While I was a senior at Dartmouth College in 1939-1940, I and a
number of my classmates became interested in William James' essay "A Moral
Equivalent of War." In that essay James proposed that some "moral
equivalent" must be found for war. Dismayed by the almost maniacal
enthusiasm with which the people of the United States embraced the
Spanish-American War, James felt that if war was to be avoided in the
future, some form of peacetime service must be developed to give expression
to the general human need to serve some larger purpose than self-a moral
equivalent to the hardihood that only war, or primarily war, had called
forth. Inspired by a Dartmouth philosophy professor, Eugen
Rosenstock-Huessy, a refugee from Nazi Germany, a group of Dartmouth and
Harvard students decided to try to turn the Civilian Conservation Corps
(CCC), an emergency Depression program for unemployed young men, into a
permanent agency of the federal government designed to give young men an
opportunity for peacetime service on behalf of their country.
Charles Page Smith joined C Company and became its commanding officer on
August 8, 1943, at Camp Hale. The following spring, after his promotion to
the rank of captain in November, he was sent to Ft. Benning for three
months of advanced training. Resuming command in early June, he went on to
lead the company into its first major battle on Mt. Belvedere. He was
wounded and evacuated on the first day of this attack. After the war, he
became a noted historian of the United States with the publication in 1976
of the first volume of his eight-volume People's History of the United
States. He wrote this memoir in 1994.
The means for accomplishing this goal was to be a leadership training camp that would draw CCC enrollees from various camps to join the Harvard-Dartmouth cadre to be trained in leadership roles for a permanent Conservation Corps. President Roosevelt, whose most prized project was the Conservation Corps, gave the necessary orders. The Harvard and Dartmouth youths then dispersed to various CCC camps as enrollees wearing the handsome forest-green uniforms of the Corps. After two or three months in camps scattered across the United States, we gathered with enrollees whom we had chosen for prospective leadership qualities at the "forester's cabin" at Sharon, Vermont, in a particularly cold winter to make final plans for what we decided to call "Camp William James." I was elected "camp manager," actually a very modest role since the work program of the camp was overseen by a Department of Agriculture official and the day-to-day operation was, at least nominally, run by an army reserve officer who viewed the whole enterprise with ill-concealed contempt.
To make a long story short, the institution of the draft led to the closing of the camps. Many of the campers enlisted in the army and others were drafted. I was called up in the first draft. Camp William James reconstituted itself on an abandoned farm and evolved into the Voluntary Land Corps.
I was inducted into the Army of the United States over the objections of a psychiatrist at the induction center who was alarmed over the fact that I had not been a fraternity man at Dartmouth and revealed other deviant acts and attitudes (he told my alarmed mother that I seemed to him "a Bolsheviki kind of fellow"). I ended up in a heavy-weapons company in the 29th Infantry Division, a federalized unit of the Maryland National Guard. I became platoon sergeant of a machine-gun platoon and went on maneuvers in North Carolina in the fall of 1941. On leave in Charlotte, I saw an exhibition of watercolor paintings in the window of a Sherwin-Williams paint store. When I tried to buy one, I met the young artist who had painted the pictures and, of course, fell instantly in love with her.
Back in Ft. George G. Meade, the home base of the 29th, an opportunity came up to go to one of the first officer training classes at Ft. Benning, Georgia. When our three-month class was over I was chosen as an instructor in the 40 and 81mm mortars. I immediately married the North Carolina artist, and we settled down happily, not to say blissfully, in Benning Park, a housing development outside of Columbus, Georgia. Assignments to the Infantry School were for a year. At the end of that time, instructors were sent most commonly to line outfits. Because I had gone to Dartmouth and a good many Dartmouth skiers had already formed the nucleus of what was being organized as the 10th Light Division (one of my college roommates was in the division), I requested assignment to the 10th, although I had been a wrestler rather than a skier at Dartmouth.
And so I was sent to the brand-new "C" Company of the 85th Regiment. I arrived just after the company had acquired a cadre of noncoms "from the islands" (Hawaiian, that is). The most important member of the cadre was lst Sgt. Bob Collinson. If it were not suspect to use such terms today, I would say that I immediately fell in love with Bob Collinson and have loved him ever since. If there is someplace in heaven where first sergeants are fashioned, he would have been the model. They say first sergeants bully second lieutenants and train company commanders. Bob Collinson certainly trained me. I was always respectful of and dependent upon his judgments. He accepted with good grace my disposition to subject the poor, defenseless enlisted men (and, to a lesser extent, the officers) of C Company to lengthy harangues on everything under the sun, from the length of their hair to the shine on their shoes. I recall one of his more memorable lines: "Sergeant Maggio, fall the company out. Captain Smith has a few thousand well-chosen words to address to the men." I would blush, if I had any shame, at the thought of the thousands of words, well- or ill-chosen, to which I subjected the members of C Company. It's a wonder they had any fight left in them.
