September 1943

By the first week in September, the Sicilian campaign was over. The 157th Regiment was bivouacked under some ancient olive trees on a rocky hillside along the north coast of Sicily overlooking the beautiful, blue Mediterranean. For the first time since the invasion landing almost four weeks earlier, we had set up our aid-station tent (Small, wall, 1 ea.) and were enjoying some of those leisure hours that punctuate the lives of combat troops and afford opportunity to swap and embellish the wild tales and experiences that accumulate during any action. There is an exhilarating sensitivity and poignant humor among men of the front line that can never be communicated adequately to those who don't "belong", even those of the same regiment or division who may be one or more echelons to the rear, In light of the months that were to follow, we were mere novices at the time, but already we considered ourselves combat veterans and were well pleased with our soldiering capabilities.

Much of the heavy fighting during the Sicilian campaign took place in the broad and mountainous eastern third of the island, The tactical plan of the German occupation forces (who were greatly outnumbered by the invading British, Canadian and American divisions) was to abandon Sicily and fight a delaying action while their troops withdrew to Messina at the northeast corner where they could cross the narrow strait between the Charybdis and Scylla of Greek mythology onto the toe and mainland of Italy. The Germans were well-trained and competent, many of them veteran troops of the Africa Corps; they did not get much help from the local Sicilian home guard or their allied Italian troops whom, by this time. had little appetite for fighting and offered resistance only when German guns were at their backs. The British and Canadians, landing to the east of the Americans, had the most difficult task as they pushed straight northward toward Mt. Etna and the pivotal area of the German holding defense. Meanwhile to the west, the American divisions fanned out and sped northward through the central portion of the island, covering great distances and encountering only brief pockets of rearguard German resistance. Our race was for the north coast road at mid-island in the hope of isolating the German forces around Palermo and the western sector, before they could be withdrawn toward Messina. But nearly always, and with masterful skill, the Germans were a few hours and one or two steps ahead of us.

As a result, for the American forces at least, the campaign was one of rapid motion and pursuit. It was an ideal initiation into combat for the 45th Division and our eager 157th. During the first three days the Regiment earned its spurs and the respect of the higher command by successfully taking the strongly held inland mountain towns of Vizzini and Grammicele, and by capturing a major airfield at Comiso where the garrison was taken by surprise and 120 planes, most of them fighters, were destroyed on the ground. After that there was just enough action - brief engagements against small defensive units of capable Germans employing mortar and small arms fire, encounters with the shelling of the mobile and efficient, all-purpose 88's in every strategic village and at every road junction, booby traps, road-blocks and blown bridges, and some occasional strafing by the still active Luftwaffe - to let us know we were actually engaged in war and not another training maneuver. At the same time the relative ease and success of our rapid advances built up some needed confidence.

Our 2nd Battalion encountered its heaviest fighting on reaching the north coast where, spearheading a pre-dawn Division advance, we surprised (or were surprised by) a rearguard company of the enemy who pinned us down for three hours in a brisk battle. There, really for the first time, we experienced the acute anxiety of administering plasma and morphine by the light of a burning jeep, and treating casulties where they lay on open hillsides amid mortar bursts and fire from automatic weapons. On another unforgettable night, four of us from the aid station trailed the Battalion as it made an inland flanking maneuver on foot, cross-country over a series of mountain ridges to the south of where the 1st Battalion was having a bitter three-day battle on the coast, There we encountered our greatest trial in the form of two long-eared, gray Sicilian donkeys which we had heavily and inexpertly laden with water cans, splints, litters and medical supplies. The reluctant animals understood no English and had to be nursed every inch of the way up and down the terraced hillsides, over rocky ridges, and into winding gullies and ravines.

On the steep downhill slopes, the loads, held in place by ropes and muslin bandages. would tumble over their heads, and on the uphill scrambles, slide back over their rumps. It was a lonely trek; we proceeded by compass, by guess, and by following the spoor of D-bar wrappings and discarded K-rations dog biscuits. The flanking maneuver was successful, but it was two days before its worn out medical support caught up with the Battalion. At San Stefano, on the coast, just as the 3rd Division was relieving the Division for the first time our G Company got badly mangled crossing a heavily mined, dry riverbed. When the call for more help came, we loaded a commandeered bicycle with plasma and medical supplies, rode forward to the near end of the blown bridge, and in sublime ignorance stumbled across two hundred yards of uncleared minefield to reach the wounded on the far side.

