The battle for San Pietro Infine was a microcosm of the Italian campaign—a brutal uphill struggle with horrendous casualties that ended only after the Germans melted away to the next hillside village.
Since its founding in the eleventh century, San Pietro Infine had grown accustomed to calamity. Earthquakes, invaders, brigands, and the great migration to America in the 1880s had annealed the village, leaving fourteen hundred souls who were hardy, fatalistic, and devout. Nestled amid wild figs and cactus on the southern flank of Monte Sammucro, overlooking the bucolic landscape soon to be known as Purple Heart Valley, San Pietro for centuries had eked out an existence from olives and stramma, a local hemp twisted into baskets and mats. In recent years obligatory Fascist slogans had slathered the walls along the steep cobblestone paths—“Straight ahead with Mussolini”—but life under Il Duce was much as life had always been: Friday market in the Piazza San Nicola; women filling their water jugs from the sycamore-shaded fontana; prayers in the village church, where men and women came to God through separate doors beneath the carved inscription “St. Michael Archangel always remember us, here and everywhere.”
Then war came. One evening shortly after Italy’s capitulation, a German patrol arrived to requisition all vehicles and firearms. Only four families in San Pietro possessed an automobile, but when one owner protested he was told, “Do you prefer we take your car or your son?” Soldiers dug trenches and strung barbed wire. Palazzo Burnetti, the most stylish house in town, became a command post. The smell of boiled pork and potatoes wafted from the windows, and men in coal-scuttle helmets stood with binoculars at the upper casements, watching Highway 6 where it snaked through the Mignano Gap between Monte Rotondo and Monte Lungo, barely a mile away.
On October 1, 1943—the day Naples fell—the Germans had requisitioned all donkeys and mules, and ordered every San Pietran male between fifteen and forty-five to muster in the little piazza above the fontana. Two hundred were pressganged and forced to haul munitions or dig fortifications along the Bernhardt Line, which now angled past San Pietro and up Monte Sammucro. Several hundred others fled into the mountains to shelter in caves or highland hamlets. One night in late October the village priest, Don Aristide Masia, a middle-aged man with wire-rim glasses and a downturned mouth, vanished from his sickbed. It was said that the Gestapo had taken him away, but the only trace ever found was Don Aristide’s black cloak, snagged like a shadow in a tree branch below the town.
San Pietro’s fate was sealed in midNovember. As the U.S. Fifth Army butted at Monte Camino and Monte La Difensa a few miles away, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring agreed to fall back from San Pietro to a better blocking position two miles up the valley.
Hitler—ever more immersed in minute tactical decisions on battlefields a thousand miles away—agreed, then changed his mind several hours later. The German Tenth Army was “to hold and develop the line at San Pietro,” an order Kesselring deemed “most unpleasant.”
While Lieutenant General Mark W. Clark paused to marshal his strength, Kesselring shifted units from the Adriatic until seven panzer grenadier battalions stiffened the Bernhardt Line across the Mignano Gap. The defense of San Pietro itself was given to a battalion from the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division, commanded by Captain Helmut Meitzel, at age twenty-three a veteran of Poland, France, Russia, and Salerno. Meitzel had been wounded five times, including severe injuries at Stalingrad that led to his evacuation on one of the last Luftwaffe planes to leave the besieged city. Antitank barrels and machine guns soon bristled from San Pietro and in the terraced orchards to the east. Supply trucks barreling down Highway 6 ran the gantlet of American artillery; a single motorcycle messenger was said to draw one hundred rounds as he raced through Dead Man’s Curve on the approach track to San Pietro. Rain fell incessantly. Meitzel’s grenadiers complained that their uniforms had become “sodden clumps of clay and filth.”