On one memorable occasion I was so impressed with a German army training manual for infantry company commanders circulated by the army, that I read it to the assembled C Company to make the point that the enemy was so formidable not because it was made up of goose-stepping Nazis but because it had the highest standards of leadership expressed on the company level by the company commander thinking of himself as the "father" of his men, with the same responsibilities of care and concern for his men as a father had, or should have, for his children. The first sergeant should be like a mother to his men, equally caring and concerned. When the company was dismissed, was it Cusano who rushed into the orderly room, assumed the supplicating position of Al Jolson, and addressed the startled Collinson as "Mammy"?
My thoughts about our training at Hale and Swift revolve around the themes of having the opportunity to start something (in this case an infantry company) and the whole question of how a miscellaneous group of young men evolves into something that can properly be called "a company."
First off, the opportunity to start from scratch is, I suspect, relatively rare. Most often we succeed to something already formed and in operation. In such cases we inherit everything, good or bad, that has been done by our predecessors. At the beginning at Camp Hale, none of us really knew what we were doing. I had never commanded an infantry company before. All I had to go on was my brief experience in the CCC and in Camp William James (which, limited as it was, proved invaluable). I suppose that at the Infantry School we must have gotten the rudiments of leadership as it related to an infantry company: "Follow me!" But all the subtler points were, I suspect, more or less ill-suited to be "taught." So we had whatever advantages accrue to innocence.
The "men" in the company were, for the most part, "boys." Many, if not most, were in their teens, some away from home almost literally for the first time. They all (or almost all) wanted someone they could trust ( with their lives, most basically) and, I assume, someone they felt was concerned for their well-being. That was greatly in my favor. The fact was that if I didn't goof off or screw up or be too tyrannical or demanding or too much of an SOB, their disposition was to give me the benefit of every reasonable doubt since C Company was, or was destined to try to be, their home away from home. In short, they had a strong inclination to think much better of me than I deserved.
On the other hand, being as good a company commander as one would wish to be is quite literally impossible since it would take a combination of human qualities not vouchsafed to the best of soldiers (or, more generally, to the best of human beings). At least that is how I see the whole matter now: infinite compassion, insight, intelligence, "empathy," as we say today. Total unselfishness, unflinching courage, and so on. Apparently, since the men of C Company still seem willing to tolerate me, they were not even aware of how far I fell short of the ideal. And, fortunately, neither was I. So we all acted rather unselfconsciously, and the life we led together-training, marching, eating, going on maneuvers in the "D-Series"-formed us, finally, into a company.
A good company is, I am sure, made up of an infinite number of small acts, each one often of little significance in itself but all adding up to a spirit or "tone," something indefinable that makes each company different in its own way, gives each company a unique quality. I suspect that all good companies, like all good marriages, share certain attributes, the principal one (perhaps again like a marriage) being unselfishness and a concern, often to the point of death, for one's companions. To this spirit, Bob Collinson contributed to a degree that is impossible, I think, to value too highly. His patience, his good humor, his wit, his humanity were the most essential ingredients in the formation-of our esprit. I suspect that the most difficult aspect of his office was to be found in the fact that he had come to the 10th with a cadre of noncoms who, quite naturally, felt that they enjoyed a special relationship with him, one that it was only human to expect some benefits from. As privates were promoted to noncoms, there were ample opportunities for evidences of favoritism or for misunderstandings of one sort or another. What was required was great firmness and-a fairly rare quality-tact, a regard for the feelings of others, as well as a stern determination to be fair to all parties.
Next to the first sergeant in a company, the most important individual is the mess sergeant-more important, certainly, than the captain. Captains come and go, are promoted or shot and succeeded by other captains, but mess sergeants go on forever. Or should. There is no doubt in my mind that the food that Sergeant Wargo fed us was a vital ingredient in the formation of the esprit that came to characterize C Company. That being the case, my principal contribution to C Company may have been to defend Sergeant Wargo against Colonel Woolley.
