In northern Italy in 1944, of the twelve men in an infantry rifle squad, ten were just nineteen years old-and all draftees who had never before seen combat action. Former combat rifleman Myron Peterson narrates a poignant story told through not only his eyes, but also of the eyes of his fellow infantry members who, despite their innocence, would be forever changed from their war experiences. Told through actual letters sent from the home front that relay one family's worries and attempts to boost and sustain the morale of their loved one, Peterson shares a never-before-seen glimpse into how the love of his family and friends helped one soldier keep his dreams alive-even as destruction and death surrounded him.
Time Capsule-1944 shares the incredible account of how a few courageous young men who never asked to be soldiers became heroes.
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Time Capsule—1944A Story of World War II
By Myron C. Peterson
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2010 Myron C. Peterson
All right reserved.
Chapter One"If I were in the infantry again I think I'd be worried about the Gothic Line. It's nice to see you Yanks so happy," Everet, the British sergeant major lifts his glass of cognac. "Then, again, what else can you do? When we were fighting Rommel in the desert it was hot as hell and all we had to eat was bully beef. It was bully beef, bully beef, bully beef! Yet, I think our morale was higher then than it is now."
"We're happy because we're not going to have to worry about that Gothic Line," Ayers says. "Keep the vino flowing. Tonight we feel like celebrating. We've finally been placed in reserve! Our whole damn division has been placed in Fifth Army reserve!"
"That's right," Marty nods. "The Eighty-fifth took over our place in the line. We exchanged places. They've been in reserve since the fall of Rome-over two months. Now it's our turn!"
"Well, this is more of an occasion than I imagined," Everet grins. "When we planned this party we thought we'd cheer you up, but you don't need much of that."
"We're flying high tonight," Ayers agrees. "Look around. Our whole platoon is getting smashed."
"Why not?" Everet nods. "What else can you do in this bloody country?"
The party has been going on for two hours and the empty bottles are mounting. Outside of a little vino it is the first liquor most of us have seen in months.
In fact, most of us aren't even legal drinking age. Of the twelve men in the squad only Marty, the squad leader, and Martin, the assistant, are over twenty-one. Marty is the old man of the group at twenty-three. Martin is twenty-one. The rest, including myself, are all nineteen.
However, in the army age doesn't matter. It's how you do your job that counts. In a combat zone who worries about trivialities?
This friendly and somewhat drunken association of allies that is extending late into the night started in a very casual way.
When our company pulled back from the front the trucks left us in the middle of an olive orchard near Florence during a heavy rain storm. The supply trucks with the tents had failed to meet us. We stood around all afternoon waiting in the driving rain. It was too muddy to sit down anywhere and we had no field jackets or rain coats. All we could do was shrug up our shoulders to try to keep the cold water that was pouring off our helmets from going down our necks.
There were some farm houses near-by, but we had received orders not to bother the local civilians. For a while most of us sang to keep up morale. We were led by Barnes, a big rifleman from New York who had a booming voice, but gradually the number of singers dwindled until Barnes' voice was all we could hear.
"Where the hell is everyone going?" Ayers asked.
"Anyplace would be better than this," I said.
"Let's check out that house over there," Ayers suggested. "Maybe there's a stable. An American soldier should rate as high as a cow."
I was agreeable to this. With evening coming on and still no sign of the trucks with the tents, it seemed ridiculous to stand around in the dark.
As we suspected, a room on the back of the house turned out to be a stable, and we weren't surprised to find most of our platoon lying in the hay.
"Go into the house," Martin said when he saw us dripping water all over. "There's a fire in the fireplace and the people will let you dry off. Go on! Everyone's been doing it."
We followed the suggestion and the farmer's wife pushed us over to the roaring fire. When we were dry we joined the rest of our buddies in the soft hay. The next morning the weather cleared and the supplies arrived. We were busy setting up the camp when the English sergeant major wandered into the area and introduced himself.
"Everet's the name," he said smiling. "I'm with that signal company just down the road. We saw you arrive yesterday during that beastly storm, so I thought I'd drop over and invite a few of you Yanks to a party we're having tonight."
"We never turn down an invitation to a party," Ayers said, and there was a chorus of agreement from all around.
"Don't worry about the drinks," Everet said. "We've plenty of cognac and vermouth on hand. Every day we send someone out for a fresh supply."
Once the party started all formality melted away and shyness faded. The British and Americans mingled together like cousins at a family reunion, and the abundance of vermouth killed any inhibitions.
"This place is like a canteen," I tell Everet as I look around at the large room that opens to a walled courtyard. It easily accommodates the hundred or more men who are standing around or sitting at the picnic style tables.
"We selected the place for that reason," Everet agrees.
