An account of the actions of 2nd Lt John Thule, Sgt Summers, and PFC Underwood at the Battle of Salerno.
At 0330 hours the ramp on the landing craft hit the sands of the Paestum beaches. 2nd Lt. John Thule yelled “Forward!” and ran through the surf and across the 40 yards of beach, trusting his platoon to follow. The expected withering fire did not materialize as the platoon entered the sand dunes just east of the beaches.
Hunkering down in the sand dunes and scrub grass, Sgt Summers took the first head count. Somehow, in less than a hundred yards of movement half the platoon went missing. Mentally ticking off the names, Lt. Thule, PFC Underwood the medic, privates Gambini, McClure, and Bachelus from Summer’s squad, and eight privates from 2nd and 3rd Squads, no sign of the other squad leaders . Cosby, Kilmer, and Ramos, Robbins from 2nd squad, with Khan, Hojnacki, Parker, and Furst from 3rd squad. Sgt Summers also counted off three men from 2nd platoon, Cpl Kirschenbaum, PVTs Ciminello and O’Hara.
Lt. Thule surveyed the area trying to pinpoint their landing position when across a loud speaker in thick German accented English a voice said “Americans! Come on in, we are waiting for you!” More motor engines could be heard in the surf behind signifying another wave was landing and Lt. Thule knew they needed to push inland to make room for following waves, but “the silence” he thought to himself. “This is fucked up” Thule said to no one in particular. Lt. Thule looked over at the nearest private, pulling him close to recognize his face, “Gambini, go down along the beach and see if you can link up with the other platoons or find the CO Captain Selkirk.” “Velcome to Itali” the loudspeaker said. Gambini crawled off through the tall scrub cursing under his breath, “Goddamn LT.”
More motor boat engines could be heard towards the surf and as if on cue, there was a tremendous crash of machine gun fire ripping through the dune scrub with mortars and shells crashing on the beach and out in the surf. There was an enormous explosion behind them towards the beach, followed by the screams of wounded men. Before he could stop him, if he were even inclined to do so, Summers saw the medic Underwood leap up and run back towards the beach. Lt Thule gave the order to move inland, with a last glance at the disappearing Medic and a shrug Sgt Summers called out, “On me men, keep low, stay on line and keep your gear quiet.”
Moving another 40 to 50 yards inland, machine guns continued to spray the dunes and a mortar fell uncomfortably close to the platoon shaking some of the green Privates. Nearing what appeared to be the end of the dunes the platoon suddenly came under fire from an MG-42 positioned across a creek to their left. The rapid firing weapon was clawing at the sand around them. Recognizing the extreme danger of their position immediately, Sgt Summers led a team of men down to the creek and tumbled down into the water. Peeking over the far bank he saw a dark rock building with muzzle flashes coming from a first story window. Using the bank as cover they laid down a terrible fire at the flashes from the window and to good effect as the fire stopped momentarily. Using the respite, Sgt Summers led the team over the bank to within 15 yards of the building tossing grenades inside. The resulting explosions killed a crewmen and the remaining crew ran out the other side of the building and disappeared in the darkness. Sgt Summers leaned against the building listening to the raging battle, momentarily at least, satisfied at having struck the enemy.
Pfc Underwood was running back to the beach, towards the sounds of wounded men. Through the scrub and down on to the beach with machine gun fire ripping the sand all around him. Off shore a landing craft was burning in the shallow water and dead men lay on the sand, and some bobbed in the gentle surf. Crawling from body to body, Underwood checked for signs of life and after failing to find any – he rummaged gear for anything useful. Having failed to find any wounded men to help or useful equipment, he threw a smoke grenade out to provide himself some concealment and ran back towards the dunes as fast as he could with random machine gun rounds zipping the air around him. He fell into the sand and took a deep breath, lamenting the futility of the dash he had made, and the idiocy of having done it when off to his flank came the sounds a bushes rustling as if someone were approaching. Aiming his M1 at the sounds, he quietly but forcefully said the challenge “Flash!”, and after a moment’s pause came the reply “Thunder!” Slithering through the dunes was the familiar face of Gambini. “I didn’t find a Goddamn thing” he said “Where is everyone?” Looking around, Underwood realized the squad was no longer where they had been, “Shit!”