When the division inspector general came periodically to inspect the Company kitchen, he would invariably find a bit of dust on a window ledge in the mess hall. Or a trace of grease on a pot. This lunkhead and his assistants assumed that a spotless kitchen, regardless of the food it served, was the pathway to righteousness, so he and/or his team were constantly gigging C Company for a less-than-spotless kitchen, which in turn threw Woolley into a tizzy because the 85th would be low-rated in kitchen cleanliness. So Woolley would go after me to sack Wargo. The situation was not helped by the fact that Sergeant Wargo treated the inspector general's "team" with the contempt that it deserved. Other mess sergeants in other companies bent over backwards to be humble and ingratiating, to flatter and curry favor. They rushed forward with coffee and sweet rolls and treated the colonel and his lackeys the way stuffed shirts expect to be treated. Wargo, on the other hand, did not scruple to show his contempt for the whole gang and to make clear that he considered them impediments to his primary task of feeding the men of C Company. The sooner they were out of his mess hall the better.
I recall one incident quite vividly. While I stood looking on, praying that Wargo might make some modest gesture of accommodation, the stuffy, self-important little colonel (who ended up in IG's office anyway) rubbed his finger along a ledge and, horror of horrors, picked up some dust. He presented this conclusive evidence of culinary depravity to Wargo's stony gaze. Instead of breaking into a profuse sweat, begging forgiveness, and swearing to reform, Wargo simply ratcheted up the "contempt look" several more degrees. His expression said more eloquently than words, "So... ? What's it to you, you little asshole? My job is not dusting window ledges but feeding C Company."
A few days later I received another summons from Woolley. I must do something about Wargo. He was ruining the regiment's score in the mess-hall category. When I protested that however he rated on dust, he did very well indeed at his primary function, which was to feed tasty food to hungry GIs, this was brushed aside. In a world that revolved around points and ratings, good food seemed beside the point. It began to look like me or Wargo. Or, if I remained obdurate, me and Wargo. Then, wonderful to relate, an IG from Corps came to inspect the mess halls of the division. Happily, he knew his business. Instead of looking for dust, he looked at (and tasted) the food and pronounced it excellent. When his report came out, C Company's mess had risen miraculously from the bottom to the top. Thus it might be said that, insofar as I kept Woolley at bay until the truth could manifest itself, I probably performed my greatest service to the men and officers of C Company
Other morale builders were Enzo Liva and his guitar and Peter Wick and his accordion who, "stormed at with shot and shell," were always ready to raise spirits by making music.
Another important, if not immediately obvious, morale builder in C Company was the fact that we had our own in-house photographer. Roy Bingham was a great photographer and also an enlisted man in C Company. It is my conviction that no company in the U.S. Army had a photographer as gifted as Bingham, who was also a day-to-day bona fide member of the company. The result was an unequaled photographic record of the company. Bingham's assignments inevitably reached well beyond the company, but he was initially and primarily ours, and he showed us at our best in training and in combat. I think we all (including, of course, the division) owe a great debt to Roy Bingham and lament his untimely death. His wonderful photographs will keep his memory alive as long as people are drawn to stories of men in battle.
It was always my ambition that C Company be the best company in the 10th Mountain Division (which the more chauvinistic of us might be inclined to argue would mean the best company in the whole goddamn U.S. Army). Absurd as such a pretension might seem to the skeptical (or cynical) observer, I think it was important to us, to C Company, in forming that odd unity in which we still take pride and treasure in memory and in friendship. A "good company" (and in a sense, again, a "good company" is really the best company there can ever be) is a wonderful thing, a rare and remarkable thing because it is as articulated as a healthy human body--as noble and as beautiful and, finally, as fragile and vulnerable. It knows in its profoundest being that it is made to hunger and suffer, to go on beyond exhaustion and fear and then, in some of its precious parts, to die, to lose, as it were, limbs from its body, limbs that the surviving body remembers as the human body "remembers" a lost limb.
So a company, made up typically of young men as yet relatively unmarked by life, innocent and beautiful in youth, is called upon to form a unity, perhaps the most basic unity the race has known, a unity whose task it is to form such a union of souls that it will be unflinching in the face of the most terrible testing that the race knows, the test of death experienced in anticipation not once or twice but day after day, week after week. So to say that C Company was a "good company" is, in the last analysis, to say that, like all brave and trustworthy companies, it was the best company that could be. It can claim a rightful place in the long line stretching from Caesar's legionnaires through Cromwell's Ironsides, Wellington's Invincibles, and the companies that made up the Continental armies that fought for freedom from Great Britain.
There is something unique about the infantry. There are certainly many honorable branches of the service in which men (and now, women) may serve their respective countries honorably and well. Each has its own ethos: the navy, where men go down to the sea in ships, has its glories and legends, heroes and patron saints; and, more recently, the air force, flung through the skies in exultant flight; the cavalry, once full of dash and romance, now gone; the artillery, the engineers, and so on, all useful and important. But, in the last analysis, when all is said and done, there is the infantryman, ancient and essential, the man on the ground, the occupier, a man of the elemental element, the earth, the man to whom the earth is friend and shelter and final resting place. The veteran infantryman reads the terrain as his ally; the earth is his refuge and shelter. He hides in the earth; he gets earth in his shoes, under his fingernails, in his hair. Everything is auxiliary to him. Every other military activity is subordinate, exists finally to enable the infantryman to carry out his mission: to occupy a specific piece of earth.
