Whilst the ‘British’ – including the Canadians, the Indians, the New Zealanders and the Poles – fought their way up the east side of Italy, the Americans took the western route. Conditions were no different, mountainous terrain and appalling living conditions. It was very different from sunny Sicily where the 82nd Airborne had begun their campaign with a parachute drop.
Most of the 82nd were pulled out of Italy in December 1943 and transferred to England for training in preparation for ‘Overlord’. The 504th Regiment was to remain behind and fought as ‘leg infantry’. With them was a young Lieutenant, James Magellas, who was just beginning his combat career. He had just recovered from an episode when, whilst sheltering from enemy fire, he took a swig from a water bottle – only to discover it contained gasoline. The mountains and hills of Italy were an uncompromising place to learn about warfare:
The Germans had intermittently occupied Hill 610 some three hundred yards to our immediate front on Hill 950. From Hill 610 they were able to observe and direct artillery fire on Hill 950 and send out patrols and snipers. When I was sufficiently recovered from my binge with gasoline, my platoon was ordered to seize and hold Hill 610.
For several days we had not seen or detected any enemy activity on 610, but we were prepared to fight for it if the Germans were there and resisted. We proceeded down Hill 950 on a narrow, rocky path in a single column. The path led to a draw at the bottom of the hill, wound around the base of Hill 1205 and across a mountain pass from which we could be exposed to German artillery, and ascended Hill 610.
The distance as the crow flies was about three hundred yards, but the actual distance was at least three times that. The going was slow and treacherous. As paratroopers we were trained to jump and fight behind enemy lines; climbing mountains more suitable for goats was something we did not know. It was undoubtedly the worst terrain in which we were ever to fight.
As was always the case when moving into no-man’s-land, the column was well spaced so that an enemy artillery shell or bouncing Betsy would not produce multiple casualties.
We reached the base of Hill 610 and started climbing to the crest. At about the halfway point, an explosion and a flash appeared in the center of the column. The call went out: “mines,” then “Scannell is hit!” The platoon froze in place. More than half the men had passed over the bouncing Betsy before Scannell stepped on it.
An S mine, when activated, would bounce up about head high, explode, and send pellets about the size of marbles scattering in all directions. Several pellets had penetrated Scannell’s helmet, killing him instantly. I remember the date, 18 December 1943, and the place where he died, Hill 610, which we called the “pimple” because of its shape.
I had joined the company only a short while before and was not familiar with most of the men, but I will always remember Private Scannell, the first man killed in a platoon I led. He would not be the last.
From that point we proceeded cautiously and slowly, looking for any signs of mines or trip wires. Fortunately, the Germans had withdrawn from the “pimple” the night before, but not before planting mines in the approaches and on the crest itself. I say fortunately because if they had still occupied the “pimple,” they would have been looking down our throats when we were held up by the S mine.
We reached the crest of Hill 610 without activating or stepping on any more mines and encountering no German resistance. Scannell’s body was left where he fell. After dark, the mules coming up with water and rations would take his body back to graves registration. Before we took up defensive positions, we made a fine—toothed-comb search for enemy mines left behind.
I learned to look for and trace a trip wire, often concealed, to an armed and activated mine, but more importantlyl learned how to disarm and render it ineffective. On Hill 610 I developed a healthy respect for German antipersonnel mines, the silent killers.