HE LIVED ON THE ABYSS OF DEATH
AS A RECON SCOUT IN WORLD WAR II.
From Africa’s Sahara Desert, where he met Churchill, to the plains of Tunisia, where he served under Patton, Fred Salter executed daring nightly solo missions, risking his life to gather the vital intelligence the U.S. Army desperately needed. After the battlefields of Sicily came the long, grueling effort to wrench Italy from the grip of the Nazis, and the bloody nightmare of Monte Cassino, the longest battle Americans fought during the war.
Salter spares no one, least of all himself, in this tough, clear-eyed account. Refusing to shy away from the horrors and fears of combat, he shares experiences–tragic and glorious–that will haunt him forever.
From the Paperback edition.
Boots and Saddles
The muffled sound of their boots on the cobblestones ahead told me it was a German patrol, not being overly cautious, because they were still behind their own lines. I dropped quietly to the gutter and lay prone with my Thompson submachine gun out in front of me. I knew that my buddy George, only a few yards behind me, followed my example. He had been in my squad for three campaigns. Night patrols weren't new to us, they were our way of life.
The night being pitch black, I felt secure in the knowledge that the German patrol would pass by without discovering us. As they came directly abreast of our position, I heard their squad leader whisper a few words in German. The squad halted, and they began talking in low tones, as if they were discussing their plans for infiltrating our lines. Even though my face and hands were blackened and my head was covered with a dark wool knit cap, my outstretched hands clutched the Thompson and eased the safety off.
At that moment, I noticed the glow of light on my wrist. I felt lit up like a Christmas tree. During the African campaign, I'd taken a beautiful luminous-dialed wristwatch from a Kraut soldier who had no further use for it. This watch was now exposed on my arm. I cherished the timepiece because it could be read so easily on my night patrols. Ordinarily I positioned it higher up on my wrist, concealed beneath the sleeve of my combat jacket. Now, that watch could be the death of me.
I was afraid to move a muscle, for fear the trash and dry leaves under my arm would give my position away. I had two alternatives. I could swing my Thompson up fast and hope to get all the Krauts before they became aware we were in the gutter opposite them (this was doubtful), or lie still and hope none of them investigated the shiny fluorescent object in the ditch.
We were not on a combat mission, just a two-man recon patrol. Our main objective was to obtain information about the enemy's movements along the Rapido River in front of our sector of Cassino on the 5th Army front in Italy. We'd crossed the river below the ford leading into Cassino from the south, and worked our way to the outskirts of the town. The thick hard soles of my combat boots, I'd replaced with soft leather. They were as quiet on patrol as the moccasins I wore when roaming the woods as a boy. My clothing of dark wool material helped conceal my position if I brushed against branches or other objects.
I decided to take a chance and not move a muscle, even though some inner voice told me it would be better to die facing an enemy than be shot in the back while lying in a gutter. I hoped and prayed the Krauts wouldn't investigate. Never before on any of my missions had I regretted or questioned the reason I always volunteered to lead night patrols.
The German patrol continued to whisper. The minutes dragged slowly on. I felt like a condemned man waiting for the hangman to spring the trapdoor. As the tension mounted, a lifetime of memories crossed my mind. I've heard tell, that sometimes when a person is in a life-or-death situation, their whole life flashes before them. On other patrols, I'd experienced many close calls, but never had my past monopolized my thoughts as it did at this moment. Right now I couldn't afford to think of anything but survival. I wondered if this might not be an omen. Maybe the end was near.
As I awaited the outcome, my thoughts drifted away from the danger at hand. In that brief moment, when time seemed so precious, I relived my whole life.
My parents migrated to Pennsylvania from England and Wales after World War I, when my father received his discharge from the British Royal Air Force. My folks originally intended to continue on to Australia. Instead, my dad found work in America and decided to settle there.
The story of my childhood is full of episodes similar to those of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. Though these tales add a touch of humor to my life's memories, the years I spent roaming the woods and trapping the streams had a far greater influence on my army career. I learned to work alone and become self-reliant. Above all, I learned to understand and respect the forces of nature. Tending my trapline on moonless nights made me realize I had a friend in the darkness; that is the reason I later volunteered for night patrols.
