Colonel Vincent M. Lockhart
Headquarters, 36th Division
On 21 September 1943 the 36th
Division was given the limited mission of outposting the old beachhead area and given time
to reorganize and re-equip for further offensive operations.
The Luftwaffe was very much in
evidence in those early days in Italy. The nightly raids on the great port of Naples were
the principle harassment as the 36th Infantry Division rested and trained in the Pozzouli
area just north of Naples. Two bombs dropped in the ancient cemetery back of the
Quartermaster dump one night, leaving huge craters, but no one was injured.
Early in November, the Division
assembled in the Pignataro, Villa Volturno area. On the 15th of November we reentered the
line in the mountainous Mignano sector.
First back into the line was the
142nd Infantry, which relieved the 7th Infantry of the 3rd Division on 15-16 November. The
following night the 143rd relieved the 30th and the 141st relieved the 15th.
The rest of the month of November
was rainy, muddy, cold and quiet, although the Division lost more than 550 officers and
men from the heavy enemy artillery fire and from patrol actions. Non-battle casualties
brought on by the severe weather and poor living conditions were three times this amount.
But this was the lull before the
Small clouds loaded with the
promise of rain floated above the mile-high mountains. In the West a dull red glow marked
the setting sun. The day of 2 December 1943 had been ominously quiet and those who were
"in the know" awaited the hour of 1530.
Members of the Division Forward
CP left their tents to walk to higher points of advantage overlooking the valley that
stretched back toward Naples.
A salvo of heavy guns blasted the
quiet twilight and the echo beat back and forth in the Italian mountains.
The barrage of the "Million
Dollar Mountain" was launched..
For thirty minutes 600 guns
crashed and thundered. The twilight did not fade, for the flashing lights of gun muzzles
illuminated the valley. The black and white blast of landing shells marked almost every
square yard of Mount Maggiore. Some light howitzers rammed a round a minute for those
Not since El Alamein had such an
array of artillery signaled an attack.
Nightfall brought the rain, the
blackness that only an Italian winter seems to have, and the launching of an attack on
Mount La Difensa by the newly assigned First Special Service Force. At 0300 the following
morning, the First Battalion of the 142nd Infantry Regiment pushed off from the ridge just
west of Mignano and by 0817 had taken the next ridge, known as 370. At 0400 the Second
Battalion started the attack which sought to break the hold of the Nazis on their Winter
Line. Men under the command of Lt. Col. Samuel S. Graham of Huntsville, Texas, drove
through the rocks and over slippery trails with incredible speed, considering the terrain.
They occupied Hill 596 by 1130 and by 1700 hours had crossed over Hill 619 to capture the
crest of Mount Maggiore. The Third Battalion followed them closely and took up the defense
of Hill 596.
By 0420 Colonel Robert T.
Fredericks Special Service Force men of Canada and America had stormed the rocky
fortress of La Difensa and passed on to hold briefly the adjacent Hill 907.
Early the next day, the 4th of
December, the First Special Service Force was forced to withdraw from Hill 907, which they
re-took two days later after a bloody battle. The 142nd Infantrymen consolidated their
hold, from which they could have seen the famous Abbey de Monte Cassino, had not
continuous rain blocked all vision. On 8 December, the First Battalion relieved the First
Special Service Force.
The task of supply and evacuation
was almost insurmountable, and for the first time, T-Patch men were supplied from the air.
Mule packs and man packs took rations and water to the defenders, and gallant litter
bearers became bleary eyed and almost walking unconscious men as they worked continuously
to evacuate the wounded. From Mount Maggiore to Mignano was a twelve-hour one way trip.
The distance was only five kilometers, "as the crow flies," but no crow was
found hardy enough to fly it.
Gallant work by such medicos as
Private Clarence 0. Whately of Snyder, Texas, who dressed wounds under fire and started
the evacuation chain, and such "pack men" as Technical Sergeant Shag Garrett of
Santa Anna, Texas, who led a pack platoon across the treacherous fire-swept trails to the
Second Battalion, won them the undying gratitude of their rifle packing friends and Bronze
The 143rd went into action on the
night of 7 December and stormed the snowy, sleety heights of Mount Sammucro, famous among
the men as "1205." By 1100 hours on the 8th, Sammucro belonged to the men of the
First Battalion and the Second and Third battalions had commenced a series of attacks on
the fanatically defended fortress city of San Pietro.
