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Cassino: The First Round
Part 1 of 6
By David H. Lippman
November 2012

By December of 1943, the phrase “Sunny Italy” had evolved from a travel agent’s selling point to an ugly joke for the British and American troops of the U.S. Fifth Army, advancing north from Naples to Rome. Rain and snow turned ground to mud and made roads impassable. Valleys were seas of black mud. Troops on the mountains created shelters behind rocks and in caves. American reporter Ernie Pyle described GIs returning from two weeks in the front line as looking “ten years older than they were. . . . Soldiers became exhausted in mind and in soul as well as physically. The infantry reach a stage of exhaustion that is incomprehensible to the folks back home. . . . To sum it up: A man just gets damned sick of it all.”

And the greatest battle of the Italian campaign hadn’t even started yet.

The Allied invasion of Italy had been launched as the logical follow-on to the conquest of North Africa and Sicily. Under the publicity-hungry Lt. Gen. Mark W. Clark, The Fifth Army stormed ashore at Salerno, south of Naples, in September 1943, and began a slow, plodding drive towards Rome across mountains and rivers — every one of them seemingly named Volturno to exhausted American soldiers — finally halted along the Garigliano and Rapido Rivers at the base of the Liri Valley — the gateway to Rome — by exhaustion, winter weather, and fierce German resistance.

Stalemate along what the Germans called the “Gustav Line” — a triumph for the Todt Organization’s engineers — with its strongpoint the town that barred the entrance to the Liri Valley, Cassino, and the great mountain that stood above it, Monte Cassino.

The market town was typical of central Italy — four churches, prison, railway station, high school, orchards, vineyards, oak woods, a working Roman thermal bath, and 22,000 inhabitants. But looming just above it stood one of civilization’s great works, the Benedictine Monastery of Monte Cassino, brooding 1,600 feet over the town, an all-seeing eye that gazed in every direction.

Cassino town and market
A LIFE magazine photo of a Monte Cassino market and church, with the monastery hill in the background.

Mines and Armored Crabs

The monastery dated back to 524 A.D., when St. Benedict sought to headquarter the brotherhood that bore his name in a place where his monks could worship in security during the violence of the Dark Ages. The monastery that resulted became the worldwide headquarters of the Benedictine Order. Working by candlelight, Benedictine monks laboriously copied the works of ancient authors, creating miniatures and frescoes that became the basis for art across Europe, and singing Gregorian chants. When the new monastery was built in 1349 after a devastating earthquake, it was a huge building with five courtyards, 15-foot-high walls, 20 feet thick at their base, and was only accessible via a five-mile long hairpin track. The monastery was the blueprint for similar ones throughout Europe, the repository of ancient manuscripts of legendary authors: Tacitus, Cicero, Horace, and Virgil, and for centuries the host to pilgrims, students, and tourists.

By the time German Gen. Heinrich von Vietinghoff-Scheel’s 10th Army began digging trenches and bunkers around the mountain’s base in 1943, the Monte Cassino Abbey was one of the sacred sites of Christianity. But it was also one of the finest defensive positions in Europe, and the German soldiers digging foxholes around it among the finest defensive infantrymen in Europe, lean, hardened men who had been indoctrinated in martial values as Hitler Youth and their bodies toned by physical work in the pre-war Reich Arbeitsdienst (Labor Service), men who believed in their Fuhrer and ultimate victory.

The Landsers were supported by the strongest defenses German engineers could create. Adolf Hitler took a personal interest in the Gustav Line, and that ensured plenty of supplies. Engineers laid out interlocked systems of anti-personnel mines and barbed-wire entanglements behind the Rapido and Garigliano Rivers, and removed buildings and trees to create fields of fire. They were replaced by bunkers, reinforced by railway girders and concrete, and built in multi-layered lines of positions.

The Germans built 100 steel shelters and 76 armored pillboxes around Cassino. The latter weighed three tons each and could shelter a two-man machine-gun crew. The Germans called them “armored crabs.”

