the first week in September, the Sicilian campaign was over. The 157th Regiment
was bivouacked under some ancient olive trees on a rocky hillside along the north
coast of Sicily overlooking the beautiful, blue Mediterranean. For the first time
since the invasion landing almost four weeks earlier, we had set up our aid-station
tent (Small, wall, 1 ea.) and were enjoying some of those leisure hours that punctuate
the lives of combat troops and afford opportunity to swap and embellish the wild
tales and experiences that accumulate during any action. There is an exhilarating
sensitivity and poignant humor among men of the front line that can never be communicated
adequately to those who don't "belong", even those of the same regiment
or division who may be one or more echelons to the rear, In light of the months
that were to follow, we were mere novices at the time, but already we considered
ourselves combat veterans and were well pleased with our soldiering capabilities.
Much of the heavy fighting during the Sicilian campaign took place in
the broad and mountainous eastern third of the island, The tactical plan of the
German occupation forces (who were greatly outnumbered by the invading British,
Canadian and American divisions) was to abandon Sicily and fight a delaying action
while their troops withdrew to Messina at the northeast corner where they could
cross the narrow strait between the Charybdis and Scylla of Greek mythology onto
the toe and mainland of Italy. The Germans were well-trained and competent, many
of them veteran troops of the Africa Corps; they did not get much help from the
local Sicilian home guard or their allied Italian troops whom, by this time. had
little appetite for fighting and offered resistance only when German guns were
at their backs. The British and Canadians, landing to the east of the Americans,
had the most difficult task as they pushed straight northward toward Mt. Etna
and the pivotal area of the German holding defense. Meanwhile to the west, the
American divisions fanned out and sped northward through the central portion of
the island, covering great distances and encountering only brief pockets of rearguard
German resistance. Our race was for the north coast road at mid-island in the
hope of isolating the German forces around Palermo and the western sector, before
they could be withdrawn toward Messina. But nearly always, and with masterful
skill, the Germans were a few hours and one or two steps ahead of us.
As a result, for the American forces at least, the campaign was one of rapid motion
and pursuit. It was an ideal initiation into combat for the 45th Division and
our eager 157th. During the first three days the Regiment earned its spurs and
the respect of the higher command by successfully taking the strongly held inland
mountain towns of Vizzini and Grammicele, and by capturing a major airfield at
Comiso where the garrison was taken by surprise and 120 planes, most of them fighters,
were destroyed on the ground. After that there was just enough action - brief
engagements against small defensive units of capable Germans employing mortar
and small arms fire, encounters with the shelling of the mobile and efficient,
all-purpose 88's in every strategic village and at every road junction, booby
traps, road-blocks and blown bridges, and some occasional strafing by the still
active Luftwaffe - to let us know we were actually engaged in war and not another
training maneuver. At the same time the relative ease and success of our rapid
advances built up some needed confidence.
Our 2nd Battalion encountered
its heaviest fighting on reaching the north coast where, spearheading a pre-dawn
Division advance, we surprised (or were surprised by) a rearguard company of the
enemy who pinned us down for three hours in a brisk battle. There, really for
the first time, we experienced the acute anxiety of administering plasma and morphine
by the light of a burning jeep, and treating casulties where they lay on open
hillsides amid mortar bursts and fire from automatic weapons. On another unforgettable
night, four of us from the aid station trailed the Battalion as it made an inland
flanking maneuver on foot, cross-country over a series of mountain ridges to the
south of where the 1st Battalion was having a bitter three-day battle on the coast,
There we encountered our greatest trial in the form of two long-eared, gray Sicilian
donkeys which we had heavily and inexpertly laden with water cans, splints, litters
and medical supplies. The reluctant animals understood no English and had to be
nursed every inch of the way up and down the terraced hillsides, over rocky ridges,
and into winding gullies and ravines.
On the steep downhill slopes, the
loads, held in place by ropes and muslin bandages. would tumble over their heads,
and on the uphill scrambles, slide back over their rumps. It was a lonely trek;
we proceeded by compass, by guess, and by following the spoor of D-bar wrappings
and discarded K-rations dog biscuits. The flanking maneuver was successful, but
it was two days before its worn out medical support caught up with the Battalion.
At San Stefano, on the coast, just as the 3rd Division was relieving the Division
for the first time our G Company got badly mangled crossing a heavily mined, dry
riverbed. When the call for more help came, we loaded a commandeered bicycle with
plasma and medical supplies, rode forward to the near end of the blown bridge,
and in sublime ignorance stumbled across two hundred yards of uncleared minefield
to reach the wounded on the far side.
Later, after the engineers had
cleared a path through the riverbed. the 3rd Division moved through. tripped six
more mines along the path and suffered eighteen more casualties. The Regiment
was called on one more time, near the end of the campaign, to make another flanking
maneuver, this time by sea along the north coast. We landed just short of Messina,
but again the Germans had pulled out ahead of us. The 3rd Division was not happy
with us. On landing, in darkness, we cut all their communication lines and fouled
up their water supply. With the fighting over, as we rode back through the villages
and towns along the north coast. the friendly Sicilians (almost everyone had a
relative somewhere in America) would come out of hiding, line the streets and
hang from windows to cheer us and present us with gifts, flowers, fruit and wine.
This had it all over maneuvers in the States. If this was what combat was like,
we were all for it. We felt confident and invincible.
At that time the
medical section of an infantry battalion consisted of a Battalion Surgeon, an
Assistant Battalion Surgeon, and 36 enlisted men headed by a Staff Sergeant. As
far as the two doctors were concerned, it was a flagrant waste of medical talent,
- if you could call our few years of post-medical school training that. A junior
medical student or one of our well-trained Tech Sergeants could have carried out
the duties of both doctors just as efficiently and almost as intelligently.
The conditions we encountered during those first weeks of combat resembled little
for which the training of the years before had prepared us. On maneuvers, the
aid-station was always neatly laid out somewhere to the rear of battalion headquarters,
with its tent set up, medical chests opened, its areas conveniently marked off
for reception. screening, medical, walking - wounded, litter-wounded. and its
Lister Bag filled with water and hanging from its tripod. During the weeks of
action practically none of the medical equipment ever got unpacked. All treatment
was given on the run, and we practiced mainly from the medical kits hanging from
our webbing belts, and out of the two dust covered jeep trailers parked along
the roadsides under the olive and almond trees, behind the prickly-pear cactuses
and rock fences, or in farmyards. In the first thirteen days we covered over 300
circuitous miles reaching the north coast. We were constantly on the move, seldom
spending more than a few hours in any one place, sleeping in the open, or in some
cleared out corner of a deserted peasant hut. The steady, unrelieved monotony
of three food concentrate meals a day out of K-ration boxes and C-ration cans,
combined with the physical exertion, effectively eliminated all bowel activity,
and it was not until we reached the fertile north coast with its abundant vineyards
and fruit orchards that the diarrheas set in.
The two-week respite in
early September gave us a chance to discard about one quarter of our medical equipment
and reorganize the rest. We acquired another standard jeep (a replacement for
the underpowered 1/4-ton amphibian that pulled one of the trailers) and an unauthorized
3/4-ton on which we were able to load extra water cans, much of the heavy equipment,
and provide needed transportation for the litter bearers and aid-station personnel.
Ab Messe, our Assistant Battalion Surgeon, was a compulsive consolidator and whenever
the opportunity presented, more and more of the outmoded and infrequently used
equipment was left behind. We had "liberated" a 1900 vintage microscope
somewhere along the way, and in the bivouac area, with some borrowed slides and
stain, we amused ourselves making blood smears and slides of stool specimens.
But after two weeks of diligent searching and turning up not one malaria plasmodium
nor one parasite egg, we finally gave up trying to practice scientific medicine
and reverted to the clinical pragmatism of sulfanilamide, APC and paregoric. The
microscope was "consolidated out" on the next move.
valued acquired possession, however, was a captured Italian officer's aluminum
bathtub. Everyone develops his own methods of bathing under field conditions,
particularly where water is a scarce commodity. Standing in the bathtub instead
of on the bare dirt we perfected the technique of a complete bath using only one
canteen cup of warm water having enough left over to brew coffee and, after two
or three of us had gone through the same procedure, using the soapy water that
had accumulated in the tub to do laundry in. We carried the tub with us for another
two months. It finally became so battered, leaky, and unusable that it had to
go. Even then, we swapped it to an Italian peasant in the mountains near Casino
for two chickens, three tomatoes and a bottle of wine.
