1 Сентябрь 2014| de Grazia Alfred

The Battle of Cassino. Part 1

Alfred de Grazia

Alfred de Grazia

The Royal Palace of Caserta contained both Fifth Army Headquarters and Fifteenth Army Group Headquarters. It could have swallowed the Algiers AFHQ for the Mediterranean Theater as well. It was a monstrous encampment, worthy of the enormous military bureaucracy and its equipage. Lt. Alfred de Grazia, AUS, CAC-MI would never get to the end of it, whether by foot or car. The Bourbon Kings of The Two Sicilies built it of a rich ochre stone in the Eighteenth Century with the grand and marvelous flourish of a Versailles. Its large gardens and exotic trees shade noble walks along which military officers might amble while deciding how to wrest Italy from the Germans.

To me the set-up was dismaying. It would appear that the Army had been taking on a long, long term, a decade-long lease. Luckily for my morale, the weather was turning bad, the mud was beginning to climb to the tops of my boots and lick at my leggings, and the combat propaganda detachment was bivouacked on the fringe of the palace; it occupied a couple of olive-drab pyramidal tents.

I was out on the job every day contacting the units of the line, which was at the Volturno River when I first started up; the line then was forced in a score of bloody engagements to the outskirts of Cassino, where it got stuck. As the year drew to a close, I was awaiting news of the birth of my “son,” and hung around the tents excessively, or so it seemed to Lt. Col. Weaver, himself tent-loving, who asked me courteously whether I shouldn’t be out making the rounds of the Front. This embarrassed me a little: that I could have been imagined as slacking or lazy or afraid; yet I did not want to confess a real reason for dragging my feet, that I believed any moment now might bring the Message from the Red Cross.

Devotedly I detailed my existence to my Wife, saying little of the baby as the fateful date, December 29 — my own birthday, too — came and went; it was a crisis, and I did not want to put a wrong construction upon the absence of news. On the First of January I described the day before, December 31, 1943:

The New Year has started out as a howling banging affair. A wind blew up last night and even now twenty-four hours later is threatening to deprive us of our means of support. As I write I feel that my eyes have run amuck; it seems as if the tent grows bigger and smaller, constantly. Very disturbing and very true. It does grow bigger and smaller and the wind comes in great breathtaking swooshes that leave one to marvel that the pegs are still grounded.

I spent a most bitter day and still have a few shivers left over. The rain, sleet and wind crawled into our very marrows. The Army is perfectly miserable. Wretched soldiers, drenched to the skin, their tents blown down or the rain blown in, a sea of mud and a welter of newly created lakes, the sides of the roads raging torrents and snow in most places a few hundred feet up.

I went down to the dump to get some shells fixed up and found complete devastation. The crew were huddled in a little room in a stone manger [shed?] looking on the hostile outside dejectedly and miserably. Not only had their records blown away, but also their tents, leaving a pile of messy trash half buried in mud. The chaos revealed a cornet which was being reclaimed by one of the boys, and with an eager lip I tried it out. I suppose that it was strange to play “Stardust” out in the open like that, with numb lips and fingers, but it was only a small absurd bit in the whole Krazy-Kat scene.

Hundreds of trees have blown down, many of them olive trees and hardly expendable. It is a conspiracy of wind and rain. The rain softens and the wind gives the mortal blow… Last night was spent in the tent. We drank a little rum and wine, opened and fried a tin of tongue which I believe Mom or you sent me, and sang a few songs. At midnight we fired our guns, adding to the general impression of a giant night battle with tommy-guns, rifles, pistols, BAR’s, and even a machine gun which I could have sworn I heard. We came in and drank some coffee. I stayed up a while cleaning the guns and about the time I went to sleep, the wind began. Out of the daze of slumber, I remember various articles tossing about the tent and scary blasts which one could hear starting in the trees far away and which came towards and through us in a final rush like huge breakers…

If one takes to signs, the year will be mighty and awful. It may be good, too, because I saw abeautiful rainbow in the midst of all the rigors today.

The four officers — Dabinette, Foster, Herz and myself — slept in one tent. The office of the detachment was in another. An account of it made up most of another letter a week later (still no word of the baby):