Other pillboxes could accommodate 20 to 30 men, their light machine-gun, and a charcoal brazier on which to cook rations. Subterranean passages and trenches connected them to infantry fire-trenches. In some cases, the Germans did not knock down homes and buildings, but instead incorporated them into the Gustav Line with heavy layers of crushed stone.

Every one of these barriers was laced with mines and booby traps, a German specialty. The Germans sowed more than 24,000 mines, most of them the S-42 “Schu-mine,” which went off under only 10 pounds of pressure, blasting off a man’s foot. The S-mines were more frightening, going off at groin height. The Americans called this weapon the “Bouncing Betty.” Both mines came in wooden casings, making magnetic detection very difficult.

To cap this, the Germans blasted open a dam on the Rapido River, which flooded the flat plain before the monastery, turning already soggy terrain around Cassino into a quagmire that swallowed men and vehicles.

Nor did the Germans solely rely on passive defenses. Infantry squads were expected to regularly probe and harass attackers, and launch immediate counterattacks.

Yet the Allies were going to have to muster men and attack through this vile terrain and into the viler defenses. More than the conquest of Rome was on the line. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had put his prestige behind the Italian campaign, and now it was sinking. At Teheran in Iran in 1943, Russia’s Josef Stalin once again fumed about the lack of an Allied invasion of Western Europe, and demanded more action from the British and Americans.

Churchill’s idea to breathe new life into the Italian campaign was to propose an amphibious left hook around the German lines, aiming at Rome. An Anglo-American corps would land at Anzio, while the Fifth Army and its American, British, and French troops would break across the Garigliano and Rapido Rivers, through the Liri Valley, and head for Rome. With the German forces tied down on the Garigliano, they would not be able to stop the assault on Rome. And as all roads led to Rome in 1944 as they did in Julius Caesar’s day, Allied control of the Eternal City would cut off all supplies to the German front, trap the Germans in the mountains, and break open the campaign.

The assault would be launched in January, despite awful weather, to take advantage of a period when sufficient landing craft for the invasion would be in the Mediterranean. After the assault, they would be pulled out for the invasion of Normandy. It was January 22, 1944, or never: 17 days to plan and launch an amphibious assault and its supporting attacks.

U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was sold on the idea, and he approved the retention of enough landing craft in the Mediterranean to make the Anzio assault, code-named “Operation Shingle.”

But to tie down the German defenders, Fifth Army would have to attack on the Garigliano Line first, with its three corps, British 10th Corps, US 2nd Corps, and the French Expeditionary Corps. The French were to advance through the mountains north of Cassino, while the other two corps broke across the Garigliano and Rapido Rivers south of the town and monastery. They began with trouble. Amphibious craft were in very short supply. A Bay of Naples storm sank 40 of 50 DUKWs assigned to “Shingle,” and their replacements came from the two corps assigned to the Garigliano and Rapido crossings.

The battle of Cassino was launched by a force from which little was expected: The French Expeditionary Corps, under General Alphonse Juin, on the 5th Army’s right flank, north of Cassino.

The French Corps consisted of the 2nd Moroccan and the 3rd Algerian Divisions, 50 percent of them French and colonial French, the other half African natives. The former were eager to fight and avenge the humiliation of 1940. The latter were professional soldiers who had spent most of the war square-bashing in North Africa, and were eager to prove their value. What the corps lacked in tanks and vehicles it more than made up in ferocity and mules. The French corps included four regiments of ferocious Moroccan Goumiers, bearded mountaineers in striped uniforms who enjoyed close combat with knives, followed by rape and pillage.

Both divisions were fresh arrivals in Italy, refitted with American ammunition and equipment, and the first to arrive, 2nd Moroccan Division in December, had a unique feature: female ambulance drivers. The Americans wanted them sent to the rear, but 2nd Moroccan’s CO, Gen. Andre Dody, exploded at the idea. “The women of France, like the men, are proud to die for their country,” he said.