On September 10,
the U.S. 5th Army invaded Italy, landing on the beaches south of Salerno. Within
a few days of the landing the 45th Division was again called on. The tent had
to be folded and packed away, and we moved once more to a staging area, this time
on the outskirts of Palermo. There we awaited the hard working Navy LCI's shuttling
between Sicily and Italy, and another trip by sea to land us on that beleaguered
Doctor's Lounge, Muscogee County (Georgia) Medical Bulletin, Vol XX, No. 1, 1963,
Twenty years ago, almost to the day, we were sitting against a wall in the
noonday sun fanning Mediterranean flies out of a C-ration can of pork and beans.
Stretched out next to us was a good friend, Jack Weiner, our battalion S-2, feeling
feverish and miserable. We were waiting, along with the rest of the battalion,
for the trucks to pick us up and take us to the docks in Palermo harbor.
The art of medical diagnosis does not flourish in a hot sun within the walled
confines of a bare and smelly goat yard. Weiner had a temperature over 102°
and was vomiting at intervals, but he wouldn't go to the hospital. He didn't want
to miss the boat trip to Salerno. A few days later we were side by side again
in a shell hole on the beachhead dodging mortar bursts. Weiner had turned yellow
as a pumpkin, and the diagnosis became obvious. By this time he was too sick to
It seems strange now that an ailing but intelligent man could
want to pass up a legitimate chance to avoid a combat landing where he might get
himself killed. But that was the way it was then. If you were in the dusty, walking
Infantry, the prospect of a shower, food served to you at a real table, a night
or two in a Navy bunk, and a sea-going boat trip, even on an LCL, seemed like
a vacation cruise on a luxury yacht. Besides, after you had been through combat
with an outfit, it was home, and you didn't want to risk the hospital, replacement
depot, reassignment shuffle that might drop you into some cruddy unit.
Weiner spent the next two months in North Africa, hospitalized with the hepatitis.
He finally went AWOL, bummed a ride to Naples by air, stole a jeep, and drove
sixty kilometers in the rain to rejoin the battalion. Just before he reached us,
the jeep skidded into a ditch, turned over, and fractured a couple of his ribs.
This flared up the hepatitis again, and about two years later when Weiner eventually
made it out of the hospitals on his own power, the war was over. War may never
he so pleasant again.
(c) Of General Interest, The Bulletin of the Muscogee County (Georgia) Medical
Society, Sep 1968, Vol. XV No.9, p.15
d'Alife lies against the lower slope of Italy's Matese range in the central Apennines
between Naples and Rome. Like hundreds of other small mountain towns, its narrow
streets and stone houses have remained almost unchanged since the early middle
Ages. Today, reflecting the general prosperity of the last two decades, a two
or three block wide perimeter of modern four and five story family apartments
partially rings the southern edge away from the steeper hills. But the central
core remains the same, even to the cobbled streets, the decaying ducal palace,
and the community troughs where the women still do their laundry by hand, exchange
gossip and invective, and look suspiciously on strangers.
When our 2nd
Battalion captured Piedmonte in mid-October 1943; about one half of the town was
in shambles. It had been shelled heavily by our artillery; the Germans, as they
pulled out, blew up bridges, utility installations, and anything else that might
be of possible use to us; and after our arrival it was battered once more by the
German artillery. This, of course, is the standard pattern in any combat area,
and is the unfortunate fate of any innocent civilian population caught between
advancing and retreating armies.
We had come a long way, in both distance
and experience, since landing on the Italian mainland. It had soon become evident
that the Italian campaign was not to be the fast moving affair we had enjoyed
in Sicily. It was also evident that the leadership of the American 5th Army (by
command, always identified in press releases as "General Mark Clark's 5th
Army") lacked the imagination and purpose of the 7th Army under Patton. Things
were just confused, and stayed that way. The fight for the Salerno beachhead revealed
that the Germans did not intend to write off Italy as they had Sicily, and only
some determined and makeshift scrambling on the part of General Middleton, Colonel
Anckorn and their 45th Division troops, averted the near disaster there. Even
after our breakout, the Germans retreated slowly and according to plan, awaiting
the fall rains and the preparation of their first winter defense line in the rugged
mountains south of Rome. We seemed to stumble along after them in uncoordinated
fashion, advancing when we should have been regrouping, and holding when we should
have been advancing.
Our battalion was the last unit to leave Sicily.
We arrived in the bay south of Salerno off Paestum four days after the initial
landing when the fighting on shore was reaching its peak. For forty-eight hours
we constituted the entire "floating reserve" of General Clark's whole
5th Army. We disembarked, finally, one afternoon under full German observation,
and marched off in one direction to an assembly area behind the British and Col.
Darby's Rangers. During the night we moved again back to the beach, and, by daylight,
and again in full view, we marched out in another direction. In the next 36 hours
we shuttled twice more on similar moves. This, we learned later, was to impress
the enemy that a continuous flow of fighting men was pouring onto the beachhead.
If the Germans were taken in by the deception, they gave no immediate signs of
September 18, having failed in their attempt to dislodge the landing forces, the
Germans began to withdraw into the surrounding mountains. Along with the 3rd Division,
which had just landed, and, as one of the few "fresh" units available,
our 2nd Battalion was given the task of pushing inland out of the beachhead in
pursuit of the retreating enemy. We moved through Battipaglia, a town totally
destroyed in which each single building had been reduced to flat, dusty rubble.
Eboli, (where Christ stopped in the story by Carlo Levi) a few miles away was
almost as badly devastated. Above Eboli, at the dead end of a winding mountain
road in an oppressive cul-de-sac between ridges, we liberated the village of Campagna,
which had been used as an internment camp for political prisoners.
huddled together in miserable squalor, we found almost a thousand civilians from
southern and eastern Europe, most of them Jews.
It was a strange experience
to be surrounded by a weeping, clamorous crush of cadaverous humans whose gratitude
was overwhelming, and whose needs and hunger were so acute. We gave away all of
our rations and extra supplies. We called in the medical group from Regiment and
set up an infirmary and hospital of sorts and began treating the critically ill
with what we had. It was not much, and we could do little. Our sense of inadequacy
was magnified by the impressive and overpowering combined intellect of our patients,
among whom were university regents, Doctors of Philosophy, full professors, and
some of the foremost medical clinicians of Europe. When we had to move on the
next day, the Division arranged for a field hospital unit to take over.
The rainy season began early that year, and from the first week in October on,
heavy and intermittent downpours kept us soaked and uncomfortable. By necessity
we became expert in putting up the aid station tent. On any spot where we thought
we might spend a night, or linger more than a few hours, the tent was out of the
trailer, up and staked down within three minutes. The fighting had steadily increased,
and contacts and engagements with enemy troops were daily occurrences. The war
had become a lot more personal, too. Many of the old aid station visitors, who
used to gather frequently during the lulls in action for conversation, coffee,
and hot lemon drink spiked with grain alcohol, were missing now. Jack Weiner,
evacuated at Salerno, was in serious condition with hepatitis at a base hospital
in Tunisia; the irrepressible Blumberg, permanent second lieutenant, was killed
by a sniper's bullet through the forehead while leading a night patrol near Oliveto;
Colonel Anckorn, our wonderful Regimental Commander, had lost a leg when his jeep
ran over a road mine near Valva; two of our own aid men had been wounded in the
fighting at San Angelo.
On the road between Ponte and Guardia late one
afternoon, we loaded one of the jeeps with empty water cans, and sent both drivers,
Red Meier and Daffy Martinez, back with it to the nearest water point. We were
behind a stone building just below the road at the time, and, as they pulled out,
an 88 shell hit. When we all rushed up to help move them and the jeep off the
road, another shell hit the embankment to our right, scattering rock and dust,
and rolled down on the road beside us, unexploded. (We had already learned to
be grateful to those unsung saboteurs in the German munitions works who managed
to slip in one dud for every eight shells.) But Meier, with a tiny penetrating
wound of the chest, died without regaining consciousness; the fragment that hit
Martinez ripped away both eyes.
On October 19 we were in Piedmonte d'Alife.
