The 88th Infantry Division in Italy

By Jami Bryan

On 15 July 1942, John S. Quigley, President of the 88th Division Veterans Association, challenged a group of new soldiers gathered around the main flagpole of Camp Gruber, Oklahoma, to “take up the job we didn’t get done” in World War I. In response, MG John E. Sloan promised: “The glory of the colors will never be sullied, as long as one man of the 88th still lives.” With those words, MG Sloan reactivated the 88th Infantry Division.

Comprised of mostly draftees, many of the newly conscripted men came from New England and the Mid-Atlantic States. Young and inexperienced, the men began formal training 3 August 1942. It was a drastic change in climate for most, and a more drastic change in lifestyle. In the first few weeks, the draftees had to learn how to make a bed, sweep and mop a floor, police an area, what the letters “K.P.” meant, how to stand at attention, how to march, field sanitation, basic first aid, military organization, close-order drill, courtesy, discipline and the difference between stripes and bars. Most importantly, they learned it was best never to volunteer for anything. They found themselves completing obstacle courses, going on night compass marches, dealing with gas mask drills, and learning how to fire rifles and other small arms.

Combat experienced men came from North Africa to offer tips and battle methods to the new soldiers. Upon inspection of the division, all were satisfied and impressed with the progress made by the men of the 88th. MG Sloan was a strict disciplinarian and a stickler for minute details, but in the end he got the results he desired. Even residents of cities and towns near Camp Gruber held the new outfit in high esteem. To almost all, these men were well-trained, well-behaved, and very well-received.

The only people who were not originally confident in the 88th were the soldiers themselves. For some reason, the men thought they were overrated and going nowhere. To many, the 88th was still just a number. That feeling followed the men from Camp Gruber to the Louisiana Maneuver Area on 16 June, and to Fort Sam Houston, Texas, in August 1943, as the men completed their training, and even into November 1943 at Camp Patrick Henry, Virginia, as they waited for deployment overseas.

On 2 November 1943, an advance party of ten officers left Camp Patrick Henry for North Africa. BG Paul Kendall, who led the expedition, was the first member of the 88th to set foot on foreign soil. While he and his advance party members were busy preparing to receive the division, the 351st Infantry Regiment began its slow voyage across the ocean to North Africa. Aboard a Liberty ship, the trans-Atlantic voyage was no easy feat. The ship was overcrowded and many of the men battled seasickness. It was a relief when the ships docked in Casablanca. The 350th Infantry Regiment and the 349th Infantry Regiment soon followed, and the entire 88th was assembled in North Africa by 27 December 1943. Not one man was lost during any of the crossings.

The 88th Division arrived overseas with about 14,000 men. Sixty percent were infantry and the rest were artillerymen, medics, ordnancemen, signalmen, reconnaissance troops, quartermasters, and engineers. Upon landing, the men were assigned to Camp Passage. They were there primarily to recover from the voyage, have a few decent meals, see a few recent movies, and enjoy a quick sample of life in Casablanca. All too soon, however, the 88th was on the move again. This time they were headed by train to Oran. The division reassembled, but MG Sloan was unhappy with what he saw. In all its travels the division had gotten sloppy, so Sloan ordered more training in the Atlas Mountains. The training paid off – not only was the 88th back in top form, but also better prepared by the wintry terrain of the Atlas Mountains for what lay ahead in Italy.

An advanced party of officers and men flew to Italy in late December 1943 under the command of BG Kendall. Late in the night on 3 January 1944, the first members of the 88th went into the line with the Fifth Army. The division’s first battle casualty came that very same day, when SGT William A. Streuli was killed by enemy air attack two miles west of Venafro.

On 1 February 1944, the rest of the 88th Division began their trip to Italy. The last units came ashore by 21 February, and the entire division was reunited in Naples. Upon arrival in Naples, the 88th became the first draftee division to enter a combat zone in World War II.

