A Journey to World War II Battlefields Part 8: San Pietro Infine: The Town That Died
Editor’s Note: This article is the eighth installment from Carlo D’Este’s A Journey to World War II Battlefields. Please click on the following links to read Carlo’s other articles from this series: Tunisia, Kasserine Pass, Malta, Sicily, Biazza Ridge, Messina and Salerno.
One of the saddest episodes in the long and bloody Allied campaign in Italy was the death of the small town of San Pietro Infine, which was the focus of a day trip during our tour of World War II Mediterranean battlefields.
Our ship was docked in the attractive port city of Gaeta. After debarking, tour buses carried our group on the forty-mile journey into the eastern end of the Liri Valley to what had once been a thriving town of some fourteen hundred situated at the base of Monte Sammucro, at nearly 4,000 feet, a steep and formidable slab of sheer rock that is devoid of trees.
Just to the south of San Pietro are two other steep mountains that guard the approaches to the Liri Valley: Monte Lungo and Monte Rotondo.
Between these two mountains is National Route 6, the primary thoroughfare between southern Italy and Rome. Before entering the Liri Valley Route 6 passes through the northern end of what is known as the Mignano gap. Route 6 then runs along the Liri Valley before turning north toward Rome just west of the town of Cassino.
San Pietro dates to medieval times and was once part of the territory controlled by the nearby Abbey of Monte Cassino. It also had the misfortune to sit astride what would become one of the bloodier battlegrounds of World War II. Over the centuries the town had seen its share of travails ranging from earthquakes to pillaging by roving bands of brigands. However, nothing could have prepared its hardy citizens for what befell them in the autumn and winter of 1943.
With the capitulation of Italy in September 1943, followed immediately by the Allied invasion of Salerno, its chief defender, German Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, began preparing defenses in the Liri Valley for the inevitable Allied advance toward Rome. Any allied advance by land on Rome had to pass through Cassino and the Liri Valley.
Kesselring received Hitler’s concurrence to defend south of Rome instead of retreating and holding out in the Apennine Mountains of northern Italy. He established a series of strongly fortified defensive belts that were called the Barbara, Bernhardt and Gustav Lines. The anchor of Kesselring’s defensive belts, the Gustav Line, was situated in and around the heights of the Liri Valley’s Monte Cassino, which was topped by a Benedictine Abbey that dates to the 6th century and has breathtaking views. Collectively, Kesselring’s three defenses were known as the Winter Line. The sector that included the Mignano Gap and San Pietro was part of the Bernhardt Line.
What made the Mignano Gap so important was that it was a natural bottleneck to any advance north on Route 6 into the Liri Valley. With strong German defenses on Monte Lungo and Monte Rotondo, the Allies would first have to capture these formidable heights, along with Monte Sammucro, before being able advance into the Liri Valley.
The Germans saw the defensive value of San Pietro with its thick stonewalls and its commanding view of Monte Lungo and Route 6. Within days of Italy’s surrender the first Germans arrived, occupied San Pietro and began turning it into a command post and the defensive anchor at the eastern end of the Liri Valley. What was once a sleepy backwater village became a strong blocking position.
They seized the only four automobiles in the town, all of its donkeys and mules and whatever firearms they possessed. However, that was only the beginning. Next they conscripted every male between fifteen and forty-five and had them digging trenches and hauling ammunition as they prepared defenses around the town and on Monte Sammucro. Those that were able to flee hid in a series of nearby caves but for the remainder who slaved for the Germans it was a hellish existence.
Life in the caves was equally dire: food and water became scarce and along with the numbing cold soon began taking its toll. The citizens of San Pietro began to die, some brutalized by the Germans, others from starvation, illness and the cold. Their bodies were removed from the caves and placed in a nearby glen that soon earned the nickname Valley of Death.
The battle for the Mignano Gap began on November 5 when Mark Clark’s Fifth U.S. Army fought a series of bloody and very deadly battles to capture the key heights guarding the entrance to the Liri Valley.
The first attacks on San Pietro did not begin for another month. Just as the burial site of the town’s dead was called Death Valley, the highway through the Mignano Gap was given the same name by American G.I.s.
The two toughest nuts to crack were Mts. Lungo and Sammucro. It took a week of savage combat by the 143rd Regiment of the 36th Division and the 504th Parachute infantry Regiment of the 82d Airborne before Mt. Sammucro finally fell. Lungo was equally bloody. San Pietro fell to the U.S. II Corps on December 15. The battle completely destroyed the town. The battle for the Mignano Gap and San Pietro cost 16,000 American casualties.
In 1944, screen writer and film director John Huston was invited to make a documentary film about the battle of San Pietro. In 1941, Huston directed the first of his many well-known films, The Maltese Falcon. In 1942 he joined the U.S. Army Signal Corps as a captain for the specific purpose of making documentary war films. In 1944 Huston made the film The Battle of San Pietro that was first released in 1945 but never shown until 1970. At the time it was considered too graphic for its depiction of the horror of war. Some of the scenes in the film depict dead GI’s being loaded into body bags and for what some in the army perceived as its anti-war tone. The out-spoken Huston tartly responded that if he ever made a pro-war film he ought to be shot.
Despite the controversy, Army chief of staff, Gen. George C. Marshall, supported the film but ordered that it be drastically edited nearly in half.
It was eventually released for public viewing in 1945 and has since been regarded as a classic war film, and, in 1991, The Battle of San Pietro was later selected for permanent preservation by the U.S. National Film Registry.
Although the film was largely re-enacted by GI’s of the 36th Infantry Division, the film nevertheless has served as an example not only of the high price of war but also a permanent depiction of the tragedy of a small town whose citizens wanted only to left alone to lead their lives by cultivating figs and farming. Instead San Pietro died along with approximately one hundred forty of its citizens. As Rick Atkinson notes in his superb account of the battle of San Pietro in The Day of Battle, a soldier-poet named Keith Douglas wrote of the tragedy of the town: “About them hung that impenetrable silence … by which I think the dead compel our reverence.”
After the war it was decided that the town would not be rebuilt. Instead, a new town arose a few hundred meters to the west. The ruins of San Pietro were left intact and are today a living reminder of what Keith Douglas meant. In 2003, on the sixtieth anniversary of the battle of San Pietro, a memorial was unveiled upon which are inscribed the names of those who perished.
With Fifth Army now in the Liri Valley the battle for the Gustav Line lay ahead.
Next month we travel to Monte Cassino for a look at what occurred there during four of the bloodiest months of the Italian campaign.
Martin Blumenson, United States Army in World War II: Salerno to Cassino, 1969.
Rick Atkinson, The Day of Battle, 2007.