Editor’s Note: Before reading this article, you should probably be warned this is one of the longest I have written in my 15-year career. You should also know I consider it by far the most important piece I have ever written, and will probably ever have the honor to write.
In this article, you will hear war stories from 90-year old men who saw as many as 1,000 of their own men die in the course of just one single day. Some of the details are graphic. But for some of these men, who are celebrating the 70th anniversary of the invasion of Italy’s Anzio Beachhead, this is the first time they have told their story.
As Americans prepare for Memorial Day, veterans, many of them 90-years-old, gathered in Hillsville for the 70th anniversary of the battle of Anzio in Italy. These are their stories. We publish them as a tribute.
Without much fanfare and unbeknownst to much of the local community, the town of Hillsville had the privilege of hosting a small group of some of America’s biggest heroes from May 14-17.
On Wednesday night, a small group of veterans from all over the country descended on our town to celebrate a historically significant event, the 70th anniversary of the invasion of Anzio Beachhead - a critical, and one of the bloodiest campaigns in World War II.
At approximately 2 a.m. on January 22, 1944, an invasion fleet of 374 ships and landing craft invaded the beaches of Anzio and Nettuno in Italy, about 30 miles south of Rome, for an attack that was supposed to last two weeks. The landings caught the Germans completely offguard. By midnight, nearly 90 percent of the invasion force, equaling 36,000 men and 3,200 vehicles, were ashore.
Major General John P. Lucas chose to wait for more men and artillery, however, before pressing forward inland. By January 30, the Germans had moved substantial forces into the area to contain the Allies from pressing forward. The result was a bloody, prolonged four-month battle for the beachhead as German leader Adolph Hitler pulled many of his top divisions and sent them to Anzio to fend off the Allies.
By the time it was done, thousands and thousands of Allied forces died in the battle and tens of thousands more were wounded. But the importance of Anzio is often overlooked in historical annals as the invasion ultimately led to the liberation of Rome on June 4, the first Capital city of the Axis to be captured during World War II. It also kept German forces otherwise occupied and set the stage two days later for D-Day at Normandy, which ultimately helped end the war. A total of 22 Americans were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for their actions at Anzio, the most of any single battle in World War II.
“Anzio was the most expensive battle in terms of lives and materials. Our division was 50 percent casualties and eventually about 20,000 of them were killed,” said Clyde Easter of Fancy Gap, a member of the 3rd Infantry Division who now serves as President of the Anzio Beachhead Veterans of 1944 WWII. “Every time somebody got killed, at least two people were wounded. We lost 1,000 men just out of our division on the same day. I was wounded twice and was just lucky to get out.”
Easter has served as President of the Anzio Beachhead Veterans group since 2000. The group has held annual reunions all over the country, three times in Branson, Missouri, twice in Nashville, Tennessee, and even a couple overseas where it all started in Italy. The group had only met once before in Virginia, two years ago in Norfolk. With only an estimated 500-700 Anzio vets still living according to Easter’s estimation, he was ecstatic to finally have the event close to his Carroll County home.
“We’ve had it away so much, I am excited about having it here,” said Easter, who was unable to hold the event last year due to the condition of his wife of 68 years, Ethel, who passed away in January. “World War II veterans are leaving the scene pretty fast due to our age. We just buried three here last week, so we are so excited to have them here in Hillsville.”
Easter said the entire Anzio campaign was to break the stalemate in Italy on the Cassino front. The plan was to join the other Allied front and be in Rome within two weeks. Anzio ended up taking much longer that that, but in the end Easter said the bloody campaign helped set the stage for D-Day in Normandy.
“It was the wrong time of the year. It was raining and we sit there for four months on the beachhead. The focus was more or less to relieve the Italian front that was bogged down, but at the same time it helped D-Day land in France,” Easter said. “We only had two divisions there, finally three, and Hitler put eight of his top divisions and tank outfits in there against us to push us off the beachhead. He personally called for the beachhead to be annihilated. He took divisions off the eastern front and western front to defend Anzio, so it did serve to help free our forces up some for D-Day.”
The Price of War
Anzio was such a prolonged and bloody battle, Easter said if you were stationed there, you were most likely either killed, wounded or captured.
“I got wounded twice and I was lucky,” Easter said. “If I was unlucky, I would have been a prisoner or dead.”
Charles Phallen of Oswego, N.Y. is 97 now, but there is no way he will ever forget the pain and suffering he witnessed in World II. A combat veteran of three years, Phallen began his first battle in North Africa at the dawn of 1942. Nothing he saw prior to 1944 could prepare him for what he would undergo on the beaches of Italy.
