From mountain farm to bean field
Gene Wentz, like many young men throughout America in the early 1940s, left his home in Western Pennsylvania and headed off to an adventure that he scarcely could imagine. In a day an age where interstate travel was costly and somewhat rare, an 18-year-old Gene got to travel to the deep south, then to the tidewater of Virginia, then across the Atlantic to North Africa and finally to central Italy. It was there where his adventure ended, and a life-and-death struggle began after getting gunned down by German machine-gunners. While by no means unique, given the millions of Americans who headed to all the corners of the earth during World War II, his brush with death is a story that needs to be told.
A coal miner’s son
America in the 1920s was fired by coal, and Pennsylvania’s Allegheny Mountains had it. While his dad worked as an electrician in the mines, young Gene played outside in the woods. When his grandparents needed help on their farm in Bedford County, he moved there and tried to get through school. Gene was more interested in spending time on his farm and with his favorite horse, Ol’ Charlie. He hadn’t noticed the impact of the Great Depression too much on the farm, but the news coming from Europe and the Far East was not good.
Fascists, Nazis and Imperialists, oh my
The decisions made by the major powers immediately following World War I were designed to end wars for good. A “League of Nations” was set up to handle disputes before they got to a flashpoint, and America’s President Woodrow Wilson had a 14-point plan to iron out some of the world’s festering problems once and for all. This didn’t happen.
When Japan was rebuffed on her interests in China, the military leaders decided to take matters into their own hands in Manchuria. When France sought to punish Germany severely for invading their country and bleeding it white at Verdun, hard feelings blossomed throughout both countries. When Britain noticed its youth had died on Flanders Fields, it became highly motivated to avoid getting into another conflict—whatever the cost. And the United States, who had not really felt the devastations of the war but wanted paid back on a frugal principle, shook its head at the world and turned inward again.
Instead of finally solving their problems, in hindsight, the leaders of the 1920s kept the lid on the pot and left it to simmer with the heat turning hotter by the year. First, the Italians turned to a charismatic Benito Mussolini and his promises to make the trains run on time. Then, Adolf Hitler slowly ascended to a leadership position within the Nazi party in Germany. And flush with their victories and agitations in China, Japan had the confidence to spread throughout the Pacific rim. And then the world economy collapsed.
A not-so-great Great Depression
When the United States—along with the world—plunged into an economic catastrophe in the early ‘30s, the country raised tariffs and slowly gave up hope ever recovering the money they had lent to other nations during World War I. By 1932, America turned to Franklin D. Roosevelt, who pushed through an “alphabet soup” of government programs designed to alleviate the economic hardships many were facing.
But while many were despairing, miners (and, to a lesser extent, farmers) tended to not notice a lot of changes in rural areas. Not wealthy to begin with, those who could at least keep up any mortgage or loan payments saw few drastic changes with the Great Depression. Gene’s dad continued to work in the mines, and he was able to grow up in a village outside Johnstown, Pa., relatively stress-free. When he got closer to his teens, however, his family decided to move in with his Dad’s parents across the Allegheny Mountain to Bedford County. Gene was now affected by the Depression, and his new job was to help on the farm in "Dunkard Hollow." He still had some time to explore the woods and play Cowboys & Indians with his friends, but he also had started to form a bond with a plow horse named Ol’ Charlie. And, unfortunately, he had to carve out some time for school; Gene preferred being at home on the farm with his favorite horse and his friends and family to studying.
Germany conquers Europe
But like many American teens, events across the oceans would soon define their fates by the late 1930s. Hitler consolidated power in economically-wrecked Germany, and Japan began seeking out new sources of raw materials throughout the islands of the western Pacific. Mussolini chose to invade Ethiopia, and Hitler then “joined” with Austria in early 1938. It was after he decided to “reclaim” ethnic Germans living in Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland that Britain’s prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, flew to Munich to persuade Hitler to sign a peace treaty and promise not to invade anymore countries. Returning to Britain on September 30, 1938 and holding up a signed agreement between he and Hitler, he declared that he had brought back “peace in our time.”
On August 1, 1939, Hitler’s blitzkrieg invaded Poland, touching off World War II.
Uncle Sam wants you
Britain and France moved to defy Nazi Germany, but Hitler had planned well. He signed a treaty with the Soviet Union, with both countries agreeing not to go to war with each other. And his blitzkrieg into France was a complete success, almost trapping the newly arrived British forces in France’s Dunkirk before they made a miraculous escape across the English Channel. But Hilter conquered France, invaded the Scandinavian countries, gained allies in the Balkans and eastern Europe, secured Poland, and, with Italy, became “Fortress Europe.”
Meanwhile, Japan continued its quest to expand in Asia—but tried hard not to provoke America, who had a large naval presence in the Philippines and especially at Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor (along with more coaling stations scattered throughout the Pacific). But soon after Hitler failed to bring Britain to her knees through air raids during the Battle of Britain, Japan decided they couldn’t continue to expand while America still had a formidable fleet at Pearl. So on December 7, 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy struck Hawaii with waves of Zero attack planes launched from nearby aircraft carriers. With some notable exceptions, much of the Pacific fleet was either destroyed or crippled badly, leaving over 2,400 American servicemen and women dead and another nearly 1,300 wounded. America, which had half-heartedly tried to stay neutral up until that point, was jolted awake and declared war on the “Axis” powers: Germany, Italy and Japan.
It was clear that the country had to mobilize for war quickly, and they greatly expanded the draft to get young men into military service. While having the option to use a deferment to stay on the farm, Gene decided to serve his country when he was called. Obviously his parents and family were anxious about seeing him march off to war, but Gene thought it was the right thing to do. So he left Ol’ Charlie, his family farm, his parents and his friends back in Western Pennsylvania, got on a bus, and headed into the arms of the U.S. Army.
