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Trapped in Tuscany Liberated by the Buffalo Soldiers
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View all copies of this ISBN edition:. Although the Germans had been in continuous retreat in Italy, they resisted fiercely at Massa.
Beset by cold autumn rains, the Buffalo Soldiers found themselves fighting a new enemy—mud—in addition to dug-in enemy troops. Meanwhile, though the II Corps made some impressive headway, it failed to reach Bologna before the snows set in. After a six-day battle for control of Massa, the Buffalo Soldiers pulled back and regrouped. As the rest of the 92nd Infantry Division began to land in Italy, the Buffalo Soldiers of the th kept up the offensive on a smaller scale with power patrols consisting of between 35 and 75 men and at times machine-gun and mortar crews. The Fifth Army spent most of November conducting defensive actions in preparation for a renewed offensive in December.
By late November, the last elements of the remaining two 92nd Division regiments, the st and th, had arrived. The th had originally trained for combat but had been initially assigned to guard duty on Allied air bases throughout Italy. The men of the th had performed so well in their former assignment that their commanding general did not want to give them up. As the th moved deeper into the Serchio Valley—later with elements of the st—resupply became a logistical nightmare.
No vehicles could reach the Buffalo Soldiers as they fought their way to the high ground of the mile-long valley. Despite a wealth of technology and industrial might at their command, the Americans found themselves dependent upon pack animals, the same mode of transport employed by Hannibal Barca when he had invaded Italy more than 2, years earlier. One officer and 15 enlisted men formed the nucleus of the 92nd Division Mule Pack Battalion, which included an Italian veterinarian, two blacksmiths and Italian volunteers who were given American uniforms and even wore the Buffalo insignia.
The Americans scoured the countryside for mules and horses, which the U. They eventually procured a total of mules and horses. Because the U.
Army lacked the necessary equipment for pack animals, the blacksmiths had to hammer out their own horseshoes from German barbed-wire pickets. The animals brought up water, ammunition, anti-tank guns and other crucial materiel and transported the wounded to where they could receive treatment. As it turned out, however, the mules were apparently spooked by the smell of dead men and balked at carrying corpses.
The attack was rescheduled for Christmas Day due to a predicted German counterattack. When intelligence reports indicated a large German build-up in the northern region of the Serchio Valley, the men of the st were transferred to the coastal sector, and elements of the th were sent to the valley to support the th. Although the Fifth Army never launched its early December assault, it was not a quiet month in the Serchio Valley. The Buffalo Soldiers continued to advance, town by town, against German artillery, mortar and small-arms fire. American engineers at first repaired bridges and roads for the advance, but soon shifted to defensive work, laying minefields, rigging bridges for demolition, and helping to evacuate civilians in anticipation of the German counterattack.
On Christmas Eve, the th sent its 2nd Battalion east of the river into the little village of Sommocolonia, the northernmost edge of the American line. Light artillery and mortar rounds hit Sommocolonia but there seemed to be little enemy activity, so most of the 2nd Battalion moved out for duty elsewhere, leaving behind only two platoons.
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On the extreme right, just east of Sommocolonia, lay the villages of Bebbio and Scarpello, occupied by two platoons of the 92nd Division Reconnaissance Troop. Before sunrise on the day after Christmas, the Germans attacked the villages just north and east of Gallicano. Although the primary German assault seemed to come from west of the river, toward Gallicano, partisans were also battling enemy soldiers north of Sommocolonia later in the morning. Within two hours, Sommocolonia and the two American platoons there were surrounded.
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A third platoon moved up to reinforce the embattled Sommocolonia troops. Lieutenant John Fox, an artillery forward observer for the th, exemplified the impressive fighting spirit of the black soldiers. The two platoons of the th, along with a group of partisans, engaged in house-to-house fighting with the enemy during that battle. Many of the Germans were dressed as partisans, making the situation even more confusing and dangerous.
Just before noon, the platoons were ordered to evacuate the village, but they were trapped. They managed to hold out until nightfall, but of the 70 Americans involved, only one officer and 17 men managed to fight their way out of the village that night as ordered. Meanwhile, the two reconnaissance platoons at Bebbio and Scarpello were overrun by enemy troops and ordered to fall back.