For the San Pietrans, life grew more hideous by the day. Many had fled, but five hundred—mostly the old and the very young—took refuge in a warren of caves below the western lip of the village. With picks and even dinner forks they hacked at the soft tufa until the caves connected. Each family had its own cramped cell, with a few crude shelves cut into the walls. German patrols sometimes swept through, searching for able-bodied men who slipped down from the mountains to visit their families, and who quickly hid in shallow trenches scooped from the cave floor and covered with planks. Stone baffles built in the cave openings shielded villagers from stray shellfire, but nothing repelled the lice, the cold, or the hunger. Stocks of flour and figs ran short. German sentries barred villagers from using the fontana—two girls who disobeyed were shot dead—and rainwater cisterns once used for livestock provided the only drinking water, even after soldiers heaved dead sheep into the wells. Villagers who died—and their numbers swelled as December arrived—were lugged outside the caves and laid in a dark glen soon known as the Valley of Death.
St. Michael, always remember us. On their knees they prayed, for strength and for deliverance. They prayed for the archangel to draw his flaming sword and lead the American host now gathering on the far side of the hill.
The temporal leader of Fifth Army, Mark Clark, had his own flaming sword, and he was keen to thrust it through the Mignano Gap. The galling November repulses at Camino and La Difensa had sent Clark back to the map board for a new plan. His first impulse was to attack simultaneously across the front with three corps. Noting that none of the three would have adequate artillery or air support, Major General Lucian Truscott argued that “a worse plan would be difficult to conceive.”
Clark’s revision, Operation Raincoat, displayed more nuance, although military imagination tended to be impaled on Italian pinnacles. Since first studying San Pietro through field glasses from a rocky den above Mignano on November 6, Clark had considered the village key to his northward advance. Five days later he told subordinates that the “critical terrain in the operation [is] the hill mass running north of San Pietro”: Monte Sammucro, nearly four thousand feet high, with rocky spurs radiating for several miles north and east. Raincoat called for an attack on the left by the British X Corps and the U.S. II Corps, which had just arrived in Italy under Major General Geoffrey Keyes, George S. Patton’s former deputy and now the successor to Omar Bradley. They would seize, respectively, Camino and La Difensa, the two wind-swept peaks that formed a single massif—six miles by four—on the west flank of Mignano Gap. A subsequent lunge by VI Corps, including Major General Fred Walker’s Texans in the 36th Division, which had relieved Truscott’s 3rd Division, would grab San Pietro and Monte Sammucro on the gap’s eastern flank.
The Allied force in Italy soon would reach fourteen divisions. Clark’s intelligence estimated that 185,000 German troops in eleven divisions now defended southern Italy, with another twelve divisions in the north. The Allied strategy of tying up German forces appeared to be succeeding, albeit through a mutual war of attrition. Every hour’s delay here gave enemy sappers another hour to strengthen their main defensive fortifications around Cassino, seven miles north. Yet General Harold Alexander worried at Clark’s insouciance over growing casualty lists in the Winter Line. Even the U.S. 34th Division, attacking as a diversion on Fifth Army’s far right, was gaining barely three hundred yards a day at a cost of one casualty for every two yards.
“Oh, don’t worry about the losses,” Clark told Alexander. A stiff defense at San Pietro was unlikely, he added, and Sammucro even appeared to be clear of German troops. “I’ll get through the Winter Line all right, and push the Germans out.”
The attack began with the heaviest artillery barrage in Italy to date. More than nine hundred guns opened in the gathering gloom at 4:30 P.M. on Thursday, December 2. Flame reddened the clouds above Camino and La Difensa. Explosions blossomed across the upper slopes until the entire mountain appeared to be burning. Two hundred thousand shells would fall in the next two days, with some targets battered by eleven tons of steel a minute.
As the British once again trudged up Camino in “the blackness that only an Italian winter seems to have,” in the words of one soldier, several hundred infantrymen in ponchos began climbing the steep northeast face of La Difensa. Rain streamed from their helmets. In particularly vertical spots they pulled themselves up, hand over hand, with manila climbing ropes. Recruited among American lumberjacks, Canadian prospectors, and assorted ruffians of both nationalities, the 1st Special Service Force had trained in Montana with emphasis on mountaineering, skiing, and kicks to the groin. The Forceman’s credo, borrowed from the British Handbook of Irregular Warfare, held that “every soldier must be a potential gangster.” In his backpack for the unit’s first combat mission, the Force surgeon now carried five hundred codeine sulfate tablets, a hacksaw with a ten-inch blade, and a canvas bucket for amputated limbs.
