Short Truce on the Rapido River, 1943

From The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944, Volume Two of the Liberation Trilogy, by Rick Atkinson (Henry Holt, 2007), Kindle pp. 350-351:

Some hours after the final shots faded on the Rapido, a captured American private who had been released to serve as a courier stumbled into the 141st Infantry command post carrying a written message for “den englischen Kommandeur.” The panzer grenadiers proposed a three-hour cease-fire to search for the living and retrieve the dead. GIs fashioned Red Cross flags from towels and iodine, and even before the appointed hour paddled across to both regimental bridgeheads.

They found a few survivors, including Private Arthur E. Stark, known as Sticks, who had carried a battalion switchboard across the river for the 143rd Infantry before being hit by shell fragments. For three days he had lain exposed to January weather. “Did you have a big Christmas? You should have seen mine,” he had written his eleven-year-old sister, Carole, earlier that month. “The little boys and girls over here didn’t have much Christmas.” Sticks lingered for two days after his rescue, then passed over. Other cases ended better: a forward observer with half his face blown away appeared to be dead, but a medic noticed the lack of rigor mortis. Surgeons would reconstruct his visage from a photograph mailed by his family.

For three hours they gathered the dead, reaping what had been sown. Wehrmacht medics worked side by side with the Americans, making small talk and offering tactical critiques of the attack. German photographers wandered the battlefield, snapping pictures. An American reporter studied the looming rock face of Monte Cassino with its all-seeing white monastery. “Sooner or later,” he said, “somebody’s going to have to blow that place all to hell.”

The short peace ended. Dusk rolled over the bottoms. The mists reconvened. A final clutch of medics emerged carrying a long pole with a white truce flag that caught the dying light. More than a hundred bodies had been retrieved. But hundreds more remained, and would remain for months, carrion for the ravenous dogs that roamed these fens. Here the dreamless dead would lie, leached to bone by the passing seasons, and waiting, as all the dead would wait, for doomsday’s horn.

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Filed under Britain, Germany, Italy, military, U.S., war

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