Saturday, May 29, 2010

This Memorial Day Weekend

The lead front page story in yesterday's USA Today was "Afghanistan: America's Longest War." After 104 months of fighting this remote region has now eclipsed Viet Nam as the longest war in our history. No, it's not yet as long as the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), and hardly a blip in the casualty department when with World War II, or even Viet Nam.

Afghanistan: 996 deaths
Viet Nam: 58,209 deaths
World War II: 405,399 deaths

All these facts serve as a good reminder as to why we have remembrances like Memorial Day. Casualty numbers cannot be equated with inventory of goods and services. One man's spilt blood leaves many hearts wounded, for each of us has been knit into the fabric of society through family and friendships. An untimely death rips a hole in that fabric, with only scars to remind us of what once was and might have been.

This morning my inbox contained an email from our historian friend from Italy, Mario, with a link to a YouTube video about Anzio, one of the major battlefields of World War II. My father-in-law. Bud Wagner, wrote about Anzio in his war memoir, And There Shall Be Wars.

At Anzio, in this one battle zone alone, there were 43,000 casualties, with 7000 killed and 36,000 wounded or missing. 4,000 Allied troops died in a single week in the effort to make a beachhead here. It was an important battle because the German forces had to be divided and could not concentrate solely on the assault from the English Channel.

As I considered these things I re-read Chapter 22 from Bud's book, which included a letter describing a portion of the hell which was the invasion at Anzio and the fate of some who were there.

Dear Bud,
My brother, Billy C. Rhoads -- Army Service Number 16001304, was in Company C, 83rd Chemical Mortar Battalion and was killed in action off the coast of Anzio on 26 January, 1944. My family has been searching for many years in an attempt to find someone in his unit who knew him or perhaps served with him. If possible, will you please help?

Bill joined the Army in 1940 in Freeport, Illinois, although his home town was Albia, Iowa. He took training at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina and remained there after being assigned to the 60th Field Artillery, 9th Division. He was with the 9th when they arrived at Casablanca, North Africa in November, 1942 and still with the 9th until Sicily was taken in August, 1943. The 9th went to England for R and R and to train for the Normanday Invasion. Bill was transferred to the 83rd Chemical Mortar Battalion in September, 1943 and was involved with the fighting at Maori, Chuinzi Pass, Fala, Venefro, etc. with the Rangers. The 83rd were pulled off the line in early January, 1944 and sent to Pozzouli to conduct amphibious training for the assault from the sea on Anzio.

On 22 January, Companies A & B of the 83rd, plus the 1st, 3rd and 4th Ranger Battalions landed unopposed at Anzio. The Germans were totally taken by surprise. LST 422, after unloading at Anzio, made an uneventful trip back to Naples and, during the night of 25 January, 1944, after being loaded to capacity with tanks, jeeps, half-tracks, ambulances, trucks and various other vehicles, plus tons of ammunition, including the write phosphorous shells for the 4.2 mortars and hundreds of barrels of gasoline, the LST proceeded toward Anzio. The personnel aboard consisted of Companies C, D and Headquarters of the 83rd Chemical Mortar Battalion and the 68th Field Artillery.

The Germans, after the preliminary appearance of enemy troops on the 22nd, and in anticipation of an assault by sea, dropped floating mines into the water from airplanes. At 0520 in the dark morning hours of 26 January, with dense fog, twenty foot high waves, a mixture of snow and freezing rain, and the water in the Tyrrhenian Sea too cold for human endurance, LST 422 hit a mine resulting in a gaping hole in the bottom and the right side. The intense explosion immediately caused a raging fire which caused the steel to become extremely hot and ammunition to explode. Some men were blown overboard by the initial explosion. Most of them were in the lower level of the ship where it was much warmer than on the main deck. The ship became a raging inferno and the men had to abandon it or be consumed.

Relative to information from survivors of the LST 422 tragedy, the number of men in the frigid water of the sea was unbelieveable. Some were obviously dead, some injured and others were struggling to stay afloat in anticipation of being rescued. At 0540, 20 minutes following the LST explosion, LCI 32 (Landing Craft-Infantry) was ordered to pick up survivors. It also struck a mine and sank in less than five munutes with the loss of most of its crew and infantrymen it was hauling. The brass then put out the order to discontinue all rescue operations for fear of jeopardizing more men and ships. Those men in the water were left to the unrelenting and merciless doom of the sea. With the weight of equipment, the immense fatigue, and hypothermia of the icy water, many of the men, including my brother, ultimately drowned. His body was found floating at approximately 10:00 a.m. the same morning of 26 January, 1944. His body was brought aboard a boat long enough for identification (dog tags) then he was returned to the sea.

Unit Journal - aboard LST 422

Board of Officers Report
26 January, 1944

83rd Chemical Battalion: 479 Enlisted men, 16 Officers
68th Coast Artillery: 20 Enlisted men, 1 Officer
Total: 516

53 men survived - returned to duty
37 recovered dead and buried at sea.
54 recovered dead and buried at cemetery in Nettuno, Italy
362 never recovered or identified.
506 - Total

The Unit Journal lists two men, Privates Lawless and Kuykendall of Company B as killed in action on LST 422 26 January, 1944.

Kindest regards,

George Rhoads
Iowa City, IA

P.S. If you have any knowledge of Pvt. Wiley Wheeler I would greatly appreciate knowing about it. Wiley was in Company D, 83rd Chemical Mortar Battalion and was never recovered following LST 422 hitting a mine off the coast of Anzio on 26 January, 1944. I'd be most appreciative for any information!
As we go our various ways this Memorial Day weekend, let's be sure to pause in remembrance of those who paid the ultimate price to preserve our freedom.

4 comments:

LEWagner said...

"As we go our various ways this Memorial Day weekend, let's be sure to pause in remembrance of those who paid the ultimate price to preserve our freedom."

And yet again I beg to ask of you, "Could you please list some of your freedoms?" Maybe you can get Pierre to help you, or maybe not.
I remember my dad, the very Bud Wagner you're selling, muttering regarding the growing police state in the US, and the Bush warmongering, saying, "This is the kind of thing we fought AGAINST in WWII."
Where was your voice?
Where are your freedoms?
Can you and your neighbors sell groceries out of your own houses, or do you all have to go to a centralized government-approved store to buy them?
Good luck on your ultimate goal, by the way, the Bob Dylan man-hole cover project.

ENNYMAN said...

Thanks for the comment. As you note, sadly, it is true that in America there has been an increasing loss of freedoms as the State encroaches in ever broader ways upon the people here, who are unfortunately happily distracted by bread, circuses, celebrity glut, etc.

As for listing freedoms, it is actually true that there we are shackled far more than we recognize or acknowledge, including our inner shackles.

Thanks for wishing me well on the Dylan Manhole Cover.

Mary Sheehan Winn said...

I wish that today we were all as aware of the war and the needs of the soldiers as the people were during WWII. Today, if you don't have someone close serving somewhere you can go blithely about your business without thinking about the sacrifices made so you can go blithely about your business.
It would be nice if the school kids adopted a soldier or a platoon and send care packages. Just so they're aware. Nice post.

ENNYMAN said...

Things are very different today. In WW2 it was a total war and the logic behind it was clear to everyone. Today, the war does seem remote and detached from us, unless you have loved ones there. Certainly when we had friends with a son in Iraq we were more closely drawn to what was happening. The war is "on" every day over there, but for the most part it is not even covered in the local papers.

Your suggestion is a good one. Thanks for the visit here.
e.