Leading the gangsters up the precipice was a wiry, thirty-sixyear-old American colonel named Robert T. Frederick, who had likened the assault to British General James Wolfe’s climb up the cliffs of French Quebec in 1759. Son of a San Francisco doctor, Frederick had joined the California National Guard at thirteen, sailed to Australia as a deckhand on a tramp steamer at fourteen, and graduated from West Point at twenty-one. “He was unusually fit,” a classmate recalled. “Kind of like a cat.” It was said that Frederick had made his first parachute jump after ten minutes’ instruction, wearing bedroom slippers. In combat, he carried only his rifle, Nescafé, cigarettes, and a letter in Latin from the bishop of Helena, commending him as “altogether worthy of trust.” If sometimes dogmatic—Frederick had purged the Force of most French Canadians, convinced that “they lacked guts”—he would earn eight Purple Hearts by war’s end and a reputation as one of the U.S. Army’s greatest soldiers. “His casual indifference to enemy fire was hard to explain,” a junior officer observed.
With their barked fingers blue from cold, the Forcemen had nearly reached the summit when the clatter of dislodged scree alerted the enemy just before dawn on December 3. Flares popped overhead, followed by the roar of machine guns and volleys of grenades and even thrown rocks. Through this fusillade the attackers heaved themselves over the final shaly lip, faces peppered with rock splinters from ricochets. By 7 A.M. they had seized the crest of La Difensa—a shallow saucer the size of a football field, thirtyone hundred feet above sea level.
A maddening wait for more ammunition delayed their westward push to link up with the British. German artillery raked reinforcements scaling La Difensa with such fury that the reserves suffered 40 percent casualties without firing a shot. On the summit, Frederick and his men huddled under lacerating mortar fire. “A German was with me in my foxhole,” recalled one lieutenant. “He didn’t bum any cigarettes or anything, because he was dead.” A direct hit killed a battalion commander—a former history professor from New Brunswick—and a sergeant. “I looked back just in time to see them disappear,” recalled one soldier. “It was just a red mist.” A wounded private worked his way down the mountain praying aloud, “The Lord is my shepherd. He shepherds me hither, thither, and yon.” Frederick passed word to supply officers below to send up whiskey, for fortitude, and condoms, to keep rain from the rifle barrels.
Panzer grenadiers counterattacked in rain and hail, pushing the Forcemen back into their rocky saucer with machine gun fire so ferocious it resembled “a huge shotgun blast.” German snipers took a toll—a fatally wounded major plummeted over the cliff to the woods below—and officers soon smeared mud over their rank insignia for anonymity. Word spread that a captain had been shot in the face after an enemy white flag ruse. “The Krauts fought like they didn’t have any intention of losing the war,” recalled one lieutenant. “We didn’t take any prisoners. Fighting like that, you don’t look for any.” A soldier told to escort a captured German officer down the mountain soon reappeared. “The son of a bitch died of pneumonia,” he said. After two days on La Difensa, Frederick’s senior subordinate “couldn’t quite speak properly” and displayed “extreme nervousness and indecision,” according to several Forcemen. Emptying two clips from his .45-caliber pistol at a sniper no one else could see, he scrambled down the hill and was soon known as “Foxhole Willie.”
By late Monday, December 6, Frederick’s men had pushed west through a barren saddle to capture Hill 907, vital terrain below Monte Camino. In heavy pencil on a sequence of message blanks, Frederick scribbled dispatches to his command post far below, his cursive tidy and his punctuation proper even as he misdated the messages “November 6”:
We have passed the crest of 907. We are receiving much machine gun and mortar fire from several directions….Men are getting in bad shape….I have stopped burying the dead….German snipers are giving us hell and it is extremely difficult to catch them.
“I am OK,” he added, “just uncomfortable and tired.”
