US troops’ suicidal assault across the Rapido

An overview of the Rapido River relative to Mount Cassino.

An overview of the Rapido River relative to Mount Cassino.

Looking toward Cassino, a key mountain stronghold obstructing the Allied drive toward Rome, advance American scouts gaze at the stubbornly defended town on which American and French forces are closing in. Italy. 18 January 1944

Looking toward Cassino, a key mountain stronghold obstructing the Allied drive toward Rome, advance American scouts gaze at the stubbornly defended town on which American and French forces are closing in. Italy. 18 January 1944

In Italy the daunting obstacle of the Gustav Line continued to cause agonies for the Allies. After the British and Canadians it was the turn of the Americans to make a frontal assault on the well prepared positions that the Germans had waiting for them. To add to to the challenge was the Rapido River which would have to be crossed under fire.

General Walker, commanding 36th Division, which had been ordered to undertake the attack, was pessimistic, writing the following entry in his diary on the 20th:

We might succeed but I do not see how we can. The mission assigned is poorly timed. The crossing is dominated by heights on both sides of the valley where German artillery observers are ready to bring down heavy artillery concentrations on our men. The river is the principal obstacle of the German main line of resistance.

I do not know of a single case in military history where an attempt to cross a river that is incorporated into the main line of resistance has succeeded. So I am prepared for defeat. The mission should never have been assigned to any troops with flanks exposed.

Clark sent me his best wishes; said he has worried about our success. I think he is worried over the fact that he made an unwise decision when he gave us the job of crossing the river under such adverse tactical conditions. However, if we get some breaks we may succeed.

For the full background see HyperWar.

The first attack was made on the 20th January and ended in virtually a massacre as the 36th Division sustained heavy losses.

In the overall scheme of things the assault was deemed a necessity by Mark Clark, commanding the 5th Army, because it diverted German attention away from Anzio. Clark was to learn from the Ultra signals intelligence that significant German forces had been diverted to the Cassino area as a result of the attack. However, very few people below him ever learnt of this during the war or for many years after – because of the continuing secrecy attached to Ultra intelligence.

Otherwise the frontal assault on heavily defended positions has been regarded by many as a futile waste.

Bill Hartung of Company E, the 143rd Infantry Regiment, 36th Infantry Division was amongst those who were asked to make a second assault on the following day. It was his first time in combat:

The next night we WENT. It was bitterly cold, and the closer we got to the River, the colder it got. We couldn’t move fast. Visibility was about zero, so this made it worse to try to keep warm.

We went down a little horse and wagon road, and on the right side was an embankment about six feet high. We had already picked up our rubber boats, so we scraped against the side as we headed toward the river. A couple of hundred yards from the River (so it seemed), it didn’t seem what we were walking on was dirt and rocks. We soon found out that it was dead GI’s, stacked sometimes six high. They were from the crossing the night before. They never made it across the River. When I returned from across the River the next afternoon, they were gone.

We finally got to the River about 4 p.m. We found a foot bridge, (Two 2′x12′s tied together with a guiding rope on each side to hold onto), and I and the second scout, Company Commander and Platoon Leader crossed. The CO gave us our job to do, and wanted a report back to him. We never saw him or anyone else again. The second scout and I continued forward. (We didn’t know any better then). Rifle fire was cracking around my head from all sides, but I didn’t know I was that close when it sounded like that, ’til later. I was to hear a lot of that later.

Rodgie, the second scout, and I kept going, following the tape laid by the (111th) engineers the night before, until it ran out. I didn’t know how I made it this far, as that German rifle fire was close to us. Finally it started getting a little lighter, and we saw where someone the night before had started a foxhole the night before, but it was only about 10 inches deep. The GI was still lying there, what was left of him. This was my first sight of a guy killed in combat, but wasn’t going to be my last, even for that day.

We took off our equipment and started working on the hole. Thank God for the mist and fog from the River, and our smoke screen, or we would have joined our buddy lying there as it was “lights out” now. We were about three feet deep when the Germans spotted us, then all hell broke loose. “Screaming meemies,” mortars, artillery fire, and machinegun fire about six to eight inches above ground hit us. Our equipment laying outside was blown to hell, the dirt we were piling up was blown back into the hole.

We still didn’t know how bad off we were because when they stopped firing for a few minutes, we would stand up and try to see what was going on. All we could see were GIs being lined up and taken prisoners. The enemy also had tanks dug in up to the barrel, and fortified as bunkers with steel and concrete about two feet thick. Anyone caught above ground was gone. We finally dug to about six feet deep, and water started coming in so we quit. By this time I was bleeding from the nose and one ear. Nothing was left above ground, and the sides of the hole was caving in from almost direct hits.

