Frank S. Pistone
Expert from "DIG - Curse - Pray - My Life in Combat During WW II"
A memoir written in 2010 by Frank S. Pistone, Co L, 7th Inf. Rgmt, 3rd Inf. Div.
Our Convoy left port on the next day, (January 20. 1944) our destination still unknown, for we had not been told anything, in fact as infantry, soldiers, we were never told much of anything, (except hold your ground or attack) But as soon as we were on the high seas, our platoon officer, called us together, and then opened an envelope and informed us, that we were heading north of the Mount Casino Battle location, to make a beachhead landing, near a sea shore Village called Anzio, which was located south of the Italian capital city of Rome and north of the battle of mount Casino. Our mission was to fight our way inland, and cut off the replacement of German troops and supplies, that were daily being sent to the German army, at mount casino, who would then be forced to retreat and try escape north to Rome.
The General in command of the Mediterranean theater of operation was a British Field Marshall, who had ordered this tactical attempt to bypass the battle at Cassino in the south. It was suspected that the idea came from London, but our American higher ups, felt we did not have the man power or equipment for this plan to succeed, a few years after the war I learned that there was friction between American and British military, I guess the British forgot we had licked them at Yorktown and New Orleans and in this war we were supposed to be equals.
At sea, our fleet must have sailed in circles for the next two days, but at 2, a.m. on the morning of January 22, 1944, we were ordered to gather our gear, (I had a Rifle, an ammunition belt, several bandoliers of ammunition, six grenades, three days' supply of food, and as platoon runner I carried the platoon's battery operated radio) We than prepared to leave our ship. We were ordered, to jump from our ship, onto the infantry landing boat, known as a attack LCI, that would take us to the shore, After going a short distance, the sailor who was driving this boat, or whatever it was called, stopped the craft, an lowed the front ramp and ordered us to leave and walk the rest of way, for the water was shallow and he couldn't go any further. We obeyed and began walking to the beach, in about four feet of very cold water, It was a strange event for we did not hear a single rifle shot.
We then assembled on the beach with our lieutenant, who then ordered us to advance inland, in a combat mode and not to make any noise, As ordered, we began walking inland, very surprised and happy that we had not met any resistance, on the beach. It was now about 3 a.m. of a very cold and dark night. Many of the farmers owned dogs on their farms and they must have sensed our presence, for they began barking. We all wished that they would shut up & go to sleep, for if German soldiers were nearby, they certainly would check, why the dogs were all barking, some power must have been watching over us, for the enemy did not respond and we continued our advance, for about six miles, until day break, without any opposition.
Over the next few days, we occupied a beachhead area that was approximately, 12 miles wide, along the
shoreline and six miles deep in the center, with mountains ahead of us and the sea behind us. This was
our home for the next four months. It appears, we had temporarily surprised the German forces in Italy,
by our landing, One strange memory I have, of these early days, was the exciting and scary moments, we
had, during the first few nights on the beachhead. For the German air force attacked us with large
Aerial attacks, by hundreds of their airplanes and also their new pilotless Drones, Dropping bombs all
over the beachhead, Our anti aircraft searchlight Batteries, lit the sky with their powerful lights,
while our aircraft guns fired many anti-aircraft shells, up to the sky above, to destroy the German air
planes. Their explosions up lit up the sky from one end to the other. Unfortunately the anti-aircraft
shells, that we used, must have been purchased from a Jap hardware store in N.Y.C, for they did not
explode in the sky, instead they stopped and changed direction and came down and exploded amongst our
Consequently we had to quickly dive into the nearest hole, as fast as hell, to avoid being blown apart.
I cannot tell you the whole story of the next four months of battle; for I can only describe the events, that I witnessed or that I was a part of, during the next 123 days of hell, on this beachhead, and then the 14th days of fighting, after we broke out of the beachhead, on our way to the city of Rome During the 4 months on the beachhead, the infantry soldier, was confined to a three foot wide, seven long, by two foot deep hole, that was called a Fox Hole, (by some idiot who had a strange sense of humor.) For the holes were too big for foxes and small for us men. In fact, it should have been called a grave site, for that is what it had become for many men.
