US Army at Anzio: The Long Wait I

Of the six German divisions that had been in the Albano road salient February 19, 1944, none was fit for further offensive action. Fighting—bitter, bloody fighting—continued, but now the German High Command had no real hope of destroying the Anzio beachhead. Along the perimeter some of the action was dramatic and bloody.

On February 16, Lieutenant Colonel Laurence C. Brown’s 2nd Battalion, 157th Infantry, 45th Division, had held a front some fifteen hundred yards wide astride the Albano road south of Carroceto. The first waves of the massive German attack overran both flanks of the battalion. All contact with adjacent units was lost. In this situation, some units would have considered surrender.

But not Colonel Brown’s 2nd Battalion, 157th Infantry. It was in rugged terrain—ground with a series of caves to the west. Brown ordered a withdrawal into the caves, and there 2nd Battalion began a fight for its life.

Sergeant Booth Rawlings, former Pennsylvania State Trooper, got into the Battle of the Caves by accident. An MP, he had been on the road, checking stragglers, when Germans had punched through on each side, and there had been nothing else to do but retreat into the caves with the 2nd Battalion. Now, sighting his rusting M-1 rifle down the ravine his squad covered, he was wondering how the devil they were going to hold out much longer.

A medium-sized, straw-haired man of twenty-five, with a serious face and a competent, deliberate way of moving, he was glad he wasn’t married, because he didn’t think many of these men besieged in the caves were going to get out. Wave after wave of Krauts had been pouring against the battalion—the Germans knew better than to leave a strong force in their rear—and it had been a bad three days. Once, when the 1st Armored attack disrupted the enemy, they had gotten the wounded out. But then the steel ring had closed about them again. He rubbed his bearded face, feeling the rain mist drip from his dirty fingers. He had fifteen rounds for his M-1, and when those were gone, that was it.

With the weather like it was, there was no hope of aerial supply either.

With a scrape of boots, his squad sergeant, Jorrie, sank down beside him, squinting down the ravine. “They’ll be back, after dark,” Jorrie grunted. The Krauts had learned they couldn’t barge in against American positions in daylight, but when the light failed . . . Jorrie took off his helmet, ran a hand over his filthy, matted straight hair. He was a dark-eyed, weather-beaten man, part Indian. “Rawlings, if I catch one, you’re to take the squad—”

“Nuts,” Booth said. “I’m no infantryman.” He moved his wet legs, groaning at the discomfort of lying in a shallow hole in the hard, cold ground.

“Hell you’re not,” Jorrie grunted. “You’re a sergeant, and you been here three days. If you weren’t a good dogface, you’d be dead. I cleared it with the lieutenant.”

“Okay,” Booth said. “But don’t go wishing trouble on me.”

“Not likely,” Jorrie said, with a tight smile, and moved off. Like Booth, he was beat, hungry and miserable, but he was not whipped yet. “Don’t give out no tickets now,” he called back.

It was growing dark now, and night was the bad time. Booth had trouble keeping his eyes open. He kept seeing things—rocks and bushes seemed to move; he saw shadows where there were none.

Whisk-whish-whish-bram! Bram!

Kraut mortars, softening up the area again. Day or night, the Krauts kept lobbing mortars in. And the mortars were the things that got you, if you weren’t careful. If they spotted you, they could drop a mortar shell in your hip pocket.

Booth huddled deeper in his rocky pit. Pretty soon now, Krauts would be pouring up this ravine, Schmeissers ready, and—what was that?

He heard a rifle bolt click in the next hole. Over there, PFC Jungmann had heard it, too. He took the safety off his own piece. Okay, you bastards—

Someone was coming up the ravine, scuffling and banging.

Booth aimed carefully into the darkness. When you had only fifteen rounds, you had to let them get close. Now!

“Hold it, Yank! British officer—British officer!” the words rang anxiously along the ridge. “Hold your fire, Yanks—British troops coming in!”

Thank God, Booth thought. General Templar has sent help.

The young English subaltern crawled up to him, grinning in the murk. “Leftenant Murff, 2/7 Queens. My men are coming in behind there.”