So there are, of course, innumerable companies that are good or bad, competent or incompetent, as the case may be--companies of medics, of engineers, of missile operators and communications experts, supply depots, intelligence units, headquarters companies, personnel companies, sanitation companies, transportation companies, heavens knows how many or in what varieties as demanded by the exigencies of modern wars-but, we can only say again, they are all auxiliary to, supportive of, the infantry
I fear, terrible as the thought is, that we have not yet come to the end of wars. They are indeed going on all about us in various corners of the world, and new ones threaten to break out any day And so it will be centuries, one suspects, until we have found "a moral equivalent of war." But war is now a kind of by-product of the electronics age. The Gulf War, the world's first high-tech war, is doubtless the war of the future. I think it may well be that, the Vietnam War aside, our generation fought the last war in which the infantry played essentially the same role that it played in the siege of Troy or in the defeat of the Persians at Thermopylae. That being the case, we may be forgiven if we indulge ourselves in Homeric reflection and divert ourselves with ancient glories and heroic deeds. After all, we were a company, and the world is not likely to see our like again. Not, of course, because we were in ourselves so exceptional but because that has all passed and will never come again.
Well, I started with a simple enough mission: to reflect upon the formation of that reality we call C Company of the 10th Mountain Division and, in the manner of historians (or at least of this historian), I wandered rather far afield. Do we hear an echo of those famous words: "Sergeant Maggio, fall out the company, Captain Smith has a few thousand well-chosen words to address to the men"?
Having related C Company to the cosmic order of the universe and expatiated on the relation of the infantryman to the earth, it is time for me to come down to earth from such highfalutin speculations. Life at Camp Hale was filled, as all army life is, with multitudinous small dramas and bits of high and low comedy For some reason the army took an inordinate interest in insuring that Pvt. Roy Pakkala, who alternated between cook and company messenger, wear the false teeth that the army, in its munificence, had provided for him. Pakkala, for, I must assume, good and sufficient reasons of his own, was reluctant to do this. Somehow the army devolved the issue of Private Pakkala on me.
Ambrose Kills-Pretty-Enemy was a Navajo who periodically went AWOL to visit his wife, Julia, on the reservation. And periodically--and futilely--we court-martialed Ambrose, each court martial a lesson in cultural incomprehension. Ambrose, articulate enough under normal conditions, under the uneasy gaze of his judges fell back on his native tongue. I could never decide whether or not he was putting us on. But he was a good soldier and we all persevered.
Then there were the Afrika Korps prisoners--arge, bronzed blondes, classic Teutonic types who marched off with their picks and shovels on work details each day, singing and moving in perfect cadence. (They were much favored, as I recall, by some members of the WAC [Women's Army Corps] detachment at Camp Hale.) Sergeant Collinson and I, out for a bit of a drill with C Company, stood and watched as these heroes swung past. And Bob, with awe in his voice, said something like: "Look at those guys! What a sight!" And then, observing C Company--short guys, tall guys, in-between guys, in step, out of step, rout step--he said affectionately, "And look at C Company, bobbling by." Unforgettable words. Marching good and looking good is nice (and we looked as good and marched as good as anybody when we put our minds to it), but that's not the bottom line, as they say.
The mountain ration. I always thought that it had been invented by the enemy. When the 10th Mountain went into bivouac during the D-Series in the dead of winter below the peak of Holy Cross, it was totally immobilized for hours while dinner--not supper, mind you, like ordinary dog-faces, but dinner--was prepared. Had there been an enemy, said enemy would have just had to wait until we had gotten out our multitudinous pots and pans, unpacked our various high-carbohydrate items--butter (for sautˇing our biscuits), bars of chocolate, raisins, dehydrated potatoes, high-quality cheese, rice, onion soup. Onion soup? Sure, onion soup. What were we going to put our cheese into if not onion soup? And that was just the beginning. (I can still taste that chocolate.) Many of the 10th Mountaineers, especially the ski-patrol crowd, were civilian-life gourmets. Unwilling to trust the army, they carried their own seasonings, herbs, condiments, etc. There were some great meals.
They say an army travels on its stomach; we rested on ours.
