A Veterans Day Tribute by Greg A. Hoots
Chapter 1: Before the War
I opened the lid of the big plastic storage container. The contents appeared in disarray; however, I soon realized that there was no organization to be had. There were stacks of notebooks, yellow legal pads, file folders, reams of loose typing paper, all covered in a very familiar script. Mama had given me the box, perhaps because I had once asked for her archives, as a bequest. But, these were Daddy’s memories.
I picked up the first page of yellow paper, reading the top line, “I have three children, all in their 30s, and none of them has ever asked me about my experiences in the War, and I have never offered anything.”
The words stung, not just with remorse for my omission, but with regret for my loss.
I put the page down and replaced the lid on the storage box, placing it in the corner of the room while stacking another box on top of it as if to insure its security.
A decade passed.
I expected to return earlier, but had found many reasons to leave the box closed, for, in fact, no one had asked me about it, and I had never offered anything. But, when I next opened the lid of the box, the contents remained unchanged.
The story can be understood better when placed in context with Daddy’s life before his war began. He was born on April 14, 1922, the son of Carl E. and Marjorie Foster Hoots, and the couple named him Carl Foster Hoots. When Daddy was born, the young family lived in West Plains, Missouri with Marjorie’s mother, Mattie Foster (later known as Grandma Beckley). In 1922, Grandpa Hoots was a young man, working as an electrician for the railroad, and life was good for the couple.
Daddy was seven years old when the economic collapse of the Great Depression rocked every corner of the country. Grandpa Hoots was laid-off from the railroad; railroads, themselves, were collapsing everywhere. Making matters only worse, a weather cycle of scorching hot summers paired with record drought, broken only by periods of flooding, seemed to grip the nation; and nowhere was the pain felt more than in the Midwest.
And, just when Daddy was old enough to enter public schools, the young family was forced to move in an attempt by Grandpa Hoots to find work. Grandpa was luckier than most. He had a trade, an electrician, an occupation which was still in demand in some parts of the country. So, the young family began a series of moves which followed the path of rural electrification across the Midwest. I recall it said that Daddy never attended the same school, two years in a row. One year the family moved; and when the job did not materialize, they had to move again, and before they were settled, the school year had elapsed with Daddy never enrolling. When the following fall arrived, the family found themselves in another town, and Daddy was simply placed in the next grade, skipping the missed year.
Once, Mama told me that she met Daddy when Grandpa Hoots was working on electric lines in Van Buren, Missouri. Daddy and Uncle Bobby, Mama’s older brother, were good friends, and when Mama inquired more about Daddy, Bobby mentioned that Daddy’s family didn’t celebrate Christmas. Daddy had a brand-new, red bicycle at that time in the middle of the summer, and he had explained to Bobby that the bike was his Christmas present, as they had not celebrated the holiday in December.
The sad truth was that many times the family was experiencing such dire economic conditions that they couldn’t afford to celebrate Christmas. So, Christmas would come when Grandpa landed a new job, and there was a little extra money to spend on such a luxury. Mama said that when Grandpa’s father, T.C. Hoots, had died during the thirties, Grandpa couldn’t attend the funeral as they had no money for him to travel.
I took another sheet of paper from the box. “Of all of the things that have shaped my life, more than anything else, the most significant influence on my life was being raised in extreme poverty.”
The family moved throughout the Midwest during the 1930s. I recall Daddy once saying, ruefully, they were just making the best of a bad situation. The “situation” crescendoed on Daddy’s thirteenth birthday on Sunday, April 14, 1935 when the family was living in southwest Missouri, not far from the Kansas and Oklahoma borders. A black blizzard, considered to be the worst dust storm in the nation’s history, sucked over 300 million tons of topsoil from the American prairie, blowing it across the Midwest. Although they lived on the fringes of the central path of the storm, the sky filled with dirt as the winds howled. History would remember the day as “Black Sunday.” Daddy contracted pneumonia, a form particularly found in children who were living in the Dust Bowl region.
In just a few years it became such that a life of great poverty was all that Daddy could remember. In the summer of 1937, Grandpa Hoots got a new job as rural electrification came to Carter County, Missouri. The family moved to Van Buren as Daddy entered his junior year in High School.
Daddy loved living in Van Buren. It was a beautiful place, the site of Big Spring, located on the scenic Current River, and he soon found new friends to accompany him floating and fishing. Grandpa had a new job, thus the red bike which Uncle Bobby had noticed. Daddy excelled in school at Van Buren, becoming a biology honor student and science club president, while performing in the junior play.
The year passed too quickly. And, as many times before, Grandpa Hoots announced that the work was done, and that they would be moving, again. This time, they were going back to West Plains. Grandma Beckley still lived there, and she wanted them to move back home. They returned to West Plains in 1938, renting a house at 1229 Webster Avenue.
Daddy was quite accustomed to changing schools by the time he entered his senior year at West Plains High School, and he became very active in school clubs and events. His yearbook reveals that he was a member of the Honor Society, the Quill and Scroll Club, the boys’ pep club, and he was the Editor-in-Chief of the Zizzer, the high school yearbook. On the 25th of May, 1939, Daddy graduated from West Plains High School in a class of 101 students, having just turned seventeen years old the previous month.
After graduation, Daddy immediately got a job working as a bookkeeper, 54 hours per week, at Redwine Oil Company, a gas station located on West 1st Street in West Plains. (A few years later, Charlie Phelps purchased Redwine Oil Company, creating Phelps Oil Co.) Grandpa Hoots was working as an electrician in West Plains, and things were finally showing promise.
Grandma Beckley owned a vacant lot located on West Broadway Street, which she gave to Grandma and Grandpa Hoots, and in 1940 Daddy began building a new home for his family to reside. It was a Spanish-styled house with a flat roof, the siding finished in stucco. He worked on the house for more than a year, while still working full-time at the gas station. The house was nearing completion in the closing days of 1941, and he hoped that the family could move into their new home by Christmas. It would be their first new-construction home. Daddy worked relentlessly to complete the house on schedule, never imagining what lay in store for him and his future.
Chapter 2: A World at War
Most of Daddy’s spare time during 1941 was spent working on the new house. Insofar as he was employed six days a week at Redwine Oil, Sunday was the only day which he could get a full day of work completed at the new house. Such was the case on the first weekend of December. Upon returning home, Daddy learned the grim news from his parents. It had been announced on the radio that the Japanese had attacked the United States fleet in Hawaii. While everyone was shocked, the ramifications of the attack did not become immediately apparent. But, the next day, on Monday, December 8th, the nation went to war.
The inevitability of his situation was clear to Daddy. After his graduation from high school in 1939, he had a lot of plans, but none of them included joining the military service. The very idea scared him. And, now, it was as if he had few options. Lots of young men in West Plains were enlisting in various branches of the service within days of Pearl Harbor, and it was obvious that anyone who did not enlist in the service would be drafted as soon as the call-ups began. “I didn’t have any choices,” Daddy would write later.
Daddy resigned his position at Redwine Oil, his first real job. He began working in earnest on the house on Broadway, hoping to finish it before Christmas. Christmas came, and the family celebrated the holiday at the rental house on Webster. Four days after Christmas, the house was finished, and Daddy and Grandpa Hoots moved the family’s belongings into their new home. When the last load was delivered to the new house, it was time for Daddy to go to the bus station. He had enlisted in the United States Army.
Daddy officially was inducted into the Army on December 31, 1941 at Jefferson Barracks, in St. Louis. It was as far as he had ever been from home. Soon, he would travel the world.
At Jefferson Barracks Daddy received his uniforms, his “dog-tags” identification, and his first “G.I. haircut”, a short crewcut given all new inductees. He was sent to Camp Grant, Illinois for basic training. It was at Camp Grant that he was assigned to the Medical Corps and given the classification of Medical Aidman. Daddy’s arrival at Camp Grant came at the coldest time of the year in a place where the winters were always brutal. It wasn’t long before Daddy was homesick for his life in West Plains.
Mama’s two brothers joined the service. Bobby was a gunnery instructor for the U.S. Navy throughout World War II, but he did not go overseas. As soon as Mama’s younger brother, Lascar, reached the age of 17, he enlisted in the Navy, as well, and he saw heavy action in the Pacific theater. Mama’s parents, Grandpa and Grandma Moore, and her sisters and younger brother had all moved to St. Louis in the summer of 1941. Grandpa Moore had been unable to find work since his defeat in the election of 1938 for the position of Circuit Clerk of Carter County, Missouri, and for over two years, the family had struggled to survive.
Mama stayed behind in Van Buren so she could complete her senior year in high school. She was the only one of the five Moore children to graduate from high school, a member of the Class of 1942. So, Mama got a job assisting a disabled woman in return for room and board. This allowed her to remain in school in Van Buren, where she had attended since the first grade. It was just a couple days before Christmas in 1941 that Mama sent Daddy a Christmas card to West Plains, in care of his parents. She had seen Daddy once or twice since the Hoots family had moved to West Plains when he had returned to Van Buren for fishing trips with friends. But, she had not heard from him since the war began.
By the time that the Christmas card arrived in West Plains, Daddy was at Camp Grant, but his mother had forwarded the card to him, and he received it while still in basic training. Daddy and Mama continued to correspond throughout his entire time in the Army. As soon as she graduated from high school in May of 1942, Mama joined her parents in St. Louis and began working in an Army ammunition plant where Grandma Moore was already employed.
After finishing basic training at Camp Grant, Daddy was sent to Ft. Ord, California to undergo sea-landing training. After enduring a bitter winter in Camp Grant, the sunny skies and palm trees of California were a welcome sight.
Daddy became part of the 3rd Infantry Division, one of the first American combat units to see action in Europe in World War II. The 3rd Infantry Division contained the 7th, 15th and 30th Infantry Regiments, as well as the 9th, 10th, 39th, and 41st Field Artillery Battalions, the 3rd Recon Troop, the 10th Engineering Battalion, the 36th Engineering Regiment, the 3rd Quartermaster Company, the 751st and the 191st Tank Battalions, the 441st Anti-Aircraft Artillery and Daddy’s unit, the 3rd Medical Battalion. The 3rd Medical Battalion provided battlefield rescue and care to all of the units of the 3rd Division, but virtually all of Daddy’s time overseas was spent attached to the 15th Infantry Regiment with some service with the 30th Infantry Regiment when the two regiments were combined. He was part of a collecting company of the 3rd Medical Battalion, medics who spent their time rescuing and treating wounded soldiers on the battlefield, then carrying them to ambulances or aid stations. Daddy’s attachment to the 15th Infantry Regiment was considered “organic”, as he traveled as a litter bearer with the regiment, providing battlefield rescues.
Secret plans called for the 3rd Infantry Division to land on the shores near Casablanca in French Morocco and fight their way across German-occupied North Africa to Tunisia. The beaches of California were ideal for practicing amphibious landings and beach assaults. While it was Daddy’s first time to see the ocean, the thrill was tempered by his impending trip across it.
For a boy from the Ozarks whose travel experience was limited to the path that his father’s search for employment took during the Great Depression, Daddy was seeing a lot of the country. After training for sea landings in California, the 3rd Division boarded a troop train, destined for Camp Pickett, Virginia, a staging area for the 3rd Division prior to their departure for North Africa.
The 3rd Division was part of the Western Task Force and set sail on October 24, 1942 from Newport News, Virginia on the troop ship, the USS Augusta, amidst a convoy of 105 ships destined for Fedala, French Morocco. The seas were rough, and as very few of the soldiers had seafaring experience, most were sick, at least for the first few days of the trip. Soon, the seasickness would be replaced with fear.
