Photo from Ralph Hotchkiss Archives. General Mark Clark of the 5th Army addressing the 36th Division, Dec. 1943
This is part 3 of a historical non-fiction short story. It is based on song lyrics written by Major Frank Pellegrin about a doughfoot named Joe Maloney who meets an Italian girl named Rose after the US Army had driven the Nazis from the village of San Pietro. This part is true as is the historical context of WWII in Italy in December 1943. I made up the rest of the stuff.
The song lyrics were posted previously in this Blog: San Pietro Rose (Foreword)
The Liri Valley near the Rapido River, Cental Italy – December, 1943
At the base of Mt Sammucro outside San Pietro, the entire division, or what was left of it, was assembled. The Commander of the 36th T-Patchers, General Walker stood on a makeshift dais of empty ammo crates. He was firm and confident in delivering the newest plan, but there was a pall over his words. The 36th would take the lead across the Rapido River. The preparations of the engineers had been going on for days. The Ordnance Corps had resupplied the depleted Division with materiel. This included pre-fab bridges and boats to cross a river swollen from rainfall and dams built by the retreating German Army. Mines remained a huge obstacle despite the efforts of the 111th Regiment of Engineers and daily patrols of K Company and others.
Once across the river, the full force of General Kesselring’s 10th German Army would be waiting in the hills beyond in fortified bunkers and pillboxes; barrels of every conceivable size gun, mortar, and artillery trained on the landing spot of 143rd.
The attack would occur the following day at dawn. The sappers would work through the night to erect Bailey and floating pontoon bridges. They would build boat ramps that would facilitate troop and mechanized forces to cross the Rapido. The 143rd Infantry, having displayed courage and success during the beach landings at Salerno and in driving the krauts from San Pietro, would lead the attack.
The regiments of the T-Patchers all fell out and broke up into their companies to prepare for the big event in less than twenty-four hours. Joe’s only thought was to see Rose. How could he manage to sneak out and not get caught? Under the circumstances, he reckoned that would be considered desertion. A court martial, serious jail time and possible, a death penalty – all for one last visit with Rose. He surprised himself for even weighing the choices. Love can make one think incredible things, he thought.
He confided these thoughts to Frank. Joe Maloney was madly in love with this Rose of San Pietro. To keep Joe from committing a serious military infraction, Frank convinced him to write her a letter. He could deliver it personally once the operation was over.
Joe argued realistically, “Frank, you and I both know this is a suicide mission and we’re first at bat. You’ve seen what happened at Salerno and capturing this village.” He cupped his face remembering the horror. “We lost a lot of guys. We knew what to expect and we went anyway.”
Frank replied, “But WE made it. We looked after each other. Our company looked after us. We’re the T-Patchers from Texas!”
Joe wasn’t convinced. “We’re also trying to do something that even the brass isn’t confident about.” He said.
“OK, you Dumb Mick. Write her note. If, IF something happens, I’ll get it to Rose – promise.”
“Thanks you Greasy Wop.” Was all Joe could say, “You’re my brother you know?”
“Sure buddy,” Frank said. “You’re my brother too.”
He knew the attack was risky. Even if they could get across the Rapido and establish an offensive position, they still had to break through the kraut defenses. A lot of soldiers were going to die.
Begrudgingly, Joe went into his tent and started writing. Frank heard scratching of pen on tissue-thin paper the soldiers were issued to write letters to loved ones back home. At least I talked him out of doing something stupid, Frank told himself.
The mood in the piazza had changed with the disappearance of the soldiers from town. Rose had been working hard all day delivering supplies and bringing smiles to the sick and destitute residents of San Pietro. Her local touch was a welcome change from soldiers merely dispensing food, water and first aid kits. Rose allowed herself to envision a future. One with Joe and the Bakery and the happy people of San Pietro.
Rose felt fulfilled and wanted to share it with the American soldier. She was far away from healing, but she felt a reason to live and to love again. She knew Joe had a huge heart to go along with a broad smile. The way he spoke to her and looked at her gave her such a hopeful feeling. She chuckled as she recalled him calling to her and saying, “Ti amo, Rose!” Could this possibly be the chance encounter her mother had foretold? She ran off to look for him. But where?
