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There was some easy guard duty except when men got drunk and wanted to fight. I had the unpleasant duty of being on guard when Whitebody, an American Indian, tried to pick a quarrel with Sergeant Guerra, a Mexican. They were both drunk, each with a knife ready for the first one to make a move. If I had interfered, they would have killed me. Just as I was at wits end, mutual friends separated them and took them to their rooms to sleep it off.
Cahill and I hung around together as we were the only ones with something in common. We both tried to be decent and law-abiding. We visited snack bars and movies or just took long walks. Once I saw a very strange funeral procession: a dozen men dressed in black and white following a horse-drawn hearse. One of the men carried a large cross. Behind them came several nuns and the relatives.
On January 21, the Red Cross girls came and gave out coffee and doughnuts, and an Italian orchestra played a few numbers. (I never did find out why the Italians in the orchestra played with such hatred in their eyes.) Every time the Red Cross girls came, we knew that we were due to go back to the front. But we were fooled this time as we didn't leave as expected. The first week we had done nothing; but during this second week, we went out on some light training. This part of Italy, with its olive trees and graded terraces, reminded me of pictures of the Holy Land.
On January 25, trucks came and [took us] north. Snow fell and got deeper the farther we went. Then we plodded uphill for a great distance to a small village near the front. Here the battalion was split up and quartered in empty homes. Our squad was assigned to the third floor-which beat foxholes and dugouts. [Each of us had a 3 X 6 space] covered with straw. The kitchen was on the first floor, and we received two meals a day. We thought it wonderful to have these luxuries. At night we stood guard at posts around the house. It was very cold, and we were glad to come back inside. There were also a few evening problems which we didn't care for. But during the day we slept, wrote, or played solitaire. A religious service was held in a nearby barn: just a short sermon from Paul by the chaplain and a prayer. It was a "goodie sermon" and gave us no spiritual blessing.
On February 3, we left our happy home and started for a new and dangerous position. We were warned that artillery and machine guns were probably zeroed in on the highway that we would use. [Our new] position was only a few miles from the old, except that we were now in the valley. We could see our former positions. Everything was white with snow; and around the few houses were many mortar shell holes. We could see that the occupants had had a hot time. We were taken to a little narrow street with stone homes built in a row. It was pitch dark when we got there, and we had no idea of our location. We relieved some South Africans, but they left behind a heavy weapons crew consisting of fierce-looking British Indians dressed in white camouflage clothes. We wanted nothing to do with them.
We made ourselves comfortable in a big house assigned to us. Part of the kitchen came along, so we had good chow. There were a few close outposts and a couple distant ones. It was a walk of several hundred yards to the far outpost. Here we were on a small hill, and any attack would have cut us off from the others. There were three of us at this post, one would stand guard while the others climbed inside. The hole was such a tight fit that I got claustrophobia and had to get out. I just couldn't bear to be wedged in that hole in pitch darkness. From the distant outposts we had a wonderful view of the snow-covered countryside, but there were plenty of noises to keep us alert.
On February 4, I was offered a pass to nearby Monguno. I wasn't anxious to go, but I didn't want to turn it down either. Two of us from our company went, [taking only] a blanket and toilet articles. We walked a couple of miles to battalion headquarters. At Monguno, we were ushered into a bare room with cots. There were candles, books, cards, etc. It wasn't nearly as comfortable as the houses that we had left. Next morning after an unbroken night's sleep on a hard cot, we had a late breakfast with battalion headquarters. I enjoyed the chow and the fact that there were no duties to perform. We were then given directions to the showers, which were not working. There was a movie on the field, but I had to sit on my helmet to see it. There was a nice Red Cross in town at which I spent some time, but I was glad to get back to my front line home with the other fellows.
After a few days we were relieved and moved to a big house in the rear. We were terribly crowded but happy. We learned to fire new weapons and had some training. One day we had to fall out for showers and we were taken by truck many miles away over bumpy roads that made us hurt all over from the jars and bumps. None of us enjoyed this ride just to get a shower when we had had one just a couple of weeks before. On the way there and back we saw many ruined homes and gun positions. There were passes, and I would have liked to have gone to Rome, but all I could get was one to Montecatini. We had one hour to be ready to get to the meeting place where others from other companies also waited. A couple trucks came, but we were so crowded that only half [were able to] sit. I had thought that the shower ride was bad, but this one left me half sick by the time we got to the first stop. At a warehouse we left our equipment to be picked up on our way back. Then we were taken to a rest home where we were to live for the next three days. Food cards were issued and had to be punched at each meal.
