Part 26: Stories from the battlefield at Anzio
By Sergeant Marvin A. Palecek and his son, Glen Palecek
In this episode, I want to tell you little stories about the everyday life on the battlefields of Anzio. In some ways, this was the worst place of the entire war for American soldiers. Somehow, life just seemed better when the Allies had the Germans on the run. Ernie Pyle wrote that his knees got week at Tunisia, Africa, and at Sicily when shells exploded around him, but he said his knees got weaker than ever at Anzio. As the days and weeks went by, Dad adapted to a new way of life. In no particular order, here are some surprising little stories from there:
One day, someone brought Dad several cases of cans the Germans had left behind. Dad opened one of them. Inside, he saw what he thought was some sort of German spam. American spam was packed in a sort of lard and the soldiers were used to eating it raw, right out of the can. Dad and others grew sick of it and thus these cans had little appeal to Dad. When a soldier from another outfit asked if he could have some, Dad gladly gave him a couple cans. A few days later, that soldier returned for more. This time, Dad gave him all he could carry. Dad was curious to see why he wanted so much, so he went to investigate. It turned out the cans contained only lard and this soldier’s outfit was using it to make French fries. A little Army stove was used to boil the lard and the cut-up potatoes were added. The fries were very good and Dad and his men quickly copied the idea.
Today, when you think of French fries, what do you think of that goes with them? Why hamburger, of course. Pyle wrote about how a cow would “volunteer” to become food for the soldiers by stepping on a mine or “accidently” being shot in the head. Dad talked about a dairy at Anzio. This dairy must not have been in the town of Anzio itself, but much farther inland. In fact, it must have been up at the very front because both Dad and Jim Burns talk about seeing the German soldiers from it. The dairy had stalls with thick cement walls which offered excellent protection from the German artillery. The stalls were also dry and so the men slept in them. Dad talked about how being dry at Anzio, like it had been in the Central Alps of Southern Italy, was a luxury. There was at least one cow in the dairy because Dad and Jim talked about how someone took a sledge hammer and hit the cow in the head to kill it. It took all day, but the cow was ground into hamburger with a hand-cranked meat grinder. Jim wrote that officers probably got some steaks from it. Anyway, they had hamburger to go with the fries.
Pyle wrote that men liked to sleep in barns because of the soft hay. He even writes about his own experiences sleeping in barns. I told you that Anzio was much different than all other battles. This even goes with the Italian barns. No one wanted to sleep in them, and it wasn’t just because the barns were targets for the Germans, it was more because the hay was full of fleas. There were fleas in other barns across Europe, but for some reason they were extremely thick at Anzio. The fleas were so bad that men sometimes washed their clothes in gasoline to get rid of them. Men scratched themselves from the flea bites so much they bled. Just one more miserable thing these brave men had to put up with in this miserable war.
Staying dry was one of the biggest challenges at Anzio. It rained a lot, just like it seemed to always do in Italy the year Dad was there. Since much of the Anzio beachhead was an ancient swamp, the ground was very soggy anyway. Most foxholes had an inch or two of water in the bottom and the men had to figure out how to sleep without getting wet. They put things in the bottom to keep them out of the water. One place they dug foxholes was horizontally into the side of a drainage ditch. Over the span of 2,300 years, the Italians had dug many large ditches to drain the swamp. These ditches formed a network all over the Anzio beachhead. Dad called these horizontal foxholes “caves.” They must have looked a lot like the mineshafts you see in Hollywood Westerns. You might think that, since these caves were dug into the side of a drainage ditch that they would have good natural drainage and be dry. No, the ground was so soggy that the floor had to run at a slant toward the ditch. Dad talked about digging little trenches to channel the water away.
Foxholes not only had to be dug for men, but for anything else they didn’t want to be a target for German artillery. Even tanks and jeeps were routinely put in foxholes to conceal them from the Germans. Tank crews did not sleep in the tanks but dug separate foxholes for themselves nearby. No one wanted to be in a tank if it was spotted by a passing German plane.
The ditches and soggy ground made movement difficult for jeeps and trucks, and tanks. It takes a lot to get a tank stuck, but those Anzio ditches were up to the task. This was a major reason why a rapid advance by either side was so difficult. It is why this battle settled into a conflict more like was seen in World War I, where each side faced off against each other for months. Another reason a rapid advance by either side was all but impossible was because of the large number of mines laid out in “no man’s land,” the area between the Allied and German lines.
One thing you can’t help notice in Bill Mauldin’s many cartoons is the mud. Mud, mud, mud. Everywhere Dad went in Italy there was the accursed mud. Bill Mauldin described the mud as follows: “Mud is a curse which seems to save itself for war. I’m sure Europe never got this muddy during peacetime. I’m equally sure that no mud in the world is so deep and sticky or wet as European mud.” The two words that best describe life for an American soldier in Italy during World War II have to be “wet and miserable.”
Before Anzio, many American soldiers, including Dad, became so sick they had to be hospitalized. To be sure, soldiers at Anzio got malaria and other diseases, but not nearly to the extent they did before. Trench foot and hunger were also present, but again, not so bad as before.
Jim Burns wrote in his book that a baseball game was started at Anzio but soon ended because, “they couldn’t tell the ball from the incoming shells.” Dad never mentioned to me any such game at Anzio. However, in a letter to Mom he did mention playing baseball in Italy shortly after the Salerno beachhead. Playing baseball during war probably sounds more than a little strange, but the soldiers did play a game from time to time throughout this war. Dad said his team was very good and usually won.
An interesting side-note to the above story – Dad was a very good player. After he retired and lived in Florida, he played in the Senior World Series Softball Tournament. Dad’s team represented the state of Florida and they won two games from teams representing other states before losing in this single-elimination tournament. Dad was very proud of the fact he played in a World Series, even if it wasn’t the one you usually think of.
I will end this episode now. I have still more about life at Anzio. After that, I will catch up on Dad’s actual letters from Italy before continuing this series with the Allied invasion of France.