In 529 CE, during the darkest days of the so called “Dark Ages”, Benedict of Nursia established a small monastery on the site of an old temple to the god Apollo outside of the Roman village of Cassium. He wanted to take his small religious community in a new direction, and created a monastic rule for his followers based on order, balance, and moderation. The Benedictine Rule for Catholic monks spread throughout Europe. Their manuscripts and dedication to education went far in preserving the light of Western civilization during the numerous and successive barbarian invasions of Europe.
1415 years later, the Abbey at Monte Cassino took on a sinister visage to the Allies, in particular the remnant of the remnant of the US II Corps. Since the capture of San Pietro in December 1943, there was nowhere on the battlefield that you couldn’t look up and see the Abbey. During the meat grinder at San Pietro, the massacres crossing the Rapido River, the carnage swept slopes of Monte Cairo and Castle Hill, the brutal house to house fighting in Cassino, and a hundred other bloody engagements where the Allies were slaughtered, there was only one constant: the Abbey. Like a cackling mad god surveying his vicious handiwork, it loomed over the bloody hills and valleys of the Gustav Line. The American soldier wanted the Abbey obliterated.
Lt Gen Bernard Freyberg, the commander of the recently arrived New Zealand Corps, agreed. His Kiwis, Brits and Indians were next in line to feed the Beast in the shadow of the monastery. The II Corps staff was convinced the Germans had occupied the stout walls of the Abbey, or were at least using it for observation. And that is exactly what they briefed the New Zealand Corps’ staff during the relief in place. On 12 February 1944, Freyberg formally requested the Abbey be smashed by heavy bombers with “blockbusting” bombs. Gen Mark Clark disagreed based on the recommendation the II Corps commander, MG Keyes, who said, “They’ve been looking so long (at the Abbey), they’re seeing things.” No concrete evidence has ever been uncovered that the Abbey was ever occupied by the Germans before the 14th of February.
Field Marshall Kesselring specifically ordered that the Abbey was not to be so in any form, and made sure Hitler, the Allies and the Vatican knew that. Lieut Gen Viettinghoff, the German Tenth Army commander, ruthlessly enforced the edict and knew that the military crest of Monte Cassino was just as advantageous anyway. But British Field Marshall Harold Alexander, the CinC of the Allies in the Mediterranean, overruled Clark. Alexander wanted to give the bomber enthusiasts a chance to show what they could do in support of ground operations in Italy.
On the 13th, the Allies dropped leaflets on the Abbey telling the monks to leave. The Abbot knew there were no Germans in the monastery and thought the Allies were doing this to protect them from the ground fighting and stray rounds, so there was no sense of haste. Additionally there were over a thousand Italian refugees in the monastery, and they would take days to organize for movement north through the German lines.
Two days later on 15 February 1944, 300 Allied bombers and 100 fighter bombers destroyed the Abbey. The German Minister of Propaganda Jozef Goebbels immediately exploited the act and broadcast the news around the world. Most of the monks and civilians were killed. Vietinghoff immediately ordered the remains of the Abbey occupied. The elite German paratroopers of the 1st Fallshchirmjaeger Division turned the ruins into an impregnable fortress, exactly what the Allies accused them of doing in the first place. For the Allies, the future battles around Monte Cassino just became exponentially more difficult.
After the invasion of Tarawa in November, the next step for Adm Nimitz’ Central Pacific Campaign were the Marshall Islands, specifically the Kwajalein Atoll.
On 29 Jan 1944, Nimitz’ Bombardment Group centered around 6 fleet carriers, 6 Escort carriers, and eight battleships shelled, staffed and bombed the islands of the atoll. On the 31st, the US 7th Infantry and 4th Marine Divisions assaulted the islands of Kwajalein and Roi-Namur. The Soldiers and Marines never encountered more than 300 dazed survivors at a time. Within a week, the Kwajalein atoll was secured.
