Part 35: Victory at Anzio
From: Sergeant Marvin A. Palecek and his son, Glen Palecek
Throughout the three long days of the Allied breakout, the sun never shone. It hid just like it did for most of the 125 days the Allies fought the Germans there. The May weather was cool, perfect for working, but not for dying — when is weather ever perfect for that?
What was it like inside this arena of war? If I were writing fiction, I would tell you that the men made a valiant charge, overwhelmed the Germans, captured their leader, and raised an American flag in victory. Oh, how easy those writers of fiction have it! I am not so lucky. I must gather together bits and pieces of things Dad wrote and told me to give you my best attempt at what it was really like to be there.
When telling what it was like, Dad told me with a silent emotion that is impossible to write down. I can’t duplicate here how Dad made me feel the length and depth of battle. With giant exploding shells used by both sides, bodies were often blown to bits. Hands, feet, arms, legs, guts, and brains all flew across the battlefield like leaves caught in a sudden burst of wind. Pools of blood formed on ground that was too soggy to absorb it. Never is a man’s life more intense, and never is he more aware than when in the midst of battle. All front-line soldiers were either killed or almost killed. There were no others.
I don’t know if Dad witnessed this, or even where it occurred, but he told me of a soldier who had his guts spilled out on the ground and cried out for help before passing out from shock. Later, Dad asked a medic what was done for such a man. “Usually he’s not awake,” the medic explained, “but if he is, we give him a shot of morphine and then carefully push his guts back inside and wrap him up.”
Dad replied, “You must have to be careful to get everything back in the right place.”
“No,” said the medic, “His guts know where to go.”
I will never forget those words. Apparently, a man’s guts just naturally fall back into their proper place. (I welcome any information any of you readers have on this subject.)
What a soldier hears in battle is what is going on in his immediate area. Beyond the overall roar, he hears bullets buzzing by like mad insects. He feels the ground shake from the shells exploding around him. The sounds of the guns firing these shells and bullets seem far away and unconnected. He listens for commands, and tries to drown out everything else. He concentrates on his specific assignment. It is all he can do. Nothing else matters because all else is beyond his control. In fiction, you read how, in the middle of it all, a soldier thinks of his family and girl back home. In reality, a soldier in battle has no such thoughts. All he can think of is how to stay alive. If he doesn’t concentrate with everything he has, he will most likely be killed. He will think of home, but not now, not until the battle is over or paused.
As Dad moved forward into the heart of the German defenses, the uniforms on the dead bodies became more and more German until they were all German. Finally, on May 25, after three days of intense fighting, the German army was in full retreat.
Once out of the low ground, Dad looked down on Camp Death and the beachhead where he had spent the last four months. He, like all others who gazed below, were amazed at the view the Germans had from above. Bill Mauldin drew a cartoon of Willie and Joe from the heights looking down. Willie points and states, “My God! There we wuz an’ here they wuz.” The Germans had a birds-eye view of everything all the way to the coast.
On the German side of the beachhead Dad got a good look at all the damage of the thousands of shells he and others had directed. I have read in a book that there were skeletons in German uniforms. This differs from Dad’s account of seeing so many freshly killed with pieces of men still hanging on the big guns and vehicles there. There could have been German skeletons there — different soldiers saw different things, but Dad said the Germans were careful to bury their dead when given the chance. It is very doubtful the Germans would have left a soldier unburied long enough to form a skeleton. I do believe some soldier said he saw this. It was not uncommon for a soldier’s nightmares to include impossible things. I suppose it’s also possible a soldier saw skeletons of Germans that were blown out of their graves.
Dad described the German warzone as a junkyard from Hell. There was shattered equipment and bodies everywhere. Some metal was no doubt sent back to Germany for re-use, but there was plenty left that was pushed into piles. The two giant railroad guns, Anzio Annie and the Anzio Express, were simply abandoned. I have a picture of one of Dad’s men posing next to a German 88 at Anzio.
You might think the carnage the Thunderbirds saw at Anzio was the worst they would ever see. No, that day would come 11 months later (April 29, 1945) when they liberated the Dachau Death Camp in Germany. That story is still a little way off in this series. In the meantime, the stories will be much more pleasant than what you have been reading.
Dad and the Colonel he was with didn’t pause long — it was on toward Rome. Dad said he was never so glad to leave a battlefield behind him.
In his book about the 45th Division, “The Rock of Anzio,” Flint Whitlock tells of a German officer who was captured and had come from the Russian Front. This officer stated that the attack by the Allies at Anzio was much fiercer and more intense than what he had experienced by the Russians at Stalingrad. Forty-fifth Division soldiers had special ways of terrorizing the Germans. If I wasn’t anxious to move on, I’d tell you about them now.
Speaking of Flint Whitlock, I was in Barnes and Noble the other day and I see he has a new book out titled, “Desperate Valour, Triumph at Anzio.” It has 493 pages and cost $35. Too much for me now and I didn’t buy it. I am done with Anzio for now anyway, though I am pleased that Anzio still has enough interest to warrant Whitlock taking the time and effort to research and write so much about it.
I have several more stories from the Anzio beachhead that I will save for when this series becomes a book. I will end the Anzio stories now by telling you that on May 29-30, 2000, a special memorial was completed and dedicated to those who fought and died in the battles there. The memorial is in the costal town of Nettuno, which borders the town of Anzio. The centerpiece of the memorial is a bronze plaque paying special tribute to Dad’s 180th Regiment of the 45th Division. I know I can probably find pictures of the memorial on the Internet, but I must resist for now. Dad lived long enough to receive sketches of the memorial and plaque from the 180th Association. I have those sketches now. I don’t know if they made him proud or brought back sad memories of his best friend, Aubrey Elam, and others he knew who were killed there.
In the next episode, Dad and I will take you on to Rome with Dad’s first-hand account of how he and his men were among the first American troops to tour the eternal city after the Germans were expelled.