D-Day Dodgers

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Alex Kershaw
September 7, 2023

The beaches south of Salerno in southern Italy are not crowded with foreign visitors. The surf is high as I walk along Yellow Beach near Paestum. My shoes sink deep into the soft sands and I imagine the young Texans in the 36th Infantry Division who came ashore here on 9 September 1943 as part of Operation Avalanche – the invasion of mainland Italy.

"T-Patchers" of 36th Infantry Division landing near Paestum, 9 September 1943.

That fateful morning machine gun bullets stitched across these sands as the Texans tried to land. There was no element of surprise, no pre-invasion bombardment. Men tried to dig foxholes in the shallows in the face of intense fire. More than two hundred men from the T-Patch division, as the 36th was known, were killed. The Germans had been waiting, so well prepared that they had marked the US Fifth Army’s landing beaches on their maps.

By sundown on 9 September 1943, more than fifty thousand Allies were ashore and had pushed inland as much as eight miles, but a ten-mile gap lay open between the British and Americans, who were both badly in need of reinforcement. Only continuous supporting fire from naval batteries and great courage saved the 36th Division on its first day in battle.

I walk along a dusty street from Yellow Beach to the magnificent ruins of the Temple of Neptune near Paestum, built by the Greeks in 470 B.C., one of three temples in a remarkable state of preservation. I wander past thirty-six ornate Doric columns. They tower above visitors, having survived the Allied shelling and two millennia. I imagine the scene on 9 September 1943 as medics rushed from litter to litter, placed beneath the honey-colored columns, desperately trying to keep some of their fellow Texans alive.

One of the three magnificent temples at Paestum.

The Allies had gotten ashore but only just. On 13 September, “Black Monday” as it became known, the invaders desperately tried to claw their way out of the jaws of defeat. The Germans commanded the high ground and were massing tanks and striking at weak points all along the Allied lines.

Withdrawal was seriously considered. But some refused to countenance retreat. They included Troy Middleton, commanding the 45th Infantry Division. “Put food and ammunition behind the 45th,” he demanded. “We are going to stay here.” All through 14 September the Germans attacked, knowing victory was at hand. Allied artillery was massed in critical areas with gun crews firing as many as ten rounds per minute from hundreds of 105mm howitzers, timing the fire so that shells landed every couple of seconds where the Germans tried hardest to break through American and British lines.

There’s a haunting ruin, much less well preserved than the temples at Paestum, fifteen miles inland, to the north-east. Stray dogs bark as I walk around what remains of the so-called “Tobacco Factory”, now but piles of bricks, strewn with garbage, surrounded by jagged walls. It was here and in the surrounding fields that some of the most desperate fighting in the Italian campaign occurred, where “Thunderbirds” from the 45th Infantry Division managed to save the Allied beach-head and prevent Operation Avalanche becoming a bloody disaster.

Ruins of the “Tobacco Factory”.

By nightfall on 14 September 1943 the German offensive had stalled. Two days later the Americans and British forces linked up and the German commander, Kesselring, ordered his divisions to pull back to higher ground to fight another day. Catastrophe had been averted, but only just.

It’s about 160 miles from Salerno to Rome, the first Axis city to fall in WWII, on 4 June 1944, two days before D Day in Normandy. It took nine long months of attrition before the T-Patchers from Texas reached the Eternal City. Few of those who landed on the soft sands near Paestum were still with the unit. Many are buried today in the Anzio-Nettuno American graveyard, an hour’s drive south of capital.

Over the years, I’ve met a dozen or so men who fought with the “Thunderbirds” in Sicily, at “The Factory”, at Anzio and many other places in Italy. Some were Italian-Americans and had relatives in the villages and towns they set free. They remembered the Italian campaign, which cost over 150,000 US casualties, with pride and sadness and sometimes resentment. They felt that their dead comrades had been too quickly forgotten. Theirs was not a glamorous chapter in the war. There was no single battle such as at Bastogne or legendary beach such as Omaha. Few films were made about their traumatizing slog from mountain to mountain.

The Anzio-Nettuno American Cemetery.

In October, I’ll go back to Italy with a group of supporters of Friends of the National WWII Memorial. Eighty years after the Allies landed in mainland Europe, we’ll visit the mountains where the Texans were decimated. We’ll celebrate the liberation of one of the world’s most magical and magnificent cities. We’ll lay wreaths and pay our respects to the forgotten warriors – the “D Day Dodgers” – who gave their lives to set Italy free.

They were derisively called “D-Day Dodgers” because they were not in Normandy in the summer of 1944. They were apparently sunning themselves in balmy Italy, drinking vino while Americans were slaughtered on Omaha Beach. In fact, far from avoiding hard fighting, many of those who fought in Italy had already seen more than their fair share of combat long before 6 June 1944. D-Day Dodgers indeed. Some of those who landed in Italy 80 years ago this September were getting out of landing craft for the third time. Some had fought all the way from North Africa and across Sicily.