My uncle in Italy during WWII

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.

The Italian campaign in WWII

If history is written by self-flattering victors, then ambiguous and unfortunate battles are in danger of being forgotten altogether. We Americans never tire of the story of D-Day, of the great carnage on the beaches of Normandy that eventually put Allied troops across the Rhine and into the heart of Germany. But what do we know about Italy? The Allied campaign in Italy (1943-1944) is ambiguous at best and a colossal mistake at worst.

I just finished a book on the subject, The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy by Rick Atkinson. It’s a great read and does a lot to put the campaign in perspective. Atkinson gives you the viewpoint of commanders and soldiers, although I wish there were more material from the German side of the line. Atkinson refers to Italy as, at times, employing the tactics of World War I with the weapons of World War II. The reason is obvious in hindsight: there was no clear strategic directive. In France there was a simple objective. Drive your tanks into downtown Berlin. In Italy the objective was… what? A diversion from Normandy? A thrust deep into the “soft underbelly” of the Axis? A battle of attrition designed primarily to grind down German divisions? All these things? Even to the commanders, it was never clear.

Although Atkinson shows what the generals are thinking, he gives the last word to war correspondent Ernie Pyle. Here’s how Pyle sums it up.

I looked at it this way—if by having only a small army in Italy we had been able to build up more powerful forces in England, and if by sacrificing a few thousand lives that winter we would save a half million lives in Europe—if those things were true, then it was best as it was.

I wasn’t sure they were true. I only knew that I had to look at it that way or else I couldn’t bear to think of it at all.

By the way, one of the nice resources available to the modern reader of military history is Google Earth. If you want to know why Monte Cassino was so important, you can just fly there and inspect the landscape. You can also find map overlays like this one of the Salerno landings.

My uncle fought in the Italian campaign for several months before being wounded north of Rome and sent home. I’m sending him a copy of Day of Battle to get his opinion, but in the past he has highly recommended Farley Mowat’s And No Birds Sang as an unblinking memoir of what Italy looked like to an infantryman. Maybe I can get Uncle Bill to set down some of his thoughts for reading on this site…