After mustering in Altoona and some brief training in Pennsylvania’s Fort Indiantown Gap, Gene headed to Camp Shelby in Mississippi. It was there he became a soldier. It seemed to Gene that all they did in the hot Mississippi sand was to march, march, march, but he obviously trained hard like thousands of other young men. This being his first and farthest trip away from home, he formed quick friendships with some of his pals, and learned a lot about army life quickly. Being small in stature, he was inevitably underestimated, but his quickness and farm strength soon showed through, and he was quickly amused by some of the “softer city fellas.”
With one last trip home to say goodbye, he reported to Newport News, Va., for a trip across the Atlantic Ocean and on to North Africa on the heels of Operation Torch.
A divisional match-up
The trip across the Atlantic, on the Canadian ocean liner The Empress of Scotland, was not pleasant. Gene, along with his buddies, had trouble keeping their food down due to the pervasive seasickness. A ship in the middle of the Atlantic packed with American soldiers heading toward combat was an inviting target for a German submarine, so it was wasting no time steaming over the waves. Unfortunately for Gene, this speed caused the ship to intensify its rocking motion, and Gene felt sick virtually the entire trip. He was extremely happy when he made it to Morocco after a short eight days.
But his sickness was replaced by wonderment—Casablanca was quite a sight for a farm boy from the Alleghenies. He also took an adventurous train ride across the dry sands of North Africa, packed into a peculiar French train that made its way to Oran, Algeria. When he finally reached Naples, Italy, he was assigned, as a scout, to the 36th Infantry Division. Originally formed in Texas and Oklahoma as an Army National Guard, the “Fighting 36th” had a “T-Patch” insignia that all of its soldiers wore. While Gene wasn’t from Texas, he was assigned to the division, which was attached to the VI Corps in the Fifth Army. Its job was to support the Allied invasion of Italy.
Join the Army, see the world
Gene learned a lot about how to get around as a soldier. As a scout, his job was to sniff out where the enemy was and to report back what he found. His Capture the Flag and Cowboys & Indians games he played while a kid back in coal country helped him quite a bit. He was able to pick up on army life fairly quickly, though he kept in touch with his family back home. He had already seen more in North Africa, crossing the Mediterranean, and Naples than he had ever imagined.
Not too long after landing in Naples, Gene experience his first battle with his 36th Division buddies near San Pietro. The Allies were trying to roll the Germans up Italy’s “boot,” and the division’s job was to roust the Germans out of the small towns and knock them off the “pimple-shaped” mountains of central Italy. Gene’s first taste of combat came in a cemetery—leaving him to have to choose between being afraid of the shelling and its resulting craters, or the cemetery’s newly-exposed inhabitants. Yikes!
Iced T-Patchers in mountains
After being battle-tested, Gene was tested by something a little more mundane—the weather. A cold winter of 1943-44 saw the mountains freeze regularly, and with the 36th Division camped out in the mountains—facing the stubborn Germans—the winter seemed to go on forever. Gene would go to sleep in a 2-ft. foxhole that he and his buddy managed to scrape out of the frozen soil, only to find their clothing frozen to the ground in the morning. Men grumbled bitterly about not being able to light a fire to keep warm; any fire light from even a cigarette would invite an artillery volley from the nearby Germans. The 36th were positioned on the other side of a valley from Monte Cassino, the ancient monastery that sat on top of one of the highest mountains in the region. Extracting the Germans from Monte Cassino was a big challenge which required a lot of effort from not only the T-Patchers, but other divisions and even a number of allied countries as well.
Rapidly moving current events
Pretty soon the Allies needed to cross the river in the middle of the valley in order to launch an assault to get the Germans off the mountain. So Gene, along with a few hundred other men, were selected to cross the Rapido River one night and reconnoiter on the other side. Unfortunately, the mission was a miserable failure, as the Germans smelled out the plan and used their shells and machine guns to thwart the crossing. Gene somehow ended up downstream, dazed and confused but alive—in contrast to many of his buddies who didn’t make it that night.
Up the coast to Anzio
But the Allies had a trick up their sleeves. The biggest reason they attempted to cross the Rapido River was to draw the Germans' attention away from a planned amphibious landing up the Italian coast at a town called Anzio. The Fifth Army commanding officer, General Mark Clark, planned the landing at Anzio that soon became of major beachhead—the Allies then advanced away from the coast and refused to be pushed back into the sea. So the T-Patchers packed up and headed up there by boat and landed to take advantage of the “breakout” of the beachhead. It was springtime in Italy, by now; the snow and cold were gone. And things were growing again in the fields.
No small fava
Fava beans grow in tall stalks and produce “pods” that often end up on the ground. When they dry out, they can make quite a crackling noise. When Gene the scout, in line for a promotion to sergeant, headed out one morning to look for German machine gunners outside Velletri, he tried to stay as quiet as he could. But unfortunately, he stepped on a fava bean stalk. Crunch. Rat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat. The machine gun mowed him down, getting him in the ankle, then the groin and abdomen as he fell. He felt intense pain, but managed to slide into a ditch. The Germans knew they had gotten him, and raked the area to finish him off. But Gene was just barely low enough in the ditch to feel the bullets zing by him, inches from his body. When the bullets stopped, he dared reach down to see how badly he’d been hit. He was alarmed when his hand met no resistance in places it should have. He soon had to make the biggest decision of his life: should he stay, or should he go?