beer ration. Six cans, which I gave away (too heavy to carry) in exchange for some cigars. I did not smoke cigars, they were for chewing: just kept unlit between your teeth, providing comfort.
Scattered and by-passed German troops became a problem in our rear and there was a good deal of shooting of single German soldiers during the night. Velletri was overrun and what was left of the German line broke.
We moved forward with elements of the 3rd Inf to a very large farm outside of Rome that was being used as a staging area. I had not seen so much military equipment gathered together in one place since Cape Bon in North Africa. We dug holes for the night as we always did. Time was taken to unscramble units and regroup. The 84th. was given over to the 88th Inf which had arrived from the Casino front and was slated to follow the Germans beyond Rome. The following day we were to enter Rome, an open city.
We walked into and through Rome on 4 June 1944.
Letters to Alice from the beachhead
These excerpts are from my letters written (every day when I could) in combat to my then girl friend, Alice, in New Jersey, who has been my wife since 1946 and who saved all these letters.
29 January 1944 ...a martial night. Moonless, clear, dark, quiet in an awful way. Glow worms dimly trace a clear path cut by a truck crossing a soggy field. A martial night born for superlative exertions clean skin how young it makes even the oldest of them look! New and nice and shiny, awkward, over equipped, scared, content to stay in the background, The Young Innocents, some replacements have arrived naive, shamed at our profanity, interested in the display of pistols, munitions, our apparent lack of concern. Fresh off the boat. I have seen myself as I must have looked when I first walked down the gangplank in Africa ever so long ago...
31 January 1944 ...The man that did the censoring and added the line me too to my Lt's. regards knows me far better than most folks do, The three of us, eat, work, and sleep together, and that's close, my love. Do you sleep under the same blankets as your boss? We 3 spend the days and nights doing the same work and have gotten to know each other very well. They were the ones who were censoring my mail. They are not personal about it I know, out here nothing is personal but I'm trying to hang on to my last private thread...
8 February 1944 ...what an ideal Bohemian life I am living! That thought has never come to me until today. A day to day existence with no money involved. I own a suit of clothes, live where ever I can find a roof not caring who might be living under that roof at the time. My food is eaten out of cans, I work if it pleases me, and I am careless in my speech. Anyone's newspaper is my newspaper, I keep nothing as my own and accept as a fact that strangers are my friends and I care not a cent for formality. How simple life has become...
22 February 1944 ...I was in the hospital because of malaria when my headache was gone, I stole my clothes and left I rejoined my outfit where my CO looked me in the eye and said, Came back AWOL? tich, tich..."
29 February 1944 ...My cohort and myself were trouble shooting a telephone line early this afternoon and we ran across a seedy looking gent who carried a newsreel camera. He took a few shots of us as we were fixing a break in the wire and we did a dive for him like we do when Jerry sends us a floating boxcar (that lovable railroad gun)...the pictures were taken in a muddy ditch. My pal is a tall lanky guy and I'm the one wearing a telephone across my shirt. There's some barbed wire above me and some smoke in the background. You might find the pictures...
8 March 1944 ...have some newspapers (Jan 3rd) to read. They all give the impression that the war is almost over. Our newspaper, The Stars And Stripes, agrees, after a fashion: It's all over but the fighting..."
13 March 1944 ...a beef cow got shot (somehow or other) so we have fresh steaks for supper, dinner, and breakfast. I don't know where from, but a pound of fresh butter showed up too... reminds me of the time I heard Jerry's nebelwerfer (and met my first Tommy on the beachhead). We were in a jeep and that ol' screaming meanie started to come and come and come. We evacuated in a hurry. And the Tommy came up the road bold as brass. He looked at us in wonder, Hi, say, move your bloody car, They are landing a mile away, don't you know..."
25 March 1944 ...I've been to a rest camp for 2 days. Having fun. A beautiful spot that lives up to its name. There were movies to go to and showers to take. I have an entire new uniform to parade in. We had a G.I. band that played a few hours for us. There was talk that the Red Cross Ladies were to present each and every soldier here with doughnuts and, but for some reason they never showed up. After being washed and dressed up so pretty, we were lined up for a general to look see while he gave us a few choice words...
16 April 1944 ...the eagle flew yesterday just received the last three month's pay... [We were paid in military script and had absolutely nothing to spend the money on.]
21 April 1944 ...I have finally made the rest camp. Be a good kid and forgive my not writing... [This was the shortest letter in my total army service four lines.]
29 April 1944 ...we slept in buildings, the mess hall was a huge room, there were showers and Red Cross rooms and more movies then a guy could care to see... it gave me a carefree feeling to walk up and down streets watching the people... so now it's over and I am back... [This letter was written on my trip off the beachhead to the rest camp at Caserta. I was not allowed to say where I was, where I had come from or where I was going back to.]
3 May 1944 ...all is well. Nothing has occurred to disturb the distinct air of gentility I have found since my return...
10 May 1944 ...Since they have evacuated the beachhead of its civilians this place has become solemn and business like. I miss the Ities they gave war a party like air. We had the Italians standing around looking on when we were fighting up in the mountains, we actually had to post a guard to keep them from crowding the guns. I will never be able to forget the kids that sold peanuts. The people used to laugh when we would dive for a hole they never seemed to learn. When one of them got hit, the entire clan kept up a moaning and wailing. Still they were nice to have around it's a little lonelier now...
17 May 1944 ...I did go back to the rear to pick up a new piece of equipment. It's nice to ride at night the entire landscape is in darkness, not a light showing. Gun flashes light the road like lightning for a brief moment then all is dark again. If you look up into the sky you can feel that you are alone then the noise wakes you up..."
