A couple of miles away we holed up for the night. Gilmore sarcastically told me to hurry up and get with him or find myself another hole. I couldn't find another one, so I had to go with him again. Here we had a little shallow hole on the side of a hill. We were close to the front, and the shells came into our little valley.
In the morning we were given ten-in-ones and ate in groups. It was still very muddy; but it was nice overhead, so we spent a few comfortable days here. We watched British Indian [troops] lead mule trains through the mess. When a mule slipped, it took much effort to get it up on its feet again. Here we also received our first edition of the Stars and Stripes, our Army paper, and found out how we and our Allies were doing.
After a couple days, we packed and moved up the mountain after dinner. The climb was hard and backbreaking, but by midnight we had made our way up the mountain along a ridge and then down to another valley. The valley was flooded, and we had to wade along with water over our boot tops much of the time.
Now we were in a dangerous area. Our artillery blasted away in the darkness, and return fire came in and shook the area. Trucks came, and we climbed aboard. We were impatient to leave because we felt we were a good target for an incoming shell. The ride was cold and windy in the open trucks. We wrapped our blankets around us and tried to be as comfortable as possible. The truck shook as it bounced over the rough roads, and we slid from side to side. Another fellow and I had diarrhea during the ride, and so besides our regular stops, I had to hang over the tailgate to get relief. After riding many hours, we arrived at Montecatini Terme [on November 9], worn out and weary.
Montecatini Terme, was completely blacked out, and so all that we could see was that we were in a small street with tall buildings. The quartering party came and assigned us to certain buildings and then to rooms. There were at least ten of us to each room with nothing to lie on but the hard floor. We tried to cram ourselves and equipment into the little area available. After living outside like animals for so long, we hardly knew how to act in our surroundings. There was only one bathroom. It had running water only part of the day, and so with a dozen sick, there was yelling and cursing as the men tried to get into the room with the result that the bathroom was completely messed up with vomit in the bathtub, urine in the basin, and waste on the floor. In the morning a detail was picked, and the place was cleaned up.
It was a wonderful change for us to be far away from the front, to be in the center of a city, to see people and be able to walk out in the open. Montecatini Terme was a beautiful town, with art works and parks. The palms and evergreens everywhere were such a contrast to our foxholes in the mountains. Our kitchen was located on the first floor of the hotel, so we had regular meals. The food was good and plentiful, but my diarrhea and the fact that our stomachs had shrunk from eating K-rations kept me from fully enjoying the meals. Nevertheless, in a couple days I had my appetite back again.
I visited the medics to see if they could help me with my problem. The fellow with the BAR developed an imaginary ear ache and succeeded in having himself transferred to another company. It was his greatest desire to get away from combat duty.
We were taken to the showers and had a chance to have a warm shower and clean clothes. Then with a fifteen-cent haircut and shave, I felt like a new man. The Army had built a long building in which one entered at one end and then kept moving down while showering until he was ready to dry and receive his clothes. My favorite place in this town was the Red Cross, writing letters, seeing a movie, or going to the cookie bar where we could get coffee and cookies for five cents. The line [at the cookie bar] was always long. I caught up on my mail and sent out some Christmas cards. We got our PX rations and had plenty of sweets for a change. As we expected to leave soon, our Thanksgiving Day was early, on November 16. There was everything from turkey to a fair imitation of ice cream. These were pleasant days and evenings for most of us.
The nights, however, were a nightmare at times when some of the men came back drunk, falling over loaded weapons and grenades. Between the bickering and arguments, it was a wonder that nothing happened. [It is difficult to believe that] we could sleep under such conditions with grenades lying at our heads and the danger of a drunk going berserk.
Then as the men began to have too much time, they took us out on hikes, [practiced] close order drill, [had] rifle inspection and even [gave us] some rifle practice with tin cans as targets. There was a well-attended church service. Men fresh from the front went to church.
I was sent to a school to learn about mines and booby traps. I was not happy about learning this subject; but I did learn something about explosives. We were to go ahead of our companies and probe for mines. This idea didn't appeal to me at all. I hoped never to be called to do this work.
A group of us from different companies had the pleasure of getting a pass for Florence (Firenze). We dressed in our best and met in front of the Battalion Headquarters in the morning. The kitchen gave us an early breakfast before we left for our meeting place. After much waiting, trucks came and took us to Florence.
