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Looking back, William C Church is amazed that he made it through the landing at Salerno. As they pushed the Germans up through Italy the weather worsened, it was extremely cold, the ground turned to mud and rain turned to snow. Their advance was further hampered by German booby traps and the harsh terrain.

The men had to swing their rifles over their shoulders and scramble up the mountainside using their hands ‘and pull ourselves up on little scrubby trees and bushes.

Soon William and the rest of his platoon were positioned on a mountain across from Cassino. The men had to dig in and slept outdoors. Every morning the Germans would attack, before retreating back to the defences of the Gustav Line.

…they’d have us placed certain places behind rocks and stuff like that, those Germans would come up in the fog, in the morning and we would hear them coming, talking. They’d get up there and get within oh, 50 yards of us and that fog would rise up. Oh man! We had a war! A battle going on! There were hand grenades, we’d get the best of the Germans and they would go down again and they’d done that for about 3 or 4 mornings…. It was rough getting there and fighting them.’ 

At the beginning of January, the 3rd Infantry Division were withdrawn from Cassino and given a week’s rest before deployment to Anzio. William recalls the morning they landed:

“Me and Fred Chandler was the two first ones off that ship. He couldn’t swim and I was trying to help him ...”

‘… they had a map drawn out and they showed it to all of us and there were two sandbars, they said the ship might drag on the first one but it’s supposed to go on and hit the second and let us off in water around our knees.

Well he stopped the ship on the first sand bar and me and Fred Chandler was the two first ones off that ship… bottomless that water. Now he couldn’t swim and I was trying to help him, we lost our rifles and our helmets and there was waves coming in from the other ships too…and this was carrying us back out in the water.’

Fred demanded that William cut him loose and he tried to use his belt which was meant to act as a life-belt but it didn’t work. It flipped Fred over and that was the last William saw of him. A sailor spotted William away from the coast and, launching a small dinghy, managed to tow him back to the shore. The Allied force met with little resistance and William recalled that it ‘was so cold it looked like frost on the trees and bushes, young snow and there I was just as soaked as you can get.’

A sergeant found William a gun and asked if he was cold. Instead he replied he felt extremely warm. The sergeant leant over and chipped ice off of William’s uniform and his quick thinking saved William’s life for a second time that day. He immediately ordered William to be sheltered in a house, stripped of his wet clothes and wrapped in blankets. Somehow, the sergeant managed to find William a dry uniform, but not before he became so cold that he was sure that he would freeze to death.

William continued fighting until he was wounded in February. After D-Day he would serve in both France and Germany.

The Stories of Monte Cassino

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