Thursday, May 28, 2009


Dad's Italian adventures:

"It was a whirlwind about this time and the merry-go-round of re-assignments finally placed us in the 5th Army just in time for the invasion of Italy in September of 1943. I think I already told you we ended up as part of the 5th Army because our MOS was Aircraft Maintenance. Again we were alongside of Montgomery and his 8th Army. They landed on the docks at Taranto and met only token resistance. Monty was able to move pretty quickly up the Adriatic coast and captured the airfields at Foggia which put our air power that much closer to Germany. On September 9th, we hit the beach in strength at Salerno and the Germans made an all-out attempt to push our landing back into the sea. We met an enormous amount of firepower at that beachhead even though the Germans had a big job on their hands trying to disarm the entire Italian Army because King Victor Emanuel was trying to negotiate a surrender and was asking the Allies for an armistice at roughly the same time we were making our landing. We were awfully damn lucky that Hitler did not reinforce his troops as they came very close to keeping us from even landing on that first day. My unit landed on the third day with all the equipment to unload and we were still under one hell of a lot of fire. We eventually got a lot of that equipment to the airfields the British had just captured at Foggia. I hadn't seen so much artillery since the Kasserine Pass in North Africa and believe you me, it was one God damned frightening experience."

"Being under intense fire can produce the weirdest effects. We were off loading jeeps onto the beachhead and Bang! Bang! Bang! three of them in a row got blown up as we tried to unload them. It seemed as if everything they aimed at, they hit and there was something very damed frightening in that experience. We were exposed on the beach and there was nothing we could do. The smell of gasoline and shrapnel from the destroyed jeeps was in the air. Super heated metal has a unique smell so adding that to the mixture of burning rubber and gasoline will produce something you will never ever forget. The guys who ran the apparatus that lifted the jeeps off the landing vehicles were scrambling around in that - stew - and everybody feared that they themselves would blow up with all that crap in the air. Everybody - and I mean everybody - got zinged and dinged a little from all that flying debris and after a while, nobody called for a medic unless they were seriously injured. But those three jeeps being destroyed all in a row really put the fear of God in all of us. Time seemed to stretch out and produce a kind of paranoia and the shells that didn't hit the jeeps, hit the sand so everybody had a stinging sensation in their eyes from the combination of fumes and sand and we were all disoriented as there was very little cover and everything was just happening so God damned fast and in no kind of order and enough guys got killed to make that fear very real. But that kind of fear flattens out and you weren't able to make sense out of anything after a while. But the absolute worst thing - and this sounds weird - but the worst thing was when you were out of range of all that shelling, the fear returned. When we went back to the ships to get a new load of equipment and all those sounds and smells started to diminish, we knew not to relax because we were just going to have to go back into that hell that was on that landing zone. Non-stop activity was the key to not losing your mind and we didn't want to stop until we could stay stopped and that was when the shelling stopped completely. That third day - the 12th - ended at roughly 1o o'clock that night and some guys just plopped down on the beach but others just wanted to get the stink of the day off of them and hosed themselves down or just jumped into the water. But the next day's activity needed to be laid out. We had tons of aircraft parts that needed to be ready to be moved forward at a moment's notice. So we forced ourselves to go back to work until we were ready for the next day."

"We were exhausted but sleep didn't come easy for any of us. For a lot of men this was their first time under fire and this was the end of the Allie's third day on European soil and a partial repayment for Dunkirk. We took a certain amount of pride in that. There was obviously a lot of work to be done, but Lafayette, we had arrived."

"We figured since the Germans did not oppose the initial landing the British made at Taranto, they were saving all their firepower for us. By the time we got everything off-loaded, the shelling had all but stopped. I guess the Germans figured they were not going to push us back into the sea regardless of how much hell they poured down on us. By the time we had everything ashore we linked up with the British 8th on September 16th and fought our way into Naples, the northernmost port city that could be covered by our bases in Sicily. After we took Naples, things suddenly changed and the Germans began a sort of orderly withdrawl rather than their usual bitter end tactics. Since Hitler couldn't - or wouldn't - reinforce his troops it seemed like they began concentrating on building a series of defensive fortifications to prevent us from advancing any further north than we already were. The winter of 43-44 saw the Germans altering their tactics from resisting us at the beaches to blocking the roads that led to Rome by fighting a rear guard action that resulted in the creation of what was called the Gustav Line that ran from Minturno in the west to Ortona in the east, cutting completely across the peninsula pretty much at its narrowest point as well as a series of other interlocking lines that supported one other. We heard that Hitler had replaced the General in charge of Italy and we could believe it. Their tactics completely changed and they used what time they had to construct the pillboxes and other fortifications that we began to face and the resistance we saw stiffened and every foot of progress we made came at a price. And I think what the Germans wanted to do was draw a line in the sand that said , you know, beyond this point you will not go. We ran into major difficulties as we approached those defensive positions in our attempt to move towards Rome. As the 5th Army attempted to move north from Naples up the old Appian way our ability to move became extremely difficult. The Apennine chain to the east of us ran down the spine of the peninsula and those fortifications took full advantage of the rivers that had to be crossed and they flooded the open valleys by diverting the rivers, and of course, the miserable God damned weather that fully favored the dug-in troops and we found ourselves pinched between the coast to our west and the mountains to our east. If ever there was an ideal setting for an enemy to take a defensive posture, this was it - mountainous terrain with the winter setting in."