Early Tuesday morning, a British patrol emerged from the fog to report that X Corps now controlled Camino after a five-day ordeal of attack and counterattack in which a hilltop monastery changed hands repeatedly. Parched Tommys had licked the mossy rocks for moisture; riflemen hauled up supplies on backs bent double by the incline and then hauled down casualties on stretchers carried by eight men who “slithered rather than walked,” in historian Alan Moorehead’s description. By noon on Wednesday the last German defenders slipped away through a valley to the west, firing a few defiant shots over their shoulders. The entire massif was at last in Allied hands, although “no one felt particularly triumphant,” a Force historian wrote. Frederick scratched out a final message: “I expect to leave no wounded behind.”
Survivors hobbled into the rear encampment to be greeted by a brass band playing jaunty airs. The Force had sustained 511 casualties, one-third of its combat strength, including seventy-three killed in action and more than one hundred fatigue cases. The hospital admission list ran to forty pages, with medical diagnoses that summarized life on the Winter Line: gunshots, mortar shrapnel wounds, cerebral concussions, fractures and sprains, grenade lacerations, “amputation, right thumb, traumatic,” contusions, “nervous exhaustion,” jaundice, “severe diarrhea,” powder burns, “hemorrhoids, extremely severe.”
Of the last eighteen men treated, all but five had trench foot, including one soldier who studied the swollen, translucent appendages attached to his legs and wrote, “They were almost like the feet of a dead man.”
With his left flank secured, Clark could now throw a roundhouse right to capture Monte Sammucro and San Pietro. Colonel William Darby’s 1st Ranger Bat- talion had skirmished with grenadiers on the flanks of the mountain since midNovember, usually in claustrophobic gunfights fought at close range across the talus. The 3rd Ranger Battalion had crept to the eastern fringe of San Pietro just before dawn on November 30; heavy fire pinned them down all day until they crawled away at nightfall with more than two dozen casualties. But two Ranger patrols in early December edged close to the village without drawing fire, fueling hopes that San Pietro and Sammucro had been abandoned. “I don’t think there are any Krauts up there,” declared Captain Rufus J. Cleghorn of the 143rd Infantry.
He soon learned otherwise. Cleghorn, a former Baylor University football player from Waco, Texas, impiously known as “Rufus the Loudmouth,” led his Company A on the evening of December 7 up Sammucro’s east face. For five hours they climbed through swirling fog, the minesweeping detachment commanded by a lieutenant lugging a movie camera, a copy of Clausewitz’s On War, and a fruitcake from home. As they neared the pinnacle, labeled Hill 1205 on Cleghorn’s map, a sudden shout carried from above: “Die kommen nach oben!” Too late. The Americans swarmed over the crest in a brawl of muzzle flashes and pinging ricochets. By first light, 250 Yanks held the high ground. Flinging insults and grenades, Cleghorn and his band rolled boulders down the pitch at the field-gray shadows below. Grenadiers counterattacked, then counterattacked again, each time driven back until bodies lay like bloody stones across the slope. Private duels were fought in the fog, grenadier and rifleman darting among the rocks “like a couple of lizards.” Surveying a squad of dead Germans he had just mowed down with his Browning Automatic Rifle, a soldier murmured: “This is fun. This is like what I dreamed about.”
Two miles west and two thousand feet below, the attack on San Pietro proved less merry. Four battalions of long-range artillery shattered the village at 5 A.M. Wednesday, smashing the tailor shop and the post office and the galilee of St. Michael’s church with its separate doors for men and women. At 6:20 A.M. the 2nd Battalion of the 143rd Infantry crossed a shallow streambed from the southwest, “in magnificent skirmish lines just like the training manual ordered,” reported one witness. With rebel yells and Texas whoops the men clattered four hundred yards to the edge of the olive terraces. There the whine of Meitzel’s machine guns stopped them with the abrupt shock of a slammed door. Tracers lashed the ranks as the men dove for cover among the ancient olives, detonating mines and drawing mortar fire that boiled in orange clusters across the battlefield.
A sister battalion, the 3rd of the 143rd Infantry, surged into the fight, shaking out on either flank only to find the orchard terraces seeded with shoe mines and enemy pillboxes emplaced every twenty-five yards. “Ammo, damn it, we need ammo!” someone yelled above the roar. Men with fingers shot off were hastily bandaged and shoved back into the fight. Enemy artillery opened from Monte Lungo across Highway 6 to the west, where German observers had an unobstructed view of the American ranks. Still a quarter-mile from San Pietro, the attack faltered and slid back in an olive-drab ebb tide. Levitating bodies lay snagged across the German barbed wire. By nightfall the attackers had retreated almost to where they had started. They tried again Thursday morning— the rebel yells a bit subdued this time—and again Meitzel’s grenadiers threw them back. In thirty-six hours losses in the two battalions exceeded 60 percent.