During the day light hours; we were unable to leave our foxholes or to even stand up. In fear, that a German sniper would put a bullet in our head. The battle on Anzio was different than any other battle in Europe, for it lasted 125 days, on only about 40 square miles of land, only the Russian battle of Leningrad in 1941, lasted longer, for it lasted 872 days but on a larger area.
The General in command of the Mediterranean theater of operation was a British Field Marshall, who ordered this tactical attempt to bypass the battle of Casino. And achieve a major victory. In the next few weeks of combat, our American General, Lucas, who was in command of our force, on the beachhead was aware of the difficulty of this assignment, to avoid a defeat He decided to stop our advance in the middle of February and wait for additional troops and equipment, Unfortunately, most of our extra troops and equipment, in the Mediterranean theater, had been sent to England to prepare for the allied landing in France.
Our forces on the beachhead conducted several major attacks against the enemy, during the next few weeks of February without success, due to shortage of men and equipment that we processed. At the same time, the German army had been receiving men and equipment, from all over Europe, Even from northern France, whose mission had been to stop the expected allied invasion from England. They also fortified their positions on the Mountains, in front of our battle line. Hitler's instructions to his Generals in Italy, were to destroy and to capture all of the allied troops on Anzio. General Lucas's lack of success on the beachhead was not his fault, but still the politicians in London were disappointed. (They were the same geniuses that caused the beachhead disaster at Gallipoli in WW I) These geniuses decided that General Lucas was not the general, who would succeed in this mission, and so they demanded that he be replaced. I do not know which American general succumbed to this pressure that came from the Politian's. Maybe it was Eisenhower? I do not know, unfortunately in early February, three companies of Rangers were detected, by the enemy one night, as they were moving down a deep gully, this attack turned into an ambush and many Rangers were massacred. Only six Rangers managed to escape. Those that survived were captured, and taken to Rome and marched in disgrace.
On Feb, 16, to placate his British critics, General Lucas's superior American officer removed him of his command, and gave him a desk assignment; and replaced him with another American General. I suspect the British would have preferred an English replacement. Later General Lucas returned to the U.S. and was given a desk assignment. But he sadly died several years after. American Military historians, who reviewed this event, agreed with his decision, and decided that his actions probably saved the lives of many of the men on the beachhead. The above information was reveled several years after the war had ended.
Obviously, I and all of us lowly G.l.s took orders and did not have any ideas as to what was going on amongst the brass, or anything outside of our immediate combat area. And so these 40 square miles, of farm land, became our home and also a place where thousands of allied soldiers and sailors and female nurses were killed or wounded. And also thousands of the enemy troops (made up of German, Polish, Hungarian and troops and other nationalities) were also killed in the middle of February.
Meanwhile the German army at Anzio was reinforced by troops, from all over Europe and was now stronger than we were. We could not advance or retreat, (for most of our boats and heavy equipment had been sent to England, and we could not swim the 120 miles back to Naples) so all we could do was to dig in & fight to keep from being destroyed by the enemy. We than remained in our foxholes and bellyached to the buddy, who shared our foxhole, that is if he was still alive and not been replaced. But the German army would not leave us alone, for they wanted to destroy us. In fact, they wanted to take those of us, who had surrendered, to Germany, to parade in front of the great Hitler. But the American G.I. was as stubborn as a Missouri mule. A Creature that is a thick headed son-of-a-gun, who would not submit or ever give up. And neither did we want to give up our lovely foxholes.
By the end of February, only a few of the infantry men, who had landed on the beach at Anzio, had survived the many battles and skirmishes that we had fought, due to the deaths, wounds and sickness we had suffered. I must give credit to those troops, of other branches of the army, Navy and anyone else, who were also on the beachhead, they were the engineers, the artillery men, the hospital personal and all the others solders in the rear, for they also suffered greatly. Even those on the beach and the ships at sea, that brought us supplies, were also in danger of being shelled and destroyed by the enemy's (big Bertha) 250 Millimeter artillery gun, that was located in the mountains, a mile or so in front of us. Without the support of all those rear echelon, fellow soldiers, those of us on the front line, could not have survived.
