With the approach of Nov. 11, we are again reminded of those among us who have served our country, particularly those WW II veterans whose ranks are thinning.
A friend recently told me of one of these men, Ray Flanagan, who happens to be my neighbor. This friend said that while most of the infantrymen serving in Italy were either wounded or deceased within weeks, Flanagan survived that horror for 13 months-- April 1944 until May 1945.
I contacted Ray and we sat down for a visit. He told me that after high school he had worked as a farm hand until his draft number came up in May of 1942. His group of recruits joined others from around the country at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, for Mobilization Training where they became the tight-knit 3rdBatallion, 338th Infantry Regiment. In mid-summer of 1943 they went to Camp Pilot Knob, CA, near Yuma AZ, for desert training. Early in Oct. the whole Division was abruptly ordered to Fort Dix, NJ to prepare for duty overseas. In mid-Dec. they entrained for Camp Patrick Henry near Newport News, VA. From there they embarked (destination unknown) on Dec. 27, 1943, Ray's 22nd birthday. What a birthday present!
The first two days, between choppy seas and the zig-zag anti-submarine maneuvers of the ship, most of the men experienced severe sea sickness. By the third day the weather cleared and turned warmer so the remainder of the trip was much more comfortable. On Jan.7 the ship steamed into the harbor at Casablanca, Morocco. Upon landing, they were taken by truck to a bleak camp nearby. Ray said it was there they were first introduced to the infamous C-Rations, which he disparagingly called 'dog biscuits.'
First they endured rigorous mountain training and next, even more strenuous amphibious training. Finally, on Mar. 22, 1944, their troop transport departed in a convoy from Port Oran, Algeria, hugging the coast of North Africa until they headed due north for Italy. In the distance, as they approached the Port of Naples, they could see both Mt. Vesuvius, erupting for the first time in years, and the famed Isle of Capri. To go ashore at Naples they literally walked on the hulks of damaged ships. In the city, which had been demolished by Nazi forces, they got their first view of war's total destruction.
By April they were headed into combat. Actual engagement began in the mountains about 20 miles north of Naples. Flanagan was in a Heavy Weapons Company, fighting with mortars rather than hand weaponry. The Nazis were entrenched in high fortifications with slits through which they could sight the troops approaching below. In Ray's words, "We were sitting ducks." Having mortars helped a bit as they lobbed missiles at a higher angle, enabling them to be more effective. His description of their circumstances as they proceeded north toward Rome was chilling. The treacherous terrain was said to be difficult even for the sure-footed mule trains carrying supplies.
At this point my account falters. Like so many others with combat experiences that boggle the mind, Ray was not very talkative about it all. In the end, these troops succeeded in reaching Rome, an accomplishment at which even Hannibal had once failed. As Rome had been declared an Open City it had escaped destructive bombing. Seeing its splendors provided unforgettable memories for those infantrymen. From there they soon continued on northward pursuing the retreating Nazis.
In May of 1945, when the war in Europe was officially over, things eased only a bit, for they knew they'd soon be sent to fight the Japanese in the Pacific Theater. One can only imagine the relief that came when final victory was declared following the deployment of those bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
History relentlessly continues on its course, leaving heroes in its wake--heroes whom we must acknowledge and honor while they are still with us, no matter how reluctant they may be to accept that designation.