It was wonderful to be back in Montecatini and to take in all the entertainment possible: movies, shows, church services, and beautiful parks to walk in. There was no snow here, and all was green. Again clean clothes and showers made us feel respectable again. Late sleeping, no details, and the extra fine food were wonderful. Then there was the surprise of having hot and cold water come out of the spigots and heat in the radiators. This was luxurious living. The time went quickly and [soon] we were on our way back.
When I got back on February 14, there was no room for me. With much reluctance some of the fellows moved a little to give me enough room to lie down. There was mail, and I was glad to be back. [Back at the front,] there were some details, but we lived very well in our cramped quarters. [We did have] a narrow escape when a fellow accidentally fired a burst of shots from a BAR into the ceiling near where I was standing. He was a replacement, unfamiliar with the weapon, and was badly frightened to think of what might have happened.
After a few days we got on trucks and headed to a new and dangerous position. This was an unforgettable ride because of the shattered countryside with hundreds of wires hanging from the poles. There were ambulances galore both on the way up and back. Our medic carried plasma because we expected to be far away from other [medical] aid. The further we got, the more the air became thick with smoke and mist. Heavy gunfire could be heard. It looked like the scene of a war movie. When we got as far as the trucks dared go, we walked for miles on muddy highway before turning off on an even a muddier road in which the going was even tougher. The clinging mud made each step an effort. Rafferty got stuck, and it took several men to pull him out. During this time the column got separated from the front, and it was a while before we got together again. After what seemed like miles of this, we reached our positions.
By February 20, we were back in dugouts within a few hundred feet of the Jerries. Our side fired a terrific barrage of mortar shells at nearby positions, which seemed like a waste of ammo. Fortunately the Jerries didn't seem to know how close we were or they would have given heavy return fire. Mostly we got heavy shells, which we could hear coming. We had a good view and could see them land. We ate canned rations and drank water, which we had to go for at great risk [during the] night. It was always hard to get a couple of men to get this water because the well was next to a mortar emplacement. One day a couple of men got wounded, one fatally.
Three of us shared a dugout about 4 X 5 X 6. It was pretty comfortable at that. During our stay the weather was perfect, and we were able to sit out in the sun to write and eat. Like animals, we scampered back into our holes at the first sign of danger. Over in no man's land, we saw many bodies, [but] guard duty was quiet and uneventful. Later we heard that half of the men who replaced us were captured by the Jerries.
Because we were so close to the Germans, surrender leaflets often dropped on our positions. One night a strange thing happened as all became quiet and an unnatural silence fell over the area. Then a loudspeaker blared in German for them to surrender or desert. The voice also gave them a variety of news and facts several times that night. This deathly silence on this beautiful night was finally broken when the Germans sent over some heavy shells. We saw no one take advantage of the offer to come over; but we heard that some men did try to desert but that they stepped on a mine and then were mortared to death by their own men. It was things like this that made surrendering too dangerous. Still this event was so unusual that we could hardly get over it.
One thing that we couldn't understand was why from behind us 50-caliber machine guns kept firing all night, every night. Often we had to complain that the shells were coming into our positions. Then they would raise the gun. Perhaps the firing was to cover the sounds of our movements. Each night a very noisy mule train would come with supplies, [and] we were always afraid that the Germans would hear it. It was fortunate that the Germans had no reconnaissance planes, as they might have spotted our position easily. Before we left we buried a huge dump of empty tin cans and equipment littering the area.
On March 8, we were taken about forty miles to a training area. The trip was terrible, and I was sick when I got there. About fifty big tents were lined up, and we had to find a place to sleep. It was a cold damp place and I wasn't very pleased. There were a couple of small stoves which helped take off the chill. We used candles or gasoline filled bottles for light. There were plenty of blankets and a sleeping bag for each person, so we managed to stay warm. We were able to get hair cuts and a shower right away, as well as candy and rations. There always was something to keep us busy. Some of the nights were terrible because of drunks literally raising the roof off the tent. They never bothered me as they had developed a respect for me.
