«An Unbuttoned and Illustrated Story of Captain Walter Felson’s World War II Experiences Judith Felson Duchan July 7, 2015 Late in 1942, Walter ...»
They are actually freight cars of the type used to transport cattle in the U S. only a bit more closed. They are the famous 40 and 8 of the last war, 40 being the capacity in men and 8 the capacity in horses, respectively. I am told that they put 30 men on each of these trains and make a trip which is moderately long. Since there are no latrines, it is necessary to stop every 5 hours and build latrines along the side of the track. These 30 men have to sleep in the car which really results in such crowded conditions that it is necessary for the men to sleep with their arms on their chest in a folded position, otherwise they can’t lie down all at one time. I still can’t see how even in this position it is possible for all of them to sleep at the same time. Then too, with these extremely cold nights I can’t see how they can sleep because of the cold.
One of these days it may be necessary for me to make a trip on one of these and I dread to think of the discomfort (January 4, 1944).
Walter and the troops ended up three days later, January 6, 1944, in a camp, in St.
Dennis-du-Sig, 60 miles south of Oran in the Atlas Mountains of Algeria. It was here that they prepared themselves for future battles to be waged in the mountains of Italy.
Three weeks later the troops were on the move again. On February 7, 1944 they moved from the mountains to the Mediterranean seacoast in Algeria. The new spot was Port-aux-Poules where they trained at the Invasion Training Center for six weeks. Here they learned the techniques of amphibious warfare in anticipation of a possible invasion of enemy-held territory on Italy’s seacoast.
The varied training of the Custer Division was unusual. Later, their general John B.
Coulter would say proudly of his 85th Infantry Division: “No division received a more intensive and progressive training for combat…” The Gustav Line On March 24, 1944 the 85th Infantry Division sailed in convoy from Mers-el-Kebir, Algeria to Naples, Italy. They landed in Naples three days later.
Naples at that time was under enemy fire as well as anti-aircraft retaliations. The Polar Bears were no longer in dress rehearsal--this was the war they had been preparing for over a year, some longer.
The 85th Infantry Division traveled north from Naples, meeting enemy gunfire and attacks along the way. The Polar Bears, along with others in the 5th Army and Canada’s 8th Army, were headed toward what was called the Gustav line, a line of defense that the Germans had established across southern Italy. German fortresses were positioned along the rivers, creeks, and mountains across the whole of Italy.
They set themselves up to battle the allies, defending themselves with all they had:
foxholes, mountain command posts, gun pits, concrete bunkers, turreted machinegun encampments, barbed-wire fences, and minefields.
The approaching allies were attacked and battered for over a month all across the Gustav line. And they attacked back with all their might.
Those in the 85th Division were assigned to penetrate the Gustav line on the west coast of Italy, near the Tyrrhenian Sea. They were positioned around and in the cities of Minturno, Scauri, and the bombed out village of Tremensouli.
Northwest of Tremensouli was a winding creek, Capo d’ Acqua. The hills just above the creek were covered with thousands of mines, concrete pillboxes, and reinforced
Here is an article written in a USA newspaper by the correspondent James E Roper about the bloodbath in Capo d’ Acqua creek where the Germans had free range from their position on the nearby hills to shoot the allies.
With the Fifth Army Italy (UP) It was the first aid man’s first case, and he had to walk on the dead to reach the living.
Sgt. John Hossle of Read Oak, Ia., the first aid man, was assigned to an American unit which had been cut down by German machine-gun fire as it attacked across a 14 foot wide stream called Capo d’ Acqua. He heard the cries of the wounded as he crawled into the stream.
“When I reached the other shore, I found bodies piled up like the carcasses of hogs which used to die from cholera in Iowa a long time ago”, he said. “I hesitated to move across the bodies, and a fellow on the other side yelled, “Walk on ‘em; you can’t hurt ‘em now.” “The battlefield was a madhouse of bursting mortar bombs, the krunch of artillery and the rattle of machine-guns, and they were asking me to walk across the dead. I did it, and it was the most horrible feeling yet. When I reached the wounded man.
