Since Salerno, they’ve had 35 Purple Hearts. And they think they’ve got the best gun in the whole Fifth Army.

By Sgt. Ralph G. Martin

Africa Stars and Stripes Correspondent

WITH THE FIFTH ARMY IN ITALY—You have to crawl on your belly through thick mud up a steep slope for about 20 minutes before you reach the observation post of a 105-mm Howitzer outfit.

Then, if you’re lucky, you can look through the broad slit in the big boulder and spot the nearby Germany gun positions and convoy movements. If you’re not lucky, you’ll spend all your time sharing a crowded foxhole, keeping your head low, praying hard that the Jerry shells will land somewhere else.

45th infantry division engineers

Insignia of the 45th Infantry Division.

For six days and nights, on top of Hill 769 north of Filignano, S/Sgt. Olan Herr of Bluffton, Ohio, wasn’t so lucky. Sitting on top of a higher hill, the Germans spotted his OP and began blistering the sector with a continuous barrage of concentrated artillery and mortar fire, trying desperately to knock it out completely. One piece of shrapnel landed so close to Herr’s foxhole that it cut the telephone wire one foot away.

“I didn’t eat very well those six days,” said Herr.

He didn’t eat very well because an Artillery observer takes only one day’s rations with him, relying on the Infantry behind to supply him with the rest. Sometimes they can bring it to him during the night; sometimes they can’t.

But whether he eats or not, Herr’s Job is to keep looking through his high-powered field glasses, trying to pick out enemy machine-gun positions, moving trucks and troop concentrations, and constantly reporting his findings to headquarters via radio. Then, two minutes later, he watches his battery’s 105 shells pop and explode, and he keeps adjusting their fire until the shells land smack on the German positions.

Occasionally Herr gets a chance to see a little more action. He goes along with an Infantry assault company, carrying his portable radio with him, relaying back to his Artillery CP the exact coordinates of Jerry guns just a few hundred yards ahead of him. He has to be exact about his coordinates because otherwise he will have his own shells whooshing down on him.

105mm howizter artillery

U.S. Army 105mm Howitzer

There are some machine guns shooting concentrated crossfire on an Infantry company and Battery B got the job of wiping them out. So 1st Lt. Harry Van Ness of Newton, N.J., a forward observer, got out of position with three of his men and made a run for it across the road, right in the face of direct 20-mm fire, and jumped for some scanty bushes where he could get better observation.  Van Ness and his men saw what they wanted, but one Jerry machine gun spotted them and let loose, killing one American and wounding another. Then, in plain view of everybody and everything, Van Ness carried the wounded man back across the road to safety. They gave him the Silver Star for that.

Herr also tells about another louey, 2nd Lt. Arthur B. Merchant of Woonsocket, R.I., who went out with a tank reconnaissance patrol and kept standing up in the tank, his head out of the turret, reporting coordinates while the tank guns were busy firing at some German Mark IV’s down the road.

45th infantry division italy

45th Infantry division soldiers near Venafro, Italy

But the observers don’t like to talk about themselves; they prefer to talk about their battery. And Battery B is worth talking about. It’s the outfit that fired an unprecedented 2,000 rounds rom 1800 hours to 0600 during the first critical days on the Salerno beaches. The guns got so hot that the boys had to keep pouring a bucket of water into each muzzle about every 15 minutes. This was strictly unorthodox, contrary to all rules in the Field Artillery tactics book. But in those first few days, the Fifth Army was doing all kids of unorthodox things.

For example, the Infantry drafted 30 men from Battery B to replace casualties, leaving the other overworked, sweating Artillery boys even more short-handed, and with 700 crates of shells to unload. And all the time enemy shells were landing not more than 50 yards from the guns themselves, splattering shrapnel all over the gun shields. But the Battery B boys never stopped loading, firing, reloading.

Nobody slept that night, or the next, or the next.

Since Salerno, all four of the original guns in the battery have been knocked out and replaced. Since Salerno, out of the 112 men in Battery B there have been 35 Purple Hearts.

45th division artillery

45th Infantry Division Artillerymen

Like every other Artillery outfit n the Army, the Battery B boys think that they’ve got the best battery, the best gun. Boastfully 1st Sgt. Vincent Shaffer of Anadarko, Okla., says: “A 105 will fire more rounds, more accurately, for a longer period of time, than any other gun.

“It gets closer to the front lines, too.”

He told of the different times they were so close that Jerry machine-gun and sniper fire was splattering right into their gun positions, and of the time they knocked out a German pillbox with direct fire at close range, something that just isn’t done with a 105.

The 105 is supposed to be reserved for shooting at targets of opportunity, over hills far away at things it can’t see. It is never father than 2,000 yards behind the advance Infantry, and it’s usually less than 700.

So they often take as large a dose of shells as they dish out. The boys of Battery B are still talking about the Thanksgiving dinner nobody ate because Jerry shelled them for five hours.

There was time, too, when a German 150-mm shell landed right in a stack of artillery ammo, blowing the shells all over the place. There were two trucks nearby in danger of being blown up, and Pfc. Elmer Meier of Kingfisher, Okla, and 1st Lt. Charles K. Fetzer of Morristown, N.J.; each hopped into a truck and started driving it out of the area.

45th infantry division italy artillery barrage

Perched high above the valley this Yank has a bird’s-eye view of an artillery barrage against an Italian town

One piece of shrapnel broke Meier’s windshield and another landed in Fetzer’s shoulder, but the two kept going until the trucks were in a safety zone. All this while the German shells were still landing in the area, and the 105s were still answering back.

“It was a helluva night,” said the sergeant.

Another helluva night was the time a large group of paratroopers dropped down near them and nobody was exactly sure whether they were ours or the enemy’s. T-5 Clarence Pipestem of Carnegie, Okla., went out on patrol and brought back a “smart-alecky German who knows how to speak English.” The prisoner kept saying: “Take your gun away from me. Who in the hell do you think I am?”

The “smart-alecky German” turned out to be a paratroop chaplain who had become separated from the rest of his group. The boys are still kidding Pipestem about it.

They kid about their home towns, too. There is a good-natured feud between the veterans of the battery—originally a National Guard unit from Anadarko*—and the replacements, most of whom seem to be from Brooklyn. They kid each other, but they work together.

“And that’s why we’ve got such a goddam good battery,” said the sergeant.

*Editor’s Note-The 158th Field Artillery Battalion, 45th Infantry Division was from Anadarko, OK.

For More on the 45th Infantry Division Check Out:

The Rock Of Anzio: From Sicily To Dachau, A History Of The U.S. 45th Infantry Division

Bill Mauldin’s Army: Bill Mauldin’s Greatest World War II Cartoons

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