After forty days of continuous combat our occupation of the town signalled the
first break in the campaign for us. The 45th Division, moving up the mountainous
central core of the peninsula, was pinched out between the 34th Division on the
left and the British 8th Army on the right. The 157th Regiment pulled back from
Piedmonte to the village of San Potito less than two miles away and went into
reserve for a two week period of rest, reoutfitting, and training of new replacements.
As the fighting pressed onward toward the Volturno River north of us,
it was pleasant to be left behind in the quiet countryside, now well beyond range
of enemy artillery. We cleaned up, loafed and slept. The mail caught up with us.
The field kitchens were brought up and put into operation for the first time since
landing. The hot meals were welcome. After six weeks on K and C rations, no matter
how well doctored by individual enterprise and ingenuity, food from an army field
kitchen, even served in an aluminum mess kit, is a treat.
There was always
a gathering of ragged, hungry children standing by silently and hopefully near
the chow lines. One of the regulars, a quiet, large-eyed 14 year old, Severino
d'Andrea, adopted our aid station group. Severino, too proud to beg and too honorable
to steal, became a favorite. Every evening, loaded with more canned rations, shoes,
clothes, and odds and ends than he could carry, we sent him off on foot to his
home in Piedmonte. A special few of us had the good luck to be invited on several
occasions into Piedmonte for a meal with Severino's family. Mama d'Andrea, with
some army flour, a few cans of C ration, plus an occasional rabbit or chicken,
and whatever fruits, vegetables, greens and wine Severino could turn up on his
daily trading and scrounging jaunts around the town and nearby farms, would turn
out a seven course meal that staggered the imagination.
Last fall, after
an interval of 24 years, we revisited Piedmonte d'Alife and San Potito. We found
the farmyard and the olive tree where the aid station tent was pitched. We found
Severino, now married and with two young children of his own. He is the Professor
of Language at the Scuola Media, the newly built town high school, and one of
the town's leading citizens. His two sisters and one brother-in-law also are teachers;
his young brother, just back from Argentina, owns a television and appliance store.
Papa d'Andrea is retired and gives free advice to the children. The family built
one of the new modern apartments, and they are all there, the appliance store
on the first floor with an apartment for Papa, and the rest in layers above, each
family with a floor of its own. Only Mama is gone. But her cooking talent remains
with the daughters. On short notice, with help from all floors, they produced
a ten-course meal that staggered us again. From the balcony of Severino's apartment
on the top floor you can see all of Piedmonte. It lies quietly against the foothills,
and, except for a pockmarked building here and there, you might never know it
had been through a war.
(c) The Bulletin of the Muscogee County (Georgia) Medical Society, "The Doctor's
Lounge", Nov 1968, Vol. XV No.11, p.16
World War II
Thirty-one years ago, in December, 1943, the fighting on the Cassino front
in Italy was building in intensity. The British 56th (Black Cat) Division, a battle-weary
veteran unit of the long Africa Campaign and continuously in action since the
Salerno Beachhead, had successfully secured Mt. Camino, and was moving onward
toward the Garigliano River, which had to be crossed before Cassino itself could
come under direct attack. After another two months of bitter fighting there under
the most miserable weather conditions (and with the Cassino line still unbreached),
the 56th was pulled out. Without any significant period of rest, it was shuttled
up by sea to the beleaguered Anzio Beachhead south of Rome. The Division reached
there just as the Allied forces, already reeling after the first German attacks,
were making frantic preparations to withstand the major German effort that was
soon to follow.
We met Maurice Harvey for the first time on the evening
of February 21, 1944, when his 217 Battalion of the Queen's Royal Regiment (West
Surrey), 56th Division fought its way up to the Anzio caves where the remnants
of our own battered battalion, after ten days of mortal combat behind the German
lines, still struggled to survive. The valiant effort was not overly successful,
as the Queen's lost all of its equipment and more than half of its men in attempting
to rescue us.
Two days later, Dr. Harvey and I found ourselves uncomfortably
quartered in an 8 by 10 foot earthen bunker dug into the bank of a dry stream-bed,
helping grizzled but kindly Feldwebel Herbert Mihler from Chemnitz-Am-Sachsen
run the medical aid station for the Wehrmacht's 1027 Panzer Grenadiers. We were
kept there for two weeks, finally traveling together next to the temporary prison
cages at Rome's Cinema City, and then onward by truck and boxcar through Bolzano
and the Brenner Pass to the prison camp at Moosburg, close by Munich. We parted
company in May 1944 when the American officer prisoners in Moosburg were shipped
north to Poland.
Two months ago, the Bulletin printed a poem by Dr. Harvey,
along with some of his observations about the National Health Service in Britain.
Recently, he sent us another contribution - this time a nostalgic, wartime reminiscence
about those miserable but somehow wondrous and inspiring days of combat in the
war-torn Italy of December 1943.
GIFT OF THE GODS by M. W.Harvey
During the rough and tumble years of the War, one made many acquaintances, and
even a few real friends, only to lose touch with them, as often as not, suddenly,
and with startling finality.
It was in Italy in December 1943 - not the sunny
Italy of romantic fancy, but the Italy where the more fortunate armies of the
ancients used to go into winter quarters. An Italy of rain and sleet and even
quite a lot of snow, especially on the high ground. An Italy that was not at all
a pleasant place for a winter campaign, especially sleeping in the open, as one
was forced to do on occasion. It was in this real Italy of December 1943 that
I was posted to an infantry battalion which had its headquarters in a village
where life was reasonably safe, provided that one was careful. That is to say,
provided one ran as fast as possible across certain places where gaps between
houses left one in full view of the Germans not far away on the other side of
the river. For reasons best known to himself, Jerry did not often shell the place
at that time.
As I have said, the weather was vile, but we were fairly comfortable
and had the place almost entirely to ourselves, most of the inhabitants having
betaken themselves elsewhere, very sensibly.
Among my fellow sufferers
of all ranks, there were many whom I remember well, though seldom by name. There
was the C.O. Some said he was too reckless to be a good unit commander, and perhaps
they were right, but he was far less careless of the safety of those under his
command than of his own. He was the only man whom I have ever had the chance to
observe closely and yet remain in doubt whether he really knew fear. Perhaps he
was a convinced fatalist, perhaps merely supremely unimaginative. Some called
him "Stunter" - behind his back - and said that he was an exhibitionist.
But if he was acting a part, he acted it superbly. He never seemed to take the
most elementary precautions for his own safety, yet he came through the whole
war without a scratch. I could not help wondering what would have happened had
he been wounded, however slightly.
Then there was another officer, whose
name I forget, so I will call him simply "the Major". The title is apt
to conjure up the vision of an elderly, red-faced warrior, a bottle- (repeat),
bottle-scarred veteran with a white moustache, whose dreary reminiscences are
the despair of unwilling audiences in saloon bars and similar places. But the
Major in question wasn't like that. Everyone-liked him. He was in his early twenties,
efficient and conscientious without being officious. And he was able to keep the
friendship of older men with longer service, even after being promoted over their
heads. I can imagine few better testimonials.
Soon after I joined the
unit, we were sent to cross the river. It was a nasty little river, very cold
and muddy looking, that ran westwards through a broad valley between high hills.
The hills looked very pretty no doubt in their snowy mantles, but it was difficult
to wax enthusiastic when we had to spend hours on end on our bellies in the mud
or in a wet slit-trench. In the valley there was no snow, but plenty of cold,
sticky mud, not quite so bad as that of Tunisia, but bad enough.
to the precedent, Division had made elaborate plans that were marred by Division's
own failure to take into account various simple, easily ascertained facts. The
result of this oversight was that things did not go according to plan, but only
according to precedent. However, our battalion did get across, somewhat the worse
for the experience, and a good twelve hours late. But nobody else got across at
all, apart from a few Polish commandos sent with us to cut telephone lines and
throats behind the German lines. We saw few of them again, and were left marooned
on the north side of the river, surrounded by very irritated Germans and on the
wrong side of an almost equally angry little river. No doubt the Poles had annoyed
the Germans, but we had done nothing to the river except to cross it.
However, the position was not too bad. Most of us were on the reverse slope of
the hills just out of reach of the presents that Jerry kept lobbing over to us.
