Part 15: WWII combat in Italy
By: Sergeant Marvin A. Palecek
From: Glen Palecek
Unlike Sicily, which was very dry most of the time Dad was there, it seemed to rain almost every day in Italy. Deep mud clogged the roads and mountain trails everywhere. The men had to not only fight in it, they had to eat and sleep in it as well. Their feet were often cold and wet, and a condition called trench foot became common.
Blisters on top of blisters caused feet to become swollen and infected. In bad cases, men would stumble down the mountains to get medical aid. Sometimes, they would be carried down on mules, but somehow most would make it down on their own power. Many times, shoes had to be cut off their feet, and sometimes feet had to be amputated. Sometimes, the Army would supply dry socks, and sometimes it would not. Someone discovered that one kind of shaving cream the men used could be rubbed on their feet to help with the trench foot. In Italy, front-line soldiers seldom shaved anyway and those who were old enough to grow whiskers had thick growths, while the younger men, many still in their teens, had only fuzz. Please don’t think of these teenage soldiers as you would school boys. For sure, most could not grow proper whiskers; for sure, they were too young to vote; and for sure, they deserved more time to grow up; but, by the force of this war, they were now men — brave, brave men.
One sad note to this war was that many supplies like dry socks and warm jackets were pilfered by the rear echelon in Naples. Many of the supplies desperately needed by front-line troops were sold on the black market. There was little market for ammunition, so that made it through. Some soldiers even suffered from malnutrition because their rations were sold to Italians. Military officers could be seen wearing jump boots meant for paratroopers. Even later in the war, when the infantrymen or paratroopers who were forced to wear vastly inferior footwear met an officer wearing these very distinguishable boots, they immediately had hate and resentment toward that officer.
Another sad note was that some soldiers who suffered greatly both mentally and physically in the mountains were sent to Naples for a four-day rest period. If Hollywood was telling this story, you would see these men welcomed as heroes and treated to drink, song, and women. This is the real story: As soon as they got to Naples, the men were arrested because of their appearance. Their uniforms were caked with mud, and often torn and bloody. Their faces were unshaved and they stunk to the high heavens. Their “rest” period was a four-day prison sentence. They were taken to a makeshift stockade, cleaned up, and, when their short sentence was up, sent back to the front. There was no rotation as the men had once been promised, only replacements for those killed and wounded. What a terrible way to treat front-line soldiers who suffered and sacrificed more than anyone else in this terrible war! It’s no wonder so many refused to leave their comrades at the front!
Dad knew about the fiasco in Naples, not because he saw it first-hand, but because he was a magnet for the news and had a unique position as radio battalion chief to know a lot more about what was going on than the average soldier. He spent a lot of time gathering and distributing news, much like the war correspondents did.
Please understand that Dad was not a part of every story you read in this series. Much of this information was gathered after he became a history student, high-school teacher, and college professor. I am trying my best to keep these stories accurate and honest.
The Germans set up well-defended lines across the boot of Italy. There was the Gustaf Line, the Hitler Line, and others. These battles were intense, but the Germans eventually would retreat.
The Allies advanced to Cassino, the sight of a huge monastery on a plateau overlooking the surrounding countryside. The Germans, of course, held the monastery and were using it as a fortress. The Allies wanted to bomb it, but the Pope pleaded for them not to. The Allies decided to bomb it anyway, and the ancient monastery was reduced to rubble.
Before World War II, Cassino was widely studied as one of the most defendable places on earth. The Italian mountains here were arranged in such a way that blockades and defenses could be set-up to defend against any army trying to advance up or down the Italian peninsula. German, British, and American military schools had all studied it. In the hands of the powerful German Army, the task of advancing past Cassino seemed impossible.
The Germans used the rubble of the monastery to set-up more defensive positions and a fierce battle ensued before the Allies drove the Germans out. The battle for Cassino was one of the major battles of World War II.
The 45th Division was fighting north of the monastery when, on January 6, 1944, General Mark Clark, Commander of the Fifth Army, in recognition of the accomplishments of the 45th Division, gave orders to give them a period of rest and regrouping, because, he said, “For the past 72 days the 45th Division has been engaged in continuous combat battle against strong enemy forces and under extremely adverse conditions.”
Remember that Dad was in a hospital in North Africa during much of December and missed some, if not all, of the fierce action around Cassino.
As I grew up, Dad took me along on his trap lines and with him to help roof houses and do tree work in the Twin Cities. At only age four, I would sit in the car while Dad checked his winter fox and weasel trap-line. Back home, I would watch him skin the animals and hand him small nails used to tack the hides on wooden stretchers. When I was a little older, I went with him on his fall muskrat, mink, and coon trap lines in Wisconsin. He used a wooden skiff with no seats to check on his traps. I would kneel in the front and help paddle the boat while Dad steered from the back.
At age eight, Dad took my brother Lowell, age seven, and me with him when he roofed houses and did tree work during the summer in the Twin Cities. At such a young age, all Lowell and I could really do was fetch tools and help with the clean up.
As we grew older, Lowell showed great academic potential. Dad thought I was more suited for menial labor, and thus I became Dad’s chief helper. By the time I was 12, I had calloused hands from the hard work I learned from him.
It was during these many hours I was alone with Dad that he told me these many war stories. Obviously, he was trying to impress upon me the brutality and horrors of war. As I write this series, I am surprised at how many of these stories come back to me. Recently, I have been going through the many documents and books he left behind, and in doing so, have found confirmation of many of his stories. The most accurate accounts of what happened probably came from the war correspondents who spent time on the battlefields with the soldiers. The two best-known war correspondents were Ernie Pyle and Bill Mauldin. Both spent considerable time with Dad’s Thunderbird Division. Some of you have been asking if Dad knew them. Yes, and no. Dad knew a great deal about Pyle, but I don’t know if they ever met. He did meet and talk with Mauldin a great deal when Mauldin was assigned to his unit. Both Pyle and Mauldin meant so much to the war that I will dedicate an episode in this series to each of them.
I am not going to take any more space telling you more names and details of the many battles in Italy. I want to keep this series more about what the soldiers saw and went through. These stories are not all bad, as I will continue to show you.
Thanks to Carolyn Daily from Ohio for your note in the Post about how you like this series. All comments and contributions are deeply appreciated. Putting this series together so that it follows a logical order is not easy!