December 20, 2010
Posted in 3rd Infantry Division, 45th Infantry Division, Anzio Beach, Everytown USA, Ralph Conner, Reunions, William Eagles, World War II
This summer, the History Junkie received a call about a reunion of Anzio Beachhead vets being held in Auburn, Indiana. It may as well have been Commissioner Gordon calling on the Batphone. That’s how quickly I reacted!
As far as World War II battles go, Anzio was a major player. Huge! Sure, it doesn’t get the press of say a Pearl Harbor, an Iwo Jima or the invasion at Normandy. But Anzio was a very big deal. And to have the very folks that were there, here in History-Junkie-Ville? Forget about it. You couldn’t keep me away.
On January 22, 1944, Allied forces stormed ashore at Anzio, Italy, some fifty miles behind enemy lines. The initial landing met little resistance. But within days, some 13 German Divisions raced to the scene, pinning American and British troops to the beachhead.
Albion, Indiana native and Noble County’s highest ranking officer in history, General William Willis Eagles commanded the 45th Infantry Division, at the center of it all. “I’m fairly certain that my father would say that Anzio was the most intense engagement he was involved in,” Edward Eagles, the General’s son, revealed. “It was very tenuous as to whether the Germans would break through the Allied defenses and overrun the beach.”
“Attempting to hurl Allied beachhead forces into the sea, the enemy unleashed three major counter-attacks,” The 45th: The Story of the 45th Infantry Division recounted. “From Feb. 16 to 19, the 45th Div. sector was subjected to wave after wave of German infantry and tanks that poured down the Albano-Anzio road like steam through a whistle. …Casualties were heavy. …Infantrymen clung tenaciously to each dip in the ground, each furrow, each rock.”
At the reunion, I spoke with John Cable of Bloomington, Illinois, who served at Anzio with the 180th Infantry of Eagles’s 45th Division. He had joined the unit in Sicily as a replacement and had already taken part in the landing at Salerno. Then came Anzio. “I caught a nice-sized piece of shrapnel in the wrist in the first week of May,” he said of the battle. “I just walked over to the aid-station. It left a hole. The aid-man cleaned it, filled that hole with sulfa powder, wrapped it up and back to the front I went. I would come back every once in awhile to clean it up and re-bandage it.
“On May 23, 1944, we were taking some incoming rounds. The first one, I heard the sound, but I could tell it was going to be short. You just know by the sound after awhile. The next round, I knew it was going to be close. I was using a Tommy Gun at the time. I put it up to my ear for protection. I got hit hard. Shrapnel tore into both my hands. I lost a knuckle on my left hand and a finger on my right.
“I spent nine months in a hospital in Naples, then they sent me to the States. I had the best plastic surgeons in the world. They saved my hands. If Bob Dole would have had the guys that worked on me, he wouldn’t have the problems he has today.”
I also met Anzio veteran, Bob Ziebart from St. Joseph, Michigan, who served with the 30th Infantry, 3rd Infantry Division. On his first day at the front, he was moved to a forward outpost position with a man named, Joergens. “I had the last watch in the morning and as I looked out in front of our position, I thought I saw something move,” he said. “I kept watching and thought I saw a German helmet come out of the grass. The third time I saw it, I fired the machine gun in the area. About five minutes later an 88 shell went over the top of our position… . Joergens got up and we were standing together when a second shell came in our direction. The shell landed on top of our area. I wasn’t hit, but Joergens slumped down. He’d been hit in the head. I removed his helmet, to see how bad it was and I was holding his brains in my hand.”
Clyde Easter, from Fancy Gap, Virginia, president of the Anzio Beachhead Veterans, also served with the 3rd Division at Anzio, but with the 7th Infantry. In the early morning hours of March 24, he headed out with a small night patrol. “There were maybe eight of us, just a small squad,” he said. “When it got quiet, they liked to send us out to stir things up. They liked to know where the enemy was. It was around this little village of Isabella. We were trying to knock out this German machine-gun nest, but they must have heard us. They opened up on us. One guy got a flesh wound in the shoulder and I got shot through the hand. We got down in this ditch or creek line. We’re lucky it was there or we’d have all been dead. They caught us wide open, maybe only 150 feet away.
“It was my right hand. The bullet hole was between my thumb and my index finger. The sergeant tried to clean it up and put some sulfa powder in it. The other wounded guy and I started walking back. Honestly, that was as dangerous as being out front. You always worried about friendly fire, especially at night. But we made it back. I passed out shortly after that. I’m sure it was from the pain. It started out as more of a burning, but then began working its way up the nerves in my arm—very painful. I spent about a month in the hospital back in Naples.”
Local soldier, Ralph Conner, served with Easter in the 7th Infantry. By late April, the Allies were poised to break through the enemy gauntlet. On April 24, Ralph Conner died fighting near Spaccasassi Creek.
“We lived about a mile off the road in a log cabin,” Lois Miller, Ralph’s sister, shared. “I remember being out in the yard when they brought the telegram and read it to us. Mom and Dad were devastated. After Ralph was killed, Mom was in bed for two weeks. It was just so very hard.”
Ralph’s belongings spoke of his demise. “There was a bullet hole through his wallet,” Lois’s husband, Max Miller described. “I think they used to carry them in their front shirt pockets.”
Clyde Easter returned to the Anzio Campaign after healing from his hand wound. “I came back to the front, about a month later,” he said. “On May 24, I got hit again. We had broken out of the beachhead and we were pushing into the town of Cisterna. It’s where Darby’s Rangers had gotten wiped out only a few months before. It was really a German stronghold. Cisterna was just rubble. They hit us with everything they had. It was a very bloody day.
“I got hit with a piece of shrapnel in the face. I think it was from a German 88. It hit me in the right cheek and embedded itself all the way back to my eardrum. The piece was about the size of a .30 caliber bullet—maybe an inch by a half inch. But it was jagged. That’s what always caused so much damage. That jagged metal would just tear you up. I went back to a hospital in Naples again. They had to go in through my mouth to cut it out. They had to cut some nerves. I lost feeling in the right side of my face.”
In the end, the Allies broke from the Anzio Beachhead in May and pushed to Rome and beyond. Yet the victory came at no small cost. Allied casualties alone topped 40,000 men.
The Veterans of Anzio Beachhead remain active, keeping history alive. “I was invited to a ceremony at the cemetery there in Nettuno last year,” John Cable said. “We met with children of service people stationed in Rome. We talked for a bit. I could tell they were full of questions. So after we were done, we asked for questions. The one little girl asked me if I killed anybody. I’m too old to lie. I told her about the first guy. He was on a motorcycle trying to get out of town. I put one bullet in him. He went one way and the motorcycle went another. Neither moved again. You know, it was war.
“North of Naples, we were going through this town. It had been pretty well cleared out. I saw this German officer take off, make a run for the edge of town. I thought, I’m not letting this guy go tell the enemy our positions. I put three bullets in him, but it didn’t kill him. He was lying there on the ground. I went up to him and he said, ‘Sergeant, why are the two greatest nations in world fighting each other? Together we could rule the world!’ I thought to myself, that’s why we’re fighting—to keep you from ruling the world.”
Clyde Easter returned recently from his twelfth trip back to Anzio. “When I look out across those 9,000 crosses at the cemetery there, it always reminds me of the high cost of freedom,” he said. “And that’s what I talk about. That’s what I remind people of. These were 18, 19, 20 year old kids that gave everything for us, and our way of life. We mustn’t forget that, and them.”