We'd just got moving out of the ditches when mortar bombs smacked down all around us with tremendous crashes, catching us out in the open with no place to duck under cover. Chunks of half frozen turf pelted my face as I lay clutching the ground in fear. ¯Boy, are we in for it now!" the thought flashed across my mind. ¯Here we're only minutes into the battle and already I'm going to die!" From my face down position on an open piece of ground at the edge of a stand of tall pines, I raised my head to look around to see if there was a shell hole, dip or depression I could crawl into to give me half a chance. If there'd have been anything at all I'd have gone there in a hurry. But there was not a damn thing that would save my skin. The few shallow craters nearby were already occupied. No room for another body. Nothing! Not a damn thing! All there was out there were the bright flashes and black eruptions of mortar bombs.
18 Platoon was lucky in that we were on the fringe of the beaten zone. Most of the bombs were landing in 17 platoon's area on our left. Enough of them, however, were coming down a little too close for comfort, prompting me into doing something about my predicament. Any kind of cover, no matter what, was better than no cover, which was exactly what I had. Scared as I was, I hadn't lost my wits as yet. I remember saying to myself, ¯If I don't find something better than this. . . and soon, I'll be dead in less than two minutes, maybe even sooner." So, right after three bombs went off, crrrrump? crrrump? crrrrump not fifty feet from me, I took off, crawling as fast as I could back towards the road where I noticed no bombs were falling. I fought hard to hold back the growing panic threatening to overwhelm me. One bomb slammed into the turf not ten feet away from me, but it was a dud. Luck was with me. I was living a charmed life, at least up till now. But by the way things were going it didn't look like my luck would last much longer.
I hadn't given a thought to praying, but I thought I'd better do something about it and right quick, even though I didn't know how to address God. Every time I started on a prayer, as crude as I knew it would be, a bomb would go off close by, cutting the prayer short. The only time I'd ever spoken to Him was the day before when we were standing out in the open at the church service. At the time, I begged Him to get us our asses out of there before it'd be too late. I'd always held the opinion that God didn't take sides in war, regardless of what our leaders and clergy tried to make us believe. I had a mind of my own and convinced myself that God didn't choose who was to die, or who was to live. I knew that there had to be a lot of German boys opposite us who prayed to the same God, and their mothers worried and prayed as our mothers and loved ones did. So whose prayers would He answer, ours or theirs'?
With every bomb that banged in nearby, the ground beneath me jumped. I was so terrified I forgot what I was babbling about and to whom I was directing it. Although desperate beyond desperation I somehow managed to plan how I might get out of this thing alive, all the while alternately whispering to myself to hold on, and to God Almighty to protect me. I lay there, pressing so hard to the ground that my stomach ached. And then, not ten yards away from me on my left I spotted tank-tracks? only three inches deep but I made straight for them. Three inches underground is better than no inches. The tracks were about a yard wide, and I knew right off they were put there by either a Tiger or a Panther tank. The Sherman's tracks were about half as wide.
As shallow and near useless for protection as the impression was, I drew some comfort from it anyway, enough to calm me down somewhat. With the near hysteria gone, I looked at my situation in a different light, taking in all that was going on around me. I didn't need anyone to tell me I had to get out of the beaten zone, and quick. I knew that if I didn't move and move fast, I'd either get myself splattered all over this little patch of Italian soil by a direct hit or go stark, raving mad. To go shell shock was the last thing I wanted happen to me. Death, as long as it was quick and painless, like a bullet between the eyes would have been preferable. So I moved. I crawled along the track away from the eye of the storm, flopping flat on my face every time a mortar bomb exploded a little too close for my good and welfare. And then one plunged into the ground not more than a couple of arms length away.
It had my name on it, but apparently the name was misspelled. It was another dud. Scared even more shitless now, I was beside myself as to how to escape the fate zeroing in on me. And that's when I came face to face with Ken Topping who looked to be in worse mental shape than I was. Topping was a well-put-together lad, tough as nails, who, although he wasn't the bully type, also wasn't shy or gentle about throwing his weight around. He was pretty meek on this occasion. His eyes were the size of two half dollar coins, his lower lip flapped like a flag in a March gale. He couldn't talk. He was right out of it! Why I should have looked upon the situation as being funny, I'll never know. Maybe it was because I suddenly realized I wasn't the only man who was almost out of his mind in fear, that here was one of the toughest guys in the platoon, and he's a hell of a lot worse off than me. It actually made me feel a little superior, if only for an instant.
