Shortly after close of World War II, Peter Schmitt and his brother David were interviewed for a book, New Canaan War Veterans Speak, published by the New Canaan Historical Society, from which this excerpt is taken. Both brothers were proud of their service in the Italian campaign of 1944-45 as members of the fabled 10th Mountain Division of the U. S. Army’s 86th Infantry. Their account was combined with that of their buddy and fellow New Canaan resident Russell Hunt, who, with the Schmitt brothers, was a technical officer assigned to the headquarters of the 86th Infantry. The interview shows the brothers’ unassuming bravery as well as their thoughtfulness and personal integrity in the face of the brutality of war.
T/ 5 Russell Woolston Hunt and T/ 4 Peter Carl Schmitt went into the Army in January, 1943, and were assigned to HQ Co., 86th Infantry, 10th Mountain Division. Peter Schmitt’s brother, T/4 David Tod Schmitt, joined the same outfit the following March. The three men were in the entire North Italy action when the Division spearheaded from San Marcello across the high peaks of the Apennines and up through Po River Valley to Lake Garda in the foothills of the Alps.
Peter and David Schmitt once lived in Italy, know the language, and used to talk to the peasants in the towns where they were stationed. David defined the plight of the people as “a question of fear and poverty. Unless you understand poverty . . . ” he said, and his voice trailed off, implying how difficult it is for us to picture the hard reality of life over there. Peter thought we had a terrific responsibility in Italy. “After all, we’ve left a trail of destruction behind us,” he said.
Peter Schmitt is twenty-three and David is twenty-one. Both have high cheek bones and rounded faces. Peter is the darker of the two, with almost black hair and deep-set eyes, while David is fair, with light brown hair and hazel eyes. They both give the impression of great vitality and good spirits. Their talk is quick and pointed.
Russell Hunt is twenty-two and is tall and slender. He has medium blond coloring, with level brows and regular features. He is full of fun, but reticent, too, abruptly disposing of anything particularly difficult with “You just had to”— and a little lift of his shoulders.
Peter and David Schmitt and Russell Hunt have the Combat Infantry Badge, ETO ribbon with two battle stars and a number of letters of commendation from commanding officers of the Army in Italy. [Peter later received the Bronze Star.]
All three were in Communications, Regimental HQ being in control of troop movements, Hunt explained, and David Schmitt called it ‘the nervous system.’ The CP might be a hundred yards from the front — or miles behind it. Sometimes they stayed a while in one place, but oftener they were on the move. “When we were really pushing,” Peter Schmitt said, “we’d have five or six command posts a day.” He was radio man, transmitting messages from the regiment to the division. Six men constituted his group. They moved by jeep, or on mules if their objective took them up a mountain trail. When the front was too fluid, they’d take turns. Half the group would be up spotting artillery fire while half stayed back.
Hunt had charge of one of the company’s three radio jeeps, driving the car and running the radio, sometimes alone, sometimes with other men. David Schmitt was a walkie-talkie man, going out with officers on reconnaissance trips.
“Our regiment was always out in front,” Hunt said. He said it was a lot of fun going back to Headquarters through the German lines. “We were surrounded on three side. You just had to go through their lines to get back.” (Peter Schmitt explained that when a division is pushing, they take key points, then fan out rapidly, leaving pockets of Germans on either side.) “My jeep was shot up,” Hunt said, “but I was never hit,” he added quickly.
Supply problems in the mountains were terrific and food was mostly K-rations, so that the men longed for such things as milk and green vegetables. For sleeping, they’d make a bunker, a big hole roofed with logs and sand bags, and they’d get lots of straw for bedding from a near-by farm. Staying several days in one place, they’d be billeted in a house or building. They’d feel quite secure if they were in a spot where the mortars fell short and the way-back fire was passing overhead.
And being under cover always gave a feeling of protection, even if the roof was fragile. Peter Schmitt remembered once when they were shelled and he, being on duty, had to leave the house and go out to his radio in the jeep . “I ran out there and as soon as I got in the jeep, I felt perfectly safe, just because it had a canvas top,” he observed smilingly. “It was pretty hot that night.”
“Yes,” said David Schmitt, “when we got up in the morning, a tree was on our house.”
To be continued . . .