Days before Normandy, 'Texas Army' triumphed in Italy
By MICHAEL BARNES | Austin American-Statesman | Published: June 5, 2019
Seventy-five years ago, on June 6, 1944, more than 160,000 Allied troops under Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower crossed the English Channel and landed at Normandy in the largest seaborne invasion in history. The landing involved more than 5,000 ships and 13,000 aircraft in a complicated and bloody assault on seasoned German soldiers, well-bunkered in occupied France.
While June 6 is a date remembered around the world, just a few days before, the Texas National Guard's 36th Infantry Division – known as the "Texas Army" – had pulled off a brilliant overnight maneuver known as the "breakout at Anzio," which led to the immediate fall of Rome on June 3 and 4.
Although more than one memorable movie was made about the Texas Army's exploits in Italy and France – and Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent Ernie Pyle wrote some of the war's most powerful reports about the 36th – its triumphs in late May and early June 1944 were overshadowed by D-Day.
And still are.
The story is told in an expanded exhibit at the Texas Military Forces Museum at Camp Mabry, where the 36th Division is now based. Most of its veterans have since died, but the memory of their highs and lows – ncluding one of the most disastrous defeats of the European campaign during the earlier Battle of Rapido River – lives on in the city that many of the soldiers called home.
"Throughout its history, Austinites would have served in the 36th," said Jeff Hunt, director of the museum. "But the 36-year gap in its history ultimately proved a fatal blow to the 36th Division Association, a veterans' group founded after World War II. It folded up two years ago. At the final reunion of World War II vets from the division, only three were left."
Texas Army goes to war
By one name or another, Texas has always had an army. And since 1892, part of it has been based at Camp Mabry, located just 4 miles from the core of downtown Austin. It was named after Brig. Gen. Woodford H. Mabry, who served as adjutant general of Texas at the time the camp was founded.
Its first big growth spurt came during World War I, when Camp Mabry served as a training post for mechanics working on newly deployed trucks. At that time, the trainees slept in six long barracks made of Butler bricks that look like something out of the Indian Wars; four of them were recently renovated and honored with preservation awards.
During World War I, the 36th Infantry Division was born from the combined Texas and Oklahoma National Guard. Between the wars, the troops trained near the Gulf Coast at Palacios at Camp Hulen.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt called up the Texas National Guard -- by then separated from the Oklahomans -- in 1940 after Germany conquered western Europe.
Thanks to the exhibits at the Texas Military Forces Museum, one can follow the 36th's movements during World War II on an almost weekly, sometimes daily basis.
It trained at Camp Bowie outside Brownwood (not the old Camp Bowie at Fort Worth). At first, it operated at half strength with about 6,000 Texas soldiers, but it grew into a full division by including draftees from as far away as New England.
"The mixture of grandsons of Yankees and Rebels caused some friction at first," Hunt said. "They were still feeling the wounds of the Civil War."
The 36th Division headed overseas in May 1943, first to North Africa, where the fighting against the Germans had already ended. They trained there until Sept. 9, 1943, when they helped spearhead the invasion of Italy at Salerno, south of Naples.
"The German position was untenable, but they fought desperately," Hunt said about the invasion of Salerno. "They came close to throwing the Allies into the sea."
Among the hodgepodge of French, British and other troops, Lt. Gen. Mark Clark led the Fifth U.S. Army. His leftover World War I tactic of hurling soldiers at well-defended positions -- the Germans held the mountains, and American commanders were never enthusiastic about the Italian campaign because it diverted resources from the invasion of France -- was not popular with the troops, nor with the 36th's commander, Maj. Gen. Fred Walker.
Clark and Walker would butt heads again and again in the coming weeks.
Pushed out of southern Italy in late 1943, the Germans drew a series of defensive lines, including a famous one across the narrow waist of the Italian peninsula, centered at the abbey of Monte Cassino. The next big fight involving the Texas Army was a hard-fought victory in December 1943 at the town of San Pietro.
Hollywood director John Huston made a documentary -- some of it staged with the troops after the fight -- titled "The Battle of San Pietro."
"It was grimly realistic, unlike anything the War Department put out," Hunt said. "It was released in 1945 as the war in Europe was ending but while we were expecting to invade Japan. Gen. George Marshall, the U.S. Army chief of staff, said, 'I want everyone to see this and see what our guys are going through.' It's still a classic."
The victory at San Pietro was bloody, but the next battle at Rapido River in January 1944 was disastrous. Under the shadow of Monte Cassino, the two regiments of the 36th Division were ordered to attack the well-dug-in Germans. Walker found that the ground at the Rapido crossing was flat, muddy and heavily mined.
"The Rapido is not wide, but it is deep and fast," Hunt said. "The Germans were looking down on you. Gen. Walker wanted to go upstream. Clark turned him down. Clark gambled that the German lines were worn out and brittle and would break down. During the two days of fighting, the 141st and 143rd regiments were slaughtered. Guys pinned down, bridges shelled. The 141st fought until it ran out of ammunition. The 36th wore a crest that read, 'Remember the Alamo.' Here, it was an Alamo-like event."
The battle inspired Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent Ernie Pyle's starkly moving piece "The Death of Captain Waskow," about a well-loved officer from Belton, as well as the Robert Mitchum movie "The Story of G.I. Joe." In Pyle's article, members of the 36th Division who survived Rapido River come up, one by one, to address the corpse of the captain, who had been transported down the mountain by mule.
"Then the first man squatted down, and he reached down and took the dead hand, and he sat there for a full five minutes, holding the dead hand in his own and looking intently into the dead face, and he never uttered a sound all the time he sat there," Pyle wrote. "And finally he put the hand down, and then reached up and gently straightened the points of the captain's shirt collar, and then he sort of rearranged the tattered edges of his uniform around the wound. And then he got up and walked away down the road in the moonlight, all alone."
