- From the book "In my father's foxholes and footsteps"
- The arrival in Italy and the transfer to the Apennines
- The attack on Mt Belvedere
- The defence of Mt Belvedere
- Il Malandrone, Cimon della Piella and Pietracolora
- The conquest of Castel d'Aiano and Mt della Spe
- The Spring Offensive
- Tolè towards Monte Pastore
- The conquest and crossing Savigno
- Fly down into the Po Valley
- Crossing the Po river
- The end of the war in Italy
- Return back to America and to the family
- All Pages
My name is Cruz Rios. I was born on December 15, 1918, in Colton, California. Since 1945 I have been to Italy six times, the first being the most memorable. In January 1945 I was a member of the 87th Regiment, 10th Mountain Division.
We were sent to Italy to help stop and put an end to the tyranny and destruction caused by the German Army.
This is my story as told to my son Val and now for those interested in understanding.
In late June 1944 the 10th Division was transferred from Camp Hale in Colorado to Camp Swift, Texas for further training. In November of 1944 a new commanding general was assigned to our division, General George Hayes. We had already heard of him and of his determination. We also knew he won the Congressional Medal of Honor during the First World War. Finally, a general who will bring us to the battlefield! Not knowing our destination, thinking it would be somewhere in Europe where the general had recently been, we started preparing and talking about what laid ahead.
It was before Christmas that we were given a pass to go home. It was then when I told my family that soon we’d be leaving for somewhere overseas and may not see them for a long time.
We kept training right up until Christmas when we were given our order to pack and load up our things. We loaded up our gear and got onto trains heading south to Norfolk, Virginia. Norfolk is a port where we stayed for about two or three days. I was hoping I could get a pass so I could go to Washington, DC because it was so close. But no way, we were not allowed out of the camp, nor were we allowed to tell anyone to which division or troop we belonged. We boarded a ship, the USS West Point, originally known as the USS America, one of the fastest ships afloat at that time. During the war it was painted with war colors and renamed USS West Point. Two of the regiments boarded this ship. I was with the 87th Regiment and the other, I think, was the 85th. After a few days at sea we learned of our destination: Italy. That’s when they tell you! When you’re alone with your fellow mates and know that you can’t communicate with anyone else.
One thing that I remember about the trip over, it was pizza. It was the first time I tasted it. When they asked me “Do you want to eat some pizza?” Although I didn’t even know what it was I said, “Yes!” And even to this day I still go crazy over it. The ship was crowded with so many of us, one stacked up over the other. We spent our time either reading, playing dice, cards or looking out and talking
During our journey we met some fellows, one of which I remember especially. I can still remember his name; Louie Ordaz and I think he was from Hanford or Tulare. One evening on the ship we were talking, it was about six or seven. At one point he said, “You know Cruz, I got the feeling, how can I say this, that I won’t make it, that I’ll never return home”. I was convinced that I’d make it but at the same time I was prepared for the possibility of never returning. I thought, “Yes, I’ll make it” but yet you can’t be sure that you really will. However you just say, “Yes I’ll make it”. But in the back of your mind you know that anything can happen. So I said “I’ll come back”. And I told Louie, “We’ll be okay Louie”. We were in the same regiment and Battalion, but belonged to two different companies and being among so many men us never saw each other again. Later on I learned that he had been killed during the first assault on Mt. Belvedere by German artillery. Louie was killed in Italy but I don’t think he was buried there but rather back in his homeland. When I later returned to Italy with the survivors of the division, I searched in vain for his name but I couldn’t find him, he was not there. Many of our fallen were sent back home, so maybe he’s buried in Hanford or Tulare, in any case not here. One is constantly making new friends and when young, one justifiably thinks, “It’s not my turn”. When one loses a friend he may feel sorry or maybe even feel slightly indifferent. But now it’s not like before, now I feel different. Now I think of how many young lives were lost.
Our sea voyage lasted nine days and landed in Naples on January 13. I can still see the Rock of Gibraltar in the horizon, on one side was Africa and the other, Spain. A few days later we passed the Island of Capri: even from a distance it was an emotional sight. We finally landed in Naples. It was a beautiful blue bay and you could see the volcano, Mt. Vesuvio, from a far. I used to read about the Roman Empire and of Mt. Vesuvio eruption before the birth of Christ.
We docked at the port of Naples where a train was already waiting for us: we got off the ship and we marched directly onto the four-wheeled boxcars and that same night proceeded north. The journey lasted about two days. I remember wondering how we would defend ourselves against the German planes that would be strafing us; however, we had pretty good control of the air being that there were few German airplanes left. I don’t remember exactly how many of us were in a boxcar because I was attracted to the landscape. I saw land devastated by the bombings, especially to the surrounding railroad and yard. The south was battle stage prior to our arrival. We made a stop in Rome for only an hour and then kept going. I saved the picture, taken at the train station in Rome. I don’t remember if it was a photo taken in that month but nevertheless it is a photo of Rome.
One thing still remains vivid in my mind that at every stop made, we would find ourselves encircled by many children coming up to us asking for food or whatever else we could give them. We all felt for them and gave whatever we could. It was mostly food to ease the hunger that those children must have felt from lack of it at home. We felt sorry for them and each one of us gave what we could although we didn’t have much really to give.