22 May 1944 ...Ah, the outdoor life! Underground, four and a half feet under, to be truthful, with three feet of sand bags over my head. Some foxhole. The four sides are covered with blankets and the railroad ties that hold up my roof is papered with newspapers. Home sweet home. Six blankets under me and one more for a cover lets me sleep as snug as a bug in a rug. And, listen to this now! I am the proud possessor of 2 white sheets... To get underground takes a lot of digging but the labor is well worthwhile. In addition to safety, these dugouts provide two other comforts: a dugout is a wonderful place to sleep warm and dry..."
26 May 1944 ...I am writing this in the field my knee serving as my writing desk. I suppose it's old news to you but there is no longer an Anzio Beachhead. I'm not certain I can write my daily letter... It's good to be moving. The fields are overrun with poppies. Huge red flowers each one as big around as your fist. I hate these flowers they are the soldiers own. I have found a cherry tree with ripe fruit and have taken some time to gather. Except for some oranges at the rest leave, this is the first fruit I have had in four months...
28 May 1944 ....each night when we stop to dig our holes for the night, I race against the sun to finish my labor so that I might use the remaining light to send you a note. I am not always successful. Ever dig in a garden? Then you know how the earth gets under your nails and drys your skin. It's pleasant if you can wash afterwards. But we cannot. It gives me a crude feeling and my fingers feel rough. I get the impression that my handwriting itself is dirty...
29 May 1944 ...just now Alice, I make my home in a cave in the side of a hill. It's deep and cool and away from things. The Ities are back. They came out of the hills as hungry and dirty as ever. The kids bring us cherries which they string somehow on a cherry branch so that's it pretty to look at. They offer it to us and then stand about hoping for a can of something to eat. The people are silent and do not know how to take us. All the males tip their hats or give some other greeting. And when we pass one of the women they usually stand still until we pass. I have seen some of them give us the Nazi salute... all is going well, it even becomes quiet at times... they have brought us a bottle of beer and a coke in our rations!...
Rome to the Arno River
The 84th walked into Rome on 4 June 1944 as part of the 88th Infantry that had come up from the Casino front. We entered at the Temple of the Vestal Virgins, passed the Vatican and followed the Tiber River. Not a shot was fired by us. We found the streets almost empty, windows shuttered. Some few Italians cheered, offering wine and flowers. I remember working our way around a demolished bridge and that night we slept in an olive grove near an abandoned airport. By the following night, we ended up in a wooded area in a great meadow. We and the 88th bedded down and went into a rest period. Our first unqualified rest period and our first relief in 138 days.
D day in Normandy took place on this day, 6 June 1944.
Rest, bath, books no duties. Sun shone and our cooking was being done in field kitchens. We had fresh baked bread and could sit and watch the 88th Infantry march up the road in pursuit of the Germans.
On June 11 (leaving our arms behind, another first since Salerno) we went by truck into Rome on pass for the day. A curfew existed; we were to be back on the trucks at a given hour. I attended Mass at Saint Peter's and wandered some streets, people-watching in the company of George Burns, who came from Brooklyn, had had two years of college and was able to talk about what we were looking at in the ancient city. There were signs plastered on the walls, "Women of Rome, maintain your respectability" so I felt sure that we missed something. The Red Cross was operating a donut and coffee dispensing shop just outside of St. Peter's Square. They offered paper to write letters home, with volunteers to help those who could not write.
We swam across the Tiber River just so I could some day say that I had done so. And we met a dead German floating with the current, a reminder that the war was not too far away.
Sometime in mid June, our Lt Col F.E.Love assembled all the 84th in a meadow and General Bolte informally spoke to us all, addressing us as the voice of the divisions we supported on Anzio and presented us with a Letter of Commendation. This carries with it a bronze arrowhead which is worn on the campaign ribbon given for this particular campaign.
Now, I must confess, I can not recall our movements for the remainder of June and almost all of July for the simple reason that we were employed at 11 gun positions. We were back in the conflict, the Germans having been pursued up to defensive positions they had prepared on the Gothic Line. We did a lot of traveling by truck to areas where heavy caliber mortar fire was needed. We would pull our carts back to the truck line, load on trucks to another 'no trucks' point, unload and move into a new position almost always done in the dark.
In early July, we moved to a broad valley cut by many canals. There was considerable resistance here from the Germans where we were approaching PISA. An attack was being made across this valley and two guns from Co A were brought up. The attack had to cross many ditches to get to the objective which were man-made banks about 20 feet high, containing the River Arno. Dug into these banks, the Germans kept up constant rifle fire, and the mortars, along with anti aircraft guns, were used to subdue the Germans. This was just a harassing rear guard action by the Germans and in about a half day they were overcome and we crossed the Arno for the first time (later to repeat a crossing at Florance). It was dark when we walked across the shallow river and found Pisa free of German troops. No fighting in the city.
My best memory of Pisa was that sometime after midnight we passed the leaning tower and three of us climbed the stairs to where the bells are. We straddled one and rocked it until we made the huge bell ring out in the night.
In July the 84th was given shoulder patches to wear above the Fifth Army shoulder patch. The patch read "84th Mortar Battalion" and announced to everyone that we weren't ordinary Fifth Army support but were front line troops. We were proud to accept this distinction.
Late in July, along with an armored anti-aircraft unit serving as artillery in the mountians southeast, we joined Co B. They were in a mountain village named San Georgio. Here we spent more than a week, our guns set up in a courtyard between buildings firing on to the other side of the mountain and beyond. It was here that I was first given the task of identifyng targets for the guns and was promoted to technical seargent (whose arm patch had 5 stripes, 3 up over a "T" enclosed by two stripes beneath). At San Georgio, some Italians chose not to leave their homes and were subject to the same artillery fire that we were. I enjoyed the stay in San Georgio because we could sleep indoors when not observing and could heat our rations and coffee.
