THE BATTLE OF SAN PIETRO (8th December - 17th December 1943)

In 1943, San Pietro Infine was a town of about 14.000 people (in the last census), a farming community. It was founded in year 1000 AD on the slope of Monte Sammucro, to be protected from the barbarians attacks. It is located in a very strategic location north of Naples, South of Rome along the Via Casilina, known as Route 6. The Germans saw the defensive value of San Pietro with its thick stonewalls and its commanding view of Monte Lungo and Route 6. In September 1943, soon after the surrender of  Italy  the first Germans arrived, occupied San Pietro and began turning it into a command post and the defensive anchor at the eastern end of the Liri Valley. What was once a peaceful farmer village became a strong blocking position.The German occupying forces seized the only few cars  in the town, all of its donkeys and mules and whatever firearms they possessed. However, that was only the beginning. Next they conscripted every male between fifteen and forty-five and had them digging trenches and hauling ammunition as they prepared defenses around the town and on Monte Sammucro (hill 1205 which is the hight in meters). Those that were able to flee hid in a series of nearby caves but for the remainder who slaved for the Germans it was a hellish existence. Life in the caves was equally dire: food and water became scarce and along with the numbing cold soon began taking its toll. The citizens of San Pietro began to die, some brutalized by the Germans, others from starvation, illness and the cold. The parish priest, in charge of the food gave 30 figs to each person and they had to last one month. In the caves a baby was born and when the Americans free the town, the chaplain baptised the baby and named him "Rosevelt" after the American President of the United Staes of America "Rosevelt"  Rosvelto Cortellessa is  77 years old and lives in near village of San Vittore. 

The two most difficult obstacles for the Americans to crack the enemy's line of defense, were Mount Lungo and Mount Sammucro. It took a week of fierce fighting  by  the 36th Division, the 504th Parachute infantry Regiment of the 82d Airborne before Mt. Sammucro finally fell. Monte Lungo was equally bloody: it was a task assigned to the 142nd regiment of the 36th Texas Division and the 1st Italian Motorized Group, 5000 volunteers who joined, in this battle, the Americans for the first time after the surrender of Italy. San Pietro fell to the U.S. II Corps on December 15.  The battle for the Mignano Gap and San Pietro costed some 16,000 Allied casualties. The battle completely destroyed the town. In the  late 40's the new San Pietro Infine was rebuilt lower in the valley. The ruins of the old village are a stunning reminder  of what happened here more than 75 years ago. It is the only town not rebuilt on the same location after the war. A visit to the ruins is highly recommended  to fully comprehend what happened to any italian village strategically located along Route 6, a vital artery for the Allies to reach the Eternal City. 

Sources: Martin Blumenson, United States Army in World War II: Salerno to Cassino, 1969; Rick Atkinson, The Day of Battle, 2007 



By, early December the Allied forces had moved into position before the Liri Valley, located some 60 miles North West of Naples and about 90 miles south of Rome. John Huston was invited to make a documentary film about the battle of San Pietro. When the documentary was shown for the first at the Pentagon it was considered too graphic for its depiction of the horror of war. Some of the scenes in the film depict dead GI’s being loaded into body bags and for what some in the army perceived as its anti-war tone. 

Despite the controversy, Army chief of staff, Gen. George C. Marshall, supported the film but ordered that it be drastically edited nearly in half. It was eventually released for public viewing in 1945 and has since been regarded as a classic war film, and, in 1991, The Battle of San Pietro was later selected for permanent preservation by the U.S. National Film Registry.

Although the film was largely re-enacted by GI’s of the 36th Infantry Division, the film nevertheless has served as an example not only of the high price of war but also a permanent depiction of the tragedy of a small town whose citizens wanted only to left alone to lead their lives. 

 Instead San Pietro died along with approximately one hundred forty of its citizens. After the war it was decided that the town would not be rebuilt. Instead, a new town arose a few hundred meters to the west. The ruins of San Pietro were left intact and are today a living reminder of the war. With Fifth Army now in the Liri Valley the battle for the Gustav Line lay ahead.

When the battle was over, John Houston wrote: "On 17th December 1943 the Germans pulled out of the San Pietro area for good and the village was ours for the taking. What a welcome the people of San Pietro gave us! Whole cheeses and bottles of wines appeared from God knows where  - for the village had been stripped by the German. Looking around at the rubble, I couldn't help wondering that the inhabitants could find anything to celebrate. But the Italians have an innate gaiety, an ability to laugh at themselves at dark moments.