What is a staff ride? In the summer of 1906, the assistant commandant of the General Service Staff School, Major Eben Swift and 12 officer-students at Fort Leavenworth boarded a train to Georgia. So began the first “Staff Ride” for instructors and students at what is now the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College.
It’s definitely an opportunity to go to a place that has seen battle in the past, and it gives you an opportunity to relive it, to jump back in time and envision history unfold in front of your eyes as you get educated and apply these old techniques to modern day.
I love this idea! Any chance to nerd out and get out of a regular work day to do it, sounds like a great plan to me. For the Sixth Fleet Staff Ride we would be going to the beaches of Salerno Italy to relive an important step during the Italian Campaign.
A couple days before the “field trip” if you will, Miguel and I were asked by the team running the Staff Ride if we would like to be speakers throughout the day. This gave us a chance to meet with the Coordinator, a retired Army Veteran who would be coming out to lead all the events of the Staff Ride.
On 16 July General Marshall made the decision to seize the port in Naples Italy and the airfields at Foggia, about 50 miles NE, followed by an assault up to Rome. The original intention was to land in Naples because of the port town there, but the beaches near Naples were unsuitable for landing operations.
The slopes of Mt. Vesivus heavily dominated the shore and enemy fortified positions proved in-accessible. As an alternative, planners chose the beaches at Salerno some 50 miles South of Naples.
Although the Salerno beaches were overall favorable, the mountains surroundings the Salerno plain would expose invading troops.
In the early morning hours of 9 September, approximately 450 ships were off the coast of Salerno for Operation Avalanche, led by Lt. General Mark Clark. Some had started the journey as early as 5 and 6 September from North Africa.
1 British division participated as well as the 36th Infantry Division, 3 U.S Ranger Battalions, and 2nd and 41st British Commandos were also in the assault element.
Clark hoped to land 125,000 allied troops in Salerno during the landings. After heading up to the Castle^ to look out at where the British landing’s occurred we headed to a beach club called California Lido, where we were able to walk over to one of the beaches, where the American landing’s occurred.
We walked down the beach to an old Italian coastal bunker. The significance of which comes because one day before the landing the Germans came in and took control of all the coastal bunkers from Italians without a single shot having been fired.
Down the road was a 50 ft. tower called the Tower of Pasteum (Torre di Pasteum) that the German’s used as a sniper lookout and also packed with 3, 75-mm self-propelled howitzers. Let me tell you, it was a real bitch for allied forces to eliminate the enemy from the tower, needing a British destroyer with gunfire support to come to the rescue.
Early German Luffwaffe (airplane) slowed near dawn as allied aircraft from Sicily and supporting carriers appeared over the beachhead. 15 tanks of the 16th Panzer Division made the first significant counterattack against the beachhead at 0700 but were driven off by a combination of naval gunfire, artillery, infantry, and engineers.
However, German artillery and mortar fire, as well as continued forays by tank and infantry units, soon disrupted the flow of Allied forces across the beach. In such cases, the actions of men like Sgt. John M. Logan were critical. When his unit was pinned down by machine gun fire coming from a stone wall near the beach, Sergeant Logan advanced some 200 meters toward the gun.
With bullets striking around him, he killed 3 Germans who attacked from a gap in the wall. Under a stream of heavy fire he rushed the machine gun position and killed the gunners and then turned the weapon on the enemy. For his heroic actions Sergeant Logan was awarded the Medal of Honor.
Just a little bit about what exactly was going though the minds of the men that day when they were told to go ashore:
About 03:45, Coxswain Harry Stephens landed with his Platoon on Red Beach. ‘It was still dark, and those 88s were trying to reach us, but luckily we landed safely.’ Stephens recollected. ‘We dug foxholes where we landed and prepared for action.’
Ensign Robert H. Burch Jr. and 26 men landed with Platton B-4 on Red Beach, along with 15 men from 531st Shore Engineers, landed on the Northern half of Red Beach, designated Red Beach 1. Gun fire here was nonexistent and artillery fire sporadic. They immediately found an exit to the road and began laying steel-mat roadway so equipment could cross the soft sand. DUKWs (Duck’s Amphibious Trucks) brought ashore 105mm howitzer’s tank-artillery and armor.