At some time here, we joined the 1st Armored Div that was four miles short of Volterra and was about to make an assault. It was a beautiful picture-book walled city built on the crest of a mountain. So nice to look at, but it blocked a road through the mountains that had to be used. The attack was hampered by German artillery fire, but the efforts of the 1st Armored allowed the 88th Infantry to pass into the city. As we followed we could see the dozen Amercian tanks lost to the Germans burning on the sides of this mountain road. There was no fighting in Volterra. We walked through.
20 July 1944, letter home: ...Italy does have beautiful church music. In the city of Rome and Naples, yes, but out here in the mountains, no. It was unfortunate for the Italians that their churches are built on the tops of hills because they have towers and towers have windows and a soldier looking out those windows can see the entire valley below him. So the tower always comes under fire by either us or the enemy. There are few churches outside of the very large cities still standing.
25 July 1944, letter home: ...we have a Carlo in the house we are living in. Carlo has blue eyes and blond hair (is he Italian?), and is dressed in a big smile. Not old enough to make much sense, 1½-years old, they (his mother and father) have taught him to call me by name. So every time he passes me he sings "Gorgio". I have been feeding him bread and jam and 'C' rations in the hopes of filling him up. No luck yet...
6 August 1944, letter home: ...went to church this morning, first time since Christmas. (and in Rome) This chance came after the 84th. stood in a formation while a general presented some honors. Our group received its one hundred forty-seventh Order of the Purple Heart, it's 15th Silver Star, 3rd Soldiers Medal and another bronze star for the outfit. heroes all...
9 August 1944, letter home: ... I was stopped by an English-speaking Italian whose eyes had caught the glitter of these three silver stars I wore in my belt. The stars were Italian decorations which he had known. He asked where I had received them and I told him I "found" them on an Italian who had fought side-by-side with the Germans. He spoke of other things...
11 August 1944, letter home: ...Jerry is feeling through the little town looking for our gun. He is scared, the shells are coming in heavier than they have in a long time. Shells come whistling in on hell's wings with a giant awful sound of tearing cloth and rush to bury themselves into the earth with a sickening soft thud. The house lifts itself up and sways. I'm not alone, the room holds an Italian family so attached to their home they did not leave. In their innocence, children clap their hands in glee while their parents, in ignorance, mutter thanks to God, for aren't the shells worthless? They do not explode? I sit in that room waiting, sucking on an empty pipe, my sojer's mind picturing this "worthless" shell almost as big around as my body, the shell that won't explode unless it hits something more solid than the earth...
Sometime in August 1944, letter home: ...it happened once upon a time but last night's conversation brought it back to my mind. We spoke of it over a wee bit of American whisky the captain was treating me to. Picture it: it seems that the Cap (you know him from Anzio) was leaning against a bar rail and I was leaning against the captain. We had been buying each other cognac and I think that he was ahead a few rounds. But anyway, in those days the Cap was the proud possessor of a pair of long, sleek, pointed mustachio's. This story is about them for someone had tied a bright red ribbon on their very ends. I would not care to say that we were in our cups but at the time we took this display as perfectly natural. The following morning I awoke with a vague, disturbing memory of red ribbons. How long had we wandered through Rome dressed in such finery I could not know. Going to the captain so that the point might be cleared, I found him sans ribbon, sans smile, sans mustachios. What we wanted to know was who was responsible for that outrage...
27 August 1944, letter home: ... summer has been long. The river beds are almost dry, wide beds covered with small round stones and only a yard of ankle deep water making its way down stream. Not nearly enough for swimming. But chance and the Allied Air Force have given us a swimming hole! There once was a bridge. In its place there stands a heap of stones. Just to the left of the destroyed bridge is a water-filled bomb crater. A sojer can stand at its edge and dive into the ice water that has collected in this spot. It takes twelve powerful strokes to cross our swimming hole...
30 August 1944, letter home: ...I have a letter from my sister Anna in which she congratulates me on my rating and then unconsciously writes "But isn't the responsibility too big for you?" I came to think that she had an incorrect picture. I am no Doug Fairbanks who shouts "Come on men!" while he waves a pistol at a platoon of men. This soldier is not so much a fighter now as he is a laborer (I have two machine gunners at my side to do that even though I carry my carbine at all times). I am, with my radio, one. I observe and I communicate, telling the guns where their shells are falling. I (we three) work in lonesome forward spots and flatter ourselves that what we do is important...
31 August 1944, letter home: ...a story of a sojer's subconscious mind. Our field phones can be fixed so that at night they quietly whistle until they are answered. This one had already whistled for 40 seconds and we were all awake. Baron, being nearest the phone, we called to answer it. Still half asleep he reacted, "No, no, don't touch it. Can't you see it's booby trapped?" The other sojer picked up the receiver and from Baron came a low moan, "Oh Lord, now he's done it. He's done it!" Then he went back to sleep...
We were used for harassing fire at a number of locations. Two I can remember, Pozzale and Empoli, up in the mountains. Single roads going through tiny villages being used by the Germans to slow our advance. We shot at them and they returned fire until the infantry worked painfully up around their positions and either killed them or forced their retreat.
In mid-August the Brits had reached the Arno River east of Florence. We were given over to the 34th and, as the Fifth Army drew up to the Arno River west of Florence, a halt was called. A kind of a rest pause to reorganize and assemble supplies. We remained here before the outskirts of Florence for two (as far as I personally was concerned) inactive weeks. We even had an afternoon when a regimental band came and played music.
Then, in late August, we were trucked to the banks of the River Arno for a crossing into Florence. A crystal-clear memory. All bridges (five, I think) crossing the river, with the exception of the Ponte Vecchio, had been blown by the Germans who had declared Florence an "open city". Co A of the 84th was using an outdoor roller skating rink for a staging area. Opposite us, across the river, the Germans had destroyed all buildings along the water front, both sides of the Ponte Vecchio, the destruction being two blocks deep. These ruins were mined and a German delaying force could be seen amongst the rocks. A New Zealand infantry group stormed these ruins, driving out or killing the opposing Germans, and we and our mortars followed them into the city. I can not recall how we crossed but I think we waded the Arno. There was some rifle fire here and there in our passage through the city. Not an Italian in sight, it could have been evacuated. The dark of night found us digging in at some olive grove. A very simple operation, no air strikes, no heavy artillery, no real opposition. Florance had been liberated.
