Combat Medicine: Summer, 1943

In mid-August, the midnight mist rolling in from the sea across one of the few straight stretches of road on the north coast of Sicily was chilling. There were five of us in the jeep; Meier drove and I sat in the front seat beside him; Watkins, Caronte and Prather were crowded into the back and complaining of the cold. Meier, peering intently ahead into the fog and blackness over the lowered, canvas covered windshield, was doing his best to make time while dodging potholes and shell craters along the war-torn road. The trailer behind us bounced crazily, loudly rattling its half-load of water cans, litters, splints and plasma boxes.

"I hope the god dam Krauts are busy up ahead," grunted Watkins between bounces. "Turn on the lights and blow the horn, Meier, maybe they ain't heard us yet."

Beyond the battered two-story shell of rail station on the left, we dodged a burned-out half-track partially blocking the road. The smell of combat and death still lingered along the debris-strewn highway, where, only two days before, the tanks and tank destroyers had fought a running battle with the retreating Germans. Now, defending a ridge that dropped abruptly to the sea about three miles ahead, the outnumbered Germans had stopped the advance of Patton's entire Seventh Army as it pushed eastward toward Messina.

A half-mile farther on, a guide waving a white handkerchief mounted the road shoulder and flagged us down. He turned us onto a dirt track leading inland toward the dark hills and mountains.

"You guys are late. The rest of the battalion came by over an hour ago."

"It ain't our fault, buddy," said Caronte. "Where the hell is the assembly area?"

"About a mile or two up this road," said the guide, pointing.

"Thanks," grumbled Caronte. "Cap'n, I can smell it already. Another chicken shit mission."

The broad band of rugged mountains along the entire north coast of Sicily extends inland for more than 30 miles, rising rapidly in places to heights of 6000 to 7000 feet. There is a narrow coastal plain in spots, but, for the most part, the main highway and the railroad beside it are chiseled into mountain rock just above the water's edge. The infrequent roads leading southward from the coast hairpin up the mountainsides usually to dead-end in some remotely perched town or village high above the sea. In the mountain fastness, only narrow goat and donkey trails, winding in and out along ravines and ridges, connect the isolated villages.

The 157th Infantry's 1st Battalion had been engaging the Germans for two days in a bloody and unsuccessful attempt to push them off the strategic ridge, which met the sea below the mountain towns of Motta and Pettineo. East of the ridge was the wide, dry bed of the Mistretta River and, beyond that, lay the town of San Stefano di Camastra on the coast. In order to outflank the Germans on the ridge, our 2nd Battalion had been called upon to make a forced march over the inland mountains to the south. To aid in hauling weapons, ammunition and supplies, the Division's company of mules and muleskinners had been brought up. About one-quarter of the battalion, and all of its vehicles, had to remain in the rear. Initially, only company medics and litter-bearers were to accompany the flanking foot-troops, but, at the last minute, someone decided that a group from the aid station should trail the battalion in with extra medical supplies and equipment. As usual (it was early in the European campaign and combat medics had yet to be discovered and glamorized) the orders had reached us belatedly.

By the time we reached the blacked-out assembly area, a barren hilltop of scrub brush, gorse and cactus, it was evident that Caronte's estimate of the situation was correct. The assembly point was deserted except for a couple of supply men.

"We saved you a mule," said one of the supply sergeants.

"That don't look like no god dam mule to me," said Watkins, eyeing a tiny, long eared, moth-eaten Sicilian donkey, which, materialized out of the night mist.

"Where the hell is the pack saddle?" asked Prather.

"The heavy weapons boys took the last one."

"How do they expect us to load all this crap?"

"That's your problem."

"Typical! Typical!" said Watkins. "Screw the medics! Always on the short end."

Watkins, a red-faced, balding cynic and semi-reformed alcoholic, had once been chief morgue attendant at Denver General Hospital. Caronte was a short pudgy, comical Brooklyn native who left a job in the Shirley Temple Doll Factory to join the Army. Only Ken Prather, Staff Sergeant in charge of our medical section, was truly at home in the outdoors. In civilian life, Ken had lived on a ranch and herded sheep in the Colorado mountains near the Great Divide. Three years in the infantry had reinforced his natural silence and preserved a lean hardness.