Booth could have kissed him. “Get your men up here quick, Lieutenant. The Krauts are about to start something—they’ve been mortaring us—”

That was the moment the Krauts chose to attack with everything they had. The dark was split by gunfire, the red flame of shell bursts, the scream of bullets. Halfway into the American lines, the British battalion was in no position to fight.

“For God’s sake, come on!” Booth yelled. “Move! Move!” By ones, twos and sections, the British infantry raced past his hole, moving deeper into the caves area. But back in the direction from which they came, a big fire fight flared. The British officer, who lay beside Booth, looked back anxiously.

“Jerry’s hit us in the rear—”

But Booth was firing down the ravine. He hoped they were Krauts—but when men shot at him, he could take no chances. Brrp-Brrp!

They were Krauts, all right. The British Stens and Brens made a different sound.

Crack! crack ! The whole squad opened up, and in the gulley a man screamed shrilly.

It was a bad hour. But while the fire fight raged along the whole perimeter, the 2/7 Queens came in. At last, the Krauts broke off their assault, but their shelling continued.

A British sergeant crawled up to Booth. Jorrie had disappeared during the fire fight, probably hit. “You’re to pull out, Yanks,” the Britisher said.

An American officer crawled along the line. “Let’s go,” he called. “One fifty-seven’s pulling out. We’re relieved, men. Turn over your weapons to the British—they lost all their supply and mortars, coming in. Give your food and ammo, too. They’re staying, to cover us.”

“Hell,” Booth Rawlings said. One of the British non-coms had told him a hundred men of the 2/7 Queens were missing after the link-up. “These poor bastards are in as bad a shape as we are.”

“Orders,” the officer snapped. “We’re taking the wounded, too.”

Booth was surprised at how few American dogfaces there were. Over eight hundred men had gone into the caves, he knew. Now only a little over two hundred were coming-out. And half of these were hospital cases, by any standard you used.

Limping, crawling, fighting, decimated but unconquered, 2nd. Battalion of the 157th came out of the caves, reaching their own lines the night of February 22. They brought the injured with them, while the British covered the withdrawal.

Once, bringing up the rear, Booth Rawlings looked back. He was wondering how the British were going to get out.

Later, he learned the British never did get out. General Templar ordered the 2/6 Queens, the 2/7’s sister battalion, to resupply the trapped unit. But they couldn’t get through—the Germans had tightened the ring.

After dark February 23, the Krauts overran two of the 2/7’s companies. Its colonel called a conference. “We’ve had it, lads. Break up into small groups, make it back the best way you can—and good luck.”

Less than half the surviving members of 2/7 Queens made it back.

The Battle of the Caves was over. A long time later, when Booth Rawlings pinned on the blue and gold Presidential Unit Citation Badge, awarded to all who had been with 2nd Battalion in the caves, he was thinking of the men of the 2/7 Queens, who had stayed behind.

He never heard whether the men who survived got anything or not.

Now, across the Anzio perimeter, fighting died in intensity. On February 29, the Germans again pushed out from Cisterna, against the 3rd Division. The attack struck a brick wall, failed. The Allies had no strength, however, with which to counterattack.

The battle of Anzio was still stalemated.

During the evening of February 22, 1944, while the 2nd Battalion, 157th Infantry, was being relieved by the 2/7 Queens, General Mark Clark, Fifth Army Commander, called the Deputy Vl Corps Commander to his CP, which was in the cellars of Prince Borghese’s villa at Anzio. The square-jawed Truscott reported calmly.

Abruptly, Clark said, “You are to relieve General Lucas as Corps Commander tomorrow morning.”

Truscott frowned. He reminded Mark Clark of what he had said earlier, that he didn’t want the corps. He said, “The situation is more stable now. Relieving Lucas may have an unfortunate effect on other officers. Lucas has a host of friends, and they may feel he is being sacrificed to British influence. They could come to think that they’ll be thrown to the wolves, too, if they get in difficulties.”

Clark listened patiently, then said, “The decision is already made. But Johnny Lucas is also a friend of mine, and I’m going to see to it that he is not hurt. I’m going to appoint him Deputy Army Commander, for the time being.”

There was nothing for Truscott to do, but return to his quarters with the knowledge that he would soon be in command of the beachhead.