Chapter 3: A Taste of War
Daddy’s first amphibious landing came at Fedala, near Casablanca as part of Operation Torch, launched on November 8, 1942. The Western Task Force armada consisted of 35,000 troops of the 2nd Armored Division and the 3rd and 9th Infantry Divisions, all transported to the landing directly from the United States. Operation Torch included Allied landings across 500 miles of the North Africa coastline, placing a total of 107,000 troops on the ground in a battle which lasted a total of nine days.
The landing at Fedala, code-named Operation Brushwood, was the largest of the Western Task Force operations with 19,364 men assaulting the beaches. Rain and rough seas delayed the landing, but just before dawn the movement of Landing Craft Assault vehicles had begun. It was practice to assign a medical aidman for every company of soldiers in an amphibious landing, and the aidmen landed with their assigned units. Delayed by the choppy seas, the Augusta began unloading soldiers into the landing craft at 4:00 a.m. The marking boat that was meant to guide the landing craft to shore strayed off course in the rough waters and grounded, and almost two-thirds of the initial wave of landing craft crashed into submerged rocks at full speed, following the arrant lead boat.
French fighter planes strafed the beaches and landing craft, and sporadic machine-gun fire erupted along the beach as the first wave of Allied troops landed. Overhead, American fighters were engaging the French Air Force who were firing on the armada of troop ships just offshore. Daddy’s landing was delayed while the air and sea battle raged at the intended time of the 3rd Division’s disembarkment. The 3rd Division did not land until noon, and at 1:20 p.m., General George Patton, himself, stepped onto the beach at Fedala.
There was sketchy intelligence that gave the landing parties some idea as to what type of enemy resistance they might encounter at various points along the shoreline. Daddy, his tent-mate Joe Luduma, and an aidman named Henderson were preparing to join a group of landing soldiers. Joe Luduma recalls, “Carl and I and another medic named Henderson drew straws to decide which group of landing craft we would go with. Carl drew the shortest straw, so he went in where we thought the action would be the hottest. Henderson drew the long straw, and landed where there was the least chance of enemy activity. I drew the middle straw, and went into a fairly calm area, if our intelligence was right. Well, we all got into the various landing craft, the waves were high, we were all sick. There wasn’t too much fire when we landed. But, as soon as Henderson stepped onto the beach, he stepped on a mine and blew his feet off. We learned a lot about good luck, right then.”
While the movement of men onto the beaches was progressing with some success, the unloading of supplies and vehicles for the landing troops did not fare so well. The forward progress of troops inland on the second day was thwarted by the fact that by the end of that day, less than 4% of the equipment and supplies had been unloaded on the beach.
Fighting continued as the Allies moved south, and the aidmen from the 3rd got their first taste of front-line battles. As the landing parties from Fedala moved toward Casablanca from the north, fighting was sporadic, but at times, severe. By 6:00 p.m. on the third day of the operation, however, the French military surrendered, with only 36 Allied soldiers killed and 113 men wounded at Fedala. The entire nine-day Operation Torch landings across all of North Africa saw only limited Allied losses with about 500 men killed and 720 wounded. For the Western Task Force as a whole, 694 cases were hospitalized during the first week of the invasion. Of these, 603 were treated for combat wounds, 43 for injuries, and 48 for disease. Casualties were characterized as light, by the standards of warfare for the day.
After the quick capitulation of the Vichy French in North Africa, the 3rd Division waited to gather its vehicles and supplies from the ships offshore, allowing the green troops to rest from the rigors of their first invasion. It was at Casablanca that Daddy was able to write two letters home to his parents and Grandma Beckley. The West Plains Journal of February 11, 1943 reports on a front-page story of Daddy’s landing in Africa:
“His first letter, dated November, describes the place where his pup tent is located as wonderful, the flowers being beautiful, but much larger than ours, the geraniums having stems as large as his arm. The buildings are mostly of marble, but Carl says we Americans do not know how much we have to be thankful for as living conditions are terrible there.
He had just come through an invasion safely but had somehow lost his sleeping bag, which is valued more than anything else there. He had been offered twenty dollars for it. He is learning the French language from a 14 year old French boy.
His later letter describes his Christmas. He and some buddies cut a five foot cedar, and made snowballs of cotton and ornaments from tin cans for it. They also had turkey and all the trimmings for dinner, but it ‘wasn’t like Christmas at home.’ He received his Christmas package from home the 29th and in it his mother had sent 160 cakes of gum. Carl said of it, ‘I am the richest soldier in all Africa. I just sit in my tent and guard it as a miser guards his gold.’
Carl built a fine home for his parents after finishing school, helped them to move into it, but did not get to spend a night in it himself. He volunteered at the age of 19, served only ten months before he was sent across.
Carl’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Hoots, have closed their dwelling in West Plains and are now at Ft. Leonard Wood where Mr. Hoots is employed as an electrician.”
The 3rd Division spent the winter of 1942-43 in a cork forest east of Rabat. It was a time of limited activity for the Division, and with the few casualties that the 3rd suffered in the invasion at Fedala, there was, generally, a relaxed atmosphere tempered with impatience for something to happen. In February, members of the 3rd Division were called, seeking volunteers to serve as replacements for Allied casualties suffered in fierce fighting that persisted in Tunisia. Likewise, trucks and equipment were being sent to Tunisia along with the replacements.
Any such convoy of men would require medics to accompany the group in the event of injuries or wounds. Daddy and Joe Luduma were assigned to a truck convoy which traveled across Algeria to Tunisia where the equipment and men were needed. After the trip was complete, however, there had been no arrangements for the two medics return to Rabat. At the time, much of Tunisia was controlled by Axis forces. The two men hid in a roundhouse for three days, awaiting a westbound freight train. Finally, they boarded a 40-and-eight car, a railcar that could accommodate 40 men and eight horses. Two days later the two men arrived at Rabat and returned to the 3rd Division.
On March 7, 1943, Major General Lucian K. Truscott assumed command of the 3rd Infantry Division. Truscott had led the 60th Infantry Regiment of the 9th Division during the Operation Torch landing at Port Lyautey, Morocco. By the time Truscott arrived at the 3rd Division Headquarters in March, the men had enjoyed almost three months of inactivity in Morocco. Upon inspection of the troops, Truscott concluded that the 3rd Division was not battle-ready, and he initiated a series of training exercises to remedy the condition or lack thereof.
Just a week after Truscott’s arrival, the 3rd Division moved to Arzew, a port city north of Oran. The men traveled by motor convoy to Arzew where they renewed their amphibious landing training on the port’s numerous beaches. Daddy and the other members of the 3rd Division were also introduced to a new form of marching called the Truscott Trot. It involved the soldiers marching in full combat dress at a speed of five miles per hour for one hour, four miles per hour for two hours, and three and a half miles per hour for the remainder of a 30-mile march. Members of the 3rd also engaged in strenuous calisthenics and physical training that virtually equaled the physical and mental stresses of combat.
As the men of the 3rd Division were approaching complete combat readiness, the Division was called to join the war in Tunisia in an effort to serve a final blow to the persistent German forces in North Africa. On March 17th, the entire 3rd Division moved into Tunisia to reinforce the Allied troops that had been engaged there in a bitter and costly battle for months. The men boarded 40-and-eight boxcars for the trip from Morocco, crossing Algeria into Tunisia. The Division launched a diversionary attack on the rear of the German’s Mareth Line, and after two solid weeks of battle, the Allies had captured the port cities of Bizerte and Tunis.
As the Tunisian Campaign drew to a close the Army’s medical battalions were overwhelmed with casualties of a neuropsychiatric nature. The U. S. Army Office of Medical History published The Medical Department: Medical Service in the Mediterranean and Minor Theaters in 1965, noting the phenomenon, “The outstanding medical problem of the Tunisia Campaign was the unexpectedly high incidence of psychiatric disorders. Originally diagnosed as shellshock, following World War I terminology, or as battle fatigue, these cases constituted a heavy burden on forward medical units. In the absence of specialized knowledge on the part of regimental and division medical personnel, most of the psychiatric cases in the early stages of the campaign were evacuated to communications zone hospitals, from which less than 3 percent returned to combat duty.”
Fighting in Tunisia had been brutal with heavy losses on both sides. American casualties in the Tunisia Campaign numbered 18,221 men with 2,715 killed, 8,978 wounded, and 6,528 missing. The Office of Medical History quantified the significance of psychiatric disorders among American soldiers fighting in Tunisia, noting, “In the battles of El Guettar and Maknassy in southern Tunisia, psychiatric reactions were responsible for 20 percent of all battlefield evacuations, and for days at a time the proportion ran as high as 34 percent.” The problem would only grow as the men of the 3rd Division began their invasion of Italy.
Members of the 3rd Division were awarded their second battle star for the Tunisian invasion. The next objective of the Division would be the island of Sicily.
Chapter 4: Sicily
On May 15, the men of the 3rd Division marched out of Tunisia and into Algeria to the port city of Philippeville where sea-landing training resumed. However, the terrain at Philippeville was much more jungle-like than the beaches of Sicily, so the training was considered of limited value and thus abbreviated. On June 1, the 3rd Division arrived at El Alia, on the coast of Tunisia where they readied for the invasion of Sicily. The Division, in full combat dress, boarded ships loaded with landing craft, prepared for the assault on Sicily. The invasion was launched in the pre-dawn hours with the landing craft hitting the beaches under heavy fire. Hours later, the men were surprised to learn that this was a practice landing, code-named Operation Copycat. Many soldiers believed that they had, in fact, landed at Sicily and were shocked to find that they were still in North Africa. In early 1944 Daddy wrote of the “training periods before battle which are as bad as the very battle itself.”
The invasion of Sicily, code-named Operation Husky, began in the hours before midnight on July 9, 1943. It was mid-summer in Italy, the hottest time of the year. A harsh summer storm had brewed in the Mediterranean; the seas were extremely rough, and the rain was torrential.
Operation Husky was preceded by a top secret preparatory maneuver named Operation Mincemeat. Mincemeat, organized by British intelligence, was centered on the coastline where a dead body was planted in German territory, dressed as an Allied intelligence agent handcuffed to a briefcase containing top secret documents. The documents indicated that the Allies would make landings in Greece and Sardinia, rather than Sicily. The ruse completely fooled the Germans who moved much of their defenses to those island countries, leaving only 60,000 German personnel along with 230,000 Italian troops to defend Sicily.
If Operation Mincemeat had effectively fooled the Germans into moving troops from Sicily, the terrible weather had fooled the remaining Axis troops who believed that no army in their right mind would attempt a sea landing in the weather conditions faced by the Allies.
The seas were rougher than those at Fedala, and not only were many troops sick from the rough waters, the weather, itself, made the landing much more dangerous to the Allied invaders. Operating as an arm of the 7th U.S. Army, the 3rd Division and the 1st Division departed from Bizerte in Tunisia and joined the 45th Infantry Division which sailed from Oran, Algeria. The British 8th Army, the Canadian 1st Infantry Division and the 1st Canadian Tank Brigade joined the invading forces, along with 1st British Airborne Division and the American 82nd Airborne Division, all supported by the Eastern Naval Task Force, the British Mediterranean Fleet and the Western Naval Task Force. At its peak strength, the Allied invaders numbered 460,000 men, 14,000 vehicles, 600 tanks and 1,800 artillery guns.
