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Cassino: The First Round
Part 2 of 6
By David H. Lippman
December 2012

In December 1943, Allied forces in the snow and mud of “Sunny Italy” faced tough German troops holed up in the village of Sant’ Angelo and the monastery of Monte Cassino. The American engineer battalions had never worked with the infantry of the 36th, and many of the riflemen were fresh from replacement depots. The attack looked like nothing but trouble.

For three days the Americans patrolled the area, finding the Germans had laden the approaches with mines and booby-traps. Engineers swept through and taped lanes through the minefields, but the Germans would sneak over at night and lay new ones.

On the night of the 19th, the assault battalions moved off Monte Trocchio and through clumps of trees to their starting points. Meanwhile the engineers, unable to move their bridges up to the river by vehicle because of the sodden ground, deployed the bridges in two dumps, one for each assaulting regiment. Infantrymen would carry the bridges to the water and place them in the river. Engineers would supervise the assembly.

Fred Walker.


Maj. Gen. Fred Walker, 36th Infantry Division, wrote in his diary: “Tonight the 36th Division will attempt to cross the Rapido River opposite San Angelo. Everything has been done that can be done to insure success. We might succeed but I do not see how we can. The mission assigned is poorly timed. The crossing is dominated by heights on both sides of the valley where German artillery observers are ready to bring down heavy artillery concentrations on our men. The river is the principal obstacle of the German main line of resistance . . . so I am prepared for defeat.”

Still, Walker made limited efforts to publicly protest to Keyes, and the 2nd Corps commander later said Walker had promised his division would succeed.

Attacking Rapido

Amid darkness and fog, the 1st Battalion of the 141st Regiment moved to attack. The boats had been laid out for them by the engineers, but several had already been smashed by German shellfire. The troops headed off to attack at 7 p.m., plodding the 200 to 300 yards from the boat depots to the river. Half an hour later, 16 battalions of American artillery and mortars opened up in a time-on-target barrage. German guns roared back, and the darkness was lit by exploding shells, which illuminated attackers. One German shell cut down 30 men.

Among the men advancing with 1st/141st was a young lieutenant from Grand Rapids, Michigan, named Carl Strom. A high school ROTC and college man, he was assigned to B Company of the 1st/141st on New Year’s Day. Seven of B Company’s officers were, like him, brand-new replacements. After a week of fighting, he was given command of 3rd platoon. Half of the men were also fresh from training. Aware of his own inexperience, Strom told his platoon sergeant and squad leaders to be honest with him. “You guys know more about this than I do even with all my training. I can’t match what you’ve learned in three or four days of combat,” he said.

Another leader, Lt. Bill Everett of Baltimore, commanding C Company’s mortar section, tried to inspire his men. He told them that night they “were going to pay their dues for being an American.”

Now Strom and his other platoon leaders cut cards to see who would lead the attack. Strom drew the high card, so his platoon set off at 6 p.m., bayonets fixed, behind an engineer guide, who took the wrong path, which led Strom and his platoon to the battalion’s forward command post. They tried again, but the noisy turnaround attracted German fire.

Despite the flash of shells, it was hard for the Americans to see the marker tapes in the dark. German guns destroyed the tapes or buried them in the mud. To avoid shellfire, Strom’s men dived into mud and set off more mines. By 8 p.m., when the Americans were scheduled to cross the river, they were still struggling to reach it, and one-fourth of their 400-lb. boats and bridges were destroyed, damaged, or abandoned, hurled down by wounded men who found them too heavy to carry. It took six to eight men to carry one boat.

By the time the 1st/141st reached the crossing sites, half the bridges were useless or abandoned. Lt. Col. D.S. Nero, who commanded the engineers, already saw the mistakes: The troops had to carry the boats more than 200 yards from depot to river. The assault troops should not have had to carry their own boats, as it exhausted them. There were too few crossing points. Too many troops were bunched too tightly. Men got lost in the fog. Abandoned boats and bridges lay where they fell, blocking approach routes.