No assault on San Pietro was likely to succeed until German gunners were knocked from Monte Lungo. U.S. troops held the southern knob, but to seize the rest of the mile-long hogback the 1st Italian Motorized Group was chosen by General Keyes for Italy’s first battle on the side of the Allied angels. With Roma o morte chalked on their rail cars, sixteen hundred soldiers in Alpine uniforms and feathered caps arrived in Mignano. Uphill they marched in heavy mist, two chattering battalions abreast, shouting threats and vowing to punish their erstwhile Axis allies for deserting them in Africa and Russia. For a few glorious minutes the attack went well. Then machine gun crossfire hit the Italians—“like corn cut by a scythe,” in one account—and enraged grenadiers fell on the confused ranks with fists and clubs. Those who escaped downhill were said to be the fastest runners. Only massed U.S. artillery fire checked the German counterattack and prevented the Italians from being driven back to the Volturno. Losses at first were feared to exceed nine hundred, but stragglers reappeared and the final tally was pared to less than three hundred. “My troops,” the Italian commander wrote Keyes, “are not in a condition to be able to accomplish the missions which you have assigned them.”
Monte Lungo remained in German hands, and so too San Pietro. Only on Sammucro’s icy parapets had the attack succeeded, and there Captain Cleghorn held firm with reinforcements from the 1st Bat- talion despite frenzied enemy efforts to dislodge them. Sardinian muleskinners plodded up the mountain from Ceppagna each night, following trails marked with white tape or toilet paper. They brought rations and phone wire, grenades and dry socks, sulfa and Sterno, and a daily water ration of five gallons per squad. Brrrr, the skinners told their little mules—the Italian equivalent of giddy-up— urging the animals down the trail before daybreak, which was not difficult since the December nights were endless. Cooks and clerks wearing packboards also hauled up supplies, along with mail and a few improbable early Christmas gifts from home: One soldier shivering in a burrow was chagrined to receive a necktie. Seeing a small cairn of dead soldiers lying trailside near the crest, an officer wrote: “Splendid, husky young men. They seemed just barely dead.”
A hundred yards or so down the back slope grenadiers shivered in their own burrows, close enough that a GI could “feel the presence of the enemy through the pores of [his] skin,” wrote journalist Margaret BourkeWhite. Once known as Huns or Jerry, now they were called Krauts or Teds—from the Italian tedesci—or Blonds or Heinies or Graybacks. By any name, dead ones lay scattered about, green and grotesque, and every few hours another counterattack added more to the landscape. Sometimes the grenade volleys grew so intense, a soldier reported, that “we were holding our rifles so we could bat them off the way you bunt a baseball.” American artillery swept the slopes with white phosphorus, silhouetting the attackers, and spattering Krauts, Teds, and Blonds with incandescent flakes. A speck the size of a pinhead would burn clean through a man’s leg unless plucked out with forceps or smothered with a mud poultice. Day and night, artillery reverberated against the low clouds, and the rumbling echo carried across the crags in a long, querulous nag. Men slept behind stone sangars with tracers whispering six inches overhead. “The fellow who stays out of sight the most is the one who lives the longest,” an officer advised. Few needed to be told twice. “I may be prejudiced,” a soldier told his buddy, “but I don’t like this place.”
Cleghorn’s Company A had been reinforced by Company B, commanded by another Texan, twenty-five-year-old Captain Henry T. Waskow. Raised in the cotton country south of Temple, one of eight children in a family of German Baptists strapped enough to sew their clothes from flour sacking, Waskow was fair, blue-eyed, short, and sober—“a sweet little oddball,” in the estimate of a school chum. “He was never young,” another classmate recalled, “not in a crazy high school kid way.” A teenage lay minister, Waskow took second prize in a statewide oratory contest, won the class presidency at Belton High School, and graduated with the highest grade point average in twenty years. At Trinity College he joined the Texas Guard in part for the dollar earned at each drill session, rising through the ranks on merit and zeal. At Salerno, Company A had fought with Darby at Chiunzi Pass.
