Monday, May 30, 2011

A Front Line Soldier in World War II

I'm not sure where I first acquired my interest in statistics and analysis, but I inherited my love of baseball from my father. He is a huge baseball fan who watches all the Cardinal games on Extra Innings.  He is currently puzzled by the slow start of slugger Albert Pujols, but also enjoying his team's position atop the National League Central Division. 

This blog post is going to be about something much more important than baseball though.  My father, who recently turned 87 years old, was a soldier during World War II.  This means that he was on the front lines fighting the enemy head on as a teenager.  As you can imagine, he has many strong memories - both good and bad - of his army experience. His experiences have affected the rest of his life and he is very proud of his service as he should be.  Today, he shares one of his most vivid memories on Tiger Tales.

On January 20th, 1944 during World War II, the 36th Infantry Division of the United States Army was ordered to cross the Rapido River in Central Italy.  The Germans had made the river an integral part of their defense of the Liri Valley and the area was aggressively guarded.   This made the crossing a bold and controversial move and resulted in one of the bloodiest battles of the war.  In fact, over 2,000 men of the 36th Division were killed, wounded or missing in just 48 hours.  My father is one of the survivors of the crossing and he  relates his story below.

As soldiers in World War II, we carried small spades on our pack used to dig our fox-holes.  A fox-hole was made as large and deep as the situation called for.  If we expected to receive mortar or artillery barrages, we dug them deep.  If we expected to move forward, we made them shallow or ignored them altogether, instead taking shelter behind large rocks, tree stumps or natural defiliations.  In the case of the Rapido River Crossing, it was clear that we needed deep holes. 

The ground leading to the Rapido River had a lot of clay which made digging awkward and difficult.  The spade dug up the clay in clumps that stuck to it.  When artillery shells burst, we lay alongside our holes, but continued digging more rapidly.  I recall digging many hours to excavate a hole large enough to contain my crouching figure.  There I was, ensconced in my new home, wet, cold and matted with Italian red clay and mud waiting for a signal to attack.

Suddenly, it seemed that every artillery gun in Italy opened up to send a barrage on the German defenses along the river.  Artillery sounds pretty much as they do in the popular war movies.  This broadside was laid on the enemy and we felt good listening to it. The guns roared for about thirty minutes and then our tanks took over the fire.  They came from our rear and sounded thunderous but tinny.  The tanks stopped and then our heavy mortars and machine guns peppered the river area.  I thought, “Dear God.  They’re working it down to rifle fire and that means ME!”

The enemy return fire was not as heavy as ours at first, but it was all aimed in my direction.  The Germans had mortars (Nebelwerfers) that let out screeching sounds as they wended their way to our positions.  The sounds had a paralyzing affect on me and I was truly scared.  The only other time I had experienced such deep fear was when I saw the movie “Frankenstein” at the Royal Theatre in Lowell, MA as an eight-year old and had to run home through dark Cummiskey Alley. 

The Germans followed the mortar shelling with a continuous volley of their notorious eighty-eights.  This firing was accurate and shells burst closer to my hole.  Eventually, the firing let up and I sensed that the time for the infantry attack had arrived.  

Someone approached my hole to tell me to follow him to an assembly area.  I now felt a fondness for my fox-hole asylum of the past twenty-four hours and reluctantly left it to gather in an open area with other members of Company “G”.  The fog and the dark of the night made the figures look phantom-like.  Somehow, we were lined in single file and proceeded to shuffle orderly through olive groves and down towards the river.

The Germans had fortified the river area with personnel mines and barbed wire.  They zeroed artillery, mortar and machine gun fire at likely strategic crossing areas and they did their firing from secure and safe bunkers.  That night, they heard the sounds of the American Infantry and they opened up with all their guns. 

The very early morning was filled with gun fire, flashes of light and the groaning screaming meemies.  We were told to advance with fixed bayonets and to follow the shadowy figure in front.  Things went well at first until casualties disrupted our lines and the frantic confused sounds of young infantrymen became more personal than the obscure sounds of guns.  I saw the shadowy figures fall and cry out in pain and surprise.  One soldier close to me was hit in the neck area and I saw blood gushing out.   

Despite the horror and confusion, we all moved forward until we could see the river just a few yards ahead.  Somewhere, there were smoke pots designed to obscure the enemy’s vision, but they affected my sight as well.  I still vividly recall the smells of the river and of fresh grass and the clammy feeling of the morning dew.  My private thoughts and feelings were overwhelmingly numbed by the sounds and reality of combat.   

When we reached the river, I scrambled onto a wooden boat along with ten or so infantrymen and paddled to the other side in less than a minute.  At times, the enemy fire was directed towards us and at other times it moved upstream in assault of others.  It got so we anticipated our turn under extreme fire and we took what cover was available.  

On the other side of the river, we crawled up the embankment and moved towards the town of San Angelo.  The command was for us to dig in because the fog had lifted and the morning light was beginning to show.  I went through my fox-hole digging routine and was able to excavate a hole large enough to hide my body from flying shrapnel.  

Lying there with little to do until the next command, I felt alone with the non-stop sounds of combat assailing my senses.  However, my tired and confused mind cleared enough to make personal observations.   I envisioned a mud-coated teenager curled up in the depressed ground.   I saw the grass at ground level and small pieces of sticks and pebbles in the moist soil.  I don’t recall the sun, but I think there was a blue sky when the mist and smoke dissipated.  

During one silent interruption in combat, I could hear a young voice in the distance.  The voice was sobbing and crying out for his mother.  Beyond were more muffled sounds of digging and garbled obscenities.  Still, I felt secure for the moment in the realization that there was one chance in a million a shell would fall directly in the hole.  

The guns on both sides pounded the area for several hours.  Enemy mortars and machine guns strafed us making movement dangerous and imprudent.  I knew that many American soldiers were being killed and wounded and I prayed I would not join their ranks.  

Suddenly, the din of combat came to a complete halt and we got an order to leave our holes and to return across the river back to our original point of departure.  We rushed to the river and crossed a Bailey bridge our engineers had constructed.  Strangely, our movements were not picked up and we returned without serious hindrance to the now friendly and secure foxholes of the night before the crossing.      

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