Futa Pass - Gothic Line: Offensive to Reserve
September 1944 brought rain to us in the mountains continual rain. The mountain roads were poor to begin with. We were off paved roads and transportation was scarce; the road to our gun sites filled with ruts and mud, then turned into a stream that became a torrent. No wheeled vehicle could reach us and we were given a mule company: 20 mules and Italian 'drivers' to load and work them. How I loved the mules! Strong, intelligent, nice to look at, and they let you hold on to their tails as they struggled up the mountains. And warm to be near. (I have no way to know, but they probably smelled better than we did.)
Rainy months are the toughest. You get wet and stay wet for days at a time. Your slit trench is muddy and you huddle up to the sides of the hole to keep dry. If you are lucky, you might have a barn to sleep in. Hay makes a warm carpet and more comfortable sleeping even if wet. Hay also brings mice and rats which will sleep with you for the warmth.
12 September 1944, letter to Alice: ...I've slept sitting down and I've slept leaning against a wall. I've slept inside a stone oven, in a pig pen, in many a slit trench, and at the bottom of a dried up well. I've slept in a ditch and in a cave dripping with moisture. I've slept in a wine cellar 40 feet underground. I've slept on stone floors, wood floors, straw, earth, stones and snow. Once, in Italy, I even slept in a bed. Tonight I will sleep under a roof; the farmer had lined up his family and they gave us a salute, Hitler's own. We were the first ones here and will be gone tomorrow; we had better show them they are doing the wrong thing or some doughboy will crack their skulls...
In mid September we took part in an attack against the German Gothic Line, a defensive position in the mountains before the Po Valley. The 34th Infantry was to attack Futa Pass, part of a German line of concrete pillboxes, gun emplacements, troop shelters, fire trenches, barbed wire, anti-tank ditches and mine fields. Long in the making, the Gothic Line was meant to hold us back.
A six day battle by three infantry divisions took place. It consisted of little engagements at close quarters by platoons and squads of men tens of thousands of men, all engaged in private battles where the only thing of importance was your own particular location. Little clusters of men making their way up rocky ravines and draws. There was very little unity. All these small engagements were tied together by the field artillery and roving fighter bombers. At times, fog and mist around mountain peaks made visibility zero. Little sleep, no hot food, rain.
2 September 1944, letter to Alice: ... compliments me on my faithfullness in letter writing. Well Dearest, you haven't exactly been slack in that respect yourself...writing to you at times when I should have been praying has been my salvation. If you only knew under what conditions some of these notes were penned...
23 September 1944, letter to Alice: ... I wear a carnation given to me by the woman who lives in this house. I wear it in your honor. The womam who was so kind is a small old, dirty woman who is, I do believe, very afraid of me. I'm sorry because of it; maybe if they can get food to us tonight we will share it and she might feel more at ease...
28 September 1944, letter to Alice: ... today we were given winter socks and long underwear. Tomorrow they promise overcoats. The weather has changed and these clothes are welcome...
That was my last letter in September and I was unable, because of the weather, to write again until October 12. We were engaged in an attack against a mountain summit, Monte Grand. At an observation post, just a hole dug amongst some rocks on a mountain ridge, from which I was directing mortar fire against a German mortar position, I did a foolish thing. The German's aim was so bad that I stood up and yelled "3 mils to the right" just for a joke. But an incoming shell hit the rocks I was hiding in and the rocks exploded spraying my face with stone fragments. I lost all my upper teeth and hurt my jaw. They had to wire my jaw shut at a MASH hospital and I got a couple of weeks rest.
I declined a purple heart for the same reason I did the others.
23 October 1944, letter to Alice: ...Lt D'Amore came to pay me a visit yesterday. Woke me up from my aternoon nap but I was glad to see him. All's well with the boys, there're getting along without me. Joke...
6 November 1944, letter to Alice: ...this letter finds me back with my old gang once again. Thirty three letters were waiting for my return, what a wonderful homecoming ...your picture of Jack Benedict and Mike from the Newark Evening News. Both man and dog are members of "A" Co. I used to sleep with Jack at one time. He picked Mike up in the city of Naples as a pup when we were passing through. Young and frisky, everyone loved him but, like all Italians, he grew old quickly. And he grew fat and slow. Mike was unable to take Anzio. Today he seems "battle weary", a very mean dog that I am afraid of. Mike has lost a lot of his following but Jack loves him still...
The very first day of November 1944 we were relieved but could not move off our position that night. At dawn's light we rode in trucks in pouring rain for hours to Montecatini, a health resort. We were put up in a large building, enjoyed hot showers, clean uniforms and a hot meal which was our first since before Florence. Ten days were given to us. Slept a lot on cots, without shoes or outer clothing in a warm room under a dry blanket where everybody could sleep at the same time. Looked at the ancient Roman baths, read some books, saw some movies, ate when/if we pleased, meals prepared by someone other than our cooks, who were here to rest. Ten days passed in short order.
But the rest did me harm. From 12 November to 10 December 1944, I was in the hospital. A real one this time, in a real building with nurses. I have fever and infection. A surgeon digs out more stone chips from my jaw, sews it closed again.
I write Alice: ...keep a secret for me. I'll tell you something I don't care to have my Mom know you understand the way Mothers are. I'm writing from a hospital cot. I have fever with me...
and then on 23 November 1944: ...it's Thanksgiving Day in Italy. I have my share of dinner, double rations. I was served in bed. When the ward boy came to remove my tray, I told him that this was my finest meal overseas but he pooh poohed it...