Although there was hard fighting at times, Operation Flintlock was successful because it was characteristic of the changing nature of the war in the Pacific, and the Japanese slowness to adapt. The Japanese fortified the outer ring islands of the atoll, but the Americans broke their code and knew which islands to isolate. Without a challenge from the Japanese Navy (which still had not replaced the losses from the Guadcanal naval battles), the US Navy just sailed around the heavily defended islands and secured the supporting islands. Without a navy to come to their aid, most Japanese were cut off and just left alone by the Americans to starve to death.
Furthermore, the heaviest Japanese defenses were focused on the ocean side of the islands because they believed the Americans did not have the technology to penetrate the lagoon or wherewithal to risk another Betio. They were mistaken. The Americans learned from their mistakes of the last year, and either found solutions or did not repeat them. So if any heavily defended islands had to be attacked, the Allied assaults hit Japanese defenses pointed on the wrong direction. Finally, the pre invasion bombardments were particularly effective. The Japanese weren’t as heavily fortified on the supporting islands. Estimates from both Japanese and American sources say that 50% of the 8000 Japanese defenders on the atoll were killed or wounded before a single soldier or Marine set foot on dry ground.
The Kwajalein and nearby Eniwetok atolls would provide the springboards for the American return to Guam and the Mariana Islands later in the year.
After a short buildup, MG Lucas, the commander of all of the troops in the Anzio beachhead, was under great pressure from Gen Mark Clark and Winston Churchill to break out. The Alban Hills, the original objective for Operation Shingle, was out of the question: they were already too strongly defended and would grossly extend his perimeter if he did capture them. So he sent the British 1st Division to seize them anyway just to temporarily get his superiors off his back. However, another possibility, a real one, did exist. He could still cut Highways 6 and 7 to stop supplies heading to the Germans in front of the French and Americans fighting around Cassino by capturing the Italian town of Cisterna. He couldn’t hold it for any length of time, but the town provided a good point to push further inland and cut Route 7. And because it briefed well, there was always the pipe dream that the shock of being temporarily cut off might cause the Germans to withdraw.
The US 3rd Infantry Division was given the job. Leading the attack would be COL William O Darby’s 6615 Ranger Force. Leading the way, the 1st and 3rd Ranger Battalions and the 3rd ID’s Recon Troop were to infiltrate Cisterna the night before to pave the way for the assault.
Unfortunately, the German main line of resistance was much closer and stronger than the Rangers expected. Clark and Lucas underestimated the German operational ability to quickly mass troops at trouble spots. The rangers and scouts infiltrated right into the assembly areas of two German panzer divisions — the 26th and the powerful Herman Goering Panzer Division.
The two Ranger battalions were immediately cut off, and over the next seven hours, methodically destroyed. Even the best light infantry in the world is no match for an armored force when it’s fixed in an exposed position without heavy equipment.
The 3rd ID and 6615th, spearheaded by the 4th Ranger battalion and the 504th Parchute Infantry Regiment, launched themselves repeatedly at Cisterna to relieve the entrapped Rangers. The fanatic and soon desperate assaults were in vain. Of the 800 Rangers and Troopers trapped in Cisterna, only six returned. What remained of the 6615th was disbanded and the Rangers were sent to the replacement depots as ordinary infantry. COL Darby was ignominiously reassigned to Lucas’ staff.
The Rangers weren’t used again until the invasion of France in June.
On 22 January 1944, British and American troops of MG John Lucas’ VI Corps landed on a 15 mile stretch of beach between the Italian resort towns of Anzio and Nettuno, 30 miles from Rome and 30 miles behind the Gustav Line and Monte Cassino. VI Corps’ objectives were the Alban Hills along Highway 7 and the town of Cisterna along Highway 6. Their capture would cut off the German defenders to the south. However, priority for the all-important LSTs (Landing Ship, Tank. The ship that would unload supplies and reinforcements after the assault waves cleared the beaches) was to Operation Overlord, the invasion of France from England. Winston Churchill, whose pet project Shingle was, had to threaten American naval logisticians to release the bare minimum of 88 LSTs for the invasion. They were enough to land Lucas’ force, but not enough to reinforce it promptly and keep an expanding beachhead supplied.
