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HILLSVILLE — The 1944 Allied landing at Anzio, Italy, was only supposed to last for a few weeks, but instead troops were stranded on the beach for four months, as wave after wave of enemy soldiers stormed the beachhead in opposition.
Seventy years later, veterans of that battle are still gathering. This year, they met in Hillsville — possibly for the last time.
World War II veteran Clyde Easter and Mavis Puckett greeted fellow veterans and their families as they filed into Hampton Inn’s conference room on the evening of May 17.
Lined up against the back wall were tables filled with World War II memorabilia including books, photographs, news articles, lapel pins and plaques. These were the remnants of battles long past, but to the soldiers who fought on foreign soil and won victory in the name of their country, these memories sometimes still feel like they happened yesterday.
Although some of their stories are painful to tell and to hear, these veterans recognize the importance of sharing them with others, to keep an important part of American history alive.
Every year, World War II veterans of Anzio Beachhead gather for a reunion to feast, fellowship and reflect. Led by Easter, who has been president of the group since 2000, the veterans meet in areas all over the country.
They met in Hillsville this year, near Easter’s home in Fancy Gap, with the belief that it would be their last get-together.
A Heroic Battle
On May 17, the group held a special dinner and ceremony at Hampton Inn, where veterans and their families shared stories of the war over a hot meal.
When Easter first addressed the group, he summarized their shared struggle during the war. On Jan. 22, 1944, at approximately 2 a.m., an invasion fleet of 374 ships and landing craft, under the command of U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Frank J. Lowery, commenced landing troops of the U.S. VI Corps on the beaches of Anzio and Nettuno, Italy, about 30 miles south of Rome.
The mission was code named “Operation Shingle.”
According to the Anzio Beachhead Veterans website, the landings took the Germans by surprise, and 90 percent of the invasion force — consisting of 36,000 men, 3,200 vehicles and supplies — made it to the shore.
The main objective was to establish the beachhead and drive inland, trapping the German forces that were fighting against the U.S. Fifth Army at Cassino, Italy.
Instead, weeks turned into months as the Allied soldiers relentlessly fought against wave after wave of enemies dispatched by Adolf Hitler to eliminate the threat.
“For four months, we were stuck fighting on that beach, and the only way you left was if you were wounded, killed or captured,” Easter told the group. Several veterans at their seats bowed their heads, and nodded in agreement.
The German corps that were assigned to the Anzio front were originally destined for Normandy, but the fighting kept them from reinforcing the defense against the allied invasion on D-Day. “The success of the Allied landings on the beaches in France in June 1944 were due largely to the tenacity of the Allied forces at Anzio,” according to the web site.
A high price was paid for victory: nearly 87,000 casualties, 700 deaths, 36,000 wounded soldiers and another 44,000 soldiers hospitalized for other injuries.
For these efforts, 22 Americans were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the most of any single battle of World War II, the website said.
Memories of War
Easter received a few wounds on the beach, but he considers himself luckier than most.
He shared that, years after the war was over, he visited the same beach where he’d fought. “A reporter once described that I ‘cried a bucket of tears,’ which is fitting. But each teardrop in that bucket brought me closer to being healed,” he said.
Many members of the group still remember the smells, sights and sounds on the beach.
Easter described the ground as muddy and cold. He and his comrades were always dirty and hungry. But even then, he was happier to be on the ground than in the air. “If you were on the ground, at least you didn’t have far to fall,” he said.
After glancing across the room to be sure that everyone had finished their meal, veteran Art Wilson shared that he’d seen his share of filth, as well. As an example, he described the latrines running down the streets and sidewalks in Florence, Italy.
Wilson said he had other memories that were more disturbing than that, and he stated that those stories were his alone.
“It beat all I’d ever seen,” said another veteran from his table, “How every time we would make a spearhead, the [flares] would light that beach up. They always knew what was going on.”
Joe Hilderbrand, who was a member of the Third Infantry Division, took a piece of shrapnel below the knee during battle. He recalled the days and nights that dragged on and on as he and his comrades took turns guarding the foxhole while the others slept.
