Brothers in arms: Peter and David Schmitt in Italy, 1945—Part 2

David, oil on canvas, 1942.
According to David’s daughter Cathy, Carl Schmitt painted this portrait of his son shortly before he left home in January, 1943, to remember him in case he never came back.

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.”

Men of the 10th Mountain Division march across the snow with Mt. Belvedere n the background, late winter 1945.

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.

Peter (left) and David Schmitt as members of the 10th Mountain division training in Colorado, 1944.

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.”

Men of the 10th Mountain Division unload supplies after crossing the Po River near San Benedetto, Italy, April 1945.

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.

Peter in his full winter gear training in Colorado, 1944.

To be continued . . .


Brothers in arms: Peter and David Schmitt in Italy, 1945—Part 1

Peter (left) and David Schmitt as members of the 10th Mountain Division during training in Colorado for their deployment overseas, 1944.

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.

Peter Schmitt in his technical officer’s field uniform.

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.

Peter Schmitt (in dark trousers) in the filed as a radio operator, 1945.

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.

Troops of the 10th Mountain Division marching in Italy, April, 1945.

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 . . .