At the water’s edge, tragedy continued to reign. The troops placed boats into the water, followed by their combat equipment, then stood amazed as the boats sank with their cargos, damaged by shell holes they hadn’t seen. Other boats sank or capsized. Other men hurled perfectly good boats into the water, and then had to abandon them when they came under shellfire. Engineers tried to give the infantrymen orders or advice, but the infantrymen ignored the engineers. There was too much noise, it was too dark, and the engineers were being too technical, for the infantrymen to understand and obey.

Strom’s platoon was in the thick of the shelling. They shuffled down a sunken road to their crossing point. “The Germans had these places all zeroed in for their artillery so they could fire blind,” he said later. “We were about halfway down the sunken road . . . I was up front with my runner and an engineer guide and I was probably 300 feet ahead of the company. As I turned around to look back, two German shells came in and they hit right in my platoon. They killed or wounded every man.” B Company’s commander was dead, too, along with his exec. Three officers were left, none of whom had been in combat, and the senior man (by two weeks over Strom), took command.

With no platoon left to lead, Strom joined another platoon, struggling to drag boats to the river.

At 11 p.m., Strom and his men tried to launch the boats. “It was pitch dark so we couldn’t see. We put a couple of boats in the water and we discovered right away that there were holes in the boats from the shelling and they sank. We lost 10 to 12 men who were fully loaded with ammunition,” he said. Strom called for engineers to build a footbridge. Sgt. C.P. Autrey, in Strom’s company, put his boat into the water tip first, and it sank immediately. He put in the second boat sideways. When Autrey climbed in, it was swept downstream and began to take on water. The boat capsized, hurling the men into the water, and 12 of the 16 men in the boat drowned.

Under heavy fire, about 100 Americans managed to paddle their boats across the river and stake out a small claim. When the engineers started assembling their footbridges, they found one had been wrecked by mines, a second was defective, and German shells blasted the remaining two apart while they were being assembled. The engineers scrambled around, put together the parts, and managed to build a single structure, which opened for business at 4 a.m. Infantrymen of the 3rd/141st struggled across the soaked and shaky bridge. The shelling was too heavy for the engineers to build the bridge for vehicles. After finishing their work, all the engineers could do was stay in their foxholes, under continued shellfire. Pvt. Albert Pickett found himself in a foxhole with water up to his stomach.

“We were very lucky,” Lt. Bill Everett said later. “We couldn’t get across. The reason being they blew the hell out of the boats that we had. It was just mass confusion. You couldn’t tell what was going on.” When Everett finally put his boat in the water after carrying it for two miles, it sank to the river’s floor. Everett and his mortarmen pulled back. “It was a real disaster. It was my first operation. I lost a lot of my friends that came with me up there that night.”

The Will to Fight

Strom finally got over the river on a footbridge around 4 a.m., and he and his men found mines, booby traps, barbed wire, and machine-gun fire from a position 250 yards away. They tried to dig in, but first had to probe for mines with their bayonets. Then they found that in the damp earth, their foxholes filled up with water to their waists or just collapsed.

The bridges were in parlous shape, but so were communications. By dawn, German shells knocked out the phone wires to the far bank. All the radios were lost or damaged, so the only way the Americans on the near bank could tell U.S. positions from German was by the roar of machine-guns; the German MG42 had that distinctive buzz-saw sound from its high rate of fire.

With dawn breaking, Wilbur, the assistant division commander, was on the scene to assess the situation. There seemed little point in continuing the attack with one footbridge and only a few boats, so he ordered the men on the near bank to retire to their assembly areas before daylight brought down precise German shellfire and tanks. The men on the far shore were told by a messenger to dig in and hold until relieved.

Meanwhile, Maj. David Frazior’s 1st Battalion of the 143rd Regiment launched its attack south of Sant’ Angelo. They had an easier time at first. At 8 p.m., a 40-man platoon launched assault boats and crossed the river. After unloading, the engineers paddled the boats back — and then the Germans opened fire, blasting open all the boats and sinking them. The engineers tried to build a bridge across the river. By 8:20 it was done, but minutes later German guns exploded it.

