A TYPICAL SOUVENIR  ITALY 1944 / 1945

Part 4

The Story of the Powder River / Let'er Buck, 91st Inf Div, August 1917 - January 1945

91st Division. Patch and motto
Picture. The patch and motto of the 91st Division as depicted in the booklet
(coll. Burridge)

Chapter III
ARNO RIVER CAMPAIGN

North to the Arno

During the month of 4 June to 4 July, American forces had driven the enemy back 150 miles, to the outskirts of Leghorn. At Cecina, however, it became apparent that the enemy intended to defend the approaches to Leghorn, the third largest port in Italy and an objective of great military importance. It was clear that a direct frontal attack upon Leghorn would be costly and difficult. Instead, it was determined to employ a flanking movement, by which Leghorn could be isolated and taken at the will of the attackers. Specifically, it was decided to attack north to the Arno, inland from the coastal road. Although the terrain was mountainous and ill-suited for military operations, the possibility of success was markedly better than battering at the defenses of Leghorn head on. Thus the two great objectives of the current campaign would be accomplished the capture of Leghorn and the control of the Arno River.

Fifth Army began massing its forces during the first weeks of July. The veteran 34th Division, with many attached units was hammering at the outer defenses of Leghorn, while the 88th Division on the right flank was striking for the high ground south of the Arno to outflank it. The 91st Infantry Division was assigned the central sector between the 34th Division and the 88th Division.
At 0300 on 12 July 1944 the 91st Division entered combat for the first time as a complete unit. Its objective, the high ground dominating the Arno River, lay 15 miles away. Heavy opposition was expected because the enemy had all the advantage of prepared positions in mountainous country that was ideal for defense and because the enemy was known to be massing a small force of tanks and mining every approach. On the left, the 363rd Regimental Combat Team, which had been fighting for 9 days with the 34th Divisions came under Division control and attacked .on a four mile front south of Chianni. On the right, General Livesay deployed the 362nd Infantry, the only Regiment which had had no combat experience prior to the commitment of the Division north of the Cateste Hills with the Sterza River and the Casaglia-Capannoli Highway as its axis of advance.

First Phase

Late Tuesday night, 11 July, under the command of Col John W. Cotton, the 362nd Infantry began to move into position. The advance was delayed however, by four blown bridges and the by mines. At 0300 12 July, after a 45 minute artillery preparation, a coordinated attack was launched by both Regiments, in conjunction with the 34th and 88th Divisions.
Progress during the Divisions first day of combat was most gratifying. On the left, the 363rd Infantry, advancing in a flanking movement west of Chianni, took Hills 553 and 577, dominating the approaches to Chianni, and Hill 477, a mile northwest of the town. Although the 3rd Battalion was ordered to enter Chianni itself, Italian Patriots reported that the enemy had retreated and that the Patriots were mopping up. Thus only patrols were sent, while the main force proceeded northward along the ridge wet of Rivalta.
On the right, the 363nd Infantry met stiff opposition protecting the Chianni-Laiatico road. At Pgio Le Grotte, on the Division Line of Departure, the Regiment met its first real baptism of fire. This opposition was overcome by dawn, but the enemy fell back slowly. The 2nd Battalion attacking along the left flank of the Regimental sector, was met by a force of 12 enemy tanks. Artillery fire was placed on them, knocking out one and forcing the rest to disperse. In two attacks late in the day, at 1640 and at 2010, the Battalion drove to within a half mile of Chianni. The 3rd Battalion found the enemy determined to hold the Chianni-Laiatico road, and although it smashed 500 yards beyond the road during the day a very heavy counterattack forced it to withdraw.

Second Phase

During the night the enemy withdrew northward and when the Division attacked again at 130400, it met only isolated groups of resistance. Thus Chianni and the lateral road running east from it were firmly in the Division's possession, and the push developed into its second phase. This period of three days was characterized by fluid fighting, centering principally about the towns of Bagni, Soiana, and Terriciola. Opposing the Division across its front from left to right were elements of the 1059th Regiment, the 1027th Regiment, the 67th PGR, and the 9th PGR, supported by the 93rd Artillery Regiment. Although at least two counterattacks of considerable force were launched against the Division during the period, the advance was never seriously threatened.
The drive of the 362nd Infantry was slowed somewhat by the heavy artillery fire from Terriciola to the north and by SP fire from the vicinity of Chianni. Although the Division Artillery knocked out one of the self-propelled guns and silenced the rest early the second day, the fire again harassed the Regiment in the afternoon. This time the Cannon Company knocked out one of the guns and forced the other two to withdraw. With the harassing artillery and SP fire neutralized, the Regiment moved forward slowly and had secured Terriciola at last light 14 July. Meanwhile the 363rd Infantry after consolidating its gains of the first day, reached a point just south of Bagni. Patrols were sent out to both the left and right; one of the latter was so zealous as to reach Terriciola, where it assisted in the capture of the town by the 362nd.
At 0400 15 July the 361st Infantry, having passed through the 363rd Infantry at Bagni, attacked north. Meeting no resistance, they pushed rapidly through Morrona. After the infantrymen had occupied ground north of Soiana, however, they were subjected to a steady pounding of well-observed enemy fire. Likewise in its advance north from Casanova the 362nd Infantry was subjected to heavy artillery, mortar, and machine gun fire from Selvatelle. After an extended preparation Selvatelle was by-passed. But the advance was slow because of the continuing heavy enemy fire, and at the end of the day the Regiment was pinned down north of the Arno.