When Lucas asked his friend George Patton to look over the plan, Patton solemnly said, “John, there is nobody in the U.S. Army I would less like to see killed than you, but you can’t get out of this alive. Of course, you might get wounded and nobody ever blames a wounded general”.
Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your view, MG Lucas did not immediately advance to secure the objectives. He only had two divisions in his assault force, the British 1st and US 3rd, and several attachments: the US 6615 Ranger Force, the US 509th Parachute BN (landing from the sea) and the British Commando BDE. Lucas’ invasion force was not strong enough to secure the beachhead from German counterattack while simultaneously securing his objectives 20 miles away. The battlefield calculus simply did not allow both options. He would be lambasted to this day (probably by some of you reading this) for his decision to build up the beachhead to defeat the inevitable and crushing German counterattack.
Clark admitted later that his only hope for the understrength end run up the Italian boot was to shock the Germans into pulling off of the Gustav Line. This was not an unreasonable assumption, even if it was an inaccurate one. In several previous instances during the campaign, the Germans withdrew from prepared positions after an amphibious end run by the Allies. However, the competent and unflappable German commander in Italy, Field Marshal Albert “Smiling Al” Kesselring, made it clear he was not going to give up the stout and well-fortified Gustav Line. The Gustav Line took advantage of the only terrain south of Rome that allowed Kesselring the opportunity to block the Allied advance up the peninsula and prevent the capture of the Eternal City. At the Gates of Monte Cassino was where Kesselring planned to stop the Allied advance up the Italian boot.
The Germans were taken completely by surprise by Operation Shingle and there was no resistance to the initial landings. Nonetheless, Kesselring sprang into action. Within an hour of the initial report, reconnaissance units from two German divisions were enroute to the area, and within six hours their divisions’ main bodies were on the move. Kesselring then fell back upon one of the Wehrmachts’ greatest strengths: to operationally move formations from other fronts to troubled areas, which was well honed from fighting on the Russian front. Within two days eight more divisions from as far away as France and the Balkans were converging on the small Anzio beachhead. In five days, there were thirteen German divisions committed to crushing Lucas’ exposed and already overextended beachhead.
After sundown on 20 January 1944, the US 36th “Arrowhead” Infantry Division from the Texas and Oklahoma Army National Guard, began their movement to the shore of the Rapido River, intending to cross near the Italian town of San Angelo. Both the 143rd and 141st ran into German minefields, and mortar and machine gun fire from across the river slammed into the exposed troops. Mass confusion reigned in the darkness and the Americans had not even reached the near riverbank.
Nonetheless, the 141st and 143rd Regts pushed on all night and by mid-morning established shallow toeholds on the far shore of the narrow but swift and deep Rapido River. But in the daylight, no reinforcements could cross or even get near the near shore: the Germans on Monte Cassino could see every movement for miles and those on the hills above San Angelo could engage anyone even attempting to approach the riverbanks. The Americans’ Italian nemesis, the veteran German 15th Panzergrenadier Division counterattacked and eliminated the toeholds by midafternoon.
The 36th’s commander MG Fred Walker had previously told Clark that the river crossing was in the “worst possible spot”. He would know, as a battalion commander in the First World War, he slaughtered Germans trying to cross the Marne in a similar situation. Nonetheless, he decided to try again that evening. The regiments again succeeded in placing toeholds on the far shore by dawn, but the Germans again destroyed them by the end of the day. The German report for the action was only one sentence long, “Strong enemy assault detachments which have crossed the river are annihilated.”
MG Walker refused to continue the assaults, even though Clark ordered him to do so.
The failed assaults cost the 36th 2200 additional casualties effectively neutralizing the unit, with only one weak regiment, the 142nd, left to hold the line.
After the war there would be Congressional hearings as to if or why, “West Pointers deliberately threw away the lives of National Guardsmen.”
