Then we received a startling surprise. [A]s it was too dark to land, they turned on the ship lights and let the men on deck enjoy themselves as they pleased. Now we were sure that the war was almost over. In fact, a lieutenant told us that we might not see combat. That made us feel very good.
We had to take our duffle bag off with us. That plus our own pack and personal stuff made a very heavy load. I could barely stagger down the gangplank with it. We carried this for a couple hundred yards to trucks.
It seemed to be strange now to be in a foreign land with the natives jabbering away in a language that only a few understood. The bombed city of Naples was interesting to us. The trip hadn't been so bad now that it was over. In the harbor were many supply and hospital ships. We didn't know it at that time, but they were preparing to invade southern France in a few weeks. The hospital ship made me wonder if I would be coming home in one of them some day. Before we had docked the natives came out to the boat and they would dive into the filthy water to fish out cigarettes which the men threw overboard. The men didn't know that the Italians were paying $5 a pack for them.
We [marched] through Naples and were impressed with the shabby condition of the people and the damage everywhere. The city was terribly dirty. The water system seemed to be knocked out. It left the people looking for water in jars and containers. Many of the people cooked right on the sidewalk with charcoal. I couldn't help but think of how unsanitary it all was. The signs in German and Italian attracted our attention. The German I could read, and the Italian was interpreted by the Italian-Americans among us.
There were many GI's on pass in Naples. I wondered why anyone would come to such a dirty city. Finally we reached the railroad station, and we got aboard some box cars of German and Italian make. We dropped our packs and sat on them in these crowded cars. We waited several hours before any attempt was made to move us. Around noon we ate our first K rations. We had never had these and thought they were swell.
While we waited, we looked at the bombed out buildings, twisted tracks, and burnt out trains. We wondered whether our bombers had done this or it was sabotage. The charred remains of the trains looked as if they might have been very modern electric trains. The Italian children pestered us for whatever we had and it was a full time job for the MP's to try to keep them away. They even hit and kicked some of them, which made our men angry at the MPs. There were also the vendors to contend with.
Our train would creep along and stop from time to time. At each stop, the GI's would scatter in all directions for water to fill the canteens. When the train would start again, they would come running back from all directions. By the time they caught up, the train stopped again. It's a wonder that we didn't lose anyone. We enjoyed the scenery as it was different from ours, new trees and vegetation that we had never seen before.
After three hours, we arrived at Caeserta, 30 miles from Naples. We got off and prepared to get on trucks. First there was roll call. While we waited, the natives tried to sell us anything they could for cigarettes or money. We wondered what camp would be like and many other questions that were in our minds at this time. Trucks came and we got aboard. There were so many of us that we had to stand. We rode along a dusty road for a few miles. There were many signs reading "DANGER MALARIA" posted everywhere. We then knew that we were facing a small but dangerous enemy, the Anopheles mosquito. Then there was another sign reading Mountain Training Camp. At this point I didn't think that I would care for mountain training.
Suddenly we came in view of the Volturno Valley. It is as flat as a table, a couple of miles wide and many miles [broad]. A famous dairy farm was located here but [was] not in use at this time. Around this farm thousands of big tents were raised. There were some buildings also. The size of this camp amazed us. There was roll call, chow, and then we were assigned to empty tents. We just lay on the ground to sleep. We were surprised again to see all the lights on and that there seemed to be no danger. There were no blackouts or slit trenches.
Next morning we received our first outdoor shower. The water was warm and we enjoyed it compared to the hard water that we had aboard ship. At first we had nothing to do but turn in clothes and things like that. The food was good, but we had to stand out in the open at high tables to eat it. Often in the evenings we would go to a huge field to see a movie. There would be at least 10,000 men sitting on the ground watching the film. I wondered why the Germans didn't bomb such a choice target only forty miles from the front.