Third Phase

During the next three days, 16-18 July, the operations of the third phase saw, the achievement of the Division's mission; the occupation of the south bank of the Arno. After reorganizing along the Querceto-San Pietro road, the 3rd Battalion, 361st Infantry, led a column of Battalions northward along the Ponsacco-Pontedera road. At 161800 when a counterattack was observed forming at Le Selve, a tremendous artillery concentration was poured into the assembly area by the 916th, 346th, and 348th Field Artillery Battalions, which broke up the attack before it could be launched and resulted in heavy enemy losses of men and vehicles. The enemy withdrew to Orceto, where they were again shelled.
The next morning the 3rd Battalion, 361st Infantry, supported by two companies of tanks jumped off again. In addition to the customary artillery and automatic weapons fire, the enemy employed armor to halt the advance. It was estimated that 25 enemy tanks, Mark II's IV's and VI's; were operating in the zone of the 361st. All morning there was a constant threat of an armored counterattack developing at Orceto. Stopped once by Cannon Company fire, it developed again, only to be stopped once and for all when the 698th Field Artillery fired 25 rounds of 240mm into the town and its vicinity. The main push continued, and by noon Companies I and K, had reached Ponsacco. The town was enveloped and shelled by tank fire; after this preparation the infantry occupied the town with little resistance.

Liberated Italians
Picture. Citizens of newly liberated Ponsacco greet the 91st Division. As depicted in the booklet
(coll. Burridge)

First at the Arno

With, only a brief rest, the 361st took up the pursuit of the fleeing enemy. The 1st Battalion attacked at 0500 18 July and quickly took Orceto and moved to positions protecting the Regimental left flank. At the same time the 3rd Battalion, reinforced by both tanks and tank destroyers drove rapidly north. Only three hours after the attack opened, Company K entered Pontedera. An hour later, at 180900, having disposed of the enemy machine gun and sniper fire, the Company pushed to the south bank of the Arno to become the first element of Fifth Army to reach the river. Although the Germans had managed to evacuate most of their artillery across the river successfully, numerous tanks and vehicles were found abandoned.

Coincident with the brilliant drive of the 361st Infantry up the Ponsacco-Pontedera road, the 362nd Infantry on the right flank moved steadily forward in its sector. On 15 July General Livesay visited the Regimental CP and expressed his pleasure at the successes scored by the 362nd. This was a tonic to the weary, hard-fighting men, and at 160800 they moved out to the attack with new vigor. Fighting steadily throughout the day and the following night, they were well on the Divisional objective, the high ground south of the Arno, at 0800 17 July.
At this stage the enemy loosed a terrific barrage of 88mm artillery and mortar fire, so heavy that the entire Regiment was checked. Although the 346th FA attempted to silence the opposition, limited observation prevented successful accomplishment of the mission. As a result, the front lines withdrew slightly to positions better situated to repel a possible counterattack.
The attack was resumed at 180330, with the 3rd Battalion, 362rd Infantry, replacing the 1st in the front lines. The advance was slow-not because of enemy resistance, which was slight, but because of the terrain, which was very rugged. During the morning the troops were delayed by artillery fire from the area of Treggiaia north to the river, and by Shu mines, the first the Regiment had encountered. About noon, the Germans were observed pulling their artillery back across the river. On the next day at 0800 the advance was again taken up, this time without enemy resistance. Terrain, demolitions, and mine fields slowed the advance but at 191500 the Regiment had closed on its objective. One company from each Battalion outposted the line, and patrols were sent to the Arno River.

"Well Done, 91st Division"

Thus after seven and a half days of fighting the Division had accomplished its mission. It was the first unit of either IV Corps or Fifth Army to reach the Arno River and to control the high ground to its south. Major General Willis D. Crittenberger, Commanding General, IV Corps, wired General Livesay on 18 July: "Well done 91st Division."
That same day, in a General Order, General Livesay commended the Division for its outstanding achievements.

I am highly gratified with the accomplishment of the Division. I have noted a spirit of determination and pride of service in all ranks that assures the further success of the Division.