The party is well planned and includes entertainment. Some of the British hosts are dressed up in funny clothes and begin acting out comedy skits and telling dirty jokes. When there is a lull, small groups get up to sing. The British start it and then urge the Americans to follow suite.
When a song is familiar, others standing around the room join in the singing. Some are songs that only the British know, and there are others that only the Americans know, but there are a surprising number that everyone sings together.
"I'm Clemens," an English soldier extends his hand to me. "And this is Jock," he adds, placing his hand on a buddy's shoulder. "We call him Jock because he's from Wales. Everyone from Wales is Jock."
"Like someone from Texas is Tex," I suggest.
"That's it," Clemens smiles.
"Well, I'm Ron ," I introduce myself. "I'm from California."
"California! Hollywood!" Clemens exclaims.
"From Los Angeles—Hollywood is part of Los Angeles."
"American pictures are great. Do you ever see any of the movie stars?"
"I've seen a few—not many."
"I hope you've never seen a British film," Everet joins in, frowning. "They're terrible. The Americans know how to make films."
"Except when they show British royalty," Jock interrupts. "When they show everyone bowing down and all I just scoot down in my seat."
"Oh, have you met Ayers?" I change the subject. "This is my buddy Ayers."
Ayers smiles showing his very white teeth that are in strong contrast with his olive complexion.
"Ayers and I have been digging in and pitching tent together since I first met him when I joined the company as a replacement."
Ayers has a lean, serious face with dark, alert eyes that dart around, missing very little. He is very social and quick to join into a conversation.
Clemens and Ayers are soon talking on and on. I take another drink of vermouth and let my mind drift back in time. Ayers didn't have that happy look on his face when I first met him. That was the day I first smelled death.
"Every time you go up to the front you get more scared, Wallace said.
Wallace, with his freckled face and boyish smile was sitting on the ground in the middle of the dusty path. His wool, olive drab shirt and pants were already comouflaged by a layer of summer dust. Wallace was talking like a veteran, and although he was only nineteen, to us he was a veteran. He had been at the front for several months as a combat rifleman, and now he was leading our group of twelve men up to his battalion, up to the front.
I still couldn't believe we were getting close, for the countryside looked the same as in the rear areas, the same rolling hills covered with grape vines and stalks of corn. The beautiful summer day was enough to give you spring fever, with fresh green shrubbery all around and a bright blue sky overhead.
"Come on, everyone, the break's over," Wallace said. "And when we start moving, keep down. There could be Jerries in those hills."
We continued our journey that had started at the replacement depot at Caserta a few days before. Trucks hauled us from there to Naples, and in the late afternoon we boarded some waiting ships, infantry landing craft.
After dark our group of flat bottomed boats sailed out of Naples' huge harbor and headed North along the coast. The sea was rough and all night the boats bucked and rolled. They reared high, crashed back and smacked the surface, sending gallons of salt water down below the deck into the large room where we lay on our cramped bunks. Our field packs and rifles were hung on pegs along the walls, but as the small craft shuddered and groaned it smashed our gear to the floor and kept us busy all night picking things up. Who could sleep any way? We were all dazed, light headed and nauseated. I kept stuffing my stomach with crackers hoping to keep everything down.
In the early morning the sea was calm so we were allowed up on deck. Weak in the knees, we lined the rail to watch as we entered a small harbor, littered with sunken ships and floating debris. Out in the bay a freighter was anchored, her hoists discharging cargo into an amphibious landing craft tied along side.
Our little ship pulled neatly up to a shattered dock and efficiently dropped a side ramp. When the ship's engines stopped, the sudden, absolute silence was startling.
We eagerly disembarked, throwing our packs down on the dock to create our own seats, and soon everyone was sprawled around waiting for the trucks that were scheduled to meet us. We passed the time watching the amphibious craft, called a duck, pull away from the freighter in the bay and plow through the blue water to the shore, where, like a giant turtle, it lumbered up onto the sand. It seemed like a slow, unpressured operation with only three men working on the gigantic task of unloading supplies.
The tranquility of the morning was shattered by high pitched squeeling and the roaring of engines as a column of trucks filled the air with dust. Soon we were aboard and moving again.
When we left the dock area and entered the town a spontaneous hush fell over us. We were bouncing along over pieces of rock as the trucks picked their way through a labyrinth of devastation. The total destruction had left the town a jungle of rubble. We moved along passing block after block where the buildings were reduced to piles of rock a few feet high. In the entire town only a few tottering piles of rubble broke the skyline.
The church, the heart of this small town's life, was marked by a pile of scattered stone and the broken wall of the sanctuary. A woman, an old man and two children were picking among the ruins gathering sacred objects.
Beside the town sprawled the cause of its destruction, the large mass of twisted iron beams and wrecked railroad cars that had once been a steel mill. Allied bombers had left it black and broken. A boxcar and a locomotive were sticking out of a mountain side above the town at grotesque angles as if they were gathered by a giant hand and hurled in rage.