There were ten of us in one tent. They issued cots and mosquito bars, and we had to use them. There were candles for light. The weather was balmy and we enjoyed ourselves as much as possible. It was a wonderful feeling to know that we could live so carefree and yet be overseas. Rifles were issued us but we didn't have to take care of them. They didn't care if they were rusty or dusty. We just hung them under the cot when they were not in use. To think that I had to serve a week of hard labor for a fleck of rust in the States! About all that we used our rifles for was to take them with us on hikes.
I'll never forget the first hike that we took around the area. It was dusty and hot. As we went past a vineyard the men ran over and started to pull off the grapes. The owner protested, but what would he do? The men destroyed more than they ate. I also picked a bunch. They were odd tasting and a little sour. They did quench the thirst some. After a week at the camp, the news came that Germany had surrendered, but it was false. Surely [the war] couldn't last much longer.
A huge area was hollowed out, and there we would go almost every day to hear the news reports from a commentator. Each day the Allies would gain only a few hundred yards. This we couldn't understand at the time. There was plenty of entertainment at the McNair Bowl as this was called. A regular stage was built with a good screen. Good movies were shown to the 15,000 who sat around in this bowl on helmets or anything. There were stage shows and boxing exhibitions often. Quite a few attended church services Sunday mornings.
About this time I had returned to me the V-mail which I had sent to Petchico in Germany. He had been killed in action. At an old reconverted Red Cross building we had a good place to spend some more free time. There they had newspapers, magazines, tables and writing paper. Sometimes an Italian orchestra would play for us. Later the Red Cross served coffee and doughnuts for five cents. We would line up to get them. I spent many enjoyable hours there. We were given PX rations once a week. We prized our candy the most. Cigarettes cost the GI's fifty cents a carton, and many of the men sold these to the natives for $5.00 a carton on the black market. The minute a GI got into town he was mobbed by men and children trying to sell them something to buy their extra cigarettes or the services of a prostitute. Many fell for the line these pimps sold.
About 700 Japanese-Americans arrived at our camp (DAIRY FARM CO.Q INF. 553 R.C. APO 781R) and [were] quickly sent to the front. Quite a few of them attended church services at McNair Bowl. It seemed to strange to see red, black, and white men together at such a gathering.
I enjoyed the food. There was plenty, and it tasted good. There was fresh fruit and juices all of the time. Olives and grapes seemed to thrive in this hot dry climate. It was interesting to see the natives walk around barefoot. The woman carried packages on their head with little effort. They seemed to make the best with the few clothes that they had. There seemed to be only two kinds of people, young and old. These people in southern Italy were very poor; even the climate was against them.
[I] had my first pass. We weren't supposed to go as far as Naples, but we all did. We were picked up at a certain truck stop and dropped off at Caeserta. There we thumbed until another truck came along for Naples. It was an experience trying to get picked up by one of the hundreds of Italian, British, or American trucks going in all directions. On the way to Naples we noticed many camps for Italian, French, American and British soldiers. The beaten Italians looked so pathetic and bored. They had stopped fighting the Allies and were now being reformed into new divisions to fight the Germans. Each camp had different colored tents.
I had never seen so many dirty and ragged children who were for the most part out trying to sell, or steal, or just begging for whatever. It was a handicap not being able to understand the language of the people. Naples is a big city. It had been terribly damaged by both sides. It looked better now than it had the first time that we had come through it. We saw the first truck load of German prisoners going through town. Naples was a very busy, teaming with soldiers and sailors of all nations. I saw uniforms of Greeks in skirts and Scots in kilts. There were WACs of many countries. It was interesting to guess as to who was what. There were plenty of souvenirs available but I didn't buy any at this time. From an American, I did wire some candy to Evelyn and my folks.
I saw the post office where so many had died in a time bomb explosion. We had our picture taken by one of the many street vendors or photographers that pestered us all of the time. My buddy and I found the Red Cross building where we had coffee and cake. There were game rooms, soft chairs, and music by a small orchestra that played American tunes. I enjoyed the trip to this city and resolved to come again some time. We had trouble finding someone willing to pick us up on the way back. Finally a small truck half-filled with WACS picked us up, and we were on our way. At Caeserta we got another hop and we were back in camp before supper.