That was only the beginning of a nightmarish night and day for Hossle, who was so busy he never had a chance to dig a foxhole for himself. He crawled back and forth to the front lines, aiding some 30 serious cases. When his supply of morphine and bandages was exhausted he tore up tent shelter halves and raincoats to hold splints in place. Some of the splints were foxhole shovels.
Walter responds to the journalist: “I know Sgt. Hossle, and I know that stream Capo d’ Acqua, and I eventually saw the man with his face shot away. There is no exaggeration in Hossle’s story. We didn’t slog our way thru anything, we fought our way thru, and it cost us plenty… (July 14, 1944) The 85th and the 88th Infantry Divisions fought for three days from May 12 to 15 finally breaking through the Gustav Line. This was considered a major victory for the allies. Germans began leaving the area, withdrawing to the north, fighting the allies to their rear all along the way. The allies lost 3,000 men in the Gustav Line battles.
The 85th Division lost 1,100 men. Three of the infantry battalions in the 85th Custer Division were awarded citations of merit for their fighting to push the enemy back from the Gustav Line. In Walter’s words: the Jerries are on the run. Here is more on what he says about his and his medical company’s role in pushing back the Germans at the Gustav Line.
Following the Gustav line battles, the 85th Infantry Division moved on to an area north of the Gustav Line, toward the sea, shooting and being shot at all along the way. The short-term plan was to push the German’s front line north, and eventually to take Rome.
!21 The route north included the small town of Fondi, near the west coast of Italy, 78 miles south of Rome. It was there that the supply force of the 85th Infantry Division, including Walter’s Medical Company C, was bombed by the Germans. Walter would later describe this air raid at Fondi as his most horrific wartime experience (September 22, 1944).
The German command was somehow informed of the location of the 85th Division’s move and at 3:15, the morning of May 22, 1944, the Germans dropped bombs on the division’s service vehicles, medical stations, supply and ammunition dumps, and division headquarters, as they approached Fondi. The attack lasted ½ hour and caused considerable damage. Equipment was destroyed, several men were killed (none from Walter’s 110th medical Company C), and others were terrorized. In his later letters Walter referred to the Fondi bombing several times, indicating its significance to him.
Rome On June 5, 1944, the 85th Infantry Division along with other Allied divisions who had been fighting in Italy, walked into Rome. The Germans had left the city shortly before. It was a significant signal to the soldiers themselves and to the world at large that the Allies were winning the war. On the next day Normandy was invaded by the Allies, later to be seen as another milestone that would be one of the historical high points in the military story of the war.
Walter writes to his brothers and sisters about his march through Rome.
It’s been an eventful week. I know how much you have read about us in the papers so there is no real reason for me to go into details about what our triumphant march thru Rome was like. Needless to say, nothing which the newspapers wrote could possible exaggerate the actual occurrences which we experienced. The people were wild with joy, and since our group was one of the very first thru the town they really climbed all over us. I’ll bet half of the troops were almost drunk with the wine that the Italians were offering to us as we drove by slowly thru the very heart of the city…Practically every man in the company was kissed by some girl or other, even this old man being threatened with it (June 7, 1944).
For the next few weeks, Walter’s company was at rest and stationed outside Rome (King’s Forest, Lido di Roma). He spent a good amount of time sightseeing in Rome and falling in love with the city.
Volterra Arrivaderci Roma. Walter and his company left Rome on July 10, moving even more northward. The first destination was a camp ground north of Volterra, a 250 mile trip from Rome. The army was regrouping and retraining in preparation for another push, this time in Northern Italy, in the Apennine Mountains. And the city of Volterra was along the way.
