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John Dawson

2nd Regiment, 1st Special Service Force

 

Arriving in Italy in late November, the 1st Special Service Force was given the formidable task of assaulting the heart of the Winter Line: the twin peaks of Monte La Difensa and Monte Rementanea. On the night of December 2, 600 men from the force’s 2nd Regiment. proceeded to scale the northwest side of Difensa. Starting at roughly the 2,000-foot level was a 70-degree cliff. The Germans considered the north side of the mountain impassable, especially for a night attack, so they left it largely undefended. Using their bare hands and ropes, the North Americans climbed and groped their way up the treacherous slope. Once on top, they overwhelmed the stunned German defenders in a brisk firefight. A few days later, the force crossed a saddle-back ridge, capturing the second peak, Monte Rementanea. The force's capture of the twin peaks cracked the Winter Line, opening the way for an Allied advance toward the final German defenses in the area and another belt of fortifications known as the Gustav Line, anchored by the famed monastery Monte Cassino. John Dawson describes the attack in his e-history.

   Major General Geoffrey Keyes, commanding II Corps, addressed us before the attack. We had quite a cocky reputation and he wanted to trim us down to size. He warned us that war wasn't all Hollywood glamour, and that there was a terrible and negative aspect to war. "Who the hell ever thought otherwise?" was the reaction of the men around me. That thought was with me all through the battle. I had never had illusions, but this challenge came on top of any other uneasiness about how I'd measure up. That was my overriding concern, to keep abreast of the rest of the guys.
The trucks let us off near an artillery battery, and they let go a salvo of artillery about that time. That rubbed the nerves a little. Then from there we had about a two-hour walk over to the lower end of the trail - good, sticky, Italian mud. I was a machine gunner, and was dripping with weapons and ammo - a good 90 pounds.
   The lower end of the trail was largely through scrub thicket-type growth that had three battles' worth of communications wire. The thicket caught anything the branches missed. Rifle, machine gun and parts (.30 caliber) all got caught. To top it off, we were the last company of 2nd Battalion to start. You know that on even a road march, with all the straggling and catching up, the tail-enders practically have to run to keep up. And we had to make it to the jump-off point before daybreak. I made it; we all made it. Just before sunrise the last of us were in a sheltered area.
     The daylight rest did a lot for us, and we were ready for our turn to continue up the slopes. Less mud, no brush, but a lot steeper incline. We then reached the base of the cliffs and began climbing the ropes. The first men of 1st Battalion had done it without ropes, but all of them were a lot lighter loaded than the 2nd Battalion. Between the ropes and an occasional ledge, we finally made it up the cliffs, just as the chatter of small arms fire began.
   There had been no time to be scared. Every smidgen of energy had to be used to overcome the physical challenges. Fatigue, too, seemed to disappear. Once on top, the word came (moments later) for "Reinforcements on the double!" It seems we raced across the saucer (it was fairly flat atop Difensa). I recall a few bodies (German) that we passed. Upper Difensa seemed to be solid rock with boulders and pebbles scattered over them and hardly enough dirt to grow a bush. We still couldn't see very far down the slope, but somehow we got located and partially sheltered ourselves with sort of a rock nest not resembling the traditional fox hole, hoping we'd be able to shoot low enough to clear jutting rocks.
Fortunately, there was no counterattack, but the Germans pounded us with everything from mortars to heavy artillery. There was a sprinkling of casualties, including some 2nd Regiment men, but none close to me. I lost a close friend and section sergeant, Al Neil, that first night. He had gone out to check the outpost, missed it in the fog, and stumbled into the wrong foxhole on the way back. Startled, the men in the foxhole fired, giving him a gut wound that finished him about three months later in a North African hospital. It devastated the men who fired. Their nerves were shot, and they were ridden with guilt feelings until their dying days, years later. After the incident, they were kept on in Battalion and Regimental Headquarters and functioned well, but never again were put up into combat.
    I was a machine gunner and we had our day when 5th Company assaulted a couple of high spots that we called the "pimples." We were to give covering fire, all six light machine guns. It was my first hostile firing. We peppered the area. My gun barrel turned red, then white. Up ahead, I saw a mortar shell land and explode; the next one cut the distance in half. I yelled "roll!" and we were clear when the third shell obliterated our machine gun. It was scrap iron. Our number two ammo carrier got a sliver in his eye; I imagine he lost it, but escaped the rest of the war. We never saw him again.
   We were up there seven days (I believe) with casualties ranging from small arms patrol exchanges to (mostly) artillery, exposure and trench foot cases. I know that 6-2 [6th Battalion 2nd Regiment] had at least seven fatalities; two machine gun crews less lucky than ours plus the others I mentioned. I'm not sure of our total casualties, but there was plenty of space on those trucks going back to Santa Maria.
Difensa was mostly a race within myself. I wanted to keep up with the other guys; I did.

 

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