San Pietro (1945) - full transcript

Director John Huston documents the Battle of San Pietro Infine in December 1943.

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In 1943 it was one
of our strategic aims.

To draw as many German
forces as possible.

Away from the Russian front
and French coastal areas.

And to contain them on
the Italian peninsula.

While liberating as much
of Italy as might be possible.

With the means at our disposal.

As the bulk of our supplies
was directed to England.

For the forthcoming invasion.

Operations in Italy had to be conducted.

On an extremely limited scale.

Thus it came about.



That during the winter months.

The number of allied divisions
in Italy .. was greatly reduced.

Yet, so determined was their effort.

That they succeeded in holding in Italy.

A very large number of German divisions.

During the pre-invasion period.

San Pietro.

In the 5th Army sector.

Was the key to the Liri Valley.

We knew it .. and the enemy knew it.

We had to take it.

Even though the immediate
cost would be high.

We took it.

And the cost in relation to the
later advance .. was not excessive.



By its very nature.

This success worked bitter hardships.
Upon each individual soldier.

Calling for the full measure
of his courage .. and devotion.

The response of our 5th Army troops
provides an inspiring page.

In our military history.

To these individuals .. living and dead.

And to those who now
continue in their tradition.

This picture is dedicated.

Liri Valley lies in the Italian midland.

Some 60 miles northwest of Naples.

Some 40 miles southeast of Rome.

A wide, flat corridor enclosed
between four walls of mountains.

In winter, the highest peaks of the
Liri range ascend into the snow.

But the valley floor with its
olive groves and ancient vines.

Its crops of wheat and corn.

Is green the year around.

That is, in normal times.

Last year was a bad year
for grapes and olives.

And the fall planting was late.

Many fields lay fallow.

There are two ways from
the south into the valley.

One, a narrow pass.

The other a high, scenic
road over the mountains.

They converge before the site of
the ancient village of San Pietro.

Which for 700 years, has stood
at the threshold of Liri Valley.

Welcoming the traveler

The stones of its walls were quarried
from the parent hill from where it rises.

The population was:
1,412 at the last census.

Affirming community.

Patron Saint: Peter.

Point of interest: Saint Peters. 1438.

Note: interesting treatment of chancel.

From the end of October 1943.

Until the middle of December, San
Pietro and the surrounding ground ..

Was the scene of some of the most
bitter fighting on our 5th Army front.

The Italian campaign had
entered its second phase.

To push forward again,
after a static period.

Brought on by heavy seasonal rains.

Our battle lines were as
haphazard as the terrain itself.

With its flood-swollen rivers
that twisted back and forth.

Across our line of march so
that each river seemed like five.

And where there was no river to cross,
a mountain blocked our goal.

Each peak ahead being a few meters
higher than the last we had won.

So that each new peak
had to be fought for.

The hard, uphill way. With the
enemy looking down our throats.

They had had time to fortify and
camouflage their positions.

No amount of artillery fire or aerial
bombardment could force them to withdraw.

That was for the infantry to do.

Employing those weapons ..

That can find and destroy life in narrow
trenches, caves and fighting holes.

It was up to the man with the rifle,
the man under fire from all weapons.

The man whose way, all our weapons,
land, air and sea serve only to prepare.

It was up to the foot-soldiers
to attack a hidden enemy.

Over ground that was sown with mines.

The antipersonnel S-Mines.

That fly up a footfall to
explode beneath the groin.

Nowhere along the entire front were
enemy preparations more elaborate.

Than the San Pietro area.

For San Pietro stands at
the threshold of Liri Valley.

And through Liri Valley, wide and level.

Runs the most highly prized
length of road south of Rome.

By December, we had the high ground to
the north, east, and south of San Pietro.

The Camino Maggiore hill
mast being the last to fall.

An Italian brigade under a line command
had made an attempt to capture Mt Lungo.

The possession of which would be greatly
to our benefit in the impending action.

The Italians were all but annihilated.

In view of their excessive losses.

Further operations against Mt Lungo's
strategic heights were abandoned.

And it was decided to make
a direct frontal assault.

On enemy positions in
and around San Pietro.

Elements of the 36th
Texas Infantry Division.

Were rotated from position to
position, overlooking the valley.

So the troops might study the terrain
ahead from various viewpoints.

Patrol activity was continuous.

Day and night, units went out to
reconnoiter the ground, draw fire.

Take prisoners.

Thus adding to the sum of our
information about the enemy.

High points. Mount Lungo was 351.

Mount Sammucro was 1205 and
950 were all manned in force.

The town itself was strongly garrisoned.

With numerous mortar, machine gun,
and heavy weapon emplacements.

Four enemy battalions were dug
into a line of connecting trenches ..

