Piedmonte d'Alife lies against the lower slope of Italy's Matese range in the central Apennines between Naples and Rome. Like hundreds of other small mountain towns, its narrow streets and stone houses have remained almost unchanged since the early middle Ages. Today, reflecting the general prosperity of the last two decades, a two or three block wide perimeter of modern four and five story family apartments partially rings the southern edge away from the steeper hills. But the central core remains the same, even to the cobbled streets, the decaying ducal palace, and the community troughs where the women still do their laundry by hand, exchange gossip and invective, and look suspiciously on strangers.
When our 2nd Battalion captured Piedmonte in mid-October 1943; about one half of the town was in shambles. It had been shelled heavily by our artillery; the Germans, as they pulled out, blew up bridges, utility installations, and anything else that might be of possible use to us; and after our arrival it was battered once more by the German artillery. This, of course, is the standard pattern in any combat area, and is the unfortunate fate of any innocent civilian population caught between advancing and retreating armies.
We had come a long way, in both distance and experience, since landing on the Italian mainland. It had soon become evident that the Italian campaign was not to be the fast moving affair we had enjoyed in Sicily. It was also evident that the leadership of the American 5th Army (by command, always identified in press releases as "General Mark Clark's 5th Army") lacked the imagination and purpose of the 7th Army under Patton. Things were just confused, and stayed that way. The fight for the Salerno beachhead revealed that the Germans did not intend to write off Italy as they had Sicily, and only some determined and makeshift scrambling on the part of General Middleton, Colonel Anckorn and their 45th Division troops, averted the near disaster there. Even after our breakout, the Germans retreated slowly and according to plan, awaiting the fall rains and the preparation of their first winter defense line in the rugged mountains south of Rome. We seemed to stumble along after them in uncoordinated fashion, advancing when we should have been regrouping, and holding when we should have been advancing.
Our battalion was the last unit to leave Sicily. We arrived in the bay south of Salerno off Paestum four days after the initial landing when the fighting on shore was reaching its peak. For forty-eight hours we constituted the entire "floating reserve" of General Clark's whole 5th Army. We disembarked, finally, one afternoon under full German observation, and marched off in one direction to an assembly area behind the British and Col. Darby's Rangers. During the night we moved again back to the beach, and, by daylight, and again in full view, we marched out in another direction. In the next 36 hours we shuttled twice more on similar moves. This, we learned later, was to impress the enemy that a continuous flow of fighting men was pouring onto the beachhead. If the Germans were taken in by the deception, they gave no immediate signs of being intimidated.
By September 18, having failed in their attempt to dislodge the landing forces, the Germans began to withdraw into the surrounding mountains. Along with the 3rd Division, which had just landed, and, as one of the few "fresh" units available, our 2nd Battalion was given the task of pushing inland out of the beachhead in pursuit of the retreating enemy. We moved through Battipaglia, a town totally destroyed in which each single building had been reduced to flat, dusty rubble. Eboli, (where Christ stopped in the story by Carlo Levi) a few miles away was almost as badly devastated. Above Eboli, at the dead end of a winding mountain road in an oppressive cul-de-sac between ridges, we liberated the village of Campagna, which had been used as an internment camp for political prisoners. There, huddled together in miserable squalor, we found almost a thousand civilians from southern and eastern Europe, most of them Jews.
It was a strange experience to be surrounded by a weeping, clamorous crush of cadaverous humans whose gratitude was overwhelming, and whose needs and hunger were so acute. We gave away all of our rations and extra supplies. We called in the medical group from Regiment and set up an infirmary and hospital of sorts and began treating the critically ill with what we had. It was not much, and we could do little. Our sense of inadequacy was magnified by the impressive and overpowering combined intellect of our patients, among whom were university regents, Doctors of Philosophy, full professors, and some of the foremost medical clinicians of Europe. When we had to move on the next day, the Division arranged for a field hospital unit to take over.