It was getting dark in the tent city. The engineers had set off to where the skeletal pieces of portable Baily Bridges, makeshift ramps and boats in various states of readiness were staged. The T-Patcher’s were moving at three am to an area deemed to be unwatched by the kraut artillery spotters, a scant mile from the swollen Rapido.
Maloney had just a few hours before he would leave San Pietro and perhaps never return. Hmm. Never return? Never see Rose again? Unthinkable. He willed himself to think how he would survive. This ran contrary to previous battles fought where the focus was on doing the job and achieving the objective. Somehow, he had to live through this and get back to Rose. He began to daydream of a future together in San Pietro. Far away from Lufkin. He nodded off.
Rose was getting frantic. Not only was there was no sign of Joe back at the supply area, but the place had cleared out. All the big guns and vehicles had left during the day. She saw that the box with the letters: “Amusement: Reading Material” was still there but the “Ammunition: Garand” was not. A handful of soldiers patrolled the open area but paid no attention to the diminutive village girl looking around even as her movements became panicked.
She ran the short distance to the soldier’s encampment. Here, the scene was chaotic. There were men with rifles on their shoulders walking the perimeter of the camp. She drew the attention of one of the sentries as she approached. She started saying something in Italian to the soldier. Her voice was anxious, and her words were not understood. The army private clearly indicating she should come no closer. “Non si muovono!” He commanded.
Now was the time to use the second phrase the soldiers had memorized. Rose stopped moving but leaned forward to establish her desire to go into the tent city.
She stated with emphasis, “Joe Malonee! Voglio veder Joe Malonee!” She put the emphasis on the last syllable; a sultry Italian accent that had no effect on the guard.
She was asking for someone named Maloney, the sentry figured, thinking the “Joe” part was referring to the “GI Joe” just as Maloney had. His only response was to say, “Sorry, ma’am. No entry.”
Again, the meaning was clear, but she didn’t want to give up. She had to see her Joe. “Per favori, devo. Malonee!” She was almost screaming. The dutiful soldier stood his ground. Not knowing what else to do, Rose turned and walked back to the town.
It started to rain. A cold, freezing rain they had become all too familiar with in the past few months. Joe, Frank and the rest of K Company of the 143rd Regiment – one of ten such groups of the 36th Infantry – made ready to leave. They all knew they would not likely be back because of success or, more likely, failure to get across the Rapido River. Death was never discussed but always present in their collective minds.
As they double checked their gear for the fifth time, Joe grabbed Frank by his shoulder. O’Smiley handed his friend a canteen. It was the one Joe had given to Rose what seemed to be a year ago. She had returned it after they had kissed for the first and only time. A sign, that she had embraced her feelings about this soldier; a sign she cared about another person he thought.
Confused, Frank inquired, “Why are you giving me an empty canteen? I’m kinda overloaded with gear already and water ain’t going to be hard to come by in this weather.”
Maloney said, “It’s not empty. My heart’s in there. It’s a note to Rose; you told me to write it. If I don’t make it, please give this to her.”
“You keep it and give it to her yourself.” He winked and punched Maloney in the arm.
“You promised me, buddy, remember? Maloney persisted.
Frank tied the beat-up canteen to his overstocked belt and said, “Sure Joe, anything for a Dumb Mick.
“Thanks, you Greasy Wop,” Joe responded.
They heard the order from the K Company commander and fell in with the rest of the expressionless men. It was precisely 3:00 AM on December 20, 1944.
Rose suffered through a long night. She heard artillery fire in the distance starting with first light. It increased and continued throughout the following day. She walked back to the camp, but it was mostly empty. More than half the tents were down. Some soldiers appeared to be sitting around and talking. The big top tent was still there. The open sides had been closed off with tent cloth she had not noticed before. Large red crosses decorated a few of the flaps. Overnight, it had been turned into a field hospital. It was still and quiet yet reeked of pain.
The full brunt of reality suddenly came down upon Rose. She had always known the Allied armies would be moving on to their next battle. Now she wanted to see Joe. She wanted to touch his face and stare into his green eyes and kiss the mouth that covered his easy smile. Papi is gone, Mama is gone, Fabi is gone. Now, Joe Maloney is gone? With nothing more to do she let out a wail and screamed to no one in particular, “Non-non-NON!!!”
