Chaplains of the
36th Infantry Division


Chaplain (Colonel) Herbert E. MacCombie
Division Chaplain

On Salerno Beachhead With General Walker

On the evening September 8, 1943 we were aboard a transport heading for Italy.  About 1830 we received word over the radio that Italy had surrendered.  The announcement included word that American forces would land the next day.  There was much discussion about the message.  Many men thought we would change our plans and sail into the harbor at Naples and go ashore with the band playing and banners waving.  Others who had studied tactics were disturbed by the announcement.  To them it meant that we had lost the element of surprise in our attack.  Surprise is often the means of achieving success in an attack.  If the Italians army did not obey the orders to surrender, or if the Germans were present in large numbers, they would be waiting for us.  We would have an active reception.  We did.

In the early hours of September 9th, I landed with the Commanding General’s party.  While we were going ashore it seemed like a gigantic Fourth of July celebration.  I had to stand on tiptoe to see over the gunwale.  Suddenly some bullets began to strike our boat.  A sergeant standing near me said in surprise, “My God, Chaplain, they’re shooting at us.”  He was right.  They were.  I no longer stood on tiptoe.

As we were going forward after landing, we came to some men crouched behind a wall.

General Walker asked, “What is going on here?”

“The Germans are firing at us with machine guns.”

“When was the last burst?”

“About fifteen minutes ago.”

“They must be gone by now.  Let’s go”.

He walked ahead as nonchalantly as though on a tramp across the fields.  We all followed him.  If he could take a chance, so could we. Fortunately there was no firing from the enemy.

As we went on, the general suddenly stopped.  I had seen nothing.  He ordered one of the men to fire some ricochet shots into a culvert.

“There is someone in that culvert”, he said.

Out came a lot of frightened Italians – men, women, and children.  They were told to go home.  We went on.  As we approached a stone building, the general hurried over to the wall of the building and called to us, “Come here!”  Most of us went at once.  A few lingered.  He repeated the order, “Come here at once.  All but one officer obeyed.  Just then a shell burst where we had been standing.  A shell fragment struck the hesitant officer.  The rest of us were safe.  It was comforting to be accompanying a man who knew by instinct what was likely to happen.

Later in the morning some German tanks approached.  I was in an open field near the one artillery piece we had in that area.  As the tanks came on I lay flat.  Suddenly our artillery opened fire.  The first shell was a direct hit.  The tank burst into flames.  Men came tumbling out with flesh hanging in strips from their arms and legs.  I was sorry for them but glad for my own safety. The gun kept firing.  Later on some of the prisoners asked where our “rapid fire gun” had come from.

The incident reminded me of the Louisiana maneuvers.  At that time we had a 75mm concealed as some tanks approached down a road.  We claimed a hit and a tank destroyed.  The umpire overruled us.  He said, “It would be impossible for a direct hit to damage a tank”.  Our Texas artillery achieved “the impossible” at Salerno.  I was there.  I saw it done.


Copyright 2001 by Mary MacCombie Fietsam
Printed by Permission

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