One of the most painful and difficult duty, in combat, was the death detail. It was a sad duty, that we will always remember, it was necessary to remove the bodies of those, who were killed that day. This action could only be done in the safety, of the dark of night. Each night our officer would choose different men, for this very unpleasant task. There were times when it would take six men to carry just one blotted body, which had to be carried several hundred feet, behind our combat line, to a location, where the Graves Registrations men could reach, with their Jeep, in some safety. Our men would than throw the bodies on the road and run back to the safety of their foxholes, to avoid the shells that were indiscriminately fired in this area. The graves registration men would drive quietly and slowly, every night to reach a location near the front line, towing a small open trailer, behind their jeep. Upon arrival, they would pick up the dead bodies and literally throw them, one on top of another, as high as they could, onto their trailer. Sentimentalism was not a factor in this duty, when they finished collecting the bodies, they would quietly drive away and take them to the Graves Registration unit, that was located near the sea shore. The bodies were than identified if possible and then buried in a temporary cemetery on Anzio. This action was done by the men of the Graves Registration crew. Than this sad information would be sent back to the States, where a special military unit, would take this sad information, to the family of the deceased, this was the dreaded knock on the door, or the telephone call or the telegram, (during the war) that a family member dreaded and never wanted to received.
As for the wounded soldiers (if and when possible) a first aid man, or a Chaplin or a fellow comrade, would walk or carry the wounded, to the nearest first aid station, in the rear, for treatment, this was also done in the dark of night, A fellow combat soldier, who is a friend of mine, and also lives in Missouri, was one of those men in the Graves detail, a task and a duty that he detested. He later was transferred to L Company, were we became friends. He told me a few years ago, that he still has, nightmares of that sad assignment. (Unfortunately my dear friend, died of war wounds, last April, 2010).
On February 29th 1944, about 5 weeks after we had landed, on Anzio, we bore the brunt of the last major German army attempt to destroy the allied presence, on this beachhead. They attacked our sector at 6 a.m. of that morning; the enemy attack began with an artillery barrage on our position that lasted all day. On the morning of the attack, my Platoon Sgt. Who was of Swiss/German, back ground, and I thought of him, as a hero, we shared a foxhole, He sent me out at the start of the artillery barrage, to alert our men of a possible attack, but when I returned to our foxhole, I found that he was standing upright in our foxhole and not making sense with his speech, for he had lost complete control of his sanity, I called the first aid man and due to the artillery barrage, where shells were landing everywhere in our area, the medic and I made him lay down between us in the foxhole, and we both held him down, for the day long duration of the barrage, until dark, when we were able to send him to the medics in our rear, where he was then evacuated to a hospital in Naples. I have no idea what had happened, in those few minutes. Regrettably he never returned to our company.
The enemy attack continued for the next four nights and days, during that time, we were attacked by three divisions of German infantry, and numerous armored tanks and all kinds of other German army units. Our location was called ("LA FOSSO D FEMINA MORT A") which means ("the ditch of the dead women") during this attack; our company had orders to hold a bridge in our sector, where the German tanks had to cross, to continue their drive to the sea. It was a very difficult task, but we were successful in holding our position, at the cost of many of our men, (we had very little sleep in those few days) Thankfully, we received help from "Mother nature" who gave us great help, with her constant heavy rain, that turned the soil, into soft mud, and thankfully bogged down the tanks, as they had come within one hundred feet, towards our foxholes, preventing them from advancing.
The crews of the two tanks; that had sank in the mud, fired their cannons for a while, over our heads but then left their tanks and ran to the rear. A squad leader, Sergeant Shapiro was ordered to disable the tanks, which he did by going to them, under enemy fire and placed phosphors grenades in the barrel of the cannon and in the body of the tanks. This brave action saved the lives of many of our men. He was also given the Silver Star for his bravery.