And mutually supporting
pill-boxes in depth?

That extended from the
base of Mount Lungo.

North-east across the valley floor
o the base of Mount Sammucro.

Another battalion was organized to defend
the high ground northwest of San Pietro.

Areas before these positions
were heavily mined.

And held a confusion of
barbed wire and booby traps.

On the afternoon before, D-day and H-hour
were communicated to battalion commands.

December 8th .. at 06.20 hours.

The 1st Battalion of the
143rd Infantry Regiment.

To attack the summit of 1205.

As they moved up the mountain
under cover of darkness.

And upon achieving its objective,
to attack along the ridge ..

To a point northwest of San Pietro.

The 3rd Ranger Battalion
likewise to attack 950.

Another feature of the Mount
Sammucro hill mass.

The 2nd Battalion of the 143rd to attack
over the orchards north of San Pietro.

The 3rd Battalion, acting in support,
to follow the 2nd at 400 yards.

Of the original force to establish
the beachhead at Salerno.

The 143rd had since been
all but a fortnight in action.

Under extremely bitter
weather conditions.

At Salerno, at the Volturno Crossing.

It had taken mortal punishment.

The task ahead promised
no less bloodshed.

And it was undertaken in good
spirits and high confidence.

The 1st Battalion began the long,
rugged climb up Mount Sammucro.

As night fell, our artillery opened up.

And through the night, intense fire was
laid down on the enemy's main resistance.

It had rained most of the night.

And it was raining at H-hour as the
battalions crossed the line of departure.

Some 200 yards forward,
they encountered ..

Mines and automatic
fire from pill-boxes.

The artillery was deadly accurate.

By reason of excellent enemy observation
from Mount Lungo overlooking our advance.

Which continued
another 200 to 400 yards.

Many men gave their lives in
attempts to reach pill-boxes ..

To throw hand grenades through
the narrow gun openings.

The 3rd Battalion was committed.

But the advance never got more than
600 yards past the line of departure.

Our initial assault on San Pietro had
been repulsed. With heavy casualties.

The attack on hill 1205 however,
was a brilliant success.

Leading elements of the 1st Battalion
had gained the summit of the objective.

Before a strongly entrenched enemy
knew that an assault was in progress.

To the right of 1205, the 3rd Ranger
Battalion had captured its objective.

But only after successive
attacks and costly casualties.

For on 950 the enemy
was not taken unaware.

Counter attacks were to be
expected. On both 1205 and 950.

They were not long developing.

The fist was launched during
the early daylight hours.

And even as it was beaten off,
another took form.

Day and night, they followed.

Unremitting violence.

The toll of enemy dead mounted
with each new attempt.

The German prisoners
captured on 1205 and 950.

Said they had been ordered to
retake those positions at all costs.

In addition to defending
hill 1205, the 1st Battalion ..

Obedient to the field order, undertook
the reduction of enemy defenses.

Which were organized along
the ridge running west.

On the 12th of December ..

The 1st Battalion was reinforced
with the 504th Parachute Battalion.

Which took over and maintained
the defenses of 1205 and 950.

Thereby enabling the 1st Battalion ..

To throw its entire remaining strength
into the assault along the ridge.

But the first string had dwindled
and shrunk in the five days passed.

There was now a question if its existing
numbers were sufficient to prevail.

Reports during the night
of the 14th December.

Stated that the enemy was
offering bitter resistance.

And that the issue was in grave doubt.

Meanwhile, on the olive terraces below.

The 2nd and 3rd Battalions had twice
again attempted to reach their objective.

Both times they came up against a wall
of automatic weapons and artillery fire.

Volunteer patrols made attempts to reach
enemy positions in the new strong points.

Not a single member of any such
patrol ever came back alive.

Our attacking forces were furnished good
aerial cover by allied fighter patrol.

But now and then, enemy planes slipped
through to bomb and strafe our positions.

Which, to all purposes had remained
unchanged .. since the first day.

To break the deadlock, orders were given
for a co?rdinated divisional attack.

2nd and 3rd Battalions of the 143rd to
proceed in the execution of the orders.

Acting in conjunction, Company A
of the 753rd Tank Battalion ..

To attack San Pietro from
the east over the high road.

1 Battalion of the 141st to attack
over the flat valley floor.

After nightfall on D-day,
the 142nd Infantry Regiment ..

To attack Mount Lungo.

The earlier decision not to
attack those strategic heights.

Having been reversed in view
of the present critical situation.

In preparation for the attack,
all 5th Army artillery within range ..

Including tanks and all-tracks.

Was directed against San Pietro.

And the surrounding area.

H-hour. 12 hundred hours.

D-day the 15th of December.

