36th Division in World War II

THE RAPIDO RIVER CROSSING

"Were you at the Rapido? " An affirmative answer draws a respectful hush, a reverent understanding. The name resounds with blood, that of the men known only to be "many," who became casualty in that fateful operation. Few seek to inquire what happened there, because the effort, however great, did not succeed. Why it did not is clear in the recount of the two-day nightmare.

The fall of Mount Trocchio, last height before Cassino, had pressed the Germans back onto a prepared defense line anchored at Cassino and blocking entrance to the Liri Valley along the Rapido River. Here the Germans were strong and alert, favored on the defense by the winter weather, by the terrain -- flat, open, soggy ground. Not only did they withstand the assault of the 36th but major bids by the British on the left, and the 34th on the right during this same period were likewise repulsed. They held that line for five months until the mighty May offensive was launched.

PHYSICAL ODDS GREAT

The two-pronged 36th Division assault aimed at the capture of San Angelo, across the Rapido, and the establishment of a bridgehead. The attack was carefully prepared in detail and preceded by reconnaissance patrolling, the spotting of bridging equipment, the clearing of lanes through known minefields to the crossing site, and a plan of strong artillery support.

But the physical odds were too great. This was apparent before the attack to all experienced soldiers.

Thirty minutes before 2000 hours of January 20, fourteen battalions of artillery signaled the opening preparation. But this did not hinder the enemy from sensing the attack and returning the fire in volume. Dense fog blacked out the night completely. As both 141st and 143rd infantrymen approached the crossing sites, the story was the same: Incoming artillery and mortar fire, men moving over reportedly cleared lanes stumbling upon German anti-personnel mines, many casualties, shell and mine fragments ripping and rendering useless the rubber boats being carried for the crossing, guides losing their way or taking the wrong turn in the pitch black, precious time consumed in repeated reorganization. In one company alone, the company commander was killed, the second-in-command wounded, and thirty men were casualties before reaching the river.

At the water's edge German machine guns and small arms close to the shore spattered into first elements attempting to cross. Boats overturned in the swift waters or were punctured when the mortars fell. A brigadier-general rooted out an attached bridge-building party from foxholes one and one-half miles from the crossing site where they belonged.

Just prior to daylight small forces of both regiments got across on makeshift bridges. The Ist Battalion of the 143rd found itself pocketed in interlocking German machine gun fire with the river to their backs. Then enemy tanks opened fire from San Angelo. To escape being wiped out completely, the battalion commander ordered his men back.

The bulk of A and B companies, 141st, dug in and stayed on the west bank throughout daylight of the 21st. But no communication could be had with them and no follow-up could occur over the exposed river site during the day.

The Corps commander ordered the attack for the Rapido bridgehead to be resumed by a daylight assault. There would be no surprise, now. Germans, too, were bringing up reinforcements, and calling down continuous fires upon the river areas.

First set for 1400, the late arrival of more boats delayed the time until 1600. The 143rd Infantry, 1st and 3rd Battalions, again jumped off at that time. Though the river was smoked heavily for the attack, the Germans again countered with strong defensive fires. Both battalions, with the exception of Company C, were over by 1830. Casualties were heavy. The 2nd Battalion moved across after midnight and reached the flank of the 3rd Battalion about 500 yards inland after daylight. Trapped in grazing German machine gun fire, a network of wired defensive positions, and under heavy concentrations of mortar and screaming meemies, the men were unable to make any headway. The 3rd Battalion reported running out of ammunition at 0900. Resupply from dumps along the river, established during the night, was made despite the blanket of enemy fire. The 1st Battalion, after the loss of its battalion commander and each rifle company leader, became badly disorganized. The gallantry of the 2nd and 3rd Battalion attempts to break through the German line was spent vainly. The attack was crippled and then driven back.

ALL BRIDGES DESTROYED

The second 141st Infantry attack had been delayed until after dark of the 21st. The extreme difficulties encountered the night before were identically repeated, but by daylight the 2nd and 3rd Battalions were over. Every possible effort to reorganize and continue the attack was made under the deadly curtain of German fire. Use of the river crossing was denied soon after daylight and gradually all foot bridges were destroyed. Supply and evacuation were impossible. Still, the men hung on.

Then at 1700 the Germans launched a heavy counterblow, striking our forces simultaneously on three sides. Although ammunition supplies were already low - and there had been no resupply - the first German attack was repulsed with heavy losses to the enemy. Yet again, in half an hour, the attack was resumed. American fire, in constantly diminishing volume, was heard three hours longer. By then it was entirely German. But German machine pistols continued to speak against American resistance until midnight.

About fifty haggard 141st Infantrymen struggled back and swam the cold Rapido that evening.

 

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