Continuing MB Casteix’s wartime diary/experiences…
MB and his company left Bizerte on a British LST, HMS Bruiser, on 25 September 1943 and arrived at the Salerno, Italy beachhead on 28 September. He describes a storm “the first night” at Salerno that “flattened to the ground” their hospital tent. The wounded were moved to a barn, and none were injured further by the incident. He goes on to say, “The boys worked like Trojans,” setting up the hospital. “By the second day things going smoothly. Malaria is rampant – we clean up the barn and make a ward out of it.”
He then goes on to tell of the Italian family that owned the barn. “They are destitute and almost all are sick except 67-year-old grandmother. No doctors around. We take care of them. Grandmother has one tooth & says she is saving it to bite Mussolini’s nose off!” Go granny!
Back to the landing on the 28th– MB was quartered in a compartment at the very stern of the ship. For those who don’t know, the LST (Landing Ship, Tank) was designed for beach landings to transport heavy equipment ashore such as tanks and trucks. They were 380 feet long with “barn doors” that opened in the bow and a ramp behind them that was lowered once the doors were open. They were flat-bottomed and very shallow draft to allow them to get right up next to the beach—but miserable places to be in rough seas. Running up to the beach sometimes left them stuck there. The one in the image above is totally beached and will have to wait for high tide to get off. To get off the beach, as they approached it, they dropped an anchor from the stern in the deeper water behind them and ran out the chain as they neared the beach. They later used that to winch the ship into water deep enough to navigate under engine power.
MB was not expecting any of that. He said when they dropped that stern anchor, which was right over their heads, it made so much noise in that confined compartment it sounded like they had been bombed. It scared the occupants so much they thought they might be about to sink.
Along about here in his diary, MB begins to give more details. He speaks more of what he is observing and feeling like “rain and mud again – beginning to get cold.” His entries aren’t complete stories but do give a few more details that help flesh-out what is happening. We still have to speculate on some of it, and I might not be totally accurate with that.
Then under the heading “Sights of War-Torn Italy,” we get the following, “People eat black bread and spaghetti – No meat!. No water in big cities. Battipaglia (a town near the landing beaches at Salerno) worse that Bizerte – shells holes along the road – burned out G tanks – Docks at Naples shambles – No H2O in Naples – Altavilla – Agropoli.” The war has had its very negative effect on Italy. The retreating Germans destroy anything of any military value not already destroyed by the fighting. Keep in mind the fighting isn’t some distant event out in the open country away from the towns. It is taking place everywhere, including in the towns. Citizens are being displaced from their homes and later returning to find them destroyed, assuming they weren’t killed in the process. Food is particularly hard to come by in the combat zones. So is clean safe drinking water.
“Second platoon sets up Air Evac Hospital right next to the airport. In sound of artillery – Germans shell spot we are to move in!”
There was some interaction with Italian civilians. “Italian family invites Kirk and me to supper: spaghetti, potatoes, and wine.” That an Italian family was able to do this is astounding, but they obviously wanted to show their gratitude to their liberators in some way. This food and wine are probably some they had hidden away, and only with liberation can they afford to be so generous. MB didn’t say, but I would be willing to bet they brought some Army “delicacies” like canned Spam and chocolate for their hosts.
On the Italian countryside, “People apparently poor. Dirt and filth almost like Arabs, but houses are clean inside. Vallo Lucania clean little town in mountains. So many Italians speak English and many have been to U. S., usually Brooklyn! Kids all over.”
“Apples and nuts – cheap and good.”
“Naples – Kids begging & trying to sell anything & everything … Plenty of jewelry and gloves. Girls at any price – One boy got it for a cigarette & the next one for a match! Bomb damage – Buildings blown up by Germans.”
It wasn’t all horror: “Dinner in Italian restaurant & singers.” I’m guessing that was in Naples? Makes you wonder how they managed to have enough to stay in business.
“Rail yards at Caserta – supply train bombed: Ammo & airplane parts & motors … Cars blown 30 yards …”
He then goes on to describe Pompeii: “… Huge city, well laid out …”
He mentions a dinner with “Palmieri’s relatives,” which I am guessing are the Italian relations of an Italian-American in his unit? This was quite common. Many Americans had relatives back in Europe and they often had a chance to encounter them even during the war.
An Italian doctor (at the dinner?) describes the horrors of the German occupation, “The Germans destroyed the country, railroads, and bridges…” Then MB gets personal with this comment, “They took the doctor’s shaving kit and spectacles!” To quote the frustrated doctor, “What can they do with my spectacles?” He also says, “They destroyed homes in the village of no military value.” The doctor didn’t understand, but without his glasses, he could not render aid to the enemy (Allied wounded) or even his fellow Italians, which would force that problem on the Americans, French, and British to deal with.
Battle of Volturno
Volturno is north of Naples and on the road to Rome. Of the battle, he says, “Terrible fight. Germans almost push British back. A-36s deciding factor & B-26s & 75mm cannon clean out German positions.” The A-36 was a ground attack version of the P-51 Mustang. The B-26 was a two engine medium bomber.
MB’s next entry says simply, “Upfront with 45th Division Rangers … Germans over hill popping shell over & by us.” This must be the period I mentioned in the first post of this series when he was temporarily assigned to Darby’s Rangers as their surgeon. If you have seen the movie Darby’s Rangers with James Gardner playing Col Darby … MB isn’t in it. Evidently, his part ended up on the cutting room floor. 😉 He did tell one story about that time, besides the one about the Rangers lined up for chow while under fire. (They musta been hungry?) After recovering from his wounds, Darby’s surgeon that MB had replaced temporarily returned to the outfit one morning. Darby turned to MB and said, “Captain, you’re relieved now. You can return to your unit, but you are welcome to stay and join us for breakfast.” I suppose, recalling that the Rangers got shot at a lot and having had his fill of “rangering,” MB replied, “Thank you, Colonel, I’ll be leaving now.” As in RIGHT now.
The war must have eased up some because the next entry says: “Dances at Caserta – pretty Italian girls and lots of fun.” It isn’t what you think because the next entry says simply, “Custom of chaperone” and no explanation. Sorry. I’m guessing some stern-eyed Italian mother was there to make sure everything stayed on the up-and-up. Then he names the fun, “Sara, Rosina, Giovanna, Wanda.” Sorry, no pics of the “fun.” I wonder where they are now?
OK, enough fun—back to the war—albeit only briefly.
MB goes on to describe a 250-bed hospital they set up at Caserta and the first patient is a VD—and it quickly fills up with, I am guessing more VD patients?
Then he mentions more “fun” and operas and a dinner at the Falcone home. I don’t know who that is, but it may be the home mentioned earlier? Guess who shows up? Yep. Sara, Rosella, Giovanna, & Wanda. He spells it “Rosina” in the first entry and “Rosella” in the second. But this time wine got mentioned along with the “fun.” And no mention of chaperones. Hummmm…
He also observes that the battle is still raging, and Italy is the worse place in the world to fight a war—but he is with Sara, Rosina/Rosella, Giovanna, & Wanda. War is hell.