Rose returned to Belmonte’s Panne di Montagne. There was nothing to do, so she wandered over to the Basilica next door. The forsaken were all still there. The number had grown and it was more crowded. As she walked in, a host of faces looked up and instantly smiled, “San Pietro Rose!” they sang, each offering their extended arms for a hug. Rose was happy to oblige but more for her than for them this time. I wish Joe was the one hugging me, she thought.
The surreal day was winding down as was the frequency of the distant sounds of battle. She worked up the courage to walk back to the hospital. She rationalized if Joe was there, at least he was alive. She could handle wounded. That would mean he would be done fighting, she encouraged herself. If he wasn’t there, surely it meant his army had beaten the Germans again and were continuing their way to Rome.
As she approached, inactivity was replaced with a disordered scene of soldiers and vehicles and stretchers and screams of pain from within. Suffering was all she could smell. There were numerous stretchers scattered on the ground outside the tent. Some were on cots with connected IV bottles. She noticed a row of body bags lined up where the “Long Toms” were just the day before. Nobody even paid her notice as she entered the new field hospital. Inside was worse than the anything she had seen in the village during the months of occupation and battle.
Wounded soldiers were everywhere. Lying down, sitting up or huddled together. Groans were constant and piercing screams of pain resonated off the tent flaps with an eerie cadence. Everyone was running frantically from stretcher to bloody cot. Rose saw no semblance of order. The floor was a mixture of trampled down grass, mud and the blood spilling from every cot, gurney and stretcher. She wasn’t sure she wanted to find Joe in this tent of suffering.
She walked up and down the rows of soldiers in various stages of agony; the silent ones most disturbing. The only other sounds were admonishing: “Get the hell out of the way” or ”what are you doing in here,” among other stronger worded instructions she thankfully did not understand. In the third row, she saw a familiar face. It wasn’t Joe, it was his friend Frank, the Italian-speaking soldier. What a break, she thought. I can talk to someone.
It dawned on her that Private Pellegrini may not be able to talk. His condition was unknown to her even at a few paces away. There was no one around his cot. She knelt in the grass and mud at his side and touched him to see if he was alert.
Pellegrini came out of a morphine-induced stupor and saw the pretty Italian village girl kneeling by his side. She had her head bowed in prayer, he thought.
He whispered, “Buon giorno, Rose.”
She looked up into the face of her lover’s best friend. He had gauze wrapped around his head, partially covering his left eye. The soaked through blood made a pattern like a squashed red spider. He was covered in caked on mud except for a fresh blanket that was wrapped around his midsection.
“Buon giorno, Frank,” she responded. “Is there anything I can do for you? Are you in pain?”
Frank said “No, I got some pain medicine when I got here.” He reached under the blanket wrapped around his torso. His hand came out bloody.
He gazed at her said “I’m sorry Rose. Please don’t be scared. “
She was terrified nonetheless. “Mio Dio! That looks terrible!”
“It’s OK. The doctor said it’s not life threatening.” Frank reassured her.
Before she could ask, Frank told her that Joe was with him in the same foxhole when a shell exploded just a few feet away.
“We were huddled together in a shallow muddy hole to protect us from a direct hit. Shells were falling everywhere. It was awful,” he said.
Rose covered her mouth and thought, oh no, what next?
Frank went on, “A shell struck on the side nearest to me. I was wounded with shrapnel that had lodged in the left side of my head and belly.”
Her eyes widened and pooled with tears. ”mio Joe?” was all she could utter.
Frank looked directly into those deep brown eyes and said, “He saved my life.”
He described what happened next: “He staunched my wound and sprinkled a field pack of sulfur on my side. Shells were exploding all around, and bullets whizzed by so close you could feel the wind as they passed. With no medics around, Joe dragged me through the mud to a pile of sandbags protecting some unfired shells. As we got closer, I heard Joe let out a grunt. He had been hit.
Rose gasped, “Dear no! Was it bad?” she had to know no matter how awful.