On March 11, there was a memorial service for all those that had died so far in Italy. It was held on a hillside on which thousands sat facing the speaker's platform. The pine trees looked so beautiful standing tall and straight between the men. A Red Cross at camp provided us with movies and a stage show [as well as] coffee and doughnuts. There were facilities for us to keep clean, and we had to act and dress as if we were in garrison at home.
The next day we took our first hike up the mountain, one of many to harden us for mountain combat. I did enjoy the scenery and the freedom from fear in these pretty mountains, [though] there were the usual details and guard duty. Malley slept on my left and Rafferty on my right. They both had been away a long time in the hospital. There was saluting, lecturing, close order drills, and all kinds of stuff to keep us busy and out of mischief.
On March 19, I got a pass to Florence and visited a monastery with many rare pictures, figurines, and carvings. This was part of a regular tour from the Red Cross with a guide who spoke English. As usual we had to hurry and couldn't see enough.
[At the training area, I had] K.P. for the first time in a long while. One night we had boat crossing across the Arno River. Another day we had a division parade near Florence, and General [Mark] Clark spoke to us about the coming conflict. There was a lot of brass there that day. We had a wonderful time at this camp.
On March 30, orders came for us to tear off our arm patches and paint out the insignias on our helmets. This didn't look good. On April 1, Easter, we left camp at dawn and after many hours of riding, we saw the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Within sight of it we entered the beautiful redwood forest called The King's Forest. Another unit was ready to leave as we arrived. They also had no insignias [because we were] trying to fool the Germans and Italians as to our identification and location. We knew that there would be a surprise attack one of these days. [The weather was] warm, and we were comfortable even without cots and with only blankets on the ground. The food was good, the shows were good, and the rain was light. The river crossings we did not care for. I imagine that the redwoods are like those in California but smaller. They are so stately that we looked at them with awe and respect. The forest was big and quiet; but we were limited to certain sections because the retreating Germans were supposed to have left mines.
On April 5 we made an all-night river crossing of the Arno River. We had practiced it the during the day before, and now we did it as if it were the real thing. First we came up silently and spread out in the woods near the river; then we broke up into groups of about ten and silently carried an assault boat into the water. There were about twenty such groups who paddled like mad (but as quietly as possible) to the shore where we tried to reform. While we made an assault on certain points, the boats went back for other groups. Flares, explosions, and all kinds of noises simulated war. I did not think that we did very well because we bunched up too much; this would have been a fatal mistake in the real thing. We got this training for a possible attack on the Germans across the Po River. I began to notice sores beginning to form on my body, and when I hit my shin, another one formed. I was getting impetigo on my lower limbs.
On April 7, we left Pisa without ever getting close to the tower; I would have liked to get a better look. From here we went to Futa Pass, within artillery range of the front. [It was] cold, windy, barren, and steep. We paired up and pitched tents. There was straw with which we made ourselves as comfortable as possible, [but it was] nothing like the King's Forest. Anyway, we still got cooked meals and plenty of time to sleep. They made us take part in attack problems, which had us puffing. Most of our free time was spent in our tents with raincoats over the opening to keep out the cold wind. [When we were] ready to leave, the trucks didn't arrive; so I put down my raincoat and covered myself completely with a blanket, and even at that I nearly froze.
On April 12, the trucks [took us to] our hiding place under the cover of darkness. The little village looked dead; but every barn and house was filled with combat men waiting for the push off. We did nothing but eat K-rations and sweat out the time. On the 15th, waves of planes came over us and bombed the German positions. Then at 2200, the 2nd and 3rd battalion moved up. The sky was lit up by thousands of flashes, and the earth shook like a vibrator from the concentrated force of our cannon, mortar, tanks, machine guns, and all sorts of bombs. We huddled in cellars and shivered as the terrible softening-up bombardment was going on. We couldn't figure how anyone could be alive up there after that. Then it got quiet, and we knew that it was the cue for the attacking battalion to hit hard and take the hill. It was hoped that this could be done with little loss of life. The mountain was like a cone and so one battalion went around each side.
