It cost “a man a yard” at San Pietro


Most of us have seen "Saving Private Ryan," and "Band of Brothers," and therefore have some idea of what happened in the Normandy landings that began on June 6, 1944.  These are admittedly from the American point of view.  But how many among us recognize the shoulder patch above as that of 5th US Army, the US force that with our British, South African, New Zealand, Canadian, French and Polish allies fought its way up the boot of Italy BEFORE the Normandy landings.  The objective of the campaign was to fix as many first class German forces in Italy as possible away from the French coasts.  The Germans fought with great skill under the leadership of Field Marshal Albert Kesselring (smiling Al).  

The US War Department asked Hollywood to make several documentaries about the Italian Campaign.   One of these was directed by John Huston no less.  The resulting film was such that the War Department did not want it released to the public.  A number of men are killed on camera and the white, bursting German munitions are White Phosphorus, a substance that will burn under water or all the way through your flesh to the bone.  We use it also.  The film was thought to be a danger to public morale.

George Marshall was then Chief of Staff of the US Army and he insisted that the film be released to the people so that they would know the cost of war.  pl

See the film linked here.

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36 Responses to It cost “a man a yard” at San Pietro

  1. David Lentini says:

    Yes, it’s quite a film. The campaigns in Sicily and the Italian mainland are very much overlooked, IMHO. I suspect that’s the case becase of the grinding nature of the war there, and the consequent suffering, compared to Patton’s dash out of the bocage, the quick liberation of Paris, and the near-destruction of the Germans at Falaise.

  2. akaPatience says:

    Two uncles fought in the Italy campaign. Their parents, my grandparents, were born in Italy and the brothers, while not in the same units, met up over there during the war, which they both survived. This item’s prompted me to ask my genealogy-minded cousin about details of their service.

  3. Barbara Ann says:

    Yards. That word is used many times in the film. The following phrase struck me too; “they were forced to take such cover as the quaking earth could offer”.
    Marshall’s instincts were right. For the many of us who will never experience what it is to live and fight as an infantryman, such films are an important part of our education. Thanks for sharing the link Colonel.

  4. Eugene Owens says:

    David – “The campaigns in Sicily and the Italian mainland are very much overlooked, IMHO.”
    For sure. My father was WIA at Monte Cassino along with the 55K other casualties there, just a month or two prior to the Normandy landings.
    Also overlooked was the Battle of Okinawa that was in its 10th week on 6/6/1944. That battle also cost 55K casualties including 20,195 KIA. A local 96-year-old vet was there just one ridgeline over from Hacksaw Ridge of movie fame. Plus 36 ships were sunk and another 386 damaged. Years ago I worked with a former Navy radioman who spent ten hours in the water off of Okinawa when his destroyer had been sunk by kamikazis. By the time he was rescued his Kapok life jacket was completely waterlogged. He and 16 others survived by circling together and holding each other up.

  5. turcopolier says:

    All – The 141st, 142nd and 143rd Infantry Regiments were the main elements of the 36th Infantry Division. This was the Texas National Guard. A man who served in the division in Italy and who later worked for me told me that by the time they reached Rome there were no Texans left in the division in the infantry. There were still Texans in the artillery of the division and its logistical and administrative parts. The Texas grunts had all been killed or wounded out. As someone wrote, “you have not seen combat until you have fought the Wehrmacht.” Much the same thing was said to Grant’s staff when they came east for his assumption of command in Virginia, i.e., “You don’t know … You haven’t yet met Bobby Lee and his boys.”

  6. Eugene Owens says:

    Many of those Texas grunts died or were WIA at the Rapido River near Monte Cassino, where my father was wounded. He always blamed Mark Clark and believed that the congressional investigation whitewashed him.

  7. ex-PFC Chuck says:

    The Battle of Okinawa took place in 1945, not 1944.

