Christmas, 1943

By the week before Christmas in 1943 we had become so familiar with the narrow rocky trail that led down from the mountain church to the regimental area in the olive groves on the lower slopes east of Venafro that we could negotiate it, even in darkness, in just under three hours. Since November 8, when we had come out of reserve and returned to action on the mountainous front between Casino and Venafro where we encountered the first German line of winter defense, we had advanced not at all. The repetitive pattern of eight days up in the front line positions, four days back in the regimental area for rest, eight days on the line again, became a monotonous routine.

There was nothing sunny about Italy that fall. The weather grew increasingly cold; the dreary skies were dark and heavy with clouds, the fogs and mists hung at treetop level. The incessant rains had turned the lower terraces and the entire Volturno valley stretching out behind us into a sea of water and mud. After six weeks, the tent area under the dripping olive trees had been churned into a sodden quagmire. The damp, murky air was permeated with the odors of wet woolen clothing; refuse from the field kitchens, and seepage from the pit latrines. The line of 105 howitzers immediately behind us boomed steadily through the days and nights, looping barrage after barrage over the mountaintops, adding the acrid smell of burnt powder. There was not much rest in the rest area, and by the end of four days we were always eager to shoulder our pack boards and make the arduous six-hour climb up the trail to the relative comfort of the frontline.

The war had settled into a standoff of sending out patrols, occasionally probing for weakness in platoon strength, and the constant dueling between the long-range artilleries. In the mountains, the German defenses were thinly held, but exceedingly well prepared and located. At many places along the line, enemy positions were within 50 to 100 yards of our own. Each side played its own little game of "shoot at me and I'll shoot at you;" every burst of mortar shells brought an answering volley. And overhead, the intermittent whistling of heavy artillery shells passed back and forth, day and night, seeking out the installations and troop concentrations behind both lines.

We had put the aid station in a small isolated church, La Chiesa de Madonna della Fondata, built partially into the side of a rocky hill and on a narrow ledge overhanging a deep gorge. It was the only structure of substance in the entire area, and you could follow the footpaths that led to it for miles in any direction without seeing a sign of habitation. It was not an ideal location, since it was directly on the front line between the positions of our F and G Companies. Three hundred yards to our rear, on the reverse slope of the bald hilltop that lay between us, was Battalion Headquarters, operating out of a thatch and stone goat pen. Ordinarily, as medics, we would have been out-ranked and denied the use of any such comfortable shelter, but during our first days there we soon learned the reason why no one else chose it.

The cream-colored walls and red tiled roof of our little chapel perched on its high ledge stood out like a red and white bull's-eye against the background of green hillsides. We were in direct view of the German positions dug into the higher slopes beyond the gorge, and less than 400 yards away. Although we displayed no Geneva Cross, the Germans seemed to be aware that we were using the church as a medical aid station. We had to play by their rules, however. We could move about on the outside freely only in darkness at night, or when the fogs and rain obscured visibility. If more than one person ever ventured out in daylight, or if we attempted to carry out a litter case, they would bracket the church with their deadly accurate 88 shells, one short, one long, one below and one above. Occasionally when they felt playful, they would clip a tile off the roof ridge, or chip away at the corner of the rock ledge.

Except when there was a platoon or company skirmish, or an unusual amount of patrol activity, we seldom had to treat more than two or three wounded each day. As the weeks went on, however, our casualty rate from exposure, frostbite, and "trench foot" grew in alarming amounts. It became a source of much bitterness to learn that the new combat boots, shoe packs, combat suits and cold weather gear had reached the Italian Theater weeks before, and were being worn thirty and forty miles behind the lines in Caserta and Naples. We were still dressed in regular wool issue clothing, canvas leggings, and GI shoes. None of the new protective clothing reached us until the last days of December. Some nights as many as eight or ten men had to be carried into the church; it often required four and five grains of morphine to relieve their intense pain.

The evacuation of our litter cases remained a nightmare. The closest jeep or ambulance was miles away in the regimental area at the base of the mountains. We had tried several kinds of litter rigs attached to the backs of the pack mules that brought up supplies, but all proved impractical. The mountain trails were too jagged and narrow, and the jolting and swaying as the animals climbed and descended the slippery paths often compounded injuries or threw the patients into shock. We had to settle for the laborious and frustratingly slow method of hand carrying. Nine litter relay stations were set up on the trail between Battalion Headquarters and the vehicle pool at the mountain base. As it was an impossible job for two men, each litter required a team of four litter bearers. It took between five and six hours to move one litter case from the church to an ambulance.

We were in a discouraged frame of mind coming down off the mountain just five days before Christmas. Colonel Knight, our taciturn commanding officer, sensing our apathy, suggested an impromptu three-day leave. We needed no urging. Neither did our new driver, Bucky Behers, who was more than anxious to put the jeep in use again. All of 19 years old, Bucky was one of those earnest people, and his eagerness to please was exceeded only by his overdeveloped compassion. By the time we left, he had a list of things to pick up from every man in the medical section.

We reached Naples in mid-afternoon after a wild, wet ride. We found Lee Powers, one of the medical officers who had left the Regiment after Sicily, and moved our sleeping bags into his apartment quarters near the harbor. Lee took us to a restaurant and fed us a real meal. Afterwards he got us tickets to a USO performance at the old San Carlo Opera.

As we sat warm and comfortably relaxed in the red plush seats and opulent surroundings, we were overcome by fatigue and a frightening sense of unreality. It was a disturbing experience. Less than three hours away, on the mountain, shells were dropping, shrapnel fragments flying, and men, miserably wet and cold, were huddled into rocky crevices and slush-filled fox-holes under pitifully thin canvas shelter-halves. The packed military audience, men from many nations with their Waves, Waacs, Nurses and Red Cross girls, were enjoying the performance. Who were all these people? How could they sit, unmindful and unconcerned, only a few miles removed from all that suffering and destruction? Emotion came close to the surface. Bucky, restless, felt it too; there were angry tears in his eyes. With no words we got up and left before the revue was half through. But once on the outside, on the familiar hard seats of the jeep, the feeling passed.

We spent the next day with Bill Mauldin and Don Robinson, the two talented GI's who wrote and published the 45th Division News, and a very busy last day shopping the black market and supply depots, and visiting men we had evacuated to hospitals. Bucky's sincere and innocent face made him a great scrounger. When the time came to leave, the jeep was overloaded with everything imaginable (even a side of beef) obtained with phony requisitions, or stolen from every supply unit in the area.

We returned in the evening in rain and darkness, but our spirits had revived. We were happy to be going back. At one of the MP checkpoints a soaked peasant woman with crying baby in arms stood in the muddy road beside us. Bucky looked away uncomfortably for a moment then, with compulsive suddenness, peeled off his newly acquired hooded trench coat, and handed it to her as we drove off.

On the 24th, we headed back up the mountain trail. The 1st Battalion section had left a small tree on the altar of the little church. Somehow it seemed like the only place to spend a Christmas Day.

(c) The Bulletin of the Muscogee County (Georgia) Medical Society, "The Doctor's Lounge", Dec 1968, Vol.XV No.12, p.11

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