One More Objective, Boys
The Battle of Kasserine Pass was actually a series of battles of the Tunisia Campaign of World War II. It took place in February, 1943 in a 2-mile gap in the Grand Dorsal chain of the Atlas Mountains. The Axis forces led by General Erwin Rommel, were primarily from the Afrika Korps Assault Group that included two Panzer divisions. The Allied forces consisted of the United States II Corps, British 6th Armored Division and elements from the U.S. First Army. The battle was the first major engagement between U.S. and Axis forces in Africa.
The men of 3rd Platoon, Bravo Company, 35th Infantry were inexperienced and poorly led. This is the story of four of those valiant soldiers; Private Dan McDermott, a good-natured farm boy from Smithville, Missouri, Private Tony Accurso, a dark haired, Italian with an eye for the ladies, who hailed from Hoboken, New Jersey. Corporal John Montoya, a Hispanic truck-driver from Tucson, Arizona, who got married three days before shipping out and Sergeant Robert Wysocki who was born in Oceanside, California, and whose father was a career Marine, who served in World War I.
Wysocki served in the Marine Corps in the late 1930’s and was stationed in Manila, Philippines. He was discharged in 1939 and joined the Army after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, because he did not want to go back to the South Pacific. There was another reason that Wysocki wanted to go to Europe. This one was very personal.
On September 1, 1939, German forces invaded Poland. The Luftwaffe attacked civilian targets and columns of refugees along the roads to terrorize, disrupt communications and demoralize the Polish people. Seven thousand civilians were killed during the bombing of Warsaw. There were numerous atrocities committed against Polish men, women and children. Wysocki’s grandparents and two of his aunts were among the fatalities.
Sergeant Wysocki and his platoon crossed the Atlas Mountains and set up a forward base at Faid, in the foothills of the eastern arm of the mountains, an excellent position to advance east to the coast. He had a bad feeling and brought his concerns to Captain Ben Mayfield, “Sir, I don’t like this, the krauts are making this too easy.”
Like everybody else in the unit, Captain Mayfield did not have any combat experience so he was happy that there was little enemy resistance, “Relax, Sergeant, enjoy the down time while you can.”
When Wysocki got back to his men, Private Accurso asked, “What did he say?”
“He’s just happy that we’re not in combat. I need you to stay alert anyway.”
Corporal Montoya nervously responded, “You don’t have to worry about that. I’m jumping at anything that moves.”
The men took their turn at guard duty that night and when morning came, Private McDermott, who stood the last watch, awakened his squad with a cheerful greeting, “Rise and shine!”
Third platoon had barely begun eating their c-rations when artillery shells started hitting around them. The 21st Panzer Division could have easily overrun their position, but abruptly turned around at the last moment. The First Armored Division and elements of Bravo and Charlie Company pursued them through the pass.
Wysocki warned Captain Mayfield, “We should hang back.”
“What’s the matter, Sergeant…you scared?”
Wysocki glared at his company commander, but held his tongue. Captain Mayfield called to his men, “Follow the tanks.”
Wysocki couldn’t stop the other Americans from following Mayfield, but he could slow down his own platoon, “Take it slow.”
It turned out to be a deathtrap. The Americans rolled right into the muzzles of the concealed German eighty-eights cannons. All that Wysocki and his platoon could do was to find cover and watch tank after tank being blown to bits or burst into flames, while their fellow infantry soldiers were wounded or killed. Captain Mayfield never survived the battle and with all the officers in the unit either killed or seriously wounded, Sergeant Wysocki temporarily assumed command of Bravo Company.
The unit regrouped and was ordered to a bluff overlooking the pass. It was a harsh indoctrination into combat for the Americans. They had been beaten by a more experienced enemy force and felt demoralized and vulnerable. Even though he didn’t have combat experience, Wysocki knew that it was his responsibility to keep his men ready to fight. From his elevated vantage point, he saw dozens of confused American soldiers being led away after being captured. He vowed not to let that happen to his company. He called them together and explained the situation, “Nobody in command seems to know what they’re doing, so it’s up to us to stay alive until we figure out how to fight this war. Some of us are going to die in the process, accept that fact and just do your jobs.”
The fearful looks on the soldiers’ faces was not an encouraging sign to Wysocki. During the night, the American positions were overrun and Wysocki ran through enemy fire, while encouraging his men to hold their positions. By daybreak, the Americans were still there, although they suffered more losses. At 0830 hours, German Panzer grenadiers resumed the attack. The American forces made a disorganized retreat with the Germans in hot pursuit. Only when they were able to join up with the 26th Armored Brigade, ten miles away, did the Germans cease their assault.