All at once, when the firing ceased, someone came tumbling in on us. It was Col. Martin (143rd CO). He didn’t know how close he came to be blown away because there were Germans in parts of our rear. He asked our names, what company, and told us to stay and hold out. Help was coming. He was also putting us up for the Silver Star (which we never got). He took off like a big bird. (He made it because the next time I saw him was the day before we entered Rome in June.)

By this time, it was about 3 o’clock in the afternoon, and visibility was pretty good. I told Rodgie we were getting out of there. I left first, not knowing which way was back. I never saw Rodgie again. I finally found parts of the tape and made it back to the Rapido. There were bodies everywhere, mostly parts, arms, legs, some decapitated, bodies with hardly any clothes left on. I thought I was going to get sick, but I guess I didn’t have time, and there was always that spine chilling cry for “medic.” But there weren’t any left.

The bridge was about a foot under water most of the way, and stacked with bodies from upstream. A lot of the men drowned from the flow of the river with all their equipment still on. I looked at some, that is when I noticed most died with that look of surprise on their face, like “what happened?” and “why me to die this way?”

I made it back to our side, and to the road we came clown on the night before. The piles of bodies were gone. I got back to our bivouac area out of artillery range. I laid down completely exhausted, and felt like I had turned into an old man overnight. I know I was never the same person again. When it hit me, I was angry; I cried and shook all over. A medic gave me something and I really conked out. When I awoke, it was almost dark. Very few men were left, but replacements would put us back to full strength. I think there were 27 left out of more than 200 men from our company, no officers or NCO’s.

Read his whole account at 36th Infantry Division Association..

Litter bearers bring back wounded during attempt to span the Rapido River near Cassino, Italy.” 23 January 1944

Litter bearers bring back wounded during attempt to span the Rapido River near Cassino, Italy.” 23 January 1944

Dead German soldiers and their equipment at a collection point in San Vittore. U.S. Army medical corps personnel can be seen in background. San Vittore, Italy. 20 January 1944

Dead German soldiers and their equipment at a collection point in San Vittore. U.S. Army medical corps personnel can be seen in background. San Vittore, Italy. 20 January 1944

Exactly two years later the 36th Infantry Division Association passed this resolution, on the 19th January 1946, calling for an investigation:

to investigate the Rapido River fiasco and take the necessary steps to correct a military system that will permit an inefficient and inexperienced officer, such as Gen. Mark W. Clark, in a high command to destroy the young manhood of this country and to prevent future soldiers from being sacrificed wastefully and uselessly.

This was endorsed by the Texas Senate, Texas being the home of the 36th Division.

There followed hearings by the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate but Clark was exonerated.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

David Walker June 2, 2014 at 12:37 am

My grandfather J.C.Walker went into battle here.Brave men indeed.

Ann Alexander DuPuis February 26, 2014 at 1:54 pm

Thank you for keeping the history of this awful chapter in American Military History alive for posterity. My father William Monroe Alexander was a medic with the 141st. He never spoke of the battle and I remember being told as a child to Never Ask my father about the war. I did not learn about this until years after his death. I am not sure but it is possible that he is in the last picture posted here, the fellow without his helmet on. His senior year of high school, he was the High Point Man at the Texas Relays, the fastest man in the state. I am sure that his speed played an important part in helping him survive the Rapido.

Editor January 24, 2014 at 9:02 am

Chuck, The Day of Battle was part of my research and it is hugely recommended to anyone who wants a good overview of the war in Italy. Its also an entertaining read, full of incident and detail:

http://ww2today.com/books/sicily-and-italy/day-of-battle

Chuck January 23, 2014 at 10:50 pm

I either, until I read Rick Atkinson’s 2nd book “The Day of Battle”…..I still have his 3rd of the trilogy to read yet.

Editor January 22, 2014 at 7:30 pm

Many thanks for your comments.

It is an incredible story and a shocking episode that I was not aware of until I started researching this period.

bluetaco January 22, 2014 at 5:55 pm

What an incredible story. So much courage and sacrifice. How these men managed to keep on fighting after this disaster is a complete mystery to me.

I have been reading these posts every day for over a year now, and I want to express my appreciation. Nothing has done more to make the history of the war come alive to me more than your daily accounts.

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