[The next day the weather was] beautiful. The attacking battalions took some [German] positions, and from our house we could hear shots and see men running like ants. It was hard to believe that what was going on was a life and death struggle. [On the 16th, we prepared] to attack and turned in everything that we didn't need. My decision was to take one blanket, a raincoat, two bandoliers, and two grenades [along with my rifle]. Others armed according to their place in the squad. We received orders to leave after dark and in double file walked slowly toward Monte Rumici. So under the cover of darkness and heavy fire we went toward our objectives.
First we made our way to the base of the mountain, treading carefully to avoid land mines that had already been marked by experts. There was one small stream to be crossed; but the engineers had built a small suspension bridge over it. Silently and softly we made our way up the steep hill, tense and scared. The odor of decaying flesh didn't make us feel too good as we plodded onward. Many times we stopped for rest and security. Then the ground became loose shale which went over our ankles. As we neared the top a shell hit behind me and hit Rafferty, who let out a terrible scream and yelled for the medics. Then all was quiet. The shell had hit the medic and several other men, [but] we didn't know this at the time. Now we figured that the Germans knew our location and would let us have it.
We never turned around but kept going up. More shells fell and we were told to pair up and dig in; but the dirt was so loose that about all we could do was dig out a half of a hole. Every time a shell hit, we tried to dig deeper. Machine gun fire sprayed over our heads, [and] we wondered who was going to be brave enough to try to knock out [the machine gun]. We lay quiet for a long time while the officers figured out a strategy. Meanwhile as Sergeant Gutman was about to throw a grenade toward the machine gun, an enemy grenade dropped in on him, seriously wounding him and my squad leader, Sergeant Wenge.
While things were going on behind the scenes, we strained our eyes and nerves waiting for a counter attack. My foxhole buddy fired his rifle at an object rolling down the hill, which he thought might be a German. Then the company messenger ran toward us. He never knew how close he came to being shot. Lieutenant Bair did shoot one of our men in the leg by mistake. A couple of our men had a foot blown off by mines. The way we ran around the hill, it was a wonder more of us weren't killed or wounded.
Toward dawn on April 17, another company came up and took our places. Above us forty Germans had surrendered, so this company was able to move upward. Meanwhile we were diverted to another hill on our right. Heavy fire from holes in the hill kept us pinned down. Under the command of company commander Captain Lynch, the company attacked toward the hill. What was left of our platoon fired over the heads of those advancing; we fired at every possible opening in which an enemy might be. Then as the advancing men neared the top, out of the ruins of a little house, a machine gun opened up and cut down our men. To make it worse, they called for mortar fire, our men were right in the middle of it. Captain Lynch, Lieutenant Polcari, Sergeant Brown, the blonde giant of a man, were among the others killed in this advance.
We tried to do something about the machine gun, but it was like firing marbles at a stonewall. Between the mortar fire and the mined grounds, we were afraid to move around. The mortar fire took a heavy toll on the men, and more were wounded that way than by rifle fire. Wounded men, in groups and alone, made their way downward toward the aid station. As they streamed past, we shuddered as the shells dropped around them. My ammunition grew low and as a bullet whizzed right over my head, I went deeper in my crater. As we waited for something to happen, I ate my K-rations, read my Testament, and wished for water to drink. Then a squad from another company knocked out the machine gun position, which allowed the rest of the company to take the hill.
[The whole] day had been spent taking this section of the hill. At dusk we were put into reserve behind another company. They attacked a small fortified house nearby again and again and were driven back with heavy losses. We found out later that the shells that went over our heads were not ours but German 88s trying to hit us. We in reserve dug into the banks along the road and shivered as the shells barely skimmed over our heads. I had another narrow escape as my shovel hit an unexploded shell. I picked it up gingerly and laid it down carefully nearby. Then it got quiet and the wounded started to drag themselves away from the house. During this lull the Germans left in a hurry.
While [another] company took these positions, we went back to rest. Only about half of our company was there. We dug in and tried to rest during the remainder of the beautiful morning of April 18. We had had two terrible days without sleep or rest. I was troubled by the lack of water and searched until I found a rill that gave me a cupful. We cleaned our weapons and at noon made our way slowly down the other side of the hill. Little wonder that the enemy had been able to holdout so well; they had elaborate caves dug deep into the mountain, and nothing could shake them loose. Lieutenant Jackson led us as we checked out caves and houses; but we found nothing but wild disorder. We spent the night in one of the little towns. Our group stayed in a small church.
