85th Infantry Division in World War II
The 85th Infantry Division in World War II

The 339th Infantry Service Record:
The Mediterranean Situation

Mauldin cartoon
"One more crack like that and you won't have your job back after the war!"
(United Features Sydnicate)
The main allied effort in Europe during the latter months of 1943 was concentrated in Italy, the race being to take advantage of "the soft underbelly of the axis" as Winston Churchill put it. The Italian Campaign was undertaken in some of the most difficult terrain and terrible weather conditions which the United States Army faced during the war. Events in Italy were stalemated through the winter of 1943-44 despite heavy fighting at the southern base of the Liri Valley at Cassino. As spring approached, the allied efforts were renewed with the re-enforcement of the Anzio beach head and a renewed allied drive to take Rome. Troops and reinforcements were needed for Fifth Army and in the midst of the continuing allied effort was the 85th Division and the "Polar Bears" of the 339th Infantry. Four days after returning to St. Denis du Sig, the regiment moved to Oran where they set sail aboard the H.M.S. Letitia. On March 14, the 339th Infantry landed in Naples, Italy just in time to experience one of the last major Luftwaffe night raids on the allied port. Explosions lit up the city skyline as the GI's loaded into trucks or marched out of the city's limits. Most of the Polar Bears believed that they would have some time off for training. Little did they know that they would be in the front line the very next day!

 

The Gustav Line

After dark on March 16, 1944, the GI's of the 339th Infantry moved up into the front line between the two tiny villages of Castelforte and San Lorenzo, northeast of Minturno. The night sky was overcast, adding to the gloom and inky darkness. Each man held onto the pack strap of the individual in front as they slogged up narrow, muddy trails in a drizzling rain. Engineer's tapes marked the trails for the area had not been cleared of mines. The sudden report of a battalion of dug-in tank destroyers made everyone jump. "We were s******* in our pants," recalled one A Company GI. "We didn't know what we were getting into." Eventually reaching the front line positions, the men slipped into foxholes and bunkers held by the 349th Infantry of the 88th Infantry Division though the 3rd Battalion occupied positions held by British troops. Within the first few hours, two soldiers from E Company- Pfc. Carl Terry and Pfc. Ralph Frederick- were taken prisoner by a German patrol. These were the first casualties for the 339th Infantry in combat. Nerves were on edge that first night and fear of the unknown made for a sleepless couple of hours until dawn. The enemy positions were on higher ground and German artillery observers made life miserable calling in random mortar fire and artillery rounds throughout the next day.

The first battle death occurred on 20 March 1944 when Pfc. Charles Warner was mortally wounded in action while directing artillery fire against on a German patrol probing the E Company positions. Warner and another soldier were manning an outpost when an enemy patrol attempted to enter the company positions. Though wounded by mortar fire, Warner dragged his equally wounded buddy to safety and returned to his position to call in artillery directions. He was struck again by a mortar blast adjacent to his foxhole and died within minutes. Warner was posthumously awarded the Silver Star for gallantry in action.

After a week in the line, Colonel Matthews was hospitalized and ordered to be transferred. The aging officer cared deeply for his men and the strain of combat, his age, and a severe infection proved to be too much for him. After ten days in the line, the Custermen were relieved by troops from the 88th Infantry Division. As they marched down from the mountain in a driving snowstorm, the aged Colonel Matthews stood by the roadside and shook the hands of those men who passed by. With the relief of Matthews, Colonel Brookner Brady assumed command of the 339th Infantry. Brady was a combat tested veteran of the 3rd Infantry Division, and would face the tough assignment of leading his combat team into the hills above Minturno.

On May 1, 1944 the regiment was assigned to the Scauri-Minturno area on the west coast of Italy. The area had been under artillery fire for many weeks and the small village of Tremensuoli, which overlooked the area, was simply a mass of ruined stone houses. A single narrow road led to the village and was soon known as "Purple Heart Alley". The regiment occupied foxholes and command posts and immediately patrolled the areas west of the village. The other small village in the area, Scauri, lay astride Highway 7 and was in German hands. It was found to be abandoned except for a few key enemy sniper positions. Beyond it was Mount Scauri on whose towering height were posted German artillery observers. The key hills between the two towns were a combination of fortified hills and ridges: Domenico Ridge, a high rocky ridge overlooking Scauri and Hill 58, northeast of the ridge. Further east was Hill 79, located in the center of the German occupied positions. Northwest of Tremensuoli and beyond a winding creek called "Capo d' Acqua", stood Hills 69 and 66, both of which dominated the stream crossing. The bare hills were misconceiving as they were covered with thousands of mines, concrete pillboxes, and reinforced rifle bunkers manned by members of the German 94th Grenadier Division of the Fourteenth Panzer Corps. This was the western end of the main line of German defenses, The Gustav Line, cutting across the mountain ranges to the southern end of the Liri Valley where Cassino was located.

Fifth Army plans were for a major drive to take place that spring code named Diadem. The timetable was set for the event to kick off at exactly 2300 hours on 11 May 1944. After a briefing in the regimental headquarters, each rifle company commander instructed their non-coms on the assigned objectives and routes to take. The 3rd Battalion would move through the shattered village of Tremensuoli and strike Hills 69 and 66. The 2nd Battalion, under Lt. Colonel Charles Mudgett, was already in place near the village and would hit three objectives between it and Scauri: Hill 79 (G Company's assignment), Hill 58 (E Company's assignment), and Hill 85 and positions on Intermediate Ridge (F Company's objectives). The 1st Battalion would move directly to contain Scauri and the ridges surrounding it, including Domenico Ridge which was heavily defended. Unlike the other battalions, the 1st had to advance over relatively flat, open terrain and follow Highway 7 directly into the village.

At 11 P.M. on May 12, DIADEM opened in a deafening roar of artillery.


Casualties in the 339th Infantry, 12 - 25 March 1944:
5 killed, 24 wounded, 2 taken prisoner

Casualties in the 339th Infantry, 29 March - 22 April 1944:
30 killed, 51 wounded, 1 missing

Casualties in the 339th Infantry, 2 - 10 May 1944:
10 killed, 34 wounded, 2 missing

The Big Push BeginsOne mad Polar Bear

 

Custer Division The 85th Infantry Division in World War II
The Unofficial Webpages of the Polar Bear Association of World War II:
Veterans of 339th Infantry, 910th FA Bn, 310th Engineer Bn, & 310th Medical Bn

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