The Allies had made some progress in Italy as soon as they were over the Volturno river but they very soon ran into the next line of German defences. The war then reverted to trench warfare, as each side tried to batter each other with artillery. In amongst it, the infantry were expected to send out probing patrols to find the exact positions of the other side, perhaps to capture a prisoner for intelligence.
In the U.S. lines was a remarkable individual who had begun to make a name for himself as soon as he had joined the fighting in Sicily. Audie Murphy was so baby faced and young looking that his Company commander had then tried to make him a message ‘runner’, to spare him front line duties. Murphy kept going out with patrols anyway, so they had to promote him to Corporal and put him back in the frontline.
Not only did Audie Murphy have an extraordinary war, he had an extraordinary capability to write about it. This is his account of an undated episode that happened soon after the crossing of the Volturno river:
Now the light of the new day is streaking the sky, beneath which the enemy is creeping.
A combat patrol.
Seven gray-coated and helmeted forms emerging like ghosts from the mist of an Italian dawn. Beneath the uniforms, seven men. The warm blood throbs through their veins; their chests heave. And one casts an anxious eye toward the light that blooms in the sky.
Seven soldiers seeking us out. Grenades swing from their belts; their rifles are ready; and their ears are bent for the slightest sound that will give our position away. Trained to kill without an instant’s hesitation or an atom of mercy, they want only the opportunity to blow us into mincemeat.
We accept the facts coolly; remove the safety locks on our rifles and lie as still as the rocks among which we hide at the edge of the quarry.
My mouth goes dry; muscles tighten, the heart beats in slow, steady pulsations.
Quietly, rapidly Swope checks his machine gun. He chooses his range, gauges his sights, and freezes into position. It is his job. If he fails, we must think and act quickly; otherwise we may think and act no more. But we have every confidence in that calm trigger finger and piercing blackness of eye.
The Germans labor up a draw that cuts the slope like a wrinkle in a fat man’s stomach. Despite all care, their boots slip on the stony soil; and at each small sound the men start nervously.
The leader is obviously an old-timer. I can see from his actions that he does not like the situation at all. The route he has chosen is dangerous indeed, but is the best that the area offers. On two sides, he has at least partial concealment.
But what of the forward end of the draw? A greenhorn should know that would be covered. Evidently the German knows too. He halts, waves his men down, and moves forward a few yards alone.
He pauses and gazes straight in our direction. I glance at Swope. He has the tense, sensitive, motionless appearance of a bird dog at point.
Apparently the German has not spotted us, but still he is not satisfied. Again he advances, stops, and scans the terrain. Then he shrugs his shoulders and motions for his men to join him.
We know when they are in effective range of the gun. Still Swope waits. With his cold Indian cunning, he is letting them come dangerously close.
“What’s the Chief going to do?” whispers Kerrigan irritably. “Shake hands with the krauts before he shoots them?”
The bronzed head snaps forward. Rat-ta-ta-ta… Twenty rounds. No more. Swope is not one to waste ammunition.
“Okay,” he says, without turning his head. “They’re yours.”
We turn our attention to the wounded. They are all still conscious. One has the embarrassed expression of a man suddenly exposed while answering a call of nature. He appears too old to be gadding about with a gun. His face is shriveled; and his uniform fits like a sack.
His lips peel back in a yellow grin. It is the forced smile of an unwilling loser. Or maybe he wishes to be friendly. He coughs. Red froth bubbles from his mouth. He ceases pretending. Fear and shame pass from his eyes. He must know now that he is dying and we can harm him no further.
The other two are not so sure. They are young, hardly over twenty; and from the freshness of their uniforms, we guess they are newcomers to the lines. They cringe and snarl defiantly, doubtless not knowing how badly they are wounded.