We unloaded less than half the supplies we'd brought and sent Meier with the jeep and trailer back to the rear. Using a folded GI blanket as a saddle pad, Prather fashioned some rope slings to drape across the donkey's back. (Caronte had already christened her Angelina; in honor, he said, of his stubborn grandmother.)

[Editor's note: The author fails to mention here that his own grandmother, born not more than 50 from miles from this very location, was Angelina Tusa, and that it was she who loaded her own small children into a donkey cart for Palermo, and from there by steamer to the port of New Orleans in 1892. But that's another story - see "My Father the Doctor".)

Through the sling loops on each side, we suspended folding litters and a couple of metal-frame leg splints. Several rolls of broad, muslin splint-bandage fashioned into a wrap-around girth secured this basic load. The rest of the equipment blankets, plasma boxes, miscellaneous cartons of medical supplies and food rations was piled on top and tied to the splints and litters with more rope, adhesive tape, muslin and gauze bandage. We roped two 5-gallon water cans together and hung these, one on each side for balance, across Angelina's withers. She seemed to tolerate the unholy load, but it took strong urging to set her into motion. With Prather leading and scouting ahead, Caronte on the halter rope, Watkins and I trailing, we set off into the darkness.

Fourteen hours later, at four in the afternoon, we were still moving, but slowly. Through the night and through the day we had pushed on; up and down hillsides, following ravines, gullies and dried out streambeds whenever we could; only occasionally had we found a track or path we could use. We proceeded by guess, by map, and Prather's compass reading. Three times, on upgrades or downgrades, the load had slipped and we were forced to stop, unpack and reload. It was a lonely, frustrating journey. The war, it seemed, had disappeared. Once or twice during the day, in the distance beyond the mountain ranges between the sea and us, muffled sounds of shooting and artillery fire reached us. Otherwise we were alone in the dusty, deserted, sun-baked countryside, and only the sounds of Angelina's reluctant hooves, the constant creaking of her makeshift load, and the clank of water cans broke the silence. It became evident that we were lagging more and more behind the battalion. We had seen none of our own men, and even the few peasant huts we'd passed were empty. The hot Sicilian sun was merciless. By afternoon our sweat soaked woolen uniforms were stiffly caked with fine, white dust. We had finally reached a terrace of stunted olive and almond trees amid clumps of broadleaved, prickly-pear cactus at the base of the Motta ridge.

"I think Angelina's had it," said Watkins.

"That makes two of us," said Caronte. "My feet are killing me."

"Okay, get her unloaded," said Prather. "We'll give her a rest and cool her off with some water. And we might as well take a chow break ourselves. Maybe in a couple of hours we can get her moving again."

We emptied one of the water cans into our helmets and canteen cups and doused Angelina and ourselves. She refused to eat K-ration dog biscuits but bit off half of a hard chocolate D-bar Caronte held in his hand. He was disgusted. "She's got a sweet tooth just like old grandma. Jeez! I never thought I'd be playing nursemaid to a butt-headed Sicilian jackass."

"She loves you, Louie," said Watkins. He was sitting, propped against a rock wall, spooning out a can of cold pork and beans and guzzling red wine from one of his two canteens.

Prather and I puzzled over our one field map. "We ought to be about here," said Prather, "and by now the battalion should be over here almost to the coast, behind where the Germans are supposed to be on this ridge."

"At the rate we've been going, it may take us another 7 or 8 hours to reach them."

"Maybe more," said Prather, watching Watkins who had been hitting the wine all day.

"It still looks like we've got a long climb ahead of us. If we can ever make it to the top of this ridge we should cross a road that leads inland to Motta."

"Yep. But it runs in the wrong direction. Look," said Prather. "There's a dotted line here which must be one of these cart paths leading off it that loops around to the north again and passes close to the coast about where the battalion should be."

At dusk, for the first time in several hours, the sound of artillery fire started again. It was closer now, but still muffled and far away near the coast. It kept on.