The arrival of the 88th was a much-needed respite for the Fifth Army. Tired and battle worn, many in the Fifth Army had been fighting since Salerno, Sicily, or even as far back as North Africa. The 88th was the first fresh division to arrive in the Mediterranean since Salerno. It was cold and wet in Naples, weather many of the men were not expecting. They were also exposed for the first time to the sights and sounds of war: the gunfire, rubble and the physical destruction of the Italian countryside. Still in a rear assembly area, the waiting was almost worse than the actual fighting. Rumors flew about where the units would be assigned. At night they could see faint flashes over the mountains behind Piedmonte d’Alfie which suggested the front lines were located in what the soldiers called “Purple Heart Valley” and Cassino. The soldiers began to wonder when, and if, they would ever see the front. Fifth Army Headquarters had originally planned to break up the 88th Division and deploy them as needed, but MG Sloan did not want to see his division broken up. He met with LTG Mark Clark, commander of the Fifth Army, and Clark agreed to keep the 88th intact.

The 34th and 36th Infantry Divisions withdrew from the front for much needed rest and reorganization. A corps from New Zealand and one from France took over the American sector of the line. Most of the French corps was still enroute from North Africa and therefore were spread too thin. MG Sloan saw an opportunity, and sent the 2d Battalion, 351st Infantry, into the line with the French. The battalion arrived at the front on 27 February. That same day, the 88th was ordered to relieve the British 5th Infantry Division in the Minturno section of the Fifth Army line. Done in secret, the 88th took command of the British sector 4 March 1944. To fool any enemy observers, the American soldiers wore British helmets while the switch took place. The ruse worked, and the relief went smoothly.

The Fifth Army was trying to get to Cassino in hopes of gaining a hold on the central Italian highway to Rome, thus forcing a German retreat on both ends of the line. Although the principal mission for the 88th was a holding and harassing action, ground troops were used mostly for reconnaissance. In the opinion of correspondents and those still stationed in the rear, the action taking place at Cassino was not as exciting as it had been in Salerno, Naples, and Volturno. Although none of these people truly knew what was happening at the front it was because of them that this portion of the Italian campaign was called “the quiet war.” Although it was relatively quiet, the 88th was getting a taste of what it was like on the front lines.

The days passed, and by mid-April, both the Germans and the Allies had twenty-two divisions in Italy. Whereas the Allies were supplementing their lines with fresh troops, the Germans were pulling troops from the Eastern front to beef up their divisions. The Germans were trying to keep the Allies as far south as possible as possible to avoid having them get anywhere close to Germany itself. The Allies, however, were torn: an invasion of France was being planned and they did not know how best to use all their troops. As the debate continued, Allied commanders in Italy decided to go forward with their original plans to break out of the Anzio beachhead and smash the Gustav Line. On 11 May 1944, the 350th Infantry attacked enemy lines at Mount Diamano, Hill 316, Mount Ceracoli, and Mount Rotondo, while the 351st was ordered to seize Santa Maria Infante, then open the way into the Austene Valley. The 349th was held in reserve.

Although the Germans put up a fierce fight, Mount Diamano fell to the 350th Infantry in less than an hour. By dawn of 13 May, the 350th also held Hill 316. Soon after they won Mount Ceracoli, and soon after that they captured Mount Rotondo. The Gustav line had been cracked.

The 351st, however, did not fare as well as its counterpart. Attacking the major strong point of the Gustav Line, the soldiers there found it very difficult to capture the hill town of Santa Maria Infante. Company F was destroyed, with all of its men either killed or captured. The Germans staunchly defended the town. Fighting continued through 14 May, when the 1st Battalion moved on the town from the right and the 3d Battalion pushed upwards. The 88th finally captured Santa Maria Infante by 1300. The division was so fierce in battle that German prisoners supposedly remarked that the troops of the 88th fought “like devils.” As a result, the division eventually adopted the nickname the “Blue Devils” in reference to their blue shoulder patches.

The 349th Infantry came behind the 350th and 351st and led the division’s advance across the Ausonia Valley. On 15 May 1944, the 88th pushed through undefended Spigno. By this time, mountain fighting had begun to take its toll on the soldiers. The weather was often wet and cold; the terrain was muddy and hilly; and the men were always sore and tired. It was difficult to get supplies to the troops and evacuate the wounded. There was ever-present radio interference, making communications almost impossible. Yet they still trudged on, determined to make it to Rome.

The 351st faced heavy fire on 18 May 1944 in its attempt to take Monte Grande, while the 349th and 350th advanced from Roccasecca to the Amaseno Valley, which they cleared on 28 May. After breaking out of the mountains, the 88th Division was thrust right back into combat. They were headed towards the Eternal City.

