Mt. Vesuvius Threatens
When I left Napoli Mt. Vesuvius was threatening eruption. I saw the glowing above the mountain. In a short while we were in the Anzio harbor or port or landing zone. The big old cannon, Anzio Annie, in the Alban Hills, was trying its best to knock out the shipping. Shells were landing sporadically. We floated to shore and found ready-made fox holes. The war was HERE! I was in it! The destruction of the buildings continued and the shelling was constant. I was taken somewhere by jeep. I was issued a new rifle and some other battle gear. I asked for a 1903 Springfield rifle. It was made by a typewriter manufacturer called Smith-Corona. I looked at the stamped parts and asked the sergeant, “Gee. Will this thing shoot”?
Anzio Beachhead – January 1944
I fondled my new ’03-A1 and hoped I would never have to use it. The weapon was obsolete but I liked the bolt action. I was a hunter at home and old ’03 weapons from WW1 were ‘sporterized’ and prized for hunting deer. My hunting at home was different, in comparison to where I was at this time.
I bet if I shot high into the air inland the bullet would land behind the German lines. They were doing that to us. There was sporadic fire from their 20mm rifles. Of course the German 88 and everything else they had, were firing at will. Now and then the German artillery got lucky and hit an ammo dump, which would burn as the shells in the ammo pile would explode shooting wildly into the sky in all directions in a Fourth of July display for hours into the night. I’ll bet the German artillery observer was doing handsprings! Our artillery returned fire round-for-round. Our Howitzers were dug in everywhere you turned your gaze it seemed. Long Toms blasted at targets suggested by the forward observers on the line. Our artillery had small Cub airplane spotter-craft radioing target positions. I wondered how they could expose themselves to the enemy.
I wasn’t familiar with the precautions necessary when under the plain sight of observers from the other side. I needed to ‘relieve myself’ and walked out of sight of the other soldiers. I heard a snap or two. I remembered how bullets snap as they pass close by. I learned this in the target pits at Camp Roberts. Bullets go through the sound barrier and snap like a thunderclap. I still wonder how the bullet could have come from that distance. I took cover in haste. No use taking chances in wonderment.
Sometime during the first night I was taken to my A&P platoon position on line. All that is dim to me now since nothing ceremoniously happened and there were no landmarks to remember. It was dark as the ace of spades. No time was wasted for any ceremony. The platoon leader gets your name and you are on duty. The first night I was sent out with booby- traps and mines to lay in “No Man’s Land”. “NO MAN’S LAND”!! I couldn’t believe that I was only a few hundred feet away from German machine guns. Now and then the Germans would fire flares, which hung for what seemed like hours floating down on a small parachute. The magnesium flares would light up a large area. If we heard the pop of the flare being shot up by the Jerries, we would drop to the ground and try to maintain a low profile. Sometimes the Jerries would open up with their machine guns at the same time of the launching of the flares. The Jerry machine gun tracers were only a few feet above the ground. In between each tracer are about five other slugs. You can easily figure how close you were to the Jerry gun barrels by the trajectory of the tracer. If it is traveling on a flat trajectory you know danged-well you are in within a few hundred feet of the machine gun position. It wasn’t wise to answer their fire and give away our position. We were there to lay mines and our own trip-flares. We were armed only with our rifles or carbines. One other deadly booby-trap was the “BOUNCING BETTY” which looked like a small hydraulic jack. When the enemy stumbled over the wire the booby trap would rise about shoulder high and explode. It was very lethal and deadly.
On one night when we were laying mines, one of our GIs was arming the mines. This required pulling of the safety pins on each mine or booby-trap. This allowed the cap to be triggered and the mine to do its dirty work. Pvt. Winfield A. Doner bent over a mine and pulled the pins. The detonator was either faulty or Doner was careless in the excitement of the night. The mine exploded and killed him. He is buried on Anzio. Our buddy P.I. (Paul) Thome has visited the grave on several occasions.
“DEAR JOHN “
I wasn’t acquainted with many of the A&P members. I slept alone in a cold foxhole which I dug in the drain ditch bank, with just one blanket. I was very miserable in many ways. There was never any mail for me from home and I awaited the most important letter– from the girl I left behind.
That day finally came. The orderly hollered MOHAR and I was stunned when he gave me a barracks back with the bottom part filled with letters! OH BOY! OH BOY! Now I can be replenished by reading some mushy stuff in a letter from “you guess who”. That bag accumulated mail for 8 months!!
