Frank and Joe were face down in the muddy depression they had clawed out; the best version of a foxhole exploding shells and the persistent whiz of bullets would allow. The only other sounds were the variety of screams from soldiers being hit. The dissonance of armed conflict would be much worse except, thank God, men getting killed in battle made no noise.
Frank Pellegrini rehashed these thoughts in preparation for making his pitch for assistance to find his buddy, Joe. He arrived at the Allied camp at the foot of Monte Cassino, about 100 miles from Rome. There were soldiers from all over the place. Canucks, Poles, Indians, Aussies and Kiwis. No sign of Frank’s 36th Infantry or any other Americans, but he knew some had to be here. He strained to search through a thick fog and cold drizzle that blanketed the camp as it had for the last four months in South Central Italy.
Frank walked around, saluting or tipping his hat to all the foreign troops. He was the son of Italian immigrants who had settled in Baton Rouge, LA. He spoke Italian before English; whether an omen or destiny of his current situation was unclear.
Frank spotted American olive drab uni’s with single and twin Chevrons on the shoulders. They were circled around a fire attempting the impossible, to stay warm and dry. He was scanned as he approached the men. One Corporal noticed the blue arrowhead with a “T” on Frank’s shoulder. Likewise, Frank noticed the blue crossed-eight shaped patch on his counterparts’ uniform. Division insignias had become a badge of honor during the war. Blue meant Infantry. In this war, blue insignias were highly respected.
Frank decided to take the lead, “88th Infantry, how do you do?”
“Hell 36th, we do just fine!” the Corporal grinned in response.
“Frank Pellegrini.” The 36th ‘T-Patcher’ introduced himself. “Glad you could make it from that resort at Anzio beach,” he mockingly added.
“Marty Obidinski, ‘Obi’.” Said the 88th Corporal. “Not as cushy as that river ride up the Rapido.”
They both laughed and shook hands as the other men around the fire closed in for slaps on the shoulders. A rare time of hospitality to fellow soldiers was welcome.
Frank got down to business and asked around if they had heard about a Joe Maloney. With negative head shakes, he pushed forward.
“Have you heard about prisoners? Word is they are at a place called Passo Carese. Any of you guys know about that?”
“That’s a bad place,” said Obi. “Lots of guys go in and not a lot come out is what I hear. Why do you ask?”
Frank recounted his story about Joe Maloney, “I was badly wounded at the end of a two-day attempt to cross the Rapido River. Two-thirds of my Company, all friends of mine, were killed or wounded.”
Frank and Joe had become best friends during three years of training from recruits at Fort Worth, TX in 1940 to a war against Nazi Germany in the failed Fascist state of Italy. Joe had saved his life on a few occasions and most certainly at the Rapido. Sharing every detail about Joe’s past life and dreams ahead were etched in Frank’s mind. He wasn’t just trying to save his best friend, he was giving him a chance to live his dreams.
“The shell exploded outside our foxhole,” said Frank. “I felt something hit my head and blood was streaming down my face. The head wound was minor, but the shrapnel that caught me in my belly wasn’t. I woke up in the hospital and don’t know what happened to Joe. The Army declared him KIA.”
When he was done, Obi spoke, “Me and three of these guys are supposed to go on a recon mission towards Rome in the morning. If it’s ok with the platoon leader, we can check out the prison camp; maybe find your buddy.”
A short Lieutenant in the back nodded and in his native Oklahoman said, “The 88th ain’t normally kind to y’all Texans, but ya got my ok to try to rescue yer friend. Just don’t git my men kilt.”
Frank just received help, the blessing of a superior officer and additional weapons.
The three soldiers from the 88th and Frank were positioned outside Stalag 33 in Passo Carese about 25 miles north of Rome. They were wearing civilian clothes. US Army uniforms were far too recognizable behind enemy lines. They carried 1934 Barretta’s courtesy of captured Fascist soldiers to complete the local farmer ruse.
Frank yielded operational authority to Obi. Corporal Jack, a crack shot from Tennessee, was armed with a Springfield M1903 Bolt Action sniper rifle. Known as “Volley”, he would find the highest perch available within 500 yards – a comfortable kill range for him. “Sludge,” a hand to hand combat specialist who knew German, would take the point. He would be with Frank and Obi at the breech point of the prison nearest the prisoner barracks. The fourth member, PFC Tico Hernandez was trained in explosives. He was dubbed “Taco” in basic training. He didn’t have a specific assignment yet, but knew would be needed.
Sludge and Taco had just returned from a perimeter assessment around the camp. They had gotten close enough to overhear some of the guard’s chatter.
Sludge reported, “It was mostly soldier talk, about being bored, not wanting to be here and having a particular dislike for the Commandant, “Spiegel” who was mentioned in the same sentence as chicken shit.
Taco added some grim news, “The Stalag is heavily guarded, both in patrols on the ground and watchmen in the towers. If there is good news, the buildings and fences are in a state disrepair.”
Sludge continued, “We saw the guards march some of the prisoners out into the yard. This seemed to be a daily routine. They were marched around the yard with their hands shackled. They were gaunt and kept their heads down.
This last piece of intel was important because Obi had stressed that they will, at some time, need to rely on the strength and will of the prisoner to pull this off. This variable was in question.
“If Joe’s in there, he’ll know how to react,” said Frank.
They made a plan. Risky, lacking proper resources and likely to end badly. No one complained. They were as ready as conditions would permit. They set off and radios were silenced. Extensive training was their only form of communication.
Volley found a rock outcropping with a line of sight over the front gate and into the yard. He estimated he was over 700 yards away, but still felt in range. His perch set-up, he trained his M1903 towards the camp.
The other three men made their way to the back of Stalag 33, about as far away from the gate as they could. The prisoners were kept in a row of barracks located near the back side of the compound. There was no way to know where Joe Maloney was kept – if he was even there.