One other moment I treasure in memory. Because C Company was so outstanding on a maneuver or a march, or just all-around great, Colonel Woolley decided to reward us by allowing a member of C Company to volunteer as his orderly. What a prize! It must be said that there were various perks to such a job, number one perhaps being that the battalion command post was usually out of the line of fire, travel by jeep rather than by foot, classier shelter, etc. Woolley authorized me to make known this great honor and to request that those eager to enjoy this privileged post report to his headquarters. So I did, but no one stepped forward (or backward), and I took considerable pleasure in telling him so. I thought that was incontrovertible evidence that we had, indeed, become a company.
The memories come back slowly, often maddeningly dim and elusive. How many books could be written about Camp Hale alone! Of course, our experiences there involved only training, even if, as was said, it was the most rigorous training of any American division prior to combat.
But nobody, it turned out, wanted us. All our great mountain equipment, our great mountain ration, our hardihood, our training in climbing and skiing (modest, really, by any reasonable standard). All that, it seemed, was to be for naught. Move we must, but it was not at first clear where. Rumors abounded. Then, of all places, Texas! Texas? A classic snafu. We were to exchange mountains for prairie-dog mounds, snow for snakes, chilblains for chiggers. We were going, in short, to be "flatlanded."
Camp Swift summons up for me the image of mules, loose mules for the most part. True we had a few "infantry" mules at Hale; I seem to recall riding one in the D-Series. But Texas was mules-big, powerful brutes that ran away whenever the spirit moved them, that broke picket lines regularly and had to be hunted all over the Texas landscape with Piper Cubs acting as mule spotters rather than artillery spotters.
At Swift we did two useful things in my opinion (in addition to a lot of marching). I got permission to conduct training exercises for the company using live ammunition. I believe this may have given the company additional confidence in its ability to function under combat conditions.
In addition, I sent some men from each platoon to the division artillery for instruction in how to adjust artillery fire as forward observers in the event that an artillery forward observer could not reach the company when artillery fire was needed or was killed or wounded while with the company.
Thinking of our time at Swift, I am reminded of the skill of some noncoms in insulting officers just short of being judged insubordinate and liable to court martial. Sgt. Stanley Smolenski excelled in this art. (Bob Collinson practiced a gentler form.) Major S., the battalion executive officer as I recall, had a large pot belly. As the company passed him in review (he was a mite pompous too), the Big Smoke called out in ringing tones: "That's what this army needs, officers with a lot of guts." There was general laughter in the ranks, and the discomforted major mumbled, "Great joker, Sergeant Smolenski."
My principal recollection of the Port of Embarkation is that Red Skelton appeared to entertain the troops and virtually every soldier in the company wrote to his parents or friends reporting on the event. Then G-2 notified us that we had to censor all outgoing letters that might give the enemy a hint of where the division was and when it might sail. So several of us spent hours clipping Red Skelton's name (sometimes it was spelled "Red Skeleton") out of dozens of letters until there was quite a pile of Red Skeltons on the barracks floor.
On the transport that carried us across the Atlantic, C Company, as I recall, did a good deal of the KP. It was soon known that I was "queasy," with a strong tendency to seasickness. This news did not strike a sympathetic chord in C Company hearts. As I would make my way through the chow line, various C Company servers would encourage me thusly: "Have a greasy pork chop, Captain." Or, "How about some rancid meatballs, Captain?" Such helpful hints soon reduced me to virtual invalidism in the dark and dank stateroom I shared with a number of other officers, among them a Lt. Bob Overmeyer who bunked below me and was even more seasick, which led to a lot of poor jokes about Smith being "Overmeyer" and "Overmeyer being UnderSmith," ad truly nauseam.
Naples, LCIs to Livorno, the King's Royal Hunting Grounds outside of Pisa, the Leaning Tower, and then north to the hills above Bagni di Lucca, Riolo, Pieve, and Monti di Villa. My memory suggests Riolo was where the company CP [Command Post] was, although others say it was Monti di Villa, and some men may have been quartered at Pieve. The Alpini and those skinny little Italian mules with a ton of supplies on their backs. The hills covered with chestnut trees. The friendliness of the inhabitants of the three villages, many of whom had cousins or brothers or children in the United States. The old Italian who said, "You know Worcester, Mass.?"
"A little. I've been there."
"In Worcester, Mass. is statue of Lincoln and statue of Garibaldi. It says on statues, 'Fighters for Freedom."'
We worked with the Partisans, of course. We went out with some Partisan guides on the famous combat patrol to capture prisoners for Colonel Woolley, who watched the entire operation through an extra-powerful scope and gave me constant directions via radio (what did he know?). The snow was up to our asses and somewhat higher for the shorter members of the patrol. People took turns breaking trail. After a while the Partisans, who probably thought the whole operation was a bad joke, got cold and bored and decided to go back home, sit by the fire in a vacated "Fascisti" house, drink grappa, and laugh at the antics of the crazy Americans. With Colonel Woolley's eye on us creeping like ants across the frozen wastes, we had no such option. Finally we came to an almost vertical ice face. There seemed to me to be no way to go on. I so reported to Woolley who, safe and dry and reasonably warm (and several thousand yards away), ordered me to press on.