Volterra is a medieval town known for its artisan culture, specifically for its alabaster and marble artisans. Just after his arrival at his new camp, Walter took a ride to explore Volterra and find a sculptor’s shop that had been recommended to him. He bought a number of gifts for Ros and the kids. It was then that he first got the idea of having sculpted busts made of Ros, Judy and Elaine. He visited the sculptor again the next day and showed him pictures of the family.
And, after several weeks of work by the sculptor, Pietro Costaglio, and revisions suggested by Walter (Elaine’s cheeks “not quite full enough”), the busts were carved and arrangements were made by Walter to have them paid for and sent home.
Gothic Line On Sept 14, Walter’s company headed north, once again, this time toward a new German defense line across Italy. The Gothic Line, as it was called, was located in the Apennine Mountains just north of the Arno River. The 85th Division approached the Gothic Line in the region of Florence. The aim was to take over the mountains where the German fortresses were located.
Walter described the new action on September 14:
Well, I’m at it again. Right now I’m typing to the symphony of airplane motors and exploding of the bombs which they are dropping on Jerry, only a mile or two away...It was really interesting to be able to look up into the mountains ahead of us and realize that the Germans were there looking down on us. We would hear our guns go off and then after a moment see the explosion of shells up in the mountains… …I went up to visit the regiment surgeon yesterday, and on my return to our building I ran into a bit of excitement. Macri and I were walking back and just as we reached the front of our building, only 10 yards from the door, we heard a Jerry shell coming directly toward us. Needless to say, I dropped right where I was. Macri took one more step and dove to the ground behind an ambulance. The shell passed over our heads and struck a few hundred yards to our rear. By that time I heard a second one coming in, and this one struck 200 yards in front of us.
…Some of my boys were on a hill looking for some casualties which had been reported there when the Germans counterattacked. From the reports I have from my men, they broke world sprint records getting out of there. That is no place for my medics. In fact, this business of them working my boys in front of the aid stations is very irregular, since they are supposed to work to the rear of the stations. I spoke to the infantry about it, and have had arrangements made whereby the additional litter !24 bearers will be gotten from the infantry companies and my men will do the work which they are supposed to do… (September 14, 1944).
And so it went. By September 22 they had taken the Mount Altuzzo, the mountain that a few days before had all those Germans looking down on them. The US artillery forces had bombed everything to devastation. The weather conditions, the devastation from the bombing, the shelling from the mountains, and the steep mountain terrain created situations that made navigation very difficult—for several weeks. By October, there was some sense that the company was accomplishing its mission, but Walter cautions against optimism.
One would think that this life would be getting easier and more pleasant with the breaking of the Gothic line and the gradual nearing of the end of the war, but in this business there is always another hill in front of you which must be taken, no matter how many hills you may have taken before, always another shell to dodge-just as deadly as all the others which have been thrown in your direction previously, death is still as final as it was in the early days of the campaign—so really, whether it is late in the war or not, war is still hell October 1, 1944).
And he was right. Things continued, with the weather getting even worse, attacks still as punishing, and conditions just as difficult. Walter was depressed.
And then he began to feel that the war was nearly over.
Good afternoon, my sweet:
So this is armistice day! Well, you can’t tell it around here. The guns still shake our building when they go off. The planes still fill the sky with their roaring as they come out of their dives over the Jerry lines, with the crump of their bombs or the staccato notes of their strafing guns accentuating the sounds. The murmur of distant trucks gradually increase to a whining purr as they plow their way thru the mud called a road which passes by our building as they bring up the never diminishing list of supplies needed to keep an army at war or return to the rear for further loading.
There is the “emulsion-cracking” sound of the vehicles as the tires pull away protestingly from the mud that tries to adhere to it, a sound surprisingly enough louder even than the motor of the vehicles. All this and heaven too…This is a day which to me possessed a symbolic significance and I was hoping, against my more logical judgment, that it might result in the end of the second world war. Of course that is merely wishful thinking, and although it is one of the things which help to keep up our morale, nevertheless we do not allow it to become to realistic and thus we do not suffer disappointments” (November 1, 1944).