Part 14: World War II in Italy
By Sergeant Marvin A. Palecek
From: Glen Palecek
It is impossible to overstate the importance of the beachhead at Salerno, Italy. Dad and other members of the Fifth Army were the very first American soldiers to land on the mainland of Europe in World War II. They were the first Americans to begin to push the Germans through Europe and back into Germany.
I let you off easy in the last episode about this landing. I have more grisly details that I probably should have included. It’s hard to know what to include and what not to include.
As I went through Dad’s many history notes, one thing is very clear: When Dad was with the 45th Division, the Allied armies consistently drove the Germans to retreat. In Italy, these armies were the American Fifth Army and the British Eighth Army. Sometimes, Jerry, as Dad sometimes called the German Army, managed to stop them temporarily, but eventually the Allies continued their relentless push toward their goal, that being Berlin. Hitler always ordered his troops not to retreat, but they were forced to and Italy became the scene of one Nazi defeat after another.
Because Dad was a history professor, I have information about the battles in Italy that the Allies fought. However, Dad came down with yellow fever and was out of the battles in Italy for several weeks. His papers do not indicate the dates he was out of the war, but I do know he spent Christmas Day, 1943, in a hospital in North Africa. (I have a copy of the Christmas menu and a church bulletin from the Christmas service.) Dad was definitely in the war for the beachheads at both Salerno and Anzio and for many of the battles in-between.
Once the landings were finally secure, the Allies secured the mountain passes to the beachhead, and then regrouped for the next objective, securing the port of Naples to the north. From the beachhead, the 45th Division first advanced to the small town of Eboli.
The Germans did everything they could to try and slow the Allied advance. Bridges were blown-up, and mines and booby traps were placed in what seemed to be everywhere. Roads in the mountain passes were buried under avalanches. This gave the Germans time to set up artillery stations to attack the Allies on the routes the Germans thought the Allies must take.
On October 1, Naples was captured, but not before the Germans did their best to destroy the city. Allied bombers had already destroyed the harbor. The Germans continued the damage by destroying the water conduits, electrical plants and many buildings.
The Fifth Army did not stop to repair the harbor and the infrastructure of Naples, but pushed on to the Volturno River. The Germans set up heavy defenses on the north side of the river and the Allies had to make a beachhead assault to get across. Dad’s Thunderbird Division met considerable resistance, but was able to gain control of the junction of the Volturno and Calore rivers. They were then tasked with securing and expanding beachheads across the Calore River. As they advanced, the Allies re-crossed the Volturno, which runs both south and west, many times. Rain came down in torrents.
As I mentioned above, the Germans had heavy artillery set up to stop the Allied troops. The Germans set this artillery against the sides of mountains for protection from Allied bombers. As they advanced, the U.S. Army could not simply drive and march up the valleys; if they did so they would be sitting ducks for German artillery which had these easy routes thoroughly covered. So, instead, the infantry was often sent up and over the rugged mountains. This, of course was impossible for any vehicles or heavy equipment. Instead, they would use trucks to haul mules to the base of the mountain they wished to scale. The mules would then be used to haul equipment up the steep slopes. Once they got somewhere over halfway up, the mountain would usually become too steep for even the mules, so the men would have to pack the equipment the rest of the way on their backs. This was sometimes done at night so the Germans couldn’t see them. Night marches up the mountains were very treacherous, and men and mules would often fall into ditches along the trails. While clouds and rain made conditions miserable, they also helped a lot to hide the men. I guess this is the silver lining in clouds that you always hear about. It’s hard to understand how they could climb in total darkness, but in war, humans are capable of many things most people think are impossible.
Sometimes, things didn’t go well on the mountains or battles and dead soldiers would be hauled down on the backs of these mules. Don’t picture this like the dead cowboy actors you see over the backs of horses in Hollywood Westerns. Dead men don’t pack out that way in real life. Like the Westerns, dead men would be laid across the mules with their bellies down. But, unlike the Westerns, stiff arms, and especially legs, would stick out awkwardly.
One thing that Hollywood always seems to leave out of their World War II movies is the vast number of horses and mules used by both sides in the war, but especially by the Germans. Believe it or not, there were millions more horses and mules used in this war than any other war in history. The story of the warhorse and warmule is another story by itself. I will mention them again as this series moves on.
As I said before, Dad grew up on a farm where he used horses to plow the fields, so he was familiar with the sounds of horses and other farm animals. But, he never knew a mule could scream. And scream they did when they were wounded. The cries and calls of wounded men and the screams of mules were often a part of the din of the real-life World War II battles in Italy. When I was a young boy, and Dad tried his best to scare me with the horrors of war, what got to me the most was my vision of wounded and screaming mules.
When the mules got down the mountain, the dead men would be laid on the ground uncovered and face-up until a truck or ambulance could pick them up. Soldiers would come by them and see if anyone was there they knew. It was a heart-wrenching scene indeed when a soldier or group of soldiers would be seen standing over the body of a fallen friend. Many times, men would ask rhetorically, “Why do the best ones always get it?” Sometimes, replacement soldiers would walk by and see the faces of the dead men they were replacing.
Once the infantry completed these seemingly impossible feats and pushed back the Germans, Army engineers could repair the routes up the valleys. The 45th Division, which had at this time perhaps 13,000 men, was made up of a lot of parts. It took the coordination of all these parts as well as support from other divisions, as well as the Navy and Army Air Force, to keep the advancement going.
As I keep reminding you, this army was not a small group of men like you see mostly in the movies. This was a vast number of men advancing over a wide path. Sure, it was made up of a lot of small groups called companies. But even these companies had as many as 200 men at full strength. These companies were divided into platoons, and smaller groups of men, sometimes even a lone soldier, who would be sent out on patrol. When you picture this war, think of the misery and valor of the individual soldier, but also think of tens of thousands of them against tens of thousands.
Note: As I continue to go through the many documents Dad left behind, I found a copy of the 45th Division News from April 1988. In it, I found a story of another soldier who earned a silver star. His name was Emanuel Hirsch and he lived in Florida. Hirsch earned five bronze stars, and thus, like Dad, earned his Silver Star the hard way — the very hard way!
The next episode will continue with more about the terrible conditions the soldiers fought under in Italy. Don’t expect these stories to get any softer or more glamorous. Dad took me as close to the horrors and realities of the war as he could, and I intend to continue to relay this truth to you.