On 17 January 1944, the British X Corps crossed the Garigliano River as part of Gen. Mark Clark’s US 5th Army offensive to seize Monte Cassino and crack the German Gustav Line across Italy. Clark didn’t expect the offensive to succeed which included not only the British but also American and French corps further north along the Rapido River. Privately, he said the best he could hope for was to pull German reserves away from the impending landings up the Italian coast at Anzio and Nettuno. The stated objective of the British X Corps’ dangerous river assault was to seize high ground that overlooked the US II Corps’ future river crossing at San Angelo. The British X Corps was initially successful and held a tenuous bridgehead over the Garigliano.
On 19 January 1944, the British 46th Division assaulted across the Gargliano River near its junction with the Liri River in support of the rest of the British X Corps. But the operation failed and even if it succeeded, it wasn’t enough to secure the lodgment. The British commander requested more troops, but Clark refused: the only available troops were the nearby US troops earmarked for the Rapido River crossing on the 20th, and Clark refused to alter the plan. Instead of crossing the river and securing and expanding the British bridgehead, the US II Corps was condemned to its own suicidal river crossing just a bit farther north. After three brutal days successfully defending against incessant German counterattacks in the rainy and cold Italian winter, German reserves from Rome finally forced the exhausted and overwhelmed British X Corps back across the river.
Although the British river assault was successful in pulling German reserves south away from the Anzio/Nettuno landings, the US II Corps paid heavily Clark’s decision and for the British failure to secure the high ground which could observe their crossing sites. Just to the north of the British fighting to secure their bridgehead, the US II Corps, consisting of the US 45th and 36th Divisions, finished their three day rest and reorganization from the grueling six week fight during Operation Raincoat.
During the battle through the Bernhardt Line, the US II Corps took 60% casualties, and nearly 80% in the line units. Replacements arrived just in time on the 19th to participate in the 36th’s rehearsals and final preparations for their assault across the Rapido River, scheduled for the next day. Farther north, the US 34th Division and French Expeditionary Corps were preparing for their own assault across the Rapido on 22 January, the same day as Operation Shingle, the landings at Anzio and Nettuno 35 miles behind the front.
On 19 January 1944, the assault elements of Shingle, the VI Corps, which consisted the British Commando Brigade and 1st (UK) Division, and the US 3rd Infantry Division and the Ranger Force, conducted a rehearsal in the vicinity of Naples. The rehearsal was a disaster. MG John Lucas, the VI Corps commander and each of his division commanders recommended the invasion be delayed in order to conduct more training. Clark and PM Winston Churchill denied the request: the invasion craft were needed as soon as possible in England for Operation Overlord, the invasion of France scheduled for May, and there could be no delays in the Mediterranean. Operation Shingle had to happen in the third week of January at the latest or it wouldn’t happen at all.
Clark hoped the river assaults and the landings behind the German defenses would convince the Germans they were outmaneuvered and abandon the Gustav Line.
The overarching Allied operation in the Solomon’s Campaign was Operation Cartwheel, the isolation and eventual capture of Rabaul on the island of New Britain, Imperial Japan’s main base in the South Pacific. The previous capture of New Georgia and other northern Solomon Islands placed Rabaul within heavy and medium bomber range, but shorter ranged fighters and naval bombers needed airfields closer. The island of Buka, just north of Bougainville was the obvious choice, but Adm Halsey decided that the flat areas of the much larger Bougainville were enough to provide the airfields necessary for the eventual isolation of the islands, while doing the same to Rabaul.
On 1 November 1943, Halsey launched Operation Cherry Blossom, the invasion of Bougainville. The initial landings at Torokina on the west coast of the island were virtually unopposed: only a single Japanese platoon was in the area. Gen Hyukutake of the Japanese 17th Army gambled that Halsey would invade Buka off the northern tip of Bougainville and bypass Bougainville entirely. He chose wrong. Nonetheless, he and the naval commander at Rabaul, Adm Kusaka, rushed men and ships to the area to seal the beachhead and eventually reduce it with naval gunfire and ground attack. They knew from their experience at Guadalcanal that if the Allies got a secure beachhead with a functioning airfield, the Americans were almost impossible to dislodge, especially as American naval surface warfare proficiency had come leaps and bounds since the precious year. The Americans knew it also.
