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Lone Sentry: Unit History: 88th Infantry Division


[We Were There: From Gruber to the Brenner Pass]


The beginning of the new year saw old battles remembered -- and honored.

On the 17th of January, General Mark W. Clark, 15th Army Group Commander, and Lt. Gen. Lucian K. Truscott, Jr., Fifth Army Commander, visited the 88th in a rear rest area to present new honors.

Top award went to 2nd Lt. Charles W. Shea of The Bronx, N.Y., and the 350th, who was presented a Congressional Medal of Honor -- the first member of the Division to win such an award-for his performance in his first 40 minutes of combat action on Mt. Damiano in the first hours of the May 1944 offensive when he had personally knocked out three enemy machine guns, killed two Germans, wounded two more, and captured six.

For its four-day battle at Laiatico during the July push to the Arno River, the 3rd Battalion, 351st Infantry Regiment, was awarded a War Department Distinguished Unit Citation. A second Distinguished Unit Citation went to the 2nd Battalion, 350th Infantry Regiment, for its stand on Mt. Battaglia.

[Citation streamers from General Mark W. Clark, 15th Army Group Commander]
Citation streamers from General Mark W. Clark
15th Army Group Commander

To Maj. Erwin B. Jones, 350th; Tech Sgt. Manuel Mendoza, 350th, and Capt. John J. King, 349th, went Distinguished Service Crosses for their performance in combat during the drive through the Apennines.

On the 7th of February, Brig. Gen. Kendall pinned a second star to his collar upon notification of his promotion to Major General on the 4th of January.

New changes in command put Col. James C. Fry in as Assistant Division Commander upon the transfer of Brig. Gen. Sherman back to the 34th Division. Lt. Col. Avery M. Cochran replaced Colonel Fry as the 350th Regimental Commander. Col. Franklin P. Miller assumed command of the 351st when Colonel Champeny was ordered to the States for a new assignment.

Opening of a Division Rest Center, considered a model of its kind, afforded combat-weary "Blue Devils" a comfortable haven for rest and relaxation before returning to their duties with their units in the Winter Line.

On the 13th of February, General of the Army George C. Marshall visited the "Blue Devils." After lunch with Maj. Gen. Kendall and the official party at the forward CP, General Marshall reviewed the 2nd Battalion of the 350th, congratulating the men for the War Department Citation awarded previously.

Up in the line itself, doughboys bitterly wondered how the "experts" had managed to conclude that the entire German Army was in the process of withdrawing from Italy. There were patrol clashes, ambush raids, artillery fire -- all the usual dirty and unpleasant and dangerous incidents which made up the front line soldiers' daily routine. And plenty of Germans on the other side.

It could be called a "quiet war" -- there were many who compared it to the months of static warfare along the Garigliano front. Without head- lines or fanfare, men were wounded there, died there.

On its first battle anniversary, March 5, its rounding out of 12 months in combat, the 88th knew it no longer was a young division -- "a new outfit." Its men had long since forgotten that they had been called "draftees," had comprised the first all-Selective Service infantry division to go into combat on any front in this war.

During these past 2 months, the entire Division had piled up 280 days in combat with the artillery units chalking up 334 days. Individual honors won in this period included two Medals of Honor, one Distinguished Service Medal, 22 Distinguished Service Crosses, 50 Legions of Merit, 321 Silver Stars and clusters, 1,313 Bronze Stars and clusters, seven Soldier's Medals, and more than 12,000 Combat Infantryman Badges.

It had left its youth at Santa Maria Infante, Cianelli, Mt. Bracchi, Itri, Fondi, Rome, Laiatico, "Bloody Ridge," Volterra, San Miniato, Mt. Acuto, Gesso, Mt. Capello, Mt. Grande. Mt. Battaglia and a score of other mountains, towns and villages - on every crag and peak in its sector of the Apennines - had met and conquered more than 32 different battalions of the German Army in the pre-Bologna drive - had scrawled its cloverleaf across mile after mile of mud and blood and battle.