Breakout at Anzio
While fighting was still going on at Rapido River, the Allies landed on the beaches of Anzio, about 40 miles south of Rome, in January 1944.
"The Allies got ashore at Anzio without opposition," Hunt said. "But there weren't enough of them to make a thrust inland. The Germans reacted quickly. So for the next five months, the Allies were hemmed in at a World War I-style battlefield. The Germans couldn't push us into the sea; we couldn't break out."
In May 1944, Clark sent the 36th Division to reinforce the Anzio beachhead. The focus of Maj. Gen. Lucian Truscott, who was commanding at Anzio, was the crossroads village of Velletri. Like Clark before him, Truscott wanted Walker to make a frontal attack, this time on Velletri.
Yet Walker drew inspiration not from the trench warfare of World War I, but rather from the American Civil War.
"Walker had had his fill," Hunt said. "He was reading 'Lee's Lieutenants' and thought, 'How would Robert E. Lee to do this?' He wouldn't attack where they are strong, but rather where they were weakest."
The Germans' weakest link was 3,000-foot-high Monte Artemisio, which formed the boundary between two German corps.
"There were no roads," Hunt said. "And it seemed unscalable. Walker personally goes out to confirm that German weakness in a light L5 observation plane. He tells Truscott he wants to infiltrate his division through the two German corps at night. Truscott wants no part of it, but Walker finally manages to convince Truscott to let the Texas Army try it."
On May 30, Walker sent the 141st Regiment on a feigned attack on Villetri, while the 142nd and 143rd by moonlight climbed the mountain, which was defended only by a German engineering platoon.
"They go out with knives and bayonets to deal with any resistance," Hunt said. "At dawn on May 31, they are at the top of the mountain, staring down on Villetri and all the roads between Anzio and Rome. The 111th Engineer Battalion spends May 31 building a road over a goat path. In a single day, they widen it enough to let tanks and trucks through using 15 armored bulldozers with the help of picks and shovels. They blew apart the larger trees with explosives."
By June 1, the Texas Army could call fire down on the Germans in the valleys. The Allies then rounded up hundreds of German prisoners of war and broke through remaining defenses, and three days later they paraded into Rome, on June 4.
The 36th had actually moved through Rome, which had been declared an "open city," or undefended city, earlier, on the night of June 3.
War correspondent Eric Sevareid wrote, "Walker and the 36th handed Gen. Clark the key to open Rome."
"The assault on Monte Artemisio was the only brilliant act of Allied generalship during the entire Allied campaign in Italy," Hunt said. "Allied strategy (already) called for a second landing in southern France in an effort to hit the German troops from two directions. But the difficulties involved in supplying the desperate struggle for Normandy delayed the second landing until after Ike's fores broke the German lines in Normandy."
On Aug. 15, 1944, American troops, who had been withdrawn from the Italian campaign, invaded southern France, alongside French and British forces.
"It was called 'the Other D-Day,'" Hunt said. "Southern France was not as well defended as Normandy. But it was still a tough fight, and the 36th played a key role in the operation. A lot of stories come out of that campaign."
Many of those stories are told at the Texas Military Forces Museum, housed in a converted World War I mess hall at Camp Mabry and open to the public.
"The Texas Army moved up the Rhone Valley in an attempt to cut off the German 19th Army, which was abandoning southern France and retreating toward the Franco-German border," Hunt said. The Texans got in front of the Germans near the town of Montelimar, engaging in a weeklong seesaw battle that hurt the enemy mightily, even the though the Germans ultimately manage to break through. By the end of August, the 36th Division had captured Lyon."
During attacks and counterattacks north of there, the 141st Battalion of the Texas 36th was cut off by the Germans. Called "Lost Battalion," it was rescued by the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a segregated unit of Japanese Americans known as "Nisei." The 442nd became the most decorated unit in U.S. military history for its size and length of service and was the subject of the 1951 film "Go for Broke."
"The 36th would go on to fight its way to the German border, breaching the vaunted Siegfried Line fortifications in March 1945," Hunt said. "It raced into Germany, where it helped liberate the Landsberg concentration camp before driving into Austria just before the war ended in May 1945."
It is particularly appropriate that the museum details the exploits of the 36th Infantry Division, which was part of the Texas National Guard from 1917 until 1968. At that time, the Pentagon got rid of the National Guard divisions. When it brought them back in 1973, Texas got the 49th Armored Division. In 2004, the 49th was reflagged as the 36th Infantry Division, which remains the backbone of the Texas Army National Guard, headquartered at Camp Mabry.
Despite the various legacies of the 36th Infantry Division's fighting in Italy and France, it rarely receives the international attention afforded the troops who landed in Normandy in such great numbers on June 6, 1944.
In his book "The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944," author Rick Atkinson reveals one reason -- timing.
On June 6, 1944, BBC war correspondent Albergo Citt... raced into the Allied press office in Italy. "Boys, we're on the back page now," he said. "They've landed in Normandy."
"Every typewriter stopped. We all looked at each other," remembered reporter Sevareid, who enjoyed a long career in journalism before his death in 1992. "Most of us sat back, pulled out cigarettes and dropped our half-written stories about Rome on the floor. We had in a trice become performers without an audience ... a troupe of actors who, at the climax of their play, realize that the spectators have fled out the door."
(c)2019 Austin American-Statesman, Texas
Visit Austin American-Statesman, Texas at www.statesman.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
The breakout at Anzio, which happened right before D-Day, 1944, involved the 36th Infantry Division, also known as the "Texas Army," infiltrating behind German lines to attack the key village of Velletri and open up the roads to Rome.
U.S. ARMY HISTORY OF THE ITALIAN CAMPAIGN/TNS