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Tragedy and Glory in Operation Raincoat: Ernie Pyle, John Huston, and the First Special Service Force

The Allies’ original plan in Italy called for the liberation of Rome by December 1943. But stymied by stubborn German defenses and bad weather, in November the American Fifth Army was more than 80 miles away. Its commander Lt. Gen. Mark W. Clark now would be happy just to breach the German defenses of the Winter Line and gain a toehold on the Liri Valley, the historic southern gateway to the Eternal City.

“From the end of October 1943 until the middle of December, San Pietro and the surrounding ground was the scene of some of the bitterest fighting on our Fifth Army’s route.”

—Narrator John Huston, The Battle of San Pietro

To accomplish that scaled down goal he launched Operation Raincoat on December 3. When it ended nine days later, Clark had his toehold. But the operation would become noteworthy for other reasons: a newly arrived special operations unit would establish its reputation as an elite unit, America’s favorite war correspondent would write his greatest column of the war, and the celebrated Hollywood director of The Maltese Falcon would film one of the world’s greatest war documentaries.

First Special Service Force

Members of the Canadian-American special operations unit, the First Special Service Force, in Italy. The First Special Service Force was tasked with capturing Mont la Difensa during Operation Raincoat. Library and Archives Canada photo

The First Special Service Force was a Canadian-American special operations unit commanded by Col. Robert T. Frederick. In July it had helped recapture the Aleutian Island of Kiska, but saw no action as the Japanese garrison had secretly evacuated days earlier. Now in Italy, it was given the lead role in Operation Raincoat, assigned to capture Mont la Difensa. Previous attempts had been bloodily repulsed. Clark gave Frederick’s highly trained men three days to accomplish what his regular troops couldn’t.

Despite suffering 30 percent casualties, the First Special Service Force secured both. By the time the survivors marched down the mountain, the First Special Service Force’s reputation as an elite fighting unit was secured.

Attacking at midnight, within two hours the mountain was theirs and by mid-morning that same day they had also seized nearby Mount la Remetanea. Desperate fighting ensued. Despite suffering 30 percent casualties, the First Special Service Force secured both. By the time the survivors marched down the mountain, the First Special Service Force’s reputation as an elite fighting unit was secured.

Captain Waskow

Capt. Henry Waxkow was the commander of Company B in the 36th Infantry Division and was memorialized after his death by war correspondent Ernie Pyle. Texas Military Forces Museum photo

Capt. Henry Waxkow was the commander of Company B in the 36th Infantry Division, a National Guard division that first saw action during the amphibious assault on Salerno. Waxkow had joined it in the late 1930s. Though unassuming in style and appearance, he had earned his men’s trust by his care for them and his frontline leadership.

Waxkow had joined it in the late 1930s. Though unassuming in style and appearance, he had earned his men’s trust by his care for them and his frontline leadership.

On December 13, Waskow received orders to lead his company in an assault of San Pietro, a village at the mouth of the Liri Valley. As the company was moving to its jump-off point on the mountain overlooking San Pietro, Waskow heard the whistling of an incoming enemy artillery shell. Shouting a warning, he shoved to safety his runner, Pvt. Riley Tidwell. The shell exploded above Waskow, killing him instantly. Company B would lose all its officers in the assault. After reporting to the battalion commanding officer, Tidwell, who was suffering from trenchfoot, was ordered to the rear to get his feet treated.

Ernie Pyle

War correspondent Ernie Pyle wrote his most famous column, “The Death of Captain Waskow,” while covering the Battle of San Pietro. National Archives photo

At the base of the mountain, Tidwell found a shed where other members of the division were resting and joined them. Sensing that he wanted to talk, war correspondent Ernie Pyle, recently attached to the division, walked over and gently asked Tidwell what had happened. Tidwell told him. Soon after Tidwell had finished, Pyle went away and began writing: “In this war I have known a lot of officers who were loved and respected by the soldiers under them. But never have I crossed the trail of any man as beloved as Capt. Henry T. Waskow, of Belton, Texas.”

On December 17 Huston and his film crew were at San Pietro, risking their lives to obtain combat footage.

“The Death of Captain Waskow” was a masterpiece that touched the emotional tenor of the times. The column helped Pyle win the Pulitzer Prize in 1944.

John Huston

Director John Huston filmed the documentary The Battle of San Pietro. National Archives photo

John Huston, late of Hollywood and now a captain in the Army Signal Corps, had been given an impossible assignment: Create a first-class documentary containing combat action footage “filmed as it happens.” But to do so, cameramen with their large, bulky movie cameras had to expose themselves to enemy troops they couldn’t see for the unscripted chance to film something that didn’t have the same spectacular pyrotechnics of a Hollywood war movie. But Huston refused to be deterred. On December 17 Huston and his film crew were at San Pietro, risking their lives to obtain combat footage. Ultimately, Huston had to recreate some necessary combat scenes in safer battle scarred areas.

“This picture should be seen by every American soldier in training.”

In August, Gen. George C. Marshall screened a rough cut. After suggesting it was too long, he recommended: “This picture should be seen by every American soldier in training.” The Battle of San Pietro was released to the general public in April 1945. Time magazine movie critic James Agee rated it one of the two best films of 1945. Its reputation has since grown.

Ernie Pyle’s “The Death of Captain Waskow” can be read in its entirety at: http://www.pbs.org/weta/reportingamericaatwar/reporters/pyle/waskow.html. The Battle of San Pietro can be seen on YouTube at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xssaWNoWq3E.

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DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...