Wysocki was filled with a mixture of rage and sorrow as he held the canvas bag filled with dog tags. Bravo Company had lost 80 per cent of its men. When he looked around the bivouac area, he saw the change in his unit. Scared boys were now battle tested veterans.
On the morning of February 22,1943, an intense artillery barrage from Allied artillery halted the resumption of the 10th Panzer Division attack, destroying armor and vehicles. Under constant fire, the enemy waited until dark to retire from the battlefield.
On 23 February, a massive American air attack hastened the German retreat and by 24 February, Kasserine Pass had been re-occupied by Allied forces. It came at a high price. American losses totaled 300 killed, 3000 wounded and 3,000 missing or captured. Seven thousand replacements were needed to bring the units back to their original strength.
As Sergeant Wysocki and his platoon walked out of the canyon, they passed a makeshift cemetery. Beneath the two hundred wooden crosses were the bodies of men whose lives were cut short. Their lives were like a pebble that lands in the middle of a lake, the ripples stretch far and wide. Their lives would forever be intertwined with their mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, cousins, friends and neighbors. Even though they were killed in a faraway place, their deaths would always be remembered and mourned back home. As Wysocki passed the graves, he stopped when he heard voices. At first, he was confused, but when he realized where the speaking was coming from, he was literally stunned. The dead men were speaking to each other from beneath the wooden crosses.
Corporal Montoya came up from behind, “You alright, Sarge?”
“Yeah…my mind drifted off for a second,” Wysocki answered.
“If you can find a way for our bodies to drift on out of here, then let me know.”
As Bravo Company left the blood-stained battleground, Wysocki wondered if this would be the worst he would have to face, or if this was just the beginning of the nightmare.
The men of Bravo Company had a few months to recover and were kept in the rear until it came time for the invasion of Sicily, Codenamed Operation Husky. The plan called for the amphibious assault of Sicily by two Allied armies, one landing on the southeastern and the other on the central coast. They were supported by naval gunfire and close air support.
Bravo Company was part of a larger force assigned to capture the port of Licata. During the attack, Private McDermott was killed by a sniper. It was a quick and painless death for the amiable Midwesterner. Wysocki bent down next to his friend and whispered, “Give my regards to Saint Peter.” There was no time for grieving so he turned to his men, “Stay down!”
Wysocki quickly scanned the area, saw a tall steeple and figured that was where the single deadly shot came from. Avoiding open ground, he made his way to the back of the church. The lower part of the building had been badly damaged by artillery, so Wysocki had to climb over piles of rock and wood to get a view of the bell tower and the image of the enemy soldier in it. He didn’t have a clear shot from his location so he grabbed a chunk of stone and threw it at the ladder. When the sniper turned around and looked down, he exposed himself just enough for Wysocki to get a clear shot with his M1 Carbine. When the German was hit, he fell halfway down the ladder and got entangled in the rungs. He lived just long enough to make eye contact with the American. It was an image that Wysocki would never forget.
For six days, the Germans and Italians conducted a costly defense. They launched 24-counter-attacks, but eventually the Americans under the command of Colonel George Smith, captured Mount Pellegrino. The view was breathtaking from this point on the island. Sergeant Wysocki walked down the line where his men were sprawled out, most were too exhausted to move. In the background, soldiers from the Graves Registration Unit were hauling dead bodies down the narrow trail on donkeys.
The Germans and Italians retreated across the Straits of Messina. When the fighting was done, American losses were 8,781 killed, 5,946 wounded, 2,237 missing and 598 captured. The German forces had 27,940 casualties, dead or wounded. The Italian military numbers were 4,678 killed, 36,072 missing, 32,500 wounded and 116,681 captured.
Sergeant Wysocki once again heard the voices as he passed the rows of wooden crosses on the way to Catania. After some much needed rest and an influx of replacements, Bravo Company headed north to participate in The Battle of Monte Cassino.
The Allied objective was to breakthrough to Rome and Monte Cassino, a hilltop abbey founded in 529AD, dominated the nearby town of Cassino and the entrances to the Liri and Rapidido \Valleys. This massive stone structure had to be taken to accomplish that goal.
The American forces made slow progress in the face of difficult terrain, wet weather and skillful enemy defenses. The Germans were fighting from a series of prepared positions that they had months to build and fortify. These gun emplacements were amply stored with ammunition and designed to inflict maximum damage on anyone advancing on their positions. While German units held this strategic site, construction on more defensive positions south of Rome continued around the clock.
Colonel Henry Keyes ordered, “We’re not sure what the Germans have. I need you to take Bravo up the south slope and see what you can find out. Units are going up the others slopes.”
Wysocki responded, “Yes sir.”