"Somebody's catching it," said Caronte. He waddled over and kicked at Watkins who had snoozed peacefully through it all. "On your feet, Wat. The Krauts are coming."

"Blow it"

"Let's pack up and get moving," said Prather.

We reached the top just past midnight, after a tortured nightmare of scrambling. We had zigged and zagged upward, one rock terrace after another in unending succession, some of them barely wide enough to support one row of olive trees or a couple of rows of staked grape vines; Caronte and Prather pulling on Angelina's halter, Watkins and I boosting from the hind end. Twice more on the climb we'd had to stop and repack the load. The road was there on the crest, and it was deserted. We were all exhausted.

"Somebody's gotta be nuts," groaned Caronte. "No god dam battalion in its right mind ever came this god dam way."

Prather had walked ahead along the road and returned within a few minutes. He seemed relieved. "I found the cart path. Right where the map said it was. It'll be easy going from now on."

The path took off from the road and headed east about a quarter mile from where we were. It led along the north slope of a ridge just below the ridge line. Once, in a spot where the mist was thin, a sliver of moon broke through the cloud cover high above and we caught a glimpse of the sea, far below and miles to our left. For the first half-mile the path was smoothly graveled, but it soon changed into a cobblestone surface just wide enough for a narrow animal cart. In places it was bordered by a regular, raised, stone edge; in places, too, wheel ruts, worn deeply into the stone, testified to its antiquity and once heavy use. Watkins, even though he still nursed a wine hangover, seemed jovial. "If I had more wine, I'd drink a toast to them god dam old Roman road-builders."

(On a visit to Sicily many years later, I found the road again. Actually, it predated the Romans and once led from the large Sickle-Greek city of Halaesa, which had flourished nearby in 500 B.C. The Romans may have improved the road during their occupation, but Halaesa itself disappeared around 100 A.D.)

We were moving comfortably now on a gentle downhill grade. The night had darkened and the mist was heavy again. If all went well, we should be reaching the coast in five or six hours.

We came to a stop as Caronte halted Angelina suddenly. "What the hell is that?"

"Sounds like music," said Prather.

We listened intently. Faintly at first, then disappearing completely, then again, waxing and waning, we could hear a thin sound of music. The eerie melody, somewhere in the mist ahead, obviously was on the path and coming toward us as it got progressively louder. Then, only a few yards away, emerging out of the fog, came a peasant leading a small replica of Angelina loaded with straw and a couple of wooden wine casks. He was playing a concertina. When he stopped, he was almost on us; it was hard to tell who was more surprised. He was a small, weathered man, dressed in typical peasant fashion, wearing dusty, frayed trousers, a shapeless cap on his head, and a nondescript, dark woolen coat draped over the shoulders of a dirty, open-necked shirt of coarse cloth.

Watkins was first to react. "Speak to him in Wop, Caronte. Ask 'him what in the hell he's doing out here on this Godforsaken mountain at two A.M. Don't he know there's a war going on?"

After the initial surprise, our peasant friend seemed entirely at ease. Caronte tried out his best pidgin Brooklynese Italian: the peasant answered in an almost unrecognizable Sicilian dialect. There was a lot of hand waving and good fellowship. I could pick up only a word or two.

"You don't have to kiss him, Louie", said Watkins, "What's he telling you?"

"He says his name is Giuseppe, Joe Mazzara, and he's on his way home. He's got a cousin in Yonkers."

"Jesus," said Watkins. "They all got cousins somewhere."

"He says the Germans pulled out yesterday."

The peasant nodded vigorously. He brushed one open palm quickly and dramatically against the other in the direction of east: "Tedeschi, tutti scappati!"

"That's what they always say," said Prather.

"Caronte," said Watkins, eyeing the two wine casks, "you're a lousy intelligence corporal. Find out if he's interested in trading us some wine for cigarettes."

The peasant grinned: "Americana? Buono."

Watkins tapped on one of the casks, held a couple of empty canteens upside down and conveyed the message adequately in sign language and two words: "Vino? Cigarette?"