Gen. Joseph de Monsabert’s 3rd Algerian Division followed next, enabling Juin to set up his Corps HQ and work out the best way to send the divisions across the Abruzzi mountain range north of Cassino. With his mountain troops and mules, Juin did not see the mountainous terrain as a barrier. The French North African army stressed small-unit autonomy, foot mobility, and infiltration.

On the night of January 11, the French Corps opened the battle for Cassino with a two-division broad front assault. The 7th Algerian Regiment led off the attack — their first battle — on a pinnacle called Monna Casale. After a 15-minute bombardment, the French moved out to attack the German 5th Mountain Division, a proven outfit of Austrian veterans.

Tragedy struck immediately. A German shell hit a rockpile where all the officers of the 7th Algerian Regiment’s 3rd Battalion were getting their orders, wiping out the battalion leadership with a single shot. 3rd Battalion had to pull out of the attack. The other two battalions went in anyway. 1st/7th Algerian took a beating, too. Captain Boutin was hit by a shell, and refused to be evacuated. Instead he led his men, walking stick in hand, to take the summit of their objective. A bullet cut Boutin when he neared the top. Sous-lieutenant Vetillard took over, and hobbled around, despite a bullet in the hip, encouraging his men to keep attacking. An exploding mortar round killed Vetillard.

The French finally reached the top of Monna Casale, but it changed hands all day. “Shelling nearly set it alight,” a French officer wrote. “The noise was infernal.”

Monte Cassino civilians
Women of Monte Cassino in LIFE magazine.

The Algerians used up their ammunition, and battalion commanders went up front to distribute bullets. The commander of one company told his 40 surviving men, “You have no officers left. But the 10th Company doesn’t need them. Go, take this peak for me.” The 10th Company did. Finally, the German 85th Mountain Regiment retreated to the Gustav Line.

The Moroccans had an easier time. Equipped with their ancestral dagger, the Baroud, the 4th Moroccans gained surprise in their night attack. Jamming Barouds into German backs, the 4th Moroccans “pushed on into the night. They were now no longer men, they were there to kill. Grenades exploded in the dugouts and screams came from within; elsewhere the Germans rushed out into the snow, some still in stocking feet. Half-dressed, they rushed towards their weapons bits through bursts of machine gun fire which forced them to throw themselves flat. Some put up a half-hearted resistance but this was soon broken by the relentless tide of hellish giants that surged all around them,” their history recorded.

The French offensive spirit awed the Germans. 5th Mountain Division retreated behind the Rapido River. A German soldier captured by the French told his interrogators that he never had to “endure such violent artillery.” He spent hours in his slit trench, unable to move. The German Army’s official newspaper, Sud Front, paid tribute to the “dash” and “offensive spirit” of the French troops.

The French also amazed their British and American allies. U.S. Col. Robert T. Shaw wrote of one attack: “I had the occasion to move forward with the advancing troops; there were no stragglers; nor were any weapons or equipment abandoned. I was able to see numerous dead Germans; many showed signs of bayonet wounds; some had their skulls caved in. Morale excellent; very few prisoners taken.”

For four days, the French chased the Germans across the hills and mountains. They bounced across the Rapido, and kept pressuring the Germans. But the French took serious casualties, and by January 21, were running short of food and ammunition, and weary from frostbite and exposure. Juin judged that with another division, he could break through the crumbling German lines, hook around Cassino, and enter the Liri Valley. But he didn’t have another division. He kept trying with what he had, but the Germans were well dug in on the Gustav Line, and the French were exhausted. Juin called off further attacks on the Cassino massif, and consolidated his gains. Patrolling Moroccan Goumiers found Italian civilians hiding in caves and raped the women they caught.