  8. ex-PFC Chuck says:

    IIRC, Gen. Mark Clark, the 5th Army CG, got a lot of flack for those high casualty rates. Was he an instance of the Peter Principle in action, i.e. had he reached his level of incompetence? Or was it more a matter of the fact that he was up against a German CG whom many regard as the most competent German commander of the war?

  9. blue peacock says:

    How many German divisions were deployed on the eastern front compared to the western front?
    I always find it interesting that western media including Hollywood never acknowledge the role played by the Soviet Union in the war. After all they lost some 20 million people and broke the back of the German military in the east.

  10. turcopolier says:

    ex PFC Chuck
    I think he had reached his level of incompetence and should have been relieved after the Liri Valley battles but it was a coalition command in Italy and that made it harder to fire him. His boss was Alexander, the Brit. Kesselring was very skilled, but there were so many Germans who were, Manstein, Rommel, etc.

  11. turcopolier says:

    BP – You are absolutely correct.

  12. John Minnerath says:

    The late Farley Mowat served with the Canadian Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment during the Italian Campaign and wrote And No Birds Sang of his experiences during those bloody battles.
    Mowat is one of my favorite authors and this book is well worth reading.

  13. Peter Petrosky says:

    It’s fitting that Mark Clark be brought up, 75 years and 2 days after murdering his own men for his photo op in Rome. I can’t locate my unit history of the 351st supply the exact information, but my Father’s outfit was ordered to storm a heavily fortified hill on the outskirts of Rome, without air, artillery, or armor support, “at all costs”, so Clark could have his picture taken in Rome before the invasion of France. My Father did not like Gen. Clark, at all. It wasn’t until after he was gone that I read that history and discovered why.

  14. Stalingrad. Enough said.

  15. Keith Harbaugh says:

    On D-Day films, let’s not forget The Longest Day (1962).
    Among other things, it had a really amazing cast.
    Any comparisons to the two films you mentioned would be of interest, to me at least.

  16. Stephen McIntyre says:

    Jack Rhind, one of my parents’ friends, was Canadian officer at Monte Cassino and entire campaign. He is still alert and spry at 97. He said a few years ago that he still remembers the geography of southern Italy as well as he knows Toronto. He was rather resentful of lack of interest in Italian campaign relative to D-Day. I noticed a short memo of his about a re-visit to Cassino in 1964 online

  17. Eugene Owens says:

    I seem to be a bit chronologically challenged, but only a year out of whack. So I’ll blame it on bourbon. In any case Okinawa and Italy are both neglected in modern memory.

  18. optimax says:

    The Battle of San Pietro is the best war documentary ever made, IMHO. Saw it first in a film class. Some of the battle scenes were recreated by the soldiers who had fought in the battle a few days before filming. Huston and his crew did come under German artillery fire. Some of the other footage came from military cameramen who traveled with the troops. The top-brass shelved the film because they were afraid it was too realistic and would make the recruits too apprehensive about going into battle. Marshal thought the opposite: it would desensitize men to the shock of battle. One thing Marshal had cut from the original film, five reals reduced to three, was closeups of dead GI’s faces. He didn’t want friends and family to recognize them.

  19. J.M.
    “And No Birds Sang” is a poignant and well written war memoir. My favorite, though, is “The Boat Who Wouldn’t Float”. No, on second thought, it’s “The Gray Seas Under”. Wait, “Sea of Slaughter” is his most important book. He was a wonderful writer and I would urge those not familiar with his books to start reading.