The plan was for Frank, Obi and Sludge to work their way under the fence and sneak into the nearest barrack. They would need to do this silently. Taco was tasked with finding his way to the guard tower on the other side of the yard and set explosives. No radios meant Taco would have to use his judgment when and if to detonate. During the confusion, Volley would start picking off targets deemed most threatening.
The hoped-for result was to get as many prisoners out of the barracks and into the yard. Frank, Obi and Sludge would subdue as many guards as possible and hope to get the rest to drop weapons. If a full-blown firefight started, they were doomed.
The watches on all four men ticked to the top of the hour. The fence busters used their soldiers’ spades to start digging. They had access in less than fifteen minutes. Taco was first under and set-off to the other side of the camp. The other three waited to be sure Taco wasn’t spotted. He disappeared at the end of the row of barracks. It was time to go get the prisoners.
“ACHTUNG!” There were a series of clicks behind the men halfway under the fence. The distinct sound of German Gewehr 43’s being set to fire. Frank looked back and saw at least eight kraut soldiers with weapons pointed at them. He backed from the tunnel with hands raised. Obi and Sludge followed suit.
Frank’s brain kicked into overdrive. He figured the civilian clothes had probably saved them from being shot without warning. He pressed this thought and spoke in Italian, “Mi familia! My family is in there. We only mean to bring them food.”
Frank didn’t understand the response, but it was clear they were being asked to stand.
They were patted down and their guns confiscated. They did not find the hunting knife Sludge had inside his boot. There was no alarm from the Germans; either uncaring or undisciplined. Frank would get into the prison, but not in the way he had hoped.
Frank, Obi and Sludge were lead to the center of the yard and ordered to kneel. The Commandant of chicken shit fame emerged from a building underneath the guard tower. All eyes in the camp were trained on the three captives. Capturing locals poking around the fences was not an everyday occurrence. “Chicken-shit” and his Sidekick approached. He spoke in a loud and harsh voice,
“You are enemies of the Third Reich! You are spies. Who are you? Who ordered you here?”
This was translated into Italian by Sidekick.
Frank answered, “We are just farmers. My brother and two sons were brought here as prisoners. We wanted to bring them food. We are no spies.”
Sidekick translated. The Commandant stepped forward and slapped Frank in the face. “Nien! Spies. You are to be executed!”
He barked at the armed guards holding Frank, Obi and Sludge at gunpoint. And then screamed at the other soldiers who had appeared at the scene. A dozen or more guards ran towards the barracks. The emerged with a line of prisoners from each building. There were to be witnesses to the execution.
It took some time to arrange the prisoners in a semi-circle around the developing spectacle. Joe Maloney was in the line of men led to the nearest viewing point. He was looking at the men on their knees before the commandant. They all appeared resolved for something other than getting caught. He thought, those are no civilians.
Frank gazed at the Commandant who had pure evil in his eyes. He could tell the guards acted out of fear to his orders, not respect. He turned to survey the prisoners being organized around him and immediately saw Joe. Their eyes met and they nodded at each other indicating an understanding of what was happening. Joe looked skinny, but his pure green eyes still had the resolve of the fighter Frank knew him to be.
Maloney leaned forward and looked up and down the line of prisoners. He was slapped back into place but not before he had established eye contact with his fellow prisoners. Joe had taught them to save the single pat of butter along with bread the guards smuggled in once in a while. He demonstrated how the butter could be used as grease on their malnourished wrists to allow them to slide out of the shackles.
The Commandant barked some more orders. Guards in front of each group of prisoners recited a canned order in a variety of languages. Stalag 33 was multi-national too.
“By order of the Commandant Field Marshall Stueben Spiegel under the authority given by the Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler, these enemies of the state have been found guilty of treason and are sentenced to death by firing squad immediately.”
Frank figured out their idea of a firing squad was a single guard with a Luger stuck in the back of his head. He looked at Joe who returned his gaze and winked. As he was figuring his friend’s gesture, all the prisoner’s shackles clanked to the ground. Frank took the cue as did Obi and Sludge, jumping from their kneeled positions and thrusting their heads into the gut of the armed men behind them. The line of prisoners leaped forward into the guards who were outnumbered by ten to one.
Spiegel raised his arm and yelled something, but was cut short. Frank glanced over and saw a red dot appear above Chickenshit’s brow line. ‘Nice shot Volley.”
An explosion went off under the guard tower. The tower along with guards came tumbling down. Chaos assumed control. Spiegel’s Sidekick ran towards the struggle between Frank, Obi, Sludge and their executioners. He fell silently to the ground like a sandbag. Volley again!
Sludge had extracted his hunting knife and neutralized his executioner. He did the same to Obi and Frank’s gunmen. They each grabbed a Gewehr 43 from the dead guards and shouldered the rifles; swinging around to find threats. The balance of the Germans in the company of the Commandant dropped their weapons and raised their arms.
Maloney and the other prisoners had gained control of most of their guards. The remaining ones seemed confused at first. They noticed what was happening in the center of the yard. Chicken Shit and Sidekick lay dead and their comrades were all dropping their weapons. They did likewise.
Suddenly the guards in the towers all lowered their weapons. Stalag 33 went silent.
The only thing audible was the sound of flames coming from the blown-up guard tower. Taco emerged from the smoke with a huge smile. Then, the front gates were opened by the unarmed German soldiers and Volley marched in with is M1903 over his shoulder.
Maloney took a brief survey of his fellow prisoners. Convinced everyone was ok, he walked forward to meet his friend. Joe and Frank met in the middle of the German Stalag in the Italian Countryside and shook hands. The remaining hands in the camp, including Joe’s other rescuers from the 88th along with the Chickenshit hating guards, applauded.