At this point I recalled a dour New Englander, an older man whose name eludes me, who spent much of his time during our training days on sick call and thereby acquired somewhat the reputation of a malingerer. On the way to Italy during one of the relatively rare occasions when I was not hanging over the ship's side or curled miserably in my bunk, he said to me, "Captain, I know I haven't been much of an addition to the company and have pretty well dogged it, but when we get into combat and get into some tight spot, I hope you will give me a chance to show that I can really soldier." So I turned to him and said, in effect, "Here is your chance. Figure out how to get us across this ice face." This nameless hero (who remembers his name?) then took the butt of his rifle and chipped out footholds across the ice face, and the rest of us followed him. We all made it across except Burt LaCoe, who slipped down into a ravine (of which more later).
Having crossed the ice face, we made our way (as I recall) to a ridge overlooking a small stone house, several hundred yards below. The terrain was forbidding, to say the least. The conjecture was that the house was occupied by German (or Italian) soldiers. From it we were to extract Colonel Woolley's prisoners. It seemed to me that the chances of accomplishing the mission were from minute to none. Our situation was precarious enough since we were under enemy observation from the rim of mountains known as Alpe Tre Potenza (Three Sisters). I explained the situation to Colonel Woolley It seemed to me suicidal to try to take the patrol down to the valley floor, where we would have to contend with rifle and/or machine-gun fire from the house as well as artillery and/or mortar fire from the half-circle of mountains above us. The colonel was unmoved by my recitation of the problems. Prisoners he must have, if it cost the whole patrol. I was ordered once more to proceed.
In this dilemma I was once more rescued by the resourcefulness of others, this time of Lt. Merle Decker. When I relayed Colonel Woolley's instruction, Decker immediately volunteered to take part of the patrol into the valley and try to extract some prisoners. Meantime the rest of us would establish a covering fire directed at the windows of the house to discourage its inhabitants from firing on Lieutenant Decker's patrol. What I had anticipated happened. As soon as Decker's group reached the valley floor, an enemy mortar began firing at it. Two things saved the patrol from disaster. The snow muffled the effect of the shrapnel from the mortar shells. And, equally important, Lieutenant Decker showed great resourcefulness in moving his men to the spot where the last mortar shell had fallen, knowing that the effectiveness of mortar fire depends on bracketing a target-firing long and short until the shells are on target. Decker's tactics threw the enemy mortar crew off, and he was able to extricate his men and find a trail that led back to our lines.
Meanwhile, Burt LaCoe had landed, relatively unscathed, in a snowdrift. He had lost his grip on his rifle in his frightening descent. It came clattering down after him, and when he had collected his wits and shaken off the snow he found his rifle nearby. He had hardly gotten himself together when here came three frightened Italian soldiers who had been out on patrol from the now-famous house, who couldn't get back because of the C Company activity in the area, and who were looking for someone to surrender to. Mission accomplished. Woolley placated.
I recall quite vividly the maneuver on February 12 that Kenyon Cooke mentions. We were trucked to San Marcello for a simulated night attack on Mt. Peciano. After this battalion exercise we arrived at the village of Gavinana at dawn, tired, hungry, and cold. We were directed to a little inn. The proprietress conducted us to three or four unfurnished rooms on the bottom floor. Sergeant Cusano and I thought we must be able to do better. We wandered upstairs, where there were a number of rooms with the doors locked. We leaned against one of the flimsy doors, the latch gave way, and there was a charming room with two deliciously inviting beds with linen and blankets. Just as we threw our packs on the floor, the proprietress appeared and vented a stream of furious Italian. Conscious that I was guilty of breaking and entering, I had a moment of near-panic. Was I going to be arrested for criminal trespass? In the torrent of angry words, I heard one familiar one, something "capitano." I asked Sergeant Cusano, who spoke Italian, what she had said. "She says if you don't leave immediately she will tell the captain." "For God's sake, tell her I am the captain." Sergeant Cusano told her, and a marvelous change ensued. Her face broke into the most ingratiating smile, "O, el capitano, bono." Or whatever.
I think of that odd encounter as my most frightening moment in Italy (there was, of course, a constant kind of subliminal fear). For a brief moment I felt like a housebreaker caught in the act and scared silly
When we moved up to the line, prior to the attack on Belvedere, Bob Collinson and I established the company headquarters in the back of the little church in Querciola. The Germans on the mountain above us didn't hesitate to fire 88s at a single soldier who exposed himself on the street.