Perhaps, in view of your expressed hatred of offices, I can describe what an army field office looks like. First there is the tent, dark green or camouflaged, and then inside, instead of beds, you have folding camp tables which hold hardly nothing except a pencil and a piece of paper. If you are lucky, you also have a chair, barring that a stool or box or anything that will stave off collapse. With this table you must execute masterful maneuvers to open maps which are peers of anything Standard Oil ever put out, including as they do every house or former house, and everything down to a machine gun in size. Every once in a while a wire crew comes in to put in a phone or take it out, which doesn’t mean much since it never works, except of course to add to the confusion. The phone is a tantalizing instrument, you must admit. Half the time you get a whisper, which leads you to bellow enthusiastically into the mouthpiece, rising in a great crescendo on the margins of comprehension and resulting in two messages at least, neither understood or correct. Or there may be three or more, depending on how many other units become attached to your wire meanwhile. If the other members of the “office” have not been driven to seek out the enemy in hand-to-hand combat by the confusion and concussion of the phoning, they are having a merry time with their maps and overlays. (The overlay, for your information, is a heavy, semi-transparent paper that when placed in a certain position on part of the map, will show you strange and interesting things that somebody in a different staff section has found out about the war.) The tent can hold one man waving a map and overlay about, but more then two is hell, more than a man can stand. One of the results of this map-waving activity is to camouflage the stove which is strategically placed in the center of tent where you can’t help tripping over it. Of course, the stove is well tended. Every once in a while, in this closed-in canvas, sealed from the frigid air, an attendant lifts the lid, puts a mixture in, and a great, thick, black and oily column rises and covers the tent down to within three feet of the dirt ground. The attendant is coal-black in the oriental tradition.

A few moments later, it is safe, though unhealthy, to raise yourself from the prone to resume work. Whatever you were doing need not lay as you left it however, because the clerk, profiting from the demoralization and cloaked by the smoke screen, has gone about putting what is laughingly called the “file” in order. That means sweeping off all the odd bits of paper on the desk into a clumsy wooden basket labeled “in” or “out” — no difference. Some days later, when there is no comic magazine or copy of the Stars and Stripes available, he may perform a ritual called “putting the file in order.” He takes the basket and a handful of used folders, already used for three or four subjects a temps perdu, including Italian social security taxes, Fascist Gioventù and the PWB vehicle record, and places the papers from the basket into respective files, putting most of them in the thin files and none of them in the fat files. In cases where the logic is inescapable, he makes the choice appropriate, such as incoming personal mail in the correspondence file, etc.

Knowing how hard-pressed for time the clerk has been, very recently an assistant was solicited from a replacement center. The assistant might have done well if he had tried, but since he is little and ugly, he works like Goebbels to establish master propaganda plans. Today, due to the fact that the rest of us, forewarned, had seized all available vehicles and rushed to the Front, the Colonel was cornered by the new man who has made long extracts from the Bible which prove among other things that the Germans can’t win.

He wanted to shower the enemy with these convincing, powerful words. Out of nowhere, the colonel was inspired to state that it might seem sacrilegious if the Germans then used the leaflets for toilet paper, as they are wont to do with extra ones. Highly impressed by this reason, the fellow retired to a corner of the tent, muttering something about making the paper rougher.. He is a holy terror. I gave him a note to someone down the line and he put it in an air-courier pouch bound God knows for where. One can only say that he has a certain utility in applying band-aids to people who burn themselves on the stove.

Odd people come around too, visiting firemen from the occupation team who want to get the smell of powder in their nostrils or to feel what an army is like. Or someone from Counter-Intelligence may call up to find out whether an Italian we have is a secret agent or is spying on a secret agent or just wants to become one. Our intelligence man can best answer that, but he is secrecy reductus ad absurdum and doesn’t know where he is himself.

Then the mail comes in, which doesn’t disturb the lack of routine at all. A package is opened and the walnettos spill out. The caramel gets stuck to the desk or some confidential papers and they are forever confidential. When the unlettered ones begin to curse loudly and the din is too much, Herz gets up and delivers a fiery oration on the need for quiet. But by that time, it’s late enough for lunch anyway.

We retrace our steps to the matter of the baby. “He,” “ she” — I think “he” because my own mother, Kate, has borne four sons and no daughter — had been subject of a call from the American Red Cross well before Christmas. For no good reason, I received a garbled message contradicting my Wife’s advices. The Secretary of Dr. “Jack” Greenhill (he is the eminent gynecologist who is also Lt. Johnny Hess’ step-father) told them that the baby would be a girl and would be born in January. Remarkable on both scores, fifty years early in sex-prognosticating method, weeks late in length of term.

On January 13, I wrote:

…When I got back from the Front, I found a message to call the Red Cross. I did so, and a barely audible voice told me I was the father of a girl infant. He said both you and the baby were doing well and I could ask no more.. It looks as if I shall spend the future beating off suitors. That ought to be fun. When it comes down to it, I am just as happy with a girl as with a boy. Think how much a girl can accomplish in reference to the rest of her sex compared with a boy… I think we’ll make her an all-around girl, swimming, cerebration, and socializing. Herz has already asked for her hand but I’ve told him, with your presumed approval, that she doesn’t want to have anything to do with an old fogey.