A Heavy Stonk

The British 10th Corps, under Gen. Sir Richard McCreery, went in next on the left coastal flank. Two of the corps’ divisions, the 46th “Oak Tree” and 56th London “Black Cats” Divisions, had seen their first battles at Salerno and had been in action ever since. Fusilier Len Bradshaw of the 9th Royal Fusiliers, at age 19, was a battalion veteran. After three months of fighting, he didn’t think he would reach age 21. McCreery put the 5th Infantry Division on the coast, the 56th in the middle, and the 46th on his right. The 5th and 56th would cross the Garigliano and turn right, driving through the Ausente river valley into the narrow Ausonia mountain gorge and into the Liri Valley. The 46th would cross opposite Sant’ Ambrogio and protect the US 36th Infantry Division on its right.

On January 4, Royal Artillery Gunner Terence Arthur “Spike” Milligan, son and grandson of British army NCOs, was awakened at 4:20 a.m. amid a “howling gale.” His battery was rushed up narrow mountain roads to a village named Lauro, where the men dug gun pits in pouring rain to support the “Black Cats” attack. Milligan was nervous about the attack, suffering a stomach ailment, and in low spirits. “I had a terrible foreboding of death. I’d never had it before,” he wrote in his diary.

The British made a close reconnaissance of the Garigliano River bank, cleared German mines, and sited their bridging equipment. The German defenses consisted of General Bernard Steinmetz’s 94th Infantry Division, standing on high ground 1,000 yards west of the river. They had plenty of machine-gun positions and 24,000 mines. The division bore the number of an outfit that had been eliminated at Stalingrad.

10th Corps’ guns opened fire on the evening of January 17, 1944, supporting a British attack into mountainous terrain with few roads and fewer tracks. Mules were the crucial arm of logistics, but 10th Corps had only 1,000 of them, barely enough to supply the infantrymen up front, let alone mortars and artillery. Under the intense pressure, the mules repeatedly broke down, and McCreery had to send in human porters — Cypriots and Palestinian Jews of the Royal Pioneer Corps — to haul bully beef and .303-caliber bullets to the front-line positions.

The 5th Division’s attack on the town of Minturno opened with two companies of 2nd Royal Scots Fusiliers trying to outflank the Germans by sea in American DUKWs. While the DUKWs were sailing along, an unknown submarine appeared. The Fusiliers prepared to sink it with their PIAT anti-tank launcher, when a head popped out of the conning tower and yelled in unmistakable English, “Who the hell are you?”

“Royal Scots Fusiliers,” answered the relieved Scots.

“Never heard of you,” answered the Royal Navy sailor, and the British submarine promptly submerged.

But when the Scots hit the beach, they were widely dispersed, their weapons choked with sand, and the enemy mortar fire heavy. One company lost all its officers.

The amphibious move didn’t work, and neither did the 5th Division’s attacks, aimed at Minturno. The division’s 17th Brigade crossed the Garigliano, but took appalling casualties in the German minefields. One company of the 6th Seaforths found itself surrounded by tanks, and only a pinpoint artillery barrage saved them. The Germans regrouped and blasted the Scots. The company commander ordered all men to make a break for it. He was killed minutes later, and only one survivor of the company escaped the trap.

By the morning of the 18th the 5th Division had taken Minturno, but made very little progress, and its reserve brigade, the 15th, was sent in, following narrow tracks marked by Royal Engineers’ tapes, through dikes and ditches. One company got lost and went straight into a minefield, losing a platoon. It took the rest of the night to extract the wounded men.

Meanwhile, the 5th Division’s third brigade, 13th Brigade, took heavy casualties in its drive on Point 156. They took it and lost it to a counterattack. The 2nd Cameronians warned their men in an operations order: “It is fatal to halt when mortared. Once you are in among (enemy) troops he will stop mortaring. Dig or die.”