"End Around"

While the 361st and 362nd Infantries were driving straight north to the Arno, the 363rd Infantry, commanded by Col. W. Fulton Magill, Jr., scored two more brilliant "firsts" for the Division when it captured Leghorn, 18 July, and the section of Pisa lying south of the Arno, 24 July.

First in Leghorn

In what was described as a spectacular "End Around Play" the 363rd Regimental Combat Team reinforced, designated Task Force Williamson under the command of Brigadier General Raymond E. S. Williamson, Assistant Division Commander, moved out of its assembly area at 1817 on the 17th of July, organized in the 34th Division sector and at 0340 18 July knifed northwest through the gap between the 135th and 442nd Infantry Regiments toward the great port. At 2100 the same night, the city at whose gates Fifth Army had been hammering for over 25 days fell to Task Force Williamson. The Germans were caught completely by surprise: they were hit when they were off-balance, when their main forces were deployed against the 34th Division. And in a matter of hours the Germans strongest bastion south of the Arno had fallen. The 1st Battalion and the 2nd Platoon of the 91st Reconnaissance Troop striking from the high ground east of the port were the first to enter Leghorn that night. The 2nd and 3rd Battalion moved in the following morning and reorganized for the attack on Pisa. Enemy resistance by this time was completely shattered, and the main forces were withdrawing towards Pisa.

First at Pisa

Principal obstacle to the advance on Pisa was a canal north of Leghorn cutting Highway I. However, the 1st Battalion crossed the barrier at 1800 20 July, and the battle for Pisa was under way. Enemy artillery was trained on the canal, and it was impossible to erect a bridge. Patriots were then used as carrying parties to keep the forward troops supplied. The following day the 1st Battalion struck out for the south bank of the Arno River, where it established its positions that night. By 0530, 23 July, patrols had entered the city; by 1245 they had grown to company strength. The 3rd battalion, infiltrating in small groups across fields, so disguised its movement that the Germans did not realize that a Battalion had joined the 1st, and by late in the afternoon the two units held positions in the city. That night, however, mortar and artillery fire, directed from a German OP located in the famous Tower of Pisa north of the Arno, was so heavy that General Williamson ordered one Battalion to withdraw south of the city. Retaliatory fire was prohibited, and the job was complicated by orders from the Commanding General, Fifth Army, to spare the historic installations in Pisa if at all possible.
From 23 July until 28 July, when it was relieved, Task Force Williamson was under constant artillery, mortar and small arms fire from German lines across the river. At first enemy patrols came across in small boats to reconnoiter the American positions. But General Williamson thwarted the moves by establishing strong points at strategic positions. On the night of 28 July the 363rd was relieved and withdrew south of Leghorn in preparation for movement to the east, where it was assigned the mission of screening Fifth Army's right flank and maintaining contact with the 88th Division.

91st men and tankette
Picture. 91st Men pause to inspect a captured two man tankette. As depicted in the booklet
(coll. Burridge)

Commendations

In a commendation to the troops of IV Corps for the campaign to the Arno and the capture of the city, General Clark singled out the 91st Division when he wrote:

I have been especially delighted over the performance of the 91st Division in its first major test."

General Crittenberger of IV Corps added:

I consider it an honor and a privilege to have commanded such fine American troops of the caliber of the men of the 91st Division. The valiant deeds of these men and their outstanding contribution in this Italian campaign will go down in history as another great military achievement of American arms.

Marking Time

During the last week of July, Fifth Army regrouped its forces along the Arno, as the first preparation for the Gothic Line Campaign. By 1 August the 91st Division had assumed responsibility for the eastern flank of Fifth Army, with Task Force Ramey on its left and the British Eighth Indian Division on its right. The 362nd Infantry, echeloned on a five mile front running east from the small town of Buche along the railroad just south of the Arno, had organized defensive positions across the Division sector and was maintaining strong combat and reconnaissance patrols to the river. The 361st and 363rd Infantries were in Division reserve. The Division Artillery, less the 347th Field Artillery Battalion, was attached to Task Force Ramey, while the 178th Field Artillery Group was in direct support of the Division.

"Patrols Were Active"

The mission of the Division at this time was to establish a defensive line along the Arno River, to protect the right flank of Fifth Army, to screen the regrouping of Fifth Army, and to maintain liaison with the Eighth Indian Division. Up to the time the Division was relieved from the line on 17 August, the period, an interim between attacks, was comparatively quiet. It was characterized by extensive reconnaissance and patrol activity, harassing artillery firing, and occasional patrol skirmishes. The enemy was sensitive to every move. During the day there was very little activity other than artillery duels. At night, however, patrols often 40-50 men strong, would cross the river to probe the Alllied lines. Sometimes German patrols would hide in houses south of the Arno by day and make reconnaissance forays by night. They also made extensive use of observation planes and flares in the attempt to determine the dispositions and intentions of our forces.

