January 22, 1944-May 25, 1944
While the landing at Anzio was initially unopposed by the Germans, the following four months would result in the toughest conditions the 751st Tank Battalion would encounter in the entire war. Until the day he died in 2006, my father, Paul Neumiller, was haunted by the memories of the four months he and the 751st spent trapped on a beachhead ten miles long and seven miles deep. Over the years, he shared a few of the more benign memories of Anzio with family and friends, while locking away the worst of them.
As he maneuvered his tank onto the beach at Anzio that January morning, Paul Neumiller and many of the men of the 751st were already battle-hardened. But does “battle-hardened” merely suggest that the tankers of the 751st now had an expertise in warfare gained through their intense combat experiences? In part, yes. But in Paul’s case, at least, it also meant that he was no longer the man who had left the farm in North Dakota a year and a half earlier. By now he seldom wrote home, drank whenever the opportunity presented itself, and took comfort not in letters from loved ones, but in the camaraderie of his front line buddies. He was a man who saw no end in sight as far as the war was concerned, a man who, perhaps out of some sense of psychological self-preservation, had learned not to expect to see home again. He had seen too many friends who he had known since basic training die appalling deaths, and knew of too many replacements for those friends who didn’t survive their first battles. He was no longer under any self-delusions about his own chances for survival. By January of 1944, the war for Paul and his comrades was not about global stability or the liberation of the oppressed, if it ever was, but about the personal struggle to live from one horrendous day to the next.
Paul felt all these things even before he landed at Anzio, where he and his friends would face some of the worst combat conditions experienced by any American soldier in Europe during World War II. He carried these thoughts ashore that day in 1944 without knowing that for the next four months he would be trapped with tens of thousands of other Allied soldiers in what the Germans would come to call “the largest self-sustaining P.O.W. camp in the world.” And it would be another fourteen months before he would finally go home.
The Allies would finally break out of their prison at Anzio four months later on May 25, 1944, but in the meantime those tens of thousands of Allied soldiers would grapple daily with the enemy, and fate, in an effort to survive. Thousands would perish. Many thousands more would suffer broken bodies and tortured souls in an attempt to retain possession of their lives, and of a few square miles of Italian soil.
* * *
In the coming months, I’ll post more details here of the torturous winter the 751st tolerated seven decades ago. I’ll avoid the armchair quarterbacking common in much military writing, but will instead focus on the day to day struggle of the men of the 751st Tank Battalion.