Peering through the darkness around them, Lt Thule recognized the creek on their left as the demarcation between the 1st and 3rd battalions of the 141st Regiment. Sgt Summers had crossed over into the 3rd Battalion’s area of operations when he attacked that MG-42. Running down into the creek, Lt. Thule called to Sgt Summers to return to south bank then they took cover in the dunes and planned their next move. Pulling his map out, Lt. Thule opined that they had indeed hit the correct landing area on the left flank of Yellow Beach. The designated assembly areas would be found if they just kept moving straight. There was no sign of any other units, Gambini, or the crazy Medic. Tucking his map away in its satchel Lt. Thule was just about to order a continuation of the platoon’s movement when all ears heard and turned towards the collection of buildings across the creek, “diesel engines” he thought to himself, and his heart threatened to pound out of his chest. “Fuck me” a voice in the dunes said, “Fuck us” another replied. Everyone suddenly wanted more distance between themselves the revving engines in the village. “We ain’t got no Bazookas” Gambini added because that is what Gambini does, states the obvious and adds to good cheer. Sgt Summer’s nudged Lt. Thule and said “Is the sky getting lighter over the mountains?”
Thule glanced at his watch but it was hard to make out, “Might be” he said continuing to assess the situation, “We can’t stay here.” Calling for the radio Thule made an attempt to get the CO Selkirk on the line. For moments nothing came over, then Lt. Wilcox from 2nd platoon came on and attempted to give Thule his location, nothing from Selkirk. Pulling his map out, Thule reckoned 2nd Platoon’s position as across the road and off to the right. Thule decided to get across the road and link up with 2nd Platoon. “What do you think Sgt Summers?” asked Thule. “Well, if we get caught by APCs on that road, our assess will be hanging out for sure, we best move away from the village and cross farther down.”
The platoon moved south south-east down the road and away from the village; Sgt Summers led his first squad followed by Thule and Underwood then 2nd Squad with 3rd Squad bringing up the rear. Reckoning they’d traveled far enough, Thule brought the platoon back towards the road to assess their chances of getting across. It was hazardous, no doubt about it. Sgt Summers volunteered to go across and check the other side, Lt. Thule detailed Gambini to assist. “Goddamn LT, you already gave me one shitty job tonight” and with that Lt. Thule picked McClure to assist the Sgt while lecturing Gambini on his lack of promotion potential.
Sgt Summers peered out along the road, it was hard to see much but the road seemed to bend down towards the south south-east direction. The north looked worse, or sounded worse, with the sounds of those motors still echoing in memory. With a nod and a rush, Summers and McClure sprinted across the road. A rapid burst of MG-42 fire shot straight down the road from the bend toward the south narrowly missing the pair as they tumbled into the far ditch. “Yeah, no shit” mumbled Gambini. Lt. Thule glared at Gambini then crawled to the road edge to get a look at where that fire came from, he placed it maybe 100 yards down the road. Making a rapid tactical decision Thule looked to the second platoon men, “Cpl Kirschbaum, take your team along the road, stay in the dunes, then come at that gun from the flank. We’ll provide a base of fire from here.” With a look of consternation Cpl Kirschbaum said “Yes Sir” and his team crawled out into the dunes and disappeared in the darkness. The Platoon waited under the sounds of war.
Thule was trying to determine the rate of travel Kirschbaum’s team would make and when to lay some fire down on that MG when the ominous sounds of tracks could be heard coming down the road from the village to the north. Sgt Summers shouted across the road, “Those ain’t no APCs, those are tanks!” He and McClure shot back across the road, all thoughts of the MG position forgotten and Lt. Thule ordered the men further into the dunes and away from the road, Sgt Summer’s now leading the way. Fast crawling and knee running the Platoon was almost clear when the tank engines suddenly cut power and the track clanking stopped, the whirl of turret sounded in the dark and bursts of machine gun fire ripped through the third squad before they could get clear in the dunes. Men screamed and Sgt Summers threw a smoke grenade to help conceal movement. Forward they went, leaving their dead, or perhaps only wounded comrades behind.
“I seen a Bazooka earlier, on a dead guy” Gambini said. Thule looked back at him, “Where at?”