  20. Colonel – I think we’re still a little parochial here in not acknowledging that very much. The Battle of Britain and D-Day seem to be most of what survives in popular memory over here. .
    Huston’s vivid documentary led me to looking again at the Eighth Army in Italy. Some time ago I had met a man who served with it. I always remembered that he felt the fighting in Italy had been not been remembered that much and posted the documentary you had selected to an English website to mention the Italian campaign.
    That led me to Miles Dempsey, and back to D-Day, and to the following assessment that gave an insight into the mental qualities needed in this field: (Wiki/quoting an historian) – ” Blessed with an active and incisive mind, a phenomenal memory and a unique skill in reading maps, Dempsey would soon leave his army staff in awe over his ability to remember everything he saw on a map, to bring a landscape literally to life in his mind even though he had never actually seen it. This talent proved particularly important during the crucial battles around Caen in June and July 1944. Dempsey was considered the Eighth Army’s best expert in combined operations ..”
    Then came across various arguments on various sites about who’d done most when, which I found not that useful, given that from Khalkhyn Gol to Normandy there were decisive battles and each tends to find the sector he’s looking at the most significant. So Dempsey, cutting through all that, was something of a relief: (same reference) – ” During the operation, Dempsey, forward near the front with his Tac HQ, witnessed the crossing of the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division’s 504th Parachute Regiment cross the Nijmegen bridge. Impressed, he later wrote that the 82nd was “easily the best division on the Western front”.[48] Dempsey met with the 82nd’s commander, Brigadier General James M. Gavin, shook him by the hand and said “I am proud to meet the commander of the greatest division in the world today.”[49]”
    Who would no doubt have returned a similar compliment. There is no debating contributions when all contribute their maximum. That’s why I found the D-Day commemoration incomplete. Seemed to be no Russians around. Maybe some time we’ll remember they were in it too, and as your remark above might indicate, decisively.

  21. John Minnerath says:

    “The Boat Who Wouldn’t Float” is the most hilarious side splitting yarn about small boats on the water ever. I first read “The Gray Seas Under” in 1956 when I was 13.
    He wrote many I’d consider important. I was greatly saddened when I read of his passing. He was a truly great writer in all respects.

  22. PHILIPPE TRUZE says:

    Amongst the most underrated battles of WW2, Operation Dragoon, or the Allied landing in Provence (department of Var) characterized by :
    – French and Us troops at par amongst the 580 000 troops who landed in France coming from Sicilia and Corsica
    – the upsurging and participation of the 75 000 French resistants (FFI + FTP) in coordination withe OSS, who totally paralyzed the German logistics on their back, and provoked their retreat.
    – the liberation of Toulon and Marseille, by French troops and resistance, which allowed the US army to supply hundreds of thousands of tons of equipment to the Allied forces in Europe – the Normandy harbors being quite insufficient in this regard. The liberation of Marseille was the main goal of the Operation Dragoon, and the harbor was quickly repaired and put in operation although German sabotage. The same for Toulon, a military harbor.
    – the relatively light losses amongst the Allied : 25 000 casualties (15 000 US, more than 10 000 French) versus 30 000 German casualties and 140 000 prisoners.
    – the quick retreat of the German army from southern France, due to the very rapid progression of Allied forces, largely in advance on initial planning.
    – as a political consequence of Dragoon : the Pétain régime dismantled by the Germans.
    As far as I know there has been no movie superproduction about Dragoon : should we conclude that a smooth going and successful military operation is not interesting for cineast and Hollywood?

  23. Morongobill says:

    One of those heroes from the Italy campaign, Bill Crawford:
    The above linked article includes his Medal of Honor citation.
    “Everyone thought he was just a school janitor, then they discovered his heroic WW2 past.”

  24. confusedponderer says:

    In my neighbourhood there is the Hürtgenwald, the place of one of the nastier battles the US had in Germany during WW-II 75 years ago.
    Close combat, mortar and 20mm auto cannon fire and intense forrest fighting in deep and cold winter. Hemingway wrote about that battle in “Across the River and into the Trees”.
    According to the Wikipedia entry:
    “The battle was so costly that it has been described as an Allied “defeat of the first magnitude,” with specific credit given to Model.”
    I went there with friends by bike a couple years ago and bomb craters and trenches can still be very well seen.
    My mother told me that till into the mid 1950s regularly woodsmen and school boys playing there had the misfortune of finding unexploded ammo or mines in trees or on the floor. It is still dangerous to walk in that forrest beyond the marked ways since it was mined and even yet hasn’t been fully demined.
    That written, in even in Cologne there are areas which still haven’t been debombed yet, mostly because they have not been built on and were just used as … garden, grazing land or parking areas.
    Disarming exclusion zones are being declared about weekly when bombs are found during some construction. I have been sent home from work twice because of that. In Munich some time ago one so found bomb went up and caused considerable damage (fortunately just that).