We arrived in the city of Livorno where we got off the trains and were taken by truck to a waiting area near Pisa. We were told that it was known as the antique hunting grounds of the King. It was January and the land was covered with snow. We pitched our tents there and slept. We stayed there a few days training and marching. Around the middle of January we were transferred to the “Quiet Sector” near Villa Colli and thereafter to San Marcello near Pistoia were waiting to be transferred to the frontlines for the Belvedere offensive.
Val: “Were you able to speak with any of the inhabitants?”
No, no way. We didn’t have a chance, we only marched and we were given orders not to reveal who we were. We didn’t know how, but the Germans already knew.
Val: “What type of transportation was used?”
Army trucks. It’s onlylater at night where we would go by foot along the frontline so as not to been seen by German watchmen. Daytime was too risky to do so.
We reached the frontline of Mt. Belvedere by the end of January during which the first few weeks were really uneventful. Some of those days were just patrols. We were inspecting the lines and the Germans would be doing the same. Every so often shooting would break out. Patrols consisting of ten men would be sent out to search the Germans and study their next move. I think the patrolling served two purposes, to keep both sides on alert.
Val: “What was your role, what was your assignment in K Company?”
I have to go back to when I first entered K Company. Around the middle of June 1943, after completing basic training at Camp Roberts, the 87th Regiment was sent to Fort Ord where we remained for 2 weeks. At that time we didn’t know for what reasons. In the Army you don’t know where you’re going to be sent to until you get there. I remember one day they asked me “Where would you like to go. Don’t tell me with which company, but tell me if you would like to be a rifleman, an artillery man, or rather a gunner in the weapons platoon?” So I said, “Well then, I’ll think I would like to go with the artillery”. So, I ended up with the mortar group because I had used mortars in training and was already familiar with them. I also had extensive training with machine guns and but not having many other choices I ended up in K Company. So that’s how I joined K Company, 87th Regiment, which by the way, was mostly composed of volunteers and as far as I was concerned, were well educated. Most of them came from Ivy League schools. Some were from the eastern part of the country, few from the west, but most were from the eastern part of the States. At that time I asked myself, “What was I doing here” .I mean, those guys had similar backgrounds, and even when asked to this day how I ended up in the 87th Regiment I respond, they probably just needed men.
Val: “What type of personal equipment did you carry? “
Usually a backpack where you carried your food, a little bit of K food rations, as they were known as, which was enough for one meal. It contained chocolate, a bit of crackers and a some of spam. Oh how we grew so tired of spam! We also had a light blanket, a small tent, and on your belt, a small pick, a little shovel and a canteen. On top of all this we carried a rifle, or a piece of mortar or whatever equipment you were using. I usually either carried the base of the mortar or the tube itself. Sometimes, in some places, I was given a small carabin. It’s called carabin because it’s smaller than a regular infantry rifle. It’s not good for use in battles but rather for defending oneself. Normally I carried a pistol with which you probably couldn’t even kill a bird with, but I carried it with me throughout my tour in Italy. That’s what we carried in our backpacks for our overnight stays. Sometimes, I can’t remember exactly anymore, we would add some other things of minor importance. At times we even had a change of socks, extremely important especially if you perspired too much you needed to change your socks.
The plan of attack at Mt. Belvedere was communicated just a few days before. The information was first given to the Officers then to the Sergeants. According to the plans, on the night of February 18, 1945, Riva Ridge, which was to our left, was to be taken. The plan was to eliminate the German observation deck located there so that those scheduled to arrive the next day or next evening would be free from German artillery fire. The assault by the 86th Battalion was successful. On February 19, the 85th Regiment was in the center of a scrimmage, under the slope on Mt. Belvedere, while the other two Battalions of the 86th Regiment were to the far right. I was in the 3rd Battalion of the 87th . We had arrived at Vindication and Lozano, around 7 pm, to rest for the evening. We had arrived shortly after the other two Battalions had departed; they were on their way to attack the German lines at Mt. Belvedere. This was during the night of February 19-20, 1945. I will always remember that name, Vidiciatico, it is there we heard fighting throughout the night. The line of departure was to be near a small village called Querciola.
When you cross the line of departure time stops, you know. I remember that night; we were told at 11 pm that the 86th Regiment took control of Riva Ridge. Of course we were all very happy that they didn’t suffer as many casualties as expected. It was a surprise attack for the Germans they were probably asleep. I imagine they never expected a night attack; a morning attack after artillery preparation was the usual thing to do. I can look back now and understand why a night attack was better. It would have cost us many lives if it had happened during the day.
On the departure line of Querciola, the two 87th Battalions were to attack Corona. One was to go left and down towards the villages of Polla and RoccaCornetta. The other Battalion, after passing Corona, was to climb to the west side to the summit of Mt. Belvedere. This was also the objective of 85th Regiment who were to the right of us. Both regiments encountered heavy artillery fire. There were many casualties due to mines and traps left behind. It was thought that the road had been cleared, but it wasn’t until the following day when tanks and trucks start blowing up we realized it wasn’t. In any case the war went on and we took the mountain. The next morning Mt. Belvedere, Corona and all the surrounding areas had been seized. The 3rd Battalion was now in reserve in Vidiciatico.
On January 19, around noontime, we were told that we were going to relieve the troops at Corona. I think it was B Company that had taken Corona but then they had left and gone up Mt. Belvedere. There were still a few German snipers left at Corona that needed to be eliminated. It was about 2 pm when we left for Corona. We were met with a lot shelling, many of which were close hits. Once we arrived at Corona we took our positions. Later on that afternoon we set up our mortars. For a long time it was quite. Our company was spread throughout foxholes down the left side of Corona. During this time we wanted to secure the tanks and other heavy equipment because we expected a counterattack the following morning.