Despite heavy fighting, they managed to withdraw to their command post at Coreglia. German artillery fire began to cut deeper into American lines, and the th ordered its troops to quit Gallicano and secure the high ground nearby.
On December 27, American fighter-bombers roared into the valley and hammered Sommocolonia, Gallicano and other front-line areas. By January 1, the Allies had more or less re-established their original positions. With the Germans less of an imminent threat, the 8th Indian Division pulled out, leaving the valley to the Buffalo Soldiers.
The Fifth Army postponed its major offensive until April, but General Almond decided that his division would launch its own attack in February. Troops in the Serchio Valley were to seize the Lama di Sotto Ridge, overlooking the German supply center at Castelnuovo di Garfagnana, and create a diversion while the main assault concentrated on the coastal sector. Almond hoped to reach the Strettoia hill mass on the coast, just north of the Cinquale Canal, and then take Massa. Once in Massa, American artillery would come within firing range of La Spezia. Units were moved around again so that the th and st occupied the Coastal Sector while the th went to the Serchio Valley.
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The th was divided between both areas. On February 4, the th held Gallicano, and the next day it pushed its lines into the outlying villages. The th held out against numerous counterattacks until February 8, when a full battalion of Germans pushed the Americans off the hill and out of Lama. At nightfall on the 10th, after encountering grueling enemy artillery fire and grenadier counterattacks, the Buffalo Soldiers retook Lama.
The Buffalo Soldiers on the coast were hit just as hard as their comrades in the valley. The Germans had tanks, field artillery and thousands of ground troops to protect La Spezia, and they could call on a weapon unavailable to the Americans—heavy coastal guns. Emplaced at Punta Bianca, just southeast of La Spezia, the German coastal guns could not only lob shells into Massa but also reach all the way to Forte dei Marmi, which lay south of the Cinquale Canal. Fire from the powerful coastal guns left craters so large that Allied tanks literally fell into them.
The remainder of the th and its supporting armor—including another black unit, the th Tank Battalion—advanced along the coast. The st attacked on the far right through the coastal hill masses but ran into extensive minefields. The th advanced in column with its left flank on Highway 1 and its right flank in the hills. As they advanced, each battalion of the th leapfrogged the battalion directly to its front in order to keep up a continuous attack.
Riding on the tanks, the th rolled into the sea to avoid mines, then came back onto dry land north of the Cinquale Canal. The first two tanks to hit the beach were knocked out by mines and blocked the way.
ISBN 13: 9780937832356
Before long, four more tanks were destroyed by mines, but the th reached the canal and started to cross, taking a pounding from local mortar and machine-gun positions as well as from the coastal guns. The artillery fire prevented engineers from laying a bridge, and foul weather meant no air support for the Buffalo Soldiers that day. Three tanks were lost when they fell into underwater craters while crossing the canal.
Despite numerous German counterattacks, the Buffalo Soldiers did manage to establish a line of defense north of the canal. Without a bridge, they had to hand-carry supplies across the water. Casualties were mounting, and the coastal guns kept pounding away. On the night of February 10, Almond called off the attack and ordered his troops back across the canal. The February operation cost 22 tanks and more than 1, casualties, including 56 officers. The 92nd underwent drastic changes before its involvement in an offensive in the spring of Although the U. Army had hundreds of thousands of black troops, it could not find enough combat-trained replacements for the 92nd, so the st went to the Serchio Valley under IV Corps control while the th and th were sent elsewhere.
The 92nd built up the strength of the th, the only black regiment left in the division, while it gained two new regiments. In addition to the rd, made up of white anti-aircraft gunners turned infantrymen, the division received a ferocious fighting unit composed of Nisei soldiers—the famed nd Regimental Combat Team. These descendants of Japanese immigrants served in one of the most highly decorated American regiments of the entire war.
The th formed the left flank, with the nd on the right and the rd in reserve in the nearby Serchio Valley. Even though fighter-bombers flew sorties over Punta Bianca and British destroyers shelled the German positions, the coastal guns continued firing. Artillerymen could not believe that the riflemen had advanced so far. The Germans were surprised, too—in fact, many were still eating breakfast when the Buffalo Soldiers arrived.
Company C radioed for reinforcements, but the regiment had problems of its own, with two company commanders already killed. No help arrived. The Germans within the castle fired on the lone company with machine guns and mortars. Before long, the company had suffered 60 percent casualties.