Sixty-five years ago this week my Uncle Bill had a terrific headache. While touring through the Italian countryside near Santa Maria Infante, a piece of metal that would have killed him hit his helmet instead. I am glad for that.
I came across some Life magazine pictures being hosted by Google, and I asked him if they looked like what he saw. He fought west of Monte Cassino, where most of these pictures were taken, but he did say that this view typified what he saw much of the time.
He graciously agreed to write down some memories of that time and let me publish them here. Thanks Uncle Bill, and happy birthday!
It might be appropriate to outline my involvement in the infamous Italian campaign. On turning 18, I was drafted, after a year in college. In the fall of 1943 I was sent for basic infantry training to Fort McClellan in Alabama. After 13 weeks of training the companies were divided into two groups, one going to Fort Ord in California for the Pacific and the other to Fort George G. Meade in Maryland for the Atlantic. After a week at home I was sent to Fort Meade and then to Camp Patrick Henry in the Hampton Roads area, embarking on a troop transport for Oran, North Africa. Naples had fallen and a British ship took me to Naples. From there I subsequently found myself in the front lines north of the Garigliano River, the Gothic Line. There I was inserted, as a replacement, into a combat division, the 88th Infantry Division, 350th Regiment, first Battalion, Company B.
In an active combat division the attrition rate is high, some 60 percent in six months. Replacements are necessary. Unfortunately, replacements are at a disadvantage. Not having trained with your comrades, replacements were strangers in the midst of veterans. You were sent up to the line, stuck in a foxhole, not even knowing your comrades in the next foxhole over.
For a couple on months the Gothic line was static. I did watch the massive bombing of Cassino in March and could see the eruption of Vesuvius to the south. It was a spectacular display but I would have appreciated a better and more comfortable seat than a foxhole. On May 11, after an unusually fierce artillery bombardment, we pushed off, headed for Anzio. I remember walking behind tanks through devastated villages. Once, near Santa Maria Infante, my helmet was hit by shrapnel. My helmet was holed and I was knocked silly but the wound was superficial and after a few hours I was sent back into the line. We eventually met the troops from the Anzio beachhead and on June 4th we entered Rome, the first infantry troops in the city.
North of Rome, progress was rapid with only sporadic German resistance. On July 14, 1944, while trying to circle around a German machine gun emplacement, I was hit in my left ankle and foot. After some hours I was evacuated to a cave, where along with other wounded soldiers and civilians, I remained for a couple of days before being carried across the valley to battalion aid station, thence to Rome for surgery, to Naples and a hospital ship home. I had been ZIed, a wound sufficient to be sent to the Zone of the Interior, home!!!
My memories of Italy have been softened and blurred by time. Sixty years puts a bit of a strain on recall. I do remember the rain, the mud, and being supplied entirely by mule trains, carrying supplies in and the dead and wounded out. I remember the isolation and fear lying in a foxhole. I remember the never ending mountains and the uncanny ability of the Germans to use this advantage in defense. I remember the dead and the wounded and the cruelty on both sides. Sherman had it right.
I also remember the freedom from fear when pulled back from the front for R & R, the walk through Rome treated as conquerors, returning to Rome and seeing the Pope at the Vatican, those were the good days. I remember the trip home on the hospital ship, the attentive nurses, fried chicken and, most improbable, all the ice cream one could eat. And I remember my parents, scraping to borrow tires to make the trip to McGuire General Hospital in Richmond to visit me.
If you’re interested in the Italian campaign, I recommend Rick Atkinson’s The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, which I wrote about previously here. Also, while trying to locate some information on Santa Maria Infante, I found some old newspapers that have turned up on public archives. Here’s a link to a short article on the Americans marching through Santa Maria Infante and Castellanorata, but if you zoom out, you get a fascinating glimpse into a day of news in the all-consuming story of that war.