“I guess I have always appeared as pretty much a queer cuss to all of you,” Waskow had written in a “just-in-case” letter to his family as he shipped overseas. “If I seemed strange at times, it was because I had weighty responsibilities that preyed on my mind and wouldn’t let me slack up to be human like I so wanted to be.”
Now, after almost a week on Sammucro, the entire 1st Battalion was hardly bigger than a company, and Waskow’s company was no bigger than a platoon. Ammo stocks had dwindled again, and the men threw grenade-sized rocks to keep the Germans dancing. At nightfall on Tuesday, December 14, the battalion crept forward beneath a bright moon and angled northwest along the massif toward Hill 730, a scabrous knoll almost directly behind San Pietro. The trail skirted a ravine with shadows so dense they seemed to swallow the moonbeams. “Wouldn’t this be an awful spot to get killed and freeze on the mountain?” Waskow asked his company runner, Private Riley Tidwell. The captain had a sudden craving for toast. “When we get back to the States,” Waskow added. “I’m going to get me one of those smartaleck toasters where you put the bread in and it pops up.”
Those were among his last mortal thoughts. German sentries had spotted the column moving across the scree slope. Machine guns cackled, mortars crumped, and Henry Waskow pitched over without a sound, mortally wounded by a shell fragment that tore open his chest. He was never young, but he would never be old.
Wearing his trademark knit cap and tatty field jacket, Ernie Pyle had arrived in Ceppagna at the base of the Sammucro trail earlier on Tuesday. Pyle’s columns now appeared in two hundred daily newspapers, making him a national celebrity; Al Jolson joked that to soldiers he had become “Mr. God.” But in this disfigured village, only two miles from San Pietro, Pyle could find near-anonymity as just another unwashed Yank a long way from home. In a dilapidated cowshed near the olive orchard that served as a mule livery, he set his typewriter on a packing case and then poked about the battalion base camp. Engineers were corduroying the muddy paths to the gun batteries, filling ruts with logs, stones, and brush. Occasionally, a serenade—a barrage of every gun in the corps, fired at the same time at the same target— screamed over the hills toward San Pietro.
Late at night the pack mules returned from Sammucro with bodies trussed face-down across the wooden saddles, each corpse slithering “on the mule’s back as if it were full of some inert liquid,” as one corporal wrote. Sardinian muleteers feared the dead and trailed behind the trains.
Pyle stood outside the cowshed and watched as the first body was unlashed. “They slid him down from the mule, and stood him on his feet for a moment. In the half light he might have been merely a sick man standing there leaning on the others. Then they laid him on the ground in the shadow of the low stone wall beside the road.”
Four other mules arrived. “This one is Captain Waskow,” a man said. Pyle watched and said nothing. “You feel small in the presence of dead men, and you don’t ask silly questions,” he subsequently explained. A few days later, after returning to Fifth Army headquarters in Caserta, where he played gin rummy and drank to excess, Pyle would recall how the bodies lay uncovered in the shadows and how several of Waskow’s men edged over to the dead captain to voice regret—“I sure am sorry, sir”—or to curse—“God damn it to hell anyway!” Riley Tidwell appeared and the company runner held his commander’s hand, studying Waskow’s waxy face.
Finally he put the hand down. He reached over and gently straightened the points of the captain’s shirt collar, and then he sort of rearranged the tattered edges of the uniform around the wound, and then he got up and walked away down the road in the moonlight, all alone. The rest of us went back into the cowshed, leaving the five dead men lying in a line, end to end, in the shadow of the low stone wall.
Pyle had written his most famous dispatch, perhaps the finest expository passage of World War II. But still he felt small in the presence of dead men. “I’ve lost the touch,” he told a friend. “This stuff stinks.”