There were more problems. The approach to the crossing site was a sunken trail seven feet deep, full of water, impossible for carrying boats. The bridges lacked duckboards, handrails, and rope. The men had not been fully trained on rowing their boats. Infantry and engineers did not work well together.

By 11 p.m., Col. W.H. Martin, the 143rd’s commander, came to the scene and found Frazior trying to push more boats to the river. Personally pulling an engineer lieutenant and 18 of his men out of foxholes, Martin urged the attack forward. Through leadership and determination, the Americans pushed a battalion and two bridges across the Rapido by 5 a.m. Shortly after that, German shells destroyed one bridge and gravely damaged the other. The Americans could only cross it one at a time.

On the far shore, the 1st/143rd came under fierce counterattacks from the 15th Panzer Grenadiers. By 7 a.m., the Americans were being forced into a pocket against the river. Frazior asked Martin for permission to withdraw, and Martin passed the request up to Walker. The division commander ordered Frazior to hold his ground and await reinforcement.

The message came too late. Frazior’s men were facing German tanks and broad daylight. On his own initiative, he began withdrawing his troops. By 10 a.m., the survivors of his battalion were back across the Rapido.

At the 143rd’s other crossing site, the 3rd Battalion and its engineer guides got lost in darkness and fog, and wandered into a minefield, which shattered men and boats alike. Disorganization reigned after that, and by 11 p.m., when order had been restored, all the rubber boats assigned to the battalion had been destroyed by German shelling and mines. Infantrymen waited for the engineers to arrive with wooden boats to replace the rubber ones, while engineers waited for the firing to die down before building bridges. Both groups just waited until after midnight, when Martin phoned to ask what was going on.

Maj. Louis H. Ressijac, who commanded the 3rd Battalion, said, “We have a few boats and one footbridge, but we don’t know the way through the mine field. Am looking for an engineer guide.” Ressijac promised to attack in an hour. But at 1 a.m., there was still no progress, nor at 3 a.m. At 5 a.m., Martin relieved Ressijac of command and sent Lt. Col. Paul D. Carter to fire up the attack. By the time Carter reached the crossing sites, dawn was breaking. Not one man of the 3rd Battalion crossed the Rapido. Gloomy, Carter had the men withdraw to their assembly areas before sunrise.

Meanwhile, Strom and his men of the 1st/141st were still clinging to their position on the far bank north of Sant’ Angelo. After sunrise, Strom peered up from his flooded foxhole to see what was going on. A bullet bounced off the side of his helmet. His foxhole mate was not so lucky — a German bullet hit him right between the eyes. After that, Strom could only take cover from intermittent German shelling.

Walker was upset. He wrote in his diary, “I told Col. Martin that he would have to put more of the will to fight in his troops. He said that he would do so. Maybe he will — I doubt it.”

Now came time for analysis and recrimination. The British 46th Division had let down the Texans. Had their crossing been successful, they would have held the high ground that enabled German artillery spotters to call down accurate fire on the 36th. The Americans lacked experience and confidence for night fighting. The engineers and infantry were not well coordinated. Leadership was weak, mostly because so many young officers were replacements, as were the sergeants.

The German view was simpler. What had been a nightmare to the Americans was only a one-sentence report to Senger: “Strong enemy assault detachments which have crossed the river are annihilated.” Senger didn’t even bother to call for reserves.

Rapido River area.
The valley of the Rapido River.

‘It Should Have Been Proven’

Meanwhile, Walker and his staff, having finished their post-mortems, discussed what to do next. U.S. troops were still on the far side. A rescue or reinforcement operation had to be launched. But when? Wyatt and Martin believed a daylight attack was out of the question.

At a 9:45 a.m. staff meeting with his subordinates, Martin blamed the engineers for not providing enough boats or guides to lead his infantrymen to the river. Martin asked the exhausted Berry how many boats and bridges he had left. Berry reported 17 bridges left and 72 pneumatic boats his men would pump up, promising they would be organized “some way.”