If versatility alone had been the
price of success, then San Pietro would have been ours for the asking. The 141st Infantry
was marked for its dashing courage, the 142nd for its clever maneuver and the 143rd for
its rugged and persistent pressure.
Upon this foundation was heaped
accurate artillery, gallantly directed from the rocky slopes with the infantry or by those
debonair "cub" observers who played tag with the low flying clouds and the
towering mountain peaks.
Add to this basis the point blank
fire of the tank destroyers, from positions taken in darkness despite minefields, and the
reckless courage of the tankers who drove into action despite the narrow confines, and you
have the reason why, by the end of the week, the fortified little village at the foot of
Mount Sammucro was ours.
The First Battalion of the 143rd
during the early part of the week fiercely clung to the granite crags of 1205 despite
fanatical counterattacks by an enemy determined to hold the Winter Line. In one day alone
nine counterattacks were launched and beaten back, and the swirling snow banked around the
bodies of once proud "supermen" of Hitler.
This observation taken from the
crafty enemy, the Second and Third Battalions of the 143rd launched an attack from the
ridge just east of Ceppagna and along the slopes toward San Pietro. This was the first of
a multitude of encounters with the German system of fortified villages and cities. The
intense automatic fire, barbed wire and mines halted the attack after only a few hundred
yards had been gained.
The First Italian Motorized
Brigade, operating under "T-Patch" control, had simultaneously charged the
barren Mount Lungo, but had been driven to their original positions.
In quick succession, the next few
days unfolded a story of aggressive heroism that vies with all the incidents in the
colorful history of the Division.
The 142nd Infantry, relieved of
their hard gained posts on Mount Maggiore by the British, used the cover of night and
crossed the Peccia River to attack Mount Lungo from the left rear. The surprised Germans
were caught flat footed. More than a hundred died that way, while 33 trudged back to the
POW cage and the end of the war for them. The success was made possible by men like
Corporal Jesse D. Hollemon, Jr., of Texas City, Texas, who gave his life in the effort,
and Second Lieutenant David 0. Gorgol of Binghamton, New York, who charged into an
emplaced machine gun and killed its operators with a submachine gun. Both were awarded the
Distinguished Service Cross.
The 143rd maintained its
relentless pressure on the east flank of San Pietro, with the Third Battalion high up on
the slopes below the cliffs of "1205". The determined, aggressive leadership of
such officers as First Lieutenant William J. Langston of Douglas, Georgia, made advances
possible under the most adverse circumstances. He was awarded the D S C.
The First Battalion began its
sweep west from Mount Sammucro down the Clelle Morello, and the roster of Distinguished
Service Crosses mentions almost every company: Private First Class Robert E. Watson of
Charlottesville, Virginia; Staff Sergeant William F. Parrott of Rusk, Texas; and Second
Lieutenant Melvin F. Wiggins of Paris, Arkansas.
In one of the bloodiest battles
fought by the Division, the 141st Infantry charged across the valley from Mount Rotundo to
add the third side of pressure against the stone village. Company G, led by Captain
Charles M. Beacham of San Antonio, Texas, bore the brunt of this attack. Casualties were
heavy. Every man of the company exemplified courage, with the example set by the
Wounded in the face by the shell
fragments, he continued to lead the attack. The radio operator was a casualty and Captain
Beacham took up the instrument until blood from his wounds seeped into the radio and
impaired its operation. Still refusing aid, he moved over the fireswept terrain,
reorganizing his company and preparing to resume the attack. Another shell sprayed his
entire body with fragments. Weakened from the loss of blood, he turned the company over to
his executive. He refused to be carried from the field, but aided another wounded officer
and two wounded men through the heavy fire to the battalion aid station.
Private First Class Robert L.
Arnett of Boles, Kentucky, was killed by snipers as he coolly laid covering fire for three
comrades who eliminated a machine gun emplacement. Private First Class Dallas D. Prather
of Princeton, Illinois, was undeterred by a wound and continued on boldly to draw fire in
order to expose enemy positions. Both Arnett and Prather joined Beacham in receiving the D
Blasted from three sides by such
extraordinary heroism, the few remaining Germans ran out under cover of night. Patrols at
dawn found San Pietro ours. The terrible effects of artillery and aerial bombs completely
devastated the little village and it was never rebuilt. The Italians built another San
Pietro, identical with the original, just a half mile to the west.
The battle shifted to Clelle
Morello and the hilltop stone village of San Vittore.
