(This edited narrative is the result of interviews with Herman Chanowitz, former captain in the 2nd Tactical Air Communications Squadron, and a veteran of the Allied campaigns in North Africa, Italy, France and Germany. He is a long-time resident of Naples.)
There was this horrible battle when they landed in Salerno to try to get up to Rome by Christmas
time. In order to do that, they had to take what is known as Route 6. Route 6 passes by a town
named Mignano -the Mignano Gap- and then it goes to San Pietro and Cassino. From Cassino, it
goes through the Liri Valley and gets to Rome. It's the Appian Way. The Italians convinced the
Germans that the gap at Cassino was one that was difficult to penetrate.
The Germans did a wonderful job of defending it. They told their people that they had to hold the
Allied forces back so they didn't get to Cassino by Christmas. They needed that much time -this
was in October, 1943-to prepare the defensive sites. San Pietro was 20 kilometers in front of-
south of-Cassino. There was a terrible battle fought there [in San Pietro]; it started somewhere
around the 8th or 9th of December. The town of San Pietro, itself, is in the valley between two hills,
Monte Lungo and Monte Sammucro. It's just off of Route 6. Another town there is Venafro. Going
up that particular valley, you come to Monte Lungo.
It was the 36th Division that was given the task of trying to conquer San Pietro. But before they did
that, they had to take Monte Lungo. The Italians, for the first time, had an expeditionary force [ed.
note: the newly constituted Italian 1st Motorized Brigade] and they wanted very much to get into
the act. This was the first time they were working with the Allies, so they were given the task-if
they wanted it-of conquering Monte Lungo, just south of San Pietro.
What happened though was that they were told that there weren't too many weapons up there and
that it shouldn't be difficult to take. When they started up the hill, they were slaughtered. The
Italians said that there were a lot of weapons up there that the Americans said wouldn't be there. It
had been a German trap. An American regiment from the 36th Division- I think it was the 143rd
Regiment-finally took the hill . I think it was next day or the day after. Then you had to take the
hill of Sammucro and then you get into the town of San Pietro, which was sitting in the valley.
Now, what you have at the foot of the hill is an Italian cemetery for the Italians who were killed
trying to get up that hill. Across the street from the cemetery is a war museum. And, of course,
there's a nice road you can take to get up to the top. I've taken people up there.
All of this happened in late November and early December. They made a movie about it: The Battle
for San Pietro. John Huston. [ed. note: There is ample information on the Internet about that film
and the debate surrounding it: for example http://history.acusd.edu/gen/filmnotes/sanpietro.html]
There is also a guy from San Pietro, a school teacher named Maurizo Zambardi. I think he's in his
forties. He is very, very good with history and has written a lot about it.
It was a very big battle-on the outskirts and in the town, itself. House to house. The town was
ultimately destroyed. Then the Germans just withdrew to the next position, Cassino, itself. There
was a river there. It was very difficult to forge. You couldn't get across.
The 19th of December was when the battle was just about over. San Pietro was completely
destroyed. It was a town of about 2 km by 2 km. Maybe 8-10,000 people. The people who lived
there had been told to evacuate. The Germans made them evacuate. A lot of them were put on
trains and sent up to northern Italy. I got to know a guy by the name of Adriano, who was a young
kid in San Pietro when all this happened. I met him again when we were taking a tour recently, and he
told us all about how the people protected themselves by living in caves, and how many were killed.
Now there is a museum about the American soldiers as well as the Italian civilians who were killed.
The new town of San Pietro is about a kilometer and a half from the old town.
(Photo information and credits: All photos by Herman Chanowitz. From top: within the ruins of the
San Pietro town church; view from the church; Italian muleteers removing the fallen; a cave refuge.)