The milk farm, Italy WWII
The replacement system in WWII has had a lot of criticism, and maybe a bit of it was earned. I went through it and survived, but it was quite an experience to have before and after assignment to the lines.
I had gone to Italy on a troop ship from Newport News, VA, departing in July 1944, and arriving at Naples, Italy, a couple of weeks later. Mooring in Naples gave the thousands of replacements aboard their first sight of the wreckage caused by war. Our troop ship tied up to a big ship that was on its side, and we off-boarded onto the side of that ship going to the dock. We were marched to a railroad where we boarded a 40-and-8 boxcar that took us on a short ride to Caserta. From there we were marched to a huge replacement camp; it had been Count Ciano’s dairy farm.
The dairy farm was a new kind of camp for us as there were few structures and some big tents. We were broken up into groups and told to pitch pup tents along a line after making a dirt form to keep rain from seeping into the tents. Two to a tent was the drill, and I partnered with a nice fellow I’d met on the ship. This is where we were to sleep and live until we were shipped further. There were mess tents nearby, and each of them fed about 1,000 men.
The food was passable, but the lines took a lot of the day, and so did the lines for cleaning our mess kits.
This camp was made to accommodate replacements for a short period of time, but the invasion of southern France was to take place in August, and it was expected that many replacements would be needed. Alas, it was an easy invasion with few casualties, so few of us were needed in France. Instead, the 5th Army in northern Italy had plenty of casualties, so that was our destination.
A new job
One day I saw a “cook” from our mess packing to leave. I asked him about it, and he said he was going north. I ran over to the mess tent, and volunteered to take his place. The mess sergeant asked me about my skills and I somehow managed to get the job. Although it meant starting at 0400, and working till 2200 or 2300, every third day I could get a pass to Naples. I did my best — which was good enough as there was very little real cooking, mostly a lot of hard pumping to make the gas stoves work.
I stayed there until the end of September when I was called to pack and board a boxcar; it took us two days to get to Florence. On the way, two fellows were killed — one was on the roof of a boxcar when we got to a tunnel; the other fell between two cars. It was a slow trip, with lots of pauses near farms with wine for sale. Once we got to Florence we were housed in a pleasant camp with wood-framed pyramid tents, but I was only there a few days.
The next trip was a 6×6 ride up Highway 65, which took me to the 88th Division HQ. We spent one night there dug in on a hill. We had been warned of possible shellfire, and thought it was just a joke on us green doggies. It wasn’t, and several of our new replacements were hit. We had another C ration meal, and then were split up and taken to our new units.
A few of us ended up with the 2nd platoon of H Company of the 350th Infantry Regiment. I was a heavy machine gunner, and this platoon was supposed to have four squads with these water-cooled guns. However, the battalion had just been relieved after a very costly battle for Mount Battaglia in which the battalion was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation, and the CO of G Company received a Medal of Honor. There were not too many survivors, and the ones there were not a happy crew. Sergeant Mazzarella questioned me, and when he heard that I had 16 months on these guns, he appointed me a gunner. I did not quite realize why the survivors did not want the gunner’s job, but they knew the score all too well. Sergeant Mazzarella left that day as he was to be commissioned, and Sergeant Forbes took over.
My replacement days were over all too soon. We got into several scraps in which quite a few of those who had come up with me went back over the pack saddles of mules. Their experiences in combat were short and deadly. A good measure of the KIA/MIA rate was the fact that I was promoted 10 days after I arrived with my platoon.
Through October until the war in Italy ended, we had a steady stream of replacements. We called many of them Camp Blanding Commandos, having only 16 weeks training at Camp Blanding in Florida. The assignment of junior officers was even worse; they were given patrols before they knew where they were.
I’ll end with the tale of my brother Joe, who was assigned to the 80th Division during the Battle of the Bulge. After just 13 hours with his outfit he was taken back to an ambulance and spent the rest of the war in a hospital. He survived with a 45% disability.
It is worth noting that the Army Specialized Training Program was broken up in the winter of 1944-45, and those poor ex-students, about 145,000 of them, were fed into the replacement system whether they were reasonably trained or not. That is a story unto itself.