Tuesday, May 22, 2012

GIs Take Over Rome



[By Cable]—Eight days ago I was in Teheran, Iran; a few hours ago I was in
Naples; now I was in Rome. I entered the city under sniper and machine-gun fire, with the point
tanks of the 1st Armored Division, accompanied
by riflemen.

Behind a big Sherman, the third tank to enter
Rome, our jeep bounced at 1930 hours into this mad town filled with happy, hysterical people, sniper fire, pretty girls, mine explosions and free wine. How I happened to get here is a strange tale.
In Naples we were talking over my plane ride
from Iran, the major and I, when a corporal from
the censor's office came in and said our troops
had entered Rome that afternoon. The major, who is my commanding officer, apologized for
interrupting my story. "I'd better get up there and find a press to print YANK on," he said. "I'd
better get up there and find a story," I said.

By 1400 hours the major and I, with Cpl. Sal
Canizzo as our driver, were speeding toward
Rome up Highway 7, the famous Appian Way.
The major had decided to take Highway 7 because Sal said that, on the map, it seemed the straightest and easiest road to the Eternal City.

The highway was in excellent condition, and we 'moved quickly toward the front, slowing
down only in towns like Formia, Terracina and
Cisterna. There we had to pick our way through
rubble-strewn streets. But if the streets were
bad. the towns themselves were terrible. They were towns no longer—just lopsided masonry,
dazed peasants, mangled trees and burned tanks.
In every town there was the smell of death. You could tell the nearness to war by that smell.

Until we hit Velletri, there was little traffic except an occasional small convoy, and we had the highway to ourselves. But when we were about five miles out of Velletri, the road became clogged with traffic—on one lane only, the northbound lane that led to Rome. We zoomed up the outside lane, dodging back into the convoy whenever we spotted an MP.

We passed endless rows of crowded ammo
trucks, gas trucks, ambulances, weapons carriers
loaded down with equipment and six-by-sixes
filled with infantrymen. The road was all dust,
dirt and confusion. Whenever we stopped and asked the way to Rome, the MP would shake his
head in a puzzled way and point hesitatingly
toward the forward end of the dusty column going north on the Appian Way. There was no sign of the enemy; no gunfire of any kind; no planes-ours or theirs—in the sky; no foxholes or
tanks. On this sunny afternoon the hustling,
bustling column, noisy with yells and friendly curses, reminded me of the impatient crowds
bound for dinner after a Saturday football game.

We sped through Albano, where the final push
for Rome had started. No sooner had we passed
through the quiet town than the whole scene changed. You'didn't have to know much about war to sense that you were nearing the front.

You could tell by the dust, rising from the road
like a giant smoke screen and blotting out the warm caressing sun; you could tell by absence of vigilant MPs, who up to now had kept shooing our jeep back into the noisy column. 

And the column itself had changed.  It now consisted of tanks—mostly heavies and mediums—and trucks mounted with heavy weapons. Straddled out in two single lines, 15 paces apart on both sides of the road, were infantrymen.   Their faces were dirty and partly covered by
handkerchiefs that helped keep the dust out of
their mouths. As they walked up the road, they
kept their guns on their hips. Neither the riflemen nor the tank crews talked much; they just moved silently up the road.

The column's pace had slowed down to a crawl when the sounds of shellfire suddenly came from up ahead. The men on the road dove for the safety of the embankment, and the tank crews ducked into their turrets. Sal nudged our jeep over to the embankment, and the three of us got out and lay down with the men on the side of
the road. The shelling was over in five minutes, although it seemed like ages; then the column started to move again.

We got into the jeep, and the major looked at
his map. For a moment he was silent. Then,
taking off his helmet, he scratched his head. "It
looks as if that kid from the censor was wrong.
We might end up selling these blasted things to
the Germans," he said, pointing to the bundle of YANKS we had brought along for promotion work in Rome. "Are you two willing to go on?"
Sal, an Italian boy with a terrible yen to get to
Rome, yelled "Hell, yes!" I waved my head indecisively. The major took that for an affirmative
answer. Our jeep moved on.