Another problem was that a large number of men had got lost in the darkness and fog, leading to an inordinate number of stragglers. Some were genuinely lost, others were genuinely scared. Martin told his bedraggled officers, “You gentlemen must realize this operation is a vital operation and I trust you have been in the army long enough (to know) that you can accomplish any mission assigned to you. It should have been proven last night.” The river, he was implying, was supposed to have been crossed.

But at the Fifth Army’s tactical headquarters, Clark was getting a different picture of events. Reports to him suggested that the British 10th Corps and U.S. 2nd Corps were advancing. Ready to embark for Anzio, Clark phoned Keyes and urged him to “bend every effort to get tanks and tank destroyers across the Rapido promptly.”

Keyes drove to 36th Division’s forward command post and got there at 10 a.m., to pass on Clark’s desires. Lecturing the divisional commander, Keyes said that if tanks had been rushed over the previous night, the assault would be a success. A noon attack would put the sun in the Germans’ eyes.

Walker said he could not attack again by day. He would try again at 9 p.m. That was too long to wait for Keyes. He wanted it to go in at once, but certainly before 9 p.m.

Walker pointed out that his infantrymen needed to reorganize and his engineers needed to get new equipment. Keyes was unimpressed. Commanders were supposed to overcome obstacles, not be overcome by them.

Walker phoned his senior officers, and reported back to Keyes that the earliest he could attack would be 2 p.m. The engineers promised 50 plywood assault boats and 50 rubber craft in the division area by 12:30, which would give the assault troops an hour and a half to pick them up and move out. Not good enough for Keyes, but he would have to accept it. Keyes drove off, and Walker wrote in his diary, “I expect this attack to be a fizzle just as was the one last night.”

But communications were still snarled. Martin didn’t know he was going in until 1:10 p.m., 50 minutes before jump-off. He asked for more time, and was allowed to postpone the attack until 3 p.m. Wyatt’s boats weren’t delivered in time, either, so he got the same one-hour delay. But at 3 p.m., the battalion commanders were objecting: The men were exhausted . . . the boats still hadn’t arrived . . .a 4 p.m. attack seemed more reasonable. Walker agreed.

Strom was still on the far shore with his buddies. “If anyone stuck their head up or revealed themselves they immediately drew fire,” he said. “We were getting no place.” At about 3 p.m., 12 to 15 guys from Strom’s company tried to surrender. Strom yelled at them to get back down, and hold on until night.

At 3:30, Martin phoned Walker to say some of the boats had arrived, but not all. Berry saw one truck being driven by a brigadier general. Martin asked for another delay. This time, Walker said no. Martin was to go with what he had. At 3:45, with 15 minutes to go, Wyatt learned his boats had been on hand for an hour. But it was too late to meet the 4 p.m. deadline, so Wyatt asked for hold off until 9 p.m. Wyatt got his wish. Martin still had to go in — even though the only real purpose to attack was to save the men on the far bank, and there were none in his sector.

At 4 p.m., Martin tried again. At the same crossing points, the assault troops filed in. Martin figured that while the Germans would have their sights mapped and referenced, his men would not lose their way finding them a second time. And he also laid down a heavy smoke barrage that created an artificial fog on the river, and nearly suffocated his own men. It was a small price to pay to avoid being shelled.

Bailey Bridges and Screaming Meemies

The shelling, violence, and heaps of corpses had a terrifying impact on the American soldiers. A chaplain reported that “nervous uncertainty prevailed — the situation was no longer in a firm grasp — but out of hand.” Some men, in their first battle, refused to cross, others simply fell into the river to avoid doing so.

Battalion scout Bill Hartung, in his first battle, advanced in bitter cold, heading down a “little horse and wagon road, and on the right side was an embankment about six feet high.” In the dark, Hartung and his buddies thought they were walking on dirt. The “soil” was actually dead American soldiers, some stacked six high, killed in the previous night’s crossing.

At 4 p.m., Hartung reached the river, and found two two-by-12 footbridges lashed in place. He and another scout crossed the river, with orders to find out what was going on and report to the E Company commander. Hartung followed the tape across the bridge, under rifle fire, reached the other bank, and found a 10-inch-deep foxhole occupied by a dead GI. “This was my first sight of a guy killed in combat,” Hartung wrote later, “but it wasn’t going to be my last, even for that day.”