In the shadow of Mt Baranga, an active and smoking volcano, Allied transports rushed to unload. 30% of the initial 3rd Marine Division landing force, including three SeaBee battalions, assisted with unloading the transports in order to get them safely away before the inevitable Japanese naval sortie arrived. The Japanese attempted to imitate their success at Savo Island the year before, but Adm Aaron Merrill’s Task Force 39 was waiting for them and savaged the Japanese at the entrance to Empress Augusta Bay off the west coast of Bougainville. Nevertheless, Halsey was concerned.
Though a brilliant operational commander and leader of men, he still thought in year old archaic terms for naval superiority, i.e. CV>BB>CA>CL>DD. He, and to be fair the rest of the US Navy, still hadn’t grasped that the Japanese’ most damaging weapon was the Long Lance torpedo on their small destroyers, and that the quick firing radar controlled 6” guns on the American light cruisers were far superior to the big manual 8” heavy cruiser guns. He saw the reports that the Japanese had heavy cruisers and that he didn’t so he ordered Task Force 38, his only carriers, to strike Rabaul and sink any shipping that could interfere with the invasion of Bougainville. He specifically tasked them to drive away the heavy cruisers to protect his transports and their escorts and to prevent another “Hell Night” as had happened on Guadalcanal. He was successful in his gamble, but only because he was ignorant of the Japanese lack of carrier-borne pilots. Halsey thought he might be sailing into a “reverse Midway”, but Kusaka had no way to strike Halsey’s carriers and the land based planes were committed over Bougainville. Kusaka withdrew his ships back to Truk, the main Japanese anchorage in the South Central Pacific and out of the fight. No further Japanese attempts to interfere with any Solomon Island were to occur for the rest of the war. The Naval Battles of the Solomon Island, which began so ignobly off Savo Island 17 months before, ended in a decisive American victory.
After the failed Japanese attempts to destroy the beachhead by sea, the US 3rd Marine and US Army 37th Infantry Division expanded the beachhead over the next few weeks. Navy SeaBees started construction of an airfield literally just off the beach, and quickly began building roads inland. They built them so fast that Marines told them to slow down as their roads were pushing farther forward than the Marine pickets. By the end of November 1943, the Japanese increased their counterattacks, and had occupied the hills around the beachhead with artillery, despite several serious losses against counter-counter attacking Marines in the perimeter. First, the entire initial naval landing force sent by Kusaka at the onset of the invasion was wiped out at Koromokina Lagoon on 7-8 November, and an entire Japanese regiment was destroyed at Piva Forks later in the month.
In December 1943, the 3rd Marine Division was replaced by the veteran US Army Americal Division, and they and the 37th expanded the perimeter to prevent artillery fire from molesting Empress Augusta Bay and the three airfields under construction. The first aircraft to land of the newly operational beach airfield was a corsair from the famed VMF 214, the “Black Sheep” squadron, on 11 December. Within hours, Maj. “Pappy” Boyington and his fighters did a sweep over Rabaul, just because they could, and taunted the surprised Japanese to come up after them. The Japanese knew the Allies were building airfields on Bougainville but completely misjudged the speed at which the SeaBees could construct one under fire. Though until all three airfields were completed, the fighters more often than not flew ground attack missions in support of marines and soldiers fighting a few hundred yards from the flight line. The operational airfields finally convinced Gen Imamura at Rabaul, Hyukutake’s boss, that Halsey’s main effort wasn’t coming at Buka.