With this in mind, what was going on around me didn't seem half so bad, and as long as I kept moving maybe I could save myself. And then, as suddenly as it began, the mortaring stopped. What a tremendous relief! Sammy Ridge appeared out of no-where and wasted littlle time in getting us on the move. To a man, we were not only glad to get moving, we were actually anxious to be on our way into the attack. To come to grips with the enemy was something we could handle with reasonable composure. To lie there on the ground waiting for a shell to blow you away without you're being able to do anything to keep it from happening was a mind shattering experience. We weren't looking forward into running into that kind of situation again. Any kind of a move, forward, backward, sideways, it didn't matter, as long as we were getting out of there, we were all for it.
Swinging off to the left, we entered a dip in the terrain, and used it to our advantage in approaching the valley of the Riccio River where our Charlie and Able Companies were locked in a losing battle with the enemy. We made good time, hidden as we were from view of the enemy. Meanwhile, behind us on the higher ground we'd just vacated, two Shermans rolled up and began firing with their co-ax machine-guns, the streams of tracer fire burning the air over our heads as the two streams converged on a target somewhere out of our line of vision. It was heartening so see the support we were getting after our not being able to do a damn thing about hitting back at the enemy. About a hundred yards farther along the shallow gully we came upon the bodies of two Seaforth Highlanders lying face down, their arms stretched out in front of them, their rifles just beyond their reach. Every man in the company, of that I'm sure, paused to look down at them in morbid fascination before hurrying on. The Seaforths weren't mangled or twisted in any way, but beside one lay an upturned helmet inside of which was pooled the red, pulpy remains of what had been the man's brain. What killed his partner I couldn't make out, but I had to assume a sniper had gunned them both down. I saw no entry marks of shrapnel anywhere on their battle dress to suggest a mortar or a shell burst was the cause of their death. This was our shocking first look at dead men on a battlefield. The sight of the bodies, especially the man whose brains had been blown away, etched itself on my memory to the extent that I had a tough time shaking the gruesome image out of my mind. It bothered me for the balance of that long, terrible, heartbreaking day.
Halfway to the valley of the Riccio (about 200 yards away) 18 platoon swung off sharply to the right, emerging from cover to take up positions in the ruins, or rather the remains of a farmhouse and its outbuildings. Not so much as a wall stood. Three rubble heaps were all that suggested a farmhouse and outbuildings had occupied this piece of real estate. The larger heap, I identified as the house because of the pots and pans lying about amidst the debris. Also, there was a white enameled steel bedpost sticking out of the pile of rubble. Reaching the ruins was easy enough? getting out presented a real problem. It didn't take us long to realize we were trapped. Two or maybe three Spandaus opened up on us, and then mortars zeroed in. Lucky for all of us there were slit trenches all through the area and we dove for this cover. How it was that no one was hit was unbelievable. The sprays of .300 calibre rounds from the MGs ricocheted off the rubble sending pieces of wood and masonry flying in every direction. For the next fifteen minutes, or perhaps longer, the enemy threw everything but the kitchen sink at us. All I could do was stay deep down in my trench and hope and pray one of the bombs didn't make a direct hit.
When they stopped dropping out of the low slung clouds I dared to poke my head up to take a quick scan around to see what was going on, see how the others were making out. I couldn't see anybody but I could see the far side of the Riccio valley, although I couldn't pick out where the enemy weapons were that were firing on us. The smokeless powder the Jerries used made it near impossible to pin-point their location. On my third peek over the rim of my trench I caught a movement in an upstairs window of a large house across the valley, but before I could bring my rifle to bear and take a bead on him, the Jerry beat me to the draw and let go a long burst that tore up the turf along the rim of my trench, cascad-ing dirt and stones onto my helmet. Now all I could do was sit there at the bottom of the trench and wait. Wait for what? To die, most likely. Not a pleasant thought. I got to wondering if any of the guys in my platoon got hit in that first flurry of MG fire. I also got to thinking that maybe I was the only guy still alive. How would I know? Maybe they'd gotten away, leaving me here all alone. Or maybe they were all dead at the bottom of their slit trenches. ¯Well," I said to myself, "if that's the way things stand, then I guess I'll just have to wait it out and make a break for it as soon as it gets dark. It's no use getting upset over it." By this time I'd gotten a hold of myself and was confident that I'd get out of the jam somehow.