Florence was a big place, teeming with people and GIs. In the center of the city, the armed services had a rest house for servicemen of all kinds. It was fenced in; and we could enter or eat there only with a pass. In this big building was the Red Cross, a restaurant, a photographer, a library, showers, gift stands, and all sort of things for our use. After we arrived, the first thing that most of us did was take a luxurious hot shower and get a change of clothes. Then a shave, haircut, shoe shine and we were on our own to go sightseeing. As it was lunch time, we went to the GI restaurant for a meal. For ten cents they gave us a small but good meal. We received good service from the many waiters. I went for a long walk during which I met a fellow that I knew. Together we visited a large church. We were amazed at its high ceilings, carved doors, immense size and no pews or seats. Back at the rest home, I bought Evelyn a sweater and hat. I went back to the Red Cross where I did some reading and letter writing, had supper, and then waited for the first truck to take me back to Montecatini. It was a day that I enjoyed. I took [with me] the memory of the friendly, warm atmosphere of the rest home, the hot showers, and the GIs and Italian girls dancing. Just being away from the company was good.
No matter where I went, I still longed for my country and loved ones. I was just marking time until the war would be over. We knew we would be on our way again when the Red Cross girls came and served us coffee and doughnuts. Some of the fellows tried to have a party, but [they] were unable to get any girls to come, so they got drunk instead. The day we left, the GIs threw all their rations of candy, shaving cream, etc. to the natives. There was almost a riot in the scramble. A candy bar was worth about a dollar in their economy.
About November 19, our equipment and ammunition was checked. We were put into trucks and soon were on our way. After a few hours of riding, they let us off and we began to walk and walk. We had no idea of where we were going or how close to the front we were. We made plenty of noise, and we were shocked when we found that the Germans were only a few hundred yards away. At once I was put on guard with a fellow named Boodle. He said that he was sick; so every time it was his turn for duty, I had to take it. Came the dawn, and we went into the house for rest.
There was little rest because we had a hard time trying to get something to eat. After we lay down, [we] were awakened by Lt. Kessterson and told to stand guard by the windows. We had a miserable time of it trying to rest and guard at the same time. Mortar shells raked the valley we were in from time to time. A patrol made a half-hearted attempt to go out but returned soon after firing a few shots at a shadow or something. Part of our squad was in another house in the center of the valley, and Gilmore was there. True to form, he complained that his group was getting the worse of it, and so I had to change places with him.
So I went to house where Sergeant Vornbaum and Private Hale were in charge. We were in what appeared to be an empty house. In the day time we only went out to the rear of the house to relieve ourselves; and at night we took turns guarding one of the three posts near the house. Of course during the day we still had to watch the area from the windows. So between eating, sleeping, and guard, there was little time. There were few incoming shells, and perhaps the Germans thought that the place was empty. We were so close that we could see smoke coming from their dugouts. We left them alone and they didn't bother us either. Guard at night was a strain as there were so many rabbits and domesticated animals running around.
One pitch dark night we heard what seemed like footsteps approaching; and we stood tense with finger on the trigger expecting the worse. Then there was a grunt, and a big three-hundred pound sow peered in at us. The sow had a litter that ran wild, not knowing friend from foe. Most of these [little pigs] got killed by mortar shells while we were there. The only time that I got away from the house was to get water at a nearby well at night. I still had an awful time with my diarrhea, which was a nuisance all the time.
From my foxhole I could hear much activity, gunfire and artillery. We understood that the British were below us trying to straighten out the line. It seems that we were ahead of them and so had to wait for them to get even with our positions. One night I heard a German scream terribly as he tripped over a mine; then there was a burst of a BAR, and all was quiet. The way that he screamed I cannot forget. Such goings on happened every night; but no one ever found out what had happened or where. Sounds carried so well at night that we could hear over a great distance. Both houses were well stocked with grain; it was a shame to have it spoil when there were so many hungry. It seemed that the people didn't have much to come back to.
On December 4, I received a package from home of a fruit cake and other goodies. It was cut in pieces and finished in a few minutes. We washed it down with coffee. There was only one burner in that tiny kitchen; and it was a problem fixing something to eat. Someone fried potatoes that were found in the house. Our stay at this house was pretty fair; our fears had been great, but nothing important had happened.
On December 15, we packed up to leave. We slung our blankets over our shoulders with rope. It was very hard to carry [them] this way. It had rained, and the mountain we were to cross was soft, slippery mud. We slipped and fell as we tried to make our way up. Some of us were separated, and only with the greatest effort were we able to get to the top. There I and others fell exhausted near a house where other men lay. These men were from another group in our battalion; so we followed them until we could find our own group. My rifle and I were half-covered with mud. The added weight of the mud, plus the slippery conditions, made that night a nightmare. As we neared a small church I recognized some of our men and made my way toward them. At this point I fell flat into a muddy puddle.
