Brothers in arms: Peter and David Schmitt in Italy, 1945—Part 4

Peter Schmitt in uniform against tree

Peter Schmitt as a technical sergeant in the famed 10th Mountain Division of the U. S. Army (the “ski troops”).

We conclude the story of Carl Schmitt’s sons David and Peter as members of the 10th Mountain Division in the Italian campaign late in World War II.  (Click here for Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.) These accounts are taken from interviews conducted after the war with Peter, David, and their comrade Russell Hunt.

The final days of the Allied push up the peninsula saw some of its toughest fighting at Lake Garda, a large and picturesque body water between Venice and Milan at the foot of the Italian Alps. German troops held a strong defensive position in the towns of Riva and Torbole at the northern end of the lake.  Between April 27 and 30, 1945, the 10th Mountain Division fought their way through the booby-trapped tunnels and rough terrain that separated them from the Germans. 

Joining in the effort was Col. William Darby, one of the most celebrated soldiers of the war. Inspired by the British Commando units, he headed an elite group of soldiers assigned to the most dangerous missions (“Darby’s Rangers”), the forerunner of the Army Rangers and other special operations forces. At the time of his death on April 30, 1945 – just two days before the end of hostilities – he was only 34 years old but had already earned two Distinguished Service Crosses, three Purple Hearts, a Legion of Merit, and numerous honors from foreign governments.

The day after the surrender of the German army on May 2, the commander of the 10th Mountain Division, General George Hays, paid tribute to his soldiers on the streets of Torbole: “Never in its days of combat, did it fail to take an objective, or lose an objective once it was taken. Never was so much as a single platoon surrounded and lost.”   

After the war Peter married and raised six children with his wife Jane. He pursued a career as a commercial artist in the advertising industry in New York. David attended college and married; he and his wife Louise had eight children. In the 1960s he helped his brother John establish Thomas More School, a Catholic boys boarding school in Harrisville, New Hampshire.  David died in 2014; Peter three years later. 

24004 - David in high school - color corrected

David Schmitt as a student at New Canaan High School, shortly before he left to train for the 10th Mountain Division.

The end of April saw the Division in action at Lake Garda. “That was the worst part of the whole battle,” Hunt said. “We had 70% casualties there. C. Company lost a hundred and twenty men and all their officers. At the upper end of the lake, we had to go through five tunnels a half mile or more in length. The Germans blew them up, then we cleared them out and started through . . . You just had to go through them.”

10th Mountain Division troops at tunnel

Troops at a tunnel on the shore of Lake Garda five miles south of Trobole.

Peter Schmitt drew a map of Lake Garda which is about forty miles long and proportionately rather narrow, with a widening out at the lower end. The Lake extends almost due north. Riva and Torbole lie at the upper end, where the Germans kept a tiny submarine.

After several days of the hardest kind of fighting, the men went on to take Torbole. “That’s where Peter was blown through a window!” David exclaimed. Pete said: “Oh, I was standing there leaning against the outside of a building and a shell knocked me through.” “It was the concussion,” David put in. “There was one big bang, then I picked myself up,” Peter said with a broad smile. “That was the shell that killed Colonel Darby,” he added quietly. “You’ve heard of him ? He was a very famous officer.”

Following Torbole, came the capture of Riva in the last battle fought by the Division, for it was here that the official declaration of peace was received. “We were right about here when peace was signed,” Peter said, pointing to a spot some distance down the lake. “But then, it couldn’t take effect for two days,” he concluded reasonably.

10th Mountain division at Lake Garda

Soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division march along the shores of Lake Garda, April 29, 1945.

Hunt thought Riva one of the most beautiful towns in Italy. probably the most beautiful, with the mountains on three sides, and the lake in front and the little valley with its one road. “After that, we went up to do occupation work at Cave del Pravil, a little town near Trieste,” he said.

“We went up there to help the British,” Peter Schmitt explained, and spoke of the mixture of nationalities in the country extending northeast of Lake Garda. The territory was formerly Austrian, being ceded to Italy after the first World War. Here live many Austrians as well as the Italians settled by Mussolini. At the Jugoslav border, an infiltration of the Italian-speaking followers of Tito had taken place.

Peter on skis

Peter and a friend training in Colorado before shipping of to the Italian front.

The boys found Tito’s men in Cave del Pravil. “They were against us, they looked on us as meddlers,” David protested. “They walked around like kings. They’d told the people to have nothing to do with us. I know that because I took my laundry to a woman and she wouldn’t do it. She said they’d told her if she had anything to do with Americans, they’d kill her.”
‘Then one day Dave took a walk up the mountain and found one of their guns,” Peter began.

“Yes,” David broke in, “I went up there and I found one of their machine guns all set up, all ready to fire.” Thinking it was a practice gun belonging to his own outfit, he was amazed to identify it as Tito’s. “There wasn’t much left of it when I got through,” he said. “I broke it all to pieces and threw it down the mountain.”

Partisans around Trieste form two groups, Peter said. The Communists want to join Tito and Jugoslavia, while the other group would like to be a separate state, with Trieste an open port. Friction between factions with conflicting objectives creates a state of tension. “You feel the British there, too, sort of feeling of pressure,” Peter suggested, but with this opinion David was not wholly in accord.  “Anyway, something is certainly going to happen there in the Balkans!” Peter exclaimed.

Peter and Jane Schmitt wedding

Peter and his bride Jane on their wedding day,

David Schmitt is going back to school, preparing for college; Peter has a position in New York in commercial art work. Russel Hunt is interested in radio and hopes to make it his career.

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