Usually two men were stationed in a foxhole, one would stay awake while the other, if at all possible, would try to take nap. I don’t think any of us slept that first night. That night we were three in a foxhole, one of the fellows was married with two children; he was from the mountains of Tennessee or thereabout. I remember when the German artillery began to fire and the shells fell down all around us, oh my, how he would begin to tremble he wouldn’t stop. He couldn’t control himself making me very nervous. I would have rather preferred another fellow who also an assistant gunner, like Coleman who was from Iowa. To this day I still call him my “foxhole buddy” because we fought the entire war together, from Kiska to Italy. He was perfect, not married and could deal with it.Going back a little bit, I remember when we arrived at Pisa. One of the fellows had to be evacuated and taken out and brought back to the United States because of his insomnia. He broke down and was discharged.
In any case we all suffered from insomnia. Sometimes, just thinking about the war itself could have killed you more so than the actual fighting. We all tried to find ways to get to sleep that night but it was of no use. The following morning we were expecting a German counterattack along the front line, towards the top and along the ridges of Mt. Belvedere. Our defense was held by machine guns, mortars, and well-supplied soldiers.
That night, February 20, Colonel David Fowler, the commander of the 87th Regiment gave orders to make sure that everything was all right or “buttoned up” as in his words. We needed to be ready for a counterattack the following day. The Major of our Battalion gave the orders to check everything throughout the 3rd Battalion. Previously, orders were give to kill and shoot everything that moved. So he was shot and killed by our own troops. A Major, yeah.
At Corona, I set up the mortar in a fairly large foxhole. We also had enough room for the gunner, Fred Palmer who was from Maine. I loaded the shell and he would aim the gun. He awaited his orders, via telephone, from the Sergeant who would be stationed just a few yards ahead overseeing the action. The Sergeant would communicate to Fred the distance and then we would fire a round to see where it would hit. The Sergeant would then tell us if it was too far out or too short, too left or too right. If the fire was too short you’d end up killing your own men. We wanted to secure the surrounding grounds that were not visible from our machine gun fire. Fred regulated the mortar and then we would fire another round to see where it would hit. If it was okay we would “Let go”. We tried to find a good position for the mortar from the start so we wouldn’t have to move it too far back or too far sideways. The mortar is really a simple gun. All it is really, is a tube with a pin on the bottom, you put the mortar shell in and it comes out popping.
Now I will tell you how I felt during my first Germans counterattack. I was brought up to respect life. But once enrolled in the service and was given a rifle with a bayonet, I had made up my mind to do my best to defend myself. I said to myself “either him or me”. That’s the way I felt. So, I didn’t have any scruples at anytime. Killing someone in cold blood is one thing, but when you find yourself in combat it’s a different story. You are there to do your duty. Whether you’re afraid or not, you do it. The moment prior to the attack is difficult to face because you begin to start thinking “ if you’ll make it or not”. Once you’re in it you just go ahead do your duty and forget about it. You do your job as a soldier while at the same time defending yourself if you have to. I think all soldiers feel that way. I don’t think any of them do it out of hatred but out of duty. I placed all of those thought in the back of my mind, I didn’t even think about it. I guess each one of us react differently but that’s how I felt.
The German counterattacks didn’t last very long. Sometimes an entire company would come or a company with about twenty men while at other times a squad of nine. The poor Germans didn’t have a chance. I’m telling you, sometimes when I look back, they really didn’t have a chance with all of us firing away. But it was the same for us when we were going in. Our morale was high, while, I think, the Germans’ was low. Despite it they did their job. Their equipment was magnificent. Sometimes I think they had better equipment than us. The Germans were extremely motivated and that’s why they were dangerous, very dangerous. So you just shoot at each other hoping for the best; some Germans got killed, some wounded.
Sometimes, when a German counterattack was over, we would go out there and look. It was heard from other companies, I’ve never seen it, that the Germans would put up a Red Cross flag and collected their fallen comrades, other times they would just stay let them stay out there to rot. But that’s the way it was. You have to control your feelings. We saw them and we would say, “Well, it was just his time”. Sure I felt sorry, but that’s all you can do. Almost certainly if we were to find ourselves in the same situation we would do the same. That’s what war is. Some of the rifle squads had some really bad experiences with Germans. The Germans would pretend to give themselves up, hands up and all, and then all of sudden, those in the front would throw themselves on the ground then those immediately behind, who held hidden machine guns, would open fire on our soldiers who were simply taking them prisoners. I think this happened more than once to different companies in our outfit. After that, they no longer wanted to take prisoners. Some men get very hard-boiled. Probably I think because they no longer have any conscience. They just killed, even when the others were surrendering. I read similar stories of Vietnam and now I can understand why. In the heat of battle you can’t think very well.
After three or four days in foxholes and after the German counterattacks ceased, the Brazilian Expedition Force (BEF) along with part of the 92nd Division, which was the black division, took over Corona. Some parts of our Battalion stayed on while other Battalions went back to Vidiciatico or Lizzano in Belvedere to rest up. I was at Vidiciatico to rest up and, you know, get clean. Once the line stabilized the fighting ceased. Of course there were always artillery shells coming over but it wasn’t as intense. We were given a rest. The entire division didn’t rest at the same time. It was only one regiment at a time. One regiment at a time would be taken out from the line and given a pass to either of the two rest areas nearby Montecatini or Lucca, from there we could go visit Pisa or Florence.