There was little cover so the soldiers of Bravo inched forward on their bellies, feeling for tripwires and listening for German gun crews. To stand or even kneel was to die. When they reached an area a hundred yards from the bottom, it had been cleared of foliage and rock and was equally distant from two enemy machine guns nests. It would have been certain death to approach into the kill zone. Sergeant Wysocki called out, “Pull back!” The soldiers of Bravo Company slipped their way back down the muddy slope while the German gunners fired at them.
Sergeant Wysocki reported back to Colonel Keyes, “It’s a no go, sir. It is heavily mined and there is no way to get around their machine guns or close enough to take them out. They are going to have to be eliminated with artillery or air strikes.”
Gray rain clouds were hanging low over the mountain. Colonel Keyes shook his head in frustration, “I wouldn’t count on air support with this weather. Get some rest, Sergeant. We’ll have to find another way up.”
The 141st and 143rd Infantry Regiments crossed the Gari River in the dark of night to attack the well dug-in 15th Panzer grenadier Division. Without armored support, they were devastated when daylight came. It was so bad that the 141st ceased to exist; with only 40 men making it back to the Allied lines.
It was cold, wet and muddy and the men of Bravo Company didn’t know if it was worth the effort to try and stay dry. They dug into the side of the hill and used ammo boxes to try and keep their feet out of the mud. They burned everything that they could find and their bunkers were filled with smoke.
Corporal Montoya had a small hand crank record player and kept playing a record that his wife sent him. He must have played it a thousand times and everybody in the platoon knew it by heart, especially the words, I love you. Please stay safe. They imagined that those words were coming from someone special in their lives.
After an unsuccessful 3-day assault on Monastery Hill and the town of Cassino, the Americans were withdrawn after two and a half weeks of intense combat. They were physically and emotionally worn out. Private Accurso was killed by machine gun fire on the last day of the assault. The American infantry battalions sustained losses of 80 per cent.
Three clear days of good weather were required, so for twenty-one successive days the assault was postponed as the troops waited in the freezing wet positions for a favorable weather forecast. Torrents of rains flooded bomb craters, turned rubble and foxholes into quagmires that blotted out communications and made the Allied forces even more miserable. The combination of bad weather and the brutality of battle caused several men in Bravo Company to crack under the pressure. Two soldiers had to be physically restrained and tied up, otherwise they would have charged into enemy fire.
Sergeant Wysocki turned to Corporal Montoya as they stood shivering shoulder to shoulder inside a muddy cave with three inches of water around their ankles. Casualties remained heavy and young replacements were quickly killed, causing Wysocki to feel guilty about their deaths.
Corporal Montoya responded, “Is it better to go through all the pain and suffering than get killed? Maybe you’re just doing them a favor. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I wish someone would put me out of my misery. The only thing that keeps me going is your smiling face.”
Both men looked at each other and broke out in much needed laughter.
Corporal Montoya led a patrol that night to capture a prisoner and was killed in the failed attempt. When Wysocki saw the bullet riddled body of his last remaining friend, he shut down. He staggered off until he was out of sight of everyone. When the reality of the tragedy finally touched him, he fell to the ground and his screams of anguish echoed through the valley. The patrol didn’t know what to make of it. Two minutes later, Wysocki came walking back and calmly said, “Get some rest. We still need that prisoner; I’ll be leading the patrol.”
Allied commanders finally realized that it was costing too many lives to take the Abbey. On 15 February 1944, 142 Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bombers and 47 North American B-25 Mitchell medium bombers dropped 1,150 tons of high explosives and incendiary bombs on the abbey, reducing the entire top of Monte Cassino to a smoking mass of rubble.
With the arrival of spring weather, ground conditions improved dramatically. Large deployments of armor could now be used to support the infantry units. The capture of Monte Cassino came at a high price. The Allies suffered around 55,000 casualties in the campaign. German casualty figures were estimated at around 20,000 killed and wounded. Total Allied casualties spanning the period of the four Cassino battles and the Anzio campaign with the subsequent capture of Rome on 5 June 1944, were over 105,000.
Sergeant Wysocki stood up and never felt better. His uniform was dry and clean and his boots were no longer waterlogged. The sun felt warm on his face and the sky was clear and blue. As he walked down the trail, he saw a field where thousands of American soldiers were buried. Wysocki heard a multitude of voices speaking to him and one of them stood out above the rest. He stared at the grave marker with the name, Sergeant Robert Wysocki, and suddenly realized that the voice speaking to him from beneath the wooden cross was his own.
Private McDermott, Private Accurso and Corporal Montoya suddenly appeared beside him. McDermott flashed his country-boy grin, “Don’t stop now, Sarge.”
The long winding column of American warriors walked up a steep incline then disappeared into the blue sky. A strong and deep voice encouraged them, “One more objective, boys!”