The 3rd Division landed at Licata as high sea swells pounded the sandy beaches. The landing craft came under fire even before reaching the shore, and the American soldiers witnessed their comrades dying from wounds before even departing the boats. On the beach, the invading forces were met with sporadic machine gun fire from the defending Italian army, but by mid-morning, the Allies had overtaken the Italian defenders, and General Truscott went ashore, signifying the securing of the beach. Only 100 men from the 3rd Division died in the initial landing, which, by the standards of the day, was considered light. Trucks, tanks and guns poured ashore as the 3rd Division invaders took control of the shoreline.
Daddy landed at Sicily on Yellow Beach as part of the 15th Infantry Regiment led by Col. Charles R. Johnson. The 15th was positioned as a counterpart of a “claw” formation spanning the Green and Yellow Beach landing zones. Allied naval ships maintained a constant bombardment of enemy guns located behind Yellow Beach throughout the invasion, targeting an Italian railway battery of four 76-mm guns mounted on an armored train which had rained fire on the invaders on the beach.
The landing at Licata had been chaos; the high seas had delayed the landing and while resistance had been only moderate, there were many wounded soldiers needing aid. The first twenty-four hours on Sicily seemed to epitomize all of the perils of battle, but no one could imagine what the next night would bring. While the infantry landed 170,000 troops on the beaches along the south shore of the Italian island on the first day of the invasion, the 82nd Airborne Division dropped 2,200 paratroopers from the 505th Parachute Infantry into Gela, marking the first-ever use of combat parachute troops in the history of the war. Allied planes towed and launched 115 gliders, only 54 of which landed in Sicily, and only a dozen of those found their specific targets. Many gliders and their crews crashed into the sea. Allied fighter planes from Malta, Gozo, and Pantelleria patrolled the landing sites, repelling Axis air power, while formations of A-35 and P-38 fighter-bombers struck the main routes leading to the invasion beaches. Personnel carriers and cargo transporters lined the shorelines as the Allied invaders swarmed the beaches.
Allied plans called for another paratrooper drop on the second night of the invasion. This time, Colonel Reuben Tucker’s 504th Parachute Infantry was called into action, dropping 2,000 paratroopers from one hundred and forty-four C-47 and C-53 transport planes behind the enemy lines at Gela. On the night of July 11th, Tucker’s men lifted-off from dirt runways in Tunisia, crossing the Gulf of Tunis in the dead of night, flying without lights or radio communication. Gela is located less than 30 miles from the Licata beach where Daddy had landed just hours earlier, and the flight path from Tunisia took the paratroopers almost directly over Licata. All American naval forces were to be alerted of the 504th’s plans to drop troops; however, poor communications at the command headquarters apparently resulted in the failure to send the message. Paratroopers successfully jumped from the first two formations of aircraft, but suddenly an American gunner opened fire into the black skies filled with U.S. aircraft and soldiers. Other gunners took the machine gun fire as a cue and opened fire into the night, as well. American planes were shot from the skies, burning as they crashed; many paratroopers who managed to jump from the planes were shot as they descended to the ground. Twenty-three American planes were shot down, and three hundred and eighteen American soldiers were killed in the single largest friendly-fire incident in American military history. Some planes returned to Tunisia, damaged; one reportedly was riddled with over 1,000 bullet holes.
By the fourth day of the invasion, the objectives of the 7th Army had been achieved, and the American force was scheduled to defer to the British 8th Army that was given the charge to lead the invasion of Messina. General Patton had other plans, none of which involved deferring to a British force. To achieve his objective, Patton convinced Allied strategists to allow him to organize a “reconnaissance in force” to advance to the west to Agrigento. The group would include the 3rd Infantry, the 2nd Armored, and the 82nd Airborne who would make a 100-mile march across the island of Sicily to Palermo. The “Truscott Trot” allowed Patton’s troops to march more than 30-miles each day, arriving at Palermo ahead of the advancing British; and after three days of urban warfare, Palermo was taken by the American forces. Patton presented the city to the British 8th Army when that force arrived.
The 7th Army was then ordered to take Messina where the German army had made its final stand in Sicily. Four German Divisions defended Messina, and the mountainous, rough terrain made movement slow and difficult. The carries for the litter bearers became long and arduous as the terrain made warfare and saving lives more difficult. The 45th Infantry Division and the 1st Infantry led the assault on Messina, coming under severe attack near Santo Stafano. After the 45th captured the “Bloody Ridge”, the 3rd Division was brought forward on August 3rd, assuming the front line. The 3rd Infantry Division met the German 29th Panzer Grenadier Division near San Fratello, engaging in a series of bloody battles against the German force with the Americans sustaining high casualties. The enemy forces were dug into the rugged mountainsides and battled the invaders, hill by hill. The 15th Regimental Infantry, Daddy’s unit, suffered severe casualties at Mount St. Fratello, and was unable to make any headway. The 3rd Division was deadlocked with the Germans, forcing Patton to call for two additional amphibious landings on August 8th and August 11th, landing the 30th Infantry behind the German lines, trapping the enemy tank forces between the two prongs of the American forces. While the 3rd Division captured more than 1,000 German Prisoners of War in the action, the majority of the 29th Panzer Division eventually escaped to Italy across the Strait of Messina. The advancing 3rd Division Infantry forces faced a series of minefields and destroyed bridges left by the retreating German army. The American forces arrived in Messina on August 17th, only two hours after the last German transports had departed Sicily for Italy.
Allied medical staff saw a similar incidence of neuropsychiatric illnesses at Sicily as had been the case in the Tunisian Campaign. Logistics of the battlefield made treatment difficult, at best. The Office of Medical history writes: “The basic principle worked out in Tunisia of treating psychiatric reactions in the combat zone was the policy laid down for Sicily. In the early stages of the campaign, however, owing to the normal confusion consequent upon rapid movement, many cases did not go through the evacuation hospitals for triage but were evacuated to North Africa from the clearing stations with no treatment except sedation. Of those that did reach the evacuation hospitals, many had been three or four days in getting there, a delay that served only to fix the symptoms and make treatment more difficult. As a result, only 15 percent were returned to duty.
Later in the campaign, after the evacuation system had become more stabilized, half of all psychiatric cases were returned to full combat duty. For the campaign as a whole, 39 percent went back to the lines. Sicilian experience thus reinforced the conclusions of North Africa that treatment of psychiatric reactions must begin at once and that patients must be retained in the combat zone if they were to have a reasonable chance of returning to duty.
The most publicized psychiatric case in Sicily was that of a soldier slapped by General Patton in the receiving tent of the 93d Evacuation Hospital at San Stefano on 10 August. There had been a similar incident in which Patton had cursed and struck with his gloves a patient with a clearing station diagnosis of “psychoneurosis anxiety state.” Patton’s motivation in these cases was the sincere, if mistaken, belief that if he could make the men angry enough with him they would redeem themselves. The incidents were investigated by Brig. Gen. Frederick A. Blesse, Surgeon, North African Theater of Operations, U.S. Army (NATO USA), and Patton apologized to all concerned. Without in any way attempting to extenuate his actions, it should be noted that Patton himself was probably suffering from the accumulated tensions of the preceding weeks of intensive combat. He was on his way back from the front, where every available man was needed, when he stopped at the 93d Evacuation Hospital on 10 August, and was told by an apparently able-bodied man that he was not wounded but only scared”
If the battle conditions were not dangerous enough, 7th Army soldiers suffered almost 10,000 cases of malaria between the months of July and September of 1943 during the Sicilian Campaign. Seriously ill soldiers began to overburden the medical corps facilities, already overwhelmed with battlefield casualties.
The Allies had succeeded in capturing and occupying the island of Sicily in preparation for a much larger goal, the invasion of the Italian mainland. The planned invasion would mark the first time since World War I, that Americans were engaged in battle on the European continent. While the 38-day battle for the island of Sicily had been very successful by military strategists’ standards, on the ground it was a bloody mess, literally. The Allies suffered 24,850 casualties, including 5,837 killed or missing, 15,683 wounded and 3,300 captured, and that was the price of the victory. The Germans lost a similar number of men, 4,325 men killed 4,583 missing, 13,500 wounded and 5,532 men captured. The Italians suffered 189,578 casualties, including 4,678 men killed, 36,072 men missing, 32,500 wounded and 116,681 men captured.
When the Sicilian Campaign was all over, both sides moved to the next battlefield, with the Germans fleeing into Italy across the Strait of Messina, followed by their Allied pursuers, leaving Sicily a ravaged battleground. To the Allies, Sicily was just a steppingstone, providing valuable airfields from which to launch further attacks toward the Italian mainland. To the infantrymen on both sides of the battle, Sicily was just a place to kill or be killed.
Chapter 5: Salerno
After Messina was secured, the men of the 3rd Infantry Division were given a week to rest and a second week to prepare for their next action, the invasion of the Italian mainland. The fleeing German army had escaped across the Strait of Messina into Italy where other German divisions were digging-in, preparing their defenses against the anticipated Allied invaders. On September 9th, 1943, Allied forces launched the invasion of Italy under the codename, Operation Avalanche with the 3rd Division landing as part of the Fifth Army at Salerno. Italy had surrendered to the Allies just hours before the invasion was scheduled to begin, but that political settlement meant nothing on the ground. German forces were deeply entrenched in defensive positions, offering significant resistance to the invaders.
The plan for the invasion of the Italian mainland called for amphibious landings on the beaches of the Gulf of Salerno, followed by attacks on the seaport at Naples and the Foggia airfield. As the invasion was to begin, the Allied forces discovered that the bay at Salerno had been mined, and the invasion was delayed while the channels were cleared by minesweepers.
The initial landings were led by troops from the 36th Division with soldiers from the 141st and 142nd Regimental Combat Teams heading the fight. Both regiments met heavy resistance from the Germans on the beaches, coming under machine gun and mortar fire. The landing beaches at Paestum had been mined and two squads of the Mine Platoon of the 142nd Regiment began sweeping the beaches and disarming mines while under enemy fire.
As the 36th Division was suffering heavy resistance from the German defenders, the 3rd Division, still in Western Sicily, waited for the refitting of equipment, ammunition, and the nearly 2,000 fresh troops that replaced the 3rd Division’s casualties suffered in the island invasion. Orders called for the 3rd to depart with some dispatch and land in the Salerno Bay in support of the 36th Division.
While the 36th Division landed on September 9th, the 3rd Division did not make their landing until nine days later on September 18th. The 3rd Division landed at Paestum, and the 15th Infantry Regiment followed the path of the 36th Division troops, fighting their way, hill to hill, to Altavilla where the men of the 3rd suffered heavy losses on Hill 424 and Hill 315.
Heavy fighting continued as Allied forces moved northward across Italy to face the German line at the Volturno River. The British 7th Armored Division set to the task of taking the airfield at Naples while the men of the 3rd Division continued north of Paestum, taking Acerno on September 22nd and Avellino on September 29th in heavy fighting.
On the battlefield, litter bearers, like Daddy, begin to see an increasing number of cases of battle psychosis. By the time the 3rd Division forces had reached the mainland of Italy, psychotic breakdowns accounted for one out of every three men disabled in combat. Dr. Marc-Antoine Crocq writes of the high incidence of combat fatigue in Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, “Here, again, the sheer number of psychiatric casualties was staggering. For the total overseas forces in 1944, admissions for wounded numbered approximately 86 per 1,000 men per year, and the neuropsychiatric rate was 43 per 1,000 per year.”