My RAP was in a school, solidly built of stone and facing downhill, away from
the enemy. It is true that the top had been blown off and the back rooms were
full of debris, but the big classroom in front was intact and watertight. The
only snag was that we had to keep the door shut and the windows shuttered to keep
out flying fragments from the shells always exploding a little lower down on the
On one occasion, having been called out to treat a casualty
and doing what I could, I was doubling back to the RAP, and, on rounding the corner,
saw the Colonel sitting comfortably on a stone beside the path. He was not even
wearing a steel helmet, but had his service cap comfortably on the back of his
head and a cigarette in his mouth. He was contemplating the shelling with apparent
interest. Doubtless to a disembodied spirit it would have proved fascinating,
but I did not feel inclined to linger and enjoy it. However, he called to me as
I came past and began to chat quite calmly on matters of no importance. Personally,
I wished him in a warmer climate than that of Southern Italy in winter, but it
is not easy to argue with the C.O. of the unit to which one is attached. I did
venture to remark that, for medical reasons at least, the wearing of tin hats
was the fashion locally, but the hint was beneath his notice. So there we remained
for some minutes, talking of supremely unimportant matters, and watching shell
after shell land on a broad muddy patch near a spring at the foot of the hill.
I observed how the fragments from each shell would tear up the turf and
the peculiar pattern formed in every case. Most of the fragments flew forward
in the general direction of the shell's flight, very few more than about thirty
degrees on either side, and fewer yet backwards. This observation proved important,
for presently one shell landed nearer and on hard ground. A considerable amount
of earth and pebbles fell all around us, and some of it on us. The Colonel grinned
cheerfully and remarked that it was getting a trifle warm, so perhaps we had better
move. I agreed heartily, and we parted. I hurried off towards the safety and comfort
of the RAP, while he strolled off quite happily in the opposite direction. Probably
he was whistling. If he was acting a part, he carried it off magnificently. And
all for an audience of one - or two, including himself.
But while things
were not too bad for the rest of us, the Major and his company were certainly
catching it. Theirs was the uncomfortable cask of guarding the one, very inadequate
river crossing by which we could get supplies. So they had to dig in on the wet,
flat ground nearby, exposed to constant, heavy shelling. The Major and his batman
had dug an extra long trench for the two of them, as was often done to reduce
the amount of work.
Some while after my chat with the Colonel, a runner
summoned the Major to Battalion H.Q. for conference. So off he went, at the double,
like any sensible man, and arrived safely at the dilapidated house that served
as H.Q. Afterwards, he returned to his company, also on the double, to find a
large hole where his trench had been. A shell had landed in it and the unfortunate
batman had been blown to pieces. But such tragedies were too frequent to cause
more than passing comment, whereas the Major's escape seemed providential.
A few days later we were relieved when another unit got across the river a few
miles downstream. We were withdrawn for a brief rest, and then sent back to relieve
our rescuers. Things were much quieter now, and there were even a few days of
fine sunny weather that seemed almost warm after the rain and sleet of the previous
On such a day, the Colonel and the Major were walking with two
others, I forget why, on the south side of a steep, terraced hill, comfortably
out of sight and reach of Jerry. Their route took them from one terrace to another
higher up the hill. The Colonel went first, and then the other two. But before
the Major could follow, a short, stray shell arrived out of the blue. It was a
mere harassing shell, fired at a venture, but, like the arrow that felled King
Ahab, it found its mark. The other three were unharmed, but the Major was dead
before they could get down to him. I think his death depressed all ranks, for
he was generally liked. And yet I have forgotten his name.
proves nothing, of course - but that should be a refreshing change in an age of
statistics that prove anything, according to how they are cooked.
(c) The Bulletin of the Muscogee County (Georgia) Medical Society, "The Doctor's
Lounge", Dec 1974, Vol. XVIII No.7, p.8
week before Christmas in 1943 we had become so familiar with the narrow rocky
trail that led down from the mountain church to the regimental area in the olive
groves on the lower slopes east of Venafro that we could negotiate it, even in
darkness, in just under three hours. Since November 8, when we had come out of
reserve and returned to action on the mountainous front between Casino and Venafro
where we encountered the first German line of winter defense, we had advanced
not at all. The repetitive pattern of eight days up in the front line positions,
four days back in the regimental area for rest, eight days on the line again,
became a monotonous routine.
There was nothing sunny about Italy that
fall. The weather grew increasingly cold; the dreary skies were dark and heavy
with clouds, the fogs and mists hung at treetop level. The incessant rains had
turned the lower terraces and the entire Volturno valley stretching out behind
us into a sea of water and mud. After six weeks, the tent area under the dripping
olive trees had been churned into a sodden quagmire. The damp, murky air was permeated
with the odors of wet woolen clothing; refuse from the field kitchens, and seepage
from the pit latrines. The line of 105 howitzers immediately behind us boomed
steadily through the days and nights, looping barrage after barrage over the mountaintops,
adding the acrid smell of burnt powder. There was not much rest in the rest area,
and by the end of four days we were always eager to shoulder our pack boards and
make the arduous six-hour climb up the trail to the relative comfort of the frontline.
The war had settled into a standoff of sending out patrols, occasionally
probing for weakness in platoon strength, and the constant dueling between the
long-range artilleries. In the mountains, the German defenses were thinly held,
but exceedingly well prepared and located. At many places along the line, enemy
positions were within 50 to 100 yards of our own. Each side played its own little
game of "shoot at me and I'll shoot at you;" every burst of mortar shells
brought an answering volley. And overhead, the intermittent whistling of heavy
artillery shells passed back and forth, day and night, seeking out the installations
and troop concentrations behind both lines.
We had put the aid station
in a small isolated church, La Chiesa de Madonna della Fondata, built partially
into the side of a rocky hill and on a narrow ledge overhanging a deep gorge.
It was the only structure of substance in the entire area, and you could follow
the footpaths that led to it for miles in any direction without seeing a sign
of habitation. It was not an ideal location, since it was directly on the front
line between the positions of our F and G Companies. Three hundred yards to our
rear, on the reverse slope of the bald hilltop that lay between us, was Battalion
Headquarters, operating out of a thatch and stone goat pen.
as medics, we would have been out-ranked and denied the use of any such comfortable
shelter, but during our first days there we soon learned the reason why no one
else chose it.
The cream-colored walls and red tiled roof of our little chapel
perched on its high ledge stood out like a red and white bull's-eye against the
background of green hillsides. We were in direct view of the German positions
dug into the higher slopes beyond the gorge, and less than 400 yards away. Although
we displayed no Geneva Cross, the Germans seemed to be aware that we were using
the church as a medical aid station. We had to play by their rules, however. We
could move about on the outside freely only in darkness at night, or when the
fogs and rain obscured visibility. If more than one person ever ventured out in
daylight, or if we attempted to carry out a litter case, they would bracket the
church with their deadly accurate 88 shells, one short, one long, one below and
one above. Occasionally when they felt playful, they would clip a tile off the
roof ridge, or chip away at the corner of the rock ledge.
there was a platoon or company skirmish, or an unusual amount of patrol activity,
we seldom had to treat more than two or three wounded each day. As the weeks went
on, however, our casualty rate from exposure, frostbite, and "trench foot"
grew in alarming amounts. It became a source of much bitterness to learn that
the new combat boots, shoe packs, combat suits and cold weather gear had reached
the Italian Theater weeks before, and were being worn thirty and forty miles behind
the lines in Caserta and Naples. We were still dressed in regular wool issue clothing,
canvas leggings, and GI shoes. None of the new protective clothing reached us
until the last days of December. Some nights as many as eight or ten men had to
be carried into the church; it often required four and five grains of morphine
to relieve their intense pain.
The evacuation of our litter cases remained
a nightmare. The closest jeep or ambulance was miles away in the regimental area
at the base of the mountains. We had tried several kinds of litter rigs attached
to the backs of the pack mules that brought up supplies, but all proved impractical.
The mountain trails were too jagged and narrow, and the jolting and swaying as
the animals climbed and descended the slippery paths often compounded injuries
or threw the patients into shock. We had to settle for the laborious and frustratingly
slow method of hand carrying. Nine litter relay stations were set up on the trail
between Battalion Headquarters and the vehicle pool at the mountain base. As it
was an impossible job for two men, each litter required a team of four litter
bearers. It took between five and six hours to move one litter case from the church
to an ambulance.