Val: “What did you do between the first and second offensive?”
There wasn’t too much time between the first and second offensives. It was only about a week. After taking Mt. Belvedere, we would go back to camp, get some rest and get ready for the second offensive, which was to begin in March. I asked myself why didn’t go ahead. We had broken through the German lines and were given them time to set up their defensive lines. I guess that’s the way it works in the Army. The likely reason for this was so that we could prepare for the spring offensive, which took place in April.
It was either on the 2nd or 3rd ofMarch, I think it was the 2nd,when we started the second offensive. The second offensive was the primary destination and the most important mission of the division. While on Mt. Belvedere we were on reserve, this time we were selected to be the first ones to attack. The objective was to free up the surrounding areas on the other side of Belvedere to Malandrone and Cimon della Piella between Mt. Terminale, Iola di Montese area right up toPietracolora. That whole area became the front line after the summit Mt. Belvedere was occupied by our troops. And once again our Battalion was selected to be the first to jump off. The 85th Regiment was to the left of us; the 86th to our right while in the center the 87th would clear the area. There was a small road on the right side of Mt. Belvedere, in a small valley, if you could call it that. They told us that Malandrone was a “little gulch”, where at the bottom ran a little river. Realistically it was more like a gulch with a small torrent. The bridge over the gulch had been destroyed and the tanks weren’t able to go across. The engineers were trying to rebuild the bridge but the Germans kept bringing it down with artillery fire. That night we stopped there.
The Brazilians were also there; I remember that night, they must have been really happy because they were making all kinds of noise. I thought these guys are sure not well trained. It was as though they were there going from one party to another party, Clanging, all kinds of noise. The Germans would surely hear this outfit sooner or later. We, on the other hand, were very quiet. It was eerie because it was dusk and getting dark and I could see the outline of all the artillery that we had. Oh my, just look at this! Everything was ready for the battle. The plan for battle was for the 3rd Battalion to seize position and then the other two Battalions were to go through us and attack. But for one reason or another it didn’t work that way. They delayed the attack for three days. And in those days we took a beating, a real beating. The German artillery shot continuously at us each day for the next three days. The shooting was really intense and we lost quite a few men there. I feel sorry for those who had to go out to patrol the front or send messages. Some of us were forced to abandon our foxholes in order to avoid direct artillery hits and mortar shells that flew over us. It was hell for the men of the 3rd Battalion, a real and true hell. I don’t know how many fellows were killed or wounded.
That area was made up of hills and mountains, some low hills and other were slightly higher. If you knew how Italy was back then, the homes were made out of rock and gypsum…they were like small fortresses. The Germans usually placed themselves behind or inside these houses and when we would attack we would be confronted with heavy defense fire. We’d ask for artillery support but sometimes it was useless. We would have to go out there with machine guns, rifles, take the people out or get rid of them, kill them. So anyway, there we were, held back due to the defense fire from the enemy.
We set up our machine guns and mortars under a small ridge on the right side of Malandrone. Prior to setting up our sergeant told us “You and Fred better separate because something could happen and my two gunners will be gone”. That was the right decision. Fred was the senior gunner because he had been in the service longer than me. I had met him at Fort Ord. In Fred’s foxhole there was another gunner who was a Polack. He was a very nice fellow and became the one who loaded the shells into the mortar. The Germans started shelling us, one of the mortars landed really close by and the both of them folded up. Fred was killed and the other one, Pinkie, was badly wounded. The Sergeant of the mortar crew was also wounded. Later on, I found out that Pinkie was sent to the hospital and he didn’t come back until the war was over. So I became sergeant, in name only, I didn’t have any stripes or anything like that; I just led the squad until the end of the war. A few yards from me there was a house, how many yards could that have been? 15, surely less than 20 yards. Let’s say 10, 15 yards. The German artillery continued to fire. If any piece of shelling were to hit you or come close to you it would kill or seriously wound you. A piece of shrapnel comes with a lot of force behind it. Another fellow nearby was also hit. I remember that only because of the pictures I have, otherwise, I would have probably forgotten all about him. Later on a tank finally moved up towards the blockhouse started firing and eliminated it. And so having the upper hand we moved from Malandrone towards east because there were some areas to the right side that hadn’t yet been cleared. The 85th Regiment was to our right side and we were supposed to seize one mountain, directly in front of us, … Cimon della Piella and after that, other mountains…the names of which I don’t remember.
The next objective was to seize Pietracolora. After taking the town we turned left towards Mt. della Croce. Mt. Della Croce and my name Cruz both mean cross. But as usually nothing goes according to plans. The 85th Regiment was to the right of us while the 86th was to our left. The 1st Battalion of our Regiment went through us and led the attack towards Castel d’ Aiano to Mt. della Spe. This attack was a way to create a salient into the German front line. Having led the frontline in the previous attack we now found ourselves on reserve. At this time other Battalions were fighting so we in turn hardly fought.
The hill town of Castel d’Aiano was taken during the second and third offensives. I remained for three or four days at which was part of the front lines, just guarding for Germans coming through. I remember those days well. I had a postcard of Castel d’Aiano; I wished I had saved it, oh what a nice small beautiful town it was before it was demolished. Not much was left standing of the church or its bell tower; it was just a mess. Casteld’Aiano had taken a pounding, not only from American artillery but from German artillery too.
