Thursday, May 24, 2012

Highway 6


YANK Staff Correspondent


WITH THE FIFTH ARMY IN ROME [By Cable] —Nobody will ever know for certain which were the first Allied troops to enter Rome. During the evening hours of June 4 (1944), reconnaissance units, some armor and some infantrymen crept into the city from different directions. In some cases they pulled up to spend the night in houses vacated by Jerry only a half hour before.


All night long there was sniper fighting throughout Rome as isolated Germans tried to join the rest of their forces fleeing north. German time bombs began booming from different sections of the city during the night. Armed Partisanos in civilian clothes, thirsting for revenge, roamed the dark streets, taking pot shots at German vehicles and rushing the buildings where Germans or Fascists were known to be hiding. The last few hours that night Yanks and Partisanos, some of them working together, captured a number of Germans trying to escape in civilian clothes.


The city was pitch dark. There was no electricity, no telephones, and water only here and there. The people of Rome sat up all night, peering out of shuttered windows, waiting for the Americans and spitting down curses on the Germans as they caromed through the streets on their way north. At least one of these Jerry vehicles sprayed lead at every window in sight.


At dawn, larger bodies of Allied troops began entering the city on every road leading up from the south. Most of them somehow came together, forming one great column moving up the Appian Way.


People came pouring out of the houses in a great flood. Hysterical women clasped their hands and rocked back and forth on the curbstones, moaning "Grazia, grazia."


We had reached Rome after a furious jeep trip in pursuit of a picked force of Yanks and Canadians whose mission was to punch through the right flank of the German positions south of Rome and to penetrate the city.  

The flying spearhead had met with unexpected success along the broad straight Highway 6, long used by the Germans as their main supply route. Jerry had retreated so fast that he had neglected his usual careful demolition; even the telephone poles were standing.


Beyond Valmontone, until recently the anchor of the enemy defense line, we came upon the first signs of battle—a half-dozen scorched German tanks and half-tracks, discarded helmets, little heaps of machine-gun shells, a dead German with letters and snapshots on the ground beside him.


The first Yanks we caught up with were tankers, asleep in the turrets or on the ground against the treads. A guard told us they were taking a six-hour break after three days of continuous fighting. Next we came to long lines of infantrymen, tired, dirty but determined. From a farmhouse 20 yards off the road, a couple of riflemen emerged with vino bottles in their hands and roses in their "buttonholes."


As we approached Cenecelli, a suburb of Rome, Italians lined the highway, cheering and waving. Old women in black dresses bowed and grinned

like mechanical dolls. Men on bicycles leaped off and waved their arms in wild welcome. A kid, sitting on the branch of a tree that stuck out over the road, showered down handfuls of rose petals as we went by.


At the foot of a long upgrade in the road, we came to a cluster of soldiers crouched in a ditch. "Take it easy, there," said a heavy-bearded soldier sprawled in the ditch on one elbow. "This is the end of the line. Jerry is just over the hill." We had caught up with the spearhead.


The Yanks and Canadians had been held up for an hour by a couple of German self-propelled guns and some tanks, dug in over the hill. This effective roadblock had already knocked out two American tanks.


We sat around the ditch. Nobody seemed to know what to do until reinforcements arrived. Two of our tanks went over the hill to try to root the Jerry out, and we could hear the high song of the fast German machine gun that the boys called the diarrhea gun. Two shells burst 20 yards from our ditch. We slammed our faces into the dirt. Five men crawled down the ditch to join us. They were the crew of one of the tanks, just knocked out by the Germans. "If we could only see where the bastards are," one gasped.


For at least an hour enemy fire kept us pinned down. Whenever a shell burst close to a church near our ditch, it set the bells clanging. We looked at each other and remembered it was Sunday. Suddenly we spotted a wedding procession walking down the road toward the church, eight couples, arm in arm, all dolled up in their Sunday best. The white-gowned bride giggled

prettily, as if the roar of shells were her wedding march and the ricocheting bullets were rice.


After another 15 minutes, the lieutenant in charge decided to move up closer to the crest of the hill. We stooped over as we walked up the ditch and carefully avoided stepping on the shoulders of the road—Jerry's favorite place for mines. As the shells whistled and crashed all around us, we turned off the road and sprinted for a half-ruined farmhouse. Some of our tanks roared past, on their way over the hill for another try at Jerry.


Four hours passed while we listened to the battle. Everybody grew restless as the sun got hotter and the flies and the dust increased. Without telling the lieutenant, T-4 Nellis Johnson, an Indian from Pima, Ariz., and Pvt. Neal McLean of Chicago, Ill., crawled through the grass toward the hilltop. McLean had a bazooka, plenty of shells and hand'grenades. Johnson had grenades and his favorite weapon, a Johnson automatic rifle, which he calls a "Johnny gun."


Nearly an hour later the two came crawling back. McLean had fired all the bazooka shells into a house where he thought the German guns were located, and had been kept skipping around by machine-gun fire that came back. Johnson was plastered. He had crept around a house to "surround the Jerries" and found a vino cellar. The lieutenant burned their ears off for going up without orders. Johnson swayed back and forth, listening meekly and mumbling: "But, sir, we got so tired sitting here!"


Then Jerry began to work on us in earnest. Shells exploded all over the field and the road. "Airbursts," so-called because they exploded before hitting the ground, sent a shower of jagged steel into the backs of the men below. Broken window glass tinkled on our helmets. We had to get shelter—and quick. One of the Canadians shot the lock off a cellar door, but it was no use.

