Sixty-six years after American soldiers declared victory at Anzio, Italy, one of its heroes took time to pen reflections of that battle, one of the bloodiest of World War II. With his permission I share his thoughts. I think you’ll appreciate a little more what a fighting man faces in battle as this Princeton, N.C., living legend takes us back to one of the several battles in which he was engaged.
2nd Battalion/15th Infantry Regiment/3rd Infantry Division
Anzio is about twenty miles below Rome. We were to land and cut the two highways (No. 6 & 7) that the Germans used to supply their troops on the Casino front in southern Italy. Our troops had been bogged down there for two months. We had hoped this action would make it easier fighting for them to break through the German lines and meet us at Anzio.
We landed at Anzio about 2 a.m. Jan. 22, 1944. We moved in and met little resistance. We had few troops to consolidate our defensive positions and prepare for counterattacks that we knew were coming.
The beachhead we had established was 10 miles deep and 15 miles wide. If the Germans had broken through, there was no place to go. We had to fight for our lives.
In front of us was the enemy and behind us were the sea and a long swim to Naples. By the time we got enough troops to help, it was too late. We were stuck in foxholes and bunkers in mud and water up to our boot tops. We just rolled up in our shelter halves and blankets and tried to make the best of it. I might add winter in Italy is rainy weather. It seems like almost every day.
Continuously subjected to everything they could throw at us, we were there for four months (January to May). There wasn’t a safe place on the whole beachhead. Overhead, planes were bombing and strafing us with machine guns. There were all kinds of artillery, railroad guns (Anzio Annie), rifle fire and snipers all over the place.
They had six barrel mortars we called Screaming Meemies. One could hear them winding up in the mountains, a very eerie and frightening sound. They also had the 88mm artillery piece they used against tanks, planes and personnel. This was the best weapon in either army. Most artillery had long whistles before they landed. It gave you a little time to seek cover, but the 88mm made almost no whistle, no warning.
We had the flat land and they were in the mountains looking down our throats. In the day time we stayed in our foxholes without getting out until night. Any movement brought on a flurry of artillery mortar or sniper fire. Some of us were lucky. On occasion, we captured a house we slept in until we were bombed or run out by artillery or tanks.
The Italian house was fairly substantial. It was built of heavy cement blocks. It took a lot of fire to level it. Each house was a valuable piece of property and very well defended. Some of our heaviest fighting took place attacking or defending them.
I had seen a lot of dead soldiers but the first one I actually saw die was a boy in a house that had been shelled and fallen in on him. We dug him out. When I held his hand, I felt a little squeeze. His lips moved and quivered and then I felt his hand go limp. I’ll never forget his look or the feeling I had at that moment.
The day in and day out fighting took a heavy toll. We had a lot of trench feet and shell shocked troops. Occasionally you see a soldier in a daze wandering around not knowing where he was. The front was saturated with mines, barbed wire and flares. Engineers from both sides would go up and do their thing. After four months of this, the whole beach was a big mine field. It was not safe anywhere on the beachhead. Even the hospitals were shelled and bombed.
The Germans made two full attacks to push us in the sea. The first was Feb. 16. We lost some ground, but recovered. The second all-out attack was Feb. 29 (leap year). It lasted three days. They had put five divisions on our one (3rd Infantry) and dislodged us temporarily. But after three days of hard fighting, we pushed them back with the help of our reserves. From then until May both sides were defensive in nature. There was a lot of patrolling and probing for weaknesses.
It was three months of wet, cold and pure hell.
We were relieved on the front by another outfit. We returned to a wooded area near the beach where we trained to break out of Anzio. We also trained to get our legs back in shape after having been held up for so long.
We moved back into the lines May 21 to spearhead the breakout. We knew they would be hard to dislodge as they had four months to dig in, sandbag, lay mines and barbwire and bring in more troops to defend against us. We had built up troops and supplies for the big attack to break through their defenses.
Shrapnel in the butt
The night before the 21st, we moved up to spearhead the breakout of the beachhead the next day. All night long our artillery, 50 caliber machine guns, tanks and planes pounded the German positions. We jumped off around dawn.
At first the resistance was very stiff and then we had a little breakthrough. We were chasing some of the enemy through the wheat field when two machine guns opened up on us from our flank. We jumped back in a ditch belly first.
My foot struck a trip wire to a mine that had been planted in the ditch. The next thing I remember the medics had me on my stomach with my pants down and my shirt off. I felt fluid running down my leg and thought half of my leg was gone.
What I had felt was water from my canteen. The medic said I had a lot of shrapnel in my butt and up my back. I was carried to the evacuation hospital back on the beach for a couple of days where they put bandages all over my backside. Then I was moved to a general hospital in Naples.
Hit by friendly fire
After a few days there, the order came to the hospital to send the walking wounded back to the front. There had been so many badly wounded during the push from the beachhead that they had to make room for them in the general hospital.
Although well bandaged, I could walk, so back to Anzio I was sent on an LST (Landing Ship Tank). I found my outfit had been accidentally bombed by our own P40s. The bombs had landed right in the middle of my platoon. One had landed in the jeep my lieutenant and two sergeants were riding in. There were just a few left in the whole platoon. I know I would have been right there. Another near miss!
Wounded were calling for their mamas and God
When I returned to the beach there was a jeep waiting to take me back up to the front which had moved up closer to Rome. It was at night when we reached my outfit. They were coming out of a big field where they had been that day so we waited at the road.
As they came out to the road, a German plane (Bed-Check Charlie) flew over and dropped butterfly bombs right in the middle of them. The jeep driver and I heard the plane, so we jumped in a culvert under the road as the bombs rained down.
We heard the boys screaming for medics, their mamas, God and anyone else who could help them. We got out of the ditch and assisted the medics. I remember helping one medic turn a GI over on his stomach. He had a big hole in his back. The medic lifted the front of the stretcher, and I was going to lift the back. The medic lifted the front before I had a good hold on the back. The blood poured out from his back all over me.
I finally got up with my platoon about two days before we rode into Rome on tanks. There were seven boys left that I knew. The rest were replacements. Our next stop was amphibious training back near Naples for the invasion of southern France.
Thanks for bearing with me on my feeble attempt to share with you some of my rambling observations and personal experiences during my four months on Anzio and the breakthrough.
There is absolutely no way to say, describe or explain the misery one feels living in muddy foxholes, being pounded constantly by so many different ways you could die and watching it happen almost daily. (Written by Raymond Sugg, former staff sergeant, U.S. Army, June 1943-November 1945).
More about Raymond in future columns as he transitions from an Army hero to a civilian one. I’ll spend some time at a Memorial Day service tomorrow. Will you?