Imamura was convinced all throughout November and December that Halsey would attempt to seize Buka, and he wasn’t wrong, he just had the timing incorrect. (Buka was Halsey’s next target after the airfields on Bougainville were completed.) Imamura assumed Halsey knew about the severe Japanese shortage of carrier qualified pilots, and would use his own carriers to support a bold landing on Buka, bypassing and isolating Bougainville and getting that much closer to Rabaul if successful. However, Halsey was unaware of the pilot shortage and assumed the carriers were still out there lurking, waiting to pounce. To Halsey, Buka was too exposed and not worth the risk; a risk which Imamura assumed the legendarily aggressive Halsey would take. Once the Black Sheep and other fighter squadrons did their sweeps over Rabaul, Imamura could no longer ignore the danger the airfields posed. He released troops from Buka and northern Bougainville to reduce the growing Allied perimeter at Torokina. But Imamura’s assault was now substantially more difficult, Halsey’s two US Army divisions had time dig in and stockpile necessary supplies.
Nevertheless, the Japanese troops encountered so far in the battle were relatively few compared to what Imamura had on hand. It took Hyukutake nearly two months to stage Imamura’s reinforcements in their assault positions around Torokina. In March, Halsey’s perimeter on Bougainville would feel the entire weight of Hyukutake’s 17th Army.
To be continued…
On 16 December 1944, Operation Wacht am Rhein, Hitler’s Ardennes Counteroffensive and the eventual “Battle of the Bulge”, initially crashed into two units originally formed in the Grand Commonwealth of Pennsylvania: the US 28th Infantry Division on the southern shoulder of the Bulge, and the US 99th Infantry Division on the northern shoulder of the Bulge.
In the south, MG Norman Cota’s 28th “Keystone” Infantry Division of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard, aka “The Bloody Bucket”, had its three regimental combat teams (RCTs) on line facing the entirety of both the XLVIII Panzer and LXXXV Corps. Each RCT had more than two German divisions opposite them.
After the initial surprise on 16 December 1944, the 28th’s northernmost RCT, the 112th from Butler and northwestern PA, held the Our River bridge at Ourthe for over two days against overwhelming odds before falling back in good order to St Vith to take part in the critical defense there with the US 7th Armored Division. The Germans expected to capture the Our River Bridge in the first hours of the first day.
In the south, the 109th RCT from Scranton and northeastern PA, defeated the 352nd Volksgrenadier Division and rendered them combat ineffective for the rest of the battle. The 109th only fell back when their positions became untenable because of the breakthroughs to their north in the 110th RCT’s sector. The entire 109th RCT received Luxembourg’s Croix De Guerre for their defense of the small duchy.
In the center of the 28th’s line, the 110th RCT from Uniontown and southwestern PA felt the full weight of three German divisions: the 2nd Panzer, Panzer Lehr and 26th Volksgrenadier divisions. Although the initial attacks were repulsed, sheer weight of numbers broke through the forward defenses along “Skyline Drive”, the north-south highway along which they defended. Still, isolated companies and platoons of the 110th fought the Germans to a standstill for two critical days before they were broken. The 110th’s stand culminated with the defense of Clervaux on the Clerf River where the scouts, cooks, bakers, and staff personnel of the 110th’s HQ Company held the fortified chateaux until they ran out of ammunition. That bridge was another initial German objective that took two full days to capture. The time the 110th bought allowed some of Eisenhower’s only reserves, the 101st Airborne Division, to arrive at the key crossroads town of Bastogne before the Germans. By the 19th, most of the 110th RCT was either dead, wounded, or captured, but the survivors formed the core of “Team Snafu” which would play a vital role in the 101’s defense of Bastogne.
In the north, the US 99th “Checkerboard” Infantry Division had only recently arrived in Europe, but it was in position just west of the Siegfried Line long enough to adequately dig in, if only to keep warm. The 99th formed in 1942 from mostly Western Pennsylvanians and eastern Ohioans, and took their division insignia from the shield used on the Pittsburgh city crest and the emblem of Pittsburgh’s recently renamed football team, the Steelers.