“It was the worst. Hitler said before we got to Normandy he would personally drive us back to sea,” Phallen said. “He sent seven or eight divisions to get us. They attacked and it was hell all day. They shot everybody’s artillery, naval guns, everything. It was everything we could do just to fire. We eventually destroyed their infantry divisions and stopped them, but we lost 1,000 men in one day.”
Phallen was badly wounded in Anzio, taking hits to his thigh and hip. He thought his combat days were over, but he was sent back. Due to the urgency of the war and need for Americans to join the Allies, Phallen said he had virtually no training before he was shipped overseas.
“I had six weeks of basic and they made me a Sergeant,” Phallen said.
One particular night, Phallen said he set out in the dark and fell into a German trench. Inside the trench was a German kid, so scared of his American counterpart he immediately handed his rifle over to Phallen. They were many more events like that particular one for Phallen, some of which are so gruesome and hard to talk about, he asked that they not be published. His wishes will be honored for this article, but he also worries for today’s generation. He doesn’t think they appreciate the freedoms they have that so many fought and died for.
“I think this generation does take it for granted. I worry about it. They are loose. They aren’t disciplined,” Phallen said. “There are so many problems and issues going on in our country right now and they don’t seem to give a damn.”
Hansel Pendley is a 90-year-old veteran from Alabama. He had never been to an Anzio Beachhead Veterans reunion until Wednesday, but made the 700-mile drive to Hillsville with his two sons from the Birmingham area. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Pendley said he was drafted and given quick training before being shipped off to war.
“They apologized and they said they knew it was rough on us, but they said we would be thankful for it when we got over there,” Pendley said. “Anzio Beach was a bad situation. We got hung up for months. We couldn’t force them out of the mountains and they couldn’t push us back in the water. It was attack and withdraw and attack and withdraw for months.”
The Allied forces were finally able to build up enough replacements in personnel and ammunition that after 14 days of hard fighting, they made it from the Anzio Beachhead to Rome to liberate Italy in June.
After his unit was relieved by a British outfit, Pendley’s group was supposed to get a break because of the number of combat hours they had put in. Instead, they were sent back to Naples, Italy to start training with the Navy. From there, they invaded Southern France and fought clear to the Rhine River. Even though he was inoculated for Yellow Fever, Pendley eventually came down with Malaria and ran a fever of 106 degrees.
“They said they didn’t see how I was living,” Pendley said.
Not long after that, the war ended. Pendley also suffered heavy shrapnel injuries to one of his feet and had a hip knocked out of place, but he feels like he was one of the lucky ones. At the age of 90, he is just now getting to the point where he can tell his story to others. Even one of sons, also a veteran, said Pendley opened up about things Wednesday night he had never told him before.
“I was on the combat lines until it almost ended. I don’t know how I survived that much. A lot of replacements would come in and we wouldn’t even get acquainted or know their name before they got killed,” Pendley said. “If you tell that to somebody they wonder how you survived that much while so many others get killed. There is no answer for it. Some like myself, I just thought it was mother’s prayers because I came from a good, sacred family.”
Many others didn’t have it so good. Pendley recalls many of his comrades that talked about wanting to go home and kill their family, while others would just throw their hands up and walk right into an ambush to be killed.
“It was almost like that is what they wanted to happen. They couldn’t commit suicide, but they would walk right into it because they didn’t have the will to go on,” Pendley said. “I had two sons that were grown before I mentioned anything. I had a good wife for 48 years and that was my rock to lean on. I had quite a bit of post-traumatic stress disorder but I didn’t let it bother me that much. Getting back in one piece and having a good wife helped a lot.”
Those who fought in World War II are often affectionately referred to as America’s Greatest Generation. Pendley said he is always appreciative when people thank him for his service. Even though he has been honored with seven Bronze Stars for his service, he said he still feels unworthy of praise. He also thinks the general public doesn’t realize how close the Germans were to winning the war.
“I just thank them for feeling that way, but I didn’t feel like we deserved it. The ones like me are thankful we made it through it, but it is the ones that didn’t make it that really deserve the praise because they gave it all, and it is sad,” Pendley said. “It never crossed my mind just how important it was. I had already fought the war and come back before I realized how important it was. I’ve heard some people say, ‘What Old America says she will do, she will do. And I say to myself, ‘My friend, you just don’t know how close we come to not doing it because we captured Germans that had already looked at New York with a periscope, they got that close with a submarine. And they already had Africa, Italy, France, and were bombing London, England. And as big as Russia is, they had over half of it. To think ‘What old America says she will do, she will do,’ it makes you feel proud to think that is possible, but a lot of them don’t realize just how close it was that she didn’t.”