  25. JohninMK says:

    Back in 1956 the family were on holiday in the south of France. Dad had been in the war an aircraft fighter controller in North Africa and ME. He made sure that we explored the still there and much as they were in 1944 massive German fortifications along the coast east of Marseilles. Pillboxes and bunkers for miles, the Germans were probably more prepared for the attack than in Normandy. We were surprised that the casualties were not higher. Very sobering.
    As to the advance up the spine of Italy, the Germans had a key advantage, the terrain, perfect for defence, which made bringing the Allies strengths in armour and ground attack aircraft difficult to bring to bare.

  26. PeterVE says:

    There was an Italian film “La Pelle”, made in the ’80s which looked at the Italian campaign from the Italian civilian point of view. It ends with civilians cheering a column of tanks entering Rome, and one man slips in the crowd and is run over by a tank.

  27. scott s. says:

    It’s fairly well known in Hawaii due to the 100th Inf Battalion (sep) made up mainly of Hawaii Nisei who were removed from their HIARNG regiments after Dec 7. They would be brigaded into the Iowa NG 133rd Inf in the 34th Inf Div fighting in North Africa and Italy. After the fall of Rome they were transferred into the newly arrived 442d Regimental Combat Team made up of mainland Nisei. After the Rome-Arno campaign the 442d was transferred to the 36th Inf Div for the Southern France invasion Operation Dragoon and subsequent campaign in Alsace with the 7th US Army/6th Army Group.
    I became interested as a result of studying my father-in-law’s unit of the 100th Inf Div which was also assigned to the 7th US Army.

  28. oldman22 says:

    Yes, Scott, good to remember the 442nd. A movie about them was popular long ago, now available free on youtube,
    called “Go For Broke”. Van Johnson plays the Texan assigned to lead Japanese soldiers from Hawaii and the mainland. Among those soldiers was Dan Inouye, who dropped out of pre-med studies to volunteer. He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroism.!_(1951_film)

  29. Thirdeye says:

    It speaks volumes that Monte Cassino and the Gustav Line were only seized when the Germans abandoned them because of a deteriorating rear situation. They were undefeated in battle.

  30. Thirdeye says:

    My favorite story from that campaign is what Alexander Patch’s Seventh Army accomplished in the Vosges Mountains campaign. It was a shoestring operation facing an entrenched enemy in winter conditions in terrain heavily favoring the defense. The Seventh cleared everything west of the Rhine and fought off the Nordwind attack that shortly followed the Ardennes attack. Like in the Guadalcanal campaign two years before, Patch was the guy who did more with less.

  31. Diana C says:

    I had an uncle who was injured badly at Hürtgenwald, got some sort of metal for that as he decided to stand out to take the fire so others could run the opposite way from the back of a building. He also served in North Africa. He lived the rest of his life with so much shrapnel in his legs that he could not take a job that required much standing. He repaired clocks in a small room in his house. He was so modest about what he did in the war that it wasn’t until he died that I learned about all he had done.
    It was not until he died that I ever learned about all he had done in the war. That generation of soldiers were not the kind to at least brag. After he died and I learned the details of his service, I could feel some sense of pride that I had often brought him gallons of cherry cider from the town’s orchards where I lived fifty miles away because he said it made the pain/ache in his legs subside a little. Mostly, though, I am ashamed that I hadn’t tried harder to get him to talk about his service.

  32. Diana C says:

    I know that the battle for Stalingrad was horrible, but the siege of Leningrad was also horrible for civilians as well as for the soldiers.
    In the West we are reluctant to praise anything Soviet. But we do owe much to the Russians’ involvement in World War II. So very many Russians lost their lives and in doing so did much to slow the Nazi attempt for world domination.