The Army’s Office of Medical History notes that in the eight months between September 1943 and April of 1944, 72% of soldiers treated for neuropsychiatric illness in the battlefield were unable to recover to the point where they could return to duty.
Mental health treatment facilities were meager on the ground, while the number of psychiatric casualties grew steadily, and as the Allies moved onto the Italian mainland, the Army’s medical treatment resources were taxed beyond their capacity. The chaos of the overcrowded field hospitals was not therapeutic for soldiers suffering mental breakdowns from combat, and the shortage of beds made it additionally difficult to treat those suffering from combat psychosis. The Army’s medical staff from the litter bearers to the surgeons found the workload overwhelming and the future bleak. Secretly, they all wondered if they would be the next one to break.
Chapter 6: Crossing the Volturno
On September 15, 1943, even before the 3rd Division had made their landing in the Gulf of Salerno, orders came for the Division to proceed to the Volturno River and cross the waterway, to face a long series of fronts, as they push to the north. The German Army had retreated to the north side of the Volturno and had joined lines with German defenders entrenched in the mountains overlooking the river valley. While the Allies spent the last half of September pushing through the rough, treacherous terrain, the Germans had spent that time moving to the north, leaving a vast network of mine fields, blown bridges and hidden bunkers in the mountains containing machine guns, mortars and artillery guns. Behind those lines lay the German Panzer tanks, all readying for the Allied crossing of the river.
The plan for attack was complex. The 30th Regimental Infantry Team had suffered severe losses and was unable to move against the German defenders north of Paestum. Apart from their casualties, their equipment had become bogged-down in the heavy rain and muddy conditions on the ground. On October 8th, a decision was made to relieve the 30th, bringing the 45th Division, held in reserve, into the front line in replacement of the beleaguered 3rd Division soldiers. At that time, the plan was made for the series of crossings of the Volturno by the Allied forces.
Daddy was dug-in with the men of the 15th Regiment on the north face of Mount Tifata when the plan for crossing the Volturno River was penned. A long ridge line extended from Triflisco to the east, broken only by a narrow gap through which the Volturno River passed. So narrow was the gap in places, the men of the 15th exchanged small arms fire with enemy soldiers hidden in olive orchards on the opposite side of the gap. Highway 87 runs along the mountainous ridge, so any proposed bridge crossings of the river would need to be tied to that highway.
The plan for the 3rd Division called for the 15th Infantry to join with the heavy weapons companies of the 30th Infantry to create a diversionary attack at Triflisco with all of their available fire power in an effort to convince the Germans that this was the center of the attack, while the bulk of the Allied forces would make crossings a few miles to the east.
The heavily mined and booby-trapped roads slowed the progress of the men of the 3rd Division to the Volturno. But, by October 8th all of the Division had arrived in place, as scouting crews determined the locations where the crossings would occur. The 10th Engineering Battalion moved its bridge-building equipment into place to create crossing bridges for the jeeps, artillery guns, and light tanks.
The Volturno River was about 150-feet wide along the 3rd Division front and ranged in depth from three to ten feet. Because of the torrential rains the area had experienced, the river was running fast and was full to its banks. The shoreline was generally muddy, and on the north shore there was a ten to twelve-foot-high bank of mud along which the German guns and troops waited.
As the 3rd Division made their way to the Volturno, the distance for litter bearers to carry wounded men extended dramatically, as did the subsequent ambulance rides to clearing stations and evacuation hospitals. To remedy this situation, the 93rd Evacuation Hospital moved closer to the Volturno, and the 307th Airborne Medical Company arrived from Sicily by boat to establish a provisional evacuation hospital.
Increasingly, battlefield diseases from trench foot to typhus infected masses of troops, further burdening the makeshift medical treatment facilities. Housing those with infectious diseases among the wounded only complicated recovery of the wounded and provided little opportunity for treatment for those who were sick.
The crossing of the Volturno began on October 13th at 2:00 a.m. with men wading the river chest-deep in water, holding their weapons over their heads, while coming under heavy machine gun fire from the defenders on the north bank. Artillery fire from gun emplacements further to the north pummeled the Allied soldiers as they attempted to cross the swollen river in complete darkness. Ambulance loading posts were established along the south shore and litter bearers carried wounded men out of the river and into the ambulances for transport. Soon, the number of wounded far surpassed the capacity of the ambulances and pools of wounded men were established on the south bank, awaiting transport by clearing companies.
Engineering companies were busy constructing pontoon bridges across the Volturno under close observation and heavy fire from the German defenders. Several pontoon bridges were blown apart by German artillery guns before they were even complete. At least one bridge was damaged severely during construction when the pontoons were riddled with strafing from German aircraft.
Early in the morning of October 14, the 2nd Battalion of the 30th Infantry Regiment made their crossing at Triflisco, followed by Daddy’s unit, the 1st Battalion of the 15th Regiment, still under heavy fire. Daddy wrote of “bodies of men piled two deep near the bridge approaches.” When the last man of the 15th was across the river, all of the battalions of the 3rd Division were on the north side of the river. The price of the crossing was very high.
Chapter 7: The Winter Line
There was no time to stop for the men of the 3rd Division. As soon as the crossing of the Volturno was completed, the wounded were left behind for clearing companies to transfer to evacuation hospitals, and the Allied forces pushed to the north, relentlessly. The three battalions of the 15th reunited after the crossings, and on October 17th the Regiment began a slow and difficult push through the mountainous ridge east of the town of Pietramelera, taking Hill 446 at night, before capturing the town the next morning. As the soldiers of the 15th Regiment moved to Mount della Costa the Americans suffered severe losses with Company L’s ranks reduced to a mere handful of men. The surviving men of the company fought without food or water for two days before the German forces withdrew.
The 15th Infantry pressed farther into German-occupied territory and encountered fierce opposition at Roccaromana before taking the town on October 22nd. The men of the 15th pushed to the northwest, facing bitter fighting north of San Felice. Captain Arlo Olson, leader of Company F of the 15th, led his men in a brutal battle against machine gun bunkers, earning the Captain the posthumous award of the Medal of Honor for his heroism displayed in the days following the crossing of the Volturno.
The Allied forces were approaching the Winter Line, also known as the Gustav Line, a range of mountains even more rugged and treacherous than those the 3rd Division troops had just navigated in their invasion of Italy. The ridge of mountains stretched from the Volturno Valley to the Mignano Gap, and individual peaks in the chain measured more than a mile in height. As November 1st arrived, winter became another obstacle as cold rains and near-freezing temperatures plagued the Allied troops.
The 15th Infantry troops fought their way to Presenzano where they met bitter resistance, but the American troops persisted in their attack, forcing the German forces to retreat up the valley between Presenzano and Mignano. The men of the 15th then captured the high ground of Mount Cesima. Nearby, the 7th Infantry captured Mount Friello, located near Mignano. “Mount” Cesima was barely large enough to hold one battalion of men; however, the fleeing German forces had planted over 3,000 mines along the narrow paths that crossed the rugged hillside. Intelligence sources revealed that the mines had been placed, and most were disarmed. Soldiers nicknamed Cesima “mine hill.”
On November 5, 1943 the battle for Mignano began. The 3rd Division’s three infantry regiments were on the move. The 30th Infantry moved northwest through Presenzano, crossing the path of the 45th Division before launching an attack on Rocca Pippiorozzi at 5:30 a.m. on the morning of November 6th. Simultaneously, the 15th Infantry was moving down Mount Cesima into Mignano to Mount Rotundo and Mount Lungo. The 7th Infantry was battling the Germans down the northern side of Mount Camino toward Mount la Difensa. The conditions were rough; it was cold, wet, and there was very limited visibility in the difficult rocky mountainous terrain.
The 30th Infantry met heavy resistance as they advanced through the mountains, coming under “murderous” artillery and mortar fire on Mount Rotundo from German guns dug into the ground and camouflaged with vegetation. One arm of the 15th Infantry attacked Mount Rotundo from the south while more troops of the 15th passed through the then-abandoned town of Mignano, and on through the Mignano Gap where they encountered strong resistance from the enemy. The fighting was so intense that the 15th was unable to advance any further. The 7th Infantry fought for ten days to secure Mount la Difensa with battles being waged on mountain cliffs and crags. The defensive positions established by the German forces, along with further mining of the roads and paths, left the 7th in a precarious stalemate with the German army.
On November 6th a new offensive action was planned by the 15th and 30th Infantry for a coordinated attack on Mount Rotundo. The three battalions of the 30th launched attacks against the German positions and immediately came under heavy, continual shelling and mortar fire. The 1st Battalion of the 15th Infantry attacked enemy positions on the southwest side of Mount Rotundo, capturing hill 193, while the 2nd Battalion charged up the southern slope of the mountain. At the same time the 3rd Battalion of the 15th seized Hill 253 on the southern side of Mount Lungo. Both the 30th and the 15th Infantry came under heavy counterattack in a battle that lasted for five days. Each time the American troops would attempt to improve their positions, heavy counterattacks would thwart the progress of the men of the 3rd Division. On November 12th, after days of heavy fighting, Mount Rotundo was finally held in the hands of the Americans as the Germans moved further to the north. Although Mount Rotundo was in Allied hands, the stalemate at Cassino with the Germans persisted.
After the landing at Salerno the men of the 3rd Division had suffered immeasurably as they crossed the Volturno, followed immediately by intense mountain fighting. The toll on men and machinery grew daily. The Office of Medical History noted: “In the immediate combat zone, the problems of evacuation incident to a difficult river crossing were succeeded by those of mountain fighting in which the enemy was dug in on every slope in mutually supporting positions that commanded every access road and trail. Mines, booby traps, and snipers were everywhere. Each new advance was made in the face of machine gun and artillery fire from dominating slopes. The storming of mountain peaks was commonplace. Men suffered increasingly from exposure, and the strain began to show in a sharply rising incidence of combat neurosis.
The tasks of the aidmen and the litter bearers were the most arduous. Medical officers often worked at night by flashlight, with both doctor and patient concealed under blankets. Aid stations were generally 300 to 500 yards behind the point of contact with the enemy, but were sometimes as much as a week ahead of their vehicles, restricting them to such drugs and equipment as could be hand-carried. The numerous caves found in the Italian mountains were often used for aid station sites because they could be blacked out, and because they offered a measure of protection from rain, snow, and enemy shells. Collecting stations were eliminated wherever possible, but when used were 1 to 4 miles behind the lines, with clearing stations 6 or 8 miles farther to the rear. The irregularities of the front, however, and the exigencies of mountain fighting not infrequently brought clearing stations within range of enemy guns. Six-man litter squads were usually necessary, with carries often taking eight to twelve hours. When the corps medical battalions were drained of personnel, additional litter bearers were supplied from the combat units. Casualties among medics, and particularly among litter bearers, were high.”
The men of the 3rd Division were battle-worn and their supplies and troops depleted from the fierce fighting they had seen since the invasion of mainland Italy when orders arrived on November 15, 1943 for the 3rd to be relieved from combat, and on November 17, the 36th Division replaced the 3rd Division on the front lines. The soldiers of the 3rd were transported to San Felice for rest, refitting, and replacements.
The 3rd Division suffered over 16,000 casualties during the first two months of the invasion of the Italian mainland, leaving a scarred battleground behind. While 3,265 of the men lost were considered battle casualties, an amazing 12,959 of the total were considered non-battle casualties. For the medical staff on the ground, the number of dead, wounded, and disabled from battle was overwhelming.