I took a steady job as KP. It was good while it lasted. I worked two days and had the third day off. We only worked a few hours around meal time. But there were so many of us that the work was done quickly. I enjoyed being where I could get plenty of fruit juices and desserts. I was issued a cot; it seemed like a luxury to be off the ground.
On my first day off, I took off for Pompeii. First I had to make my way to the Red Cross in Naples, they sent special trucks with groups to Pompeii. The trucks took us to a modern train which gave us a very scenic ride past [Mount] Vesuvius. It was interesting and educational to see how the people lived and how they let themselves fall into degeneracy. I had never expected to be able to come to a place like this. I was able to go again to Pompeii on a tour with a guide, and we saw a lot more.
This time we were taken by truck all of the way. They had cases of rations which we ate when we got near there. Some of us also had dinner in a fancy restaurant in Pompeii. Imagine eating off white tablecloths.
I saw the most magnificent church in Pompeii that was built of many kinds of marble. The interior was awesome with pictures studded with gold and beautiful tapestries. I have never seen anything so wonderful. A guide took us through to see the collection of valuables that no money could buy. I wasn't able to understand how this town with such poor people could support such a magnificent cathedral. The cathedral was worth a hundred times more than the town. From floor to ceiling it was made of different colored marble. The floor had a fine carpet to keep it quiet and to add to the awesome beauty. In the center of the church was a raised throne. Around it [were] columns trimmed with gold. The woodwork was of mahogany, beautifully carved. There were purple curtains, tall candlesticks, and indirect lighting. Around the sides setting into alcoves were the most beautiful paintings of the Holy Family, etc. Each picture had its own setting of marble stairs, candles, and soft lighting. The ceiling was a most beautiful creation of art that cannot be described.
[I] went to Naples again but didn't enjoy this pass due to the rain. I spent a few hours at the Red Cross and then made my way back to camp. I did enjoy the watery ice cream at the Red Cross because it was very scarce here. The rainy season started and the camp was a sea of mud. At times we had to place everything on the cots to keep them dry. The nights were cool now and we hated to get up in the morning. They called us in time for breakfast. We walked about a block to the open latrine in the mud. After breakfast we got a cup of hot water which we used to wash and shave with out of our helmets on open racks. Everything was done in the open. It was at first embarrassing to have the women civilians in the camp soliciting to wash our clothes for a small fee.
By October, they were heating the water for our showers; but [taking a shower was] quite an experience in the cold air. Church services were held in part of the dairy building and were led by Chaplain Moran. There were many changes as many of the men had been sent to the front. Most of the fellows that I came in with were here but separated. Each day [we looked] to be sent to the front. I started in a GI school to learn accounting and found it of interest.
[I] was on a pick and shovel detail and got a chance to see some nearby towns. The landscaping and architecture is outstanding; so are the sunken gardens and vineyards. Everything is made of stone and surrounded by thick stone walls as wood is at a premium. [I] had the pleasure of being corporal of the guard one day; it was the easiest job on guard except that I had trouble finding one man. They got away with it here; but in the States it [would be] a very serious offense. [I] worked as a carpenter; it was rough work and we did a poor job of it.
My tent buddy and I went to Pompeii again. From there I sent Evelyn a bracelet and necklace with a booklet. I had good times here at the farm. We lived well, trained little, [and had] little military discipline. We were waiting for the war to end. As the Americans raced across France pushing the Germans back, we expected them to give up any day. Few of us thought that we might yet have to go to the front.