On 16 December 1944, the division was struck by the vanguard of the 6th SS Panzer Army, and many units broke under the onslaught. However, isolated companies and platoons fought back savagely and prevented a German breakthrough. Though the center collapsed, on the far left of the 99th’s line, three companies of the 395th RCT at Hofen defeated the 396th Volksgrenadier Division. On the far right at the other end of the line, a single Intelligence and Reconnaissance platoon of 22 men under LT Lyle Bouck fought off the entire German 9th Parachute Regiment near the Belgian town of Lanzerath.
On the night of the 16th, the commander of the unit behind the paratroopers, the infamous Jochim Peiper of the 1st SS Panzer Regiment of the 1st SS Panzer Division, stormed into their command post demanding to know why the attack stalled. The commander of the 9th told him there was an entire battalion dug in and fiercely defending the ridge above the town. Peiper ordered the paratroopers to support his Panther and King Tiger tanks in a deliberate attack that night. He was furious to find out that only a single platoon had held up an entire panzer corps for 24 hours.
Although chaos reigned throughout the 99ths sector on 16 December, they held the Germans long enough for LTG Gerow of the US V Corps to unilaterally order the US 2nd Infantry Division to the twin towns of Rocheroth and Krinkelt. On the 15th, the 2nd was attacking the Siegfried Line to the north of the 99th and immediately stopped, turned and headed south to help the 99th. The 2nd held the towns long enough for the remains of the 99th to pass through and set up a new defensive line on Elsenborn Ridge, less than 10 miles from their original positions.
The 6th SS Panzer Army broke out to the west but their objective was Antwerp which was to the north. As Peiper and the 1st SS Panzer Division proceeded west instead of northwest they were increasingly pushed onto roads designated for other German units further to their south, which caused massive traffic jams. The 2nd and 99th Divisions (with the 1st Infantry Division to their right at Bullingen) held Elsenbrn Ridge and the northern shoulder of the Bulge for the rest of the battle despite furious and increasingly desperate German attacks to move forward.
On the 16th of December 1944, surprise was complete and the majority of the American units in the Ardennes collapsed. However some did not, despite the German’s best efforts. By the end of the day the Germans’ strict timetable was already irreparably upset. The Battle of the Bulge was all about roads, road marches, and road junctions. On Day One, the NCOs, and junior and field grade officers of the 28th and 99th Divisions denied the attacking German Army the roads and time they needed to win the battle.
In the Battle for San Pietro Infine, A Company, 143rd Infantry Regiment, commanded by Captain Rufus Cleghorn was responsible for one of the few Allied successes so far in the battle. They had seized the crest of Monte Sammucro, but for their efforts they endured fierce German counterattacks. The Germans threw so many grenades that the Texans used their rifles as baseball bats to hit them back before they exploded.
After four days, Able Company was reinforced by Baker Company, commanded by Cleghorne’s friend, 25 year old Captain Henry T. Waskow from Belton, Texas. On the night of 12 December 1943, B Company, down to about 50 men, moved into assault positions to exploit A Company’s success and clear the ridge above San Pietro Infine between Monte Sammucro and Hill 730.
While the company was in position, Captain Waskow quietly made his rounds among the men, chatting and offering words of encouragement. In a dark, shallow ravine, he spoke to Pvt Riley Tidwell about how when he got “Back to the States, I’m going to get one of those smart-aleck toasters where you put the bread in and it pops up.” Those were his last words. A German machine gunner heard him and opened fire. A fragment from the resulting mortar barrage killed him instantly. A mule train, run by Italian volunteers, took his body down off the mountain two days later.
At the bottom of Monte Sammucro was Ernie Pyle, a war correspondent whose dispatches from the front appeared in over 200 newspapers. He didn’t write about generals or huge battles but wrote about the common soldier in an intimate style that resembled letters home. This greatly endeared him to the soldiers, NCOs and junior officers who wanted their stories to be heard. Ernie saw the beloved company commander’s body come down the trail strapped to a mule, and the experience became the subject of his most famous dispatch, “The Death of Captain Waskow”. It is arguably the finest and most heartfelt expository passage of World War II.