Chapter 8: A Letter from the Front
The headline in the West Plains Daily Quill read, “He Resents Civilian Attitude Toward War”, with a smaller sub-line, West Plains Boy, Long on Battle Front, Writes That Some Editorial Comments Make Him Unhappy. The story reads:
“Carl Foster Hoots, 21-year-old West Plains High School graduate who at present is with a medical battalion of the U.S. Army somewhere in Italy, very frankly resents statements from editorial writers who say the boys overseas do not want to come home. In a letter to his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Carl Hoots of West Plains, who are employed at present at Fort Leonard Wood, gives a vivid picture of some of the things which make boys on the battle fronts eager for the war to be over so they can come home back to the safety and comforts of home.
Hoots, who is the grandson of Mrs. Mattie Beckley of West Plains, has been overseas the last 16 months, having gone to North Africa with the big Armada in 1942. He was first at Casablanca and later saw service in Tunisia, Sicily and in the Salerno Beach landing.
In his latest letter, dated January 8, 1944 he says:
‘Dear Mother and Dad;
I’m none too happy tonight as I’ve been reading some editorial comments from the papers concerning troops overseas. All of the ‘big shots’ who sit in their arm chairs and fight the war try to convince the public that the boys are happy overseas and don’t want to come home until it’s all over.” These statements Hoots brands as bare falsehoods, and his letter continues:
“They base their articles on interviews on the front, those troops being rear echelon troops, for they never get close enough to interview the infantry.
I think if everyone would read the article, ‘Thoughts in a Foxhole’ from the December Reader’s Digest, they would realize what the score is.
They don’t know what it is to lie in a foxhole in freezing weather, bailing water out with a helmet, eating cold food for two weeks at a stretch; reading a home-town paper about so-and-so home on a furlough after two or three years’ army training in the states; or some movie star or band leader being commissioned a captain.
The people who wrote these articles have never seen the blood spilled as I have. They’ve never heard hundreds of artillery shells whistle overhead, some landing within a few yards, sending buzzing shrapnel close over your foxhole—some even falling inside, burning your clothes.
They’ve never seen the cross fire of tracer bullets coming across the valley as you advance on every hilltop position. They’ve never moved along mined trails in pitch dark, falling into creek beds, wading streams and getting punched in the face with tree limbs. They’ve never felt the cutting of a 40-pound pack after walking for more than a dozen hours in the dust or the mud.
They’ve never drunk water from a ditch or shell hole. They’ve never carried wounded comrades over seven and eight miles of rocky mountain trails, at the same time dodging enemy patrols, lest you be captured. They’ve never talked to the Nazi prisoners who say their only purpose in continuing the war is to kill as many Americans as possible, so to make them pay dearly for the war.
They’ve never heard the demoralizing screech of falling bombs, each one falling nearer and the next one seeming as though it’s on top of you. They’ve never visited the well-filled cemeteries where comrades’ graves are marked by the white wooden crosses. They’ve never gone through training periods before battle which were as bad as the very battle, itself. They’ve never given up their Sundays and holidays. They still sleep under a roof on a bed, and can sit up in a chair. I still remember what those things are.
Summing it up—people making such comments are not qualified to do so, and if they were, their source of information is very inadequate to cover the subject—that being the true life and thoughts of a front line soldier who already is eligible to wear a half dozen battle ribbons and who has prayed every night for more than a dozen months that the terrors of war would by some means or other cease for him, that he might live once more.
I’m not feeling sorry for myself, for I consider myself lucky. But I do get burned up at the civilian interpretation of the war, and can’t keep from sounding off once in a while.
All is well with me, and I hope it’s the same with you.
Chapter 9: A Letter from Home
My earliest memory of understanding the concept of political parties dates to 1960. I was not quite five years old, and the nation was witnessing a vigorous campaign for the U.S. Presidency. I recall asking Mama what the difference between a Democrat and Republican was. Mama went to the other room and returned with what appeared to be a very old piece of paper, once folded, but stored flat between the pages of a book, typically our unabridged dictionary which sat atop a bookcase in the living room. “See this,” she said, “this is why we are Democrats.” It was a single-page letter on the stationery of the United States Senate, dated 1944. At the bottom of the letter it was signed by Harry S. Truman. “Harry Truman brought Daddy back home from the war. He very well may have saved Daddy’s life,” Mama said, almost reverently. I recall how I then began campaigning for John Kennedy everywhere I went, but nowhere more vehemently than at my dad’s favorite loafing place, Charlie Phelps’ gas station. My political declarations amused Daddy, causing him to grin from ear to ear. My folks never apologized for their politics. Franklin Roosevelt was a hero in our house, and Harry Truman was not far behind.
After Mama’s death, more than a half-century later, I asked my siblings if they had found the Truman letter among Mama’s things. Not only could the letter not be found among her possessions, neither my brother nor sister could recall ever seeing it.
More than fifty years after I saw the “Harry Truman letter”, I traveled to the Harry Truman Library, located in a struggling part of Independence, Missouri. The library was wonderful; one almost expected to see Truman, himself, step into the research room, as the entire building was steeped with his presence.
An archivist was summoned who conducted a short tutorial in research at the Presidential library, and within thirty minutes, a staff member brought me four archival storage boxes containing folders of letters from and to Missouri’s U.S. Senator, Harry Truman. Looking at the index of the archives, I had chosen three boxes, and the archivist suggested, “I’d take a look at box 124”, so I had added that box to my request list.
Box 124 contained more than a dozen folders filled with letters, arranged alphabetically by the name of those to whom Truman was corresponding. The letters were gripping. They were written by mothers and fathers, friends, and family members of soldiers and citizens who needed a favor from Senator Truman. Here was a letter from a man who was writing on behalf of a widow woman whose farm and home were being taken by eminent domain to make room for expansion of a military facility, and the Army was “trying to steal it from this poor widow,” the writer lamented to Truman. Truman replied that he would look into it.
As I pored over the letters to the Missouri Senator and Truman’s replies, I began to worry that I would never find the letter from Truman to my grandmother. I began to have doubts about my memory of that lesson in politics which I had received a half-century ago from my mother.
Then, I came to the final letter in the last folder in the box, written from U.S. Senator Harry Truman and addressed to Mrs. Carl E. Hoots. The real surprise, attached to the one-page letter from the U.S. Senator, was the original letter from my grandmother to Truman, that which had prompted his reply. No one in my family had ever seen it, as Grandma had not made a copy.
Grandma Hoots’ letter was four pages in length, handwritten, and almost every square inch of each page was filled. Her handwriting was neat, slightly slanted to the left, and while her composition was not perfect, her spelling was. She wrote:
Ft. Leonard Wood, Mo.
Feb. 4, 1944
Hon. Harry S. Truman, Sen. of Mo.,
Please read this letter in its entirety as it is not exactly a complaint and is all something I absolutely know as being did.
I live near an army camp (Ft. Leonard Wood) and am living in a camp where soldiers and their wives live. My husband is in Civil Service with the Post Electrical Engineers at the Fort. Our only son, Carl Foster Hoots volunteered his services to his country when Pearl Harbor was bombed, and since that day we have never seen him. He has been on every amphibious landing made in the Mediterranean area of the war, landing in Africa with the invasion. Tunisian campaign, Sicily with Gen. Patton, behind the Germans at Messina, Salerno, Italy landing, then Naples, the last we heard was in the mountains near Cassino. He was ten months in training in the U.S. and never received a furlough, although I, his mother, have an incurable disease. This is an explanation of why I am so unusually interested in what I am writing about, knowing that my son has been in an actual hell for the last sixteen months. (He is a medic with the Infantry.) While here at camp, I have saw things that are actually fifth column. I read some time ago a book had been dropped to Nazi’s to learn them to feign sickness. Well, that is nothing new here. I hear soldiers actually brag about contracting social disease so as to get out and not have to go across. One in the Station Hospital rubbed lye soap under his arms to make them raw, contracted a disease and was hardly able to walk, the last I heard. Some put on mental acts. The 75 Division thought it a great trick to “flunk” their tests so as not to get good enough to go across. This was division-wide, from non-com officers down. The thing that hurt me was they were not only shirking on their buddies across, but were not learning to take care of themselves and their men. The 75 Division started out made of young men that could of made a mighty fighting unit, but shirking was so prevalent that it really amounted to an unintentional 5th Column. The American people have lived so easy and free, we live so much for our individual selves we are easy dupes for such things.
I watched our National Guard from West Plains (my home town), called into service a year before Pearl Harbor, and were supposed to be trained, were still guarding Calif. Coast, the last I heard. I have watched the 6th and 8th divisions be carted back and forth across the U.S. the last two years, and they were so training weary, they would welcomed going across but got so hardened they did nothing but what they wanted to. They are across now, but look what that cost and could of taken off those who have fought so long and had not been the service as long. The boys here at camp get furloughs every few weeks. My son has never got one, and it is going on the third year since we have saw him.
The aviators, after so many missions get to come home. The Infantry soldier deserves as much if not more than the rest, and I am enclosing a clipping telling you how mine and the rest feel. His Captain wrote me he had been a good soldier and I would want him to be nothing else. He was not raised to be pampered but designed us a seven-room modern home, at eighteen years of age, and built it with only a few tools and never got to sleep in it a night as his country called and he answered. He was a National Honor student and a regular American, Missouri boy. He had so many worthwhile things planned (and still has), but he put them aside to do his duty. No matter how much patriotism those boys have who have fought so bravely, if they knew the attitude and things that go on here they would throw down their guns and crawl out of their frozen fox holes and tell us back here to take their places until we learn what we are fighting for.
My husband works with German prisoners, and though we do not want to like them, we cannot but respect them for they keep their bodies and minds occupied and obey their officers absolutely. They tell him they never in their lifetime had food as good as they have here now. I am not against that, as it will make them have a better feeling when they go home again and may prevent future war.
It isn’t only the soldiers shirking their duty. The civilian idea at the fort seems to be he is only there to collect his pay check. One foreman we know has made him a garden tractor on government time, material and tools. I think he is now making an outboard motor for a boat and knives in between. I just heard over radio the South was experiencing the best tourist season in years and more money to spend. I wonder what the boys who never had a furlough fighting for the same tourists think about their vacations and money to gamble that should be in bonds?
I felt I was helping a little and had saved waste fat. My husband was at a mess hall and saw them take four hams and trim pounds of fat off them, wrap it up and stick it in the fire. There was more fat burned up than the average house wife has in a year.
It is a joke, I don’t really know if true, but told on Medical Induction Boards that a great many cannot tell the difference between drug sickness and real ailments. If these things are going on every place, it is a big hindrance and injustice to our fighting men.
These may seem small things, but I think our country was founded on equality for all, and if any deserve it, it is our fighting Infantry soldier. Can’t you do something to bring the deserving home and make everyone do his part?
I do admire you and feel you have did so much to keep graft and wrong doing down and in so doing, shortening the war.
I remain one of your voters,
Mrs. Carl E. Hoots
Lequay, Mo. Buffalo Lick Bx.
Attached to this letter was a copy of Daddy’s January 8th letter home. Attached to those documents was Senator Truman’s reply. He wrote:
February 10, 1944
Mrs. Carl E. Hoots
Dear Mrs. Hoots:
I read with interest your letter of February Fourth and the one from your son which you so kindly enclosed. I agree with you that there are slackers in and out of the armed services, and the selfishness and greed that I see in all walks of life is sickening. However, with all of our imperfections, and inequalities, I think that the vast majority of our people are doing a good job and that we are winning the war.