29 November 1944: ....today the doctor permitted me to get up...
2 December 1944: ...it's not uncommon to hear the sound of a gun fired. I heard the sound of a passing airplane "clearing his guns" and I felt myself shudder. I am going to expose my pet fear to you: to me the sound of an airplane's machine guns is as agreeable as the sound of grinding teeth. It's about the only sound I can't dismiss...I just can't take it...
4 December 1944, letter to Alice: ...I have changed hospitals; here too, I sleep indoors. Eight of us in one room, and that room with heat and electric lights; think of it why, I am almost a civilian again...
12 December 1944, letter to Alice: ...back with the company. We are in a reserve area sleeping in tents! This year they have given us an honest to goodness stove but we have to cut our own wood, a job I like to do. It's good to be back and the boys seem glad to have me back especially the one who took my place...
Four weeks in the hospital, I am a new man.
The entire 84th is in a reserve area at Futa Pass. We are living in canvas tents. The front is static, stalemate in the mountains. It is cold and wet and dangerous, the weather so bad there is no forward motion, no counterattacks. We are back to patrolling.
18 December 1944, letter to Alice: ...we have another letter of commendation. This one, darling, is given to us (Company A's four guns) for the attack on Lanuvio and the Alban Hills, and for the attack on the Gothic Line at Futa Pass. It is with your commendable assistance and effective close support being given by Company "A" in helping to crush the tenacious Gothic Line... so forth and so on for a thousand words. It's signed by the Generals, Bolte, Keyes and Mark Clark. Another for our collection...")
Christmas 1944 was celebrated at Futa Pass. Stark, bleak, snowing, cold. As a group we tried not to dwell on it. The feeling was just let it pass.
Christmas Eve 1944, letter to Alice: ...My Christmas isn't a merry one. How could it be? But it is snowing and we are in a rest area ...dressed well too, in our winter wear. To begin with, I have a heavy pair of all wool socks. Over that I wear another pair of heavy ski socks. My shoes are my pride and joy: paratrooper boots given to me by a paratrooper in Africa. (People are waiting for me to die for these boots.) I have long johns under my regular suit of O.D.'s. Then I wear a sweater over my shirt. Over this I have a fur jacket, turtle neck and very tight at the wrists and waist. Over the jacket I wear another jacket made of a waterproof heavy cloth; it has a hood that leaves only your eyes, nose, and mouth exposed. Under the hood I wear a fur cap like a Russian's. A pair of woolen gloves for everyday wearing and a pair of leather ones to wear over the woolen ones when I have work to do. I look like a bear. Oh yes, my overcoat too, but I don't wear it or even, for that matter, carry it with me. Other people take care of that coat somewhere in the rear; it's for dress behind the lines really. When I sleep outdoors, I remove all as far as the sweater (the outer jacket and the fur jacket) ...then I struggle into my sleeping bag. It has a feather quilt which is tucked into a canvas waterproof bag. All the sleeping bags are closed by heavy steel zippers fully three feet long. That's my bed, drop it on the ground, climb in, zipper up. Come rain, snow, wind, foul or fair, you are as snug as a bug in a rug. Nice, no? (Expensive equipment for you war bond buyers, I shudder to think.) But I am warm. Remember we sleep one awake, one asleep on the line. It takes time to get out of a sleeping bag...
Beyond the Gothic Line to the Po River Valley
Just after Christmas, we left the heated mountain tents behind and traveled by truck to a seacoast town, Forti-de-Marmi, on the Italian Riviera. During the transit of our convoy, which consisted of a couple of jeeps and three trucks, we were waved off into a field by some M.P.'s to permit a long convoy to pass us. Much to our surprise, the passing convoy consisted of men from the 442nd Regiment. Surprised because the 442nd had left Italy with the 45th Div for the invasion of Southern France. And here they were! We were more surprised when we learned that some of the 4.2 inch mortars of our "C" Company had made the invasion trip with them.
None of us had ever heard of Forti-de-Marmi but, as it turned out, I will never forget it. The entire community had been evacuated and we set our guns in the back yards of some rather American looking sea-side villas. Our task was firing harassing missions for an attack that was going on, a crossing of a number of canals. On the coast, the sun shone and we were warmed by the sun in body and spirit. At my observation post in a villa at the very edge of the town, I was joined by Capt Eagle of Headquarters Company, up on a slumming trip, who wanted the experience of being at an observation post. During the action we came under a German artillery barrage that was second to none. Such an extravagent use of shells just to destroy five men! We waited out their attempt down in the cellar of the villa in fear and trembling; this was not some sturdy stone Italian farm structure but was a city dweller's flimsy second home that was disintegrating over our heads. The barrage coming to an end, we continued with our obviously effective observing.
After the control of these canals was firmly in the infantry's hands, we were driven back to our reserve area at Futa Pass. All my buddies from the 84th were sad to leave Forta-de-Marni but the captain, the two machine gunners, our telephone lineman and I were glad to go.
A new division had arrived in Italy, the 10th Mountain Division, a well trained elite group of mountain troops especially trained for mountain-top fighting. We of the 84th knew nothing about them except that they had never been in combat and that we were attached to their support. Most Americans know of the 10th Mtn Div because Senator Dole was terribly wounded while serving with it. We were feeling concern for our safety when we joined the 10th in their defensive positions up on top of the mountain. To gain the summit, the 10th Infantry had scaled a 1,500 foot-high cliff, placing ropes firmly anchored so that we could use these to follow their path up the steep slopes. Our climb was done at night. Exhausting. We dug holes and set up gun positions among the rocks. My job was to serve as eyes and a voice for our guns.
The 84th supplied counter-battery fire for the 10th Mtn Div and almost at once we were engaged in repulsing two German counterattacks at Riva Ridge. In a short number of days, Mt Belevedere belonged to the 10th Mtn Div at a cost of 900 casualties, including 203 killed. The entire action took place in a high Alpine meadow in deep snow, clear skies and bitter cold.