The rainy season began early that year, and from the first week in October on, heavy and intermittent downpours kept us soaked and uncomfortable. By necessity we became expert in putting up the aid station tent. On any spot where we thought we might spend a night, or linger more than a few hours, the tent was out of the trailer, up and staked down within three minutes. The fighting had steadily increased, and contacts and engagements with enemy troops were daily occurrences. The war had become a lot more personal, too. Many of the old aid station visitors, who used to gather frequently during the lulls in action for conversation, coffee, and hot lemon drink spiked with grain alcohol, were missing now. Jack Weiner, evacuated at Salerno, was in serious condition with hepatitis at a base hospital in Tunisia; the irrepressible Blumberg, permanent second lieutenant, was killed by a sniper's bullet through the forehead while leading a night patrol near Oliveto; Colonel Anckorn, our wonderful Regimental Commander, had lost a leg when his jeep ran over a road mine near Valva; two of our own aid men had been wounded in the fighting at San Angelo.
On the road between Ponte and Guardia late one afternoon, we loaded one of the jeeps with empty water cans, and sent both drivers, Red Meier and Daffy Martinez, back with it to the nearest water point. We were behind a stone building just below the road at the time, and, as they pulled out, an 88 shell hit. When we all rushed up to help move them and the jeep off the road, another shell hit the embankment to our right, scattering rock and dust, and rolled down on the road beside us, unexploded. (We had already learned to be grateful to those unsung saboteurs in the German munitions works who managed to slip in one dud for every eight shells.) But Meier, with a tiny penetrating wound of the chest, died without regaining consciousness; the fragment that hit Martinez ripped away both eyes.
On October 19 we were in Piedmonte d'Alife. After forty days of continuous combat our occupation of the town signalled the first break in the campaign for us. The 45th Division, moving up the mountainous central core of the peninsula, was pinched out between the 34th Division on the left and the British 8th Army on the right. The 157th Regiment pulled back from Piedmonte to the village of San Potito less than two miles away and went into reserve for a two week period of rest, reoutfitting, and training of new replacements.
As the fighting pressed onward toward the Volturno River north of us, it was pleasant to be left behind in the quiet countryside, now well beyond range of enemy artillery. We cleaned up, loafed and slept. The mail caught up with us. The field kitchens were brought up and put into operation for the first time since landing. The hot meals were welcome. After six weeks on K and C rations, no matter how well doctored by individual enterprise and ingenuity, food from an army field kitchen, even served in an aluminum mess kit, is a treat.
There was always a gathering of ragged, hungry children standing by silently and hopefully near the chow lines. One of the regulars, a quiet, large-eyed 14 year old, Severino d'Andrea, adopted our aid station group. Severino, too proud to beg and too honorable to steal, became a favorite. Every evening, loaded with more canned rations, shoes, clothes, and odds and ends than he could carry, we sent him off on foot to his home in Piedmonte. A special few of us had the good luck to be invited on several occasions into Piedmonte for a meal with Severino's family. Mama d'Andrea, with some army flour, a few cans of C ration, plus an occasional rabbit or chicken, and whatever fruits, vegetables, greens and wine Severino could turn up on his daily trading and scrounging jaunts around the town and nearby farms, would turn out a seven course meal that staggered the imagination.
Last fall, after an interval of 24 years, we revisited Piedmonte d'Alife and San Potito. We found the farmyard and the olive tree where the aid station tent was pitched. We found Severino, now married and with two young children of his own. He is the Professor of Language at the Scuola Media, the newly built town high school, and one of the town's leading citizens. His two sisters and one brother-in-law also are teachers; his young brother, just back from Argentina, owns a television and appliance store. Papa d'Andrea is retired and gives free advice to the children. The family built one of the new modern apartments, and they are all there, the appliance store on the first floor with an apartment for Papa, and the rest in layers above, each family with a floor of its own. Only Mama is gone. But her cooking talent remains with the daughters. On short notice, with help from all floors, they produced a ten-course meal that staggered us again. From the balcony of Severino's apartment on the top floor you can see all of Piedmonte. It lies quietly against the foothills, and, except for a pockmarked building here and there, you might never know it had been through a war.
(c) The Bulletin of the Muscogee County (Georgia) Medical Society, "The Doctor's Lounge", Nov 1968, Vol. XV No.11, p.16