Overall casualty lists showed 11,285 names -- with 2,137 of these men killed in action, 8,248 wounded, 521 missing in action and 379 captured during the year. In return the "Blue Devils" bagged 5,745 prisoners and destroyed three German divisions, partially destroyed three more, and badly mauled three others.

It knew, as it held in the Winter Line, that its battle path still had many more miles to be trod -- that its "Blue Devils" still had more hells to go through on the long road home.

[Illustration: graves]


Spring came early to the Apennines, and with it came all the old familiar signs of another push, the one which had been promised at Yalta and which had been described as "the last big heave."

Pulled out early in March for special training and hardening, the 88th worked down to a fighter's edge. On the 31st, in a full division review at the Florence airport, the 88th demonstrated its readiness to the top commanders who came to see it perform. Immediately after the ceremony, the 88th was "blacked out" -- all identifying marks were painted off vehicles and equipment, insignia vanished from uniforms and units were shuttled and scattered the breadth of Italy.

By 11 April, the 88th once more was together as a unit and moved secretly into positions west of Highway 65. On the Eighth Army and IV Corps fronts, the drive already had begun but the "Blue Devils" still had a few days of grace left. The Division's first objective was the Monterumici Hill mass, the toughest nut in the entire Corps sector and the key to the entire enemy defense line before Bologna.

Its importance to the Germans was emphasized by Maj. Gen. Schricker, commander of the enemy 8th Mountain Division, who told his troops that "Monterumici at this time is the most vital sector of the entire division. I have no doubt that the enemy will make every effort to take possession of the Monterumici feature in order to obtain a basis for a large scale attack."

[Maj. Gen Paul W. Kendall briefs his unit commanders.]
Maj. Gen Paul W. Kendall briefs his unit commanders, Col. Percy E.
Le Stourgeon, 349th; Col. James C. Fry, 350th; and Col. F. P. Miller,
351st. Colonel Fry later was named Assistant Division Commander,
with Col. A. M. Cochran taking over the 350th.

Preceded by massive air and artillery bombardments, the 88th jumped off for Monterumici at 2230 hours, 15 April, spearheading the 1945 Spring offensive and the end of the Italian campaign with a drive which smashed the enemy from the Apennines to the Alpes.

The Krauts fought desperately to hold Monterumici. But there was no holding the "Blue Devils". With the 349th on the left and the 350th on the right, the doughboys inched forward despite some of the bitterest resistance ever encountered in the Italian campaign. The 349th took Furcoli -- a PW from the enemy 65th Division G-2 office later said that loss of this rubbled town marked the breakthrough, the doom of Bologna and the beginning of the end -- while the 350th swung wide to reach the crest of Monterumici and the for-ward slopes of Mt. Adone.

Sudden orders switched the 349th and 351st to the Highway 64 sector: the 350th was attached to the 91st Division and swung north and west to rejoin the rest of its parent unit as the 88th mopped up pockets of resistance, bypassed by flank units, and burst down out of the mountains to cut Highway 9 a few miles west of Bologna.

Into the Po Valley at last, after punching through half the mountains in Italy, the "Blue Devils" made good all advance notices as they ripped and tore through elements of 17 different German units falling back in confusion before the fury of the Yank attack. With the 351st "Spearhead" Regiment duplicating its role of the previous years drive through Rome, towns fell in quick succession to the 88th steamroller as it cut over to Highway 12 and pummeled the Krauts back to the Po River.

[Down out of the mountains]
Down out of the mountains

Making remarkably fast time, infantrymen trooped through San Giovanni, Crevalcore, San Felice-here capturing two bridges intact over the Panaro River -- Poggio Rusco, Villa Poma and Revere, the latter town on the south bank of the Po. Getting excellent assistance from armored units and close-support Allied planes, the 88th had bagged more than 15,000 prisoners -- more than 9,000 taken by the 349th alone -- by the time the river was reached.