Later, after the engineers had cleared a path through the riverbed. the 3rd Division moved through. tripped six more mines along the path and suffered eighteen more casualties. The Regiment was called on one more time, near the end of the campaign, to make another flanking maneuver, this time by sea along the north coast. We landed just short of Messina, but again the Germans had pulled out ahead of us. The 3rd Division was not happy with us. On landing, in darkness, we cut all their communication lines and fouled up their water supply. With the fighting over, as we rode back through the villages and towns along the north coast. the friendly Sicilians (almost everyone had a relative somewhere in America) would come out of hiding, line the streets and hang from windows to cheer us and present us with gifts, flowers, fruit and wine. This had it all over maneuvers in the States. If this was what combat was like, we were all for it. We felt confident and invincible.

At that time the medical section of an infantry battalion consisted of a Battalion Surgeon, an Assistant Battalion Surgeon, and 36 enlisted men headed by a Staff Sergeant. As far as the two doctors were concerned, it was a flagrant waste of medical talent, - if you could call our few years of post-medical school training that. A junior medical student or one of our well-trained Tech Sergeants could have carried out the duties of both doctors just as efficiently and almost as intelligently.

The conditions we encountered during those first weeks of combat resembled little for which the training of the years before had prepared us. On maneuvers, the aid-station was always neatly laid out somewhere to the rear of battalion headquarters, with its tent set up, medical chests opened, its areas conveniently marked off for reception. screening, medical, walking - wounded, litter-wounded. and its Lister Bag filled with water and hanging from its tripod. During the weeks of action practically none of the medical equipment ever got unpacked. All treatment was given on the run, and we practiced mainly from the medical kits hanging from our webbing belts, and out of the two dust covered jeep trailers parked along the roadsides under the olive and almond trees, behind the prickly-pear cactuses and rock fences, or in farmyards. In the first thirteen days we covered over 300 circuitous miles reaching the north coast. We were constantly on the move, seldom spending more than a few hours in any one place, sleeping in the open, or in some cleared out corner of a deserted peasant hut. The steady, unrelieved monotony of three food concentrate meals a day out of K-ration boxes and Oration cans, combined with the physical exertion, effectively eliminated all bowel activity, and it was not until we reached the fertile north coast with its abundant vineyards and fruit orchards that the diarrheas set in.

The two-week respite in early September gave us a chance to discard about one quarter of our medical equipment and reorganize the rest. We acquired another standard jeep (a replacement for the underpowered 1/4-ton amphibian that pulled one of the trailers) and an unauthorized 3/4-ton on which we were able to load extra water cans, much of the heavy equipment, and provide needed transportation for the litter bearers and aid-station personnel. Ab Messe, our Assistant Battalion Surgeon, was a compulsive consolidator and whenever the opportunity presented, more and more of the outmoded and infrequently used equipment was left behind. We had "liberated" a 1900 vintage microscope somewhere along the way, and in the bivouac area, with some borrowed slides and stain, we amused ourselves making blood smears and slides of stool specimens. But after two weeks of diligent searching and turning up not one malaria plasmodium nor one parasite egg, we finally gave up trying to practice scientific medicine and reverted to the clinical pragmatism of sulfanilamide, APC and paregoric. The microscope was "consolidated out" on the next move.

Our most valued acquired possession, however, was a captured Italian officer's aluminum bathtub. Everyone develops his own methods of bathing under field conditions, particularly where water is a scarce commodity. Standing in the bathtub instead of on the bare dirt we perfected the technique of a complete bath using only one canteen cup of warm water having enough left over to brew coffee and, after two or three of us had gone through the same procedure, using the soapy water that had accumulated in the tub to do laundry in. We carried the tub with us for another two months. It finally became so battered, leaky, and unusable that it had to go. Even then, we swapped it to an Italian peasant in the mountains near Casino for two chickens, three tomatoes and a bottle of wine.

On September 10, the U.S. 5th Army invaded Italy, landing on the beaches south of Salerno. Within a few days of the landing the 45th Division was again called on. The tent had to be folded and packed away, and we moved once more to a staging area, this time on the outskirts of Palermo. There we awaited the hard working Navy LCI's shuttling between Sicily and Italy, and another trip by sea to land us on that beleaguered beachhead.

(c) The Doctor's Lounge, Muscogee County (Georgia) Medical Bulletin, Vol XX, No. 1, 1963, p20

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