A dozen Rangers set out on a routine assignment in Italy. Then the Germans attacked.
By Pvt. Justin Gray
There were 12 of us. We were called by the colonel and told that we were to go on a security mission to guard a 4.2-mortar OP a half-mile in front of the lines. There was no tenseness—rather a certain sense of relaxation. It looked routine. We had been afraid that we would have to go on combat patrol.
We went back to our equipment, chattering. We were to meet the mortarmen — three observers—in half an hour. I drew two K rations, a dinner and a supper unit. Bills, our section leader, said: "Take beaucoup grenades." I took eight of them and made sure my bandolier was full of ammo. To make room for the grenades in my meat-can pouch, I put aside assorted Life Savers and dextrose tablets, keeping only a few peppermint drops. I started to pack.
Enemy artillery fire started laying in on us. Somebody said: "Those bastards down by Vesuvius. What the hell can we do with mortars? We can't even reach the Germans." I packed my field jacket, tooth brush and shaving equipment. I considered leaving my training gas mask behind but decided to take it. Stancil asked: "What are you going to do with a sharpshooter rifle, Gray? Shoot leaves?" I traded it in for an Ml with a boy who wasn't going on patrol. I filled my canteen with water and put leaves on my helmet.
We were on a little wooded knoll with short shrubby trees and shallow slit trenches. I leaned back in a trench, using my helmet as a headrest. I tried to kid with the boys. The tenseness mounted. Gerhardt, a Dutchman from Pennsylvania, made believe he was going to sleep. "Make me vake in 15 minutes." He always pretended to sleep but was more nervous than the rest of us.
Rona said: "Gray, don't you wish you were back in the noncombatant Engineers?" I snorted: “That redhead wouldn't love me so much if I were." My captain came along and suggested that I change, my red-top socks so only the gray showed. "Sonuvabitch, these damned leggin' laces always break. Wish we had those new combat infantry boots." Sgt. Bills took over and told us the order we were to march in. Bills was to lead off. "Nemo next with his tommy, supported by Nickson. Ford follows with his BAR. High-Gear Hodal next with extra ammo. Rona will lead the riflemen. Gray, you bring up the rear."
Then silence. We continued to wait. It was about noon. Complete quiet on the entire sector. It was warm for September. There were no combat patrols hitting us. Then machine-gun fire started above us. We heard German machine pistols. Some Tedeschi had infiltrated behind our lines. We wondered if there were more where we were going. "Damn, there are only 12' of us."
I wondered how I long the colonel wanted us to hold that OP if the Germans hit us. He never did tell us. "Why doesn't Bills go and find out?" "Gee, maybe a combat patrol would be better than this—at least you're moving." High-Gear Hodal started singing: "There's a Star-Spangled Banner waving somewhere, over a distant land so very far away. Only Uncle Sam's brave heroes get to go there; O how I wish I could go there, too . . ." Nickson swore: "I'll kill the bastard that wrote that song." But the tenseness relaxed. We were brave heroes far from home. Hodal was a cool character.
The three mortarmen came up and we moved out. We had a job to do; we were moving. I forgot my tension. I began to think of what I had to do and of the redhead back home.
Our lines were thinly stretched across the mountain. We had to go up through A Company, which was holding the line. It was surprising to see Rangers dug in like Infantry. The Army wasn't moving as fast as expected. I saw Stovell, my buddy in A Company. He yelled, “Bring back some souvenirs, Gray."
Our position was about a half-mile down the mountain in front of the lines. There were no Jerries in sight, and we reached it without incident. I could see Vesuvius and Naples in the distance. The valley stretched below us, green and clean. Overhead flew some P-38s on patrol. Everything looked easy. The mortarmen indicated the positions they wanted. We fanned out, knowing exactly what to do without orders. I took a position ahead of a little waddy. I threw off my pack and sat down. "Kay" Kyser called: "This is going to be a cinch." I thought so, too. I thought we'd be able to rest all afternoon. We deserved an easy job after the past few days.
I opened up my dinner unit and began to eat. Everybody was just as relaxed. We called back and forth to each other. We might as well have been out of combat. It was a beautiful clear day. Bills asked: "How about trading your cheese unit for my ham and eggs? I've got the GIs." I laughed at him. “The hell with you. I’ve got the GIs, too." I started munching away. There was so much undergrowth I couldn't see more than 15 yards ahead. One of the boys said: "It looks as though Italy couldn't grow a man-sized tree." Fleas started to itch in the seams of my pants. I scratched and swore. Suddenly I saw something moving in the brush about 12 yards away. My jaw froze. I felt like vomiting. It was a Jerry. Only one, I hoped. He! was coming right up the waddy. He came out in the open, looked, around and turned to signal the others to come through. Another came in sight. I don't know what the hell I did. Instinctively I must have dropped my food and picked up my rifle. I was glad I'd traded my sharp-shooter rifle for an M1; I could fire from the hip.
Without looking around I knew that Gerhardt had seen them, too. I knew I should have held my fire, but my finger squeezed the trigger. Almost immediately Gerhardt fired at the second one. Both of the Jerries went down. And then we knew there were many more Germans behind them. You could hear them moving in the bushes maybe 20 yards away, fanning out to see if we were an isolated unit or the main line.
It was only a matter of minutes before they would envelop us. Bills told us to cover our flanks. I moved way off to the right. I wondered whether Bills had asked the colonel if we had to hold this damned position. I was ready to leave. Some cinch! I got a pretty good position in a little defilade. I was still scared as a bastard. I wondered if the rest were as well located. At least the bullets couldn't reach me. I rose up to take a look. From my right flank a machine pistol sputtered. I smacked my face down on the ground. That was close. I took another look. Another machine pistol sputtered in front of me. A third one started on my left. I fired a couple of rounds at the man in front of me. Then I knew what was happening. One machine-pistolman was firing while the other two crawled closer to me. I could hear them. Then another fired and the other two crawled. I couldn't rise up any more to fire back.
I heard a scream on my left. Nemo was standing up, his tommy gun in his hands. He was hit in the chest. He ran at the Germans. A machine pistol opened up and tore the top of his head off. The rim of his helmet dropped down around his neck. I turned away and saw one of the mortar-men firing futilely with a .45 automatic.
My three Jerries were about six yards away. I could hear them. I couldn't do a thing. Suddenly I heard myself screaming: “Bills, Bills, get me the hell out of here." And there was Bills at my side. He had rushed down and surprised the Jerries. He killed two. l got the other.
It was time to leave the position. More Jerries were coming up. We all knew now that it was a full-fedged German assault on the main American lines. We could do no more good there. Bills gave the order and we started to retreat in pairs. Gerhardt covered me. I covered Gerhardt. We had to leave Nemo behind. It was hard going up the steep mountain. It hadn't been so steep when we came down. I thought about throwing away my rifle so I could scramble more quickly. The rifle was in my way, and I couldn't use my hands. "If we can only get up to A Company," I thought. "We have to warn them. What if they don't recognize us? What if they fire on us?"
We reached the top. We made it. The Germans hadn't been aggressive enough. A Company recognized us and held their fire. I saw Stovell and dropped into his ditch. I looked up and said: "Sorry, Stovell. No souvenirs.”
YANK 18 Aug 1944