In front of Castel d’Aiano and to the right, there was Mt. della Spe and beyond that a small valley beneath the small town of Roffeno. It wasn’t really a valley but rather small and straight area surrounded by mountains …one mountain after another running eastwardly. The 10th Mountain Division was to attack the mountain on the other side, on the left of the valley. The 1st Armored Division found themselves to the far right of us and they were to take control of Route 64, which was the main roadway in the area. The 85th Regiment was to our left and to the near right was the 86th Regiment. The offensive was to start on April 12, but for some reason or another they kept delaying it. On April 13, if I recall correctly, the death of Franklin Roosevelt was announced. At that moment nothing really mattered to us because we weren’t even sure if we would be living the next day.
The offensive commenced on April 14, with aircraft bombardment of about 45 minutes followed by another 25 minutes of artillery so as to weaken the German defense line. But as we found out later, it hardly weakened them up at all. The 1st and 2nd Battalion of the 87th Regiment was to start the offensive, specifically the first one. The 1st Battalion mission was to seize Hill 860 and 903; the latter was the higher of the mountains, which overlooked the small town of Torre Iussi. B Company of the 1st Battalion commenced the attack towards Hill 860. A Company was supposed immediately attack Hill 903. They encountered a lot of resistance. We were still in reserve and heard artillery fire falling around us. Looking outside our foxholes at Mt dellaSpeand Mt Sinistro, in front of Castel d’Aiano, we saw that the Germans weren’t giving up and retreating from their positions. They then came out of their bunkers and began to retreat pushed back by the Companies. B Company was on the top left side, while A Company was to the right. One covering the other, between them meeting a lot of resistance causing a lot of casualties, there were dead all along the valley. So we were the third and we were in reserve. I later found out that General Hays had only used the 3rd Battalion to help out the other two Battalions if they would have had problems. Around noon A Company of the 1st Battalion took control of Hill 903. But there were still many ridges to take control of. Further up, the ridge of Le Coste was to be taken by the second Battalion. On the far right of Le Coste ridge after Mt. Croce, overlooking Tolè, and Mt. Mosca there was Route 64. Once Mt Croce was taken, our orders were to take position on the front line. We began our descent from Mt. della Spe to cross over the valley to Roffeno. Passing alongside Hill 903 we saw many dead, it was a real massacre. We were able to cross the valley but were always under German artillery fire. There was destruction all over the place. I was running through the valley when I saw a body of a fellow I knew. He was seriously wounded. He was yelling desperately for water. I wanted to stop and give him some from my canteen when the Sergeant told me “No Cruz, don’t stop. Somebody will take care of him. You have to keep going.” I felt kind of bad for not giving him water. I’ll remember for the rest of my life, that I couldn’t help him.
Even now, when re-living that moment, I know why I couldn’t stop. If I would have stopped to help all the wounded on the ground, those wounded would have increased quickly, more of us would have been most likely hit by the artillery fire instead of just the one. There were still snipers around so we had to keep on going.
On the April 15 our aim was Mt. Croce. As we were moving along we went into a draw because of the heavy artillery started coming down and some more fellows were wounded. Up to this day I still can’t understand why I was so fortunate why I didn’t even get a scratch. Once we finished being in a draw we went towards Mt. Croce, machine guns opened fire and some more of our fellows got killed. It was around 4 pm when we started the climb up to Mt Croce.
I knew some of those fellows well. Sergeant John Marone was the name of the one who lay there dying, the one I wanted to give water to. The others killed were Sgt Schroeder and Lt Robert Barr. I remember Lt Barr he was a young man. Most of the lieutenants were college educated young men; some of them made lieutenants while still in college. Carl Ugenon, Gerold Atkins and Marvin Lusk, I knew them as well and they too were killed by German machine gun fire.
Machine gun fire was usually used to cover the areas that were in clear view and mortars were used to cover the areas that didn’t. Every night was the same drill, we positioned all our equipment because we never knew if there would be a counterattack or not. So we remained there and began to organize our equipment when some more artillery fire hit us and shortly there after, several counterattacks by the Germans. Two more of our men were wounded, luckily, at that time no one was killed but more were wounded at Mt Croce. I call it Mt. Croce and then I think “Oh, Mt Cruz “. We stayed overnight on Mt Core on April 15. The following morning we proceeded towards our next objective: the small village of Madonna di Rodiano with K Company on the left and L Company on the right. As soon as we left we encountered another German counterattack, which caused everyone to split up and take cover. I mention this because that is how I got to know Sgt. Ranta. Ranta was Norwegian name. There were many Norwegian and Swedish boys in this outfit. The Sergeant was with the 2nd Platoon of L Company. They had gone ahead while the other companies stayed behind because of the split caused by the German counterattack. Anyway, we were able to into Madonna di Rodiano were 67 Germans and 6 of their wounded surrendered. Madonna di Rodian was a first aid station and a supply depot used by the Germans. Luckily we didn’t lose any men there. Thatwas on April 16.
Then we turned back. According to plans we were supposed to go farther east toward Mt. Mosca, near Route 64. Once we arrived we found out that the infantry from the 1st Armored Division were already there. So we turned around and went back to Rodiano to sleep for the night.
