(This is part two of a story on WW II veteran Bill Simpson)
It’s not uncommon to hear war analogies when listening to a description of a football game. The quarterback is throwing a bomb, the defense is bringing a blitz and the linemen are battling in the trenches.
World War II veteran Bill Simpson prefers to do exactly the opposite when explaining the scene at Anzio in early 1944.
When he looks back on those months spent dug in on the low-lying ground near the Italian coastline, living under constant vigilance from deeply entrenched Germans in the nearby mountains, Simpson likes to compare it with a local football landmark: Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham.
“The Duke University football stadium is like a horseshoe,” said Simpson. “We went through the opening of the horseshoe and got to about the 25 or 30 yard line and that is where we sat. The Germans were all in the stands, which were the mountains. They had all the high ground and could see everything we were doing each day. For four months we were down there on that playing field.”
The Allies’ amphibious assault at Anzio, codenamed Operation Shingle, began on Jan. 22, 1944 and caught the Germans by surprise. The landings were basically unopposed and the Americans and British quickly poured tens of thousands of troops ashore.
The 45th Division didn’t arrive until about a week later and Simpson’s unit – K Company of the 157th Regiment – arrived on Feb. 1.
By that time, the Germans had already reacted to the landings and were strengthening their defensive positions.
Simpson was just 18 years old when he dug his first foxhole in the Italian soil. His inexperience shone like a neon light to the battle-hardened veterans around him.
In fact, the first artillery barrage he ever experienced was nearly his last thanks to some youthful exuberance.
“We were in reserve and we were dug in pretty deep,” said Simpson. “The first shell that came close to us was a dud. Me and another fella that I had gone through basic training with jumped up to see where it was. Our sergeant said, ‘You don’t do that around here.’ We were excited about everything but we learned better later on. That also was probably the only dud I ever saw.”
Simpson was given the assignment of first scout for K Company, replacing the former scout who was sent back to Washington, D.C. to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor.
“I said, ‘Boy, those are some big shoes to fill,’” said Simpson. “They said, ‘Just do the best you can.’ So, I just did what I could.”
Life at the front
One or two nights a week, Simpson would lead a reconnaissance patrol of about 12 men to the brink of the German lines. They would listen for the movement of tanks or vehicles that might signal an imminent German attack.
It didn’t take long for the Raleigh native to realize the seriousness of war. During his first patrol, when he was being trained for the role of lead scout by his lieutenant, he was forced to lie on the ground to avoid machine gun fire. As he slightly turned his head to the side, he came face-to-face with a dead G.I.
“There was a dead American soldier right next to me,” said Simpson. “I don’t know how long he was there, maybe two or three nights. It made you realize how easily you could get killed. You could die pretty soon.”
That same patrol, he also nearly came face-to-face with a live German.
“About every 10 minutes (the Germans) would have a machine gun rip along waist high from their lines,” said Simpson. “Then things got quiet for a while and I heard some movement. It was a German patrol coming back from listening to our lines. They were (within a few feet) of us. They didn’t see us or they didn’t want to see us, I’m not sure which it was. We stayed there another 35 or 40 minutes and then went back to our lines.”
The patrols were dangerous and nerve-wracking. One false step in the darkness could lead to a hail of fire from the Germans.
But it certainly wasn’t the worst aspect of Simpson’s life at the front lines. That was, without question, enduring the Germans’ daily artillery and mortar barrages.
From their vantage point up in the mountains, the Nazis had a clear view of the Allied positions. Any excessive movement out in the open, no matter how small, would inevitably lead to a visit from German steel.
“I couldn’t get up out of my foxhole on most days,” said Simpson. “The Germans had great artillery. They had that 88 (millimeter) and it was very accurate. (The Allies) brought in smoke machines, which was strange, so the Germans couldn’t see everything that was going on. But anytime the Germans fired they were bound to hit something. It wasn’t that big of a place and they shelled us continuously night and day.”
Sharing a foxhole with another soldier for all those weeks made for some less than ideal living conditions.
“We washed at night using our helmets and we would take sponge baths,” said Simpson. “They would pull us back (from the front) for a couple of days to a place called The Pines and then we could use a portable shower.”
