It is not often noted and perhaps little remembered these days, but seven decades ago this month the battles around the small Italian village of San Pietro decimated the olive groves and many of the American men advancing on well-fortified German positions.
My father was commander of Company H of the 143rd Infantry Regiment, 36th Infantry Division, during that battle. He had become the company commander in earlier battles, after one more senior officer was captured and another simply quit the fight, telling medics he “couldn’t take any more.”
The 36th Infantry Division, and my father, entered combat for the first time at Salerno, on September 9, 1943. The Salerno landing occurred the day after the unconditional surrender of the Italian government to the allies. As Rick Atkinson wrote in his excellent book The Day of Battle, the German commander, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, declared that the invaders “must be completely annihilated and… thrown into the sea,” so that the British and Americans would “realize that they are hopelessly lost against the concentrated German might.”
Like most veterans, throughout his life my father said little of his combat experiences. But at my mother’s urging, on the 50th anniversary of the Normandy landing, he penned a priceless letter to my sons — his three grandsons — sharing some of his memories.
Dad wrote that as he came ashore at Salerno “most of the enemy fire was from machine guns.” He added that shelling from German artillery, the “vaunted 88s on Mount Soprano,” was very effective. One officer with whom Dad “had played blackjack on the big ship before going down the cargo nets to the landing craft, had his head taken off by a direct hit from an 88 shortly after he stepped on the beach.”
The Salerno landing was opposed by superbly-equipped, combat hardened German forces who proved to be a very capable and fierce foe. On September 12, Dad was with American forces “directed into an area between the Sele and Calore Rivers and told to dig in and resist at all costs.” After spending “all night” digging foxholes, they were attacked by the German 10th Panzer Division, which “struck us with full force [and] overran our positions” so that “we were essentially destroyed as an effective unit.” Dad was awarded the Silver Star for his actions during that engagement, and the citation confirms that his position had been “completely surrounded.”
My father was in heavy combat over the next three months. Casualties were very high especially during the battle for San Pietro. He was with troops crossing “the hair pin curve in the San Pietro-Venafro Road at the foot of the mountain.” When the American artillery “barrage lifted, the Germans poured their heavy shells (170mm) into the battle. Also the Germans concentrated rifle fire, machine gun fire, and mortars both large and small on our forward movement. It was a veritable nightmare! Men were falling everywhere.” Dad further wrote that his first platoon leader, a lieutenant from Brooklyn, “was killed by a mortar round that struck him in the groin, blowing his legs apart. He was a fine officer, Jewish, and we all mourned his loss.” As Dad put it, “our losses were substantial.”
Dad’s company was in the 143rd Infantry Regiment, which Atkinson recounts “lost 80 percent of its strength” at San Pietro. Dad was a part of that grim statistic, for on December 12, 1943, he suffered severe wounds from German mortar fire. His combat career thus ended. He spent Christmas 1943 in a hospital in Naples, and most of the following year in a series of hospitals.
He recalled in his letter being shipped back to the U.S. aboard the hospital ship Shamrock, in a body cast. At Charleston, South Carolina, they were “unloaded on stretchers” and “a Navy band played the Star Spangled Banner. There were no dry eyes.” In later life, Dad set off many an airport metal detector because of the shrapnel still in his body.
My father’s is no doubt but one of thousands of similar stories. Still, in my family we have framed, and are touched to read, the letter to the “officers and men of the 143rd Infantry Regiment,” written on December 24, 1943, by Colonel William H. Martin, the Regiment’s commanding officer.
In the pertinent part, Col. Martin wrote:
It has been your lot to meet in deadly combat the fiercest and most determined enemy resistance in the history of all wars. You have overcome this resistance and have emerged victorious and although severely battered you have maintained that unconquerable spirit that will never be beaten. You have suffered losses and seen our comrades fall. You are better soldiers now than before Salerno, Altaville, Sele, San Pietro, and Hill 1205, and you have struck fear into the hearts of our enemy who knows he cannot win.”
Your courage and endurance cannot be surpassed by any troops on the field of battle. I pay tribute now, as your Commanding Officer, to that magnificent courage and fighting spirit displayed by you all under the most difficult and trying conditions and bow my head with you in solemn respect and honor to our brave comrades who have fallen for our cause. We shall not forget them as we carry on the fight to final Victory and Peace.
And Colonel Martin’s concluding paragraph:
At this Christmas time, I thank you for your response to the call of duty and wish for you the richest blessings of Almighty God. With His help you are making it possible during all time to come for our loved ones and our posterity to have and enjoy Peace on Earth — Good Will Toward Men.”
Now, reading Colonel Martin’s Christmas Eve letter, one wonders how it would be received in today’s military, where nativity scenes are banished from bases and soldiers are instructed in pre-deployment briefings that Christians are “tearing the country apart.” I like to think the Colonel would stand by his message.