At this time I was supplied with leather clothing, leather pants and leather jacket, which kept me warm and dry. The 10th ski patrols wore white uniforms and used a small vehicle in the snow called a Weasel, a kind of a motorized sled with tractor treads in a place of wheels. Didn't even know that this bit of equipment existed. After clearing the ridge, we all went into defensive line positions and remained so for a very long time.
23 February 1945, letter to Alice: ...I saw something today that could only happen here. Down a narrow rocky trail rode a bearded, mud-splattered sojer sitting cross-legged on the back of an Army mule who wore the G.I.'s helmet. Down the trail came the mule and it made the strangest picture: rifle slung over his shoulder, hair standing up on end, the guy passed a foot from me without saying a word. He played a silly tune on a wooden flute as he passed and I couldn't help but wish that he could stay around...
It had stopped snowing up on top of Mt. Belevedere. It is easier to sleep in snow, warmer and dryer than in rain. Winter changed to early spring. We watched the snow melt and the ground become visible. After the first few counterattacks the Germans never attempted to regain the ridgeline and action consisted of patrols on both sides. We fired our mortars only if a group of Germans could be spotted. Belevedere mostly remembered because of a faulty shell that burst over the mortar as it left the barrel, the burst killing two men and wounding the rest of the mortar crew. I can clearly remember visiting the men at the hospital in Pistoia. All were in traction with very little of their bodies resting on the bed.
The 84th came down from the mountain in early March 1945 to be attached to the Brazilian Expeditionary Force, a division sized unit - a three regiment combat team that had been relieving the 10th. A strong group of Germans were holed up in a small Italian village and the Brazilians were charged with assaulting this group.
1 March 1945, letter to Alice: ...just before I sat down to write this letter I was outside. It's a dark moonless night but despite all we have our own moonlight. Have you heard? It's nothing new. The AAA boys train their big lights over the front bouncing the beams off of clouds to provide us with some faint light. It's noisy outside with the sounds of gun fire...
8 March 1945, letter to Alice: ...I heard shooting over the hill and went to investigate. A group of partisans (we call them Party Johns) were testing their guns. About twelve men made up the group and there were about that many different kinds of guns in the group, I'm sure that no two guns were alike; the men too, were all different types...
31 March 1945, letter to Alice: ...I feel sick at heart. Today was given permission to visit a hospital to say hello and goodbye to a pal of mine who will be going home soon. The hardest part of a war to take is the ending of it; there is a lighter side, a happy and more carefree side. The Brazilians have been drinking and about nine men in one group have been playing, even as they are doing now, a rythym on a set of spoons and some tin cans chanting some type (unnameable) of tune while another less drunken group whirls in a fast dance about them, a dance which calls for a great deal of clapping and shouting. A mad dance whose purpose seems to see which of the dancers has the most skill in kicking at his partners head or back...
This attack of the Brazilians was not their first but this was to be done in strength. I was to be one of the fire positioning observers and I felt concern. So few Brazilans spoke English. As observer I had to talk to some English speaker, and those with whom I had contact spoke only a kind of English. Touchy assignment.
3 April 1945, letter to Alice: ...we were supposed to meet a returning patrol at a certain point to guide them to our location but they never showed up. I have always disliked waiting and here I was until the wee hours Discouraging. There was little happening to break the period of waiting---we sat behind some rocks-waiting- and a Brazilian came up with some men. We looked at them and said nothing. He spoke first, "I M C"; we looked blank, he thought it best to be a bit clearer, "I M C you O K Joe" "OK" we answered and off they went back about their business. I found their concern touching...
I really enjoyed being with the Brazilians but we had to eat their food, fish and beans and a kind of a biscuit. They were cheerful, always drumming on anything, lots of laughter, smoking horrible tobacco, and were equipped with their own arms and equipment. The Brazilians and the 10th Mtn held the front side by side. Supporting them, we were now firing harassing missions against the mountain-straddling town they were to take. Each morning for three days we were prepared for action and each morning, after getting all keyed up, the attack would be called off. On the fourth morning, the Brazilian infantry was on the move. For 12 hours our mortars dropped shells in front of them as they made their slow advance against determined German resistance. Our heavy mortars were able to keep up with this infantry by leap-frogging guns so that they were always available. Mostly we tossed high explosives at the Germans during most of the day, but there was a good deal of smoke shells used where troops were completely exposed to German view. A series of counterattacks took place and the determined Brazilians clashed hand to hand with the resisting Germans at this village blocking the advance. At great cost to the Germans, they lost their strong point and suddenly we broke out of the mountains and tumbled into the Po Valley. For months we have been hearing about this promised land that now lay before us. Flat and level with good roads leading in all directions!
War's End At Lake Garda
Someone had declared the war in Italy over. We all knew when the war was coming close to an ending and everyone was trying to go easy. You have come so far, how tragic it would be if, in the last days, it were to end in a disaster for you.
Just a little aside. I have mentioned the tragic fate of Col Darby's Rangers and their demise in the blunder that was made on Anzio. I knew that Col Darby was returned to the States after that action but it was not until many years later that I learned of his fate even though his ending took place in the very area I was involved in at the time. He begged to lead a new Ranger battalion and get back into action but it was denied him. He was sent to the States to train new Ranger groups. Darby did return to Italy however and was given the task of "observing" the action of a group that was fighting on the northern shores of Lake Garda. The Germans were in retreat and an antiaircraft unit, fighting in support of the infantry, was fleeing on the shore road skirting Lake Garda. This unit fired the last of their ammo rather than carry it with them, and a burst of rounds caught (sheer chance) Col Darby and a small group in a 'Duck' driving up the road (we were ahead of them in a tunnel). He was killed by an air burst and others were wounded. This happened days before the war ended in Italy.