Stretcher-bearer Jack Williams of the 2nd Inniskilling Fusiliers, who had been in the army since 1940 and fought up Italy, waited with his buddies for the boats to arrive to cross the Garigliano on January 17, and everyone wondered why the Germans weren’t opening fire. The eight-man boats finally came, and the men paddled across the 20-foot-wide river. Still dead silence. Then “everything happened — mortars, 88s, machine-gun fire, a really heavy stonk,” Williams said later. “The effect was pandemonium, really. Everybody was flapping and running about, trying to get in the boats, trying to get over.”

All 12 of the 2nd Inniskilling’s boats were wrecked or damaged. Men weighted down by huge packs sank to the bottom of the river. The others got ashore and charged to clear their objective, a farm, with grenade and bayonet. During the fighting, Williams’ company commander was killed. So were more than 80 members of Williams’ company, and the only NCOs left were a sergeant and a lance corporal. Williams called the battle his “worst moment” of the Italian campaign.

Cassino monastery.
The monastery of Monte Cassino.

The 5th Division had gained a shallow bridgehead, and time to breathe. They took advantage of the superb German dugouts, one of which had a fully-cooked breakfast ready to eat. But the Germans launched counterattacks, which were fended off by artillery and naval gunfire.

The 56th London Division sent in the tough 169th “Queens” Brigade, which consisted of the 2/5th, 2/6th, and 2/7th Queens’ Regiment. By nightfall on the 18th, they were across the river and up on their ridge. 167th Brigade was assigned a group of hills and ran into heavy machine-gun fire. The 9th Royal Fusiliers HQ party walked along the wrong railway embankment and into enemy gunfire. The CO survived, but most of his men were killed. The other two battalions were able to take their objectives, but the assault was running behind schedule. German resilience was under-estimated, as were the strength of their firepower and minefields. The Germans counterattacked against the 9th Royal Fusiliers, but British artillery, mortars, and machine-guns broke up the assaults. Len Bradshaw, a company runner in the 9th Fusiliers, was hit in the hip by a sniper while piling rocks in front of his position. “It was like a big kick,” he said later. “I couldn’t get up.”

The trip down to the dressing station was long and painful, but when Bradshaw saw other, more seriously wounded casualties, he felt lucky.

But at least the 5th and 56th got across their river. The 46th “Oak Tree” Division, supposed to support the American drive into the Liri Valley, wasn’t even able to do that. Just before attacking, the division’s 128th “Hampshire” Brigade saw the Garigliano River turning into a torrent. The Germans had released the sluices of the San Giovanni Dam, and the river was six feet deeper than usual. The 2nd Hampshires and 1st/4th Hampshires had to off-load their boats and manhandle them into position for the assault. When the 2nd Hampshires finally crossed, they rigged a cable ferry, but it broke, scattering boats downstream. Others got lost in the torrent and the mist. The 1st/4th Hampshires made 14 attempts to push a cable across the river, all failing. By the 20th, the 128th Brigade had to call off its attack, the Hampshiremen badly shaken by the destruction.

The Germans held the high ground and used it to their advantage, with artillery and mortar spotters calling in fire on British ferries, rafts, and floating bridges. Mines and shells wrecked British vehicles and blocked routes. The engineers tried to shield the bridgeheads with smoke, but the wind blew the wrong way, and the Bailey bridges had to be abandoned.

46th Division’s attempt to cross the Garigliano and take pressure of the central Fifth Army attack had failed. Maj. Gen. Fred Walker’s 36th Infantry Division of Texans would have no cover.

The 46th Division’s CO, Maj. Gen. J.L.T. “Ginger” Hawkesworth, went to Walker to apologize for the failure, offering to provide one of his battalions to support the 36th’s attack, but the American was unimpressed. “The British are the world’s greatest diplomats,” Walker wrote in his diary. “But you can’t count on them for anything but words.”