The 141st Infantry advance some
400 yards from its line of departure.

To be worn down and held powerless
under the weight of enemy fire.

The 2nd and 3rd
Battalion of the 143rd ..

Advanced some 100 yards
beyond their former positions.

To a point almost directly
before forward enemy defenses.

And again they were forced to take such
cover as the quaking earth could offer.

And the tanks.

Orders were for them to enter the town,
locate and destroy heavy weapons there.

Which were leveled against
our attacking foot-soldiers.

The high road in to San Pietro
is a narrow mountain road.

And from the beginning of its
winding decent into Liri Valley ..

It was under direct enemy observation.

Sixteen tanks started down that road.

Three reached the outskirts of the town.

Of these, two were destroyed
and one was missing.

Five tanks were immobilized
behind enemy lines.

Their crews having to abandon them.

Five tanks hit enemy
mines within our lines.

And were thereupon
destroyed by enemy gunfire.

Four tanks returned to the bivouac area.

After dark, two companies.

One from the 2nd Battalion
and one from the 3rd.

Finally succeeded in penetrating
enemy positions before San Pietro.

But receiving both frontal and flanking
fire, they were forced to retire.

Company E having been reduced
in strength to a handful of riflemen.

And Company L fairing little better.

On the mount Sammucro ridge ..

The 1st Battalion fought its way within
a hundred yards of the objective.

But it had paid for ground gained
at the rate of a man a yard.

It did not have the strength to
carry the fight any further forward.

On Mount Lungo however,
despite bitter resistance.

Battalions of the 142nd, in successive
waves, kept pushing upwards.

Until in the early daylight
hours of the 16th December.

Its foot-soldiers had gained the summit.

And were wiping up what
remained of a stubborn enemy.

And that height proved to be a key
position in the enemy plan of defines.

For even as Mount Lungo fell.

The enemy, throughout the San Pietro
area, made preparations to withdraw.

Almost invariably the enemy would
counter-attack to cover a withdrawal.

The first violent thrust was
delivered within a few hours.

And thereafter, counter-attacks
came in waves.

The roar of the blasts mingling with
the rush and fury of the next to break.

Many companies lost all their officers.

Enlisted men came forward
as inspirational leaders.

To rally their battered companies
into resisting yet one more onslaught.

Our artillery was brought to fall within
100 yards of our front-line elements.

After five hours, during which
the earth never ceased to tremble.

The counter-attacks ended.

Indicating the withdrawal of the
enemy's main body had commenced.

Trying to keep contact with the enemy,
our patrols immediately pushed ahead.

Entering the town they discovered that
San Pietro was ours for the taking.

The 2nd and 3rd Battalions.

Less than a rifle company in strength.

Wearied to death, but who were alive.

Stumbled forward, past San Pietro.

To consolidate gains and
re-establish contact with the enemy.

Now taking up new positions
some five kilometers beyond.

That is the broad shape
of the battle of San Pietro.

Which was to be the first of
many battles in Liri Valley.

It was a very costly battle.

After the battle, the 143rd
Infantry Regiment alone ..

Required 1,100 replacements.

The lives lost were precious lives.

To their country .. to their loved ones.

And to the men themselves.

For the living of the
143rd Infantry Regiment ..

More than 100 decorations for acts of
valor above and beyond the call of duty.

Many among these you see alive here ..

Have since joined the ranks of their
brothers-in-arms who fell at San Pietro.

For ahead lay San Vittore.

And the Rapido River and Cassino.

And beyond Cassino, more
rivers and more mountains.

And more towns, more San Pietros.

Greater or lesser .. a thousand more.

As the battle passed over
beyond San Pietro, westward.

Townspeople began to appear, coming
out of their caves in the mountains.

For they had stayed in hiding
during the enemy occupation.

They were mostly old people.
And children.

The townspeople were warned
against enemy mines and booby traps.

Which were in the
process of being cleared.

Children are able to forget quickly.

Yesterday they wept.

Today there are smiles
and even laughter.

Tomorrow, it will be as though the
bad things had never happened.

Living was resumed in San Pietro.

Our prime military aim being to
engage and to beat the enemy.

The capture of the town itself
and the liberation of its people.

Is of an incidental nature.

But the people in their
military innocence ..

Look upon us solely as their deliverers.

It was to free them, and their
farmlands, that we came.

Behind our lines, southwest to the sea.

The fields are green with growing
crops planted after our coming.

By other people of other
towns who live likewise.

The new-won earth at
San Pietro was plowed and sown.

To yield a good harvest this year.

And the people pray
that their patron saint ..

To intercede with God on behalf
of those who came to liberate them.

And passed on to the north,
with the passing battle.

T-G