This is Part 1 of The Rescue which is a continuation of San Pietro Rose posted previously in this blog. Parts 2 and 3 of the Rescue to follow in the coming weeks.
February 1944 – Naples, Italy
The Purple Heart was pinned to the top corner of his hospital pillow. Corporal Frank Pellegrini recalled when General Walker, had placed it there with “the thanks of a grateful nation.” He was convalescing in the ‘”Communication Zone (COMZ) Fixed Hospital” in Peninsular Base Section One in Naples, Italy. According to Rachel, the Army nurse Frank had grown sweet on, the Hospital, converted from a Tannery had only been there for a few months, There was the scent of cowhide mingling with the more offensive smells of antiseptic and the battle wounds of men.
Rachel had just arrived by Frank’s bedside as she noticed him awake at a time most others were asleep. The throbbing pain in his head had replaced the more desirable option of sleeping.
She asked, “Corporal Pellegrini, do you mind telling me what happened to you? I rarely get to hear real news around here. Everything on the radio or the Stars and Stripes is sanitized – and not in a good way.” She chuckled at her unintentional use of hospital humor. One reason why Frank had been smitten.
Rachel, please call Me Frank.” I think I’m younger than you and I prefer my friends to call me by my first name. It reminds me of when things seemed normal back in Baton Rouge.”
He gave her a wink. He wasn’t sure if Rachel had gotten the sense of Frank’s attraction. He wanted her to know.
“O.K. Frank it is,” she answered.
Frank began, “I was wounded at the end of a two-day, unsuccessful attempt to cross the Rapido River in the Liri Valley. Our objective was to remove the kraut, err, German defenses from the north side of the river so we could move our forces one step closer to Rome. It was a turkey shoot for Jerry – that’s what we call ‘em – the Germans. All the rain had swollen the river and made the approach a giant mud pit. It was an impossible task. Two-thirds of my platoon, all friends of mine, were killed or wounded. I heard the other boys in the 36th didn’t make out any better.”
“Oh my! The horror. I just cannot imagine,” said Rachel.
Eyes glazed over, Franks continued, “Joe & I were pinned down near the bank of the river. It was freezing cold and raining – we didn’t feel it over the fear that was all consuming. We had no cover so we dug a hole with the butts of our guns and bare hands. The gun barrels would have made better tools, but we couldn’t risk jamming them. We knew we needed them to get out – if that were even possible.”
Rachel grasped Frank by the forearm and squeezed tighter than she realized.
Frank barely felt anything. He was in a trance. Speaking about the events for the first time was difficult. Only self-imposed numbness allowed him to go forward:
“We made ourselves as small as possible, but it wasn’t small enough. A kraut 88 dropped from the clouds and landed right next to us – closer to me. That’s how I got here, but that is not the end of the story.”
“How on earth did you get out of there?” asked the pretty nurse.
“My buddy Joe.” Frank paused and wiped his eyes to erase a tear that had yet to form.
“Joe sprang into action, he had seen the blood seeping from under my helmet, but didn’t know about the chunk of shrapnel in my gut. He grabbed me by the collar and slung me over his shoulder just like we were trained to do. Explosions of all varieties continued. The most fearsome sound was the whistle of incoming shells. The noise only told you what was coming but did not reveal where it would land. These whistles were stitched together in a non-stop symphony of destruction and death.
Joe and I as his burden slogged through the muck, stepping around bodies of our brothers and drinking buddies, finding the way to one of our artillery, a “Long Tom,” that was big enough to provide some cover. Along the way, Joe got hit, I’m not sure where. He didn’t lose a step; brushing me off when I asked if he was hurt. We got to the sandbags encircling the massive Howtizer, sitting uselessly as three lifeless soldiers manning the weapon all lay in the mud.”
Rachel squeezed Franks forearm tighter still. She was biting her lower lip and staring straight into Frank’s glossy eyes.
“I was started to groan. Joe was yelling for a medic. Whether it was too much battle noise or a lack of guys with red crosses on their helmets, no one answered Joe’s cries. He made a decision. He informed me he was going to get help. I told him that was suicide, but even if I were at full strength I would not be able to change his resolve. The last thing he said was ‘I’ll be back. Hang in there you ‘Greasy Wop’’…uh sorry, that’s what he called me when we were joking around. I called him a dumb Mick in return. I hope you’re not offended.”
Rachel blushed, “You think being around all you Army guys has made me sensitive to language? Shit! The officers are the worst!”
She laughed and so did Frank. “I never heard an ANC say that word before!”
“Please go on,” she said, “you don’t need to filter your story.”
“Clearly.” Frank winked at her again.
