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The Fight for Monte Cassino Abbey

Men to handle the supplies were taken largely from the unlettered units, although these men were allowed some relief by the use of replacements. The entire trip with the mules consumed all the hours of darkness and was so arduous that men or mules could not perform the task satisfactorily every night. Since the mule park was also under sporadic fire from the German artillery, sleep or rest during the daytime was extremely difficult.

On the night of February 14th, the leader of the mule skinners approached the Regimental Supply Officer just before the mule teams started out with their loads for the mountains. His shoulders were stooped from fatigue and his eyes, bloodshot from lack of sleep, were sunk deep into his long, unshaven face.

"Sir," he said, "I believe I can make it up that mountain and back by daybreak, but all my men and all the mules have been up for two nights in a row already. This is their third night. I'm afraid I'm gonna lose some of them tonight from exhaustion."

The supply officer thought for a minute. He would have over 100 new men from replacements available the next morning. They were green at the job but they were fresh. "Tell me," he addressed the Lieutenant, "if you told the men that after they get back tonight they will have tomorrow night off where they can bathe and rest — if you tell them that, do you think they can make it tonight?"

"Wal-l-l," the leader of the mule skinners answered slowly, "if I tell them that, Sir, I believe they can make it."

The officer moved toward the door of the ancient stone house and pulled his mackinaw closer around his stooped shoulders before stepping out into the rain and darkness. He was almost past the blackout blanket when he turned and paused. "Captain," he said, smiling slowly, "what will I tell the mules?"

The period February 13, 1944 to February 27, 1944, was one spent in clinging tenaciously to our defensive positions in the cliffs. Our offensive capabilities were at an end. Our enormous casualties, both battle and non-battle, during the River Rapido disaster and our unsuccessful attempt to unseat the Germans from the Mount Cassino ridges had left of us nothing but a skeleton unit. We held desperately to the little unit integrity that was left in the battered regiment. And always with us was the wind, the snow and the cold. And always the rain ... the slippery paths ... the uneasy rocks ... the towering slopes ... the mules ... and the mountains of Italy.

John E. Prentsch DrawingWe needed relief by a fresher unit in order to have time to receive replacements and rebuild. But, for the time, no relief was in view. We were to carry on — or the costly gains of the winter past would become even more costly.

Our casualties continued to mount. At 1645 hours, February 13, 1944, the command post at Caira received a direct hit from a 150 mm. artillery shell. The round ricocheted from the roof of the adjoining building and plowed into the top of the sandbag protection across the entrance door to the operations room and exploded on contact. The Regimental Commander, standing in the doorway, was killed instantly. The Regimental Executive Officer was seriously wounded and the entire enlisted personnel of the operations section had to be evacuated. On February 15th, the enemy shot 18 rounds of self-propelled fire into the forward supply dump, causing considerable loss of supplies. During the same day, over 700 rounds of enemy fire fell in the Caira village area.

When Division called the newly constituted operations section and complained that shell reports were not being kept up to date to assist the Division Artillery in plotting counterbattery fires, the weary clerk replied, "Look, I'll just hang the phone outside the window and you can count them as they come in."

We watched the bomb reduction of Cassino and the Abbey, the shattering crash of the siege guns pounding the rubble, and the following attacks of British and New Zealand units which added another to the list of unsuccessful attempts to unseat the enemy.

And we repeated the story of the British General who visited the New Zealand units who had hit Cassino on our left — troops famed for toughness in battle as well as disregard for "polish".

"I say," the General spoke to the commander of the troops, "your men are a bit lax on discipline. They don't salute me."

"They don't salute me either, General. Have you tried waving at them? They are friendly and will wave back!"

John E. Pretsch DrawingThese Allied troops, with the dry humor of those who face death unafraid, marked the craters in their lines where our bombs had fallen short: "American Precision Bombing".

Going to the latrine outside the house became known as "Operation Purple Heart". One soldier remarked, "I don't mind being caught with my pants down, but I don't want to get hit that way."

On the night of February 26-27th, we were relieved by the 2nd Battalion of the 351st Infantry Regiment of the 88th Division. Nothing meant very much to us that cold, rainy morning of the 27th when we came down out of the mountains, nothing much but the importance of putting one weary foot past the other weary foot and moving on through the cold mud to the trucks waiting for us in the vicinity of the forward supply dump. After a hot bath and the luxury of a night's sleep on a dry blanket — well, after that, there would be time enough to remember other things and to feel the meaning of something again.

* * *

A headstone marks the farthest advance of our regiment on the southern front. Long after Cassino had fallen, it was noticed at the right side of the road on Highway No. 6, just before you enter the village of rubble:

John E. Pretsch Drawing

 

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