Silver Star — The hard way


(4/25/2018)

Part 13: The Allied invasion of Italy

By: Sergeant Marvin A. Palecek
From: Glen Palecek

The invasion of the mainland of Italy was started in two places. The British were first to invade from the very southern part of the Italian peninsula on September 3, 1943. On September 8, 1943, the entire world was shocked by radio broadcasts that Italy had surrendered.

A mighty attack force was nearing the Gulf of Salerno in Italy when they heard the news. This force was made up of General Mark Clark’s Fifth Army and now included Dad’s 45th Division. Because Italy had surrendered, the soldiers were optimistic that the invasion of Italy would be called off. It was not. German armies had not surrendered, and Hitler was determined to fend off the invasion he knew was coming.

At 3:30 in the morning on September 9, 1943, the first troops of Clark’s Fifth Army landed on Italian soil at Salerno. It is impossible to describe or overstate the size and scope of these beachhead landings. Thousands of ships formed a backdrop on the ocean for as far as the eye could see, and landed many thousands of men and vast amounts of equipment.

The German armies were also made up of huge numbers of determined soldiers, and they had the advantage of installing defensive positions in advance. To say all hell broke loose is not an understatement.

The Salerno beachhead was not an easy one. After the initial landing, the Germans launched a vicious counter attack, and at one point, Dad thought the entire operation might be a failure and the Germans might drive the Allies back into the sea, just like they had done to the French and British at Dunkirk. But General Clark told the men, “We are here to stay.” And stay they did.

The Germans and Allies both suffered heavy casualties. It is very sad to me that this invasion has been overshadowed in the recent years by news accounts of the invasion of Normandy. Now, every year, the newscasts celebrate D-Day as June 6, 1944, when the landing happened at Normandy. September 9, the anniversary of the D-Day invasion at Salerno, comes and goes without a thought. Dad fought in Sicily and Italy before he fought in France and Germany. He told me many times how much better conditions were for the troops once they got to France. Except for the Normandy invasion itself which was terrible, the worst conditions and the toughest battles for Americans were those fought in Italy. Any soldier who fought in both theaters would confirm this statement.

Jim Burns has a good account of the Salerno landing from one of Dad’s men, Al Bacon. I got permission from Jim to add this account of what happened from Jim’s book:

Bacon and his squad were to take their jeep onto the beach at Salerno. The jeep driver had difficulty maneuvering the jeep onto the landing craft from the ship. It took close coordinating with the rising and falling of the waves, and after several attempts they managed to load the jeep into the boat. As they were approaching the enemy shore, Bacon noticed the landing boat was also full of high-octane gasoline. He thought, “I’m sitting on a floating bomb.” German fighters flew in and strafed the landing boats. Bacon remembers he ran to the back of the boat and got under a tarp. Almost immediately, others joined him. It didn’t take them long to realize that the tarp offered them no protection whatsoever. They all began laughing at their predicament, sitting on five-gallon containers of fuel, being strafed by German fighters, and thinking that a canvas tarp would shield them.

Bacon said that when they were climbing into the landing boats, a sailor was on deck and teasing the soldiers. The sailor would say things like, “You all go ahead, we’re back here supporting ya.” The boats pushed off and headed toward shore while under fire. The boat Bacon was in hit a sandbar and stuck, which is one of the worst things that can happen. They were stuck on that sandbar for what seemed like hours; however, the total time was really only about five minutes.

The boat driver was able to rock the boat off of the sandbar and, with the help of a big wave, they were free to continue their approach to the enemy shore. While stuck on the sandbar, German artillery fire hit the ship they had just left. The ship blew up and threw the teasing sailor high in the air and into the sea. Because of the sandbar, the sailor was able to reach the shore ahead of Bacon’s boat. When the boat landed, the soldiers found the sailor and told him, “You’re in the infantry now!” They watched out for the sailor and took care of him until he was able to find his way back to another ship.

When Bacon reached the beach at Salerno, as he did in every landing, he ran just as fast as he could.

Dad told me about how landing boats would get stuck on sandbars like the one mentioned above. The men on these boats were put in a worst possible situation. The only reason men made it to shore at all was because of their sheer numbers and the speed of the boats. If they stayed on the sandbar, they were sitting ducks and could easily be killed by artillery or the machine guns of the next passing German plane. Their best chance if they couldn’t break lose was to shed most of their equipment and try to make it to shore. Most who tried this drowned. Months later, when the Army and Navy practiced at this location for the invasion of France, skeletons of these men were found in the sea.

Dad told me many Germans surrendered after the Salerno invasion. These prisoners said that, after they learned Italy had surrendered, they thought the war would be over soon and they didn’t want to be killed so near the end. I find it very interesting that some Germans already thought the war for them was lost.

By now, news of German atrocities had reached the Allied troops. The Germans who surrendered wanted the Americans to know they were regular army and not SS troops. Hitler’s SS divisions were elite troops and put in charge of the worst atrocities committed by the Nazis.

Before I end, I want to tell that I found more information about the sergeant who machine-gunned down German and Italian prisoners: He was tried and convicted. I don’t want to get back into that story now, but I wanted you to know that he was held accountable for these murders. Of course, his defense was that he was just following General Patton’s orders. Patton was never tried, but, personally, I think this had more to do with him being relieved of his command in Sicily than the slapping of soldiers. I will go into this story and Dad’s personal involvement in it more when I do a re-write.

I called Jim Burns to let him know how this series was coming. Over the phone, he read me some testimony from the above-mentioned trial. I told Jim I was condensing my stories for publication in the Post. He encouraged me not to do that and thinks I should write all I know. Don’t worry; I plan to keep my stories moving. But, I do have so many more stories for the re-write!

In the next episode, I will tell you about the fierce battles Dad’s 45th Division fought in Italy.

 

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