In 2002, in a telephone conversation with my retired company commander, Col. Blakie, he informed me that our company had received, almost 22 men, from other units, each night, to replace those who were wounded, killed or suffered an "emotional breakdown" (a subject that is rarely mentioned by writers) these were the men who were shelled & and shot, day & night. They received more emotional pain, than they could take and would lose control of their minds and had to be removed, to a medical unit in the rear. Most never came back to combat duty to this place of "death and pain".
This battle continued for the next four days. During, these difficult days, we received many replacements, who were mostly rear echelon soldiers, they came from the motor pool, also cooks, truck drivers, and any other non-combat soldiers, who could fire a rifle and obey orders. These rear echelon men did not have any infantry training; nevertheless, they helped hold our line and the enemy did not pass. But we and the enemy, suffered many casualties of men and loss of equipment. This killing impasse, forced the German command to finally stop the attack, and return their attack troops to their original locations, much to our happiness, and to their regret.
On or about March 6th, our company was relieved by a reserve infantry company and those of us, who had survived the attack were removed back to the Pine Tree area, On our way back, a few of us were ordered to collect the few bodies that had been killed by an exploding shell, they were engineers who had been ordered, a few days before to blow up the bridge, where we were stationed, a few nights before. Unfortunately, a German 88 artillery shell exploded on the bank just above them, and killed all of the engineers in that area, consequently the German tanks did cross that bridge and attacked us.
As I reached to grab the leg of one of the dead men, who was laying at the edge of the stream and his legs appeared to be in the stream, I was shocked to grab an empty trouser leg, for his leg had been blown off. A few of us grabbed his clothing and lifted him out of the stream and then carried him to the body collection jeep, when the trailer was full, they were then taken to the rear. We than continued to our rest area, near the sea, where our Company, was than reorganized, and we were able to shower and clean up and also received new underwear and new clothing, Our Company also received new infantry replacements that had just arrived from the States.
For the next few days we rested. both mentally and physically, But too soon we had to return to out combat position on the front line, The life of an infantry soldier on the beachhead was very difficult, both physically and also emotionally. For example, only at night, could we leave the protection of our foxhole to relieve ourselves, only when it was possible, and if our area was not being shelled by the German six barrel 120 mm. mortars, (a terrifying weapon) or the German 88 mm. cannon, the best artillery cannon, in the war. Artillery explosions did the most damage for the concussion from the bursting shell could burst your ear drum or blow you apart and if you did not hear a shell coming, it meant you were dead. Or the German machine gun, that fired about six hundred bullets a minute, while ours fired about 200 shells per minutes, We were told by some brilliant engineer, working in a office in Washington, that our machine gun, was more accurate than the enemies, so it had to be better than the German gun, but a gun does not have to be better or accurate, when it fires, almost six hundred bullets at you. (It can't miss) Or the annoyances of being attacked by the single German plane, every night, that flew over us, in the dark of night, and dropped a few bombs, here or there, or the enemy's constant firing of their machine guns, to annoy us, and to keep us from sleeping. Constipation or Diarrhea was our constant companion.
It is strange, that the nation of Germany, which was once known for its advancement in science and humanity, had now turned into a nation, without a conscience and was now committing horrible acts of terrorism. I mention that, for they were using their artillery, to shell our large, tent hospital, which had been deliberately been located in a large open area, and had large red crosses, painted on top of every tent to identify it, as a hospital, at a non-combatant location. It's mission was to mend the wounds of injured men, it is difficult to believe that the enemy shells that landed on these large hospital tents, were accidents. For these hospitals were in sight of the enemy artillery spotters, and still they consistently and cruelly fired on, our tent hospital tents, causing the deaths of over nine female nurses and also killing the soldiers, who had been wounded and had been taken there, to be treated.