At this time, the action by
Divisional units was confined to slow, bitterly contested ground fighting by the 141st and
143rd regiments. The greatest gain of the week was the capture of the high ground
overlooking San Vittore by the First Special Service Force, operating, as was the 504th
Parachute Infantry, under the command of the 36th Division.
The 15th Infantry Regiment of the
3rd Division relieved the 142nd Infantry Regiment, which assembled as Corps Reserve in the
Outstanding work during this
period was particularly done by the 111th Combat Engineer Battalion. The newly won valley
below San Pietro had literally been blown apart. The engineers had the task of restoring
roads and bridges and building new roads.
The type of "plain
guts" and "stickability" exhibited by these "castlemen" can be
exemplified by Private First Class Felix Guss of Company C, whose home was in Windber,
Pennsylvania. The Germans were literally shelling the hell out of the area where Guss was
working, but he kept doggedly at his job. Then some ME 109s and FW 190s came
over, bombing and strafing the road junction. He kept at his job, even though some of the
artillery shells were landing within fifty feet of him. A second air raid just after noon
caught him still at his post. He was killed. But his work and his inspiration to his
fellows carried on. He was posthumously awarded the Silver Star.
Despite the fact that he was
dazed by the bombing, Private First Class Leroy 0. Gloor, medic from Gonzales, Texas,
stuck at his job of treating the wounded during the attack. He also won the Silver Star.
The bitter attacks against San
Vittore were unsuccessful, although if heroism alone would have won the battle, such men
as First Lieutenant James A. Wharton of Baltimore, Maryland, of the 143rd Infantry would
have led the way to victory. In offensive action, Lieutenant Wharton was painfully
wounded. Battalion Headquarters needed to be advised of the situation. Wharton set out
across open and rocky terrain to reach his radio.
En route he was twice again
wounded, but he continued until he reached the radio, reported to his Headquarters, then
calmly directed mortar fire which knocked out the opposing machine guns. He received the
Combat action over those snow
swept hills can be epitomized by the actions of Sergeant Hugh H. Merritt of Snyder, Texas.
His citation for the Distinguished Service Cross reads:
volunteered to join a patrol with the mission of reconnoitering a large draw at the base
of a hill. The patrol, after working its way down a trail under intense enemy artillery
and mortar fire, advanced cautiously into the draw and suddenly found itself within five
yards of a hidden German machine gun nest. Having been surprised by the patrol, a member
of the enemy crew attempted to fire the machine gun, but Sergeant Merritt opened fire on
the German gunner, killing him. He then charged the remaining four Germans who had opened
fire with machine pistols. He shot the commander of the enemy crew, but was unable to
prevent others from escaping, because another enemy machine gun nearby opened fire on the
patrol. The group successfully accomplished its mission, but while returning to the
company post, Sergeant Merritt was fatally wounded by enemy mortar fire."
From just before Thanksgiving
through December 1943 Division Forward was located on the slopes of the mountains above
the little Italian town of Presenzano. Our offices were tents. We slept in caves up above
our office and mess location.
General Walker shared a small
cave with General William H. Wilbur and Colonel Clayton P. Kerr. The aides and general
staff group slept in a medium cave close to the generals cave. Our cave had been
enlarged by man for grape storage. All others slept in a rather large natural cave about
three hundred yards east of the generals cave.
Two of the occupants of the
general staff cave were Lt Col Fred L. Walker, Jr., the G-3, and his principal assistant
Major Robert H. Travis. They were staunch friends and most effective officers.
We normally arose to go down to
breakfast at 6:00 oclock and would stay "down there" through lunch and
dinner and walk up the narrow, dark trail to the caves about 10:00 P. in.
I recall one late evening, when
"Ace" and "Zilch", as they called themselves, were walking up the
trail arm in arm after a difficult day.
"Just think, Ace,"
Major Travis said. "You have taken this on as a career!"
Ask any old timer about New Years
Day of 1943, and if hes from the 142nd Infantry or the 132nd Artillery, hell
shiver and move closer to the fire and tell you to shut UP!
If hes from the other
T-Patch units, hell shiver, smile wryly, move closer to the fire and tell you to
The difference is that for the
142nd boys and their artillery counterparts there was little to smile about on the
blizzard swept slopes of Mount Sammucro and the hills overlooking San Vittore. There was a
grim sort of humor to the storm that wrecked most of the tents of the rest of the division
in the rest area at Alife.
Rear echeloners and combat men
alike had a rough time of it as the icy wind howled down out of the Italian hills and
ripped out corners of tents, uprooted pegs, and otherwise disturbed what was left of the
New Year after the customary celebration.