Not even The Pines offered complete safety, as Simpson found out while waiting in line for food.
“I got straffed one time in Italy,” said Simpson. “We were back in reserve and going to get some hot food. We were standing in line about 10 yards apart because you never know when a shell is going to hit (and) here comes this (German) plane straffing. Within 20 seconds another plane came and it was an American who spotted him. They both went out over the ocean and I don’t know if the American shot him down or not.”
The darkness of night offered some false sense of comfort to the soldiers and gave them confidence to move around a little bit. It was also when most of the men would answer nature’s call. Otherwise, they would have to use their empty K-ration (containers) in the foxhole.
But as Simpson discovered, danger lurked everywhere.
“You would sneak out of the foxholes at night,” said Simpson with a laugh. “One night I was out there and my rear end was white as could be and all these flares went off. I was 15 yards from my foxhole and I didn’t move the whole time. You had to control yourself. I guess when you are young you can do it.”
It was during the nighttime hours that the Germans also unleashed their massive railroad gun infamously known as Anzio Annie or the Anzio Express.
The 71-foot long gun was capable of firing a 560-pound shell up to 40 miles away.
“They would keep it in a tunnel at day because of air attacks,” said Simpson. “At night, they would bring it out and it was a tremendous gun. They would fire and it would sound like a train coming down on you. It would go over your head and you felt like you could reach up and touch it. There were times I thought I could hold up a match and (the shell) would strike it. But quite often (the shells) would hit down by the docks.”
As the weeks wore on, Simpson began to learn the ways of survival in war. He understood what type of movements he could make in his foxhole without being spotted by the enemy and knew what risks were worth taking.
It was an inexperienced British unit dug in next to his foxhole, however, that brought down upon him the wrath of German gunners.
“One night a unit was moved back (to reserve) and a British unit took over the foxholes,” said Simpson. “The next day about four o’clock we got shelled. I tell you, I thought (the Germans) found out my middle initial the way they were (zeroed in on his location). I looked over and there was smoke coming up from the next foxhole. So, that night I crawled over and said, ‘Look, what was that smoke?’ and they said, ‘Oh, we were having a spot of tea.’
“I said, ‘That’s the reason we got shelled so much. If they can see that smoke they are going to concentrate on it, which they did.’ I never saw the tea again the rest of the time they were there.”
Perhaps recalling his own naiveté when he first arrived at the front, Simpson didn’t even get angry at the British soldiers for inadvertently giving away their position.
“They had just come up and didn’t know any better,” said Simpson. “They didn’t realize they could be seen so easily.”
It doesn’t take long for combat soldiers to realize that even simple mistakes can quickly lead to death on the battlefield.
Those same soldiers also learn that even the smartest and most experienced veteran can meet his end when one random, lucky shell hits its mark.
That’s exactly what happened to Simpson the first time he was wounded in combat. His two-man five-foot deep foxhole offered great protection from artillery unless a shell happened to make a direct hit.
One night in March, that worse-case-scenario shell arrived. As Simpson and his foxhole mate hugged the dirt, another G.I. jumped into the hole with them.
“One shell hit right on the edge of our foxhole,” said Simpson. “Those two were stretched out at the bottom and I was sitting in the corner. The shell (hit so close) I could almost reach it and the shrapnel went through my helmet. I saw all kinds of stars but it didn’t knock me out. It was a tremendous impact. It felt like somebody had jumped off a two-story building and hit me over the head.”
As Simpson slowly regained his senses, he was horrified to see that the two men in the foxhole with him had been buried alive.
“Luckily, I hadn’t been knocked out,” said Simpson. “So, I grabbed my little shovel and started getting them out of there. They were both lucky. The impact of the shell moved their helmets over their faces and they had a little breathing space before I could get them out.”
With shells still falling, the three men crawled to the nearest foxhole. As Simpson sat there in pain, he had no idea that blood was streaming down all over his face.
It wasn’t until a German flare lit up the night sky that the severity of his wound was realized.
Simpson was ordered back to regimental headquarters where a medic cleaned and bandaged his wound. The medic then told him to follow a nearby path about one mile to a house where a jeep would pick up him up the next night and take him to a hospital in Anzio.