On winter evenings, I'd often listen to the old-timers tell stories as they sat around a potbellied woodstove down at the village store. I'd be all ears as they painted a mental picture of cavalry and Indian scouts, the great Indian warriors, and of their own adventures in the Civil and Spanish-American wars. These tales, and those I'd read about, only added fuel to my boyhood fantasies, for I hoped to someday relive experiences such as theirs.
Never owning a breech-loading rifle or pistol until joining the horse cavalry, I became proficient in handling the muzzle-loading weapons and knives handed down to me by descendants of those early pioneers and adventurers. My youth played an important part in determining my destiny in the army.
That night at Cassino, when my life flashed before me, death seemed so close. Eventually the German patrol moved down the road toward the American front lines. They left George and me lying in the gutter, chilled to the bone from sweat. If we could have seen its color, it probably would have been tinted red. Once again, we learned how precious life really is.
My army career began much like it ended. It began with controversy.
Standing outside the army recruiter's office, I leaned against the building and signed my father's signature to the enlistment papers. Having the same name as Dad's, I figured I wasn't being completely dishonest. If only the army allowed a young boy to enlist without his parents' consent, I wouldn't have felt guilty. I thought to myself, "For what greater cause need a person bend the arm of the law, than for the opportunity of defending his country. If I'm guilty of a wrongdoing, then so be it."
After entering the building, I walked up to the recruiter's desk. Though nervous, I threw back my shoulders and tried to assume a military stance. When the sergeant asked me what branch of the army I preferred, without hesitating, I replied, "The U.S. Horse Cavalry."
Lowering his head, he looked out over the top of his glasses, and a faint smile crossed his face. He glanced down at my faded blue dungarees, then at my heavy flannel red-and-black checkered shirt. His eyes finally rested on the beat-up felt hat tilted back atop my head. He seemed intrigued with the pheasant feather sticking out of the hat. I'd pinned the right brim up alongside the hat, so as not to interfere with the ramrod of my muzzle-loading rifle when I seated a bullet. When he raised his eyebrows and slowly moved his head from side to side, I became defensive. I knew he must have known I'd just come down out of the hills, but he didn't say anything. I was thankful he never questioned the validity of my father's signature.
After I had received my physical, adaptability and I.Q. tests, an officer swore me into the service. The recruiter took me aside and, like a father telling his young boy about the birds and the bees, he said, "You know, son, you are qualified to join the Army Air Corps. Because we have an urgent need for pilots, I am going to assign you to that branch of the army."
Even after getting into the army under false pretenses and being in no position to bargain, I still didn't intend to be railroaded into the air corps. I spoke up and said, "Because I needed my parent's consent to enter the service, the recruiting posters say that I am entitled to join any branch of the army I choose. I want to be a cavalryman, not a pilot. If the army can't keep its word, then the first chance I get, I'm going to go over the hill."
The recruiter didn't get angry, but replied, "Young fellow, you are very foolish. I don't understand why you are passing up an opportunity to become an officer, just to pound leather on the back of some stinking bag of bones."
Taking another glance at my clothes, he pondered for a moment and said, "But then again, maybe I do understand."
After tearing up the air corps papers, on another form he wrote down that I be assigned to the Horse Cavalry Replacement Training Center at Fort Riley, Kansas.
The recruiting officer informed me that a buck private in the army received twenty-one dollars a month. "The paymaster will deduct six dollars and fifty cents from your pay each month for life insurance, and three dollars for laundry," he said. "With those kind of wages, you won't have to worry about opening a bank account. Your room, board, medical bills and all your clothes will be furnished."
Before long, I learned firsthand the meaning of the words to a popular song about payday in the army,
"Twenty-One Dollars a Day, Once a Month."
Never having owned a wallet, let alone spending money to put in it, I made up my mind to be content with whatever the army paid me, for I didn't enlist in the army with the intention of getting rich.
The day of my enlistment, I joined a group of new recruits headed for Fort Meade, Maryland. After waiting at that camp for a couple of days, I traveled by train to Fort Riley, Kansas. While on the train, I met a boy from Reading, Pennsylvania. Paul Yenser remained one of my closest buddies until he lost his life in Italy.