But as I sat there in my hole by a pile of rubble I had plenty of time to do some serious thinking and it all turned pessimistic. During a lull in the gunfire and a slackening in the rate of mortar fire I heard someone hollering, but I couldn't make out who it was and what it was all about. At first I thought it was someone calling out for a stretcher-bearer, but I detected a tone of calm authority in the voice. ¯Who in the hell's stupid enough to be out there in the open? The sonofabitch'll get himself knocked off," With care I stood up, first putting my helmet on my hand and lifting it above the lip of the trench to see if it was safe to stick my head up. Nothing happened, so I had a quick look around. That's when I saw Gord Forbes, Jimmy Eves and George Simeays hot-footing it for the protection of the gully. And not ten yards behind them sprinted Ken Topping, Walt Thomas, Bob Wheatley and Cec Vanderbeck practically falling all over each other in the flight to safety. ¯Holy Jeez, they're still alive!" I exclaimed, ¯But they'll never make it!" I had to hand it to them? they had guts to get out of their nice, deep trenches and make that run across open ground with bullets chewing up the turf around their flying feet. It was a shootin' gallery out there. How the Jerry gunners failed to plink any of them will always make me wonder. Was it a miracle? Was it Divine intervention? Or was it just that the MG 42s weren't all that accurate? It could have been a little of each that saved them. All I can say is that if it had been Brens firing, I don't think the boys would have made it. As good a weapon as the MG 42 was, the man firing it had to depend more on the hose pipe method in hopes a few of the thousand rounds spit out would hit their target. That's the way it went with them? fortunately for us.
I watched my section mates with bated breath as they ran, admiring them their courage for getting out of cover to run the gauntlet. Yeah, I couldn't help but admire and envy them their guts. ¯They've got a hell of a lot more than I've got!" Hunkering down at the bottom of my nice and deep trench I did some serious thinking about how and when I'd make the break to rejoin the platoon. I had to do it. There was no way I was going to stay where I was. But before I could go, I had to screw up the courage, talk myself into it? shove fear aside and with fingers crossed, ? light out!' It'd take a heck of a lot courage to climb our of the security of the trench? let me tell you? a lot more than I thought I had. How could I go when I was scared right out of my hide? I sat there for a good ten minutes trying to shut out from my mind the negative thoughts crowding in on me. I tried to convince myself that if the others made it okay, then I could. My feet felt nailed to the bottom of the trench. And then, without really being conscious of what I was doing, I was up and out of the trench, picking the old feet up and laying them down, tearing off across the open ground like a halfback in a a football game dodging tackles, weaving this way and that. Only this halfback wasn't dodging tackles, it was the hundreds of bullets snapping and cracking all around me. I might have been scared shitless, but I wasn't that scared that I didn't know that if I threw myself on the ground I'd get stitched up from asshole to breakfast in nothing flat. And then to speed me on my way even faster, a mortar bomb plunging out of the gray sky, exploded with an ear-splitting crash not twenty yards to my left. With the stink of the H.E. burning in my nose I pelted right on as fast as my furiously pumping legs could carry me. That seventy-five yards seemed more like three hundred. My lungs were on fire as I sped into the cover of an embankment where I ran into the guys in my platoon who watched my flight for life like I had watched theirs.
I flopped on the ground gasping for air as though I was at death's door. It wasn't so much because of the energy expended that I was flat on my back gasping for air. Fear had most to do with it. After my respiratory rate returned to near normal I realized what I'd just gone through and felt a surge of pride go through me. After all, although my action didn't knock out an enemy MG post or anything like that, I did conquer to some extent my fear? a fear far beyond anything I'd ever known before. I'd just come through a terrifying 'run of the gauntlet' of mortar and machine-gun fire, that in all respects, should have killed me. I could have stayed in that hole and waited for darkness to get away, but when I saw my buddies make their break, I knew I had to do it too or I'd have never lived it down.
Remember each and every sacrifice, made for your freedom!
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