No Way to Back Out

The 36th Infantry Division was a proud outfit of Texan National Guardsmen, with traditions that dated back to the American Civil War. Their commander, Maj. Gen. Fred Walker, was a quiet, rangy, rugged, veteran of the Mexican Expedition of 1916 and World War I. But in person he was shy and sensitive, and ill at ease with West Pointers. Still, he had turned the division, a peacetime social club for well-connected Texans, into a tough fighting division.

The 36th fought its first battle at Salerno, a harsh trial for any division. Two battalions of 1,000 men had been wiped out, one surrounded and captured, the other ambushed by artillery. The assistant division commander collapsed under the strain and was replaced by Brig. Gen. William Wilbur, a flamboyant and blunt officer.

The 36th had slogged up the Italian peninsula since then, its men feeling they were in a “hard-luck” outfit that always got the dirty deal. That was common in a lot of frontline units, but 2nd Corps deputy Chief of Staff Col. Robert Porter wrote that the division had never really found itself.

Nor did General Walker get along with his two bosses, Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Keyes, who commanded the 2nd Corps, or Lt. Gen. Mark W. Clark, who commanded the Fifth Army. Where Walker was shy and retiring, Clark was an outspoken, brash, self-promoter. Keyes was a cavalryman, daring and impulsive in planning and action, but restless and flighty. Walker was older than both of his superiors, and increasingly at odds with them.

Where Keyes and Clark relied on naval gunfire and heavy artillery to flatten towns and German morale, Walker believed they had little impact on well-defended German positions, and too much impact on defenseless civilians.

Now, as the 36th moved up to the Rapido River, Walker was even more worried — the troops entered the line in mid-November amid pouring rain. Temperatures fell to freezing. Everyone froze in soaked clothing. Jeeps bogged down in the mud. Walker requisitioned 12,000 winter jackets, 6,000 pairs of leather gloves, and 2,000 gasoline heaters for his men, but it wasn’t enough. Even so, he kept going to the front, ignoring visitors, to check on his men.

“I regret the hardships they must suffer tonight,” Walker wrote in his diary. “Wet, cold, muddy, hungry, going into camp in the mud and rain, no sleep, no rest. . . . How they endure their hardships I do not understand . . . they are still cheerful. All honor to them. . . .”

When Clark visited Walker’s command post in mid-November, he was optimistic that the 36th would “get through the Winter Line all right and push the Germans out.” But by late December, the 36th was worn down again, and was pulled out of the line to prepare for its new role in the Cassino battle — to cross the Rapido River at Sant’ Angelo and drive through the Liri Valley to Frosinone, pinning down the bulk of the German army, taking it away from Anzio. If the 36th could open a hole in the German line, the tanks of Clark’s 1st US Armored Division could thunder through the Liri Valley, make a quick link-up with the Anzio force, and Rome would fall quickly. 36th Division was assigned the knockout punch, to blast open the Liri defenses on January 20, two days before the Anzio assault.

The big question was whether or not the 36th could cross the Rapido with the Germans in possession of the Cassino Monastery hill, which dominated the whole waterlogged plain. Walker believed a frontal assault would be a disaster. The river and the German defenses reminded him of World War I battles where he had held the Marne River line with a small force against vast but doomed German attacks. But Walker kept his protests mild, and Keyes and Clark ordered him to get on with the assault.

Now, with the failure of the 46th Division to cross the river, Walker realized his division’s going would be harder. McCreery recommended the attack be canceled. He didn’t think it would succeed even if the 46th had taken its objectives, calling the whole Rapido attack “a tactical monstrosity.”

Clark refused. “It maintain that it is essential that I make that attack fully expecting heavy losses in order to hold all the (German) troops on my front and draw more to it, thereby clearing the way for (Anzio),” he answered McCreery.

Ironically, Clark’s purpose had already been achieved. The British attack had brought in Kesselring’s reserves on the Garigliano. But that was immaterial to the men of the 36th Infantry who faced the Rapido River. Its banks were steep and vertical, between three and six feet high, between 25 and 60 feet apart. The river was nine to 12 feet deep.