On October 14, just 2 years from the day that I had been inducted, my name was called, and I and many others left the Dairy Farm as replacements for casualties in front line divisions. As our names were called, we boarded trucks with our bags and equipment. A couple of chaplains were there too. Chaplain Moran told us in a few words how we should behave and what we could expect. He told us to trust in God and quit ourselves like men, etc. After that they gave each of us two packages of cigarettes, and we were on our way. It was a sad parting from the pleasant home we had gotten to know so well. They took us to Caeserta and we boarded the same German and Italian trains.
Then began a two day ride to a depot near Florence. As the train moved, we saw the fruits of war around wherever we looked. Shell holes, strewn equipment, tanks and planes, foxholes were everywhere. Helmets with holes shot through them too. We could not imagine how men fought and died for every foot of this area. Every town was leveled; there was nothing but destruction everywhere. As we got closer, things looked even worse. We dined on C rations as we tried to enjoy the trip. Whenever the train stopped GI's would run in every direction for souvenirs. Some would quickly build a small fire with which to heat some coffee. Children would run near and beg for candy or anything that we might have. Men and officers lived together with no rank shown. Finally we arrived at the end of the line; it was as far as the tracks had been repaired. There was roll call, and we got aboard 5th Army trucks. Italians came near and offered vino for sale. The men didn't care for it; but at this point they were ready to drink anything. The result was that some of the men carried on something terrible during the rest of the trip.
We arrived at the replacement depot and were given a cooked meal plus a chocolate bar and a package of cigarettes. In combat zones these items are given away free. The countryside was much prettier here and the people of a fairer complexion. We noticed the difference at once. Now we could hear the dull boom of artillery in the distance. Still we had cots and could get a good night's sleep. On the way up we passed through the outskirts of Rome and were favorably impressed. At this point we hoped that our stay at this camp would be a long one.
[I was now part of ] Service Co. 350 Inf., 88th division. The one evening that we spent at the replacement depot, we took advantage of the opportunity to see a field movie. We had to walk through a half a mile of mud and water to get to the field. The next day names were called, and we were on our way by truck to a step closer to combat. The trucks raced over the highways and we saw the same scenes of destruction everywhere. Before, when we had traveled by train, we had seen the fields all along the railroad pocketed by hundreds of bomb craters which were about 25 feet in diameter and 15 feet deep. Every building in these areas was punctured by the bomb fragments.
After riding on the truck for about five hours we reached camp on October 18, 1944. From the time that we had left the other camp we could see and feel the difference in the air and ground. It began to get colder, and there was a heavy fog present. The ground was muddy and wet and the trucks just slid along. Now in addition to bombed-out buildings, we could see all sort of emplacements, barbed wire entanglements, wrecks of tanks and vehicles and twisted metal. Here in the mountains the resistance had been greater as the Germans were always on higher ground and were able to look down on the British and Americans.
There were hundreds of mountain groups in Italy, each a little higher until [they reached the] Alps. There were many groups [of men] bivouacking all along the road, and they had their tents spread out for safety. There were few trees, and it looked so barren and cold. Still the units lived a fairly normal life with only an occasional shelling. Then we knew that we were there. We paired up and dug in between two hills. Matlack and I dug a hole about a foot deep, four foot wide and six feet long. We then put up our tent, piled all of our equipment around the ledge and prepared to get some rest. The kitchen wouldn't feed us so we ate K rations again for supper. This wasn't too bad except that we were between four artillery batteries, and they kept up a constant fire all night in turn. The ground shook and the noise was deafening. After awhile we got used to the noise, and [we] would have stayed there if we didn't have to go any further. We saw a serious looking British patrol moving out in single file along the mountain ridge. These men knew that they might not return.
Matlack and I took turns on guard; and then the night was gone. We had slept very well even though an incoming shell had shredded some of the tents. In our ignorance we had not heard the incoming shells but thought that all of the shells were going into enemy territory. We had been fairly safe in our shallow holes even when the shells hit nearby. Then came a K ration breakfast and then we had a little time to write a last letter. Then I burned all of the letters from Evelyn that I had saved. We had to be rid of everything that we couldn't carry, and no letters were allowed. Then our names were called, and we turned in our duffle bags. There were rumors that we would never see them again. There were some things that I didn't want to lose; but there was nothing that I could do but hope that the bag would be returned some day.
