So begins this chapter of my father’s WWII diary. We left the last part with the Allies just entering Rome after a long and bloody fight coming up the Italian boot mostly dealing with rugged mountainous terrain. As MB said, “A terrible place to fight a war.”
He gets a bit poetic here. “ROME! What a city! A modern metropolis thriving in the shadows of a bygone era. The nearest thing to cities back home that we’ve seen. Modern buildings, clean wide streets. Electric cars. Life goes on as usual with no interruption. By now (June 11) the Romans have become used to us & go about their business with no apparent curiosity about the Yanks. Beautiful girls, well dressed with bright printed dresses, very friendly.” I bet they were.
MB goes on the rattle off one of his long lists he calls “a few points of interest,” but I will spare you the details.
Here begins what I call the “Gypsy Phase” of his war experience. Understand that each of these moves required breaking down a hospital with all its tents, beds, and equipment, packing it, moving it, and setting it up again somewhere else. No easy task.
“6 June – We move to Priverno – French Air Evac.”
“14 June – We move with 422ndFrench Hosp to Aeroporto, 25 miles above Rome. Still doing Air Evac.”
“21 June – Move again! Still with French Air Evac. Viterbo.”
“12 July – We move to Sienna with 421st French Hosp. Still doing Air Evac. Activity here is increasing…behind the lines. It means only two things: Southern France or another landing up the boot. I pick France in 2-3 weeks.”
MB has been in the Army for almost three years at this point and in a combat zone for almost two years with the last year close to the front and seeing the worst of it. But now he is out of the action and it is getting to him as he states, “Afraid I am getting weary of the war. I’ve lost all ambition & initiative. Things are too dull back here – same nothingness each day. I’m even getting tired of looking at the Italians.” (The women?) “Sienna (a beautiful and historic city) is only six miles away, but I can’t work up enough interest to visit it. Maybe if I had a few air raids I would snap out of it!”
MB on right with a French officer, probably the commander of the French unit they are attached to.
Evidently, he does muster up the energy to visit Sienna. “14 July – Sienna, another Italian walled city. Old, steeped in legend. Famous for its numerous churches, the finest Cathedral & the shrine of St. Catherine of Sienna. Narrow winding streets with many balconies. Also the home of famous briar pipes.”
The French celebrate Bastille Day. “The French held a huge celebration here today to celebrate Bastille Day. Parades & talks by Army Commanders. Colorful Goume and Senegalese bands and guards. City all decorated. Gen Clark flew into our airport in a Simpson & an escort of 6 Piper Cubs!” Six Piper Cubs? They aren’t even armed. Some escort.
French tank? Uniform of the dude on the right looks French.
“18 July – This stunning Russian advance amazes me. Yet, I’m puzzled. No army no matter how strong can advance as rapidly against opposition no matter how little. The Krauts must be pulling back to some powerful defensive line. If this is not the case, I believe in miracles.” He is referring to what is happening on the eastern front with the Russians on a tear and pushing the Germans out of Russia and Poland.
“28 July – We move to Cecina.” Cecina is well up the Italian boot above Rome. “The French have pulled out of the line & we’ve been relieved. Have no assignment & no prospects. There are too many medical troops here for what’s on the line. Somebody is going to make another invasion. Us maybe? Preparations are in progress for something tremendous. When, where? The new moon is up now.” Most landings took place during a full moon.
“7 Aug – Our second-anniversary party was a huge success. Wonderful meal, fine dance. Hope this is the last.” Evidently, it is the second anniversary of them being in theater.
“15 Aug – This is what I’ve been expecting. The landing in Southern France by 7thArmy. Now to grind the Hun out of France.” He predicted this earlier in his diary and missed the date by a week. Operation Dragoon was the Allied invasion of Southern France on August 15, 1944. The invasion took place between Toulon and Cannes by a combination of American and Free French troops.
“22 Aug – The siege of Paris has begun.” The Allies broke out of the Normandy beachhead and rolled toward Paris. “Such tremendous advances & such destruction of the German armies means the end is near. It may come at any minute & certainly, it will come suddenly.”
