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Valor against hopeless odds

The 1944 Rapido assault was a fiasco, but the cause was just.

Arnold Garcia Jr.

writes for the Austin American-Statesman

SANT'ANGELO THEODICHE, Italy - The overlook across the narrow street from City Hall offers a commanding view of the Rapido River.

It is a view to die for - and in January of 1944, a lot of Texas GIs did.

On the opposite bank of the river, the view is an infantry soldier's nightmare. The river isn't very wide, but the current is strong, and once you get to the other side it's all uphill.

When two battalions of the 36th Infantry Division were ordered across the river on Jan. 21, 1944, the Germans were waiting with small arms, machine guns, mortars, artillery and tanks.

On the far bank, you look up at a little Italian town that is apparently defiant of time and change. You stand in the relative quiet, listening to the sounds of the river, and you wonder.

What were those doomed GIs thinking as they made their way to the river toting weapons, equipment and those damned rubber boats? You wonder what it was like when the first mine exploded and the enemy opened up, playing havoc with the assault formations.

The objective was this town, a link in the Gustav Line that defended the Liri Valley and the approach to Rome.

Above Sant'Angelo was Monte Cassino, a Benedictine abbey that provided an even more majestic view of the valley and the site of another siege that proved costly in blood to the combatants and civilians alike.

By the time the 36th Division reached the Rapido River, the Allied advance in Italy was mired in the mud. Mark Clark, the U.S. Fifth Army commander, and his planners thought a frontal assault across the river would open a gap in the Gustav Line big enough to pour armor through.

The 36th, a Texas National Guard unit called to active duty shortly before the United States entered World War II, got the job.

Though plenty of line and staff officers had misgivings about the viability of a frontal assault, Clark urged 36th Division officers to use valor as well as the boats to get their men across. If courage was all it took, the Rapido River assault would have had a much different outcome.

As Tennyson wrote: "Theirs was not to reason why. Theirs was but to do or die."

Maj. Gen. Fred Walker, commander of the 36th Division, wrote in his diary on Jan. 20: "Tonight, the 36th Division will attempt to cross the Rapido opposite San Angelo. We might succeed, but I do not see how we can. The crossing is dominated by heights on both sides of the Valley where German artillery observers are ready to bear down heavy artillery concentrations on our men."

The German defenders had conscripted Italians to dig trenches and clear brush along the Rapido's banks to improve the fields of fire. The flats were flooded to make the river wider and the approaches to the river were mined.

The assault went wrong from the start. German mines and shells ripped the assault troops to shreds. A few made it across the river but in insufficient numbers to do much more than dig in as best they could.

As Rick Atkinson writes in his brilliant

The Day of Battle

: "By 9 p.m., an hour into the attack, fewer than 100 men had reached the west bank. Many burrowed into the marsh, using their helmets to scrape off a few inches of defilade and piling the soil in parapets around their shallow trenches."

The night assault turned into a slaughter, but that didn't deter Clark from ordering another attempt, this time in daylight.

Obviously, surprise was not a factor and what little cover the night had provided was gone. Smoke was a poor substitute for the poor cover the night darkness offered.

When that assault also failed, the Americans essentially gave up and accepted a German-proposed truce that allowed the combatants to police up their dead.

The 36th, which had already been depleted by battles before the Rapido, lost more than half of the personnel in its rifle companies.

One battalion lost three company commanders in the two days of futility. More than 2,100 men of the 36th had been killed, wounded or reported missing in action.

"At the cost of 2,000 casualties, not even a toehold had been won at the Rapido" Atkinson writes. Quoting Field Marshal Albert Kesslering, the German commander, Atkinson continues: "The attack was insufficiently planned and poorly timed."

There was a cover-up of sorts after the disaster, and the incident might have escaped public notice had not members of the 36th Division Association loudly demanded an investigation after the war.

Reluctant to conduct one, the Army predictably concluded no one had done anything wrong. It was war, after all, and in war, people get killed.

Then the Rapido River crossing was largely forgotten. This kind of fiasco doesn't make blockbuster Hollywood fare.

In Texas, the bitter memory lingered long, but is now dimming.

We should remember the Rapido River assault just as we remember the Alamo.

To honor valor and sacrifice, you have to remember, and the Rapido should be remembered as long as Texans don a military uniform - indeed, as long as there is a Texas.

The people of Sant'Angelo remember. Tucked in a corner of the overlook is a small monument dedicated to the men of the 36th.

It reads: "Trusting in God, they fought and died for liberty."

Remember them this Memorial Day.