We spent a few hours in the church. The first problem was to find a spot big enough to lie down in. Then we threw our blankets into a pile and left them, as some arrangement had been made for us to exchange with the group where we were going. Many trucks came, and we rode into the night. We got off and made our way up many steps to a big house where we were separated into groups and given a room. There were about a dozen of us in a room with just enough room to lie side by side. In the morning we were given a good breakfast which had been cooked in the kitchen of the house. We then tidied up and made ourselves comfortable.
The house was located high on a hill, so we could get a view of the valley below. The valley was filled with artillery batteries which took turns firing at the Germans and who in turn fired at them. What we disliked was that we knew when our side finished, the enemy would start. German shells fired a ring of shells around a battery, [and] hit and set fire to one of the guns. So while we lived here we saw a constant duel between the batteries. We had felt safer at the front because there was little artillery [there and only] mortar shells. During a few of the nice warm days, we engaged in a couple problems. Equipment was strewn everywhere, and we knew combat had raged here very recently. Only the bodies were missing.
After a week, we marched silently through the valley toward the front to three houses. Our platoon was split into parts so that each group had charge of one house. We were high on a hill overlooking a valley, which is where the invisible Germans were. Here we guarded at night and stayed indoors at other times. I spent some time in a outpost, which was a cave facing the valley. To get into it, one had to crawl on his hands and knees to a little room about six feet high and fifteen deep with a gasoline bottle for light. There was nothing to do but sleep and look at the dirt walls. Getting something to eat was a daily problem. We would get into groups and wait until someone cooked the ten-in-one.
About the second day a couple of young Germans came up the hill and gave themselves up to a thoroughly startled group in an outpost who had not seen them approach. One day the men found a barrel of wine, and so many of the men got drunk. To our consternation, Sergeant Gutman went out in the daylight, staggering around and daring the Germans to shoot him. We were afraid if he was seen, [he] might draw fire and endanger us. Then in the evening, [our troops] set up a 50-caliber machine gun and fired it in the direction of the Germans, [making] a bright flash. We wondered why the Germans did not return the fire. Perhaps they thought it might be a trap for them to reveal their positions.
Every night we would see and hear the action, but we never saw anyone. There would be burning haystacks and buildings, but nothing of the action could be seen during daylight hours. White oxen grazed in the valley as if all was normal. The men in the cave outpost kept reporting that they heard what sounded like men walking below them. So they threw all they had at the sounds; mortars, rifle grenades, and hand grenades, and still the sounds continued. Finally it was decided that the heavy leaves of the mulberry tree were making the sounds.
On Christmas Eve, Cahill and I had the cave outpost. During the day we took turns watching the valley with field glasses. We never saw any Germans, but we did see German Red Cross flags flying from many buildings. In the invisible action that night, many fires were set, and it looked a lot like Christmas trees in the valley below. There were three of us in the cave that night, and it was a memorable experience. (There also was a small room upstairs, but I never stayed in it. As the room was small and smoky, one slept as drugged. The entrance was so small that we had to crawl in.) Cahill and I watched and talked about other Christmas Eves and future ones if we came out of this alive and well.
Christmas we celebrated with a special dinner at one of the other houses, where a cook heated canned turkey, potatoes, and peas. It was all cold by the time we were able to bring it back to our house. Cahill had a pot in each hand and fell just as I warned him to be careful. But nothing spilled as he held on to them. We had a good laugh over this incident. Then we were surprised by an order to pack up to be ready to leave. After a few hours of walking downhill, we reached Shrapnel Valley, where trucks picked us up to take us back to Montecatini.
It was wonderful to be in this city of peace and quiet. The Red Cross had put up a couple of Christmas trees, and the place was decorated to give the Christmas spirit. It was wonderful to be able to sleep all night instead of on-and-off as we normally did. I had another pass for Florence, but I got to see little more than the Red Cross because they had enough there for me to enjoy. I had some pictures taken at the photographers, our kitchen served us a real turkey dinner, and the Red Cross gave us candy and cigarettes. Then our mail came through with many packages; and so there were plenty of sweets.
On December 29, I pulled out a filling on a piece of Cahill's candy and so had to go to a field dentist. There was no anesthetic and the grinding was done with a foot pedal; but still it wasn't too bad. To keep us busy we had close order drill and lectures part of the day; but as soon as this was over, the larger part of the men resorted to heavy drinking and women of ill repute. Then they would needle Cahill and me because we declined to take part in their sins. The worst part was that they seemed to be in tip-top condition while I didn't feel too well. Some enterprising gamblers set up tables in front of the Red Cross and proceeded to fleece the suckers of hundreds of dollars. After a few weeks of open gambling, the MPs chased them away. Many more packages came, and we almost got sick from all the sweets.
