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There was this horrible battle when they landed in Salerno to try to get up to Rome by Christmas time. In order to do that, they had to take what is known as Route 6. Route 6 passes by a town named Mignano—the Mignano Gap—and then it goes to San Pietro and Cassino. From Cassino, it goes through the Liri Valley and gets to Rome. It's the Appian Way. The Italians convinced the Germans that the gap at Cassino was one that was difficult to penetrate.
Within the ruined church of
the old town of San Pietro.
The Germans did a wonderful job
of defending it. They told their people that they
had to hold the Allied forces back so they didn't
get to Cassino by Christmas. They needed that much
time—this was in October, 1943—to prepare the
defensive sites. San Pietro was 20 kilometers in
front of—south of—Cassino. There was a terrible
battle fought there [in San Pietro]; it started
somewhere around the 8th or 9th
of December. The town of San Pietro, itself, is in
the valley between two hills, Monte Lungo and Monte
Sammucro. It's just off of Route 6. Another town
there is Venafro. Going up that particular valley,
you come to Monte Lungo.
It was the 36th
Division that was given the task of trying to
conquer San Pietro. But before they did that, they
had to take Monte Lungo. The Italians, for the first
time, had an expeditionary force [ed. note: the newly
constituted Italian 1st Motorized Brigade]
and they wanted very much to get into the act. This
was the first time they were working with the
Allies, so they were given the task—if they wanted
it—of conquering Monte Lungo, just south of San
What happened though was that
they were told that there weren't too many weapons
up there and that it shouldn't be difficult to take.
When they started up the hill, they were
slaughtered. The Italians said that there were a lot
of weapons up there that the Americans had said
wouldn't be there. It was a German trap. An American
regiment from the 36th Division—I think
it was the 143rd Regiment—finally took the hill . I
think it was next day or the day after. Then you had
to take the hill of Sammucro, and then you get into
the town of San Pietro, which was sitting in the
What you have now at the foot of the hill is an Italian cemetery for the Italians who were killed trying to get up that hill. Across the street from the cemetery is a war museum. And, of course, there's a nice road you can take to get up to the top. I've taken people up there.
All of this happened in late November and early December. They made a movie about it: The Battle for San Pietro. John Huston. There is also a guy from San Pietro, a school teacher named Maurizo Zambardi. I think he's in his forties. He is very, very good with history and has written a lot about it.
It was a very big battle—on the
outskirts and in the town, itself. House to house.
The town was ultimately destroyed. Then the Germans
just withdrew to the next position, Cassino, itself.
There was a river there. It was very difficult to
forge. You couldn't get across.
The 19th of December was when the battle was just about over. San Pietro was completely destroyed. It was a town of about 2 km by 2 km. Maybe 8-10,000 people. The people who lived there had been told to evacuate. The Germans made them evacuate. A lot of them were put on trains and sent up to northern Italy. I got to know a guy by the name of Adriano, who was a young kid in San Pietro when all this happened. I met him again when we were taking a tour recently, and he told us all about how the people protected themselves by living in caves (photo), and how many were killed. Now there is a museum about the American soldiers as well as the Italian civilians who were killed. The new town of San Pietro is about a kilometer and a half from the old town.
(Photo credits: All photos of San Pietro by Herman Chanowitz. I have been unable to trace credit/copyright information for the record album graphic of the stylized Mt. Vesuvius/US flag. If anyone has accurate information, I would be happy to list the appropriate credit.)