The center point of the German defenses was the village of Sant’ Angelo, whose pulverized buildings had been turned into blockhouses, dugouts, bunkers, and trenches, all festooned with barbed wire, booby traps, and mines. The men defending the positions came from Maj. Gen. Eberhard Rodt’s tough 15th Panzer Grenadier Division, which Senger considered his finest outfit.

Walker’s engineer, Lt. Col. Oran C. Stovall, flew over the river, made a personal reconnaissance of the area, and reported to Walker: “First, it would be impossible for us to get across the river. Second, we couldn’t cross, and third, if we get across the river there was no place to go.” The Liri just seemed a muddy bottleneck.

There were other problems: while engineers could remove mines and mark out safe routes, the Germans had an irritating habit of sending patrols across the river to move the tapes or plant new mines.

With Monte Cassino looking down on the valley, the only way Walker could neutralize the German height advantage was a night attack. He proposed a thunderous 30-minute barrage on the evening of January 20, followed by two regiments moving to the river at 8 p.m. The 142nd Infantry Regiment would cross north of Sant’ Angelo, the 143rd to the south, grabbing the village in a vice. The 141st Infantry Regiment would be Walker’s reserve for exploitation.

It was up to Stovall and his men to get the 36th across the river. He spent three days studying the terrain, interrogating local civilians, and locating equipment. There wasn’t enough . . . not even a standard M-1938 Footbridge. Stovall would have to make do with sections of catwalk laid across pneumatic floats and 24-man rubber dinghies of 12-man plywood scows. The 111th Engineer Battalion and two companies of the 16th Armored Engineers were assigned to clear mines and maintain routes leading to the bridges and exits on the far side. Once the riverbanks were free of enemy fire, they would build Bailey and treadway bridges across the Rapido. The 19th Engineer Regiment would provide a battalion to each assault regiment, each equipped with 30 rubber reconnaissance boats, 20 wood assault boats, and four improvised footbridges. The Engineers had more than 100 boats. Crossing the Rapido would be an exercise in paddling and assembling cable ferries and bridges.

To make matters worse, there were no roads to the crossing sites capable of carrying the trucks that would haul the boats to the water. Instead of bringing up the boats and bridges themselves, the assault troops would have to manhandle them across the flooded ground to the river. Because of the loss of 40 DUKWs before Anzio, there were none to spare for the 36th’s crossing.

The two infantry regiments and engineers staged a rehearsal at the Volturno River. One regiment thought it “turned out to be very successful and gave confidence to unit commanders.” But Walker thought the training was of no value. The Volturno was a different river — just a placid stream with two banks — and all that was taught was carrying, launching, and rowing the boats. Maj. Jack S. Berry, who commanded the 1st Battalion, 19th Engineers, assigned to support the 143rd, was not asked for his professional opinion of the maneuvers, to his annoyance.

Also irritated, Walker swapped out the 142nd and 141st Regiments in his battle plan, to equalize the amount of combat the regiments were seeing. Then he changed the crossing sites for Col. William H. Martin’s 143rd Infantry Regiment, which astonished Berry further. There just seemed to be no teamwork in the planning. The two engineer battalions had never worked with the 36th before.

Lt. Col. Aaron A. Wyatt Jr.’s 141st planned to cross the river with its 1st Battalion at one site, seize a bridgehead, and then send over the 3rd and 2nd Battalions. The 143rd planned to send over its 1st and 3rd Battalions at two points. With the plans in hand, the officers briefed their men. They had no illusions the attack would be easy. Both regiments were short of 500 men, and many of the GIs who shouldered their M-1 rifles and grabbed an extra bandolier of ammunition were fresh from replacement depots and new to combat. Staff Sgt. W. Kirby of the 3rd/143rd believed the Germans had an “ideal position.” Tech Sgt. C.R. Rummel, of the same outfit, said, “We thought it was a losing proposition, but there ain’t no way you could back out.”

Continued in Part 2.

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