We were in a discouraged frame of mind coming down off
the mountain just five days before Christmas. Colonel Knight, our taciturn commanding
officer, sensing our apathy, suggested an impromptu three-day leave. We needed
no urging. Neither did our new driver, Bucky Behers, who was more than anxious
to put the jeep in use again. All of 19 years old, Bucky was one of those earnest
people, and his eagerness to please was exceeded only by his overdeveloped compassion.
By the time we left, he had a list of things to pick up from every man in the
We reached Naples in mid-afternoon after a wild, wet ride.
We found Lee Powers, one of the medical officers who had left the Regiment after
Sicily, and moved our sleeping bags into his apartment quarters near the harbor.
Lee took us to a restaurant and fed us a real meal. Afterwards he got us tickets
to a USO performance at the old San Carlo Opera.
As we sat warm and comfortably
relaxed in the red plush seats and opulent surroundings, we were overcome by fatigue
and a frightening sense of unreality. It was a disturbing experience. Less than
three hours away, on the mountain, shells were dropping, shrapnel fragments flying,
and men, miserably wet and cold, were huddled into rocky crevices and slush-filled
fox-holes under pitifully thin canvas shelter-halves. The packed military audience,
men from many nations with their Waves, Waacs, Nurses and Red Cross girls, were
enjoying the performance. Who were all these people? How could they sit, unmindful
and unconcerned, only a few miles removed from all that suffering and destruction?
Emotion came close to the surface. Bucky, restless, felt it too; there were angry
tears in his eyes. With no words we got up and left before the revue was half
through. But once on the outside, on the familiar hard seats of the jeep, the
We spent the next day with Bill Mauldin and Don Robinson,
the two talented GI's who wrote and published the 45th Division News, and a very
busy last day shopping the black market and supply depots, and visiting men we
had evacuated to hospitals. Bucky's sincere and innocent face made him a great
scrounger. When the time came to leave, the jeep was overloaded with everything
imaginable (even a side of beef) obtained with phony requisitions, or stolen from
every supply unit in the area.
We returned in the evening in rain and
darkness, but our spirits had revived. We were happy to be going back. At one
of the MP checkpoints a soaked peasant woman with crying baby in arms stood in
the muddy road beside us. Bucky looked away uncomfortably for a moment then, with
compulsive suddenness, peeled off his newly acquired hooded trench coat, and handed
it to her as we drove off.
On the 24th, we headed back up the mountain
trail. The 1st Battalion section had left a small tree on the altar of the little
church. Somehow it seemed like the only place to spend a Christmas Day.
(c) The Bulletin of the Muscogee County (Georgia) Medical Society, "The Doctor's
Lounge", Dec 1968, Vol.XV No.12, p.11
line with the anniversary theme of this issue and previous reminiscences about
World War II, we recall celebrating a cold New Year's Day twenty years ago on
mountain top #1083 high in the Appenines above the town of Venafro, about thirty
kilometers east and north of Cassino.
Handicapped by weather, terrain, and
German defenses, we had inched our way upward to this pinnacle in laborious fashion
and had covered a miserly distance of about two miles in all over the two months
immediately preceding. The weather during that time had been constantly cold and
wet, and not at all like the sunny Italy advertised by the Mediterranean cruise
folders. The mountains were rugged and rocky, and the paths and trails were so
uniformly narrow that all movement or progress was necessarily made on foot. The
Germans retreated grudgingly and by plan; always to higher ranges and peaks from
which we were ever under direct observation and effectively immobilized by their
artillery fire. Supplies and equipment had to be hauled in by pack board on our
own aching backs, or by our reluctant mules. The wounded and sick could only be
evacuated by litter relay teams down the dangerous foot paths in an eight to twelve
hour carry before the nearest jeep or ambulance, could be reached.
snows began shortly before Christmas, and on New Year's Day we were isolated atop
the barren #1083 in a small stone farmhouse that looked northward across a bleak,
white panorama to higher, snow-covered peaks ahead. For the first time, however,
in the two uncomfortable months that had climaxed the 114 days of continuous combat
since Salerno, our spirits were high, and the New Year held promise of better
days ahead. The rumor had been confirmed that we were to be relieved shortly by
the French 3rd Algerian Division.
The new year had been ushered in just
at midnight by every gun and artillery piece on each side of the lines, and from
our vantage point it was a spectacular show. After the demonstration, as if by
mutual agreement, hostilities ceased, and there was quiet for the rest of the
day. We had a roaring fire going in the farmhouse fireplace, and two of our enterprising
scroungers in the aid section had discovered and subdued four young pigs that
the paisanos and previous occupants had failed to evacuate. During the prolonged
and ceremonial cooking, we combined all of our aid station supply of grain alcohol
with an equal amount of lemon drink prepared from the powdered packages in K-Rations,
and served a continuous hot grog in canteen cups. It was a memorable and drunken
feast. The roast pork and hog jowls were a gourmand's delight. The only thing
missing was black-eyed peas.
(c) The Bulletin of the Muscogee County (Georgia) Medical Society, "The Doctor's
Lounge", Jan 1964, Vol. XI No.1, p.10
To the Ball: Winter 1944
War is only occasionally the gruesome ordeal of blood and battle described
dramatically in news accounts (or now pictured so vividly by television camera
reporting). In any full-scale action the number of men who participate in actual
front-line combat is comparatively small. On a given day of fighting, unless some
unusual situation develops, about one tenth of a division's troops are engaging
the enemy. Although they may he located in the combat zone, the hundreds of supporting
units backing up a division are seldom in any significant danger; and the thousands
of troops that fill the rear echelons of a theater of operations rarely experience
combat except through second-hand rumor.
To the individual soldier, front-line
duty is more often a scattering of brief but memorable experiences, some dangerous,
some not, punctuating long periods of inactivity. During the brief encounters,
if he is unlucky or foolhardy, he may get captured, wounded or killed, although
the percentages against such happenings are much in his favor. During the more
frequent intervals of quiet, his chief interests center about feeding his stomach,
combating the elements, making himself comfortable, fighting boredom, thinking
of women, and struggling with his own personality problems. Most commonly he maintains
a fairly sound outlook, and, with his sense of humor intact, takes advantage of
all opportunities to goof off or engage in some of the incongruous, lighthearted
undertakings dreamed up by lonely men away from home. This frivolous side of war
gets little emphasis, particularly from the dour, pacifist-minded who concentrates
on, and finds satisfaction in, its horrors.
On January 10, 1944, after
the 3rd Algerian Regiment of the Free French took over our positions in the snowy
mountains above and east of Cassino, we slogged wearily but happily down the mountain
trails, wanting nothing more than rest and a change of scenery. We had been on
the line for a prolonged stretch of 70 days, although, except for the miserable
weather, this was not as bad as it sounds. Nevertheless, we were tired, and the
promise of a few weeks of rest and recuperation sounded good to us. No one then
would have dreamt that one week later we would be preparing feverishly for a most
stupendous staged dinner dance, the Prima Inaugural Overseas Combat Ball, to be
held in a sumptuous ballroom of an Italian nobleman's villa.
got a big boost when we learned that the rest area assigned to us was the familiar
locale of Piedimonte d'Alife and San Potito. We had liberated the towns earlier
from the hated Tedeschi, and had made many friends there during our previous relief
in October. It was a real homecoming, and the still grateful, and still unspoiled,
townspeople were happy to have us back.
The weather cooperated; the cold
was not severe, the rain fell infrequently, and the sun warmed the days with the
promise of an early spring. Some training exercises and maneuvers were going on,
but, in the main, they were minimal and chiefly for the benefit of new replacements.
Regulations were winked at, and policy toward passes was liberal. The men were
free to wander off almost without restriction to seek out entertainment and the
few signorinas not already locked away by their families. Even with the supply
limited, they apparently found some (or at least a durable few) because business
at the Pro-station was constant and good.
There were a number of talented
entertainers in the Battalion. In the evenings we usually gathered around an open
campfire near the kitchen tent to watch the "Baron," one of the riflemen
and a former vaudeville magician, go through his professional repertoire of tricks.