On the morning of April 19, we walked until we thought we would drop. A South African armored vehicle picked us up and took us to a large house from which the Jerries had just fled. We made ourselves comfortable, shaved, and slept until we got orders to move on. We started marching [again] but were halted by shrapnel. We hugged the dirt and dug in [and could see] a German plane bomb an artillery position. We stayed close to our holes until things got quiet.
[The next] morning we were told to stay where we were, at Mount Mario[?], for the rest of the day to rest. We had a wonderful day as we bathed, washed some clothes, and wrote letters. It was our first chance in many days to relax. Now we in the infantry who had been in the front watched as the roads were jammed, bumper to bumper with Army vehicles: tanks, jeeps, and all sorts of cannons that were following the fleeing Germans. Now it was their turn to press the advantage. It hadn't taken long for us to lose the credit that we had won to other units. It now seemed as if we hadn't done anything.
On April 21, fully armed and rested, we moved out toward the famous Po Valley. Lieutenant Dornacher, our new commanding officer, led us as we checked every house and hole until they decided that there were no Germans anywhere except for the prisoners that were walking and riding by. We were exhausted from walking up and down the hills. Besides [it was a] strain to watch for the enemy and for mines. Toward evening we came to the little town of Battibido. There we spread out by squads in houses and expected to relax for the night. I had to stand some guard [duty], and just when I thought I could relax we were told to move on again.
[The next day] we started up hill again toward Crevalcore; here we rested and had something to eat. We were tired and weary from the long walk. Late that evening we started up again; but made no headway even with tanks, so we stayed in a house for the night.
On April 23, we started off early again with tank support in battle formation, checking each house. Each house had to be approached cautiously, and many prisoners gave up, although many fled. We were so tired from the strain and the walking that we could barely continue on. In the afternoon we got aboard the tanks and moved forward faster. I saw one of our Piper Cubs shot out of the sky. All roads were littered with enemy equipment. Hundreds of prisoners were busy repairing bridges and roads. I felt sorry for these poor men in their misery.
The fleeing Germans had left everything behind, so we had a whole day in the little town to relax from the chase. Some of the boys had a good time riding horses, motorcycles, and trucks left by the Germans. Toward evening replacements arrived, and we marched to a town close to the Po River. Here we loaded on Army vehicles called Alligators. As they dipped into the water, we crouched low as we had no idea what would be waiting for us as we crossed the water. We were surprised that there was no attack as we made good targets. The crossing seemed long in the moonlit night. As we hit the shore, we rushed out in battle formation, tense and nervous, [looking] for any sign of an enemy; but there was none.
Slowly and with every precaution, we made our way to the next town of Pieve Di Coriano. After searching the area some of the local people were awakened, and we were put up in their homes by squads. In the morning we started off by foot to Verona. From now on we were heroes. Bells rang and the people gave us bread and wine. They jumped and shouted for joy to be liberated. It made us nervous because our position was given away by the noise. As we followed the lead tanks, we often had to jump for cover as the tanks shot it out with some of the enemy who were left behind to delay us. We also had a heavy weapons company to help us at times.
We passed by Verona and entered a small village where the natives gave us bread and eggs. Things seemed quiet, so we asked a family to cook the eggs for us. Someone set the table, and we were ready to eat when all of a sudden a platoon of Germans in battle formation passed the house within 100 yards. This was the first time that I had seen the Germans so close, and I was excited and shouted. They dropped for cover as our men started to fire at them. The poor people huddled in fear as fire was exchanged from both sides. Most of the squad had been well wined up and had no fear.
Schaefer mounted one of our tanks, and it moved into position trapping the Germans in a draw. With glee he mowed down many of them. Some badly scared Germans were captured. I was disgusted with the actions of a GI from another unit who was methodically searching the drawers in the house while the battle was going on. To think that souvenirs could be interesting while life hung in the balance! Others of our own men gleefully stripped the dead and dying Germans of their watches, etc. I abhorred these actions.
On April 27, we left San Martino along Highway 11. We were joined by tanks, which we boarded, about ten men to a tank. We raced off on an all-night ride in the cold and rain. Most of the highways were good, and the tanks roared ahead at high speed. Every so often they engaged in a fire fight and we jumped into a ditch while the action went on. We would lay and quiver until they were ready to move again. Near every town the tanks would stop and rake the town with heavy machine gun fire; if there was no response they would move on. At one place the bridge was out and we had to wait while the engineers built a new one. Meanwhile we dozed and froze in the chilly air. Once I almost toppled off when I fell asleep for a second.
