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They march from safety, to the land where all
Is ruin, and nothing blossoms but the sky . . ."

Siegfried Sassoon

III

The Assault on San Pietro

We left the Altavilla area on October 13, 1943, and moved by truck through Salerno, Avellino and Naples to the apple orchards three miles southwest of Guigliano. Here we continued our training. The rumble of artillery could be heard from the front lines now at the Volturno River about 20 kilometers away. The Germans made nightly bomb runs over our installations at Naples. Notwithstanding these reminders of war, October was a memorable month in Italy. We went on frequent passes into Naples, saw historic Vesuvius, visited the ruins at Pompeii, the resort at Sorrento, and occasionally caught a boat ride to the famous Isle of Capri. We spiced our rations with fresh potatoes, tomatoes, beans, sweet peppers and onions, which we bought from the Italians; a few p25.gif (2562 bytes)moonlight "deals" furnished fresh meat and fresh eggs. We made our acquaintance with vino, Alberti gin, 40-octane cognac and grappa. We learned how to parlate mucho Italiano and watched the parade of signorinas "Somewhere on Via Roma". We ate spaghetti and looked on the wine when it was red. We thought Al Ricovero was a very popular fellow because he had his name on buildings all over Naples, until we found out that the words meant "bomb shelter".

October was indeed a good month.

On November 2, 1943, after amphibious training in the Bay of Naples' we entrucked and moved down to the Isle of Nisida and loaded on LCT's for the purpose of making a water envelopment of the German line near Gaeta. We loaded on the landing craft by 1430 hours and stood or waited quietly for the hour of departure which had been set for just after sundown. At 1630 hours, after being told not to engage in any demonstrations or shouting, We discovered that no actual landing would be made. None had ever been intended. Information as to the place of the landing had been allowed to leak out. Our training and loading had been designed to draw German troops from their positions in the center of the lines to the coastal sector in order to enhance the success of an attack into the mountain positions. Reports indicated that our work was a success. Our feint continued until after dark, and then we returned to the apple orchard area. We relaxed from the pre-invasion tenseness of troops ready for action, and smiled. "You will have tomorrow off," the company commander announced. "There will be no basic battle drill."

Although the news that we were not to make a landing had been greeted with silence, release from the daily schedule of battle drill was too much for some of us. A few whooped joyfully and, carried away by the surprise of the occasion, volunteered for K. P. on the day off.

On November 6, 1943, we moved by truck to Pignataro, closing into a reserve position at Pietra Vairano the next day.

November 16th was cold and rain fell unceasingly from low, dark clouds. We took down our shelter halves and rolled our packs in the mud. We were going back into the lines. Everything became soaked with the cold water and caked with the mud. This was our first day of approaching winter amongst the mud and the mountains of Italy. This was the first of many days — endless numbers of days in weary recollection, days of wet chill which cut so deeply into the body that however much successive summers of peace may soften, they will never erase the memory.

The command post was moved into an Italian farmhouse south of Mignano on the slopes of Mignano gap a few hundred yards off of Highway 6. The battalions and separate units began arriving after dusk and detrucked about five miles from the lines. The 2nd and 3rd Battalions went into bivouac positions in the rear as regimental reserve. The 1st Battalion marched to the southeast slopes of Mount Lungo to effect relief of the 15th Infantry Regiment, which was in position about two and one-half miles northwest of the town of Mignano.

It had rained throughout the day, and the rain continued all night as our men of the 1st Battalion slogged along Highway 6 to the mountain in mud over their ankles, slipping and sliding into pools of water. Upon leaving the road they scrambled over wet and slippery rocks on the slopes of the position. Harassing artillery fire was layed down on the route of advance by the enemy. As the shells screamed in, men sought cover on the ground and became covered with mud from head to foot.

Relief of the 15th Infantry was completed by 0030 hours on November 17, 1943. Carrying parties were organized immediately from the .2nd and 3rd Battalions in order to place sufficient supply dumps well forward in the event enemy action prevented normal resupply. Enemy artillery concentrations sought these men as they followed their slippery path through the mud and rocks with their backbreaking loads of ammunition, food and water. They stumbled and fell into the dark, cold pools of water. Several casualties resulted.

On November 18th, an enemy combat group assaulted our positions. With effective support from our Cannon Company, the attack was repulsed.

Our 2nd Battalion moved from its reserve position and effected the relief of the 2nd Battalion, 143rd Infantry Regiment on Mount Rotondo during the night of November 19-20th. The 1st and 2nd Battalions were now situated on hills across from each other, separated by Highway 6 which curved through the narrow, valley between, following closely the base of Mount Lungo. The enemy occupied most of Mount Lungo, our 1st Battalion maintaining a defensive line on the open, exposed southwest tip. Since both Mount Lungo and Mount Rotondo overlooked the broad valley in which the villages of San Pietro, San Vittore and Cassino were located — all of them important links in the German winter line — our 1st and 2nd Battalions were subjected to almost constant artillery, mortar and machine gun fire. The mountains were devoid of vegetation in many places, and the troops experienced great difficulty in locating adequate cover and concealment. The Mount Camino hill mass, occupied by the enemy, afforded him excellent observation of all movement in the regimental area. Strict movement discipline was necessary. All supply activities were carried on at night from the field train located at Presenzano.

Although the Germans traded us shell for shell in the artillery duels that marked the occupation of the defensive lines, the arrival of additional artillery soon turned the balance in our favor. The entire front seemed to be alive and fitfully uneasy. Ever present was the low rumble of distant guns and the vibrations underfoot caused by the reverberations of the exploding shells. Since the rain was always with, us, men in forward positions found their daylight movement restricted and spent much of the day in water waist deep. Only with the arrival of darkness were they able to bail the water and mud out with their helmets. Clothing, blankets and equipment became soggy and mud-covered almost beyond recognition.

On the night of November 20-21st, our 3rd Battalion effected the relief of the 1st Battalion, which reverted to regimental reserve. Just prior to moving up for the relief, long range artillery fell in the reserve area, wounding 13 men of Company K.

Due to exposed positions the wounded were not evacuated until night, whenever delay in treatment was possible. Litter teams would leave the aid stations at dusk and climb up to the unit positions. It was impossible to avoid slipping and falling on the wet and muddy rocks while carrying the litter cases. This evacuation continued through hours of darkness until the aid men, unshaven and drawn with fatigue, fell into exhausted sleep in the greyness of morning, oblivious to the mud and the rain.

 

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