As in so many other matters, Kenyon Cooke's description of the situation at Querciola (and Rattlesnake) is hard to improve upon or substantially augment. I do recall that, having stressed with everyone the importance of keeping off the streets and under cover, it was disconcerting to see General Somebody-or-other and his staff come walking up the main street from Rattlesnake to Querciola as though they were strolling through Bastrop, Texas, or Glenwood Springs, Colorado. The general expressed scorn that the members of C Company were not to be seen anywhere, the implication being that they were hiding timidly where there was no real danger. About that time a German 88 opened up and sent the general and his staff scurrying for cover. General satisfaction in the company.
Was someone pulled out of a foxhole by an enemy patrol? Didn't a conscripted Pole in German uniform walk into town and into our command post to surrender?
At Querciola I was summoned to regimental or division headquarters to be briefed on the attack on Belvedere. There was a large wall map indicating the German positions, gun emplacements, etc. I noted the symbols of a minefield on the map. What about the minefield, I asked? That looked like a more formidable obstacle than the gun emplacements. Oh, the briefing officer said, I needn't worry about that; the engineers will take care of the minefield. I suppressed the impulse to ask how, but the officer's answer returned later to haunt me.
Before or after the briefing, I requested permission to patrol in the area in front of our lines to get a notion of the terrain and the general layout. The answer came back down: no patrolling by 10th Mountain units. The Germans believed that the Brazilians were manning the lines in front of them. They felt secure. According to Kenyon, the story was that the Brazilians had attacked Belvedere several times and had been rather easily rebuffed. If the Germans realized that the formidable 10th Mountain Division (not yet formidable, of course), or simply American soldiers, were taking up positions to attack Belvedere, they would be much more on the alert. In any event, I was denied permission to patrol in front of the company section lest the Germans be alerted to an attack by American forces. I can't believe that the enemy wasn't well aware of the fact that Americans were facing them. If not, they had lousy intelligence.
Reluctant to take "no" for an answer, I requested permission to accompany a Brazilian patrol. Permission granted. I would meet the head of the Brazilian patrol at a nearby farmhouse at 6 A.M. I took with me someone from C Company who could speak Portuguese. We reported to the patrol leader, a dark-hued Brazilian sergeant surrounded by half a dozen other Brazilian soldiers. I introduced myself to the sergeant through the interpreter. He was expecting me, as I recall. He began to organize the patrol. He pointed to me and said something like "numero uno scouto," which sounded to me as though he was designating me the point scout in the patrol. Our C Company interpreter confirmed that this was indeed the case. It was certainly not at all what I had in mind when I requested that I be allowed to accompany a patrol. To be assigned as number-one scout on unknown terrain under the command of a sergeant whose language I could not understand made me regret deeply having ever made such an ill-fated request.
I was in somewhat of a quandary If I politely declined on the ground that this was not really an appropriate assignment for a U.S. Army officer with the exalted rank of captain, it might well be interpreted as showing the white flag or white feather, or whatever, and suggest to those in attendance that I was less than a hero, thereby reflecting poorly on C Company, the 10th Mountain Division, the Fifth Army, and, indeed, the whole U.S. military establishment, not to mention the citizens of the Republic. So, spurred on by such thoughts, I reluctantly took my place as "numero uno scouto," or whatever the proper phrase was. Not to worry. The patrol leader and his men were no more heroically disposed than I. We only proceeded about a hundred yards beyond our assembly point in the barnyard and then withdrew, keeping a sharp eye out for ground squirrels or aggressive domestic animals. The entire operation, as I recall, lasted little more than a half hour. I observed nothing of significance about the terrain over which we would presumably attack Mt. Belvedere. On the other hand, I returned unscathed.
Kenyon Cooke mentions a patrol made up of Lt. James Hart, Jim Nassar, and Jim Hurley, which took place after the ban on 10th Mountain patrols had been lifted, presumably a few days before the attack.
One of my other memories of Querciola was that the quartermaster delivered some extra rations like candy bars and such things, including a rare treat of reasonably fresh eggs. Or at least of eggs, however fresh. The eggs presented me and Bob Collinson with somewhat of a dilemma. A careful count revealed that there were only enough eggs for, let us say, half the men in the company. How to distribute the eggs without arousing anger and resentment among the eggless seemed to us a problem that defied the wisdom of Solomon. It seemed much simpler to eat them ourselves. Unfortunately for this rational and reasonable solution, someone from one of the platoons, visiting the CP to pick up the platoon's share of goodies, spied the eggs and made rather pointed inquiries about their eventual disposition. As I recall, he did not seem much impressed by the Solomonic wisdom of Smith and Collinson. Before a mutiny could break out, our collective attention was directed to the assault on Mt. Belvedere, and the proper distribution of eggs became a minor consideration. But it has always been on my conscience. At our next reunion I am prepared to stand everyone who was in Querciola (or Rattlesnake) to free omelets. Except Bob Collinson, who shares my guilt.