Soon the tanks stopped again, and now our
jeep was parked protectively behind the third
leading tank. There was more fire. It was not the same kind of fire we had heard before; this had
a whap instead of a whoosh.

A rifleman came over to our jeep; he was a short squat kid with a dark dirty face, and when he tried to smile you could see he was
tired. "Hey, YANK," he said, pointing to the sticker on our jeep, "you're pretty far up to be getting autographs." Then he spotted the bundle of magazines. "Can I have one, sir?" he asked the major. "Sure thing," the major said.

I reached down and handed the rifleman 10 copies. He pulled a knife out of his hip pocket. "Wanna German souvenir, bud?" he asked. He
threw the knife into the jeep and started across
the road. He gave the rest of the magazines to "a
bunch of his buddies, and one of them yelled across: "This sure is first-class distribution."

Just then there was another dose of whaps, and one of the infantrymen behind us must have noticed my shaking hands. "Don't worry," he said. "That's just a couple of snipers over in that farmhouse. We're gonna go up and get the bastards in a minute."

The Appian Way had now widened out into a four-lane highway with a trolley line running down the middle. Through the dust you could see the city of Rome. Down the street, ignoring the sniper fire, came citizens of Rome, some of them carrying wine in jugs and bottles. One man came running down the road alone; he wore no coat and was crying. The short dark rifleman
talked with him in Italian for a moment, then
turned to us and said: "This guy's wife was
blown up by a mine. He wants a doctor. You
better tell one of the medics."

On the right side of the road three or four
dogfaces were talking to the wine-carrying civilians. One of them took a big slug out of a bottle.
Suddenly there was a shot, and the GI fell over
in the road. The civilians scattered, and the other soldiers bent over their buddy. One of the crew of
the lead tank yelled to the crouching rifleman: "Is he hurt bad?" And the little dark kid yelled
back: "No. he ain't hurt. He's dead."

A second lieutenant and a squad of riflemen started up the embankment on the left toward
the farmhouse from which the shots had come.
The lead tank began to move again. We decided to stay with the tanks, hoping they would
finally make town. We felt uneasy on the road and nudged close to the third tank. The three tanks
in front of us were the only ones moving; the rest of the column had stopped.

We made it this time. No sooner had we passed
between two long rows of apartment houses, at the point where the Appian Way ends and the city of Rome begins, than the three tanks and our jeep were engulfed by screaming, hysterical Romans. Some were laughing, some were crying and all of them wanted to touch us. One old
lady kissed our jeep as if it were her lost son.
A dark-haired girl placed a rose in Sal's ear.
Somebody threw a bunch of flowers into the jeep and someone else put two bottles of wine alongside the flowers.

The three tanks had met the same fate. Romans swarmed over them like ants. The tanks couldn't move without killing somebody. I jumped out of the jeep and headed for the first tank to get the names of the GIs in it for my story, but it was impossible. Twice I was halfway up when the yelling crowd pushed me off.

Then I spotted an officer in the center of the road, trying to clear a path for the tanks.  I went over and talked with him. "How does it feel to be one of the first tanks in Rome?" I asked. He was a tall thin-faced captain. "We're not staying here long," he said. "We're supposed to move up that road toward the Tiber but these crazy people won't let us.  They don't know it but they're holding up the war."

The officer gave me the names of the men in the lead tank: Lt. Henry Schoberth of Versailles, Ky.; Sgt. John Brown Jr. of Canton, Ohio; T-5
Ernest Barnett
of La Grande, Oreg.;
Pvt. Tiberio
Di Julio
of Orange, N. J., and Pvt. Antonio Cano
of Los Angeles, Calif.
From somewhere came the whoosh of a selfpropelled gun. The captain headed for his tank, and the tanks began to move to the side of the road for protection. Somehow nobody got hurt, and this time the Italians cleared a path. Then the tanks disappeared down the dark street.

