The Battle of San Pietro

Breaking the Winter Line - 36th Texas Division.
The Battle of San Pietro was a major engagement from 8–17 December, 1943, in the Italian Campaign of World War II involving Allied Forces attacking from the south against heavily fortified positions of the German "Winter Line" in and around the town of San Pietro Infine. just south of Monte Cassino On Sept. 8, 1943, Italy surrendered to the Allied Forces.  This surprise development made the Germans look on their former allies as one of their new enemies. As a result, Italy soon felt the full force of the German blitzkrieg.  The Nazis ravaged the port of Naples, then moved toward the mountains on their way to their next target – the city of Rome.

German forces dug in for the winter along the San Pietro Infine and Monte Cassino area in order to block passage through the Liri Valley.  They had the mountainous terrain to their advantage as Allied Forces fought treacherous winter conditions as well as intense German firepower. 

While the Americans fought their way to the fortified mountainous defensive line, the Germans were enslaving and murdering the citizens of San Pietro, which the Nazis had occupied during September.

American troops first entered the hillside town San Pietro Infine Dec. 16-17, 1943. 

The passageway through the Liri Valley leading to San Pietro was appropriately nicknamed “Death Valley.”  Together, the Fifth Army and its many subordinate units sustained 16,000 casualties during the costly advance to free the Italians from the death grip of the Nazis.

 The Battle of San Pietro (1945)

When America entered World War II, prominent Hollywood directors enlisted to make government-sponsored documentaries, notably John Ford, Frank Capra, William Wyler, George Stevens, and John Huston. The youngest among them, Huston had been a screenwriter before turning to directing with The Maltese Falcon (1941). San Pietro is the second of his three war documentaries, filmed when Huston was a captain in the army and released after his promotion to major. It followed his relatively straightforward Report from the Aleutians (1943) and preceded Let There Be Light (completed in 1946 but suppressed until 1980 his moving documentary about the psychological wounds of war.

The main battle around San Pietro, an ancient town of no particular note in the mountains of central Italy, pitted German forces against the Allies, primarily American infantry, from December 8 to 16, 1943. The Allies had invaded Sicily in July; Mussolini had been thrown from power by the Italians, who sued for a separate peace (many soldiers joining the Allies, as glimpsed in the film). Germany had easily taken over the country and was well entrenched militarily by the time of the bloody U.S. landing on the Italian mainland at Salerno in September.

Huston’s initial assignment was to document the liberation of Rome. When the fight northward proved slower and more frustrating than the army anticipated, he was reassigned to make a film that would explain the difficulties to stateside Americans. No film more precisely computes the price of each hard-won yard in lives lost, equipment destroyed, farmland decimated, and towns ruined. (To follow the military maneuvers, it helps to recall that divisions split into regiments, which split into battalions, which split into companies. Huston also uses the term “D day” to mean any day on which a military operation will be launched.)

San Pietro combines astonishing actuality footage with one of the most memorable voice-over narrations in film—in both script and delivery. James Agee characterized it best in his 1945 Nation review: “Huston’s narration is a slightly simplified technical prose, at once exact and beautifully toned and subtly parodistic; it is spoken with finely shaded irony, equally free of pompousness and optimism and mawkish generalizations and cheap bitterness.... For once wordiness in a film more than earns its way.” When the army reaches the village of San Pietro itself, even these words fall silent before images of bodies unearthed from rubble and children’s resilient faces.

Some recent critics have expressed shock on discovering that San Pietro is carefully crafted and not the compilation of artless footage that some associate with truth in documentary. The battle sequences have a handheld, cinema verité look, but careful viewers will notice, for instance, the oddly large number of apparently left-handed soldiers. Evidently Huston flipped some shots to make the soldiers’ screen movements correspond to the east-to-west attack on the maps: “We” always attack from right to left, “the enemy” from left to right. Huston also restaged more footage than his end title admits. But accurate facts about this particular battle are marshaled into an authentic argument about valor in combat.

Huston screened his first edit for army superiors in October 1944. “I knew they were in for something of a surprise,” he said, “but I wasn’t prepared for the shock with which they received it.” Several officers walked out, and a decision was made to shelve the film, until army chief-of-staff Gen. George C. Marshall ordered its release—with some cuts, and a further delay. (The film wasn’t seen widely until May 1945, after victory in Europe.) In retrospect Huston agreed with the changes: “I had gone overboard. I had made interviews with young soldiers.... They talked about the meaning the war had for them, what they felt, the role they had played, and quite a few of the answers were very touching, very profound. I had made twenty-five or thirty of these interviews. Then, among the young soldiers, several were killed. I put the text they had said when they were still alive over the images of the cadavers. It was too heartrending, too unbearable. And think of the families seeing that!”

The emotional philosophy behind this missing sequence survives in Huston’s narration. After shots of soldiers’ dog tags nailed to rough wooden grave markers, we see survivors smiling wearily, but the voice-over undercuts the relaxed moment: “Many among those you see alive here have since joined the ranks of their brothers-in-arms who fell at San Pietro.... Ahead lay ... more San Pietros, greater or lesser, a thousand more.” What is most uncompromising about San Pietro among combat documentaries is its refusal to claim that the battle we’ve experienced in such detail was in any way distinctive or decisive, and thus its refusal to bestow special military significance on the soldiers’ sacrifice. Tacked on to dispute this view is the two-minute introduction by Gen. Mark Clark, commander of the Italian campaign. Looking ill-at-ease, Clark claims San Pietro was “key” to the region and that the “cost” in deaths “was not excessive.”