Your son is a good soldier and a good citizen, a matter for which you may feel justly proud. After all, in this as in other duties, a man is principally responsible to God and his own conscience.
Harry S. Truman
Perhaps it was because the carbon copy of Truman’s letter bore neither the letterhead nor his original signature, but the Missouri senator’s letter seemed much less significant than I had remembered it being when I saw it last in 1960. Far more compelling was the handwritten plea from my grandmother to Senator Truman to do something to help the long-fighting men of the infantry. Her plea was not just for my father’s sake, specifically, but for all of the deserving soldiers who had fought long and hard.
Chapter 10: Anzio Beach
Once the 3rd Division was pulled from the line, the unit moved to San Felice where the men were allowed a short rest while replacement troops were introduced to the unit and expended ammunition and equipment were replaced. There was much talk that the Division would make yet another amphibious attack somewhere above the Gustav Line, and there was lots of speculation as to where and when that would be. Some rumors even predicted that the 3rd was going to be moved to join a planned invasion of France from the English Channel.
On December 28, 1943 plans were announced for Operation Shingle, which called for a seaborne invasion of the Italian mainland at Anzio and Nettuno by America’s 3rd Infantry Division and the 1st British Division. The plan initially called for the force to rapidly move inland before turning to attack the rear of Field Marshal Kesselring’s troops who were stalemated with the Americans at Cassino. Unfortunately, the plan never came to fruition, resulting in a four-month standoff at Anzio, and a heavy price was paid in human lives as a result.
For Daddy, it was just another D-Day invasion. He expected it to be much like the three major landings that the 3rd Division had already made. And, he expected the war to only get worse; that, too, had been the trend as every battlefield was worse than the one before it. Even with the cynicism of the combat veteran, he could never imagine what lay in wait for him at Anzio. And, while Daddy had somehow been able to maintain some semblance of sanity in the nightmarish battlefields of Sicily and Salerno, what happened at Anzio simply pushed him to his limit.
The men of the 3rd Division boarded ships at Naples on January 21, 1944, setting sail for Anzio that afternoon. The invasion was scheduled to begin at 2:00 a.m. on January 22nd. The landing took place flawlessly with virtually no enemy resistance, and by 4:30 a.m. all six waves of landing parties had landed on the beach and were organizing the units. Soldiers of the 15th Infantry Regiment captured a single German vehicle and took the occupants prisoner at 4:10 a.m., but other than that, there were no reports of enemy activity during the landing. At 9:15 a.m. the 3rd Division Command Post was established on the beach, and the landing was declared a huge success.
On January 23rd, German forces began moving with great dispatch to establish a main line of resistance (MLR) at Cisterna de Littoria extending to the northwest along the railroad line. Along that line German machine gunners dug into the foundations of farm houses and other buildings, prepared for a fight.
On January 25th the 2nd Battalion of the 15th Infantry joined with the 1st Battalion of the 30th Infantry, launching an attack to the northeast of the Anzio beachhead toward Cisterna at 5:00 a.m., meeting with heavy resistance just a mile and a half beyond the Mussolini Canal. The units were ordered to hold an outpost position when they could make no more progress, as plans were being made for the 1st Battalion to join the attack to the left of the 2nd Battalion. Meanwhile, the 1st Battalion of the 30th was engaged in a fierce battle to secure a junction on the Ponte Rotto Road.
After a day of rough fighting, both the 2nd Battalion of the 15th and the 1st Battalion of the 30th had held their ground and even improved their positions by the time the 1st Battalion of the 15th joined the fight at 2:00 p.m. on January 26th. The 1st Battalion pushed northeast, meeting heavy German resistance, but they held their line through the night. On January 27th the 3rd Battalion of the 15th arrived on the front, replacing the battle-worn 2nd Battalion that was then held in reserve.
On January 28th the men of the 15th and 30th were dug-in along the front lines between the beachhead and Cisterna, holding their positions. Company A of the 15th repelled an enemy counterattack at dawn against a platoon of German soldiers, destroying two armored vehicles in the process. At the same time, Company I of the 30th Division attacked a pocket of German resistance on their right flank, resulting in a fierce fire-fight against heavy machine gun, mortar and artillery fire.
Night patrols by members of the 15th Infantry on January 28th and 29th detected a strong enemy force dug-in just north of the 15th Regiment’s lines. The forces were facing each other, each planning their attack.
The Divisional attack on Cisterna was planned for the early morning hours of January 30th. At 1:00 a.m. the 1st and 3rd Ranger Battalions, the famed Darby’s Rangers, backed by men of the 15th Regiment, led the attack to the north, initially meeting little resistance. Then, at daybreak, just 800 yards short of Cisterna, the Rangers, carrying light arms, came under intense fire from tanks and self-propelled guns. Within just a few hours 761 of the 767 Army Rangers were killed or captured. The 1st and 3rd Battalions of the 15th Infantry launched an attack toward Cisterna, and by noon they were engaged in heavy fighting some 2,000-yards from the site of the massacre of the Rangers. Similar attempts by the 30th Infantry to reach the Rangers were unsuccessful.
On January 31st the 2nd Battalion of the 15th Infantry joined with the 1st Battalion of the 30th, attacking the German lines at the Conca-Cisterna axis at 2:00 p.m., meeting with severe resistance. Despite fierce fighting, the men of the 15th were only able to advance 2,000 yards at a cost of many casualties. Both units were forced to stop short of Cisterna because of the heavy resistance and horrific casualties. The American forces were simply overwhelmed by the firepower of the seven German divisions which had amassed along the north boundaries of the Anzio beachhead.
The first battle of Cisterna lasted only three days but inflicted very heavy losses on the forces of the 3rd Division. The battle also signaled the beginning of a four-month siege of Anzio, one which was filled with terror for the soldiers trapped on the marshy beachhead.
February saw continual action for the men of the 3rd Division. The organization of the individual Battalions within the 15th Infantry was changed to create a three-tiered front along the Cisterna lines. On February 6th the 15th engaged in heavy fighting, repulsing a German counterattack against the U.S.-held front. On February 7th the men of the 15th engaged in fierce house-to-house fighting at Ponte Rotto but only succeeded in taking four houses at a heavy cost without reaching their objective.
On February 5th two giant railroad guns began a siege of firing 280-millimeter shells from the hills onto the American and British positions on the beachhead. The massive guns, dubbed “Robert” and “Leopold” by the Germans, were hidden in railroad tunnels and rolled into place for firing and then moved into the tunnels out of sight of Allied aircraft. The devastation caused by the giant shells was enormous and frightening for the troops on the ground. The first day the guns fired 15 rounds on the Allied positions on the beach. Allied troops nicknamed the gun “Anzio Annie” or the “Anzio Express,” and shelling became an everyday event. The targets were strategic; in one day the gun sank an American harbor vessel and badly damaged a freighter and a destroyer. On February 16th “Annie” rained 50 rounds on the 3rd Division positions. Another night, the massive railroad guns fired eight shells which hit a fuel dump which burned for three days. The two massive guns destroyed 182 tons of ammunition on a single day and then bested that record by destroying 353 tons on ammunition on another. The guns destroyed 233 tons of ammunition, 5,000 gallons of fuel, and sank a landing craft in the harbor on a third day. In a siege of incessant firing between February 5th and May 18th the German railway guns fired thousands of shells onto the beach at Anzio, destroying ships, ammunition, fuel, and striking terror into the Allied soldiers on the beachhead. At Anzio, shrapnel wounds accounted for nearly 80% of the battlefield casualties, as the fire from Anzio Annie and other artillery guns was relentless.
During the night of February 7th the Germans launched yet another counteroffensive against the 15th Infantry troops along the Cisterna-Isola Bella axis. Enemy forces also attacked Company K of the 30th Infantry at midnight, but the attack was repelled and the men of the 30th held their ground.
The Anzio beachhead had once been a swamp, and the Italians had created a maze of canals and pumps to drain the swamp and reclaim the land for olive orchards and other agricultural enterprises. Once the Allies had made their landing on the beach, the Germans occupiers shut off the pumps that kept the former swamp dry by diverting the water to the canals. As the beachhead was under continual artillery and sniper fire, no one was safe above ground during the day, and men dug foxholes and bunkers to escape shrapnel from exploding shells. Because the beachhead was located at sea level in a former swamp which was below sea level, the foxholes filled with water, daily. To add to the troops’ misery, heavy rains fell in the fall and winter months, making life on the beach very difficult.
The attacks came day or night without warning. On February 12th, Company C of the 15th Infantry was attacked at 3:30 a.m., forcing the outpost to contract before fighting back to their positions by 5:30 in the morning.
As mid-February arrived, there was increasing activity from German patrols that tested the Allied lines, seeking information that would guide them in an impending attack. An increasing enemy tank buildup near Cisterna signaled the refitting and reinforcement that was taking place in the German ranks. Reconnaissance patrols reported shortly after midnight that a major enemy attack was imminent, and at 4:30 in the morning the sky over Anzio exploded with Allied artillery fire aimed at the German forces gathering on the mountainsides to the north. The barrage continued non-stop for over an hour, and at daybreak the enemy answered with an enormous artillery attack against the beachhead. As the sun rose, enemy infantry troops began a ground assault against Allied positions, leading the way with mortar and machine gun fire. By 7:30 a.m. the 1st Battalion of the 30th Infantry and Company B of the 15th Infantry were under attack by German ground troops. While the men of the 30th and the 15th were able to repel the attacks and maintain their positions, the 45th Infantry Division, on the far left flank of the line lost almost two miles of territory to the German counterattack, and on February 19th the 30th Infantry Regiment joined with the 6th Armored Infantry Regiment to reinforce the 45th Division that had suffered heavy losses. The American reinforcements bolstered the 45th Division’s weary line and after a day of hard fighting and heroic actions, many enemy soldiers had been killed and hundreds taken prisoner.
The German forces seemed to contract after the attack of February 16-17, however, intelligence sources warned of an even larger impending attack. The lull in action lasted for twelve days, and during that time the German army was readying its forces for an attack which they hoped would clear the Allies from the beach for good. The attack was planned for February 29th, and the Germans brought five divisions to the battlefield to face the 3rd Division. The Americans faced the 362nd Infantry Division, the 26th Panzer Division, the 715th Infantry Division, the Hermann Goring Panzer Division, the 20th Panzer Grenadier Division and the 114th Jager Division, along with the 1028th Grenadier Regiment (Motorized) and a battalion of Special Forces called “zbV7”.
At daybreak on the morning of February 29th, the enemy attacked the 15th Infantry just south of Cisterna with machine gun and tank support while simultaneously bringing fire on the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion and the 7th Regimental Infantry along the Allied lines. Fighting was fierce against all 3rd Division positions throughout the day and casualties were very heavy. The battle continued the following day, and the 7th Infantry engaged in two more days of intense fighting, sustaining heavy losses.
On March 2nd, the Germans launched a tank attack on the 15th Infantry, and after a day of heavy fighting, a company of enemy soldiers was repulsed and eight enemy tanks were destroyed. By the end of the day on March 3rd the four-day enemy offensive ended and the German army returned to its defensive positions. The battle was characterized as a defensive success as the enemy suffered heavy losses of machinery and men, and over 300 German prisoners were taken.
