At the beginning of each day, like some macabre sunrise, the Allied positions at Anzio became a virtual no-man’s land.
The Germans, deeply entrenched in the nearby hills, enjoyed a clear view of the area and could seemingly spot even the smallest movement from American and British troops.
The simplest, most innocuous transgression invited a deluge of German artillery and mortars.
Raleigh native Bill Simpson was among the Americans who landed at Anzio in the winter of 1944 as part of Operation Shingle. The plan was for Allied forces to land behind the German’s impenetrable Gustav Line, then either push forward toward Rome or draw the Germans out into the open for a fight.
But the operation stalled just miles inland and the battle took on the characteristics of a World War I stalemate. The Allies couldn’t break the German defenses and the Nazis were unable to push the invaders back into the sea.
And there both sides sat, motionless in the cold, muddy Italian ground.
So, on it went day after day, week after week for more than three months. With the light of each new day, the Allies hunkered down in their foxholes and waited for the relative safety of night.
Indiscriminate, occasionally deadly and always terrifying, the shells poured from the sky throughout the daytime hours.
“Anzio was terrible, it was the most concentrated shelling,” said Simpson. “It was day in and day out. You stayed in your foxhole from dawn on.”
The nights allowed for more movement but it certainly didn’t eliminate the risk. The Germans would randomly shell certain areas in the darkness, a constant reminder of their endless vigilance.
Nighttime also brought the inherent dangers of reconnaissance patrols, a task at which Simpson excelled.
Only 18 years old, he quickly became a lead scout for his company and found himself just yards away from the German lines on countless occasions.
Simpson would see a little bit of everything before his time in the war ended. In Italy and, later, the push across Europe toward Germany, the teenager single-handedly captured 18 prisoners, stared down the barrel of an oncoming Tiger tank, lay helplessly pinned down by machine gun fire and, in a bizarre episode, received a visit from an obviously lost Hollywood actor at a lonely forward observation post.
Three times Simpson was wounded, the last one ending all hopes of honoring a basketball scholarship offered by Wake Forest University.
But in the grand scheme of things, basketball wasn’t that big of a deal. Not after what he experienced at the front line of history’s most terrible war.
A wonderful life
It’s difficult for Simpson to talk about growing up during the Great Depression. Not because things were so difficult but because they really weren’t too bad.
Born May 7, 1925 in Raleigh, he was the only child of Edward and Aileen Simpson. Edward worked as an accountant and Aileen held a good job at the Department of Motor Vehicles, leaving the family in a comfortable financial position.
“I didn’t know we were in a depression,” said Simpson. “At the time my dad worked in the office at Staudt’s Bakery and, golly, he brought home bread, cake and all sorts of stuff. So, I never knew (about the Depression) but I’m sure my parents did.”
Simpson also recalls Raleigh as being a great place to grow up.
“It was a very happy childhood,” said Simpson. “I grew up in an area called Cameron Park. Our backyard was where Cameron Village is now. I would meet my neighbor and we would walk through the woods to school.
“I would get on my bike and ride down Fayetteville Street and park the bike up against Woolworth’s store. It never had a lock. I would go inside and look at all the toys and then go next door to Eckert’s drug store and have a chocolate milkshake, which was a dime. Then I would get on my bike and ride home again. It was that type of place where you didn’t worry about things at all.”
Much of his free time was spent playing baseball, football and basketball at Cameron Park against kids from other parts of the city.
Popular and smart, Simpson shined at Broughton High School. A standout basketball player and good student, he also was president of the student body his senior year.
But it is a Sunday afternoon during the December of his sophomore year that stands out in his memory more than any other day.
Simpson was attending a concert at Memorial Auditorium on Dec. 7, 1941 when he heard the news that Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor.
The next day, Simpson and his friends met at Cameron Park and began discussing the future. Each of the teens worried about how the war might affect their families, never believing for one minute that they would have any involvement in the conflict.
“We were talking about the war coming and we were concerned about our fathers going,” said Simpson. “My dad just turned 41 at the time. I really thought the war would be over in one year. Later on, I found out how ill-prepared we really were.
“But (at that time) the war seemed 3,000 miles and 28 years ahead of me. We just felt it would be over. We knew by our senior year that we would be going.”
You’re in the Army now
On his 18th birthday, Simpson came home from school to find a letter from the draft board waiting for him.
Broughton held graduation ceremonies on a Friday night in late May. By Monday morning, many of Simpson’s buddies were already at Ft. Bragg.
“Some of the guys were a little older than me so I was farther down on the list,” said Simpson. “They didn’t call me until July and that is when I went to Ft. Bragg.”
Having already failed the test for pilot school because of color blindness, Simpson had a pretty good idea what awaited him – life as an infantryman in the U.S. Army.
He was sent to infantry replacement training at Ft. McClellan in Alabama on Aug. 1, 1943 before undergoing additional training at Ft. Meade in Maryland.
As the calendar turned to 1944, Simpson was on a ship headed to Casablanca. He was then put aboard a British transport vessel at Oran and taken to Naples.
“I’ve told people (that ship) had some of the healthiest roaches I’ve ever seen,” said Simpson. “They got into the bread and everything else. So, it wasn’t the most enjoyable part as far as the food went. We had to dig out what was in there sometimes to eat the bread.”
Once in Italy, Simpson was assigned as a replacement to K Company of the 157th Regiment, 45th Division.
“They were made up primarily of men from Oklahoma,” said Simpson. “They had been fighting from Sicily up to Salerno. They were moved off the front line and were taking on new replacements.”
Those replacements would be sorely needed. Although they didn’t know it yet, the 45th Division was about to become a key player in Operation Shingle.
The bloody fighting at Anzio was about to begin.
(Part two of Bill Simpson’s story will appear in next week’s edition.)