As the sky brightened German fire intensified and machine gunners inside the torre di Paestum began spraying the beach. The sailors could only huncker down in shallow foxholes as bullets clipped the beach grass above their heads. ‘The 88s began firing rapidly’ recalled Stephens. There was a sandbar about 20 to 25 feet from the beach that stopped all LCVPs. When the ramp lowered the men were hesitant about getting their feet wet, until 88s hit the water, one on each side of the boat. Needless to say the craft emptied in a hurry.
‘The German dive-bombers began to drop bombs along the beach area, and one LST had a direct hit. Many lives were lost. If you were caught in the open, all you could do was fall to your face and pray– there was no cover’
As if this weren’t enough, the sailors had to dodge friendly fire. Excited gunners onboard landing craft, aiming at low flying German planes would shoot wildly toward the beach. Shells fired from ships occasionally fell short, producing casualties and caving in the sailors hastily dug foxholes.
The sailors on Blue Beach found themselves alone for 3 hours. When their radios finally died it was assumed that they had been overrun.
Caught between the Germans to their front and the American ships to their rear, the sailors were desperate. Signalman Bingaman made his way to the water’s edge, where he used a pair of handkerchiefs (A PAIR OF HANDKERCHIEFS), to semaphore (signal) word to the ships indicating the presence of sailors on the beach. Fortunately, the signal was seen and and the destroyers shifted fire to the German tanks that were threatening the beach.
Meanwhile, yellow beach was opened up thanks to efforts of the 4th beach battalion. A British vessel was able to come to the aid of yellow beach. Moving close inshore, she poured smoke shells into the Torre Di Pasteum area, enabling men of the 531st shore engineers to storm the strongpoint. The neutralized tanks and machine guns around the tower, cleared out snipers, taking 6 prisoners in the bargain.
This is a tobacco factory where the german’s had their last stand. We were supposed to go here but ran out of time by the end of the day, there were too many places we had to visit.
For lunch, we climbed up into a small town called Altiavilla where one of the restaurants served us a 3 course meal and then afterwards took us to a back room where there was a map that represents how the war affected them.
After lunch, we headed to an estate that was 2 minutes walking from the restaurant known as hill 315 during WWII. Here CPL Charles F. Kelly was a one man hero in a harrowing tale, which Miguel told us.
On 13 September 1943, near Altavilla Italy, CLP Kelly voluntarily joined a patrol which located and neutralized machine gun positions. At one point he headed to hill 315 to establish contact with h a battalion of U.S. infantry that was believed to be located there. He assisted in the neutralization of 2 enemy machine guns requiring great skill and courage. He expended all of his ammo and headed to a ammunition storage area for more. As he approached the Germans were attacking furiously and he decided to help. He was given a mission to protect the rear of the storehouse. He held his position throughout the night in an open window of the storehouse.
Firing upon the Germans, he continued to attack until his weapon locked from overheating. He found another rifle and continued firing until that one also became locked. Desperate he picked up 60mm mortar shells, pulled the safety pins, and used the shells as grenades (He’s a MANIAC), killing at least 5 of the enemy. When it became imperative that the house be evacuated he volunteered to stay behind until the last of the detachment withdrew. As the detachment moved out, CPL Kelly was observed deliberately loading and firing a rocket launcher from the window. He was successful in covering the withdrawl of the unit and later joined up with his own organization! Needles to say he received the Medal of Honor for being one badass Mother Fucker.
After Hill 315 and CPL Kelly’s daring story, we were on the bus again and this time stopped at the Salerno Museum for WWII history. We watched a short video and then meandered around the museum learning facts about the war from the curator.
When my dad came to visit and we drove around to WWII sites he was right in saying that the difference between the European museums and American museums is all of the artifacts. We don’t have very many random things from the war in America because it wasn’t fought there. In Europe they have all kinds of artifacts because they were able to pick things up right from the beaches, grounds, fields, anywhere soldiers passed through and may have dropped something.
As I was going to the bathroom a woman took me out of a back door to show me how they would make small bridges so armored artillery could pass over small rivers without sinking. Ingenious. September 9th 2015 is 72 years later but just standing on the beaches I had a glimpse back in time and its always a good day to remember the fallen and the reason why we are free today.
This article appeared first on The Cassey Excursion.