“I next remember two soldiers with a stretcher appearing by my side and told me they had ‘heard’ I needed a ride. I passed out and didn’t wake up until Rose called my name in a field hospital in San Pietro. I smiled as I knew life was still with me at the sight of Rose.
“Who’s Rose?” asked Rachel.
“Rose was…IS his girlfriend he met while we were prepping for battle in San Pietro. He met her after we had taken a week to drive the krauts out of the town. The place was destroyed and the people had no food or water. Joe found this lovely village girl helping others and they fell in love.”
‘Oh dear. What happened to her?” asked Rachel.
“I’m getting there. A little patience for the patient.” Frank said,
Rachel gave him a friendly swat on the hand she was holding.
Frank continued, “So, my first thought was about Joe. I asked Rose, ‘Where is he?’ Rose teared up and shook her head. She only knew the little English Maloney had taught her. I was lucky that my parents insisted I learned my native Italian language as a lad.”
Rose told me that Mah-LONE-ee, had not come back. She told me about a note Frank had left her in a canteen before we shoved off. He had promised her he would return.”
Frank paused in reflection, “I had convinced the Dumb Mick to write her a note instead defecting as he said he wanted to do to be with Rose. I’m not so sure I should have talked him out of that now.”
“Wow, I guess War changes people. Time becomes precious and there is no wasting of it when it comes to brief moments of something nice.” Rachel said.
Frank reached over and touched Rachel’s hand. She responded by releasing his forearm and stroking his cheek. “I know,” said Frank.
They sat in silence for a while. Rachel wanted to stay and hear more, but duty called. “I’ll come back soon” she smiled, that beautiful slightly curled lip grin.
‘I hope so,’ thought Frank.
His mind was swirling as the recounting of the tragedy to Rachel stayed with him. His best friend, Private Joe Maloney had saved his life and likely lost his own in the process. But had he? The Army officially classified Maloney as “Presumed Killed in Action.” Nobody or reports of capture had been found. Many soldiers had died without evidence of how or where. The ferocious state of the River had erased human existence without a trace.
General Walker requested and was granted a two-hour ceasefire to collect the dead and wounded men from the battle. Able members of Frank’s 142nd Regiment scoured the muddy banks of the Rapido days after the massacre to collect and identify the dead. There was no need to designate the effort as a search for survivors. Limbs and other body parts along with shredded garments and pieces of boats and bridges were the flotsam and jetsam being dealt with. Finding a set of dog tags was considered a discovery. Thus, was the case with Maloney. His ID tags and been found. His body had not. The oval-shaped piece of metal stamped with:
Maloney Joseph S
With nearly 18 million active US service personnel in 1944, it was likely there was more than one Joe Maloney. The tag number sealed Frank’s good friend’s fate. The first number, “2”, meant the soldier was a recognized Army Guardsman (The 36th started as a division of the Texas National Guard), the “08” indicated he enlisted in the state of Texas. That was enough detail to verify that this Joe was THE Joe.
Frank was issued his honorable discharge papers. His injury, while nearly fatal had not left any long-term infirmities but was deemed serious enough for him to get his walking papers. The US Army had graciously promoted him from Private to Corporal before his discharge so he would receive an elevated level of benefits for sustaining injury while serving his country.
He was granted safe passage on any U.S. military transport with the room available to make his return to his hometown of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. An order signed by General Walker tucked inside his coat was the only papers he needed to climb aboard a plane, truck or boat. Nowhere did it stipulate where or when.
Frank was writing a letter to his parents about his release when he realized that he had unfinished business in Italy. A reunion in his home in Baton Rouge would have to wait until he had determined what happened to his friend Joe Maloney. The man saved my life? How could I possibly leave him behind?
So, Frank told the first lie in his life. A fib he rationalized. He was being reassigned to a desk job in Naples to help with communications to the front. He wrote how proud he was to continue to serve in whatever way he could. Signing off,
“…You remain in my thoughts and I will come home as soon as my work is done.
Your Loving Son,
“…work is done.” At least that was not a lie.
Corporal Frank Pellegrini packed his duffel bag and headed for Peninsular Base One motor pool. He needed a ride to San Pietro, about 120 miles north, up Rte 6 along the western coast of Italy. It was here he was first treated in a field hospital outside the village overtaken from the occupying Nazi’s; and where Rose had come to see him. The village had been reduced to an inhabitable pile of rubble in the process. It was here he and Joe became closer and Joe fell in love with Rose, the village girl with leather brown eyes whose beauty shown through her war-torn heart. It was here he had his last friendly discussions with Joe. It would be here where he would start his self-imposed quest. It was here he would find Rose who would undoubtedly be willing to help.