They relied on supplies that were brought to them at night, when darkness was a fleeting cover. “When the beach would light up, we were told that if we were standing up, to stand still,” he said.
There was no radio to pass the time, so Hilderbrand passed the hours writing letters to his family.
Morris Snyder of Pennsylvania, another member of the Third Infantry Division, was 18 years old when he was drafted. After basic training in Texas, he traveled to Africa, Sicily, Italy and France, where he was captured and held in a POW camp for 228 days.
Snyder had been wounded four times — shot through both legs and pulled out of a foxhole. “I thought [the German soldiers] were going to shoot me, but I spoke fluent German,” he said.
After spending eight months in the camp, he was freed by the Russians along with three others, and they left by horse and buggy. When he made it to the English lines, he had to barter his way back across.
Pattie Essig, Snyder’s daughter, told The Gazette that her father was awarded the Silver Star for Anzio by General Major John W. O’Daniel. She noted that, until recently, her father had been listed as missing in action with the Third Infantry Division. “When he first returned, he was told not to talk about what happened, and he didn’t until 2000,” she said. It was only then that the division was notified that he was still alive.
In the Presence of Heroes
Bob Showalter of the Grover King VFW Post #1115 in Hillsville rose from his seat at one of the head tables, and extended his thanks to the veterans for their part in America’s victory in World War II.
“I am proud to be among you, who swarmed the beachhead at Anzio,” he said. He referred to that day as another D-Day: “They struck at the head, while you struck at the belly.”
“World War II veterans are the best generation in our country. What little freedom there is, you won it,” said Walton Haddix of the Clinton County Historical Society in Albany, Ky.
Haddix is co-coordinator of the Library of Congress Veterans History Project, and is supporting an effort to award the highest medal of honor for bravery in combat to World War II veteran Garlin Murl Conner. According to him, the Army Board of Military corrections has refused a hearing, despite three eyewitness accounts of Conner’s bravery.
Conner, another member of the Third Infantry Division of the U.S. Army, served for 28 months during eight different campaigns. In recognition for his courage and service, he received a number of awards, including four Silver Stars, seven Purple Hearts and the Distinguished Service Cross.
Haddix compared Conner with highly decorated World War II veteran Audie L. Murphy, who served with Conner and shared several campaigns with him. “Both Conner and Murphy fought in several major campaigns — Conner in eight and Murphy in seven. Conner went ashore with General Patton during the first American invasion at Fedalia, French Morocco, in North Africa. They captured Casablanca in four days.
Murphy arrived six months later as a replacement officer and entered combat with Conner during the invasion of Sicily. Both fought on the front lines for an extended period of time, but Conner fought longer.
“Both received battlefield commissions during combat. Both received citations and awards for bravery in combat above and beyond the call of duty, several bronze stars, and Conner received four silver stars to three for Murphy. Both received the Distinguished Service Cross and the French Medal of Honor. Murphy received the Congressional Medal of Honor, Conner did not,” Haddix said.
Most know Murphy’s story, as he later went on to star in a movie about his life. According to Haddix, Murphy was the most decorated American hero of all wars, and his grave in Arlington Cemetery is the second most-visited grave after President John F. Kennedy. He believes that Conner is just as much, if not more, worthy of the medal.
Haddix told the group in Hillsville that he was not willing to give up on this effort. When the medal is finally awarded, he noted that the victory will be dedicated to the Anzio Beach veterans.
Continuing Their Tale
Before the reunion took place, Easter told The Gazette that this would be the group’s last reunion. He explained that the veterans were getting older, and that these get-togethers had become more trying than in the past.
But towards the end of their celebrations, the group had collectively changed their minds. “We are losing nearly a thousand World War II veterans a year in this country… and every one of them has a story to tell,” he said.
At the end of the ceremony, he encouraged the Anzio veterans to share their stories — whether they passed them down to their children and grandchildren, or wrote them in their memoirs.
In closing, he thanked his brothers for their bravery and sacrifice. “We all have a bond that is closer than blood, and we will have that as long as we live.”