Staggering along in pain, shells still pelting the ground around him, Simpson began his journey through the woods.
“It must have taken me an hour or an hour and a half to get to that house,” said Simpson. “They were still shelling so I had to keep hitting the ground. I stayed in the basement the next day and the house was hit twice by shells. I had a tremendous headache, just continuous throbbing.”
That night, the jeep arrived at the house just as the medic had promised. Simpson was put on a stretcher and placed next to a wounded German.
“We just stared at each other,” said Simpson. “We never tried to communicate or smile.”
That night, doctors operated on his head and removed the shrapnel. He was kept conscious during the operation because of the nature of the wound and the medical staff continually talked to him to keep him relaxed.
“It was like a MASH unit and all the doctors and nurses were from a unit in Texas,” said Simpson. “The doctor asked how old I was and when I told him he said, ‘When I was 18 I hadn’t even been out of my home county and here you are in Italy.’ I thought that was funny. They were a good group and made you think of different things while they were operating on you.”
While recovering from his surgery, Gen. Mark Clark and a group of officers made a visit to the tent hospital.
“(Clark) looked at my chart at the end of the bed and said, ‘Private Simpson, where are you from?’” said Simpson. “I said, ‘Raleigh, North Carolina, sir’ and he said, ‘Fine’ and moved on.”
As the group of brass passed by, the lowest ranking officer stopped at Simpson’s bedside.
“I think he was a major and he said, ‘Do you know where the Hotel Raleigh is?’ and I said, ‘Oh, yes’ because that was our most prominent hotel in those days,” said Simpson. “He said he went to school at Ft. Bragg and couldn’t find anywhere to live in Fayetteville or the surrounding towns. So, four officers took rooms at the Sir Raleigh and they were there for four months. They would leave at 4 a.m. to get to Ft. Bragg for revile.
“He said how much they and their wives loved Raleigh. It was great to hear that from somebody out of the clear blue sky.”
God Bless America
The tent hospital was shelled the day after Clark’s visit, killing or wounding seven men. One day later, Simpson was put aboard a hospital ship and transported to Naples.
His arrival caught the attention of a film crew.
“I looked like the Sheik of Arab with this big bandage on my head,” said Simpson. “I mean, the bandage was just tremendous. When we got (to Naples) they were carrying me (off the ship) on a stretcher and there was a British newsreel crew there. When they saw that big thing on my head they all started (focusing) on it.”
Simpson was bedridden the next five days in Naples when a familiar looking older man made an early morning visit to Simpson’s section of the hospital.
“He got to my bed and said, ‘Hello, my name is Irving,’” said Simpson. “It was Irving Berlin.”
Berlin spent several minutes chatting with the young private and then invited him to a show that afternoon across the street from the hospital. Simpson eagerly accepted the invitation.
“So, I got up and just walked over there,” said Simpson. “I still had my robe on and the bandage. The next day the doctor came in and heard that I had gotten out of bed and gone to the concert. He was livid. He said, ‘You have a head wound and shouldn’t be moving around like that.’ I already had told him that I had walked a mile at night to that house while getting shelled.”
The more the doctor spoke to Simpson, the angrier he became. He then told the private if he was healthy enough to walk across the street then he was well enough to fight.
Simpson was returned to active duty the next day and once again found himself back in the muddy, shell-torn ground outside of Anzio.
So was the chance to meet Irving Berlin and receive his acknowledgement during a performance worth being sent back to the front lines?
“In some respects, it was,” said a smiling Simpson. “It was something I’ve always remembered. He was a very nice guy.”
For the next two weeks after returning from the hospital, Simpson was not allowed to join any patrols. He still had a large bandage on his head and couldn’t wear a helmet.
“Whenever a shell was coming I would have to hold (the helmet) over my head,” said Simpson.
By early April, Simpson was fully recovered and was back to leading night reconnaissance patrols with a helmet sitting snugly on his head.
The stalemate continued to drag on for nearly two more months before the Allies geared up for a major push against the Germans.
The drive for Rome was underway and Simpson would help lead the way.
(Part three of this story will appear in next week’s edition.)