The 362nd Infantry, occupying the positions along the river had two primary missions; to learn as much as possible about the enemy's strength, position, fire-power, and movement, and to scout the river and its banks for information to be used in a possible river-crossing operation later in the month. Its second mission was to screen the front of the Division and Fifth Army and deny the enemy knowledge of the disposition and movements of our troops. To complete these missions an average of five combat patrols consisting of from eight to twenty men, and fourteen reconnaissance patrols of four to eight men, with an officer leading each patrol, covered prearranged routes each night.

In addition to the combat and reconnaissance patrols sent out by the infantry the 316th Engineer Battalion sent out reconnaissance parties to gather information essential to crossing the Arno. One such party reconnoitered the terrain for three nights and two days, 18-22 August 1944. They waded and swam the river at many times and places to determine depths and widths of the stream and gathered other information concerning the banks and approaches. From prisoners captured by combat patrols and from the reports of the reconnaissance parties of both the Engineers and the 362nd Infantry, the Division gradually built up a complete and accurate study of the disposition of enemy forces as well as a detailed analysis of the Arno River and its banks.

While the 362nd Infantry was patrolling the Arno, 1-13 August, the other two Regiments and Division Artillery concerned themselves with the care and cleaning of equipment, training, and study. On 5 August training was instituted in the 361st Infantry stressing marksmanship and physical conditioning designed to bring the 1,000 replacements which had come to the Regiment since 3 June up to Regimental standards. Instruction in scouting and patrolling, mines and mine warfare, and technical training for special units was also carried out. In the 363rd Infantry, essentially the same program of training was undertaken for those not actively engaged in the Regimental mission of screening the Division's right flank and maintaining contact with the Eighth Indian Division. In addition, every replacement had an opportunity to gain actual patrol experience under the leadership of experienced leaders. Division Artillery, in addition to activities similar to those of the Regiments, concentrated on the care and cleaning of their equipment. The armament section of the 791st Ordnance Company, with the help of 12 men from the automotive section, performed the six month's survey of the Division's artillery pieces.

Visitors

The month of August was made memorable for the Division by visits of high Army and Navy officials and the celebration of the second anniversary of its activation. Within a week the 91st Division had the priviledge of meeting and entertaining the Secretary of the Navy, Mr. James Forrestal, and the Undersecretary of War, Mr. Robert Patterson. Secretary Forrestal, accompanied by Lt. General Mark Clark and other high ranking Army officers, inspected the Division Command Post, 9 August, and dined with General Livesay and the members of his General Staff.

Five days later Mr. Robert Patterson visited the Division. With his party he visited the Command Post of the 361st Infantry and presented decorations to six Officers and Enlisted Men and personally greeted a Guard of Honor of fifteen men who had previously been decorated by the Division for heroism. After reviewing the 2nd Battalion of the 361st and addressing the troops briefly, he was taken to the Division Command Post, where he and his party were the guests of General Livesay at luncheon.

Second Anniversary

On 15 August, the 91st Division celebrated the second anniversary of the reactivation of the Division. No formal ceremonies were held, but General Livesay, in a letter of greeting, expressed the quiet pride and satisfaction every member of the Division felt. He wrote, in part:

"The Division is now of age - it is no longer a Division in training. It is a Division that has met the enemy under the most trying circumstances of terrain and has driven him back with heavy casualties. I feel certain that the German high command has this Division registered as one of the first line fighting divisions. The campaign to the ARNO; the taking of LIVORNO, and the investment of PISA leave no doubt in my mind but that I have the honor to command an organization of top-class fighting men. With all of my pride in you, I am still inclined to sound a note of warning. Let us steel ourselves to further, more definite efforts. Let us improve ourselves in all of the things that we have learned so that nothing can stand successfully in the path of the Division."

More Training

On 13 August, arrangements were begun by II Corps for moving the 91st Division to a rear area for specialized training. Movement of various units took place at night during the period of 14-17 August. The 363rd Infantry, which had relieved the 362nd Infantry on the line at 130400, was, in turn, relieved by elements of the 85th Division during the night of 17 August, and command of the sector was officially relinquished at 170445. The Division gathered in an assembly area in the vicinity of San Gimignano and Gambassi, a training area for its next assignment, to concentrate especially on river-crossing techniques, operations in mountains with mule supply, and the reduction of fortified areas.

During the remainder of the month of August the 91st Division carried out the training program outlined for it by II Corps. Originally scheduled for ten days, the training period was extended into the month of September. The Engineers gave lectures and demonstrations on river crossing techniques, and full employment was made of the 11th Mule Group for training in loading and using mules in mountainous terrain. Firing ranges were set up by separate units and further practise in marksmanship was held. Extensive training in night problems was also conducted. This specialized training especially in the various phases of mountain warfare proved to be most valuable in the great September campaign against the Gothic Line.


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