As I recall that night, I can remember Torble Ranta who was a sergeant of one of the platoons. He had distinguished himself during an attack at Mt. Belvedere and also in second offensive which made him a Lieutenant in the field. In fact there were two soldiers made Lieutenant in the field at that time. Realistically more than that but they were killed in action. The more fortunate one was Lt. Ranta because he survived and led the second platoon into Madonna Rodiano. He entered into the village and began to holler to see if there were any more Germans or prisoners to capture. Anyone who stood up and went towards a place not yet under control usually meant he was taking his life into his own hands: one could leave with a bunch of prisoners or end up going towards a burst of machine gun fire or rifle fire. So you would have to give a man like that a lot of credit, to go into a building and leave with German prisoners and six wounded. He distinguished himself again in later action. I never knew what became of him or heard of him again and I don’t think he had ever been to any of the veteran reunions. I remember those fellows because they were so nice. I especially remember some would hide their bars because they wanted to mix in with the regular troops. They aren’t supposed to joke around; they are only supposed to give orders. You admire people like that …at least I do.
On the April 17 we were given the task of clearing Le Costa ridge. We turned back towards the ridge, which had already been seized by the 2nd Battalion, but there still could have been remaining German resistance. We wanted to move as far and fast as we could. A lot of the ridges and areas nearby were still not cleared or cleaned. There still could have been some snipers or some German machine guns, like those that wounded, and then killed, Sgt Marone, the one that I wanted to give water.
The following day we proceeded west on the ridge along the road to Savigno where we arrived about 11 am. Usually a scouting party would be sent out first to check out if the enemy occupied the area. Yeah, they’d receive rifle and machine gun fire. We threw ourselves down towards our right into the left bank of the river. Shortly thereafter, some tanks showed up so we left it up to them. We withdrew to another small village and stayed there overnight.
Our mission on April 19 was to take control of Il Poggio. There was a spot on the ridge were a scout and also a sergeant were sent. I remember the Sergeant very well; his name was Andrew Battiloro and was from New York. He was a happy go lucky kind of fellow and a bit on the heavy side. He was the lead scout. It took a long while for them to get there because of the rough terrain. We were able to see him through the binoculars, we saw him fall and roll down a steep incline when the Germans opened fire. A German medic came out with a flag to hold fire so that he could give him first aid, risking his own life. He disappeared into the ravine and then came up empty handed. I guess that Andrew was killed. I remember him very well. I think it was three men that went up there to tell us where the Germans were positioned. On the way back they were hit by German artillery. After the area was cleared K Company was able to advance farther up. After the village was secured two more men were found in the ravine. Another two were lost, Steve Tobias and Jilka the Pollack. Jilka and I were very good friends, if I remember correctly he was a Pollack. They were both found dead and we didn’t know it at the time. A lot of the men were hit, but until the area was under control we did not really know of our exact loss. They lost their lives at Il Poggio. I would like to return to these places, Il Poggio, Rodiano and Monte Croce.
After leaving Poggio we went towards another small town. Sergeant Sullivan was left behind at Il Poggio with the machine guns. He was in charge of the whole weapons platoon, both mortars and machine guns. Later on I heard some more Germans attacked him. Evidently, the area was not completely cleared but we had gone on to the next village and left him there.
The German used this trick on several occasions; “prisoners” would come up waiving their flag and hands up. All of a sudden they would drop down and somebody behind them would open fire. This happened to one platoon, this was why we avoided capturing prisoners, it was too dangerous and we didn’t trust them at all. It’s all ugly, but that’s the way war is. Life becomes so cheap….real cheap.
So we went to the next town called C. Silvestri… were we encountered another German counterattack we responded by firing our mortars. Sgt. Dunbar was in charge of our platoon…of the mortar platoon. We had seen each other not so long ago at one of the veterans’ reunion in Colorado Springs. He has a business in Denver but I think he lives in Boulder. We agreed to meet again, but since then we never did. One day, if I get a chance to go to Denver I’ll see if I can drop by and visit.
At C. Silvestri, Sgt, Manchester was in charge of the platoon. He distinguished himself in a German counterattack and had seized the small village of C. Silvestri. I think he died some years ago. One of the fellows wrote to me and said we lost another man from K Company. We kept getting smaller. Also Sgt Ranta had also distinguished himself there. He had suffered two separate injuries during the seize of C. Silvestri. At which time he was promoted to Lieutenant. Wounded were taken to the hospital and usually never saw them again.
At C. Silvestri a hidden rifleman killed a sergeant. Sgt. Manchester, the one who I was at the veterans’ reunion, yelled in english to the German who in turn stopped running and that’s when Manchester shot and killed him. I went looking for some company picture to see if I could find Robert Manchester, he was a lanky young man with big mustache. He was a distinguished looking man.It was April 19 and we rested for one day.
Just before the Po Valley there is another small place, Madonna della Provvidenza where we found a German roadblock. We were going there and K Company once again was on the frontline. There was a machine gun and some tanks. The Germans opened fire and I lost another friend there. A few more of our men were killed there when the Germans came out.
I want to mention another man who was killed there; his name was John Camillo another New Yorker. There is a photo of him among the pictures I have. That German roadblock killed four of our fellows. Finally the other company, who was a few miles behind us in vicinity of the Po Valley, came to our aid. I can’t recall the name of the large roadway we crossed over but it’s the road that goes towards Bologna. I think that’s where we lost our last man. We later had more wounded but nobody was killed right.
We kept on going towards the Po River where we were to get to the bridge located in the small village of Bomborto and after that the village of Bastiglia. It was daytime; I remember that I was on bike and all the people would be coming out giving us wine, cheese, giving us all kinds of things. They were all so happy and smiling. I remember one night while marching, I saw a lot of fireflies all over the place, and I had never seen anything like this before. Then, one evening, a plane came and dropped a few bombs. Hearing this we spread out. We then arrived at another village where we heard all kinds of firing going on …fighting…fighting. We weren’t the frontline but somewhat back a bit. If we hadn’t looked at the clock and saw that it was 11pm I would have sworn that it was only 9 pm because it was dusk. We stayed overnight after the town had been seized. That was Bastiglia.
