By Sergeant Marvin A. Palecek and his son, Glen Palecek
After four long months of bitter fighting, the Allies were getting ready to break out from the Anzio beachhead and advance on to Rome. Meanwhile, Berlin Sally was taunting the men, daring them to do so. She told them they were in the world’s largest self-run prison camp. Most of the men did not need Sally’s prodding, they were anxious to get out of the hell-hole at Anzio and attack the Germans.
Meanwhile, the German forces continued to weaken. While Allied forces continued to pore in vast amounts of ammunition and replacement troops, the German were operating with less and less ammunition and men. Vast amounts of German resources were needed at the Russian Front and to build up the defense on the coast of France for the Allied invasion everyone knew was coming. Also, General Clark’s men were steadily advancing up the boot of Italy and getting closer and closer to Rome so holding off the Allied invasion at Anzio was no longer as important.
As I mentioned before, bulldozers were used by the Germans to bury their many dead at Anzio. American graves, on the other hand, were dug by men with shovels. The white crosses to mark the graves grew to hundreds and then to thousands. When you watch the movie “Saving Private Ryan,” you see the fictional private Ryan at the beginning and end of the movie in a vast field of these white crosses. This scene could have just as easily been filmed at Anzio.
Dad always spoke of Death as a giant monster or spirit hanging over the battlefields. I can easily picture the giant hand of Death carefully placing the many rows of crosses into the ground much like one would place the decorations on a cake. Meticulous records were kept, but names were not inscribed on the crosses right away. Anzio and Normandy were only two of many places in Europe with fields of these white crosses to mark the final resting places of American soldiers. When names were inscribed on them, many had to be left blank or, in place of the name were these words: “known only to God.” The Army gravediggers tried to keep 50 graves ahead, but sometimes this was not near enough.
The graves were five feet deep and were dug on high ground in a vain attempt to keep the water out. The coffins were but mattress covers and the dead men’s possessions were sorted into piles.
We often hear the expression, “Some gave all,” when referring to soldiers who gave their life in battle. I want you to think about what that means. When a soldier dies, he does indeed give up everything. He gives up all his money and other material possessions; he gives up his family, his wife or girlfriend, and all his friends; he gives up all he has accomplished and created; he gives up all the love he has in his heart and all his memories. Beyond that, he gives up all he will ever be; all his dreams; the children he will never have; and all that he would have contributed to the world. Yes, dear reader, when a soldier dies for his country, he does indeed give “ALL.”
Abraham Lincoln once said, “ ... all that a man hath will he give for his life; and while all contribute of their substance the soldier puts his life at stake, and often yields it up for his country’s cause. The highest merit, then, is due the soldier.”
Jesus said, “Greater love hath no man than this, than to lay down his life for his friends,” (John 15:13).
Many of you remember Andy Rooney as the famous CBS reporter and chief commentator on the TV news show, “60 minutes.” Rooney was also a soldier and war correspondent in World War II. Forty years after the war, here’s what Rooney had to say about his fellow soldiers who were killed: “They were all my age. I think of the good life I have lived and they never had a chance to live. They didn’t give their lives. Their lives were taken.”
I am reading Rooney’s book “My War.” Dad and Rooney both went through this war without smoking or drinking and both had knowledge of many of the misdeeds of the infamous General Patton. I am very grateful to find someone of Rooney’s stature to back up Dad’s stories about Patton.
Anzio was not the best of times. It was the worst of times. American soldiers who were there will tell you it was, for them, the worst four months of the war. The men had their youth, but even that was being ripped away from them. At the time, Dad read in a magazine that the men there had aged over 10 years in the months they were there. After reading this, Dad and his men looked carefully at each other’s faces. To their horror, it was true. Dad wrote to Mom that one of his soldier’s hair had turned completely white and many others had the hollow eyes and long faces of despair. One by one, 10 by 10, and sometimes more, the German artillery and bombers were picking them off. Many of those who had sought glory when they came overseas now ingloriously rotted away in soggy mattress covers.
Every year, the press reminds of us of Pearl Harbor and of the D-Day invasion of Normandy. Yet the attack on Pearl Harbor lasted but two hours and the Normandy invasion is best remembered in the Hollywood movie, “The Longest Day.” They never seem to remember all the other great battles Americans fought in Europe. The press seems to want us to believe American involvement in Europe began with Normandy. For Dad and others, the worst part of the war was over after the day they broke out of Anzio. To be sure, Dad would experience many more hard-fought battles, but never again in this war would he be as hungry, wet, and miserable as he was at the Anzio beachhead.
I have another personal account of a day in battle at Anzio, but I will save it for the book. I want to move on and conclude Dad’s time at Anzio with the breakout. Look for that story in the next episode. It won’t be easy, but I will do my best to describe what it was like to make a World War I style charge into the teeth of German machine guns and artillery. Dad has details that only could be known by someone who was there.