  33. Diana C says:

    I know this thread concentrates on World War II, but I want to give some thanks for the “boys” of my generation who fought in Viet Nam.
    I watched a long documentary of World War II this Veterans Day weekend, and it was followed by a very good documentary of Viet Nam. I had earlier gone out for breakfast with hich school friends, several of whom were veterans of that “unpopular” war. I am very proud of my brother, my cousins, and my classmates who fought but came home to little fanfare and some derision. It makes me sad that few of them ever volunteer stories about what they experienced. It makes me sad that they feel some people will still shun them for having fought in Viet Nam.

  34. EconomicsExpert says:

    Blue Peacock,
    ya, Soviet Union lost 20+ million civilians & 9+ million military. URL linked below using actual historical documents gives good details on WW2 Eastern Front
    table of stats using credible sources linked in footnotes:
    Nazi Germany deployed their best divisions & most of it’s military (3.3 to 3.9 million soldiers (60% to 80% of it’s army)
    each year to the Eastern Front (Eastern Europe)
    fight the Soviet Union,
    about 3x as much than the 1.3 to 1.9 million military it deployed to the Western Front (Western Europe)
    The Soviet Union was responsible for inflicting & destroying about 80% of Nazi Germany’s military,
    which is why General Marshall
    Special Assistant to US President FDR wrote at link:
    “General George Marshall , the US Army Chief of Staff , did Calculated without the Eastern Front, the United States would have had to double the number of its soldiers on the Western Front. [114]
    Memorandum for the President’s Special Assistant Harry Hopkins , Washington, DC, 10 August 1943:
    “In War II Russia occupies a dominant position and is the decisive factor for the defeat of the Axis in Europe. While in Sicily the Great Britain and the United States are opposed by 2 German divisions.
    Whenever the Allies open a second on the continent, it will be decidedly a secondary to that of Russia; theirs wants to continue to be the main effort.
    Without Russia in the war, the Axis can not be defeated in Europe, and the position of the United Nations becomes precarious.
    Similarly, Russia’s post-position in Europe wants to be a dominant one. With Germany crushed, there is no power in Europe to oppose tremendous military forces. [115]”

  35. artemesia says:

    My Dad was in the Navy and, fortunately or unfortunately, was injured (blinded) off the coast of Palermo in the first week of Sept. 1943. His father, born in Italy, died at his home in Ohio in the same week. Tho my Dad eventually recovered the sight of one eye, he was discharged early in 1944 because he was an orphan, and his older brother was in the Army at Normandy.
    I learned only after Dad’s death some of the details of what happened: his ship was a Landing Ship Carrier and he had been assigned to a landing craft, and to lower the gate so infantrymen ?? could wade ashore. A young officer at the rear of the craft ordered Dad to Lower the Gate, but Dad thought the water was too deep, so he refused. I’m not sure how that insubordination contributed to his injury and discharge — just never knew. It must have been tough on him — he was about 20 years old, looked healthy but not in uniform when war was at a fever-pitch, and went home to an empty house.
    On the other hand, my older sib and I are pre-boomer boomers because Dad came home from the war before it was over over there. He & Mom — also from Italy — lived a life of quiet grace and dignity, and never, ever spoke of the losses they and their parents endured.
    On a less personal note, the fundamental history of Italy-in-the-war is not at all clear; that is, there’s very little of it, not merely in the TV and movie pseudo-histories but in scholarly work on, i.e. Mussolini’s intentions, Allied agenda with respect to Italy, etc. Andrew Buchanan provided interesting insights in a talk at New York Military Affairs symposium a few years ago
    Buchanan argues that Mark Clark was secretly ordered by FDR to “steal a march” on the British and take Rome without the planned accompaniment of British forces.

  36. Alves says:

    Around 25 thousand brazilians were under the fifth army in Italy as well, it was our FEB. The late second husband of my grandmother fought there.

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