Tag Archives: 5th Army

A Wartime Diary – Part 6

Part 1 here.

Part 2 here.

Part 3 here.

Part 4 here.

Part 5 here.

ROME!!

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.”

MB took this pic of the tower.

“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.”

Continued…

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A Wartime Diary – Part 5

Part 1 here.

Part 2 here.

Part 3 here.

Part 4 here.

As we pick up the action in my dad’s wartime diary and picture album, we left our intrepid hero at Caserta, Italy with the 5thArmy on the road to Rome. They will soon encounter stiff resistance to that trip, a mountain top monastery called Monte Cassino.

On 26 January they moved up to Mignano with the 10thField (Hospital). Mignano is just southeast of Cassino. He mentions a “new landing at Netturno,” but there was no Netturno that I can find. There was a landing at Anzio in February 1944, and this may be what he is referring to if we assume he is not still in the 26 January entry. He mentions that the 95thEvacuation Hospital was bombed by the Germans. So much for honoring the red cross.

Another break from the war– “June Clyde, Louise Allbritton, Harry Barris give show & have lunch with us. Movie stars pooie (SIC)!” I guess he wasn’t impressed? I Googled them, and both women were real lookers, especially Louise. Evidently, looks aren’t everything…

The next entry says they got some R&R at Sorrento, which is down near Naples. He seems to focus on the hot water baths he got there and “modern bars” and a visit to Capri. They rode the Funiculare (Funicular), which is a cable car system used in mountains.

Another visit by a movie star, John Garfield. This one impressed him more. “Good show!”

Back to the war – “Squalor in most Italian villages: no sanitation & waste thrown in street. No one seems to have ambition to improve himself.”

I am noticing MB having a series of mood swings. Sometimes he speaks highly of Italy and its people and other times not. He has been overseas for almost two years at this point, and I am suspecting the war is wearing on him. I imagine he has seen his share of blood and gore by now with more to come. The USO shows seemed to help, but a man has his limits. This becomes more obvious later in his diary.

“Transferred to the 403rd Collection Company. Take command on 15 Mch 44. 403rdworking with the 38thEvac.”

“First day of spring! We’ve spent the winter in Italy – how much longer? Haven’t gotten very far but far enuf! 24 Mch: who said spring is here? It’s cold: saw first real snow of winter today!”

And then this happens: “Vesuvius erupts! One village buried. San Gregoio barely misses. Mountains of lava – still hot & smoking after 2 weeks. Dust on Capri.”

“15 Apr we move up to Mignano to support the 194th F. A. Gr. who are working with 8thArmy. Business should be slow.” This entry is confusing. There was a 194th Field Artillery Battalion in the area at this time. The 8thArmy is British not American. And what does the “Gr.” mean? The 194th was a National Guard unit, but then most units in the Army in WWII were NG. Another mystery… (UPDATE: I think 194th F. A. Gr might be the 194th French Auxiliary Goumiers? The “Goums” get mentioned below.)

“Apr 25 – Kraut artillery hits British ammo dump nearby. Like gigantic 4 July celebration. Flares, tracers, etc go up!”

He has learned that being a company commander has its drawbacks. “Running a company is a terrible headache: equipment problems, HQ always worrying you, inspections, etc.”

“April 28 – Shelled! Krauts put eight shells 75 yards from us during supper. Mess kits went flying!”

“May 8 – The big push to Rome is due any day now. Shortly after will come the invasion (I hope).” The invasion he is referring to is the Normandy Invasion on 6 June 1944. In a post a few lines down he predicts the date pretty close. Rome was taken about the time the D-Day landings in France took place, which overshadowed the news of the capture of Rome.

We have another break from the war – “Our British friends at Mignano. Bill Waller and Charlie Walker… The most amusing & generous characters I’ve met!”

Bill and Charlie in berets?

“An amazing war, this! Here we sit seeing movies right under the noses of the Krauts. We’re 5 ½ miles from the front. Easy gun range!”

“11 May 2300 hrs –This is it!! The big push to Rome and beyond is on. H-hour is at hand! Never has any force of comparable size had the striking power of this one. Firepower is terrific. We hold complete mastery of the air & everyone confident that we will not be stopped.”

And here he predicts the Normandy date, “The big channel show should start in 2-3 weeks from now. It’s the beginning of the end!!!” Using the 11 May date of the entry and adding 3 weeks gets us to 1 June. The invasion took place on 6 June. It was scheduled to be earlier, but weather forced a delay.