On March 8th all of the men on the front lines were given a two-day break at a “rest camp” about five miles from their front lines. It allowed the men to take a hot shower, shave, receive new uniforms and sleep on cots for two nights. The men had been on the beach at Anzio for seven weeks, and the two nights off the line were well-deserved.
Throughout mid-March, small patrols from the 15th and 30th Infantry continued to work nightly, and it was noted that the enemy was slowly increasing its presence along the American lines. The numerous farm houses that scattered across the swamp-turned-farm became the site of many small but violent skirmishes as American scouts learned that virtually every farm house had become occupied by enemy guns.
At 9:00 a.m. on March 28, 1944 the 3rd Division was officially relieved of command of the sector at Anzio as troops from the 34th Division began replacing the men of the 3rd on the front line. The 3rd Division men enjoyed two weeks of rest from combat until orders came for the Division to relieve the 45th Division beginning on April 11. By April 16, the 3rd had moved into place with the 7th and 30th Infantry Regiments on the front line and the 15th Regiment in reserve. The 45th had been under steady assault from the Germans, and such was the case when the 3rd Division took their place in line.
Through the last half of April the 3rd Division launched a series of small offensives and battles that served to adjust the front line position while attacking specific enemy positions along that line.
Incessant fighting continued throughout the first three-quarters of the month of May as Allied and German forces skirmished daily along the front lines. Throughout the month, Allied commanders were making plans for the breakout from Anzio. The main thrust of the push northward would be fought at a familiar place along the front, the German stronghold at Cisterna di Littoria.
Chapter 11: Cisterna di Littoria
I find a sheet of lined paper, and at the top of the first page, in Daddy’s handwriting, is a short mathematical calculation. He is subtracting 1944 from 1979 with the resulting product written, 35 years. I deduce that he had written these pages when I was 23 years old, having just begun my career. It struck me what an enormous divide there was in my father’s life experience at age 23 and what my own had been. He writes.
“Every person’s life has a day, when all of the straws which have been piled on top of him becomes too much, and a final straw breaks the camel’s back. All of the tolerable straws had been added to mine by the time January 30, 1944 arrived, exactly 35 years ago. It was 1:30 a.m. at Anzio, Italy. About 1,700 scared and anxious American soldiers were ready to go trap a division of even more anxious Germans, hoping to render them useless as a fighting force.
As it turns out, it was like a small dog catching a car running at 50 miles an hour. What could we do with it if we caught it? Only a day or two earlier, General Lucas’ beachhead commander had told us that we might have to evacuate the beachhead, but then Churchill had demanded that they ‘keep ‘em there and make ‘em fight.’ Sir Winston and Alexander had ordered this invasion and had ordered that it could not fail at any expense, even though neither General Clark nor General Lucas thought there could be success in the venture.
That night, as we marched in stealth, all of the Company Commanders had their troops along the ditches on the Anzio-Cisterna Road. A cold rain was falling. Italian 77 and German 88 artillery shells bracketed the road sides and already the cry for medics was ringing from every deserted farm yard.
At about 2:00 a.m. there was a terrible explosion at the Netturno port. The waiting attack unit witnessed a 330-foot ship completely blown from the Mediterranean Sea and out onto the sand dunes. The explosion flash was as bright as the noonday sun. It settled and burned from the ammunition aboard, creating a bed of molten red-hot coals. The commanders, who had told us that 4:10 a.m. was the attack time, now said it’s now or never!
The surprise element had been eliminated, and as we swept along the road and across the fields, some 48 machine guns raked the roadsides. Artillery fire doubled, and as many as 300 guns, usually used by the Germans as protection against aircraft, became personnel weapons.
For the next 14 hours I couldn’t believe what I saw. How could things get any worse? I had already witnessed 90% of the men in the Infantry Companies fighting on Hill 315 die. I had seen us shoot down 75% of our own paratroopers during the Licata attack. I had seen whole engineering companies killed at the Volturno River crossing where the ditches flowed 3-inches deep in blood. But, this was the first time I had witnessed my fellow soldiers dying at the rate of 2-per-minute, all around me. By ten o’clock in the morning there were hundreds of Germans in full-view with machine pistols ablaze, gunning to death the same wounded soldiers I was trying to save.
One young wounded soldier I treated told me of laying at the edge of a drainage ditch, pretending to be dead when a German officer came along and kicked him twice in the head with a heavy field boot. The soldier said he made no sound, hoping the German would assume he was dead. As I treated the soldier, he said that he had been prepared for the first kick, but had nearly cried out when the boot came a second time. I treated the soldier and dug a hole for him and me to burrow into.
At about 11:45 a.m., I could see another American soldier nearby, still alive, but wounded. Earlier, I had seen the Germans take my Company Commander and 1st Sergeant prisoner, and curiously, I felt that this was some consolation for what was happening to us. There were Germans everywhere I looked, behind, in front, and on both sides of us. The second live soldier was a 3rd Division Infantry Corporal who had been shot in the thigh. When no one seemed to be looking, I raced to the man and lifted him on my back, carrying him back to the hole in the drainage ditch bank which I had dug for the other wounded man. The second man had been shot with a large caliber shell through the thigh and was bleeding badly. I applied a tourniquet, and covered the three of us and the entrance to the hole with weeds.
As the wounded men and I talked over a strategy to escape to a point of safety, we could see about 200 to 225 Americans sitting on a bridge near Cisterna. We later learned that these men were all that was left of our two Ranger battalions. They sat with their hands on their heads. At the edge of the group, six or seven men suddenly stood and started to run. Several machine guns fired, cutting them down. Now, more men jumped up and tried to flee, meeting the same fate. Finally, the German machine guns opened fire on the remaining prisoners, not stopping until no one moved. This all took place about 600-feet from where the two wounded soldiers and I lay in a brush-covered hole.
I thought I might be able to make a run for it, to somehow find help for us. I told the two men that I’d be back for them, and the soldier with the thigh wound, said, “never mind, just try to save yourself.” I started down the drainage canal the way I had come when I saw seven or eight German soldiers coming toward me. They were shooting into the bodies strewn along the ditch, making sure everyone was dead. I noticed that they weren’t shooting the ones in the water, so I stretched out in the edge of the freezing water and pretended to be dead, remembering the first wounded man’s story of survival. As they passed me, one German kicked the helmet of a dead soldier only ten feet from where I played dead. I peeked up from the blood-colored water of the drainage ditch and could see more German soldiers ahead, between me and the position held by the 15th Infantry Regiment, so, when the first group passed and were out of sight, shaking from the cold, I snuck back to the dugout where the two wounded men waited.
Then, as suddenly as the Germans had overrun us, they seemed to disappear, but the two men and I still hid until almost dark when we welcomed an American recon jeep that came to our rescue. The few survivors who were left got to ride back to our lines in a dozen recon jeeps and a couple of 3rd Medic ambulances which were looking for anyone left alive.
At 8:30 p.m. I was summoned to General Lucas’ headquarters where I was asked the details of the ill-fated attack. I could only tell of the mass killings and the terrible fear when one finds himself almost alone among a six-division force of enemy who were killing all of my comrades. I thought it had been much worse than it was. 149 men of my unit of 850 had gotten back to our lines. It was not so lucky for Darby’s Rangers, only six of those 767 men had survived, and I treated two of those surviving Rangers for shrapnel wounds, leaving only four unscathed in the attack. And, I had watched more than two hundred Rangers’ last moments on earth. Although this had bent me to a breaking point, it is only now, 35-years later that I’ve said anything about it.
Chapter 12: Daddy’s War Ends
It was February 1944 and the war was beginning to drag, endlessly, for the American troops mired in battlefields on the Italian front. Until that time, the War Department had developed policies regarding the draft of young men into the military, as well as rules governing those who enlisted in the various branches of service. However, there had been no policy for the rotation home of any soldiers except airmen. Until that time, only a few soldiers, including enlisted men and officers, had been rotated out of the battlefield and returned stateside on a case-by-case basis. The numbers were sketchy, and generally speaking, there was no specific period of time that one could spend overseas which would qualify them for returning stateside. Then, on February 17th, 1944 the War Department issued new guidelines for the rotation of troops. The new policy required that soldiers in the North African Theater serve a minimum of 18-months overseas before they could even be considered for rotation stateside.
The new policy outlined the purposes of rotation as being three-fold.
- To insure efficiency of a command by replacing those who do not require hospitalization, but whose morale or health has been adversely affected by prolonged periods of duty under severe conditions, and whose effectiveness cannot be restored by rotation within the theater.
- To return to the continental United States experienced personnel for use in training and in the formation of new units, or for other purposes.
- To return by replacement therefor, personnel considered by the theater commander as deserving of such return. Men who have been wounded in action more than once, even though released from the hospital to full duty, are to receive consideration in this connection.
On their arrival in the United States, personnel sent back under the rotation policy will be granted sufficient leave of absence or furlough by port or station commanders to enable them to spend three weeks wherever they choose.
The commanders of all of the divisions of the Army would continue to make the decisions as to exactly who, if anyone at all, would be returned stateside under these guidelines and who would remain in the hellhole of the battlefield. The decision-making was not an easy task. The standards required that only battle-hardened soldiers were eligible for rotation, yet it was the battle-tested and proven soldiers that the commanders needed so desperately on the front lines.
Insofar as the first men landed in North Africa on November 8th of 1942, the first men would become eligible for rotation in mid-May of 1944.
But, for the soldiers on the front lines, there was no end of the war in sight. From the beginning, casualties had been high, unthinkable by today’s standards of warfare. The losses in men included not only the dead, but also the wounded, the men taken prisoner, those missing, as well those soldiers suffering from traumatic stress.
One night in 1970 Mama, Daddy, and I were seated on the couch watching television. We only got one channel from our little antenna, so it was easy to decide what to watch. That night it was a “doctor’s show”. In the drama, a medical technician performs an emergency tracheotomy. Out of the blue, Daddy said, “I performed a tracheotomy on a man once.” I immediately asked, “What happened?” “He died,” Daddy replied, saying nothing more.
On Tuesday, May 16, 1944 Daddy was ordered to report to his commanding officer’s tent. He could not imagine why he, a dog-faced Private First Class, would be called on report. He walked into the tent, saluted and reported for duty. He was given the news that everyone had been wondering about, the 3rd Division was leaving Anzio, for good. It was the kind of news for which he was unprepared to react. He had never expected to leave Anzio. While Anzio was a hellhole on earth, would Rome and then Germany prove to be any less deadly and nightmarish? But, it was big news.
His commander was not done with him. There was more news, his commander told him. Daddy would not be accompanying the 3rd Division to Rome. He was going home. Daddy was stunned. His commander handed him a military-green piece of paper; typewritten words filled the top one-third of the page. At the top and bottom of the orders in capital letters was the word, RESTRICTED. Written between were the unbelievable words; he was being rotated out of combat. It was the orders to extract him from the combat theater. Daddy was among the first soldiers to be rotated from the 3rd Division subsequent to the new rotation policy enacted in February. It was overwhelming. He carefully folded the green piece of paper in half, then half, again, and once more and put it in his pocket where it remained for his final two weeks in Italy.
So, the war was ending for Daddy, but it had not happened, yet. He was still at Anzio, and there were still dying men to rescue. The news spread fast among the men at Anzio that the breakout from the beachhead was imminent. On May 23, 1944 the Allied forces at Anzio launched an all-out offensive, the Second Battle of Cisterna, which would end the four-month siege on the Italian beach. The first day of what would be known as the breakout from Anzio was the deadliest of the war. The battle was brutal with enormous casualties suffered by both sides. The 3rd Division suffered 995 battle casualties in a single day, the most severe single-day losses by a division in Army history. It was Daddy’s last battle and one that he did not expect to survive.