She had of course written profusely, but the mails were slow; I wrote on January 24 that a batch of mail had been arriving, dated December 24, 25, 27, 29, January 3 and 4, chock full of details on how to give birth to babies, a difficult birth it had been, many hours long, the head was too large and was squeezed thin and had to be helped through by an incision, but Jack Greenhill did a masterful sculptural restoration afterwards with his strong skilled hands. Worse than anything that I had been suffering: Motherhood! Jack Greenhill tried to hold things off, he jested, to give her the same birthday as her father, but, what with everything else happening, he had all he could do to bring forth the strapping bawler at over nine pounds.

So now all of our correspondence would be carried on over the head of this infant, so to speak, enough about her in it to fill a pediatric textbook, avant-garde because there was so much love in it. We called her Kathryn and Esther, after the paternal and maternal grandmothers.

The worst campaign of the War — West of Russia, though some even doubt that — proceeded regardless. The soldiers could not believe that it would last so long: they kept expecting a breakthrough on some other part of the Front. The vast fleets of Allied tanks and vehicles could hardly be employed in the mountains and the mud. Italian mule companies had to supply the French, Indian, and Polish infantry, trying to conquer the German bastion from the Northeast massif; most of the animals were killed or plunged to their death off the slippery trails.

The terrain and the immobility made it a battle of riflemen, mortar crews, sappers, and machine-gunners. (Riflemen were actually equally automatic-weapons men and grenade-throwers, and learned to employ bazookas to explode bunkers, where these failed against the too-heavy German tanks.) Among the Allied troops, the casualties were practically all in the infantry battalions; and in these battalions, each starting with about 400 rifles, 80% of the casualties were riflemen and lieutenants. Murderous to medics, too. The evil weather and incessant cannonading made life unbearable for those not hurt or diseased. Nor did you rejoice in the hurt and death around you. A Special Forces soldier sitting on the body of an enemy while poking C-ration from can to mouth: no insult intended, it was better than sitting in the mud.

Seven months passed, incredible, November to June, in an Italy that gave to fighting troops the lie about its famous climate, food, pleasures, and comforts. Its people remained human despite continual misery and misfortune: there were women who hung their wash within gun range, making soldiers feel foolish. In the middle of this period, in case anyone should wish to know, Lieutenant de Grazia has come and gone and come again. The Campaign had its several phases, which I associate with the nationality of the troops principally engaged. The Fifth Army Command was American, under a British-commanded Army Group that controlled both it and the Eighth Army to the East. The troops were the most polyglot of the War: British, American, Canadian, New Zealand, East Indian (Hindu, Sikh, Gurkha, etc.), Polish, French (Continental, Pieds noirs, Algerian, Moroccan, Tunisian), Jewish, Brazilian, Italian. The American Headquarters Guard was Spanish-speaking, Puerto-Rican. One may mention more specifically Scottish, Irish, and any number of quasi-national contingents. Disgracefully, past racist policies kept American blacks out of combat whether as segregated units or individuals, though they supported part of the logistical chain from Naples; the French and British, in contrast, did embrace black African combat troops. The supplies, the equipment, the arms, were increasingly and mainly American and brought up by American transport.

Contacts with the Adriatic region were bringing in Yugoslav partisans, and I had by the end of 1942 been converted to support communist Tito’s Partisans rather than the royalist “Chetniks” led by Draza Mikhailovich. Why? Because my intelligence sources had brought in one report after another to the effect that Tito’s men were doing much more damage to the Nazis and Fascists than did the royalists. Anyhow, I did not like Kings. “D” Section in Naples, my people, have swung over to Tito, and, as if by some concatenation of intelligences, Winston Churchill had decided that Tito was the man to support. So, when a couple of vigorous Yugoslav partisans were introduced to me, I said: “Any friends of Tito are friends of mine.”

The first phase in the gruesome winter-long Battle was the series of struggles to reach the Gustav Line, pivoting on the Town of Cassino and on the huge Benedictine Monastery towering above it; American and British would argue about who did most to arrive at this point. The Rapido River Crossing, fought principally by the 36th American Division, of Texas National Guard ancestry, was the larger part of the second phase. The 442nd Japanese-American battalion, later regimental combat team, began to play its distinguished role. The American 34th Division also was launched into the impossible, and lost half its riflemen. Whose defeat was worse, the 36th’s or the 34th’s? Who failed?

Before long, every fact would be known about both episodes. But, where every fact is known, the truth acquires a multiplicity and complexity never to be resolved into an answer. One thing was sure by now: a frontal attack upon Cassino was madness. Still, the Command ordered such again and again.

Continue reading: The Battle of Cassino. Part 2


Source:Alfred de Grazia “A Taste of War”. – Princeton, N.J. : Metron Publications, 2011.

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