Pfc. Anastasio Vas, a diminutive Puerto Rican who doubled as a runner for Battalion
Headquarters when the kitchen wasn't set up, collected instruments and musicians
and held a nightly jam session that ended only when the vino ran out, or when
the sleepy men in the tent area began throwing shoes. As a civilian, Vas had played
the drums for Xavier Cugat, and with a couple of sticks and the kitchen pots and
pans to beat on, he filled the nights with frantic Latin rhythms.
have been the wild, rhumba beat that catapulted us into the project of staging
Other units were holding banquets and drinking parties, but none
had ever conceived an undertaking so ambitious. It was to be an expensive blowout,
just for the 2nd Battalion, but a democratic free-for-all with no officer-enlisted
man distinctions. Vas and his crew of musicians were enthusiastic; all five of
the kitchen units would furnish the food; F Company agreed to take on rotating
sentry duty to make sure that men from other units would not crash the party;
G Company would find tables and chairs and build a band stand; E Company would
be in charge of decorations; and H Company already had details out scouting the
countryside wine cellars and bargaining for hoarded bottles. All we needed was
a time, a place, women and hard liquor.
We chose the evening of January
27 as the time, but in our rural isolation the other requisites presented problems.
The Medical Section volunteered to solve them, and we tackled our impossible assignment
with optimistic abandon. At the insistence of our young friend, Severino, we called
on the Conte Gaetano Filangheri, an ageing nobleman whose villa a short way down
the road toward Gioia had escaped war damage. The villa was in almost as decayed
a state as the Count himself, but it did possess a magnificent grand ballroom
that opened out onto spacious terraces. It was just what we needed. The Count
showed us around personally, and, although he trembled slightly, and his eyes
misted on looking at the hanging crystal chandeliers and marble statuary, he seemed
very gracious and hospitable. According to Severino's excited interpreting, the
Conte was actually overwhelmed with joy anticipating the honor, and very eager
to please his great benefactors, the Americanos. We took his consent for granted
and left 4 cartons of cigarettes and two cases of the new 10 in 1 rations as a
token of appreciation.
In the next few days we located and visited four
field hospitals within a 15-mile radius of Piedimonte. We plastered the bulletin
boards of the nurses' quarters with homemade posters announcing and ballyhooing
the unparalleled Prima Inaugural Overseas Combat Ball (courtesy, 2nd Battalion,
157th Infantry), We conferred with Chief Nurses, and promised anything. Within
a short time we had signed up 63 willing Florence Nightingales who couldn't wait
to mingle with genuine combat soldiers. On our visits to the hospitals - by requisition,
bribery and outright theft - we also accumulated fifteen 5-gallon tins of absolute
(medical) alcohol that would launch the affair in the proper direction. The Battalion
Motor Pool would supply 2 1/2 ton trucks to transport the nurses to and from the
party. Everything fell into place perfectly.
On January 22, the 3rd Division
and the British 1st Division landed at Anzio, on the coast, 40 miles southwest
of Rome. The bold and unexpected sea-borne attack caught the Germans by surprise,
and the invading forces met almost no resistance. However, the Allies exploited
their advantage too cautiously; this gave the Germans time to react, and, within
a few days, they were pouring in massive numbers of troops to ring the beachhead.
It was obvious that additional support would be called for.
As the only
veteran major unit with amphibious training not then in action, the 45th Division
was a logical choice. Without even a preliminary alert, the orders returning us
to action came through from 5th Army Headquarters in Caserta on the afternoon
of January 25. We had twelve hours to pack up and move out. There were no opportunities
to cancel our plans and obligations; there was no time for goodbyes. It was barely
dawn when our convoy rolled by Count Filangheri's villa on our way to the staging
area at Pozzuoli above Naples. On the afternoon of January 28 the Navy landed
us on the beaches at Anzio.
Cynics maintained that the wily old Count,
through connections in Caserta at the King's Palace in which Mark Clark had set
up 5th Army Headquarters, knew of the Anzio plans from the start; that he knew
our departure date before we did, and that he was certain all along that a dance
would never take place. We have always preferred to feel, however, that, as the
illustrious and honored host for the spectacular Prima Inaugural Overseas Combat
Ball, the Conte must have suffered a great disappointment.
(c) The Bulletin of the Muscogee County (Georgia) Medical Society, "The Doctor's
Lounge", Feb 1969, Vol. XVI No.2, p.11
In the overall picture of European strategy during World War II, the campaign
at Anzio was of negligible importance, yet for months it dominated news reports.
With Russia impatiently calling for a second front, and the Allied advance in
Italy stalled at the Cassino-Venafro line, the Anzio landing was carried out at
the insistence of Winston Churchill. It had two main purposes: to break the deadlock
on the winter line to the south, and to capture Rome for propaganda purposes.
The initial landing achieved complete surprise and met almost no German
resistance. Had the American commander in charge of the joint British and American
operation been someone like George Patton, the objectives might have been accomplished
within a week. Instead the Allies proceeded too cautiously and, by failing to
exploit their initial advantage, allowed the Germans to mobilize forces from as
far away as southern France and Yugoslavia. The beachhead was soon ringed by massive
numbers of men and armor. After the easy and successful landing, Churchill's optimistic
prediction that Rome would be liberated within a few days, only served to infuriate
Hitler to a point of frenzy. The Fuehrer became equally determined to lance "this
abscess south of Rome," annihilate the invading farces, and sweep them into
the sea. The narrow strip of coastline became the scene of the most bitter and
prolonged battle of World War II.
The Navy landed us on the beaches north
of Anzio on the afternoon of January 28, six days after the initial invasion,
and the beachhead was still quiet. The weather was chilly but pleasant, and the
sun was shining. The gently rolling, fertile reclaimed farmlands stretched inland
for fifteen or twenty miles, where, in the distance, the Alban Hills rising to
three thousand feet were obscured in a purple gray haze. Crops were growing and
the forests of pine and cork in the Padiglione Woods where we first bivouacked
were fresh and green. The sea, beneath the colorful sunset to our west, was smooth
and peaceful. There was nothing forbidding about any of it, and, after the cold
and rain and snow of the mountains, it seemed like a Garden of Eden.
Colonel Brown, our brand new Battalion commander, had joined us in the staging
area at Pozzuoli north of Naples just before sailing. He was young, "Regular
Army," fresh from the States, and had never been in combat before. His inexperience
and his personality conflicts with some of his staff officers soon set off a chain
of events that turned us all into reluctant heroes and eventually denied Hitler
the satisfaction of another Dunkirk.
Although the battle at Anzio continued
for more than four months, and Rome was not liberated until the first week in
June, the intense fighting took place between February 3 and March 2, and the
fate of the beachhead was decided by a convulsive struggle of epic proportion
in the five days between February 16-20. By the first days of February the Germans
had more than ten divisions of infantry and armor ready, and planned to attack
in three phases. We all stayed busy digging in, rolling barbed wire, setting up
fields of fire and laying mine fields. It was a new experience for the 45th Division;
we had never fought a defensive battle before.
The first two savage attacks
came on February 3-5 and February 7-10 and were directed down the axis of the
main road that led from Rome and Albano to the port at Anzio. We were involved
in both of them, but the British just to our right and straddling the road took
the heaviest punishment. By the end of the second phase, the Germans had succeeded
in driving the British out of the strategic "Factory" town of Aprillia
and wiping out the salient projecting north along the road that had denied them
an approach for their heavy armor. The stubborn British brigades were intact,
but reduced to half-strength, and badly battered.
Just before midnight
on February 14, our 2nd Battalion advanced along the Albano road to take over
the positions of the bone-weary remnants of the Irish Guard Brigade. As we moved
forward in the quiet darkness, the only sounds to be heard were the constant low
rumble of motor convoys and the clank of tank treads in the distance ahead of
us. The atmosphere was one of ominous suspense, and not at all reassuring. We
had turned off the road to the left and were being guided by one of the jittery
Irish Guards when the silence exploded suddenly into rattling machine guns, rifle
fire, and the unholy screams and bursts of six-barreled mortars, and the whole
countryside lighted up in the eerie green glare of soaring Veery lights overhead.
The open rolling land all around us was an unearthly scene of devastation, twisted
wire, wrecked equipment, half dug foxholes and unburied dead. Panic gripped all
of us as we froze to the ground trying to find protection where there was none.
For what seemed like hours, we advanced in brief, breathless spurts during the
intervals of semi-darkness between flares, shell bursts, and red, zipping tracers
overhead. We finally reached a thicket-filled ravine and followed it.