“18 May – The push continues. Tough rugged fighting, but we’re pushing ‘em back. Cassino finally fell!!!” It fell only after the Allies bombed it into rubble. The problem was the Germans made better use of the rubble than the buildings there before the bombing.

“23 May – We move to Rongolisi to evac 425th French Evac & 405th French Field Hosps. They’re keeping us busy. They’re set up in orchard, olive trees, grape vines, & cherry trees. Cherries good!” I am just a little surprised he didn’t take time to make some cherry bounce here.

MB’s company is supporting French units and will be involved in air evacuation of the wounded. They will excel at their jobs and get a commendation from HQ 5th Army as we shall see.

Chow where and when you can.

23 May Continued – “Beachhead begins push.” The Anzio beachhead most likely what he is referring to. Back in February, the Americans attempted a flanking movement and landed a large force at Anzio, which is between Cassino and Rome. The landing force remained bottled up around the town of Anzio until the big push for Rome in May. “It’s all over but the fighting! Watch for another landing above Rome as soon as we join the Anzio boys.”

“26 May – We move again! Can’t keep up with the front. We’re at Pico (the front lines two days ago).”

“31 May – Who says the Luftwaffe is dead? Bet the papers home don’t tell about German air activity here. All I hear over our radio is ‘no enemy planes were seen during the daylight yesterday.’ Yeah, what about nite? We’ve had raids almost every nite since the push started. They cover everything from the front to Naples, dropping bombs indiscriminately & strafing anything. They rarely cause much damage but the nuisance value is great. Seldom more than 20-30 planes.”

“The French are proving the point that they are good soldiers. Given good weapons, they will stack up against any soldier in the world. Their advance has been the most rapid & over some of the toughest terrain. They are holding about ½ of the front. The Goums are wonderful.”

He is referring to the Les Goumiers Marocains. The Moroccan Goumiers were indigenous soldiers who served in auxiliary units attached to the French army. While nominally in the service of the Sultan of Morocco,  they served under French officers. They were feared night fighters and preferred to use knives when possible.

Fifth Army commander Mark Clark had this to say about the Goumes, “In spite of the stiffening enemy resistance, the 2ndMoroccan penetrated the Gustave [sic] Line in less than two day’s fighting. The next 48 hours on the French front were decisive. The knife-wielding Goumiers swarmed over the hills, particularly at night, and General Juin’s entire force showed an aggressiveness hour after hour that the Germans could not withstand. Cerasola, San Giorgio, Mt. D’Oro, Ausonia, and were seized in one of the most brilliant and daring advances of the war in Italy… For this performance, which was to be a key to the success of the entire drive on Rome, I shall always be a grateful admirer of General Juin and his magnificent FEC.”

“4 June – We made it!!! We entered Rome this A.M.! The end of 9 months of bitter, backbreaking, disheartening fighting. We won’t stop here! Now we can think of the INVASION!” The Normandy landings were two days later.

North Africa, Sicily, and Italy were never intended to be a way to enter Germany. It was a compromise with Churchill’s demand to attack the “soft underbelly” of the Axis and drive Italy out of the war. It was also to take some pressure off the Russians on the eastern front who were demanding a second front to help them. It worked. Elsewhere I mentioned an incident when my father-in-law was shot down over Sicily. On his way back to North Africa on an LST, they picked up a German pilot who had been shot down the night before and was floating around in the Med. Bobby, my FIL, made friends with him during the voyage and was told by the German he had been on the eastern front and only recently transferred to Italy.

We will stop here for now. There is more here…

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A Wartime Diary – Part 4

Part 1 here.

Part 2 here.

Part 3 here.

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.

Hospital Italy

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.

Evacuating Wounded

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.

Continued…

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Letters From The Front – Italy 1944 – Part 1

I was going through some old family files and found a letter written by my father, Dr. M. B. Casteix, Jr., to his father back in New Orleans. MB was serving in Italy with the 5th Army as a physician. His father, Martial, was a pharmacist and had owned several drug stores in New Orleans, which he lost during the depression. The letter is a look inside the mind of someone overseas during the war and what we might call dealing with the mundane issues of life experienced by a soldier and those of his family back home. I found it particularly poignant. I’ll let the letter speak for itself.

(Note: Clicking on each page will take you to a larger version.) Part 2 is here.

 

 

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