“The Death of Capt. Waskow
By Ernie Pyle
AT THE FRONT LINES IN ITALY, Jan 10 (1944) (by Wireless) – In this war I have known a lot of officers who were loved and respected by the soldiers under them. But never have I crossed the trail of any man as beloved as Capt. Henry T. Waskow of Belton, Tex.
Capt. Waskow was a company commander in the 36th Division. He had been in this company since long before he left the States. He was very young, only is his middle twenties, but he carried in him a sincerity and gentleness that made people want to be guided by him.
“After my own father, he comes next,” a sergeant told me.
“He always looked after us,” a solder said. “He’d go to bat for us every time.”
* * *
I was at the foot of the mule trail the night they brought Capt. Waskow down. The moon was nearly full and you could see far up the trail, and even part way across the valley. Soldiers made shadows as they walked.
Dead men had been coming down the mountain all evening, lashed onto the backs of mules. They came belly down across the wooden backsaddle, their heads hanging down on the left side of the mule, their stiffened legs sticking awkwardly from the other side, bobbing up and down as the mule walked.
The Italian mule skinners were afraid to walk beside dead men, so Americans had to lead the mules down that night. Even the Americans were reluctant to unlash and lift off the bodies, when they got to the bottom, so an officer had to do it himself and ask others to help.
The first one came early in the morning. They slid him down from the mule, and stood him on his feet for a moment. In the half light he might have been merely a sick man standing there leaning on the other. Then they laid him on the ground in the shadow of the stone wall alongside the road.
I don’t know who that first one was. You feel small in the presence of dead men, and you don’t ask silly questions ….
We left him there beside the road, that first one, and we all went back into the cowshed and sat on watercans or lay on the straw, waiting for the next batch of mules.
Somebody said the dead soldier had been dead for four days, and then nobody said anything more about him. We talked for an hour or more; the dead man lay all alone, outside in the shadow of the wall.
Then a soldier came into the cowshed and said there were some more bodies outside. We went out into the road. Four mules stood there in the moonlight in the road where the trail came down off the mountain. The soldiers who led them stood there waiting.
“This one is Capt. Waskow,” one of them said quickly.
Two men unlashed his body from the mule and lifted it off and laid it in the shadow beside the stone wall. Other men took the other bodies off. Finally, there were five lying end to end in a long row. You don’t cover up dead men in combat zones. They just lie there in the shadows until somebody else comes after them.
The uncertain mules moved off to their olive groves. The men in the road seemed reluctant to leave. They stood around, and gradually I could sense them moving, one by one, close to Capt. Waskow’s body. Not so much to look, I think, as to say something in finality to him and to themselves. I stood close by and I could hear.
One soldier came and looked down, and he said out loud:
“God damn it!”
Another one came, and he said, “God damn it to hell anyway!” He looked down for a few last moments and then turned and left.
Another man came. I think it was an officer. It was hard to tell officers from men in the dim light, for everybody was grimy and dirty. The man looked down into the dead captain’s face and then spoke directly to him, as tho he were alive:
“I’m sorry, old man.”
Then a solder came and stood beside the officer and bent over, and he too spoke to his dead captain, not in a whisper but awfully tender, and he said:
“I sure am sorry, sir.”
Then the first man squatted down, and he reached down and took the Captain’s hand, and he sat there for a full five minutes holding the dead hand in his own and looking intently into the dead face. And he never uttered a sound all the time he sat there.
Finally he put the hand down. He reached up and gently straightened the points of the Captain’s shirt collar, and then he sort of rearranged the tattered edges of his uniform around the wound, and then he got up and walked away down the road in the moonlight, all alone.
The rest of us went back into the cowshed, leaving the dead men lying in a line, end to end, in the shadow of the low stone wall. We lay down on the straw in the cowshed, and pretty soon we were all asleep.”