As for the Famous Night, I have little to add to Kenyon's vivid account. I tried to sleep in a barn on our line of departure. I chose a large bin of rye or wheat with the assumption that it would be softer than the barn floor. It was the worst possible choice for bedding, cold and constantly shifting. I thrashed around for a few miserable hours before the attack.
As for the advance up the mountain, it was a nightmare of fear and confusion. At one point, wounded (and as I recall, some not wounded) men began filtering down through the company announcing that the attack was a failure and that a general order to retreat had been issued. Precisely when I hit the trip wire to a stake mine that shattered my legs in three or four places, I do not recall. The explosion apparently knocked me out, because my next recollections were of a medic giving me a shot of morphine at dawn. I learned later that Pop Willson dragged me into a defilade area behind a little hillock, which doubtless saved my life. Some passerby, concluding not unreasonably that I no longer needed my fleece-lined officer's parka, prevailed on me to trade it for his regular enlisted man's issue, which I have still (though it's a tight fit).
I have no clear recollection of how long I lay on the battlefield, so to speak, before I was evacuated by stretcher-bearers, one of whom [Charles R. Tesley] I met at our Vail reunion in 1977. When I came to after the explosion of the stake mine, my first conscious emotion was of euphoria. Or at least of enormous relief that I was wounded but still alive and, with any luck, would be evacuated. The war was over for me, and I had survived. The pieces of shrapnel that had broken my legs had made small, penetrating wounds. There was little bleeding and little pain. I slept and woke and slept again (all this before I was evacuated), and the euphoria (aided by the morphine) gave me rather the feeling of floating, of great well-being.
As I was being carried down the mountain on a stretcher (a rather heavy load, I fear), one of the platoons of C Company that had been in reserve was moving up to relieve the attacking platoons (to the best of my imperfect memory). It seemed to me that the expressions on the faces of the men in the platoon were a strange mixture of regret and envy: sorry that I was wounded but envious of me for being still alive and out of it all while they had to continue to face death. In any event, the vast sense of relief that I felt in being "merely" (although, as it turned out, rather badly) wounded made it apparent to me how much I had feared (and anticipated) death. I suppose that without that anticipation it would be hard to function effectively as a soldier in combat. At the point where the fear of death overrides other emotions, the combat soldier no longer is an effective fighting man. The only real antidote to that crippling fear is the sense of unity and companionship that is the heart and soul of a true "company of men."
In any event, I felt guilty about my relief at being wounded. By being wounded (and being so delighted to be wounded and not killed), I felt I had in some way betrayed the company "My men," men whom I loved and cared for, had to go on through all the subsequent battles and skirmishes that Kenyon describes so brilliantly. The luckiest ones would come through more or less unscathed. The next luckiest ones would, like me, be those who were wounded and survived. But there would be others who died, who died when I was not there, although there is, of course, no reason to believe that those who died would have survived if I had not been wounded and had remained in command of the company
Nonetheless, reading Kenyon's account of the rest of the fighting, the feeling of guilt-that, in a sense, I had abandoned the company--is replaced by a twinge of envy. How proud and pleased I would have been if I had shared all those experiences that Kenyon describes. How many more anecdotes I would have had to bore friends and relatives with throughout the years!
The feeling of guilt, not so much over being wounded but over feeling so euphoric at being wounded, haunted me for years. I had recurrent nightmares of guilt. Then one night I dreamed that the men of C Company whom I knew and who had died in subsequent fighting gathered around me and pronounced a kind of expiation. They assured me that they understood; they forgave me. In my place they would have felt the same way. I began to weep and I awoke weeping; I was cured of my guilt.
Some things lie too deep for words, however much we may try. I know that the most important and formative experience of my life was commanding C Company. I have always treasured the memory and the associations.
Charles Page Smith joined C Company and became its commanding officer on August 8, 1943, at Camp Hale. The following spring, after his promotion to the rank of captain in November, he was sent to Ft. Benning for three months of advanced training. Resuming command in early June, he went on to lead the company into its first major battle on Mt. Belvedere. He was wounded and evacuated on the first day of this attack. After the war, he became a noted historian of the United States with the publication in 1976 of the first volume of his eight-volume People's History of the United States. He wrote this memoir in 1994.