Part 24: Dad and the Navy guns
By: Sergeant Marvin A. Palecek and his son, Glen Palecek
Here is a story about what Dad did one day at the Anzio beachhead. Dad told me this story many years ago and I struggle somewhat to remember the details. It is a story of Dad’s extreme bravery, his defiance of direct orders, and of a deed that saved many American lives and cost the Germans many more. This deed almost got him a Silver Star, but also almost cost him his sergeant’s stripes.
It was one of the days deep within the Anzio beachhead where Dad and the soldiers with him were near the very front. When I say “near the very front,” I mean almost within rifle range of the Germans. What is meant by “the front” is somewhat complicated and I will have to devote some space in a future episode later to try and explain it.
Dad was an officer at this time, probably a captain, but I can’t remember for sure. Anyway, the Germans were trying to gain some ground and there were many Americans in trouble. As luck would have it, an American ship was lobbing shells back at the Germans, but the shells from the big guns were over-shooting their intended targets. The ship’s captain was afraid that, if he shortened the range of the Navy guns, the shells would kill the Americans up front, and so he ordered the shots made long on purpose. From several miles away, he couldn’t see how to adjust the shots. The officer with Dad was also afraid of killing Americans and was unwilling to tell the ship’s captain to shorten and adjust his shots.
Dad asked for permission to radio the ship and adjust the aim of the Navy ship. “No, don’t do that – too dangerous,” he was told. The officer decided to pull back. While the rest of the men with the officer retreated, Dad stayed.
Not only did Dad not pull back, he advanced even farther. With the officer and the rest of the group out of sight, Dad made a bold decision. As radio chief of his battalion, he was in charge of all communication for them and felt it was his duty to act. Against the orders he had been given, he radioed the ship and told them to adjust their aim shorter, dangerously close to the Americans. Dad had received extensive radio training back in Georgia, and he knew what he was doing. With remarkable precision, the big Navy shells found German targets. Dad remarked to me how amazing it was that the Navy could adjust their aim so accurately from this ship, miles away, out rolling in the waves. He told me the ship’s computer adjusted the aim. I’ve always been a little puzzled about what a computer on a ship was like in 1944. Anyway, Dad said there was a computer on the ship, which adjusted the aim, and I am simply re-telling what he told me. Those Navy shells helped stop the German advance that day and saved many American lives.
Of course, all this time the two big German railroad guns, Anzio Annie and The Anzio Express, were out of their tunnels and firing their huge shells back at the ship. It’s a tribute to the Navy captain that he stayed as long as he did and risked his ship to save American lives. Dad told me how Allied planes were used at Anzio, but I can’t honestly say he told me any were used on this day. Dad returned tired and worried about how much trouble he was in for disobeying direct orders.
The next day, Dad was ordered to appear in front of a group of officers. He was waiting outside a room where the officers were having a meeting. Dad could not hear most of what they were saying because of his bad hearing from the exploding mine in Sicily, but he knew they were talking about him. Dad thought things were going bad for him and thought for sure he had lost his sergeant’s stripes.
Finally, Dad was called into the room. All was silent until the highest-ranking officer looked Dad straight in the eye and said, “You did a good job, son.” That was it. Nothing more was said to Dad and he was excused. No discipline, but no medal, either. Dad remembered those words for the rest of his life. I guess the words took the place of the medal he had surely earned that day.
Later, Dad learned from his men that that same high-ranking officer had been watching from a distance and repeated many times to those who were with him, “He’s doing pretty good, isn’t he?”
You might think Dad felt good about the American lives he helped to save or was proud he helped kill so many Germans. Other men may have felt this way, but not Dad. What he thought of was the many German lives that were lost that day and the hand he had in this. Of the Germans, Dad told me, “They were soldiers just like us.” It is somewhat haunting to me that I recently had a World War II veteran from the Winona area repeat those very words to me.
Later, the colonel in charge of Dad’s battalion told him, “You should have received a Silver Star.” Dad told me he guessed the Silver Star he should have received balanced out with the fact he disobeyed direct orders. This sounds very odd to say, but the fact Dad disobeyed these orders earned him the trust of the colonel to go on other dangerous missions.
Probably, the reason Dad felt so bad about what he had done was the carnage he saw on the battlefields, not just at Anzio, but at other battles he had been part of in Italy and Sicily as well. Dad told me how a shell from a German or American tank could take a man’s head clean off, leaving the body still standing for a second or two. Dad told me how large shells and bombs could turn a soldier’s body into nothing but pink mush — human hamburger, if you will. Dad told me how the rules of death were so unfair. One man might be hit by a dozen bits of shrapnel and live, while another soldier, much farther away, might be struck by a single piece from the same bomb and be killed. Shrapnel from some of these bombs not only ripped through flesh and bone but was white-hot and caused severe burns as well. Some men got multiple impressive scars from machine gun bullets that they could show off for the rest of their lives, while many others were killed by a single bullet. Some battlefields were in towns and cities and were not only the place of death for soldiers, but for civilians — including little boys and girls — as well. While bodies were removed, a lot of blood and bits of flesh were always left behind. Both the Germans and Americans did a remarkable job of picking up and burying their dead. Truckloads of American corpses were often gathered up. Pyle wrote that, at Anzio, the Germans had so many dead, they used a bulldozer to bury them all. While whole bodies were properly buried, pieces as large as arms and legs were sometimes left. When and if they had time, some soldiers would dig graves for these body parts and bury as many as they could, although often, they simply marched past them. When the shelling and bombing stopped, there were sometimes the cries of soldiers or of civilians — both adults and children — buried in the ruble of the stone buildings. This prompted scenes of other soldiers, and of the relatives of the victims, frantically trying to dig those buried out before they died. This, dear reader, was the hell and horror of this war. It’s no wonder your dad or grandfather never wanted to talk about it!
In the next episode, I’ll tell you about Dad’s best friend, Aubrey Elam, and how he was killed at Anzio.