Mark Clark had proposed using tanks to capture San Pietro as early as December 9. He had pressed General Dwight D. Eisenhower and Alexander in the fall to send the 1st Armored Division to Italy, and he felt chagrined that the mountainous terrain afforded so few chances to unleash Old Ironsides, as the unit was called. Fred Walker, the 36th Division commander, doubted that the gullies and six-foot olive terraces ringing San Pietro would accommodate tanks, a skepticism reinforced in an early foray when the lead Sherman threw a track and blocked the trail.
Walker planned to try again at midday, Wednesday, December 15. This time the attack would be filmed by a pair of Signal Corps cameramen perched on Monte Rotondo, part of a movie crew working for Captain John Huston. Assigned by the War Department to document “the triumphal entry of the American forces into Rome,” Huston—who two years earlier had directed Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon—instead found himself trying to concoct a celluloid epic from the army’s frustrated assault on an anonymous village in southern Italy. At least his cinematography would be unimpeded by trees: After weeks of shelling, Rotondo reportedly “looked as if a large mower had been used on the side of the hill.”
At 11 A.M. the mist lifted, the cameras rolled, and two platoons from the 753rd Tank Battalion clanked to a hairpin bend in the high road from Ceppagna. For fifteen minutes, Shermans and tank destroyers hammered San Pietro with 75mm shells. Then loaders with asbestos gloves shoveled the fuming brass from their turret floors, and at noon the attack by sixteen tanks trundled forward. It was doomed, of course. Only the lead Sherman made headway, churning through a terrace wall to shoot up several German machine gun nests. The second tank struck a mine. The next three closed to within a half mile of the village only to burst into flames from German antitank fire. Three more hit mines. By mid-afternoon four surviving tanks limped back toward Ceppagna with crews from the less fortunate Shermans clinging to the hulls like barnacles. Seven tanks had been destroyed and five others immobilized.
Walker’s foot soldiers had no better luck. The 141st Infantry’s 2nd Battalion launched another frontal assault across open ground at 1 A.M. on Thursday. “Dead and wounded marked the route of advance,” a regimental account noted. A few intrepid souls grenaded and bayoneted their way into the lower village, scrambling through breaches in the wall by standing on each others’ shoulders. Most were captured or killed by plunging fire, and the 2nd Battalion fell back, now shorn to 130 men in “the stupidest assignment the battalion ever received,” according to Major Milton Landry, the unit commander. A lieutenant disemboweled by grenade fragments repeated the name “Erika” through the small hours, then died at dawn. A second attack at 6 A.M. also failed, as did lunges on the right flank by two battalions of the 143rd Infantry. When a pinned-down soldier began waving his undershirt in surrender, a sergeant put his rifle muzzle to the man’s temple and warned, “Put that damn rag away or I’ll blow your head off.”
Wisps of steam rose from shallow revetments in the rear where exhausted riflemen lay beneath their sodden blankets. Clark arrived at noon on Thursday, listening to the cacophony of mortars and machine pistols just ahead. Through field glasses he studied the charred tank hulks on the Ceppagna road. “What troops are in front of you?” he asked a lieutenant. “Sir,” the officer replied, “Germans.” Clark uttered a few words of encourage ment, and drove off.
“The losses before the town have been heavy,” Walker told his diary. “Many wounded had to be abandoned within enemy lines….This is bad.”
And then it ended. Monte Lungo had always held the key to San Pietro, and by dusk on Thursday two battalions from the 142nd Infantry had overrun the hogback from the west, threatening to encircle San Pietro. Captain Meitzel’s grenadiers launched a brief counterattack from the village to cover the battalion’s withdrawal. At midnight on Friday, December 17, a fountain of colored flares above the north slope of Sammucro signaled retreat. German troops fell back two miles to yet another hillside village, San Vittore, which they would hold for the next three weeks.
American riflemen creeping through the blue battle haze found San Pietro reduced to ruins, “one large mound of desolation,” in a gunner’s description. The detritus of total war littered the rubble: cartridge belts, stained bandages, dead pigs, “a gray hand hanging limply from a sleeve.” St. Michael’s was reduced to a single upright wall, with a headless Christ hanging on His cross. The choir loft dangled above an altar now buried in masonry. Correspondent Homer Bigart also discovered a December 6 copy of Völkischer Beobachter and, inexplicably, a baseball glove.