I separated the letters according to postmarks and decided to read the last one first. Here it was! A “Dear John”. I could have died on the spot. Such a feeling of hopelessness overcame me. But I sure didn’t bawl. I had a reverse reaction. I was mad! To think that I was at this distance with the mail, and communication at less than a snail’s pace. What the heck could I do now? I decided to reconstruct the case as I read the oldest postmarked letter. It finally came out. The old “lonesome bit” and it’s been a ‘long time’ crap. Also, there was an Air Force guy with a cute cap that snowed her. By golly I hope he got her! I just read the letters and tossed them into a little fire we had. At that time if a shell would have come in and got me I wouldn’t much have cared–Naw –that’s not true. I just kept on feeding the fire and the flame went out. Is there a song in this somewhere? Later I wrote her a scathing letter, which she said, ‘made her cry’. In some of the words I used, I said, “Oh well. I couldn’t have trusted you when the Iceman came anyway”.
1st WARM SLEEP
I got acquainted with a guy named Tanner. I think his first name was Clair. I understood he was from Kansas, a farm boy who had everything in his bag. We nicknamed him “Barracks Bag Tanner”. He had an extra blanket and a shelter half. We dug my hole out a bit wider and stretched the shelter half over the top. We covered the edges with dirt and left one opening to crawl into at whenever we were told it was ‘bed time’. We found some straw and spread it on the floor. The hole was only about a foot and a half deep. The shelter half was only inches above our noses. Old Tanner was like a furnace that night. I slept like a log that night for the first time. In the morning the top of the shelter half was white with frost.
As I said, I wasn’t well known and vice versa. Each night we had to go out to finish the job or start a new one. You followed the soldier in front of you bearing your load in your own grief and sorrow and loneliness. On one night it was raining (as usual) we went through several scares with the flares while on the mine-laying mission in between the lines. There was a little lull. I was feeling goofy and I went up to P.I. THOME and with my nose almost on his lapel, I asked in a whisper,” Is that you”? He answered, “Yah, that’s me”. I said “Oh”. From then on that’s how we’d greet each other. P.I. (Paul) Thome and I were good buddies after that dumb exchange while in-between the lines.
Italian mud is slicker than any other mud in the world! We were dug-in by an old farmhouse. There was a small stack of hay and a chicken house. We chose to dig in beside a creek bed, which afforded the best protection against shellfire and the sight of the enemy. I went up to the house to ask someone if I had any mail. It was daylight but the day was obscured by heavy rainfall. One GI named John Surriano and another named McLean went along. There was no mail so we began to return to our foxholes. A shell came in and we started running. I was following McLean. He ran around the haystack and a shell round hit right on his tracks. It is said that a shell won’t land in the same spot twice. Ha! Surriano behind me yelled, “NO NO NO!” and I responded by skidding on my ass in the mud, my M-1 barrel digging into the mud. I was spinning my feet like the Warner Brothers’ “Road Runner” in reverse. I got up just as another shell landed in the same shell hole where I would have been at that time! I owed Surriano my life! He couldn’t have known but his instincts saved me! Surriano was almost 38 years old and had a large family at home. Several of our platoon were married and had families at home.
At this location, there was a shot down Messerschmidt-109 fighter plane in the field where sheep were grazing. I dared one day to sneak out to the plane. I chiseled off with my bayonet, several nomenclature plates for souvenirs. I scribbled notes in the aluminum plates and sent them to the girl I left behind (Much to my sorrow now). They were really valuable mementos to me.
It wasn’t long before a hungry GI decided that one of the grazing lambs would make a good meal. So he went out and shot one. He dragged it to our foxholes and skinned it out with the help of Tanner, who had all the necessities in his bag. I found a bent-up copper kettle in a junk pile. With my trusty hatchet I banged it back into useable shape. We sure should have checked it out better than we did. We boiled some of the meat in the pot to make a possibly edible stew using a canned C- ration for flavors. When it was done we sampled the stew. It had a strangely incorrect taste and odor. The pot I found was an old ‘thunder mug’. You can imagine our dismay.
This story could go on endlessly telling of nights such as I just wrote about. The drudgery continued for weeks and weeks, carrying barbed wire, laying it and building a defense line. Please note that the German army was at near full strength and their defenses were growing more and more menacing. They were building up to toss us back into the sea like at Dunkirk.
Our defenses were built up by GIs like those in our platoon. Night after night we trudged over the open fields with tracer bullets sweeping the fields as we trudged along loaded down with everything from machine gun ammo to great big, heavy boards for building a command post or a special bunker. When we’d unload our loads we’d bring back the dead GIs on stretchers, carrying them with loving care and wondering whose mother’s son were we carrying — When will we be carried and will the stretcher bearers have our concern and care?
The GIs we felt most concern for were those in the frontline foxholes and the machine gunner doing constant dueling with the Jerry gunners. The worst of it all is when the officers asked a sergeant to form a patrol to test the German defenses. The patrol goes out through the minefield and engages the other side for a brief firefight, which erupts into a battle usually. Those GIs can’t have lived through many patrols. When a ‘firefight’ occurred our platoon picked up the bodies of the German dead and carried them back to a central point where the GRO (Grave Registration Officers) made records of them. We handled their dead with as great a degree of respect.