Re-adjusting to civilian life was not easy for Pendley, like so many others. Aside from his injuries and illnesses, he suffered a bad ulcerated stomach from starvation. He said he was hurt more mentally than physically. He witnessed so many gruesome things it has taken him nearly three-quarters of a century to talk about them.
“The good Lord was with me to be able to be in there and come back. Some of those guys would take a direct hit and a little part of them would flash all over you like somebody had shot you with hamburger meat. I mean, it gets rough,” Pendley said. “I never would talk about it until now, 70 years later. You hated to come back less of a man than when you went, but you couldn’t talk about it because nobody would believe you if you did. It is like a confusion - you would like to explain it, but there is no way in the world you can.”
Prisoner of War
Morris Snyder of Pennsylvania knows all too well the realities of war as he was captured and contained in a POW Camp for 228 days. An Anzio Beachhead veteran, Snyder was captured in lower France in September of 1944 at the age of 21. His legs had been shot up and he was carried to an aid station.
“When they called down to me in the hole I thought they were going to shoot me, but I could talk German and that is what saved me,” Snyder said.
But Snyder said when he was taken to the aid station, he was fed grapes and treated well. There, he was fixed up and sent to the Baltic Sea and made a Barrack Chief in Stalag II-A. Snyder was eventually freed from POW Camp after nearly eight months. By this point in the interview, Snyder had become overcome with tears, and his daughter, Pattie Essig, continued to tell his story.
“When he was liberated by the Russians, he and four other guys went out of the barracks and got a buggy and two horses and began to travel to the American lines. They got to English lines and they knew that because he had a pass, he could get out of the POW camp,” Essig said. “But he had to buy his way back in. They had the option to shoot him when he came back. But he couldn’t go on that pass. It said he couldn’t go to any churches, there were certain things if he was seen at certain places he would be shot on site.”
Essig said her father knew about the buggy and horse because he was able to barter with cigarettes and bring back blankets and other items to the barracks from International Red Cross parcels. After leaving in horse and buggy, Snyder and his party crossed the Belgian border. While checking to make sure everything was clear, two of the guys got separated, Essig said.
“They got on a plane and dad and the other guy traveling with him did not know what happened to them,” Essig said. “They found out when they got to the American lines that the plane had crashed. Those two guys, even though they got out of POW Camp, they still did not make it home.”
Once Snyder reached the American lines, he was sent home on ship even though the war was still raging because he was considered a RAMP (Recovered American Military Personnel). That status gave Snyder prime seating on a ship coming from Europe. His ship docked at Camp Myles Standish in Massachusetts, which functioned as a POW Camp and a departure area for about a million U.S. and Allied soldiers. Something Snyder was told there is a big reason why he never told his story until many decades later.
“In Massachusetts they were told at that time not to say anything about what they had done over there,” Essig said. “He hitchhiked from there to Pennsylvania and he got picked up by a local guy outside of Redding, who took him home. Sometime around 1993, one of his POW buddies who was in there, but didn’t go with him, gave my dad a picture of my dad with the SS officers at that camp. My dad didn’t even know it existed. But they were told not to talk about it, so that is why now the World War II vets that are still alive are trying to tell their story because it is very important.”
Snyder, who will be 91 in July, was pinned with the Silver Star in Anzio by Major General Major John W. O’Daniel. Essig finally told her dad’s story at POW Day at the Lebanon VA Hospital in Pennsylvania. Even after a 40-year career in the steel industry and more than half a century back home, those in charge of Snyder’s division didn’t even realize he was alive until just recently.
“The Third Infantry Division still had him missing in action and they didn’t know he was alive until I put him in for the Third Division, which was in 2000,” Essig said. “Most people will not tell you the negative side of things because most people think you don’t need to know that. But these guys lived it, and that is why when they get together like this it is unique. His buddy sitting across the room from him tonight, my dad was the platoon leader and he was in my dad’s platoon. They are the only ones left from the platoon and he didn’t find out about my dad until I signed him up for the Third Infantry Division in 2000. Up until that time they all thought dad was killed in France.”’
Rally the Troops Again
Prior to the 2014 reunion of the Anzio Beachhead Veterans, Easter said he felt like this year’s reunion in Hillsville would be the last time the group ever gets together formally. But just like on the beaches on Anzio, the group of nonagenarians (people in their 90s) decided they needed to fight another day.
“Some of the guys to start with had the notion to not meet again,” Easter said. “But then Mr. Pendley said this was his first time and he wanted to go again. So the group talked about it and decided we would meet again next year around the same time in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.”