During times of peace in our sector, I would occasionally think back to when I as a youngster. I would sit in the corner, and enjoy listening to my father and his friends talk about their experiences in WW I on a Saturday night; one memory that helped to save my life in this war was the story of the "Creeping Barrages" a ruse in WW l. For in the dark of night, the enemy would attack our trench area, by having their artillery shells fall in front of our foxholes, and then slowly they raised the elevations of their cannons, so that the shells than begin falling behind us. This strategy was used to keep us down in our foxholes, by the exploding shells, and then followed by enemy's soldiers, who quickly would advance and then spray our foxholes with bullets, when we were not aware of this ruse. But I was aware of this tactic, so as soon as the enemy's shells began exploding behind us, I ordered my men to rise from their foxholes and began firing their weapons, spraying the dark area ahead with our bullets, as fast as we could fire our weapons. This WW I knowledge saved the lives of my men and also killed many of our enemy. For they did not expect to walk in to a wall of bullets.
Every night, our platoon Sgt. would send several men, back to our Captains location, to obtain our next day's food ration, drinking water, and most importantly, our ammunition. We never received mail from home, while we were in our foxholes. The only way we received news from the outside world, came from the new recruits, who came to us from the constant flow of replacements, who joined us to replace those who had left us.
One day I heard a new recruit, sing a song that did not make any sense to me, it went "Mares it dowse, and does eat dotes and little lambs eat ivy "I had no idea, as to what the heck that meant. (But it was a funny a song) Another memory of mine was the fact that we could not wash or change our clothes while we were in a foxhole; personal hygiene was a lost art. It is possible that the enemy did not attack us more often, was due to the fact that, "most times we all "stunk as bad as skunks." During the rainy seasons of late winter and early spring it constantly rained, which filled our foxholes with cold water causing them to become bath tubs. Unfortunately we did not have any soap, and could not dry our selves, for it hardly ever stop raining. Anyway, we did not have bath towels.
But in those few and precious moments of peace and quiet, we were able to close our eyes and momentarily leave our miserable surroundings and escape into our dear precious memories, Where we could once again visit our parents, our wives, girl friends, or meet with our friends, eating a pizza or drinking a glass of beer in our local restaurant, In those moments, of day dreaming, we could escape the horror and boredom, and the constant threat of death or being seriously wounded.
There were a few times when our company was replaced by another unit, and we were taken from the line and marched to the rear (in the pine area near the sea shore) at night, for a few days of rest and relaxation. We would get an outdoor shower, eat a hot cooked meal and get a change of clothing, and receive whatever mail had been sent to us, but held in the rear until then; we also have a chance to talk to other men of our company.
One day, I was walking alone, in the lovely Pine Tree area, near the beach, when I walked into a group of men, kneeling around an army jeep, its hood was covered with a white cloth, and on it, was a two foot high Cross, Standing next to the engine, was a officer who had a 5 inch white strip of cloth around his neck, the ends hung down his front. I had no idea what day it was, but I assumed it must be a Sunday, and the Priest or the Minister, was holding Sunday services or a mass, for the troops, I than joined this group, for I felt that I also wanted to be part of this gathering, Not really caring which religious group it was. I do believe that the Good Lord did visit us in our foxholes, in times of fear and danger, but I do not believe that the Good Lord would first ask us, what church, we attended or belonged to, before he would listen to us. And here in this place of peace, I could now pay homage to our Lord, and I did not care what or who this group was, for I believed; we were all praying to the same God.
Another sad memory, which I have never and will never forget occurred during when we were receiving a barrage of enemy shells, that were landing in our area, when one of the shells exploded on the edge of one of our buddy's foxhole, seriously wounding him. He immediately began pathetically screaming for help, for he was gravely injured, and hurting, but sadly, only the Good Lord could help him, for we could not leave the protection of our foxhole and go to help him, for shells were landing all around us, and we too, would have been injured if we left our foxhole. And even if we were able to get to our buddy, there was nothing we could do for him. It hurt us to hear him pathetically screaming, for help. The saddest moment of all is when we sadly wished that he would die and stop screaming, for we knew that he was greatly suffering and a quick death was preferable to what he was going through. And we knew that it could also be one of us, in the next moment.