"Meanwhile, the 8th Army was moving up the Adriatric coast at a good clip and was able to cross the Moro river at the port city of Ortona, the extreme eastern end of the Gustav Line. The Germans were instructed to prevent the line from being breached and hold the city at any cost. We found out later that the German High Command considered Ortona to be of such strategic importance they told their men to "fight for every house and every tree" and sent in the battle-hardened First Parachute Division to engage Canadian and New Zealand elements of the 8th Army in some of the most vicious house-to-house hand-to-hand fighting of the campaign. Ortona was one of the few usable deep water ports on the Adriatic coast of Italy, and thus allowed the British to shorten their supply lines which at that time stretched all the way back to Taranto where they had come ashore in the first place so it was strategically important to the British also. The battle was so intense the fighting became known as "Bloody December." It was truly amazing what happened to the people who lived in Ortona who were not able to evacuate or get out of the way and had to stay behind hiding in all manner of ingenious places like barns, carriage houses, public buildings and the basements of homes that had been destroyed and, therefore, as far as the both sides were concerned, neutralized. The battle went on for eight days and became known as "Little Stalingrad" which tells you all you need to know about how horrible the fighting was. Ortona added "mouse-holing" to the nomenclature of urban warfare to describe how holes were blown through interior walls of houses and buildings and grenades were thrown in to clear the space so small groups of advancing troops could move down through the structures from above and be under cover. Once Ortona was taken the eastern part of the Gustav Line was now in full breach but, once again, the weather played hell with our plans and blizzards on the eastern side of the Apeninnes forced the offensive to a halt. When you came right down to it, there were only three possible approaches to Rome and one of them, Highway 5 in the east, was marked by steep slopes and the continuing blizzards made air support out of the question so that way into Rome was not feasible on a number of different fronts. Highway 7, the old Appian Way, ran up the west coast from Naples and that was where we were stalled as the Germans had flooded the Pontine Marshes south of Rome which put that way really a mess to have to navigate and getting to Rome that way would have meant moving a large number of troops all the way across the peninsula in the winter so that was out. What that meant was that both the British 8th on the easternside of the Appennines and the American 5th in the west were both bogged down by the weather and the obstacles constructed by the Germans at the Gustav Line. That left just Highway 6 at the entrance of the Liri Valley as the only real way to get to Rome but it faced Monte Cassino and that was the linchpin and the anchor of the Gustav Line. Blocking our abilty to advance was the fast flowing Rapido River that rose in the Apennine Mountains and turned into the Garigliano River as it dominated the entrance to the Liri Valley. Elements of the 8th were moved from the Adriatic coast to the valley and the fighting took on a real international flavor as troops from New Zealand and India fought unsuccessfully at the entrance to the valley into January 44 until the New Zealand commander called for the destruction of the ancient abbey that sat on top of Monte Cassino. Because of its historical significance, the Germans refused to use it as part of their defensive strategy but the Allies had never believed that to be the truth as it was ideally situated to look down on our troops. We launched a massive air strike the first week in February and completely destroyed it but this presented a whole new set of problems for us as the Germans rushed crack paratroopers into the rubble and they were able to fend off two major offensives directed at their deeply entrenched positions. As we got deeper into winter, we were no closer to Rome as we prepared for the third major offensive of the campaign. By this time we had 1o divisions committed to taking Monte Cassino and we were still stalemated."

"At roughly the same time all this was happening, the VI Corps using both American and British troops made an amphibious landing behind the Gustav Line at Anzio. The Germans kept us pinned to the beach as they launched counter attack after counter attack. General John P. Lucas was blamed by the British for not being aggressive enough at the beachhead and making no attempt to breakout and meet the German 1oth Army in any kind of meaningful way and accepting the horrendous casualties that accurred as the result of his timidness and was eventually replaced by General Lucien Truscott. It wasn't until the weather cleared and the Germans were thrown into the fourth and final offensive at Monte Cassino and we finally blasted through the Gustav Line that Truscott was able to breakout of Anzio and launch an attack on the German 10th's rear as they were called into reserve to deal with the attack at Monte Cassino. We now had the Germans in full retreat and the way to Rome was now open and we were in position to demolish the 1oth Army when Mark Clark decided not to pursue them and move with the 5th Army into Rome."

"In one of the great ironies of the war, Rome was declared an open city on June 4, 1944, two days before the most climactic event of World War II: DDay the 6th of June. And my sister, your Aunt Ruth, Lt. Ruth M. Haddick hit Omaha Beach on DDay plus 6. She was an Army nurse, serving in a forward unit taking care of the wounded. I don't know what they called themselves then, but later we knew them from television as M*A*S*H units. On the other hand, I think your Aunt Ruth resented the way the nurses were portrayed as sex objects. Take a look HERE to see what I call Aunt Ruth's war."



Nikki said...

Thanks for posting Aunt Ruth's War, dad!

Bill from NJ said...

But what did you think of Pop Pop's war? I was going to use the material on Aunt Ruth's war and write it up using it as source material but decided against it as it didn't fit the "told" aspect of thre story

Jerry Dorsman said...

Hey Bill - I really like your blog. I just read the entire piece about your dad (my Uncle Harold). Actually, I guess it was "by" your dad. Very interesting historical document! So hey, how are YOU? It has been ages since I've seen you, or talked on the phone or anything. Hope things are well. Best - Your Cousin Jerry