He shifts his focus back to Italy. “It won’t be long before the final push starts to clear Italy of the Germans. The Brazilians are here and the 92nd Div (Negro) is here.”
Umm! It gets spicy now! “L’amore in Rome!” You don’t need that translated, do you? It sounds like he had some chaperone-less fun? “Officer Rest Center at Hotel Excelsior on Via Veneto (Via Ganorrhea)!” Yeah, that’s what he said and how he spelled it. I know he knows how to spell “gonorrhea.” On the chance the “Via Ganorrhea” was a street in Rome, I Googled it in Google Maps. What came up were pins for about a thousand doctors offices. I’m thinking he misspelled it, after all. “Via” is Italian for “way” or “street.” I believe. I tried Googling it as a street and no luck. Is it a joke? The officer’s rest center is on Via Veneto, but you chance getting gonorrhea while there? Then we have this note in his diary following that comment, “5thArmy is running the worlds largest brothel!!” Maybe that explains it?
“23 Aug – The French Marquis liberated Paris! The advance continues. I guess: Shortly the 5thArmy will enter France by way of Italy.”
“2 Sept – We moved to San Casciano, 15 miles below Florence. The push to drive the Krauts out of Italy has begun. The Battle of France is over – the Battle of Germany is about to begin!” France is liberated, at this point in our story, and the Allies are about to cross into Germany.
Back to Italy again. “Florence – the art center of the world. I’m disappointed! It may be the war or I don’t appreciate art! Just another Italian city. Germans blew all bridges except Ponte Vecchio – footbridge. All art still hidden. First saw the city on 3rdSept. Artillery still around city – Germans only 6 miles away. That may explain my feelings! Surprised at amount of goods still for sale – clothes & expensive items but no food. Moral: Don’t live in a big city during a war.”
“8 Sept – Visited Pisa. It’s a ghost town. Not a civilian there. In fact, the town is hardly there … Only section not ruined is that around the tower … It too has the scars of battle. Cathedral of Santa Maria Majore beautiful. Built in 1063.”
“TD as house physician at Hotel Excelsior. A pleasant week. Good food and service.” (TD = Temporary Duty. We used to call it “TDY” in the AF.) “Searchlight Sam, Tina & Lucia!!!” I have no idea who Searchlight Sam was. He closed that with three exclamation points just like I typed it so it must have been very important to him. He follows it up with, “What a time!” Is Sam is a friend adept at “searching” out girls? if so, draw your own conclusions about Tina and Lucia.
“30 Sept – We move to Pratolino, 12 km above Florence. Still nothing to do.”
“13 Oct – Move to Cafaggiolo 18 miles above Florence. Ambulances working all over Italy. Some are with 16th Evac, C.G.B & Co is evacuating the 2 platoons of 601.” I don’t know what C.G.B. is but something big he never explains happened for them to bug-out. I recall him telling a story once about returning to the hospital after being away for some reason, and it was gone—as in evacuated gone, leaving him behind. This must be that incident.
“17 Oct – Awarded the Army Plaque & Clasp by General Clark for outstanding service during June. We were with the French and evacuated every French casualty via air. The citation reads as follows:
“The 403rd Coll Co is awarded the 5thArmy Plaque & Clasp for exceptionally meritorious performance of duty during the month of June 1944. This unit was charged with the responsibilities of facilitating the airborne system of evacuating casualties. During the advances both south & north of Rome this organization maintained close contact with the constantly changing battle zone & was able to evacuate thousands of casualties without loss of a single patient’s life. Reliance is put upon the 403rd Coll Co to maintain its record in days that lie ahead. Mark W. Clark, Lt. Gen. U.S. Army – Commanding.”
This must have been a nice feather in the cap of the 403rd Collection Company commander, Capt. M.B. Casteix, Jr.
“2 Nov – Well, looks like my guess of the end on 26 Nov will fall short. Another winter in Italy is almost too much I can think of. It will be miserable … That old rumor of the 5thArmy going to India has cropped up again.” Evidently, he had predicted the surrender of Germany by late November?
“1 Dec – Operas in Florence, La Boheme, Manon, Barber. Good singing, excellent scenery.”