Six years ago, during a visit that was organized by veterans of the 10th Division, we made a bus stop at the bridge of Bomporto. We followed the same road that we took back then. While passing through each village I can remember seeing the long processions of men, one on each side of the road and about four or five feet apart. We finally arrived at the bridge of Bomborto in the evening.
On April 23 we grouped at S. Benedetto in view of the crossing of the Po River. That was our next mission, the Po River. I remember taking walks and bike riding. I distinctly remember leaving my bicycle at the edge of the river. I couldn’t take it with me across the Po River.
The 1st Battalion of 87th Regiment was given the task of crossing the Po River first. We crossed over it about noon. We were attacked by artillery fire…it was more like flack fire, anti-aircraft fire. Despite this we were able to cross over; the 2nd Battalion followed us, and soon there after the 3 rd Battalion. I remember being so helpless…feeling so helpless during the time in the boat, a little old boat crossing the Po River. I then noticed the presence of a small town towards the left of us where a motorcycle came out. It must have been a German observer; none of us were prepared to shoot. And I thought, oh my, he could have had a machine gun and could have really taken aim at us. We were now out in the open. Once on the other side of the river we were able to move quickly for approximately 25 miles. Now on the bus it’s quite an easy cross, but back then we were on foot and marching it.
I have to go back a little bit. After we broken the German defense line, General Hays formed a Task Force. It was the main Task Force and was to be ahead of the main Division. The Commander of the Task Force was General Duf. He was wounded at the Po River by one of our own men who ran over him. Colonel Darby replaced him. At the moment he took command, the 1st Battalion of the 87th Regiment was in the process of crossing the Po River. Meanwhile, we were in the vicinity of Verona. He arrived later in Verona and then went towards the direction of Lake Garda. The 3rd Battalion, ours, didn’t pass Verona but rather had cut across to Lake Garda. One of the other Battalions, after crossing Po River, arrived near Verona in trucks because together we were to get to Lake Garda as quickly as possible. After offloading the 1st Battalion at Bussolengo, the trucks went back for the 2nd Battalion. The two Battalions began to move towards Lake Garda. By that time there wasn’t much resistance by the Germans. We would come across a German truck but we would just bypass them.
K Company arrived at Lake Garda. That day we were in the front we were the spearhead. We arrived unopposed in the Town of Garda crossing over Lazise and Bardolino. If only it was always this uneventful. Up toward the north, where the higher mountains begin, we were told that would be running into German resistance. Sergeant Robert Manchester was leading the platoon, who, while ascending along Lake Garda, scrimmaged with the Germans. We had difficulties advancing because many of the bridges and tunnels were demolished. We arrived in Spiazzi, were we had quite a few casualties due to the blowing up of several of the German warehouses located there. Many of men of the 1st Battalion were killed here. You can say that that was the last firefight of the Italian Campaign for the 87th Regiment and for K Company. I think it was towards the end that the 86th Regiment bypassed Spiazzi and started fighting the Germans at Torbole. General Hays realistically didn’t want the regiments, who attacked Spiazzi and Torbole, to engage in battle but rather to have withdrawn. Unfortunately they were already in the midst of it and were no longer possible to withdraw.
Our Battalion was the last to arrive after the battle finished and still had to find some lodging. Later we found ourselves a mansion where we stayed and tried on some generals’ uniforms. We took some pictures of the boys in the caps and uniform, I think the majority of the uniforms were Italian. For us the war ended here.
A few days later, on May 2, the Germans had surrendered and after the official speech we were told that the 3rd Battalion was go to the city of Bolzano. Bolzano is located in the Alps. The Brenner Pass is just a few miles from the city and we were going there to settle disturbances between the populations there. I remember that well, because the whole Regiment went up in trucks from Trento. We were advancing between the German prisoners, who were on either side of us. We stayed there for about three or four days. The main intent, I guess, was to show force, calm the people and regain order. During the trip there were those who wanted the Italian flag to go up, others who wanted the German flag, while still other the Austrian flag. In the end the our Battalion commander, who is now 80 years old and still alive, said “No, the only flag that’s going to go up is the American flag”. They were really beautiful places, we didn’t stay there too long at Solda, and we left after three or four days. We turned back south of Lake Garda to a small town. I can’t recall the name of it and we stayed there for several days. In those towns I saw a lot of piles of rifles where I took one and sent back home. Got myself a pistol, a little Beretta. I also took another pistol but gave it away, I think. I’ll tell you why I think I gave it away. I had a pistol, a very big one at that, but was always afraid of firearms in a way. I always kept them without ammunition. A fellow had similar one and handed it to me. I pointed it in the air and pulled the trigger. Bang…Oh my…it was loaded. It really scared me. I could have killed somebody if I hadn’t pointed it up. Some people like to keep their weapons loaded; I don’t know why I pulled it. I just wanted to check it and here it goes off. That had really scared me.
We didn’t stay very long on south of Lake Garda. On May 19 the 10th Mountain Division was sent farther east near the Yugoslavian border, in the vicinity of Tarcento where we camped for about a month. I can still remember the valley in the midst of the beautiful mountains. There we began our drill orders mostly to show force because Tito’s men wanted the land that belonged to the Italians, particularly, Trieste. Trieste is similar to San Francisco. It is located at the end of the Adriatic Sea. They wanted to advance but at the same time were intimidated by our advances so they didn’t attack, after awhile the situation calmed down.