We also knew that there were other problems or sickness that could happen to us in our foxholes that did not all ways, end up with our death, but could cause us great physical pain and suffering, such as an attack of Malaria, Jaundice, Diarrhea, trench feet, pneumonia, and Dysentery, which was the most disgusting of all the illnesses.
In the month of March, my company Commander, promoted me to Staff Sgt. to head a squad of men. I was then nineteen years of age, I must have been chosen, for I had seen more combat than most of the men in our company. My squad, was a group of ordinary young men of my age, all were about 5" 7' to 5" 10 inches in height, who took orders without question, none looked like john Wayne, for the John Wayne's, were busy working in the PX. or driving garbage trucks in the rear echelon. For on Anzio, tall soldiers were out of place in a two foot deep holes. They were probably excellent and brave in open areas, but not in a 2 ft deep foxhole. Their heads would be sure targets for German sniper, I was one of the fortunate men who had landed on the beach on Jan. 22 and had survived, every day of combat, without being physically wounded. But I am aware, that some of our most painful memories will remain with us, for the rest of our lives and will never leave our thoughts.
One very sad memory, which I will never forget, occurred one night when I as a squad leader, I went on a night patrol with one of my men, later when we returned to my squad area, I found a dead German soldier laying face down at the edge of my foxhole, and my companion, crouching with fear in our foxhole. This combat buddy had just joined me, a few days before, and he had continually talked about his new wife and how much he loved her. And that he lived in Evansville, Indiana, and they had moved into a new apt, before he left to join the army. He had not been in combat before. I asked him, what the heck had happened? He told me that the enemy soldier must have lost his way in the dark, and had walked right up to the edge of our foxhole, He was carrying a machine gun, and at that moment, my buddy pulled the trigger of his rifle and killed the German soldier with a bullet in his forehead, he had died instantly. My buddy was new to combat and alone and did not know what else to do. He was very upset and confused, asked me for permission to go to a nearby foxhole to talk to a friend. I told him that he could go, but to be very careful. I than examined the pockets of the German soldier's coat, to search for maps or any military information that he may have been carrying. Instead I found a billfold that had a photograph of lovely young German women with two young beautiful girls, who must have been about 6 or 7 years of age, sitting on her lap. But just at that moment, we received machine gun fire, from the enemy's position, which was located some distance in front of our position. When the gunfire ended, the man in the nearby foxhole yelled, to tell me that my buddy was dead; he was the only person who had been killed by that machine gun fire. I will never forget the irony of the moment, for in just a few minutes, two young men, had been killed, both fighting for their countries, two young wives, had now become widows and two young children were now, without fathers. I can never forget that memory, for in just a few minutes, so much sadness and pain had occurred, I have asked myself many times, why did that happen? I guess, only the Good Lord can answer that question.
During the lull in combat, that occurred during the early days of the month of May, a few of us, who had been on the beachhead since January 22nd. I received a four day leave from the beachhead and was sent to the City of Naples, for a four day "rest and recreation" leave. We traveled on one of the many supply ships, that traveled, the 120 odd miles, daily from Naples to Anzio; It was a treat to be once again inside a building for it had been many months since we had slept inside of a building. There we enjoyed clean beds to sleep on, clean clothes, hot meals and most of all, "peace of mind" for the next few days; we also visited the city of Naples. I do not think the people of Naples ever went to sleep; they appeared to laugh and sing all day long. I certainly enjoyed my visit to Bella Napoli. But the ecstatic feeling did not last long, for I was sent back to hell on next the day, and when I returned to my squad, the agony and the torture of battle, painfully returned.
Finally, on May 23rd 1944. After 123 days of hell. We were finally joined by two new Infantry Divisions, who had recently come from the states, and we also received new equipment. We now had the manpower and equipment, to attack the enemy and leave this "place of death and pain". All of our units began our attack, early in that morning, with our 3rd division band located near the line of departure, playing our division song, (The dogface soldier) we were finally were going to achieve the original objective, of last January. That was to capture the city of Rome.