Part 23: Life on the battlefields of Anzio
By: Sergeant Marvin A. Palecek and his son, Glen Palecek
Perhaps the best place to start telling you what it was like on the battlefields of Anzio is with how war correspondent Ernie Pyle wrote about it in his book, “Brave Men.”
Pyle wrote that he “didn’t waste any time getting off the boat” because of the many shells fired at them as they landed. But, after only a few hours, he wished he was back aboard. Even though Pyle was at the coast, he was not out of range of the German 88s. After only three days and multiple near misses, Pyle wrote that he wished he was back in New York.
A World War II veteran once told me that every battle was different. This was certainly true of Anzio. All the rules and descriptions of other battles simply don’t apply to Anzio. After the initial invasions of all other beachheads in Europe, a front and rear were well established. At Anzio there was no “rear” where officers and clerks could make their plans in relative safety. To be sure, living in the very plush resort houses was much better than living in foxholes farther in like Dad and his men had to do, but even here it was only relatively safe in the wine cellars and tunnels under the towns.
Pyle wrote that a man was just as likely to get killed standing in the doorway of one of the many resort houses along the coast as he was at a command post five miles inland. Dad sharply disagreed with Pyle’s analogy and told me that the closer he and his men were to the Germans, the more dangerous it got. For one thing, the closer they were to the German lookouts, the better the Germans could tell what they were doing. For this reason, the Allies did a lot of their movements and repositioning at night.
Since Pyle was along the coast, he was able to report what it was like there, while Dad’s descriptions are better for telling what it was like in the center of the battlefields. Pyle slept in a fancy villa built for luxury while Dad usually slept in a muddy foxhole where he had to use his helmet to scoop out the water that was constantly accumulating in the bottom.
One huge advantage the Allies had was a constant stream of new supplies and ammunition. Hitler micro-managed the German campaign and had to divide his resources between the Russian front and his troops at Anzio and those still trying to hold back the Allied advance up the boot of Italy.
Pyle wrote that all civilians had been evacuated from Anzio and Nettuno by the Germans, but some snuck back in after the Allies took over. Dad said that there were farmers who refused to leave, even though their farms were in the middle of a battlefield. Eventually, most of them were evacuated, but not before many were killed. Some civilians bravely stayed and earned money doing laundry and other services. Some Italian boys even hung out with the soldiers and Dad saw some who wore Army uniforms cut down to their size. Some soldiers, including one of Dad’s men, had dogs.
Life for Pyle and Dad had many similarities. Both had shells explode near them on a regular basis. Pyle wrote that any soldier who said that he went for two days without a shell exploding within a hundred yards was just bragging. Both spent most of their sleeping hours underground. Pyle made the mistake of sleeping in a room above ground until one day when this almost cost him his life. He had just gotten up when an enemy shell hit his room, causing all four walls to come down around him. Everyone thought Pyle had been killed, but he suffered only a minor cut. Still in his underwear, he had to dig out his shoes and pants from the rubble. His pants were OK, but his shoes had been destroyed.
Pyle wrote that it took many days, but eventually the fancy stone houses of Anzio and Nettuno were reduced to rubble. The Germans, hoping to kill an officer or two, kept a few steady shells aimed at the towns.
Meanwhile, out in the foxholes, Dad and his men faced a different threat. The Germans had another new weapon designed specifically to use against men in foxholes. These were small bombs dumped in large numbers from German planes. Dad held his hand together forming a circle to show me the size, somewhat bigger than the size of a softball. These small bombs had wings so they would not all fall in the same spot but spread over a large area. They had fuses that were set to go off about the time the bombs landed. The idea was for the bombs to go off when they landed in a foxhole. Sometimes, the bombs would bounce into the air before they went off, sometimes they would go off before they reached the ground, and sometimes they would not go off at all. Dad knew of one time where one of these bombs landed in a foxhole with two men inside. The men quickly threw the bomb outside, but it turned out to be a dud.
After the initial attacks by these foxhole bombs, the Allies understood the importance of a strong and well-built roof. Dad was lucky in that he spent a great deal of time in a foxhole where the land was high enough so that he could dig the hole deep enough to have space enough to sit on his helmet between the floor and the roof. Because of water leaking in, soldiers in other areas weren’t as lucky and had to live in foxholes much shallower. Imagine, if you will, what it must have been like living for four long months with a foxhole as I have described as your bedroom!
I would like to end this episode reminding you that the object in combat is to kill the enemy. I want to remind you that the suffering and misery of everyday living in a foxhole was overshadowed by the constant death that Dad described as hanging over the battlefields. Soldiers who lost a leg or arm were considered lucky by their peers. Sometimes, wounds were self-inflicted. Dad told me a soldier really wanted out badly when he was willing to shoot himself in the leg or foot with a high-powered rifle.
The next episode will continue with stories about everyday living on the Anzio battlefields. I am sure that you will find some of these stories to be very strange and unexpected.