After the all-night ride on the tanks, we arrived at Vincenza. It was raining lightly and was miserable. Here we met heavy opposition from snipers and anti-tank weapons. Three tanks were knocked out right away and two men killed and several wounded. We crouched behind the moving tanks as we went into the city. It was a terrible feeling not be able to see who was shooting at us.
Suddenly opposition ceased, and the Germans gave up by the hundreds. Now the Italian partisans took over and rounded up the Germans. While these partisans with great delight rounded up their and our enemies, we made ourselves comfortable. Some of us went sightseeing. Once I went out without my rifle, and I felt naked and helpless. While walking around I met Johnny Gathright who was amazed to see me alive as I had been reported as killed. He told me that Malley cried when he heard that I had been killed. I was pleased to be able to report being alive and well. Thanks to the partisans this had been an easy victory. The local people were happy that we had taken the city with not too much damage. We then packed up and started off for the north [with] only our infantry weapons for protection. As we marched forward in open columns, time and again we dropped to the side of the road when there was shelling ahead of us.
On April 29. we arrived in San Pietro after midnight and proceeded to make ourselves comfortable in the homes of the people. We hardly got settled when an alert was called because the Germans were attacking the town. We were tense, waiting at every window. I fumbled around in the dark trying to pack up my equipment at the same time. Much shooting went on outside; but no one seemed to know what was going on. After awhile things got quiet, and we found out that the Germans had swooped down and captured about fifty men and some vehicles and were heading back to their lines. Our forces had advanced so fast that neither friend or foe knew our location. We were placed in different houses and put on guard until morning. Things were quiet, and some of our mechanized equipment started to pass us. Passing GIs in trucks and tanks spotted Germans in the woods, rounded them up, and sent them to the rear.
That afternoon I thought it might be a good time to visit the medic and see about my impetigo. The medic gave me a slip of paper and told me to be ready to report to a hospital. I went back to my unit and turned in my equipment and weapons. After awhile a Red Cross ambulance came and took me and a couple of wounded Germans to a receiving station. Here were many wounded Germans and GIs waiting for attention and for ambulances to be taken to rear area hospitals. Here at the station I was given a cot and blanket and then went to sleep. Sometime during the night I was awakened, and the two Germans and I were put in an ambulance. We rode for what seemed like hours through torn up roads and demolished towns. What galled me is that the driver took delight in the groans of the wounded as he hit the bad spots in the road. Also he was busy searching the wounded with his free hand as he drove.
We finally came to a big tent hospital late at night. We were separated and I was taken to a large tent almost filled with men and officers on cots. A kindly speaking nurse came around and made me comfortable. I slept soundly until morning and they had a chance to look at those around me. There was hot water for showers and a tent mess hall to make us comfortable. Here I got acquainted with penicillin as I got a shot every four hours for a day and a half. I disliked the needles; but they did seem to help me some. Then the hospital packed up and moved somewhere south.
In the hospital at Capri, I was placed in a building and made comfortable. They didn't have as many casualties as expected, so we received plenty of attention. Here after an examination the doctor ordered me to wash my sores with soap and water and then a apply zinc ointment. I was happy not to be stuck with needles anymore. I was then moved out of the building into a tent. This was a beautiful place. It had been a hospital before and so had many permanent buildings. The Red Cross had a nice place in one of them.
Movies were shown first inside the building and outside on a large screen. There was nothing to do but loaf. Each day some of us sat at the gate in our hospital clothes and watched the natives ride by on their bicycles. There was constant traffic going both ways: bicycles, trucks, and jeeps. The food was super. It was pretty good to be a healthy invalid around a camp like this: no work of any kind and the best possible attention. [at first we ate] at the mess tent, but this was stopped and the food was brought into us, perhaps because of the infections that some of us had.
The weather was warm and beautiful. I enjoyed the sunshine and the freedom from fear when out in the open. Someone got us a radio, and we listened eagerly as the last phase of the war in Italy drew to a close when the 88th [Infantry Division] shook hands with the 7th Army in Austria.
(c) John A. Matzko
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