The place was full of wine barrels, and we couldn't get in. A shell fragment cut into the Canadian's back; he fell like an empty sack.


An Italian stuck his head out of the farmhouse and told us there were caves in the fields to our left. One by one we rose and walked at a stoop across the fields. The first man didn't run, so neither did the second. Not a man broke into a run. We all crossed safely. The caves were enormous. They were green with fungus, dark and smelly, but they seemed like heaven. There was six feet of rock between us and the shells.


At last the main body of our tanks arrived. In a half hour the job was done; the roadblock was smashed and the advance could continue.

We had been held up five hours.


Then a long column of doughboys plodded up the hill. It looked as if the whole damn Army had arrived. The doughboys had marched at

least 12 miles in the hot sun, but they just unslung their rifles as they approached the hill crest, bent over a bit and kept going.


The dome of St. Peter's showed up on the horizon through the mist and smoke. We were nearing the center of Rome, but there still seemed to be German snipers and machine gunners in every other cellar window. It took vicious street fighting before Jerry was driven back.


We stared at the enormous fountains, the huge statues and the gray stone buildings—relics of ancient Rome. There were many priests on the streets. The surprisingly well-dressed crowds were getting wilder every minute. Everyone wanted to shake our hands. Some said "Welcome" and others just yelled "Viva" and waved handkerchiefs and flags around and around their

heads. A brown-frocked Franciscan monk stood on the corner and blessed each Allied vehicle as it rolled by. A woman held up her bambino so that he would see and remember the great day when the Americanos marched in to liberate Mother Rome. Screaming swarms of kids clung to our jeep and tossed bunches of flowers all over her until she looked like a broken-down

hag made up to look like Hedy Lamarr. A well dressed gentleman jumped on the radiator and hung on precariously for a block while he got off his chest in broken English the wish that America and Italia be closa friends forever. Two

girls, eyes flashing, climbed on the fenders, drew their hands across their throats and shrieked "Morte Tedeschi! (Death to the Germans!)"


Around a long bend we sighted the ancient Colosseum, and under one of its huge arches of crumbling gray stone something that it had never seen before in all its years—a jeep with four exhausted Yanks sprawled out sound asleep.

An average of two or three times every block somebody would pump our hands up and down, wild with excitement, and ask whether we knew

his cousin so-and-so who lived in Newark or Chicago or Brooklyn. Six Yanks in the jeep ahead made it a rule always to say yes; then the Italians would drop off, ecstatic.


We were moving more and more slowly until we came to the great square known as the Piazza Venizza where Mussolini used to make

his famous balcony speeches. Here the crowd was so thick that the column stopped completely.


A group of Yanks and Canadians who had fought in the spearhead force worked their way through the crowd and up through the side door of Mussolini's palace, through its great gaudy corridors with their gilt ceilings, to the office where the great man used to sit.


Mussolini's huge desk was located at one end of the long room, so that visitors who had to walk all the way across would feel properly humble by the time they came to the big cheese himself. Sgt. Sam Finn of St. Louis, Mo., sat in the chair, put his feet up on the desk, clasped

his hands behind his head and said: "Not bad, not bad at all." All around us bustled palace guards and police in musical-comedy uniforms, with yard-wide cocked hats like the kind Napoleon used to wear. We stepped out of the office onto the balcony, and a great roar went up from the crowd in the square below. We were on Mussolini's own balcony, undoubtedly the first

Yank uniforms ever seen there.


"Viva Americanos!" yelled thousands of people as they waved their handkerchiefs up at us—the same sight Mussolini must have seen as he

looked down. It was then that Sgt. John Vita of Port Chester, N. Y., pulled the historic stunt that will be talked about for the duration and six. He stuck out his chin, threw out his chest and did a terrific take-off of Mussolini, speaking in Italian. The crowds loved it. They nearly went mad with

joy when Vita made the exact kind of slap with his left palm against his right bicep as he shot his arm up in the Fascist salute.


That sort of thing went on all day. The fiesta spirit was broken only by occasional shots as mobs went after the stores and homes of Fascists.

Once in a while we saw trucks and busses jammed with armed Partisanos, who fired into the air as they combed the side street and alleys.


It was a great day and one that no American soldier who was there will ever forget. By late afternoon the Yanks who had come in first and then scattered over the city were swinging into line and joining the steady columns of doughboys pouring through Rome all day from south to north. The doughboys were so tired they made little attempt to straighten up and parade.


These infantrymen were tired as only men can be who haven't slept two nights in five days. There were beards on their faces, and their eyes were sunken and red as they plodded silently forward. They held their rifles any old way over their shoulders, and many had tied pieces of burlap and odd rags around their helmets in place of lost camouflage nets.


These were the dirty, tough, goddam wonderful infantrymen who had fought their way up the long bloody mountain path from Salerno; the men who had lived in underground holes at Anzio for months, sweating out the deadly German shellings; the men who always seemed to have to fight straight uphill into the muzzles of German guns; the men who had won Rome.


They had won Rome, but they did not have time to stop in it now. Their job was killing Germans, and since the Germans were running north, that was where they were heading.


In one long brown column a couple of doughboys were chanting a jingle that expresses, better than anything else, the spirit of the Fifth Army. It goes this way:


From Sicily to Rome,

Then Berlin and home....




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