The two scouts started working on the foxhole, when the Germans opened up with their feared Nebelwerfer mortar, a six-tubed rocket launcher whose distinctive sound earned it the name to Americans of “Screaming Meemie.” Hartung and his pal were three feet deep when the barrage opened, but their equipment was destroyed and the dirt blown back into the hole. After a few minutes, Hartung peered out and saw German troops taking Americans prisoner, as water flooded into their foxhole. Hartung was bleeding from the nose and an ear.

The companies pushed off in rubber boats, and for two hours paddled back and forth, putting all three companies of the 3rd/143rd on the far shore by 6:30 p.m. Then the heavy weapons companies came over with their machine guns, while the engineers built footbridges. With those up, the rest of the battalion, including its headquarters, shuffled across the river.

Martin then sent a second battalion across, while the third battalion guarded the crossing site and kept the bridge open. By 2 a.m. on the 22nd, the morning of the Anzio landing, Martin had a bridgehead. His men moved 500 yards inland, came under heavy fire, and dug in to consolidate their gains.

Sgt. Kirby, making his second assault on the river, saw “boats getting hit all around me, and guys falling out and swimming. I never knew whether they made it or not. . . . When we got to the other side it was the only scene I that I’d seen in the war that lived up to what you see in the movies. I had never seen so many bodies — our own guys. I remember this kid being hit by a machine gun; the bullets hitting him pushed the body along like a tin-can. . . . Just about everybody was hit. I didn’t have a single good friend in the company who wasn’t killed or wounded.”

Among the wounded was Rummel, who was hit in both legs by machine-gun fire. “I didn’t feel any pain,” he said later. “I was just scared to death. There was confusion all around. Two of the boys offered to carry me back but the fire was so intense I told them to get out the best way they could.” As Rummel crawled away, he heard his bones cracking. His right leg was mangled.

Now the engineers had to replace the footbridges with treadway and Bailey bridges capable of supporting M-4 Sherman tanks. Normally, engineers could lap up a pontoon bridge in 45 minutes, but with the steep Rapido banks, they had to cut approaches.

Bailey bridges, a British invention still used around the world today, looked then as now like giant Erector sets, made of prefabricated sections in standard lengths, put together with rivets. They took six to eight hours to build, and were generally created out of range of enemy fire. This night they would be built under heavy enemy fire.

But the pontoon bridges and Bailey equipment had not been brought forward yet. Time to the Shingle landings and dawn were both expiring. Keyes himself ordered that a span-type Bailey be flung across the river from one bank to the other, obviating the need for approach ditches. The engineers were astonished at the idea. The whole area was under fire. The engineers were brave enough, but this looked like suicide.

Suicide or not, the engineers tried. By midnight, they had cleared the mines on the approach routes, and trucks struggled forward through the quagmire to deliver the bridges. The trucks got stuck. The engineers hauled the steel sections to the site by hand, and tried to start work, but German fire was too heavy. The engineers spent most of their time trying to take cover. By sunrise at 9 a.m., it was clear that the bridges would not get built.

Across the River

Meanwhile, Martin’s second attack, by the 2nd Battalion, went in on schedule. By 6:30, two companies were over the river, but the Germans shelling became fierce. Until 10:30, nothing could move across the river. Frazior personally crossed the footbridge to get his men moving, but it was impossible. German resistance was too strong. At 1:30 a.m., he nonchalantly radioed Martin, “I had a couple of fingers shot off,” and said he would there until a replacement, Lt. Col. Michael A. Meath, arrived. It took Martin three and a half hours to send forward a replacement for his wounded subordinate.

Among the men who went over that morning was 2nd Lt. Robert Spencer of F Company of the 2nd/143rd, who crossed the river amid fog, shellfire, and smoke. On the far shore, he found flat ground with no cover, and men in foxholes, unable to move because of heavy fire. The German guns were zeroed in just in front of their lines, making an American attack impossible. As he moved along, he was knocked out by a head wound that hurled him to the ground and left him dazed, throbbing, and unable to move. One of his company’s sergeants dressed the wound, and Spencer began to crawl back to an irrigation ditch that led to the river. He used it to reach the footbridge, and had to crawl across it to the near shore. Covered in water, mud, and blood, Spencer presented a shocking appearance to a company commander waiting to go over, who gasped at Spencer, “What happened to you?”