The second siege of Cisterna pitted the 3rd Division’s three infantry regiments against entrenched German artillery positions fortified with tanks in a battle that lasted three days. The second battle of Cisterna was costly to the 3rd Division; 1,400 men of the 3rd were killed or wounded. But, in the end, that was the price of victory.
The Battle of Anzio began on January 22, 1944 and ended on June 5, 1944, lasting an incredible 136 days with 43,000 Allied casualties, including 7,000 men killed and 36,000 men wounded or missing in action. The price of victory was high at Anzio.
Daddy survived the final battle of Cisterna, and a week later he boarded a ship headed home.
On June 6, 1944 the Allies stormed the beaches at Normandy, and forever, that day will be known as D-Day. June 6th found Daddy in the Atlantic, aboard a Liberty ship returning to Virginia. The vast majority of the men aboard the ship with him were German prisoners of war, being sent to camps in the United States. Then, there were the badly wounded American soldiers, men without their arms and legs and worse, yet. And, there were the men with the invisible wounds. These were the lucky few who were handpicked to return to the United States.
Daddy always thought that all of the D-Day landings that the Allies had made in the Mediterranean had been overlooked by history. (D-Day was a military term in which “D” designated the day a battle began. In military parlance, every day after “D-Day” was designated D+1, D+2, etc.) He believed that the term, D-Day, became colloquialized to refer to the Invasion of Normandy, while the numerous D-Days in the Mediterranean were simply forgotten.
In June of 1986 Daddy wrote of what he felt was a slight to the men who fought and lived and died in multiple D-Days in Italy and North Africa. He writes: This week the media has attempted to bestow the credit and honor due World War II vets. It seems that their research seems to indicate that the war started and was won on Omaha Beach.
By June 6th I had been overseas nearly 19-months as an infantry aid man with the 15th Infantry Regiment. I had given lifesaving aid to over 800 men and made 4 amphibious landings from Fedala, North Africa to Anzio, Italy. During those 19-months the men of the 3rd Infantry Division had won more honors than all other divisions combined. Accomplishments included the invasion of Africa, mopping-up the 80,000 German troops at Bizerte, a terribly fouled-up landing at Sicily followed by a 160-mile walk to Messina, the Battle of Hill 315 where only 15 of our men survived, the Volturno River crossing where the enemy destroyed a pontoon bridge 5 times before it finally was installed as a crossing with dead men lying 2-deep around the approach as the ditches ran red with blood. Other exciting experiences included a dozen dive-bombing attacks, twenty machine-gun strafings, 115 morning assaults, 150 shelling barrages of 88-mm guns and 81-mm mortars as well as hundreds and hundreds of rounds from the great guns known as the Anzio Express.
At Anzio in the next to last offensive, the 15th and 30th Regiments sent 1,350 men into what was known as the first Cisterna assault and only 149 men returned. This happened the same day that I witnessed the remains of two Ranger battalions being executed by machine gun fire after they had surrendered to the enemy.
On the front and along the way, I witnessed the loss of several hundred bombers, B26-24’s and 18’s. It was a traumatic experience for us Americans and even worse for the enemy. And, it all happened before June 6, 1944. All for 9-cents per hour.
Once Mama told me that when Daddy came back from the war, it was all he could talk about. He would stay up all night, telling her the details of his time overseas. She recalled that she would get so tired, she would fall asleep, and he would become angry, thinking that what he had to say was mighty worth staying awake to hear. By the time I was born, he had stopped talking about it.
He writes: I’m outraged when I hear someone say, “We ought to go over there and straighten that mess out.” I’m pretty sure that they were never over there doing the straightening—and I’d bet they are not worrying about want and waste, and I would also bet that they are the ones that gripe the most about paying taxes or the rise in prices.
For 35-years I didn’t let the Anzio siege get to me, but occasionally, I would get perturbed when someone would say, “How many Germans did you kill?” It really gets to me, but I play it cool, and calmly answer, “Not any, but I did help save the lives of 800 Americans.” That usually shuts them up. In fact, they usually are embarrassed that they asked the question.
I served 1,351 days in the Army for $2 a day. 586 days of that were overseas, and 266 days were on the front line of combat. Though I’m a little bitter about the monetary rewards I received, I am thankful that I can feel that I am enjoying the reward of knowing I helped so many of my comrades live.
Chapter 13: Back to the Truman Library
The elation which I felt in finding the correspondence between Grandma Hoots and Harry Truman was somewhat tempered by what I felt were some unanswered questions about Truman’s role in bringing Daddy home from the war.
I returned to the Truman Library; this time in search of what Truman might have done to return Daddy to the states, beyond authoring the letter to Grandma. I knew that if Truman had taken any steps to ask for Daddy’s transfer stateside, there would be a record of his actions in the Library archives. There were archival boxes of documents labeled, “War Department, Transfers”, organized by date.
Within minutes of my arrival at the Truman Library, an archivist wheeled a cart of gray boxes to the table where I sat. I opened one box and found the file for correspondence dated January 1944–June 1944. I removed the folder, placing a marker in its place, and read twenty or so letters written to Truman along with his replies.
Many of the letters were desperate and heart-wrenching. Here was a letter from a mother in Southeast Missouri whose two sons had enlisted in the army, just days after Pearl Harbor. The men had gone through basic training together and had been shipped overseas together. One of the brothers had been killed, and the mother was begging Senator Truman to bring her other son back to the United States. She had told Truman, understandingly, that if he couldn’t do anything for her or her only remaining son, she would understand, as it was a perilous time. Truman wrote to the mother who had already sacrificed so much, saying that her son had died a hero, making the ultimate sacrifice, as had she. But, the final paragraph said, “I regret to tell you that there is nothing that I can do to honor your request. If I were to try to intercede on your son’s behalf, it might just make things worse for him with his superiors, who might perceive it as politicians meddling in the Army’s business.” Senator Truman recommended that she urge her son to consult his commander, as all personnel decisions were made by the military.
The next letter was from an old friend of Truman’s, a Democratic Party boss from Kansas City. A mutual friend of the writer and Truman had a son who had enlisted in the Army and had requested that he be assigned to the Army Air Corps. The writer noted that the young enlistee was a licensed pilot, having more than 200-hours at the controls of an aircraft. While the enlistee had been promised the opportunity to attend Army flight school, just before he was to be sent there, the Army announced that the flight training school was cancelled. The Army had enough pilots, plenty of them. But, they were woefully short of infantry men, and that is where the young man had been assigned as a rifleman. Truman’s old friends beseeched the Senator, to intercede on the aspiring airman’s behalf, saying to Truman that the soldier’s talents were being ignored.
Truman replied with a warm greeting to his old friend, noting how nice it was to hear from folks back home. But when it came to the meat of the letter, Truman was adamant. He replied that he was “unable to honor this request”, as the Army commanders made all decisions concerning manning, and that “it would only go worse for the young man” if Truman were to intercede on his behalf. He went on to say that, unfortunately, the Army had plenty of pilots but was woefully in need of infantrymen. He added that the writer should recommend that his friend advise the soldier to contact his immediate superior relative to any request for transfer.
The letters continued in a similar vein. Every plea was compelling, not unlike the four-page letter penned by my grandmother. And, Truman was steadfast in every reply, regardless of the gravity of the plea. “There is nothing I can do to honor your request at this time.”
I realized that aside from what my family always perceived as Truman’s role in transferring Daddy from the front lines, that the Missouri Senator was not directly responsible for Daddy being transferred stateside.
I looked back at the notes that I had made while talking with Joe Luduma in 2000. “What can you tell me about my dad’s time in the Army,” I had asked in a very general way. “Well, don’t you know what he did?” Luduma replied in an almost accusatory manner. I confessed that I didn’t know much, at all. “Well, Carl was a litter bearer the entire time he was overseas. That’s all he did, rescue wounded men from the front lines. Me too, except I got lucky, when we got to Anzio I was transferred to the field hospital, but Carl never got off the front lines, he was a litter bearer the whole time.” My next question was more direct, “How is it that he got to come home after Anzio?” Luduma replied, “That was the Red Cross, they came and got your dad and sent him back stateside. It’s because he was the last Hoots. If he had gone on and gotten killed, there wouldn’t have been any more Hoots, there wouldn’t have been you.”
The movie, Saving Private Ryan had been released a couple of years earlier, so I thought I’d ask daddy’s tent-mate if he’d seen the movie and what he had thought about it. “Yes, I saw it,” Luduma said, pausing for a second. “It was pretty good, but there were a couple things that weren’t realistic.” I interrupted him, asking what those things were. “Well, for one, on the part about the landing, there was a wounded guy and he was bleeding badly, and the aidman washed the wound out with water from a canteen. You would never do that. Always, it was compression on the wound; washing it out would only cause your patient to lose more blood. That was a big mistake. And one other thing, at the end, when the platoon finds Private Ryan and tells him they are there to take him home, he refuses to go. Nobody I ever knew would have said or done that. It was a gift from heaven to get that paper…the orders to extract. No one wanted to stay there, everyone wanted to go home as soon as possible. Everyone. We all knew the longer you stayed there, the more likely you’d be buried there.”
I looked back over Daddy’s coveted military orders to extract him from Italy. There seemed little doubt in my mind as to who was really responsible for rotating Daddy out of combat. Daddy’s orders were by the command of then Brigadier General John W. O’Daniel, commander of the 3rd Division. Undoubtedly O’Daniel’s decision was recommended by Daddy’s former commander of the 15th Infantry Regiment, Lieutenant Colonel Charles N. Johnson who was O’Daniel’s Chief of Staff. Both men’s names appear on the orders to remove Daddy from combat.
For whatever his reasons, Lt. Col. Johnson made the recommendation that Daddy be returned stateside. Johnson had been the Commander of the 15th Regimental Infantry, Daddy’s assigned unit, throughout the landings in North Africa, Sicily and Italy. Daddy had done his duty and given all he could in his effort to save his comrades’ lives. In nineteen months he had gone from a carefree boy from the Ozarks with big plans to a grizzled war veteran who had seen more death and anguish than was even imaginable in the civilian world.
Chapter 14: After the War
Daddy arrived on the mainland of the United States on June 14, 1944, and he traveled across the country by train to Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis. Mama was there to meet him at the train. With three weeks of leave at hand, Daddy and Mama traveled to West Plains by bus to see Grandma and Grandpa Hoots.
Two weeks after landing on the United States mainland, Daddy and Mama wed at West Plains. The couple honeymooned for a week in Mammoth Springs, Arkansas, after which Daddy went to his next assignment in the Army, a job as a clerk at Camp Barkeley, Texas. After a few months, he was promoted to the rank of Corporal and transferred to Camp Atterbury, Indiana to an Army Separation Center where he worked processing medical discharges until the end of the war. While Daddy served an additional year after returning stateside, his time in the Army in the United States was a world apart from his time in Africa and Italy.
Daddy received his honorable discharge from the Army on September 14, 1945, twelve days after Japan surrendered aboard the USS Missouri. He was paid $300 in separation pay, but the Army could only afford to give him $100 at the time of his discharge, and they sent the balance a few months later. When his separation pay was final, he qualified for unemployment compensation.
After Daddy’s discharge from the Army, he and Mama returned to West Plains where they made their home.
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