When our guide led us into a cave opening that led underground to other passages,
where we found the Battalion Headquarters already set up, the feeling of relief
was almost overwhelming.
The Caves of Pozzolana, excavated for building material,
and used more recently by sheepherders, were a fantastic maze of underground,
criss-crossing passages dug into a ridge of shale and sandstone, and opening onto
the exterior gullies and knolls in fifteen or twenty places. The command posts
of Battalion Headquarters, G and H Companies were located in passages near some
of the cave entrances, separated in places by corridors 100 or more yards long.
Crowded into one of the larger passages were 60 or 70 terrified peasants, mostly
old men, women and children, who had found shelter there in the days before as
the battle lines raged back and forth over their homes and lands.
day of February 15 was relatively quiet. We set up our medical aid station in
the corridor behind the headquarters group. Our jeep and trailer, which had tried
to follow us up into position the night before, had been hit and lay useless about
150 yards out from one of the cave openings on exposed ground. Somehow during
the night of the 15th we managed to get out to it ,and salvaged about 3/4 of the
medical supplies. In the hours before dawn on the 16th, the entire beachhead grew
quiet, as if both sides were holding their breath, ticking off the minutes. And
then it started.
Every artillery piece on the beachhead opened up at
one time, our naval guns joined in, and for the next 45 minutes the steady thunder
of guns and exploding shells rolled on. The front lines disappeared under dense
clouds of drifting smoke and dust. The Germans launched attacks in dozens of places
along the entire perimeter, but all were diversionary except for the main thrust
four miles across down the Albano-Anzio road where they planned to break through
and split the beachhead in half. Massed troops poured over the open ground, wave
after wave with tanks in support. They fell by the hundreds, and the slaughter
was terrific. But they kept coming, hour after hour, day after day.
the night of the 18th, after 2-1/2 days of continuous battle, we had treated over
200 wounded and we had collected 120 litter cases in the aid station corridor.
No one had slept. We were out of plasma, morphine and bandages, and almost out
of food. We had to recruit some of the peasant women to help nurse the wounded,
and set others to work cooking soup out of the few chickens and dried beans they
had brought with them into the caves. Later in the night, Stan Lemon, our regimental
demolitions officer, got up to us with some borrowed tanks and half-tracks of
the 6th Armored and brought in supplies; he was able to evacuate all of the litter
wounded. Meanwhile, on our right flank across the road, the lines had been driven
back almost two miles, on our left, a mile.
We sat in on most of the
headquarters conferences. Colonel Brown, a little dazed by this kind of baptism
after so short a time in command, was more than a little unsure of himself. Captain
George Kessler, our veteran and capable executive officer, bore the burden of
the strain. He organized defenses, shifted remnants of this platoon here, moved
a heavy weapons squad there, pulled in isolated outposts, and drove himself day
and night without rest. As the fighting grew in intensity, Brown withdrew further
into his shell; his plans and orders were often conflicting and confusing, and
it was Kessler who translated and altered them into some semblance of workability.
Upset by our growing casualties, our difficulties with supply, and our impossible
position, Kessler and the rest of us argued for withdrawal. Brown, feeling his
own inexperience, and annoyed by his increasing dependence on Kessler, reacted
by becoming more autocratic, more suspicious of our motives, and more obstinate
in his determination to hold the positions. None of us relished the thought of
moving back through the open hell going on outside, and, like most of us, Brown
may have been afraid to leave the comparative shelter of the caves.
the night of the 19th, we were again able to evacuate another 50 litter cases.
Again there was an opportunity to withdraw; but, again, Brown could not be budged.
Kessler, torn between his compassion for the troops and his reluctant duty toward
Brown, never lost his composure, and deployed the ever-shrinking strength of the
battalion in a manner that kept it effective as a point of resistance. By morning
we were completely cut off, and the remnants of the battalion were entirely confined
to the caves. Brown issued orders; Kessler ignored them and juggled the weary
men as best he could. There was no possibility of escape now, and we had to make
the best of the situation.
We didn't know that when the Germans failed
to break through the final defenses two miles to our rear on the 19th, their all-out
offensive had finally cracked. The fighting continued unabated, but there were
no more waves of reserves to be thrown into the attack, and the exhausted German
troops had reached the limit of their endurance. An Allied counter-attack on the
20th threw them into more confusion, and on the evening of the 21st, the 2nd Battalion
of the Queen's Royal Regiment fought their way through the mixed-up lines in an
attempt to rescue us and reinforce the cave positions. Unfortunately they had,
bumped into strong German forces on the way, and, when they reached us, they had
lost most of their supplies, ammunition and supporting weapons. The relief force
now needed relief itself.
Our predicament in the caves was still critical.
There were German forces all around us, and they were still trying to dislodge
us by storming the cave openings. Men were fighting hand to hand with knives,
bayonets and rifle butts. To keep the Germans out we had to call on our own artillery
to blast the cave entrances. The din within the corridors was terrific, and the
concussion waves left most of us with shattered eardrums.
talked Colonel Brown into withdrawing, and on the night of the 22nd what remained
of the 2nd Battalion left the caves in small groups to try and make their way
back. Since we had another 30 litter cases still in the caves, six of us from
the medical section stayed on with the British, hoping that if anyone got back,
some scheme of evacuation could be worked out. The British, meanwhile, decided
that their own position in the caves was untenable. They planned to fight their
way out shortly after nightfall on the 23rd, and called for an artillery barrage
to begin at dusk and cover their retreat.
Late in the afternoon, Hugo
Fielshmidt, the 157th's zany regimental dental officer, stumbled flushed and wild-eyed
into the caves. Under the impression that a temporary truce would be in effect
so that both sides could clear the area of wounded, he had volunteered to lead
a group of litter bearers through more than a mile of German held territory. They
had come on foot with Hugo waving a Red Cross flag. Once on the way up, when some
shelling had started, he was forced to jump into the nearest foxhole on top of
two astonished Germans. They were more astonished when he scrambled out after
the shelling and went blithely on his way waving the flag.
With rescue seemingly
near, we did not stop to weigh our chances or consider the difficulties that lay
before us. There was no time to lose, because of the British escape plan. We loaded
the wounded onto litters and had to scratch around among the British, the walking
wounded, and the stragglers to find enough man-power to assign one bearer to each
end of a litter. With Fielscbmidt still waving his red and white flag, we led
the column out of the caves.
After ten days of underground darkness, the
late afternoon daylight was almost blinding. Most of the litter-bearers, all utterly
exhausted from the sleepless days and nights of battle, were unable to carry their
loads more than a few yards at a time without stopping to rest. After the constant
cold of the caves, the warm, oppressively humid air sapped our remaining energies.
The column proceeded slowly. The whole area through which we struggled was an
incredible panorama of desolation and destruction. Wrecked vehicles and armor,
uprooted trees and blasted vegetation, discarded ammunition and equipment, not
one foot of ground unmarked by shell craters and, lying everywhere, the dead.
We were a strange looking procession, and we passed within arm's reach
of many groups of German soldiers busily digging in. But they only seemed curious
and did not molest us. We had covered about half the distance when we passed a
crumbled farmhouse concealing a German tank. A German major and staff sergeant
stepped out from behind the house and halted us. The major indicated we could
go no farther.
There followed an unbelievable, comic opera interlude
of argument through interpreters. We maintained that we should be allowed to proceed;
the major held that we must be taken to German headquarters. Fielshmidt, red-faced
and angry, his arms flailing wildly, shouted that this was a hell of a way to
honor a truce: we were non-combatants, and according to the Geneva Convention,
couldn't be captured. He threatened the German major with court-martial!
The argument seemed to go on forever, but the Germans were adamant. Time was growing
short; dusk was almost on us, and with it the barrage called for by the British
would soon roll over where we were standing. We quieted Fielshmidt and reluctantly
agreed to be captured. The ridiculousness of the whole episode, a debate on the
ethics of warfare on a stage setting of carnage and destruction, struck us and
the German major simultaneously. We laughed and bowed politely.
was turned around and, now accompanied by armed guards, we headed to the left
toward the Albano road to join the German Army. When we reached the next rise,
we looked back. The German major was doubled over and still visibly shaking with
From the book, "Anzio: the Massacre at the Beachhead."
by British author and former war correspondent, Wynford Vaughan-Thomas:
the battalion had a commander, Lt. Col. Laurence C. Brown, who refused to allow
himself to be dismayed. He turned the caves into a fortress, ignoring the fact
that he was completely cut off from his base . . . He was destined to fight a
private war for more than six days and to hold the western shoulder at all costs."