Rapido River area.
The Rapido River seen from Monte Trocchio.

Another F Company soldier, Staff Sgt. Thomas E. McCall, of Burton, Kansas, proved fearless above and beyond the call of duty.

“Exposing himself to the deadly enemy machine-gun and small-arms fire that swept over the flat terrain, S/Sgt McCall, with unusual calmness, encouraged and welded his men into a an effective fighting unit. He then led them forward across the muddy, exposed terrain,” the later citation read. “Skillfully he guided his men through a barbed-wire entanglement to reach a road where he personally placed the weapons of his two squads into positions of vantage, covering the battalion’s front. A shell landed near one of the positions, killing the assistant gunner, and destroying the weapon. Even though enemy shells were falling dangerously near, S/Sgt. McCall crawled across the treacherous terrain and rendered first aid to the wounded man, dragging him into a position of cover with the help of another man. The gunners of the second machine-gun had been wounded from the fragments of an enemy shell, leaving S/Sgt. McCall the only remaining member of his machine-gun section. Displaying outstanding aggressiveness, he ran forward with the weapon on his hip, reaching a point 30 yards from the enemy, where he fired two bursts of fire into the next, killing or wounding all of the crew and putting the gun out of action. A second machine-gun now opened fire on him and he rushed its position, firing his weapon from the hip, killing four of the gun crew. A third machine gun, 50 yards in rear of the first two, was delivering a tremendous volume of fire upon our troops. S/Sgt. McCall spotted its position and valiantly went toward it in the face of overwhelming enemy fire. He was last seen courageously moving forward on the enemy position, firing his machine-gun from the hip.”

McCall was captured attacking his third machine-gun nest. He survived to receive the Medal of Honor, and died in Indiana in 1965 at the age of 49.

Three officers and 140 enlisted men made up F Company. By day’s end, all the officers were wounded, and only 15 of the enlisted men, many also wounded, made it back across the Rapido.

‘It Curled Your Blood’

It still wasn’t enough. Engineers began building a Bailey Bridge at 3 a.m., but after four hours of work, it was only four percent completed. By 5 a.m., all three rifle company commanders were wounded, the footbridge destroyed, and the boats all wrecked. The engineers spent an hour and a half laying down two new footbridges, but all they were doing was helping litter bearers haul wounded men to the rear — or stragglers flee, claiming illness or that they were carrying a message. By dawn, Meath reported he only had 250 effectives. And trucks bringing new bridges were stuck in the mud. Berry reported his Bailey bridge would be ready — if there was no enemy fire or interference — at 3 p.m.

Martin told Berry to build the bridge, regardless of enemy fire. Martin would get more smoke pots to cover the construction efforts. But by mid-morning, the Bailey program was stalled. Engineers were trapped in foxholes, scared and shelled, a mile from the bridge site. Officers moved the engineers to the bridge site, but everyone was reluctant to do so. The situation was getting hopeless.

Martin himself crossed the river and jumped right into Hartung’s dugout, to the scouts’ amazement. He asked for Hartung’s name and company, told them to hold on, that help was coming, and so was a Silver Star for Hartung. He never got the medal. Then Martin bounded away — “He took off like a big bird” — and left Hartung there to hold on. Amazingly, Martin survived.

Hartung stayed in his hole for three more hours with his pal. They decided to withdraw and the two got separated in the dark. Hartung never saw his buddy again. He did find the tapes back to the river, and found body parts everywhere. “The bridge was a foot under water most of the way,” he said, “and stacked with bodies from upstream. A lot of the men died with their equipment still on. I looked at some, that is when I noticed most died with that look of surprise on their face, like ‘What happened?’ and ‘Why did we die this way?’”

When Hartung reached his bivouac on the near shore, he “felt like I had turned into an old man overnight. I know I was never the same person again. When it hit me, I was angry; I cried and shook all over.”