The war was declared over. Our group was engaged against the Germans in a tunnel, as I have said, and the news had not yet reached the German rear guard ahead of us. It was days before we were able to back away from our position. We did not see the ones who were opposing us that day.
No cries of joy, no party, no gaiety. Not even a feeling of relief, just a feeling of exhaustion. The war was over and it did not seem to matter.
There was a plan in place as to how the combat soldier was to return home. Those with 85 "points" or more were to be the first relieved. Occupying forces were to be made up of those soldiers with less than the required number of points. Points accumulated according to how long you were overseas, whether you were in a combat zone, whether you were a combat soldier, whether you were wounded, etc In total, I had accumulated more than enough points which should have placed me and others in our outfit on the next ship out. At this time, I really wished I had accepted the Purple Hearts (5 points each) I had been offered.
The war ended 2 May 1945. I was discharged "at the convenience of the government" from the Army on 18 October 1945. That was a period of time spanning 168 days. So you see, the point system did not work in our case.
What did happen was that we were gathered as a unit at a location near Lake Garda in Italy. For the first time, with the exception of a few days at Futa Pass in Italy, the 84th Cml Mortar Bn was together again all at one location. We learned that a few of the guns went with the 442nd Bn into southern France but had returned to Italy and were with us at Lake Garda.
The purpose of our gathering was to renew our equipment: new mortars, new gun carriers, new uniforms, all given to us with the stated intention that we were to prepare to assist in the war against the Japs.
Do I have to tell you that our morale was at a low point?
The camp we were to occupy was set up for us by an engineer company. We lived under canvas with the tents equipped with wooden floors. We were given canvas cots to sleep on and a field kitchen was set up for the cooks. We were served with hot meals from that day until we moved out. All this certainly was a great step up after living out in the open in a catch as catch can way with a blanket for a bed.
We received a complete mobile shower unit with hot water set up in the area with unlimited use. And latrines provided in sheltered locations. Like being in heaven considering our life style up to this point.
But it hurt to know that we were not to go home.
We, of course, had all our officers with us suffering the same predicament. The only "military" duties required of us was to stand an early morning roll call in formation at about 6:00am and, if I remember right, we attended lectures as to how the war was fought in the Pacific.
A club was set up for enlisted men in a walled courtyard in a villa on the shores of Lake Garda. You could buy Italian brewed beer. I can't remember if I was a beer drinker but I don't think so. A reading room was set up supplied by Special Services with paper back books and board games.
Dances were held but I could not bear to attend even as a spectator. I felt that attending these affairs was a betrayal consorting with the enemy.
Some of our officers had Italian women living with them. We common folk paid with food or cigarettes to have our clothing washed by the natives around the area. Friendships developed but great hatreds grew also. Italian men did not want their women folks around the rich Americans, and fights developed on rare occasions. Northern Italy was a hot bed of "party johns" (partisan fighters, mostly communist). They were all armed. We remained armed to the teeth, so discord did not occur frequently. There was an afternoon when an Italian threw a grenade over the villa garden wall because of ill feeling but that was the only instance of its type that I can recall.
Being on the shore of Lake Garda, we swam in the lake. We had fashioned and anchored a raft a distance from the shore. It was a very large lake, fed by snow melt from the mountains falling in many waterfalls. There were no fish in Lake Garda. Our air force, returning from attacks in the Alps, dropped any unused bombs into the lake on their return to base. As a result, all the fish had been killed because the dropping of bombs was so common.
Passes were given but never for more than 24 hours. Transportation was catch as catch can so you could not wander far. The country side remained mined, destruction and chaos everywhere. I did get to see Milan once but really preferred to remain in camp.
Boredom existed but there was always the dreaded thought of the Pacific hanging like a dark cloud in all our thoughts. So we really were in no hasty desire to move on to our next task.
Need I say, or try to explain our joy when we learned of the dropping of the atomic bombs over Japan? For every soldier in our situation at the time could feel nothing but joy because it forced the ending of the war in Japan. Never did we debate the morality of the sitution it was the correct thing to do.
Then it was just a matter of days after the atomic bomb was used that, without any warning or rumor, a list was posted, and some of my buddies and I found our names on the first list for shipment home.
Liberty Ship SS Albert Moore
A list was posted as to who were to leave camp and I was on the first list. I gave my arms and ammo, my steel hat and my web belt to the company clerk, packed all my possessions (which amounted to my toilet articles) in a duffel bag. I put in my great coat (brand new uniforms, remember), two uniforms, underwear, hat, socks, shoes and necktie, and left the 84th behind wearing my Eisenhower jacket, a "go to the devil" cap and a smile on my face.
I brought no souvenirs home.
I will tell you here something that just crossed my mind. During the war, I wrote home to my brother Walter, who was a tool hardener by trade, asking him to fashion me a knife that I could wear in my high-top shoe, and he fashioned one for me from a very hard steel used in making files. I carried this knife for years but at the war's end, I dug a deep hole and left it buried in Italy.
About a dozen of us traveled by truck to the port of Pisa (Ledo de Pisa) and directly to pier side where we reported to a captain of a combat engineer company. He checked us off his list and we joined his engineers who were already aboard the Liberty Ship S.S.Albert Moore.
The ship and the pier were guarded by an MP detachment I suppose to keep us apart from the Italian civilians. We were told not to leave the ship
The ship was manned by merchantmen, not the Navy, and the remainder of this day was spent by them in an on going job of loading the holds with truck load after truck load of spent brass artillery shells. And it seems that this was all we carried across the ocean with the ship riding light and high in the water.
After settling into a bunk area built into one of the holds, we had another roll call, were welcomed to a mess hall and were served a meal cafeteria style, as were all the other meals on the voyage home.
