Then and Now
By Phyllis Ewing
The battle of San Pietro was a major Italian engagement from December 8-17, 1943. It involved Allied Forces attacking the heavily fortified positions of the Germans who dug in, hiding in natural caves. These caves provided excellent observation vantage points and fortifications. San Pietro, correct name San Pietro Infine, located half way between Naples and Rome was a medieval town of closely packed stone and mortar houses situated on a mountainside, which became a major battle site in the Italian Campaign of WWII.
The Texas T-Patch played a major roll in the liberation of San Pietro. The T-Patch insignia consists of an olive drab “T” on a blue flint arrowhead. The division was organized from National Guard units of Oklahoma and Texas. The arrowhead represents the State of Oklahoma, once an Indian Territory, and the “T” for Texas. A proud division, it boasts a history dating back to 1835 and the Alamo, to 1899 and the Rough Riders, to WWI. The Germans hated and feared the 36th. They had met before in the Vosges and the Riviera, at Cassino and Salerno, in 1918. They had never been able to crush it; and never would.
The 36th was called up again for active federal service in 1940. After three years, replacements were made from every state. The T-Patch was the first Allied Force to set foot on European soil by landing and fighting at Salerno. Guts, firepower and teamwork decided the battle that day. The push northward was necessary to liberate Rome.
The Germans occupied San Pietro in September 1943. They evacuated women, children and old men to local caves and drafted able-bodied men to help set up their defenses. The direct attack on the German positions began on December 8th by the II Corps of the Fifth Army. Word came to the Americans that their supply ship had been sunk near Naples, delaying their winter combat uniforms. The T-Patchers fought with only field jackets in the frosty air of December. The main attack of the 36th Division, started at noon on December 15th. In an effort to break the German defenses in the town, two platoons from the tank battalion attacked with 16 Sherman tanks and tank destroyers. Only four of the 16 survived. After four successive Allied attacks, the Germans pulled back and launched a counter-attack to cover their withdrawal as they retreated to positions further north.
The battle is also remembered as the first in which the Italian Royal Army fought as co-belligerents of the Allies. Three months before the main invasion, the surrender of Italy to the Allies was announced. This greatly changed the German defensive strategy as the Italians were now their enemies.
San Pietro, population 1,400, had been liberated. There was one American casualty for every freed Italian. Members of the attacking force nicknamed the highway to Rome “Death Valley” or “Purple Heart Valley.” The battle completely destroyed the medieval town and almost whipped it off the earth. The battle and the plight of the civilian population have inspired numerous accounts, the most famous of which is John Huston’s film The Battle of San Pietro, which was his first effort for the U.S. War Department.
The 30-minute film, largely comprised of on-the-spot combat footage, concentrates on the grueling battle. The filmmakers fully intended The Battle of San Pietro as an anti-war film, but military brass was concerned that the relatives of the dead soldiers would suffer undue agony by such an uncompromising film. They demanded that the picture be cut and toned down to show the resilience of those who survived. The film showed the home-front audience the reality of the war and not the optimistic propaganda dispensed by newsreels and fictional Hollywood war movies.
For 15 years we traveled with Dr. Calvin Christman, a WWII professor. He was the expert, the last of a dying breed, a romantic professor, in love with his art, who taught WWII history for 30 years. One of our visits was to San Pietro. The town’s people turned out in force, cutting paths through the ruins. The aroma of freshly cut vegetation was strong and lovely. The climb up the mountain terrain was quiet and eerie. It was depressing to see crumbling homes, and a half destroyed church with the outline of a cross above the place where the altar once stood.
After our walk-around, we were treated to a lovely reception in their Town Hall. The Mayor presented each of us with a framed picture postcard of the medieval town, before and after. In turn, Dr. Christman sent a Texas flag to them to honor the T-Patchers as a memento of our visit. That Texas flag had flown over the State capital and now hangs in their Town Hall.
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