"Out of the 900 men at the beginning of the week's fighting, the 2nd
Battalion 157th Regiment succeeded in mustering only 200 after their retreat from
the caves. Out of this remnant more than 100 were battle casualties. They had
held the western flank of the salient against enormous odds and fought one of
the most memorable infantry battles in the annals of the American Army . . . They
looked more like scarecrows than soldiers, but they had earned with their battered
bodies the rare honor of a Presidential Unit Citation."
often wondered whether Brown and the rest of us should qualify as heroes, or just
as ordinary cowards, trapped by circumstance, too frightened to run?
(c) The Bulletin of the Muscogee County (Georgia) Medical Society, "The Doctor's
Lounge", Mar. 1969, Vol.XVI No.3, p.8
By Train to Munich: 1944
The most memorable portion of our first three months as a German war prisoner
was the train ride from Italy to Bavaria. Our Pullman was a standard boxcar of
the 40 and 8 variety that we shared with an unusual group of fellow prisoners.
In the five days it took us to make what should have been an overnight run. We
learned the essentials of communal living in adverse circumstances.
our capture on the Anzio beachhead in late February, we were detained for two
weeks on the front lines where we helped run the medical aid-station for a German
combat unit. (Bulletin. Feb. 1964) All during that interesting interval we had
been pounded day and night by our own ground and naval artillery. It was a great
relief, finally, to say goodbye to the sounds of combat, the 1027 Panzer Grenadiers,
and ride their supply truck into Rome.
In Rome we were cooped up for
ten days in one of the sound stages at Cine Citta, where the Germans had established
a temporary prisoner-collecting compound. When they had accumulated enough officer-prisoners
to make up a load, we were off again by truck to a camp on the outskirts of Siena,
about 60 miles away to the north. It was from Siena, two weeks later, that our
train journey began.
A few days before leaving Rome, we were joined by
the bumptious group of officers who were to be our box-rat companions on the trip
through northern Italy and the Alps. They arrived in a bunch, assured and unintimidated:
a mixed bag of individualists. Excepting two young American airmen, they were
all British or British Colonials. Most were English, but the group also included
two Scotsmen, four Indians, a Welshman, a Canadian, a Rhodesian and a New Zealander.
They sported a few odds and ends of battle dress. But for the most part they were
clothed in disreputable peasant rags. They had many bonds in common. All had been
captured more than a year before during the African campaign, and all had once
been in the same camp at Chianti on the Italian Adriatic.
September 1943 during the brief interval between Italy's capitulation and the
German take-over, they had taken advantage of the confusion and escaped into the
mountains. There for six months, alone or in groups of two, they had hidden out
with friendly peasant families and lived off the countryside. After the Anzio
landings, expecting Rome to be liberated momentarily, they had worked their way
toward the Eternal City and freedom, only to be picked up by an extensive Fascist
drive and recaptured.
They were wise in the ways of prison camp life.
All were great scroungers, magnificent conversationalists, and adept in the techniques
of German-baiting. Like all "old prisoners." their many months of confinement,
along with their period of isolation in the mountains, had given them plenty of
time to philosophize, day dream about the future, and develop eccentricities.
John Mayne, a Regular Army Commando and Veteran of the Dieppe and Tobruk raids,
planned to emigrate to Australia. Peter Foulsham would return to London and study
law. Howard Davies would come to the States, buy a Packard roadster, return with
it to Rhodesia, and write animal stories. Richard Edmonston-Low, the Canadian,
would seek his future in New Mexico. Keith Esson longed to return to Christ Church
in New Zealand and open a book-store. Lock Creighton would go back to Edinburgh.
Kalvan Singh planned to stay in the Army and become a General, as did Athon Naravane;
Dudley Saker, whose father was Director of Education for India's Central Provinces
at Nagpur, would enter the Diplomatic Corps. They all had interesting stories
On leaving Siena, our visions of traveling through northern
Italy in troop-train fashion disappeared when a 14-car freight pulled into the
siding. Lt. Col. Trendel, the ranking officer in our group, insisted that as officers
we be kept together. He demanded special accommodations from the German train
commander. After much loud argument, the thirty of us were given a boxcar to ourselves
and, as concession to comfort, the bare flooring was covered with fresh straw.
As all other cars were strawless and packed with 50 prisoners, we considered our
Even with thirty men there is not much room to spare in a
small European boxcar. Each of us staked out a small bit of wall space as our
own, but sleeping stretched out was an impossibility, and had to be done in shifts.
Our possessions, by now reduced to one knapsack or cloth bundle apiece, came in
handy as backrests or pillows. (It was undeclared but understood that no one violated
the territorial rights of his neighbors.)
We were locked in from the
outside and the sliding door sealed shut. The only light within the car filtered
in through slit-like vents near the roof at each end of the two sidewalls. With
a boost, a tall man could get an eye up to one of these, and report on the outside
world. But the view was so limited that it was hardly worth the effort. Once a
day, usually in mid-morning, the train stopped on some isolated stretch of track.
The doors were opened, and two or three carloads at a time were allowed out to
stretch their legs and perform necessary evacuations within a watchful ring of
armed guards. At these stops we were issued a bread ration for the day, and given
a canteen-cup full of hot ersatz coffee.
Our food ration issued initially
for the entire trip was one can of compressed meat per man. It was euphemistically
labeled beef, but was unmistakably horse. We were cautioned by our companions
to ration it to ourselves carefully. Most had experienced boxcar travel before
on their way from the toe of Italy to Chianti. They knew that prison trains had
the lowest rail priority, and that what might he one day's travel in distance,
could well he a five or six day trip in time. They had learned also that hunger
is the most powerful of man's instincts. No matter how great one's altruism, trying
to appease a chronically empty stomach brings out all of one's selfish cunning,
and it is fair game to take any advantage available.
As a result, we
evolved a unique way of dividing our daily ration of three loaves of bread. We
split into three groups of ten, each with a chosen representative. The three agents
then drew straws to determine first, second, and third pick of loaves. After the
first day, second would move to first, third to second, first to last, and so
on in daily rotation. Each group of ten divided itself into two groups of five,
again each with a chosen leader. The two leaders then alternated days of cutting
the group's loaf in half; on the day when one cut, the other had first choice
of the halves. Each group of five drew straws to determine the order in the cutting
rotation on their half-loaf; when number one cut, number two had first choice
and number one automatically got the last segment. Even with our ingenious system.
the cutting ritual was intently watched -- each man calculating which piece seemed
the biggest and his chances of getting it. It was amazing with what micrometer
precision the last choice man could divide a loaf.
We adjusted quickly
to our cramped existence. No experience is entirely bad if it can be shared in
common with others. We talked and dozed and slept without much regard to time
of day. We discovered a few dried tobacco leaves mixed in with the straw; cut
up and rolled in newspaper, they were enough to make five community cigarettes
which we shared ceremoniously. We learned to interpret the sounds of the wheels,
and the creaks, groans and clanks of the ancient wooden car. We were stopped more
often than we were moving. Occasionally we waited for hours on some siding for
other trains to pass. Our route took us through Florence and Milan. One night
we were halted in the rail yards beyond Bolzano long enough to be bombed by our
own planes. (Jerry Perlman and Bob Schlisler, the two teen-age American flyers,
insisted indignantly that the raiders could only have been British.) On the morning
of the fourth day we did get to see the Alps at a stretch-stop above the Brenner
Pass. It was frustrating to know that neutral Switzerland was only a few miles
away. But snow still covered the ground, and the wind and cold were so severe
that we were happy to load back into our car where straw and body heat could warm
Our journey ended undramatically at Stalag VIII C. a large,
long-established camp filled with prisoners from all nations. There, a few miles
north of Munich in the town of Moosburg, endless rows of bleak, wire-enclosed
barracks awaited us. Yet to all of us, the prospect was appealing. The prisoner
of war lives only from day to day to day. Food, a bath, warmth and a straw-palleted
bunk of our own lay ahead. Tomorrow would take care of itself.