We set sail for home 25 September 1945
Routine aboard ship was very informal. There was a roll call followed by sick call in the morning and then we were left to our own devices. The three hot meals each day became the center piece for the days that followed. I slept on deck by choice, making my bed on one of the cargo loading cranes. It was beautiful at night, the ship rolled in the waves and, lying down looking up, you could watch the tips of the mast tracing different paths through the stars as it moved with the motion of the rolling ship. The water made a soft swishing sound as it moved along the hull. Very peaceful, very restful, very calming. I remember the passage with great fondness.
We had nothing to do with the mess (kitchen duties). Food was prepared and we ate (what we ate has escaped my memory), and then the area was closed, off limits. A little ward room was open 24 hours for coffee and individual packages of a peanut butter and cheese cracker we dubbed "puke-ettes"
There were board games and reading material. A constant crap game (of no interest to me) was in progress whose final result was that one or two soldiers ended up with all the spare cash aboard.
We did not mix with the sailors who lived in staterooms in the forward part of the ship. During a wind storm at the Straights of Gibralter, the poor Albert Moore shuddering in every part, attempted its very best against current and wind but was making little forward progress. After hours of effort, we sailed behind "The Rock" into a harbor to wait out the storm. Spanish folks (British folks?) circled the ship in small bum boats offering fruit, wine, spirits and trinkets for sale. For reasons unknown to us, the sailors dragged out a hose and wet down the vendors in the boats below. Soldiers voiced their disgust at this action and later presented the one in charge with an oversized beribboned medal fashioned from the lid of a tin can "for bravery in the line of duty."
There were salt water showers to be had but not very satisfactory. Our toilet facilities consisted of a kind of a cat-walk built out over the water on the lowest open deck too many men in the hold to be serviced by a "two-holer" latrine.
We "washed" clothing by putting them in a duffel bag connected to the deck by a stout rope, dropping the bag overboard at the stern. Just a minute in the ship's wake gave you beaten, clean, salted clothing.
The 12th of October 1945, on a foggy, misted morning, we entered New York Harbor. How I was looking forward to first sight of the city's skyline but it was denied us.
At that time, ships, large or small, flew a special flag that announced the vessel was carrying returning troops. When a passing tug spotted ours, she started to blow a series of toots on her whistle which was picked up by ships throughout the harbor. A very moving moment for me, long remembered.
In short time we docked at the same pier in Staten Island that I had sailed from on the Santa Elena. A poetic touch, I thought.
In what seemed no time at all, we left the Albert Moore to travel by troop train to Fort Dix, New Jersey.
Fort Dix, New Jersey
We boarded a troop train at pierside and traveled from Staten Island to the south, crossing the bridge over Raratan Bay to Fort Dix, New Jersey. Looking out the window, it was hard to place us in the USA. Still immersed in the Army, Staten Island did not feel like home at all. The train crept through the small towns, using the same route that the hospital trains used to transport war wounded from overseas to the hospitals in New Brunswick, and I recall women trotting along the tracks saying, give us some money and a phone number and we will call your folks and let them know you are home. A great service, truly meant from the heart. (We had no phone but, as soon as I could, I sent a telegram to Alice and my Mom, that I was home)
We marched directly to a mess hall from the train and sat down to a steak dinner with fresh milk, a full quart bottle placed at each place setting at the table, and fresh baked bread! That made us feel that we had arrived.
Still in the company of the Engineer captain, we were assigned a barracks filling up the first and second floors. The procedure for processing of papers for discharge required that you remain in an assembly area until your name was called (just a 9 to 5 job for the soldiers doing this task). If you were not in the area when called, you dropped to the bottom of the pile, which lengthened the time of your wait. People who left to go to the bathroom, or some other errand, were angered that this should happen. I also remember very long lines at a phone booth waiting for a chance to call home.
The evenings were our own but of course you could not leave the quadrangle containing your barracks, let alone the camp. There was a PX where newspapers could be bought and a library open in the evenings.
Fort Dix was staffed by Regular Army and, I felt, had little regard or understanding of the returning soldier. The group I was with was told to stand an inspection by camp officers and on the upper floor of our barracks were told that they had to clean the barracks. The offended engineers took a fire hose, turned it on, and washed down the walls, ceiling, bunks, floor and everything that was in the path of the water hose. We, being in the lower level, did not fare well. Nothing came of it nor did we stand any other inspections. A request for fuel (soft coal) for the barracks heater was denied and the engineers were ripping off wood from the barracks inner walls to feed the stove. Coal was later delivered.
On 18 October 1945, I went before a clerk corporal, answered some questions and was discharged from the army, my mimeographed discharge papers from Co C, 404th Engineer (Combat) Bn read "reason and authority for separation - convenience of the government, AR 615-365, 15 Dec 1945 (Demobilization).
The reason I mentioned this is that I have not seen any other discharge paper whose "Honorable Discharge" was expressed in that fashion.
Two years, five months, fourteen days foreign service.
I was given a railroad ticket and traveled to Newark, closest station to my home. It felt very strange to be a civilian (dressed as a soldier), I thought it best to get my hair cut before I went home so I stopped at a barber shop in the station and asked him to cut off half of my hair.
How did it feel to re-enter my home?
Think about this: Leaving the Penn Station in Newark was the first time in years that I had walked on any street in the USA as a 'free person'. Still in uniform but no longer a soldier, I walked to Market Street to catch the bus that was to carry me home.
Something to get used to: for years it has been most important to me to know exactly who was at my right hand and who was at my left, what were their strong points, what were their weakness. Now I sit on a bus and a stranger sits next to me. What should I make of this? Does it have any importance to me? He is unaware of me!
Walking from the bus stop to my home, I am terrified. When my family looks at me, what will they see? Is my past animal existence visible? Are past experiences etched on my face? Could they sense what I have lived? Suppose it showed? Would they be repelled? I have been completely removed from civilized conversation for so long a time, what should I say? How should I act? I have not been prepared for this!
I open the door and walk in to meet my waiting family. Sweet innocents all, they haven't a clue, and I am home!
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