Prize catch was Maj. Gen. Von Schellwitz, 305th Infantry Division commander, taken along with most of his headquarters staff by the 349th as it drove through Magnacavallo. His division all but wiped out, General Von Schellwitz paid the "Blue Devils" one of their brightest compliments when he told interrogators that "as soon as I saw where the 88th Division was being committed I realized where the main effort would be -- they have always spearheaded Fifth Army drives."

Discarding tactics and rule books, doughboys of the 88th swarmed across the Po River barrier in the face of machine gun and SP fire, by bridge, some swimming the stream, others crossing in amphibious assault craft. Ahead to the north lay the twin Army objectives of Verona and Vicenza.

Starting with the dawn from captured Ostiglia, the 3rd Battalion, 351st, made a record 35-mile march to Verona and entered the city shortly after dark after chopping through 1st and 4th Para Division strong points along Highway 12.

[Map: Into the Po Valley]
Into the Po Valley

Capture of Verona by the 88th split the German forces in the Po Valley and cut off the main escape route through the Brenner Pass. An officer PW of the 4th Para Division, amazed at the speed of the 88th's drive, said "I considered it absolutely impossible for you people to reach Verona in such a short space of time -- how do you do it?"

The footsore doughboys had no time to tell him, or to celebrate their achievement: the 88th swung east along Highway 11, a move that spelled disaster for the Krauts as the Yanks piled across the Adige River.

Something new was added to tactics in Italy when a "bicycle battalion" of the 350th Infantry -- the 2nd Battalion -- peddled from Nogara to San Martino to make the most novel "liberation" ever recorded in the Italian campaign. The novelty was short-lived however, for higher headquarters ordered the bikes returned and the doughboys were back in their element - picking 'em up and laying 'em down.

In a 24-hour dash along Highway 11, troops of the 1st Battalion, 350th, rode armor of the 752nd Tank Battalion and the 805th Tank Destroyer Battalion to take Vicenza, another Fifth Army objective and a key communications center. Bitter house-to-house fighting raged here before the city fell and this lightning move east trapped thousands of Germans from more than six divisions.

As had happened twice previously in the offensive, Maj. Gen. Kendall's forward CP convoyed into the city while a tank battle raged. Sniper fire continued for several hours and headquarters personnel helped round up the Kraut marksmen.

The "Blue Devils" swift dash from Verona to Vicenza knifed through the Adige Line on which the Germans had counted to delay Allied forces before the Alps. The 88th had moved so fast that the Krauts were unable to withdraw to their Adige Line positions and hundreds of emplacements -- with guns in place and pointed south -- were unoccupied and far to the rear of the spearheading 88th.

[Blue Devils storm Po River bridge]
"Blue Devils" storm Po River bridge

Artillery units of the Division were hard-pressed to keep pace with the rush of the infantry. The "redlegs" kept so far forward that the cannoneers were taking a good percentage of the PW's. At one point, the 337th Field captured the bulk of a German artillery battalion.

Surrender of entire enemy units to the "Blue Devils" was not uncommon. Among outfits taken intact were three German field hospitals, an ordnance dump, an engineer bridge dump, a battalion of Georgians and a full company of Czechoslovakian troops, the latter unit surrendering formally to the Division Commander after it had been trapped and surrounded by 1st. Lt. Ralph Decker's hard-driving "Ranger" Platoon of the 351st.

Even Division Rear got in the ball game with a "task force" led by Capt. John E. Boothe of Washington, D.C., accepting surrender of 66 Krauts, 30 Fascists and the Lightning Battalion of the Italian Fascist 10th Flotilla, for a total bag of 322 at then unliberated Schio. The "fluid front" as described in the official communiques set a new high in understatement.

