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.

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Michael Hight July 8, 2018 at 6:40 am

Wondering if anyone still alive remembers Urban Felstrup? Crossed the river both days!
Turned 94 June 25 th

matt j stoermer June 29, 2018 at 6:52 pm

6.25.18 My son and I just got back from touring the Rapido River battlefield, Monte Casino, Cassino and the Cassino Cemetary. Dad died two years ago but fought in this battle. Mark Clark continued his stupidity when he ignored orders to head east and cut off the German army and instead head for Rome. Who knows how many GI’s died as a result. Vain Glory was the description Dad always used for this idiot.

James Thorn May 29, 2018 at 5:11 am

I have 2 Great Uncles who were T-Patchers. One was at the Rapido. He never talked about any of it until I came home from Iraq. Then we talked. My experiences were nothing compared to the horrors and sights they saw and experienced in that place. I am glad we had better leaders than Mark Clark. My Uncle is dead now but when I mentioned General Walker he was ambivalent. When I mentioned Clark he became visibly angry. He said, “That man caused the death of more Texans than Santa Ana!”

Mike Hotchkiss May 28, 2018 at 10:29 pm

My Grandfather, Capt. Ralph Hotchkiss was a Liaison and Intelligence officer embedded with the 36th Infantry during the Italian Campaign. He was invited to become an honorary member after the war. He wrote stories about the activities of soldiers and their roles in battle. I have all the originals and many photographs. His buddy, Major Frank Pellegrin wrote a song about a Private Joe Maloney who fell in love with an Italian Village girl called “San Pietro Rose”. The refain ends “…at the Bloody Rapido”. In the song, Maloney goes to fight with his brethren in the 36th and gets killed. I have been trying to determine if the story is true as I believe it to be and where I can share these original song lyrics. I’m writing a book based on my Grandfather’s stories. I have read Atkinson’s wonderful books and Duane Schultz’s excellent book specifically about the Rapido fiasco. One of the objectives of writing this book is to bring more attention to the Italian Campaign and those who fought so courageously. The 36th was at the front of all the worst fighting: first at Paestum then over the Volturno to San Pietro, the Rapido and then the final push at Anzio into Rome. My Grandfather drove into Rome with General Walker. The 36th T Patchers are a truly remarkable story exceeding the exploits of the better known 101st “Band of Brothers”. I welcome help from anyone who has stories to share. “In spite of hell’.

Erman M Newman III June 26, 2017 at 4:50 am

My grandfather was Capt Erman M Newman Sr. He was in the 141st and told me about crossing the river, but didn’t go into too many details. He passed away in 1988. I asked my uncle about my grandfather’s experiences in Italy and World War II and he told me that he never discussed them with him. My uncle passed away recently and I came across an 8″x10″ photo of my grandfather being awarded a medal by LtGen Mark Clark. I’ve heard a little about the controversy about River Rapido battle. I’ve read the award citations for the medals my grandfather received there. I can understand how intense the battles were.

Zeffrey Davis May 11, 2017 at 11:16 pm

Looking for info from relatives of 141st co. A my great uncle was there, just want to know the story of the river crossing Jan 44.

Frederick Strassburger April 20, 2017 at 8:41 pm

My father, Robert Strassburger, was in one of the army divisions in this battle and actually was awarded a Bronze medal because he saved someone’s life. Is there a source where you can find a listing of which regiment or division he was in? My siblings are trying to figure this out. Thanks!

Gary Myers January 23, 2017 at 6:47 am

Thank You to everyone for your input about the 36th. and the Rapido

These were all Brave men that fought there for sure , everyone of them

My Dad was in the 141st.

Co. A

I think they were some of the first ones across the river that first nite , from what I have read in my research

My Dad was a quiet man by nature , and thus never talked of the war

He kept his medals , ( and the few pictures he had of the war ) , in a back bed room lower dresser draw. I used to slip in there and look at them when I was a child. I am sure he was Proud of them , but he never showed them or talked about them. It was just his way

What few things I knew about his war experience , were a very few things that he told Mom when they were first married

But during my research , those few things clicked with what I discovered about the 36th. ( and the 141st. ) , and the details that they go into about the battles on the internet

Before I started my research ( a few weeks after he passed away ) , I did know he had fought at Salerno and was wounded in Action there ( Motor round )

But I didn’t know he had fought at Rapido River Crossing ( though he had mentioned to Mom one time about a River ) and about being in a mine field

So after my research I figure he was captured at the Rapido on the other side that first nite , from what I can discover in the details of the battle

I did know before my research , that he had spent either 13 or 15 months in Germany prison before they were liberated , but I didn’t know which battle he was captured in ( before my research )

His feet were froze in the war , they looked okay , but they always had a skin peeling look to them , thus he took very good care of them over the years

But I don’t know how much they bothered him over the many years , as he was not a complainer about anything in life

He kept it all inside , a fact they mentioned at his funeral

He Was My Hero

I won’t get into my opinion right now of the wrong decisions to try and cross that River , and losing all the Brave battle tested men that they lost there

But I do admire General Walker and he has my respect

God Bless All The Brave Soldiers of the 36th.

Steve Henley August 13, 2015 at 3:06 am

My father, Morton C. Henley, was there, a machine gunner in the 141st, Company H. He told me the story many times. He was among those who got across the river I think on January 22. The next day they were given up as surrendered, but as it grew dark he and two others (one may have been Sgt. Edward Jones of Cowpens, MD) stood waiting with hands up. They began to walk backward, unnoticed, to the river. They swam back across in the dark and made their way back. The approaches to the river were mined of course, and the lead man (they took turns being in front) stepped on a mine. He was killed and my dad and the other man wounded by shrapnel but made it back. He got a second injury by gunshot at Villetri and was sent home soon after Rome. Mustered out as a Sargeant, met my mom at Ft. Lee, Virginia, and went on to have 14 children and a ton of grands and greats. He was a proud T-Patcher, hated Clark, loved Walker. He was 20 years old at the time, and never forgot the men he fought with. In his later years would fall into tears when he talked about it.

Editor October 7, 2014 at 8:41 pm


Thank you very much for sharing those memories with us.

best regards


Cynthia McKee October 7, 2014 at 6:25 pm

Thank you for this article and the photos. My uncle Frank Blevens was killed in the Rapido River on that awful day. Every so often I breeze the web to see if there is any more info than I have found previously. I have photos of his grave in Italy and I am thankful he was buried there, as it is as beautiful as Arlington and much better kept than if he had returned to Lamar Colorado, his hometown, where the grave would not have been cared for as it is in Italy.

Frank, was the youngest of six. His parents, my paternal grandparents, lived next door to us my whole childhood and grandma lived there until 1994, when she passed at 98. In all the years growing up I never heard one complaint about the war or how Frank lost his life. His sister, Viola Blevens Hintze, would go to the Library of Congress in later years, much later, and was able to see the video of the battle.

She was very close to Frank and told me wonderful stories of a smart and talented young man. He worked well with wood and had made a bedroom set in high school, which my grandparents kept in their home for years. He also made the coveted checker board, which was made out of a beautiful piece of wood. Frank also had a beautiful voice and sang often for many. He had a pleasant, sweet disposition and I have most of his letters and cards that were sent to my father, who was stationed in Tallahassee and to my grandparents. He loved his parents and his family!

I’m sorry I never got to meet him. I have a photo of him in my family room and I point to it often and tell my children and grandchildren about him. I want to thank you for printing this article. I will make a copy and keep it with the documents, photos, etc. that I have on Frank. Once again, Thank You ~ Cynthia Blevens McKee

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:

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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