Part 36: On to Rome
By Sergeant Marvin A. Palecek and his son, Glen Palecek
One last comment about the Anzio beachhead before this story moves on: one estimate of the total number of casualties suffered by the Germans and Allies combined was some 94,400 men. (Casualties means men killed, wounded, or injured.) That’s an average of 755 men per day over the 125 days the battles lasted or enough men to make up seven divisions averaging about 13,500 men each.
The retreating Germans did not follow a Hollywood script. Instead of retreating all the way back to Germany with their tails between their legs, they simply went a short way and set up a defensive position called the Caesar Line to ambush the oncoming Allies. Rome was officially taken on June 4, 1944, 10 days after the victory at Anzio. (June 4 is the official day because that’s when the cameras got there to make the newsreels.)
The day Rome fell was big, big news. Today, few of us follow the news on a daily basis — during this war everyone did. (The glory of taking Rome didn’t last long as the Normandy invasion happened only two days later on June 6, 1944. Suddenly, the newsmen of the world turned their attention to the Allied invasion of France.)
For the first time in centuries, Rome had been captured by an invading army. It was the first Axis capital to fall to the Allies. Even though the Italians had surrendered and switched sides long ago, the fall of Rome made the conquest of Italy seem complete even though the battles there were far from over. The Germans continued their retreat pursued by the Allies. Dad’s Thunderbird Division was not part of this continued pursuit. I guess the Army thought they had seen enough action for a while.
I found out the name of the colonel Dad was with during this time: Howard Crye. After Dad and Colonel Crye pushed through Rome, they found a white Volkswagen left behind by the Germans. (This was not a beetle; that model was not produced until after the war.) The car wouldn’t start, but Crye’s men got it running. Proud of his new prize, Crye took the car with him to where he set up camp that night, June 9.
Because the Germans still had occasional air strikes on the Thunderbird positions, the men still slept in the relative safety of foxholes. Crye and several others had their foxholes very near the white car. Dad did not. He dug his hole a short distance away. That night there was only one German plane that launched an attack on the Thunderbirds. That plane dropped several bombs including one very large one aimed directly at the white Volkswagen. Colonel Crye was killed and at least two others were severely injured. Dad was not hurt. This was the second time a colonel was killed when he was with Dad. If you have been following this series, you remember the story of how Colonel Patterson was killed when he was with Dad in Sicily.
When I started writing this series, my brother Jim, who is a tour guide in Yellowstone Park, asked me if I knew the “white Volkswagen story.” I told him I did. Jim Burns also put a short account of it in his book as Dad had told it to him. If it wasn’t for Dad, I think the white Volkswagen part of this story would be forever lost. I found an account of Crye’s death in two history books, but neither one mentioned the white car.
As the fight moved north, the Thunderbirds suddenly found themselves temporarily out of the action. Two of Dad’s men were Catholic and wondered what it would be like to see the Pope in person. Here is Dad’s written account of that day. (Note: This information is from a letter to Jim Burns that was one of the last things Dad ever wrote.)
“Did your Dad ever tell you about our trip to Rome? When we captured Rome, we got stationed about 15 miles west of Rome, 20 miles from the Vatican. Jim Dunphy and Tony DeAngelis, both Catholics, came to me and asked, ‘Sarge, when we are this close to the Vatican, aren’t we ever going to get to see it?!’ I made a snap decision, which I knew could very well cost me my stripes, to take the whole 11-man radio section and two jeeps AWOL [absent without official leave] to go see Rome and the Vatican. The 45th Division had been placed in reserve while two new divisions pushed north after the fleeing Germans. All of our units were now hooked up by wire; so, the radio networks were on, but only checked in between battalions and regimental headquarters once in a while to make sure radios were all working. Our two large radios in our two jeeps were in the regimental network. I piled everyone into the jeeps and we took off for Rome. I still remember Dunphy saying, ‘Should we check out of the net?’ I told him, ‘No, don’t do that, or they will never let us go.’
“Halfway to Rome, the regiment decided to run a check. When we answered, they radioed, ‘Readjust your set; your signal is weak.’ Somebody said, ‘What are we going to do now.’ I said, ‘Tell them Roger, out.’
“We got to the Vatican before noon, and while we were wandering around, we heard an announcement that the Pope was going to meet with Allied soldiers at noon. An unarmed Swiss guard took us through a dark winding corridor to a dimly lit room. The Pope came out on a little stage, gave us a little pep talk, and had his aides give us each a rosary and a picture of himself. There were only 20-some of us, and half of them were my radio crew. Then we ran all over the Vatican, including the Sistine Chapel. We went through an old castle, complete with dungeon, that was connected by an overhead causeway with the Vatican a couple of blocks away. Then we drove all over Rome. Popes were supposed to escape to the castle during attacks, but they never did.
“We barely got back to camp and were checking in to the net, when the regimental communications officer showed up to see what was wrong with our set. We showed him that it was working fine now. Boy, that was close!! I guess sometimes the Lord takes care of someone who is just trying to do something nice. I asked my men not to tell other soldiers about our truancy and I don’t think they ever did.
“The next day, our division commander decided that we should all see Rome. They piled us all into two-and-a-half-ton trucks and dumped us all in the city’s main square and said, ‘Go see Rome.’ Because of the battle for Rome, no transportation was running. We had seen the whole city. Businesses and entertainment were still closed. We knew that the only place practical in the few hours they gave us was the Vatican area again. There were also troops from other divisions; so even the Vatican was crowded. The noon line to see the Pope was also too long.
“We just had time to go to the Vatican again before it was time to hike back to the truck rendezvous to go back to camp. Division commanders could feel smug over the great favor they had done us!”
The widow of one of Dad’s men, Mrs. Jim Dunphy, read this story in Jim Burns’ book and told Burns she always wondered how her husband got the rosary and picture of the Pope. I now have a similar rosary and picture of the Pope that was given to Dad. Jim Dunphy had kept this secret all his remaining life, even from his wife.
More from Italy in the next episode.