Mopping up from Vicenza, the 88th rolled over Bassano, beat off counter-attacks to take Cornuda and then pressed on into the Italian Alps up Highway 47 to Borgo and Fiera di Primiero. The "Blue Devils" were there, and still pressing, when word reached the Division on 2 May that the war in Italy was over, that the German Armies they had been battling for so long had "surrendered unconditionally." Received at Division CP in the late afternoon, the "cease firing" and "halt in place" orders were sent to the troops by liaison officers.

There was joy at news of the end, but it was a quiet joy -- a joy that was expressed in calm fashion as a feeling of intense relief and deep gratitude swept the lines. "What can you say about a thing like this?", reflected one soldier. "It's too big. All you can do is say 'Thanks God' for He's the only One Who can understand how a guy really feels now."

Some of the men just sat and stared at each other in the strange silence, taking turns saying in a dazed voice "It's over -- its over?", but neither one actually listening and each busy with his own thoughts for which there were no words. "All I know is that my men won't get shot at anymore and that's all I give a damn about!", said one junior officer.

Despite the official news, scattered fighting continued in the 351st and 349th sectors and normal security precautions were maintained during that first night of peace. First word of the war's end had been brought to the 351st by German officers coming into regimental lines early in the afternoon but as there was no confirmation from higher head- quarters, the enemy statements were not believed. On the 3rd and 4th, German divisions opposing the 88th -- the 1st and 4th Para and the 278th Infantry -- put down their arms.

[The Linkup]
The Linkup

Meanwhile, the 349th Infantry, motorized, took off for the Brenner Pass. Moving more than 60 miles through the beaten enemy, advance patrols of the 349th were the first elements of the Allied Armies in Italy to make junction with forces moving south from Germany. At 1051 hours. 4 May, the European and Mediterranean fronts became one unbroken line when the 349th made contact with patrols from the 103rd Division, VI Corps. Seventh Army, a few miles south of the Brenner Pass.

The 88th had scored another, and perhaps its most notable first. The history-making event was recorded on the spot by Division and Seventh Army radio correspondents and the story of the junction was broadcast to the United States and the world over the NBC "Army Hour."

It had been a glorious 16 days -- a smashing and triumphant finish to almost 14 months of combat. From the jumpoff against cave-studded Monterumici on the heights south of Bologna, the 88th had cracked through the final mountain defense line and raced more than 305 miles in 16 days, destroyed six Nazi divisions, bagged 35,000 prisoners, wrung "unconditional surrender" from the battered Krauts high in the Alps and then went on to make the linkup with SHAEF forces.

The story of that triumphant victory march -- -- told here in bare outline because of space and time limitations -- will rank in Division and Army history with the proudest tales of "Blue Devil" veterans who hunted and drove the German from Cassino to the Brenner Pass. And brought, from a vanquished foe, tributes which were all the sweeter since most of their valorous deeds were cloaked during the push.

Speaking for the men who should know, better than any, of the 88th's fighting ability, captured Maj. Gen. Schulz of the 1st Para Division, the pride of the Wehrmacht, told interrogators that ''the 88th division is the best division we have ever fought against -- we fought you on Mt. Battaglia, Mt. Grande and in this action now completed."

The Italian and European campaigns were finished. And the men of the 88th knew, as they waited for further orders, that they'd done their part -- and magnificently -- in winning a war.

Whatever lay ahead, the men of the 88th knew that thus far they had kept the pledge.

The torch burned undimmed -- the colors were unsullied.



One of the real unsung - and too little publicized - heroes of this war is the aidman. Up where the lead is flying, unarmed and with his Red Cross armband frequently used as a target by enemy snipers who recognize no rules of war or humanity, the aidman moves along with the doughboy, treating and caring for his wounds under fire. Respected and admired by the men he serves, the aidman "has more guts than any guy I know." said one doughboy. "No matter how hot it gets, he's right there with us - and I know if I get hit, he's right beside me to take care of me. He gets all the hell we get, but none of the credit."

[Rear Cover: Wotan's Call poem]
Rear Cover

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