After filling Watkins's canteens, Mazzara insisted that the rest of us take some too. The wine was harsh and sour, but warming. After a round of drinking, the peasant struck a small wax match and lit one of his bartered cigarettes. A few minutes later we broke up the party. He waved goodbye and continued up the trail with his donkey; we moved on in the opposite direction. The concertina music began again, and, just before it faded away in the distance behind us, he must have stopped to light another cigarette. The mist had cleared somewhat, and the reflection of the match flare, even from a great distance, shone like a beacon.

"That's one bastard who never heard of a blackout," grumbled Watkins.

A minute later the first shell exploded near the trail about a hundred yards to our rear. Six or seven more, all hitting on the ridge or near the cart path, followed it. The brief warning whistles were unmistakable. "Mortars," yelled Prather. "Let's get off this road."

We scrambled down about three levels onto a terraced grape vineyard and sought protection along a low rock wall. Another barrage of mortar bursts came whistling in, exploding along the trail we'd left. A third barrage followed, and then all was quiet.

"I knew there was something phony about that character," said Watkins. "I bet he was a god dam German agent infiltrating the lines. He must have had a walkie-talkie with him and spotted us for the Krauts."

"You're so smart," said Caronte. "Why the hell didn't you challenge him?"

"With what? A 5cc syringe?"

"You could have poked around in that straw while he was dealing out the wine."

"Yeah. And supposin' he had a burp gun slung under that baggy coat. Where would we be?"

"Nuts," said Prather. "Knock it off. The shooting's over."

\We decided to abandon the path and stay put where we were for the rest of the night. Angelina was unloaded again and we tied her halter rope to a vine stake nearby. We stretched out on the rocky ground along the wall and went to sleep under some dusty grape vines.

Suddenly, it was morning and broad daylight. Caronte was shaking my arm. "Cap'n. Wake up. The donkey's gone and so is Prather."

"Where's Wat?"

"Still passed out under the grape vines. He finished off the wine and a pint of grain alcohol last night before he went to sleep."

"Well, see if you can revive him. I'll heat up some water for coffee. We'll eat breakfast and wait here for Kenny. He'll be back."

It was an hour later when we spotted Prather heading our way on the trail above. He was leading Angelina. She had pulled loose during the night and wandered off, dragging stake and grape vine at the end of her halter rope. Prather found her about a half-mile away nibbling on cactus leaves. After tying her up temporarily, he had gone ahead on the trail for a couple of miles and run into a squad from H Company.

"They were pulling out and heading toward the coast to rejoin the battalion," said Prather.

"Did they have any casualties?" asked Caronte, still thinking about the shelling a few hours before.

"Nope. One guy had a headache and wanted some APC's."

And what the hell were they doing last night while the Krauts were shelling the bejeesus out of us?" asked Watkins.

Prather grimaced. "According to the way they told it, they spotted some lights and activity on this ridge last night and blasted the hell out of a whole company of Germans."

"Holy tomato! And I could've stayed in Brooklyn making dolls," said Caronte. "Well, anyway, I'm glad them heroes are a bunch of lousy mortar men."

We reloaded Angelina and started on our way again. Within three hours we had reached the coast, still looking for the battalion. There was traffic now on the coast road. A jeep and trailer approaching us from the direction of the front looked familiar. Prather was up on the road flagging it. It was Meier.

"Where have you guys been?" he asked. "I've been up and down this road for the past two hours looking for you."

"What's going on?" asked Prather.

"Nothing, now. The Germans pulled out yesterday afternoon, and they moved the rest of us up the coast road last night," said Meier. "A couple of platoons from G Company are already across the river and into San Stefano."

"Did the battalion trap any Germans?"

"Naw. They were long gone before our guys even reached the coast."

"Where's the battalion now?"

"Up ahead," said Meier, "sitting on their duffs. We been ordered to hold. There's a big rumor that the whole division is gonna be relieved. We're waiting for the 3rd Division to move through us this afternoon."

"My achin' back," said Watkins, aiming a kick at Angelina's scrawny rump.

Caronte climbed into the jeep, pulled off his shoes, and began massaging his feet: "What a chickenshit war."

(c)The Bulletin of the Muscogee County (Georgia) Medical Society, "The Doctor's Lounge", Sep 1973, Vol. XX No.9, p.11

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