Now it was time to decide whether I would carry one or two blankets or a blanket and one shelter half. I decided to carry 2 blankets, extra socks, shelter half and some underclothing. I found that I had more than I could carry very far. I rolled my shelter half and blanket into a roll and slung it over my shoulder so that I would be able to drop it instantly in an emergency. Again we boarded trucks, and after a mile or so we arrived at a valley in which a lot of men were spread out. This was it! We got off and started to make our way up the valley toward the top of the hill. By the time we got to where we were supposed to be, I was all out of breath. We had been separated and divided into the various companies of the 350 Inf. lst battalion. Again I was a stranger and knew no one. I was assigned to Co. C with several others.
As it was meal time, the field kitchen started serving food to the men. This was their first cooked meal in a long while as they had just come back from the front. They had been in an attack the night before and were tired and hollow eyed. They were dirty, unshaven and walked around wearily. The battalion was not at full strength. The few replacements didn't mean much toward boosting their morale. As the men lined up for their food, a thin officer yelled and raved at the men to keep interval as this was still in the combat zone. Little attention was paid to him. We who had just come felt ashamed at our rested, clean condition. We hoped that the weary GIs wouldn't hate us. Later we found that they were pleased to see new faces.
After we all had eaten, we were ordered to spread out in groups and clean our weapons. At this time, I got acquainted with the 4th squad to which I had been assigned. The squad was being reorganized as all of the old noncoms had been either wounded or killed. Corporal Brown was made squad leader. He was a big blond man about 225 lb., about 23 but who now looked like 30. Everyone liked him. Everyone seemed to be very sociable.
Since I was a big man, the assistant squad leader tried to pass his twenty-pound BAR to me. I knew that I was too weak to carry this weapon; I refused to accept it. It was all could do to carry myself. Besides the BAR man had an important weapon and didn't get to live too long I understood. I informed them that I was 30 and not able to handle it, so they gave it to a younger man my size. He was pleased to have it.
Suddenly there was a whistle of a shell, and we scattered into any hole or crevice that was nearby. Some of the shells landed where the chow line had been a short time before. No one was hurt; but we had a vivid lesson about the importance of spreading out at all times. This was my first experience under fire. When things got quiet, we prepared to move to new positions that afternoon. We each had a belt of ammunition, two bandoliers and two grenades.
One of the replacements that had joined the platoon was a Sergeant Gutman. He was slender and of medium size. He was appointed platoon sergeant. The first thing that he did was to tell us how tough he was and that he expected us to remember who was boss. We all thought him a bag of wind; but in a short time he proved fair and square, yet severe in discipline when necessary. Most of the time he knew what he was doing and for this we respected him. He came from a tough part of New York.
As dusk began to fall, we started to move out slowly in single file. Certain companies and squads went first. Our platoon and my squad was last as we moved out. Everyone was quiet; there was no smoking. We had the choice of taking what we wanted; so I left one blanket and mess kit. I took one blanket, shelter half, field jacket, extra socks, writing paper, and a few odds and ends in my pack. Even with this light pack, the rifle and ammo weighted us down.
For awhile we continued on a shell-scarred highway past damaged vehicles and bloated animals. Shells were flying both ways over us; but not landing near. I saw a group of people who had to leave all behind going to the rear; and I felt sorry for them. I guess they were thankful to be alive.
I was paired up with a man about my age by the name of Gilmore. He had left a good job, a wife, and five children and he was very unhappy. He had bragged once too often that the draft would never get him. He grumbled, growled, swore, and found fault with everything. It was a sorry day for me when I had to team up with this miserable wretch. No one else would have him.
© John A. Matzko