A few dozen wretched San Pietrans emerged from the ruins to huzzah their liberators. The dim, fetid caves below the village were “the nearest thing to a journey in Dante’s Inferno that I was to know in the war,” wrote J. Glenn Gray, an army intelligence analyst. “Children were screaming, old men and women coughing or moaning, while others tried to prepare some gruel over smoking coals.” Some 140 San Pietrans were dead, one villager in ten. A baby’s corpse lying in the mud was repeatedly run over by military vehicles before someone finally noticed and a medic buried the remains. Graves registration men arrived with their leather gloves to police the battlefield, folding the hands of dead GIs across their chests before lifting them into white burial sacks. As soldier-poet Keith Douglas wrote, “About them clung that impenetrable silence…by which I think the dead compel our reverence.”
Those who had fought for the past ten days “slept where their bedding fell from the truck.” San Pietro had cost Fred Walker’s 36th Division twelve hundred battle casualties and two thousand nonbattle losses; the 143rd Infantry Regiment alone lost 80 percent of its strength. Engineers, tankers, Rangers, paratroopers, and the Italians who also fought for the village had hundreds more killed, wounded, missing, sick, and injured.
At an evacuation hospital near Mignano, patients lay listening to the shriek of artillery, calling out the guns by caliber. A chaplain played “Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life” on his Victrola. Margaret Bourke-White spied “a small grim pile of amputated legs” covered with canvas outside a surgical tent. When one dying Texas boy asked for watermelon, a surgeon replied, “They’re not in season, son.” To Bourke-White he added, “They often ask for their favorite food when they’re near death.”
As the front lurched forward another mile or two, John Lucas advised his diary on December 18, “We find the country thick with dead as we advance…I think the swine have taken a lacing.” But, the VI Corps commander added, “Rome seems a long way off.” A 36th Division soldier offered his own summary, “This is a heartbreaking business.”
For John Huston, the battle for San Pietro went on. The director’s footage of the star-crossed tank attack was dramatic but incomplete. Although he later claimed to have done most of his filming “during the actual battle,” Huston in fact spent two months staging elaborate reenactments in olive orchards and on Monte Sammucro, using 36th Division troops. Casualty scenes were staged in a hospital, a dead German in a foxhole was actually a GI actor in a grenadier uniform, and sequences inside the ruined village were filmed at another town accidentally bombed by American planes. After draconian editing by George Marshall, who ordered the film cut from fifty minutes to half an hour, Huston added a brief introductory speech by Mark Clark and a soundtrack that included the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. San Pietro would be released nationwide in the spring of 1945 to rhapsodic reviews. Time called it “as good a war film as any that has been made.”
The telegram announcing Henry Waskow’s death would arrive at his Texas home on December 29, delayed by the War Department along with similar notifications until after Christmas. Henry’s mother had been troubled with premonitions, and when the family appeared to break the news she blurted out: “I was right, wasn’t I? Henry’s gone.” Pyle’s column would appear on January 10, 1944, covering the entire front page of the Washington Daily News. Hollywood seized on the story and a year later released The Story of G.I. Joe, with Burgess Meredith as Pyle and Robert Mitchum as a “Captain Bill Walker” who dies on a mountainside in Italy.
But Waskow had the final word, a “last will and testament” mailed to his sister for safekeeping and made public more than fifteen years after his passing. “I would have liked to have lived,” he told his parents in a ten-paragraph meditation. “But, since God has willed otherwise, do not grieve too much, dear ones, for life in the other world must be beautiful, and I have lived a life with that in mind all along. I was not afraid to die, you can be assured of that.
“I will have done my share to make this world a better place in which to live. Maybe when the lights go on again all over the world, free people can be happy and gay again….If I failed as a leader, and I pray God I didn’t, it was not because I did not try.
“I loved you,” he added, “with all my heart.”
This article is excerpted from The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944 (Henry Holt and Co., 2007). ©2007 by Rick Atkinson. Published by arrangement with the author.
Originally published in the Autumn 2007 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.