Carl Schmitt’s sons Peter and David served with the famed 10th Mountain Division of the 86th Infantry in the Italian Campaign of 1945. In Part I we met the boys and their comrade Russell Hunt as they faced the challenges of life on the front lines. In this installment we hear stories of the Italian Resistance against the German army and reaction to the death of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini in April, 1945.
The three New Canaan men landed at Naples on December 24, 1944, the 86th being the first of the 10th Division regiments to arrive in Italy. On Christmas Day they were in box cars, headed for Leghorn, and they went right into the line at Pisa. The Germans were starting a push in Sercio Valley, and the 92nd Division needed support. The Regiment then returned to Leghorn for further training (“We had to learn about mines,” Peter Schmitt explained), after which it was ordered to San Marcello.
“That was the first time we were actually fighting,” Hunt said. “I was always sending orders. A messenger would bring them up. They were anything that had to go to another battalion, orders to move or fall back, or about supplies . . . ” San Marcello, he called “just a mountain town — but it wasn’t touched by shells or bombs, because the people paid a ransom to the Germans.” Snow was on the heights and up there they were often on skis, while down below it was usually raining, and everywhere “the mountains were all shot up, the trees all blasted to pieces.”
They were at San Marcello throughout February. The Schmitts used to visit with the local peasants, and Peter did a lot of interpreting for the Army. Northern Italy was terrifically anti-fascistic. The partisans, who were very efficient, worked under U. S. Army orders and pay. Dressed in civilian clothes and provided with the proper papers, they would go through the German lines at night and bring back information. “I went up to a little town with the partisans,” David remembered, “and I saw their reports, pointing out machine gun nests, telling how many trucks the Germans were moving in — they were very complete.”
He nodded his head in affirmation. After the surrender of Italy, the Germans took out slave labor, the boys said. They wanted to send the young men into Germany. Naturally, the young men didn’t want to go, so they would hide. The Germans usually killed some member of their family, a wife or a father or mother. Then there was the case of the man who wanted to side with Badoglio ; so he laid down his arms and deserted the Fascist Army. The Germans, who had the Italian Army lists, would go to the homes of all such people and bum them down. The Italians, against whom these reprisals were made, were possessed with one idea: they devoted their time to kicking out the Germans.
On February 19th began the drive to take Mt. Belvedere. By the 25th, this mountain, which had been taken and lost several times, was captured. Successive peaks were taken the first two weeks in March, with the enemy entrenched in the high spots and the fighting severe. The little terraced gardens that Italians make up the side of a mountain were German machine gun nests, overlooking the approaches. The big Allied push started on April 14th, English, Australians, Brazilians and Americans. Coming down the last peaks of the Apennines into the Po Valley, the 10th Division cut the main highway into Bologna, thus enabling other units to capture the city. Peter Schmitt said the valley was like a basin, and sketched a map in a broad oval shape divided by the main road running north and wt across on a shallow diagonal by the river flowing northeast.
‘The first day going up the valley, we covered a terrific distance,” Hunt said. “The Germans were moving back as fast as they could go, — they left everything they had behind them. But the river crossing was very hard; they were ready for us there.”
The Po is about half a mile wide. Hunt crossed on a duck, a boat on wheels which carries two jeeps and twenty men. Shells were coming over all the time, he said, and two men with him were hit. Peter Schmitt said German AA guns were putting time bursts over the river. “That’s what got most of the guys in boats,” he said.
Beyond the Po, there wasn’t much fighting. “We went up to Verona and the big, snow-capped peaks of the Alps were all around us,” he went on. “We were making a lunge toward Brenner Pass, and they decided to go by Lake Garda, pummeling the main road.” On this Lake was located Mussolini’s villa, near which he was captured by partisans and taken to Milan to be executed. In Verona, the boys heard church bells tolling, and got word of his death from the local people.
To be continued . . .