When I reached the jeep, I found that the major had picked up an ex-colonel of the Italian
Army. "We're going to his house for dinner," the major said. It was a confusing ride. We would start up one street and meet a bunch of people at
the corner. They would either swarm all over our much-abused jeep or scream something about
Tedeschi. This, Sal informed us, meant that there were still snipers up the street.

After backtracking over half the city of Rome, we finally arrived at the ex-colonels home.  He
lived in a modern apartment house. We parked
the jeep in his garage, locked the door and, after fighting our way through the mob that had
formed in front of the entrance, arrived at our
host's apartment. There we were introduced to
his wife, his mother and two of his friends, a middle-aged couple. We had a dinner of ham sliced thinner than a Walgreen special, peas, salad and white wine. We knew food was scarce in
Rome and went easy with the ex-colonel's larder.

Through Canizzo's New Jersey-style Italian, we learned that, besides being very happy, these
people were interested in two things. The ex-colonel wanted to know how the Allies were going to treat the members of the Italian Army. The other gentleman, a banker, wanted to know what the AMG would do with the lira. We could answer neither question.

After thanking them for the dinner, we took off with a volunteer guide for the Ambasciatori, one of Rome's swankiest hotels. Our guide found
it easily, and we went inside. There were no
lights, since the Germans had knocked the powerhouse out of commission. At the desk we found a tall thin man in charge. He spoke good English and did not seem at all ruffled by our presence. "Aren't you surprised to see us?" we asked. "No,"
he said, "we were expecting you, but not quite so
fast." "Are there any Americans here?" we asked. "Not yet," the man said, laughing quietly. "There were German officers in this hotel an hour and a half ago."

A bellboy took us to our rooms. Sal and I shared one with twin beds. He was asleep in five minutes, but I couldn't doze off. There was a lot of sniper fire, and with every whap I could picture some Kraut working his way toward our room. Soon the roar of tanks came up from the streets below. I went out on the balcony and
breathed a sigh of relief when I saw they were ours. For a minute or two I watched and then I went back to bed. Soon the comforting roar of
the tanks made me drowsy. I remember saying: "This all must be a dream." Then I went to sleep.

Early next morning I went down to the bar and met Charlie Castellotti, a famous bartender in the Paris of the hectic 1920s. Three German officers drank at Charlie's bar only a few
hours before the arrival of our jeep. "They were sad," Charlie said. "They have felt for a long while that you were going to take Rome."

There was a pretty girl sitting at the other end of the bar with a beautiful dark cocker spaniel at her feet. I went over and petted the spaniel.
He didn't seem to like my touch. "His name is
Blacky," the girl said. "He was given to me by a
German lieutenant last night."

It was a warm lazy day. There were still crowds in the streets. GIs whizzed through town with flowers in their helmets, bottles of wine in
their hands and girls hanging on their jeeps.

On one of the main streets a water main had burst. Four happy dogfaces were pushing each other into the stream. A large crowd gathered and watched the horseplay, cheering whenever a soldier was thrown into the drink.

But not all the Roman scene was hysterical
that day. Through one main street, in long serious lines, marched the infantry on its way to the
Tiber and the forward positions. On another street tanks, trucks, guns and ammo rolled toward the front.

On still another street a band of civilians, armed with machine guns and wearing red bands on their sleeves, stormed a radio station. They brought out the proprietor and beat him to the ground, using their guns as clubs. Then they carried him off. yelling "Fascisti."

The pace was too fast to last. Pvt. Charles
of Dunbar. Pa., a rifleman who had fought

from the beginning of the push to the very outskirts of the town, put it this way: "Come the MPs and the 'Off Limits' signs, and this town will slow down."

YANK 7 July 1944

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