Frank continued, “Joe said it was nothing, but blood began to drip from his shoulder onto my jacket. He managed to pull me behind the sandbags. We sat there as Joe kept yelling for a medic, but none came. I was nearly passed out from pain.
Joe leaned over and whispered in my ear, “I’m going for help buddy. Don’t forget the canteen.”
Frank struggled to continue. Finally, he said, “I didn’t have the strength of body or mind to tell him that leaving the protection of the sand bags was suicide. That was the last time I saw Joe. I don’t remember anything after that, but someone got me here. That wouldn’t have happened without Joe.”
Rose was shocked and saddened deeply. She did not want to believe the story. She wanted Joe to remain with his friend behind the sandbags. He would stay, and the medics would come and take them both to safety. But that’s not what happened.
She asked Frank what he meant when he said, “Don’t forget the canteen.”
Not even knowing if Joe’s canteen was still there, he reached down with his bloody hand and found it still attached to his belt. He detached it and held it out to Rose.
“Joe told me to give this to you if…” he didn’t finish the sentence. He didn’t need to.
She took the familiar canteen, the same one issued to countless doughfoots. But this was Joe’s canteen, and she had already drunk from it. She recalled that first savored sip; a premonition of destiny with Joe. She shook it and heard the noise of the rolled-up note inside. She resisted the impulse to open the top. In a strange way, it would be admitting to herself what Frank couldn’t say just moments ago.
She stayed with Frank as he went in and out consciousness. With nothing more to learn, she kissed him on the forehead and got up to leave.
Reading her mind, Frank said softly, “Rose, please don’t open the canteen yet. Give it a few days. If I know that ‘Dumb Mick’ he will come to you if he can. Try to be patient and keep asking around about the 36th T-Patchers. They are proud, experienced, and strong. If any one group in the US Army could get through this, it would be my brothers in the 36th.”
He was nodding off as he said, “Farewell, Rose. Joe will come back. When he can.”
She kissed his forehead and said, “Dio ti benedica–God bless you,” and left the makeshift tent.
She heeded the advice of Frank Pellegrini. She placed the sealed canteen in the room she called home in a corner. It was posed like a decoration, the only such adornment in the decimated bakery. After a few days, she went to see Frank. He was gone as were most of the wounded. The stench of suffering remained. She had asked around and all she discovered was that the 36th T-Patchers had tried to get across the Rapido River twice and failed twice.
There was no more news after a week. It was time to open Joe’s canteen. She sat outside the bakery on the lone bench where she first saw him. She recalled how hopeless she felt. She had lost everything. She now fell back into that feeling of despair. Yet, this was different. In some way, she knew no matter what was in the canteen, she would be ok. Joe had given her hope again. She opened the canteen and the retrieved the note with a message in Italian.
When I called to you the other day and said, “Ti Amo, Rose!” I knew what it meant. I still do.
I will come back when I can. I promise.
All my love,
Five thousand miles away, a US Army Lieutenant knocked on the door of Mr. and Mrs. Maloney in Lufkin, Texas. When the door opened, Mrs. Maloney put her hands over her face and started sobbing uncontrollably. The Maloney’s were not the first family in Lufkin to get a visit from an Army Lieutenant in a dress uniform. Joe’s father appeared in the door and draped his arm around his wife. He nodded to the soldier and accepted the envelope. Knowing what was inside he ripped it open and read the telegram:
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Maloney,
On behalf of a grateful nation, I regretfully report that your son, Private First Class Joseph Sean Maloney, has been pronounced Missing in Action by the United States Army, for which he proudly served. There are no reports of his capture by the enemy nor any evidence of his death. The official Army status is termed “Presumed Killed in Action.” I personally deem his status as “Heaven-bound.”
Your son’s good friend, PFC Frank Pellegrini, was severely wounded in the fighting. He is recovering in a London hospital. He expressed his wishes to speak with you about Joe. He says your son saved his life. He was the last soldier to see Joe. I have enclosed instructions for contacting PFC Pellegrini at the expense of the U.S. Army.
I express my deepest condolences. I was proud to serve with your son, as were the rest of the T-Patchers
Major General Fred Livingood Walker
Commanding Officer 36th Infantry Division
United States Army
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