- Historic Sites
When I Landed The War Was Over
A veteran news correspondent recalls his days as a spotter plane pilot
October/november 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 6
Much has been written about the infantry battle, one of the worst for both sides during the whole war in the West, but from the air, it was episodic: rarely did I have any sense of a planned campaign or even of massive effort. There were exceptions, of course: a regiment of the 36th Division crossed the Rapido River, which joins the Volturno at Cassino. A regiment was three battalions of infantry, roughly three thousand men. They crossed at night, on Treadway bridges, which were simple affairs, designed to carry trucks or tanks: two parallel strips of perforated steel planks. The regiment passed through the 93rd’s area, which was just south of Monte Trocchio, the closest fold in the terrain to Cassino (that is, the closest large enough to shield 105-mm. howitzers), and a battery of the 93rd was scheduled to cross at daylight to provide close support, but at daylight all hell broke loose. The Germans shelled and destroyed the Treadway bridges, and when I arrived above the river about 5:30 A.M. , that regiment of the 36th Division was flattened on the bare, naked, hostile ground on the wrong side of the Rapido. There was no cover, not even a bush, much less a ravine, and German artillery and mortar fire was landing on the area incessantly. We fired at dozens of muzzle flashes, but the effect was negligible: the German stuff kept coming, 88s, 105s, 150s, even Nebelwerfers , the shortrange heavy German mortars that the infantry called “Screaming Meemies,” because of the fierce howl the projectiles made as they came down. It was, for me, and God knows for the GI’s on the ground, a horrible, helpless feeling. The German fire went on all day, and some of the infantrymen of the 36th broke and tried to swim the Rapido. I saw dozens plunge into the water of the river, which was only some fifty feet wide, but I saw none make it to the other bank. The Germans had, with superb military foresight, dumped coils of concertina barbed wire into the river to lie two or three feet below the surface, invisible from the banks. Military barbed wire, of course, is not like the barbed wire you see on an American farm: the barbs are three or four inches long, very numerous, and they seize a soldier’s uniform like steel cactus. I flew back and forth over the Rapido, directing fire all over the Liri Valley, whereever I could spot German batteries in action, and watched those little brown figures jump into the river and disappear. I’m not certain now, but I believe I cried: I was, after all, only twenty-two years old, and the 36th Division was the Texas National Guard Division. I grew up in Texas, and I had childhood friends in that regiment. Three of them never got back across the Rapido.
Oh, Monte Cassino, Monte Cassino! That beautiful, beautiful mountain: flying above Mignano, the destroyed town that dominated the approach to Cassino, the mountain loomed in blue haze, smoky: its peak appeared to be topped with eternal snow, but as one drew closer, the haze cleared and you saw it was not snow, it was the abbey, the abbey of Monte Cassino, white, white, whiter than snow, glittering, pure, high above the grunt and stink and killing of the valley. Founded some fourteen hundred years before our arrival, a marvel, a monument to God and man. Well, that didn’t last long, once we got there.
After the war there was a great ” deal of argument about the I abbey. The Vatican said no German soldiers were ever in or near it, and the Germans said the same thing. Well, that’s bull: on several occasions I saw German machine-gun tracers coming from its northeast corner. The gun was either inside the abbey itself or firing from a position built into the exterior wall. I called fire on the spot each time, and the 93rd responded each time. After months of infantry assaults that broke against the mountain and the town at its foot, the Allies decided they would bomb their way through Monte Cassino. Though rarely mentioned in historical accounts, the first bomb attacks were made by P-40s based at a field near Naples: they dived with five-hundred-pound bombs. I was at three thousand feet, to fire the 93rd at any Germany flak batteries that opened up on the P-40s, and I can still see the fighters diving, their .50-caliber machine-gun bullets sparking on the mountain as they zeroed in, then the steep pull-up, followed seconds later by the geyser of smoke, flame, and dirt of the bomb’s explosion. As they pulled out and away, headed for home and a hot shower, they zoomed all around me in my seventy-five-mile-an-hour machine, so close their slip-stream rocked and jolted the L-4.
But that bomb attack didn’t work: the P-40s had concentrated on the mountainside, avoiding the abbey and the town of Cassino itself. They hit fortified German positions on the slopes and provided the Americans with a flood of bomb-shocked German prisoners, driven out of their minds by concussion, but bombing the mountain did not open the way to Rome. When the next attempt came from the air, it was a disaster.