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See Naples and Die: A World War II Memoir of a United States Army Ski Trooper in the Mountains of Italy, by Robert B. Ellis, McFarland & Co., Jefferson, N.C., 1996, $29.50.

As American and Allied troops struggled over northern Italy’s forbidding terrain in 1945, they were confronted by Nazi Germany’s vaunted Gothic Line. Stretching across the Italian Peninsula, the German defenses protected the vital Po River valley. Panzers, infantry and the dreaded 88mm dual-purpose artillery pieces shored up the southern defenses of the Third Reich’s crumbling empire.

Among the Allied forces battling “up the boot” were a mixture of Brazilians, New Zealanders, British and the American 10th Mountain Division. Advancing from Livorno on the Ligurian Sea, the 10th saw mountain action on the Pizzo di Campiano, Mount Belvedere and Mount Gogolesco. They faced intense German artillery fire in climatic extremes ranging from the freezing snow lines of the mountain peaks to the mixture of heavy rains and dust of the Italian spring.

Commanding a machine-gun team in the 10th Mountain Division’s 85th Mountain Infantry Regiment was 20-year-old Robert B. Ellis. In See Naples and Die, Ellis, who enlisted in 1943, describes the grueling training schedule the division underwent on the rugged slopes of the Colorado Rockies. Skiing, winter camping and mountain climbing were all part of a demanding regimen. Among the instructors employed by the U.S. Army were famed Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson and noted Norwegian skier Torger Tokle.

Ellis’ narrative, mixed with excerpts from his diary and letters home, deals with the physically draining struggle against the Gothic Line defenses, the pulverizing effects of artillery fire and the loss of friends and comrades. He ruminates on leaving the relative safety of his foxhole to cross a valley swept by enemy fire. But the danger of front-line duty was somewhat softened by leave in liberated Rome.

By April 1945, the Allies had swept through the Gothic Line and were racing to cut off the German retreat to the Alps. The 10th soldiers reached the Po River so rapidly that they outstripped supporting engineer bridging units and were forced to cross the river in a makeshift flotilla of rubber rafts. The Germans attempted to block the Allied pursuit by demolishing Alpine highway tunnels, but the mountain division used amphibious trucks (DUKWs) to ferry the infantry across Lake Garda to surprise enemy defenders. German commander Fridolin von Senger later noted, “The 10th Mountain Division had been my most dangerous opponent in the past fighting.”

Ellis’ memoirs speak eloquently of the trials and victories shared by the infantry during the rarely studied northern Italian campaign in the waning days of World War II. A series of helpful maps and photographs spices up his text. See Naples and Die should be a welcome addition to the historiography of the Italian theater.

Kenneth P. Czech