On December 31, the Red Cross girls came again with doughnuts and coffee, so we knew that we soon would be on our way. An Italian orchestra was hired for our listening pleasure. By late afternoon we were packed up and moving toward the front.
On January 1, 1945, we came back to the same house where we had been before and spent the first day of the New Year trying to forget Montecatini. We ate C-rations and slept. This time the house was used only as a stopping place on the way to a new location. The Germans had begun to be active on all fronts, so we had to go into reserve positions to prevent a possible breakthrough.
In the afternoon of January 3, we moved out on foot through the valley and up a road leading to the top of a mountain. After a couple of hours of plodding upwards with our heavy packs, many of us were exhausted. Finally we reached our new positions, holes that had been dug within a few feet of the top. Here we could see for miles, and yet we were in no danger from German shells.
Below we could see a house occupied by Americans that was used as a target by the Germans. The shells would go over us and land all around and into the house; after which there was a lot of activity as ambulances would appear and take out the wounded. At other times the men would run for their holes like ants as the shells came in. It was like watching a movie. We were fairly safe in our mountain holes. The worst part was climbing down to the latrines and cook tent which were about fifty feet away. It was a feat to bring a mess kit of food back to our holes without spilling it. It was very cold too, except when the sun shone. Then it was fairly comfortable.
It snowed a lot on January 4, but to get something to eat we still had to make our way down. It was hard shaving in the open and trying to keep busy in our nest-like holes. With a shelter half for protection from the snow and wind, it wasn't too bad. We spent a few days here in our nests with nothing to do but talk, write, and watch the shells hit the house below us. Life in that house was too dangerous, and we would not have taken any amount of money to stay there. A few of our men were hit by shrapnel as they were returning from the top of the hill where they had been digging secondary positions in case of a retreat. This was during the Battle of the Bulge, and we expected [the Germans] to try to attack us at any time. In fact they did attack in some sectors.
Then on the beautiful afternoon of January 8, with deep snow on the ground, we started slowly toward new positions loaded down with our heavy pack, ammo, and packaged rations. We walked for hours before reaching the new positions at night. We relieved troops of the 92th colored division, who were very happy to leave. They had taken several casualties from mortar shells and falling rock from the overhanging cliffs. Our men scrambled around trying to find the best holes. The best I could find was a tiny little room for one person. I parked my equipment and went on outpost duty with Gathright for a couple of hours. It was freezing cold in that outpost and the hole was barely large enough to stand up in. We were tired so we took turns trying to rest on the bottom of the hole, but this didn't work because there was so much ice and snow on the bottom. We spent a couple miserable hours there before getting relieved before dawn. Then I got my first look at my new home.
It was made of sand bags and 3 x 5 x 4 feet high. After pushing myself through the narrow opening, I pulled in my equipment and tried to make myself comfortable. I laid down a blanket and so, with my feet doubled up, I managed to rest a little. Our positions were beneath a sheer hundred-foot cliff of stone, and we didn't realize the danger until the snow started to melt. I was standing outside of my hut taking in the sunshine when I heard a thud and muffled screams. At first we couldn't make out what had happened. A large stone had hurled past my head and had hit the hut 6 feet away from me burying the two fellows who were living there. My friend McEwens was badly shaken, but the other fellow suffered a broken hip. He was a veteran of many battles, and it was ironic for him to be knocked out of the war this way.
There were plenty of ten-in-one rations, but it was difficult to get the men together as many wanted to sleep when it was time to eat. So I stocked my room with all kinds of edibles and ate alone. As water was a problem we tried to melt snow to get it. The well was under observation during daylight hours, and at night it was not always possible to get there. It was not a good idea to be out in the open too often because of the many mortar shells that fell into our hollow. During my stay, I was placed in various outposts, one of which was [such a] small cave that we couldn't have done anything if there had been any danger. The holes were always wet and uncomfortable from melting snow, [but] in every hole we found tins or packages of food so that we were able to eat.
On January 13, we were relieved, and we felt sorry for the new group of men who would replace us in the worse positions that we had ever had. It was a bright moonlit night as we left, silently and quickly. Whenever a flare went up, we froze and hoped for the best. It was downhill all of the way. There were places where the best way to get down was to sit and slide to the next level spot. We had wet seats and a lot of fun. The trails were so terribly slippery because so many men trampled the snow down. When we got to Shrapnel Valley, trucks came and we were on our way to Montecatini again.
(c) John A. Matzko