Clark sent for Lucas and told him: “I can no longer resist the pressure from both Alexander and Devers.”

Alexander wanted Lucas relieved, not because of his failure to take the Alban Hills, but because Alexander thought him exhausted and defeated, and General Devers thought him tired. The relief was without prejudice.

Lucas was deeply hurt. What bothered him most was that he thought, not without truth, that he was winning something of a victory. Subdued, he returned to his quarters.

Immediately, Truscott reported to Lucas to express his regrets. Lucas greeted him warmly; he had nothing against Truscott. But Lucas was bitter toward Clark, and he blamed his relief upon the British.

This last visit between Truscott and Lucas was for Lucian Truscott one of his saddest experiences of the war. A few years later, Major General John P. Lucas would die, worn-out and bitterly hurt.

Generals, as well as privates are casualties of war.

Now Truscott was in command at Anzio, and he was one of the finest fighting generals in the Army. He took charge at once, and from this moment forward, he planned only for the breakout, for only on that day would the Anzio operation justify its cost.

But a breakout from Anzio had to be coordinated to coincide with a breakthrough on the southern Italian front. The two fronts had to link. And in the south, Graf von der Schulenberg’s fanatical German paratroops still clung to a place called Cassino, and General Fridolin von Senger had not withdrawn Hitler’s order that the Gustavstellung be held to the last.

At Anzio, the long wait began. In many ways, this was the worst period of all for the men on the bloody beachhead. German artillery massed. Heavy guns were dug into the slopes of the Colli Laziali, from where they ranged any gun on the beachhead. Two great 280-mm. railroad guns—”Anzio Express” or “Anzio Annie”—were brought up, and fired from railway tunnels near Campolene and Castel Gandolfo. No single inch of the beachhead was safe from German shellfire.

The Luftwaffe still had teeth. Nightly, there came the drone of planes, the crump of exploding bombs.

Men continued to die.

PFC Corey Hamilton, big and strong and blue-eyed, nineteen years old and not mad at anybody, arrived on the Anzio beachhead as a replacement the first week in March, 1944. The large-scale fighting might be over, but Corey, sent to help fill the frightful gaps in the 45th Division, soon learned that, in its way, position warfare can be the most horrible of all.

Along a twenty-mile perimeter, Germans and Allies faced each other, and neither side was happy about the other’s being there.

All ten of the replacements who had come in with Corey were sent to Lieutenant Howie Cresap’s platoon, which held a small area that had been swampland before Mussolini drained the Pontine Marshes. Now the swamp was coming back.

That first day, when Technical Sergeant Musko, the platoon sergeant, brought them to Cresap’s bunker, the platoon leader had set them straight. Cold, wet, scared and miserable in the rain, they had listened to his no-nonsense briefing.

Cresap was a well-muscled young man, brown-eyed, firm-chinned and up from the ranks. He spoke in a slight Southwestern accent. The gold bar on his collar, like the crossed muskets on the other side of the OD shirt, was a musty green. But he was clean-shaven, and his manner crisp.

He showed them the platooon area, pointing his finger down the gullies, across the bare, blasted earth. “Our lines run along here, and here, across to there. See those buildings up ahead? The Krauts are in them. From there, and from their OPs up on those hills, the Alban Hills, they can see you anytime you get out of a hole. Got that?”

The replacements got it. Now they understood why everyone at Anzio walked bent over, scuttling along like scared crabs. “The Anzio Gait,” they called it. You never knew when a Kraut OP had you spotted, or a round was coming in—you only knew that sooner or later one would come in.

“The war’s bogged down here,” Cresap continued in his precise manner. His uniform was stained and filthy, and there were huge shadows under his eyes. But though he looked like an old man, he was only a little older than Corey Hamilton’s nineteen years. “We hold our lines, the Krauts hold theirs. We patrol, so do they. The one thing we can’t do is sit on our asses. The water table is high here, only a foot or so under the ground. This is bad for trench foot, but it is good in that it keeps us mobile, on our toes. We can’t dig deep holes or build fancy trenches to hide in. And we’ve got to stay mobile, because sooner or later, we’ll get orders to attack. When we start next time, we won’t stop.”