An older soldier sitting next to me in the truck watched for a while and then spoke angrily.
"If there was a God in heaven do you think he would permit this?"
I said nothing, but looked in stunned silence at this massive ruin. There was little left of this historic town of Piombino.
The persistant trucks carried us away from the depressing scene and into the green hills of the countryside. We passed through small villages filled with cheering people holding up their hands, waving and giving us the V sign. And there were children calling out for candy, which the G.I.s took from their rations and tossed from the trucks. The adults also waited with anxious faces, hoping for cigarettes.
We passed through the courtyard of a convent and onto an open valley where army engineers were constructing a new camp. There were great piles of equipment in the fields, pieces of a jig saw puzzle waiting to be assembled. As yet there was no water, but a portable derrick marked the place where the engineers were drilling a-well. At this point our trucks stopped to wait for darkness before continuing the journey.
Some of the waiting G.I.s went into the surrounding fields and spent the time helping the local farmers pitch hay into a brightly colored cart. The farmers laughed and thanked everyone. They said they were short handed because of the war. Then they asked if it were true that the American farmers had machines to do all the work. Communication was difficult because of our limited knowledge of the language, but somehow there was understanding.
More trucks arrived and two G.I.s began tossing duffle bags off the trucks into the fields. When they yelled for us to find our own we began searching through the mounds. The bags were all alike except for the black stenciled names on them. After combing through them all several times I was convinced that my bag wasn't there.
"Where are the rest?" I asked the driver. "That's it," he said. "There are no more." "But, mine is missing," I protested.
"These are all we have," he said. "Maybe it got sent to the wrong place. It'll catch up with you later."
With the coming of night the line of metal machines started forward again. Like nocturnal animals they crawled through the moonless night without headlights, creeping along roads that I couldn't see. How could our silent driver find his way through the hilly terrain?
When a wrecked truck blocked the road, we were ordered out and told to bed down for the night. Earlier we had heard some artillery firing in the distance, but it had become as completely silent as it was dark.
In the morning the trucks tried to take us farther, but when we entered a small village we encountered another problem. A burned out jeep stretched its black skeletin across our path. Just as the drivers got out to investigate, some enemy artillery shells blasted the town. Instinctively, abandoning the trucks we all raced for cover.
Mortar shells were falling in a ravine ahead of us, so we were ordered to wait until the afternoon before attempting to move forward. Later, when we finally started out again, another mortar barrage hit the ravine. We were then told to dig slit trenches and prepare to spend the night.
Just before sundown we saw some G.I.s taking some German prisoners to the rear. The Jerries stumbled along single file with their hands resting on the tops of their heads.
During the night we heard the truck engines start up again. Dark shadows backed up and pulled away, deserting us, going like phantoms in the night back along the invisible road. Overhead we heard the hiss of passing artillery shells.
At the first light of morning a young lieutenant called out our names and assigned us to company groups. From that point on we would proceed on foot.
Wallace had been sent back to lead our twelve man group of replacements up to our companies. We had been following him for six hours along a narrow dusty path. The weather was hot and our canteens had been almost dry for hours. Wallace told us that rain water puddles was about the only source of water around.
"We're leaving the path now," Wallace said. "We're almost there."
Climbing up a small hill we walked into a forest of large trees with massive, spreading limbs. The shadowy patches on the ground created moving patterns with the sunlight, but suddenly those shadows were helmets and faces. We were walking among clusters of men reclining on the ground or sitting with their backs propped up against the trees. Most of them were quietly eating their K rations.
"This is your company," Wallace said, turning to me. "You're in the same company I'm in. Over there is Denny, your platoon sergeant."
Sergeant Denny was sitting casually on the ground leaning against a tree. He was small with a trim, muscular build. His blue eyes were sparkling and friendly, and his close cut red hair matched his short mustache. He smiled, without getting up, when Wallace introduced me.
"You'll be in the first platoon," he said without hesitation. "Is that a communication unit?" I asked. "I'm a telephone lineman."
"We don't need any lineman," Denny abruptly answered. "Here you're a rifleman."
"But I've never been trained as a rifleman," I protested. "I was in the tank destroyers in basic, and have been in communications section of a headquarters company since then."
"Maybe sometime we'll need a lineman," Denny said. "Now we need riflemen, so you're a rifleman."
It was settled, and I was not happy about this turn of events. I had never been in a line company and was not sure what was expected of me.
"Where's the front?" I asked.
"This is it," Denny answered.
"But it's so quiet. I don't hear any shooting."
Excerpted from Time Capsule—1944 by Myron C. Peterson Copyright © 2010 by Myron C. Peterson. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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