At Fort Riley, I received cavalry boots, breeches, a jacket and a Sam Browne belt. The jacket came down almost to my knees. The wide-brimmed campaign hat, with its bright yellow band and tassels, signified that I belonged to the cavalry. Wearing the crossed-sabers insignia of the U.S. Cavalry brought me one step closer to fulfilling my boyhood fantasy of reliving the lives of Jeb Stuart and my other cavalry heroes.
Upon entering the barracks assigned to me, I almost bumped into a fifty-five-gallon oil drum mounted on top of a large sawhorse. Throughout my training, it remained a constant reminder that I had to become a good rider. A McClellan army saddle was cinched onto the barrel, and a bundle of hair from a horse's tail stuck out of the bunghole in the rear of the drum. The contraption reminded me of Washington Irving's tale of the headless horseman, with the horse wearing a suit of armor. On this make-believe cavalry mount, we recruits practiced the army's method of mounting and dismounting a horse. I often wondered if the carpenter who named the first sawhorses had at one time in his life been in the cavalry. After a couple of days riding our hollow-bellied steel horse, we started training on live mounts.
The horse stables were open at both ends, enabling the manure wagons to drive through the barn. Manure was pitched into the wagons from the stalls on each side of the long, narrow building. The men doing the work were called stable police, but the title didn't fit the task they performed. I soon learned that getting up at four-thirty each morning to work in the stables was a backbreaking job. A cavalryman didn't spend all his time in the saddle; there were countless other tasks to be performed. These jobs weren't advertised on the enlistment posters that enticed young men into the cavalry. Instead, they read "The Horse Is Man's Noblest Companion, Join the Cavalry and Have a Courageous Friend."
Before any of the cavalry mounts were assigned to us, they were broken at a cavalry remount station. We rode horses already trained to respond to cavalry commands.
I soon learned that these horses were far more spirited than the plow horses I rode back in Pennsylvania or on my friend's farm in New Hampshire. While riding on the Republican Flats and the surrounding plains of Kansas, I loved to hear Sergeant Tiller's Texas drawl when he gave one of the commands, trot, gallop, or column right, ho.
"Ho" was the signal to execute a command just given, like when the pioneer wagon masters yelled, "Westward ho, the wagons." The word "Ho" would barely be out of the sergeant's mouth, and those cavalry mounts would start to execute the command, even before we had a chance to neck rein or apply knee pressure to them. We soon learned that the horses were a lot smarter than us.
While in the saddle, if one of us disobeyed an order, the sergeant made the trooper trot with his feet out of the stirrups. The punishment wouldn't have been so bad if he hadn't ordered us to keep our knees away from the ribs of the horse. It's a wonder many a young cavalryman retained the ability to father children, especially when his privates became entangled in the slit of the McClellan saddle. This torturous punishment taught us not to disobey the sergeant. Before long, we mastered intricate cavalry maneuvers, like "thread the needle," and many other tactics used on the parade ground to impress the army brass.
Only three horse units trained at Fort Riley in the spring and early summer of '42; A and B Troop and the 8th Squadron. This last outfit was made up of all black troopers. Though segregated, these men were commanded by white officers. Some of the finest cavalry troops that ever fought on the Western plains were made up of black soldiers.
Joe Louis Barrow, the heavyweight boxing champion of the world, trained with the 8th Squadron. Joe rode out of the same stable that I did. When assigned to stable police, I talked to him a number of times in the tack room. Everyone liked Joe, and I considered him one of the finest men I had the pleasure of meeting at Fort Riley.
That summer, the War Department decided to make a cavalry training film. The army wanted to record the intensive training a cavalryman received. Some of the old die-hard cavalry officers still hoped to justify the use of horses in wartime, even though everyone knew their days were numbered. When it became known that the top brass chose Troop A to make the film, a lot of celebrities were allowed to enlist in it. Henry Morgenthau, the son of the secretary of the U.S. Treasury, joined the troop. DeCicco, the husband of beautiful young Gloria Vanderbilt, also became a member of the elite troop.
From the Paperback edition.