Cresap had paused a moment, blinking his bloodshot brown eyes wearily. Then they were sharp again. “Men, for crissakes, watch your feet. We’ll get fresh socks up to you two or three times a week. Be careful. Listen to your squad sergeants; they know the score. In the meantime, remember you’re members of the best damn platoon in the best damn company in the best battalion in the Army! Now get lost.”

Later, Moody, a tall, rangy Texan, and Corey’s best friend, had asked their squad leader, Gumpertz, “This Lieutenant Cresap a pretty good Joe?”

And Staff Sergeant Gumpertz, a bearded wrinkled, old man of twenty-eight, who had three children back in Wisconsin, spat. “Who gives a good crap? He knows his job, and you can thank God for that. What you want out of an officer is that he knows his business. The hell with the rest of it. That good Joe stuff goes with the rear echelons. They got things to worry about other than stayin’ alive.” Gumpertz spat again, and shook his head. “An officer can’t cut the mustard, he don’t last long up here. Me, I wouldn’t be an officer for anything they could give me.”

Years later, Corey Hamilton remembered that. After the war, when the Doolittle Board was meeting, he noticed one thing: the men who were complaining about the caste system never came from the front line companies. When an officer lay in the same dirty water you did, and took twice the chances, because he had to move about, what kind of a caste system was that?

Gumpertz assigned Moody and Corey to positions in the squad, which meant they each got a hole, half-full of icy water.

So began two weeks of hell for PFC Corey Hamilton, Rifleman, 45th Division.

Corey, big and strong and blue-eyed, had played football in high school before his mother had made him quit. He had a tough, resilient body, and he had a steady nature, not the kind to get upset easily. He was to find a strong body and a mind that did not anger quickly were not enough. Not if you were only nineteen and had never had it tough before.

The first trouble came his first week, when the squad had scouted across the ravines, close to the German lines. A limited attack, just to keep the Krauts honest, Lieutenant Cresap had said. Corey had been scared as hell when he fixed his bayonet, but Moody, the lean, dark kid from Amarillo, grinned at him.

“Just a turkey shoot, Corey, old lad,” the green-eyed Texan drawled. “Only difference, you can’t eat Krauts, even with sauerkraut.”

Nothing seemed to bother Moody, though Corey thought his face was pale, too, when they set out, after dark.

They followed Gumpertz into the gullies, stepped carefully across a small feeder creek. The fringe of brush that shielded the creek was blasted and torn; a lot of shell fire had churned this area.

Then they crawled on their hands and knees over the ridges, until they came in close to the German lines. They could hear men talking over there, in low voices. Corey heard a man laugh, deep-toned and natural.

Then Gumpertz, watching Lieutenant Cresap, waved his arm. The second squad, which was to be the base of fire, opened up on the Krauts, the BAR and M-1s, filling the night with strident noise. Behind Gumpertz, Moody and Corey and the other men crowded forward.

Blam! A German fired at Corey from a hole just in front of him. Orange-lavender streaks split the night in all directions. Somewhere, the deep-voiced Kraut was bellowing orders.

“Let ’em have it!” Gumpertz screamed. His rifle flamed again and again, from the hip. Then he wavered in the darkness, fell over.

Corey saw the indistinct shape of the German running toward Gumpertz. He saw the Kraut lift his bayoneted rifle, saw the faint gleam of the steel as it came down.

Gumpertz, as the steel pierced him, made a terrible, anguished sound. Corey, standing with his rifle in his hands, could not move. He could only stare, sickly, stupidly.

The German wheeled toward him, the bayonet, not gleaming now, whipping forward viciously. Then the Kraut cried out and went over on his back. Beside Corey’s head, Moody’s rifle blast had almost taken an ear off.

“Get in those Kraut holes!” Moody yelled. He disappeared into the ground, began firing into the demoralized German squad from the side. Corey tumbled after him, his rifle gripped in shaking hands. But he could not shoot. It never occurred to him to shoot.

Then, Lieutenant Cresap’s whistle blast cut through the firing. “Let’s make tracks!” Moody snapped. He leaped up out of the hole, bent over Gumpertz. “Dead,” he said angrily. “Corey, you take him—he’s too big for me!”