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Silver Star — The hard way


Part 37: You don’t tug on Superman’s cape


As I have told you, at this point in the series, the Italians were now our allies and were joining our forces. Some of the Italians in Rome ambushed and killed some 30 Germans when the Germans occupied the city. The German commander of those troops was furious. He demanded that 10 civilians be rounded up and executed for each German soldier who had been killed. A few extremely unselfish citizens volunteered to be executed so that others would not be killed. In all, more than 300 Italians were murdered. Yes, the German commander had a few “extra” people killed. The bodies were then sealed in a cave.

After the war, the cave was unsealed and the horrors revealed. Today, there is a monument in front of the cave in honor of those who were entombed there.

Some of the Italians in and around Rome were quite different than any other civilians Dad encountered anywhere else in the war. They were even different than the Italians to the south and in Sicily. Some of these Roman Italians were more fascist and believed that they were descendants of the “First Reich” (the ancient Roman Empire), and were now part of Hitler’s Third Reich.

One of my favorite stories of this war was when four of Dad’s men met 20-some of these young Italian men on a stone bridge outside Rome. Three of Dad’s men were Jim Burns, Al Bacon and Charlie Leaf. I think the fourth man was John (Red) Smith, but I’m not sure. Dad’s men and the Italians were going in opposite directions. As the Thunderbirds tried to squeeze past, one of the Italians made a remark in Italian and the others laughed. Big, big mistake. Dad’s men may not have known Italian, but they knew they had been insulted.

Jim Croce wrote a song titled, “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim.” The chorus goes like this:

“You don’t tug on Superman’s cape
You don’t spit into the wind
You don’t pull the mask off that lone ranger
And you don’t mess around with Jim”

In this case, “American G.I.s” can be substituted for “Jim,” as these Italians were surely tugging on the capes of superheroes and they were about to pay the price. The 20-plus young Italian idiots soon found out that they were the ones who were outnumbered. After two years of intense training back in the States and months of bitter combat, Dad’s men were more than ready for the fist fight that broke out. Their hardened bodies must have felt like steel as the dumb Italians hit them. Soon all 20-some Italians were thrown over the bridge and into the river below. All four of Dad’s men remained standing on the bridge. Their only injury was a big scrape on Charlie Leaf’s nose, and he didn’t even know he had it until the others told him. The young Italians had found out all about superheroes, and it wasn’t them! I love to think of these Roman wannabe heroes dragging their muddy bodies out of that river.

Sometimes, I dream of this book becoming a Hollywood movie. If it ever does, this story would make a great scene. I can picture this fight going on while Jim Croce’s song plays in the background.

With the battle moving steadily away from them, the heavy spirit of death was finally lifted from the 45th Division. Food kitchens were set-up and trucks were rigged to give the men showers. There did not seem to be the black market for American supplies like I described at Naples. Dad was able to trade in his shirt that had a rip in it from shrapnel that had almost killed him, as well as his bloody pants and shoes. That blood wasn’t his and he said he didn’t even know if it was “ours or theirs.” He no doubt had stepped in it somewhere along the line.

Dad’s reputation for knowing the news made him very popular, as everyone wanted to know all about how the invasion of Normandy was going. There was also fierce fighting going on in the large country of Burma, which is between India and China. This battle was of special interest to Dad because his brother Alvin was making airlifts “over the Hump” (the Himalayan mountains) into China. There was also news of Russian victories on the Eastern Front that caused the soldiers to celebrate. German cities were now being heavily bombed — in the day by American planes and by British planes at night.

For a brief period of time, the Thunderbirds thought they would be rotated out of the war, just like they had been promised. Surely, they had done more than their fair share of fighting! The pendulum of joy and sorrow swung mightily to the side of joy. Men wrote long letters to tell their loved ones they would be home soon. But, just like that, the pendulum suddenly swung back to sorrow as the men learned they would be thrust back into battle.

In Normandy, many soldiers and officers with little training and no experience had been thrown into battle. The result was that there were many more casualties than if this beachhead had been made by soldiers with experience. The Army leaders wanted a second beachhead on the southern coast of France. They also wanted experienced soldiers to lead the way. Here were the battle-hardened Thunderbirds and other divisions of the Fifth Army, sitting in Italy — the perfect solution for this problem.

In a further effort to reduce casualties for this beachhead, the soldiers were sent back to Salerno to practice for this upcoming landing in southern France. The Army leaders thought this training was necessary so that those who had done this before could show the many men who were now added how to do it. It wasn’t fair to the veterans who had put in their time, but when is life ever fair?

In the next episode, I’ll tell you about a special little booklet titled, “Road to Rome.” It was written by General Mark Clark, commander of the Fifth Army of which Dad’s Thunderbird Division was a part. Unlike other books, it was written directly to the soldiers.


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