I remember going to Trieste with a fellow, who I can’t remember his name. We boarded a streetcar; we wanted to see where it would take us. We ended up at the port, came back and returned to camp.
While in the Tarcento area we were giving passes. There were only small village there to see and I wanted to go to Rome. There were only a few passes to Rome. So I tell them I wanted to go to Rome. I didn’t know how many, if any were left. Turns out they were all taken. So I asked where else could I go, they responded Venice. Okay then I’ll go to Venice. I got a pass for week stay in Venice. Then I realized, oh my, I don’t have any money on me. Now how am I going to go to Venice? I had a lot of cigarettes and three dollars. I saw some fellows playing craps and dice. I had never played craps or dice before in my life. So I started to bet, made 25 or 30 dollars and went to Venice.
The main part of Venice is located in the bay. On the outer part of the bay is next to the open sea. There are many nice hotels for tourists, so we stayed in one of those places. I’d always been curious about the English and why they placed their forks on the left side. I walked around and ate with the English, because the 8th Army, which was primarily made up of English, was stationed in that area. I took long bike rides there. Then I went back to my post.
On the 4th of July we were posted in Robic. We thought we were going to stay awhile being that we were one of the last divisions in Italy. But instead, by the middle of July, we received orders to return to the United States. The only reason why we were to return to the United States so soon was because we needed to go to the Pacific. Japan was still at war. On July 17 we left Caporetto to Udine on truck and to Florence by train were we stayed for about 10-15 days. On July 28 we boarded four-wheeled boxcars going to Naples were we boarded ship and headed back to the United States.
The war ended after the Germans surrendered. I came across a young German; he must have been 18 years old, a young man, who spoke english well. He said, “ We would have beaten you if only we had more men”. They were still quite defiant, especially the young ones. I think I saw him near Lake Garda. Yeah, he was still defiant.
We landed in Virginia, Newport News. Prior to landing, I remember we were given food and new uniforms so to look good for the crowd. Just a few days before, we looked as though we were ”killed in the coal “. German prisoners were serving in the cafeteria. We boarded trains and passed three days in Norfolk. Before arriving we heard over the loudspeaker that Hiroshima had been bombed, an Atomic bomb. I didn’t know exactly what an atomic bomb was until they told us about the vast destruction it caused. We were hoping that the war in the Pacific would be over soon. We also heard that the Russians had entered the war against the Japanese. An accord was made between Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin that as soon as the war was over in Europe they would enter the war in the Pacific.
I was someplace in Ohio, on a troop train, being transported to the west when we heard the war was over. You could see people out in the streets happy and just yelling “ The war was over”. We were supposed to stay here for three or four weeks and then report back to Camp Carson, Colorado where the Division was to unite. But they said no, take a few more days extra and wait for another telegram. Well, the second telegram was really for me to report to Ft. McArthur for my discharge. It seems strange that you can get used to war, it’s exciting, but not while in combat. You get scared because it’s hard to re-adjust back to peacetime from war. I felt nervous, I felt, wanted to keep going. It seems as though I wasn’t happy.
I started working in a packinghouse when I got back home. One day a big box fell down and I threw myself on the floor. The reaction…you know was instinctive. I thought that I’m not quite well. That’s why when I hear about some of these fellows that have problems after being in combat, well, I know what it is like. Yeah, it was quite an experience. The war was over and I never saw any of the fellows again. I would have liked to go back in time, probably the same for the majority, just to see some of the fellows and say goodbye, but we knew it could never happen. In the end the majority of us probably wanted to no longer remember.
I remember places like Lizzano in Belvedere. I remember these villages being old fashioned. The latrines were outside where everybody passing by could see you doing your business. Italy is different but the people are like that, I don’t know how to explain it, they are so kind. Like I was telling some of these Italian fellows, I had fallen in love with Italy years ago, especially while crossing through those villages in the Po Valley and traveling up in the mountains, where you can find small shrines here and there. One of the fellows remarked, ”Those people are so bizarre”. I thought to myself ”Oh my.. aren’t we are the uncultured ones ”. So I tell this fellow that I’ve always liked art and history, and that's what I love about Italy. They have so much. We’re so modern in so many things yet in some other areas so far behind.
I think being a soldier and being in combat makes you think differently. I hated war. I hated it, yet it was exciting at the same time. For years I couldn’t go to bed before midnight. I always wanted to know what was happening. I was afraid something would happen, especially during the war when I was asleep. So I could never get to sleep before midnight and sometimes not even till one in the morning. Up to a few years ago I would stay up watching TV until late because I always felt a lot was going on in the world and that something was going to happen. That’s me…all of us are different. I’ve always been interested in World Affairs. It seems like world affairs interest me more than local affairs.
You see, during the war things were constantly changing from one day to the next. We were coming back from the Aleutian Islands while the episode at Tarawa was happening just before we went overseas we were sent overseas. In fact, if we would have left just a couple of months before, we probably would have been redirected Europe to Battle of the Bulge. Because the 10th was a winter division we could have been used there. But it didn’t happen that way; The Battle of the Bulge was fought during the winter. Yeah, we could have been used there.
Pfc. Cruz F. Rios
10th Mountain Division
87th Regiment, Company K
Vires Montesque Vincimus