The complaint voiced against the film by the army brass was most simply that “this picture is pacifistic. It’s against war, against the war.” Huston responded that he made the film in profound admiration for the courage of the foot soldier, but he also said, “Well, sir, whenever I make a picture that’s for war—why, I hope you take me out and shoot me.”—Scott Simmon, UC Davis

About the Archive
From the Declaration of Independence to the latest executive order—these and countless other vital government records are kept for the American people by the National Archives and Records Administration. NARA has 33 facilities holding an estimated 4 billion written records as well as motion pictures, maps, charts, architectural drawings, sound recordings, videos, aerial photos, still photos, posters, and computer files. It has documents in every format ever used by the government.

The federal government is a major motion picture producer. Over the last 90 years, it has used motion pictures to explain programs and to document the work of federal agencies. NARA preserves these government-produced films as well as documentaries and newsreels about the United States made for audiences at home and abroad. The public can view motion pictures in the NARA research facility in College Park, Maryland, and attend screenings in its theater in downtown Washington, D.C.


36 Texas Division and the Rapido River Crossing - 20th to 22nd January 1944

The push to Rome 

In January 1944, the invasion of Europe was just under six months away, and 5th Army Commander Gen. Mark Clark's desire to get to Rome before the Normandy landing was stuck in the Italian mud. German defenders, under the able command of Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, dug in behind the Gustav Line and were putting up a stubborn resistance. Clark and his staff came up with a plan to land at Anzio, behind enemy lines. For the plan to work, though, pressure had to be applied on the Gustav Line.

To do that, the planners envisioned an armor attack through the Liri Valley, and the key to the valley was the Rapido River, a natural obstacle that had to be breached.

That meant an infantry assault, and the 36th Division was picked for the assignment. The 36th, a mobilized Texas National Guard outfit, had been in plenty of tough fights. The troops had landed in North Africa and Salerno, they fought in San Pietro Infine and had seen enough action that their numbers had been seriously depleted.

The first river crossing
The division's top brass had doubts about the plan to send what was left of the 36th across in boats, but put them aside and ordered a reconnaissance patrol.
Leading the recon mission was Lt. Gabriel Navarette of El Paso. As author Raul Morin recounts in his book, "Among the Valiant," Navarette's patrol "could make out the heavy concentration of troops and fortifications (despite the darkness). The banks on the German side were strewn with barbed-wire entanglements. Large trees had been felled and their trunks offered protection of the enemy and obstacles for the Americans. Gun emplacements that could rake the river with crossfire were revealed when the patrol ventured further."

The Germans discovered the patrol. One man was killed and Navarette and another soldier, Manuel Rivera, were wounded but made it back to report the horror that waited.

Moving into a slaughter
Navarette's warning was ignored. The assault was on.
"Tonight, the 36th Division will attempt to cross the Rapido opposite San Angelo in Theodice.  We might succeed, but I do not see how we can. The crossing is dominated by heights on both sides of the Valley where German artillery observers are ready to bear down heavy artillery concentrations on our men. The river is the principal obstacle of the German main line of resistance," Maj. Gen. Fred Walker, the 36th Division commander, wrote in his diary.

Walker opted to attack after dark. At 1800 hours (6 p.m.), the 141st Infantry regiment left its assembly area and moved to the Rapido and slaughter.

Under fire, the rubber boats ferrying the Texans across the Rapido capsized, dumping the hapless infantrymen into the river. Weighted down by their winter clothing and equipment, many drowned in the freezing water.
Failure is not an option

Despite the odds, a few Texans managed to make it across the river. They dug in as best they could and waited for help. Walker wanted to mount a rescue operation. Higher headquarters ordered another assault, this time in daylight. Failure, one company grade officer was informed, was not an option.

Bill Hartung, an enlisted man, described the second attempt to cross the river: When "the Germans spotted us, all hell broke loose . . . mortars, artillery fire and machine gun fire about six to eight inches above ground hit us. We still didn't know how bad off we were because when they stopped firing for a few minutes, we would stand up and try to see what was going on. All we could see were GIs being lined up and taken prisoners. The enemy also had tanks dug in up to the barrel, and fortified as bunkers with steel and concrete about two feet thick. Anyone caught above ground was gone."
Rivera of El Paso, the other soldier wounded on the recon patrol, summed it up succinctly, if grimly: "If you didn't get wounded, if you didn't get killed, if you weren't captured, you weren't at the river."

The Texans who were lost
A third assault was contemplated but never materialized. The opposing forces declared a truce to clear the field of the dead and wounded.

In the battle, the 36th suffered 2,877 casualties, including 1,681 killed.

After the war, Texans raised enough hell that a congressional hearing into the assault was convened. The committee finally concluded that, in the end, the Rapido River crossing was a legitimate military operation requiring no further action by Congress. n other words: In war, stuff happens. People die.
Today,  by the Rapido River there is a bronze bell, he Bell of Peace and it rings every day at 5 pm , there are engraved words on it:  "Sun will shine Again" and an inscription: Cassino and All Italy with gratitude and devotion honour the fallen for its freedom!

We will remember them! Our heart is with their families!

To The Fallen

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning,

We will remember them.