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

The 339th Infantry Service Record:
The Eternal City Falls

"They held us up right on the outskirts of Rome. We knew why; to let the fellows who had been there in Italy longer than us get into the city first."

 

On June 4, 1944, the 339th reached Mount Salamone and Monte San Sebastiano where the battalions were ordered to halt. The 337th Infantry was sent west to cut Highway 7 while the 338th moved to the northeast and into the outskirts of Rome. The Polar Bears needed a rest, and most took advantage of the few hours here to sleep or get someone to eat. At about 1300, the battalions were marched forward a mile or so and concentrated on the outskirts of the city. Sporadic fighting was underway in the city's suburbs and the GI's watched the skirmishing with intense interest. Some talked of going on into the city but the word was, "halt and go no further."

The last of the German units in the city were streaming northward, leaving behind a token force of snipers to delay the advance beyond the city's borders. South of Rome, the Polar Bears lay in wait for the moment when it, like other Fifth Army units, could enter the city in triumph. As the skirmishing died down on the southwest suburbs, the 339th's Intelligence & Recon Platoon, commanded by 1st Lt. Edwin Guthman, was ordered into the city to locate a task force from the 338th Infantry holding several bridges over the Tiber River. Picking their way through the dark streets, Guthman's patrol was wary of snipers and booby traps. The city streets were blacked out and all that could be heard was the far off rumble of trucks and other vehicles- the last enemy units pulling out of Rome. Sometime after midnight, the lead scouts of Lt. Guthman's platoon found the bridge and a token force of the 1st Armored Division at the crossing. The Germans had not blown the ancient bridges and Rome could be entered with dry feet after all. Moments later the 338th's task force was located nearby and everyone blew a sigh of relief. They had not been swallowed up by the German garrison after all.

At Porta Maggiore

Custermen march through Porta Maggiore, the ancient wall surrounding Rome on June 5, 1944. The third GI from the right is Howard Maki, past president of the Polar Bear Association of World War II.
(85th Division in WW2)

That afternoon, the Polar Bears tramped through Rome. It was an exhausting day's march, nearly 25 miles for some of the 2nd Battalion companies; but the Romans went out of their way to make the GI's welcome. "They gave us cheese and crackers," recalled one veteran adding, "and then there was vino, and plenty of it!" Small cups of wine were handed to each soldier as they passed, most being spilled by the happy Romans who insisted on slapping backs and touching the helmets of the men as they passed. It was a day of celebration like few others in that ancient city, but the Custermen saw very little of it beyond the central part of Rome. That afternoon the 339th passed north and began a pursuit of the retreating German forces up to Olgiata.

It had been a long road to Rome, covering many miles and over many mountains. The 339th Infantry had been up to the task placed before it, but it had not been the same since the battle at Tremensuoli. A "replacement company" was formed, the new men meant to be sent into the line companies as they were needed. Meanwhile, the three battalions of the regiment closed on Olgiata and the heights above the village, which were perfect for a defensive stand. German 88's and mortar crews blocked the routes of advance. Just before the Polar Bears were to move out, they were relieved and another GI unit passed through them. After 30+ days in combat, the 85th Infantry Division was headed for a much needed break.


Two days after the fall of Rome, the 85th Infantry Division was ordered back to a rear area to refit and retrain. The men were exhausted, equipment worn, and spirits lagging. The 339th encamped at Lido di Roma, the "King's Forest", south of Rome and it was a welcome respite. Mail caught up with the GI's and there was a PX, movies, and even a beer ration. For six weeks, the regiment camped and trained. Promotions were also made within the regiment and the combat team was brought back up to fighting spirit.

In mid-August, the 339th Infantry was ordered back into the line. Fifth Army was stalemated along the Arno River south of Florence. Units that had been holding the line there also needed relief prior to the next big push into the North Apennines,and Combat Team 9 was assigned to a position on the river to hold the front. The 85th Infantry Division relieved the 2nd New Zealand Division overnight of August 14-15, taking over positions that lay west of Florence. The 339th Infantry was sent into positions near Montelupo and Tinaja with all three battalions on line. Adjacent to the Polar Bears was Combat Team 8 (338th Infantry) on the left flank and troops of Eighth Army on the right. Dug in a just across the river was the 362nd Grenadier Division and elements of the 3rd Panzer and 29th Panzer Grenadier Divisions.

It was a two week assignment that tested the patience and mettle of GI and machine, but the Polar Bears held the line until they were relieved and sent back for a few days rest. The next major test was coming within the next two weeks; Operation OLIVE, the attack on the Gothic Line.


Casualties in the 339th Infantry 14 to 26 August 1944:
13 killed, 43 wounded, 5 missing.

The Gothic LineThe bear goes to the mountain

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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