At noon, Martin saw that his bridgehead was untenable, and he ordered his men to withdraw. In his report, Martin blamed the fog, German artillery, but most of all, the heavy losses the regiment had suffered: “Losses from attacks of this kind are tremendous in manpower and material; and in addition have a devastating demoralizing effect upon those few troops who survive them. . . . As long as leaders . . . have the guts to plunge into hopeless odds such as this operation, (and men) are sacrificed like cannon fodder, our success in battle will suffer in proportion and disaster will eventually come.”

Meanwhile, Wyatt’s 141st Regiment launched its attack at 9 p.m. on January 21, at the previous crossing site. The new boats the engineers brought forward were found to be defective, thanks to German shellfire, so only 60 men could brave the river and reach the far shore.

Lt. J.E. Phillips saw boats partially swamp as they hit the water and then, full of troops and equipment, carry downstream until they flipped over, the men yelling and screaming. “It curled your blood to hear those men drown,” he said.

Wishful Thinking

Good leadership tried to rally the troops. Lt. Landry kept getting wounded, but kept pushing toward the battle. Capt. J.L. Chapin shouted at his troops, “Fire wholeheartedly, men. Fire wholeheartedly!” Then he was killed. Another officer came back across the river to report, sodden with mud, saying, “I’ve got men still over there. This is the worst I have ever seen. I’m not doing anybody any good over here. I’m tired. I haven’t got anything in me any more. There’s nothing else to do. I’m going back over there.”

In five hours of maneuver and attack, the 141st eliminated the German riflemen and machine guns. That gave the engineers time to build bridges. By 2 a.m., the engineers had two improvised footbridges finished, and two battalions headed across the river by dawn, along with their heavy weapons teams. The Americans moved 1,000 yards inland, despite heavy casualties, then dug in.

But they found no sign of the survivors of the men who had been trapped on the far bank.

While the infantrymen consolidated their gains, the engineers turned to building a Bailey bridge, hauling the girders and frames by muscle power across the swampy ground and shell holes. They started at 1 a.m., and eight hours later, had made no progress.

Everybody in the 36th was getting hammered. Around 4 a.m., the Germans hurled 300 shells at the division’s command post, causing casualties and disrupting the division’s staff work. Rumors spread that the Germans were counterattacking and making their own river crossing to trap the Americans. They weren’t, but heavy river currents washed away two footbridges weakened by German shells. The 36th’s men were tired, wounded, lost, and hungry.

At 9:45 a.m., the engineers stopped working on Wyatt’s bridges supporting the 141st’s attack. The troops couldn’t advance, and nobody seemed to be moving but medics and their wounded men. The 141st was exhausted. Their defenses began to crumble. So did their communications. Phone lines were cut. Radios broke down. All the boats were wrecked. By 4 p.m., every commander in both battalions on the far shore was dead or wounded, and a German shell hit the last footbridge, obliterating it.

But some leaders clung to unreality. At 12:30, Keyes ordered Walker to send in his uncommitted 142nd Infantry Regiment through to Wyatt’s beleaguered positions. Walker opposed the attack, saying the previous assaults “had failed and suffered so many losses.” Walker believed the stage was being set for another disaster. Keyes said the attack must go on. To Keyes, the Germans were “groggy” from repeated blows. Walker said later that was “wishful thinking.”

But Keyes apparently got the point. A few minutes later, he gave Walker permission to cancel the attack. Walker later wrote, “I did it in a hurry. Thus many lives and a regiment were saved.”

Between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m., 40 men paddled their way to the near bank, clinging to logs and debris to propel themselves through the bitterly cold current. Everyone else on the other side was left to be killed or be captured. After about 8 p.m., the sounds of gunfire died down on the far side. The 1st/141st was annihilated.

Wyatt gloomily wrote, “Their whereabouts were never determined since all attempts to establish communications during 21 January were unsuccessful.” His regiment had suffered a 56 percent casualty rate among the riflemen and company officers. The Rapido battle was over.

Continued in Part 3.

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