Come To the Ball: Winter 1944

War is only occasionally the gruesome ordeal of blood and battle described dramatically in news accounts (or now pictured so vividly by television camera reporting). In any full-scale action the number of men who participate in actual front-line combat is comparatively small. On a given day of fighting, unless some unusual situation develops, about one tenth of a division's troops are engaging the enemy. Although they may he located in the combat zone, the hundreds of supporting units backing up a division are seldom in any significant danger; and the thousands of troops that fill the rear echelons of a theater of operations rarely experience combat except through second-hand rumor.

To the individual soldier, front-line duty is more often a scattering of brief but memorable experiences, some dangerous, some not, punctuating long periods of inactivity. During the brief encounters, if he is unlucky or foolhardy, he may get captured, wounded or killed, although the percentages against such happenings are much in his favor. During the more frequent intervals of quiet, his chief interests center about feeding his stomach, combating the elements, making himself comfortable, fighting boredom, thinking of women, and struggling with his own personality problems. Most commonly he maintains a fairly sound outlook, and, with his sense of humor intact, takes advantage of all opportunities to goof off or engage in some of the incongruous, lighthearted undertakings dreamed up by lonely men away from home. This frivolous side of war gets little emphasis, particularly from the dour, pacifist-minded who concentrates on, and finds satisfaction in, its horrors.

On January 10, 1944, after the 3rd Algerian Regiment of the Free French took over our positions in the snowy mountains above and east of Cassino, we slogged wearily but happily down the mountain trails, wanting nothing more than rest and a change of scenery. We had been on the line for a prolonged stretch of 70 days, although, except for the miserable weather, this was not as bad as it sounds. Nevertheless, we were tired, and the promise of a few weeks of rest and recuperation sounded good to us. No one then would have dreamt that one week later we would be preparing feverishly for a most stupendous staged dinner dance, the Prima Inaugural Overseas Combat Ball, to be held in a sumptuous ballroom of an Italian nobleman's villa.

Our morale got a big boost when we learned that the rest area assigned to us was the familiar locale of Piedimonte d'Alife and San Potito. We had liberated the towns earlier from the hated Tedeschi, and had made many friends there during our previous relief in October. It was a real homecoming, and the still grateful, and still unspoiled, townspeople were happy to have us back.

The weather cooperated; the cold was not severe, the rain fell infrequently, and the sun warmed the days with the promise of an early spring. Some training exercises and maneuvers were going on, but, in the main, they were minimal and chiefly for the benefit of new replacements. Regulations were winked at, and policy toward passes was liberal. The men were free to wander off almost without restriction to seek out entertainment and the few signorinas not already locked away by their families. Even with the supply limited, they apparently found some (or at least a durable few) because business at the Pro-station was constant and good.

There were a number of talented entertainers in the Battalion. In the evenings we usually gathered around an open campfire near the kitchen tent to watch the "Baron," one of the riflemen and a former vaudeville magician, go through his professional repertoire of tricks. Pfc. Anastasio Vas, a diminutive Puerto Rican who doubled as a runner for Battalion Headquarters when the kitchen wasn't set up, collected instruments and musicians and held a nightly jam session that ended only when the vino ran out, or when the sleepy men in the tent area began throwing shoes. As a civilian, Vas had played the drums for Xavier Cugat, and with a couple of sticks and the kitchen pots and pans to beat on, he filled the nights with frantic Latin rhythms.

It must have been the wild, rhumba beat that catapulted us into the project of staging a dance. Other units were holding banquets and drinking parties, but none had ever conceived an undertaking so ambitious. It was to be an expensive blowout, just for the 2nd Battalion, but a democratic free-for-all with no officer-enlisted man distinctions. Vas and his crew of musicians were enthusiastic; all five of the kitchen units would furnish the food; F Company agreed to take on rotating sentry duty to make sure that men from other units would not crash the party; G Company would find tables and chairs and build a band stand; E Company would be in charge of decorations; and H Company already had details out scouting the countryside wine cellars and bargaining for hoarded bottles. All we needed was a time, a place, women and hard liquor.

We chose the evening of January 27 as the time, but in our rural isolation the other requisites presented problems. The Medical Section volunteered to solve them, and we tackled our impossible assignment with optimistic abandon. At the insistence of our young friend, Severino, we called on the Conte Gaetano Filangheri, an ageing nobleman whose villa a short way down the road toward Gioia had escaped war damage. The villa was in almost as decayed a state as the Count himself, but it did possess a magnificent grand ballroom that opened out onto spacious terraces. It was just what we needed. The Count showed us around personally, and, although he trembled slightly, and his eyes misted on looking at the hanging crystal chandeliers and marble statuary, he seemed very gracious and hospitable. According to Severino's excited interpreting, the Conte was actually overwhelmed with joy anticipating the honor, and very eager to please his great benefactors, the Americanos. We took his consent for granted and left 4 cartons of cigarettes and two cases of the new 10 in 1 rations as a token of appreciation.

In the next few days we located and visited four field hospitals within a 15-mile radius of Piedimonte. We plastered the bulletin boards of the nurses' quarters with homemade posters announcing and ballyhooing the unparalleled Prima Inaugural Overseas Combat Ball (courtesy, 2nd Battalion, 157th Infantry), We conferred with Chief Nurses, and promised anything. Within a short time we had signed up 63 willing Florence Nightingales who couldn't wait to mingle with genuine combat soldiers. On our visits to the hospitals - by requisition, bribery and outright theft - we also accumulated fifteen 5-gallon tins of absolute (medical) alcohol that would launch the affair in the proper direction. The Battalion Motor Pool would supply 2 1/2 ton trucks to transport the nurses to and from the party. Everything fell into place perfectly.

On January 22, the 3rd Division and the British 1st Division landed at Anzio, on the coast, 40 miles southwest of Rome. The bold and unexpected sea-borne attack caught the Germans by surprise, and the invading forces met almost no resistance. However, the Allies exploited their advantage too cautiously; this gave the Germans time to react, and, within a few days, they were pouring in massive numbers of troops to ring the beachhead. It was obvious that additional support would be called for.

As the only veteran major unit with amphibious training not then in action, the 45th Division was a logical choice. Without even a preliminary alert, the orders returning us to action came through from 5th Army Headquarters in Caserta on the afternoon of January 25. We had twelve hours to pack up and move out. There were no opportunities to cancel our plans and obligations; there was no time for goodbyes. It was barely dawn when our convoy rolled by Count Filangheri's villa on our way to the staging area at Pozzuoli above Naples. On the afternoon of January 28 the Navy landed us on the beaches at Anzio.

Cynics maintained that the wily old Count, through connections in Caserta at the King's Palace in which Mark Clark had set up 5th Army Headquarters, knew of the Anzio plans from the start; that he knew our departure date before we did, and that he was certain all along that a dance would never take place. We have always preferred to feel, however, that, as the illustrious and honored host for the spectacular Prima Inaugural Overseas Combat Ball, the Conte must have suffered a great disappointment.

(c) The Bulletin of the Muscogee County (Georgia) Medical Society, "The Doctor's Lounge", Feb 1969, Vol. XVI No.2, p.11

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