The 88th attacked to the northwest, with their orders being to cut Highway 6 then head eastward towards Rome. Highway 6 was cut on 2 June, and by 3 June, the Blue Devils were just 4,000 yards from their objective. There was a brutal battle on the outskirts of the city as the soldiers of the 88th ran into strong German resistance. Still, on 4 June, the Eternal City fell to the Allies. Everyone wanted to be first into Rome, but at 1530, on 4 June, the all-draftee 88th became the first division to enter the city. Although overshadowed by the Normandy invasion two days later, the capture of Rome was a significant victory for the Allies and a welcome event for the Romans.

The happiness and celebration that followed the entry into the capital city soon gave way to the reality of war. The 88th received its new orders: follow the Germans north. They were involved in some brief but intense fighting at Monterosi, battling German tanks and hoping to buy time for the main body of troops who were blasting Nazi soldiers fleeing north by Highway 2. After 100 straight days at the front, the Blue Devils were finally granted some much needed rest and relaxation. The respite was short, however, because MG Sloan did not want his men to lose their fighting edge. After only a few short days, he launched another training regimen. Sloan was tough, but the toughness paid off — total casualties in the division only numbered 134 officers and 1,844 enlisted men after 100 days of heavy fighting.

On 5 and 6 July 1944, the 88th was once again back at the front. The confident, heavily armed Germans were waiting. The 88th was ordered to seize the ancient Etruscan fortress town of Volterra, location of a large German garrison. The 349th flanked the town on the right, the 350th flanked from the left, and the two met in the middle. By 2200 on 8 July, the town was in American hands. Four days later the 351st came out of division reserve and took the town of Laiatico. It was during this battle that the 3d Battalion, 351st Infantry, earned a Distinguished Unit Citation.

Villamanga fell to the 349th on 13 July, and the 351st took Monte Foscoli. On 19 July the Allies dug in at San Miniato, where they soon experienced the brutality of the Nazis. All civilian areas were heavily mined and booby trapped, including houses and streets. The citizens of the town were herded into a church so they could not warn the Allies of what lay ahead, and then were mercilessly shot by German tanks. The Germans obviously did not plan to give up easily.

The 91st Infantry Division relieved the 88th so they could once again take time for refitting and training. This time they geared up to cross rivers, as the upcoming assault crossing of the Arno was not going to be easy. The trip from Volterra to the north bank of the Arno was accomplished, but not without high cost: the division lost 142 officers and 2, 257 enlisted men killed, wounded, or missing.

After the crossing, the men were once again relieved from the front lines and sent back for seven weeks of refitting and training. MG Sloan was forced to retire in August of 1944 due to his worsening dermatitis. His replacement was his deputy, BG Paul Kendall. He was the obvious replacement, since he had been with the division since Camp Gruber, but it was upsetting to many of the soldiers to see MG Sloan go. Many thought BG Kendall was not of the same caliber as MG Sloan.

By the end of August, the 88th could sense it was once again to go into combat. True to their prediction, the Blue Devils attacked towards the Gothic Line on 10 September 1944. It was once again rainy, cold and miserable at the front. Soldiers on both sides had to trudge around the mountains in deep mud and water. Trying to break through the Gothic Line, the 88th encountered some of the heaviest fighting in the fall of 1944. While studying the Allies to figure out where to launch his main attacks, Field Marshall Albert Kesselring, the German commander, held his reserves in preparation for a surprise counter-attack. That attack occurred 28 September when elements of four German divisions assaulted the 350th Infantry atop Mount Battaglia. For seven bloody days, the Blue Devils threw back every assault and held the critical position. They had won the battle, but not without great cost — approximately fifty percent of the 350th were killed, wounded, or missing. For its heroic part in the ferocious fighting at Mount Battaglia, the 2d Battalion, 350th Infantry, earned a Distinguished Unit Citation.

While the 350th battled atop Mount Battaglia, the 349th Regiment was busy attacking the village of Belvedere enroute to their destination of Mount Grande. They blasted the Germans out of the village and without stopping, captured Sassaleone and cut the road to Castel del Rio. By 10 October, the 351st had pushed past the 349th, and faced German flamethrowers in a battle at Gesso.

All three regiments were involved in intense fighting, and all three were beginning to lose their drive. The units were losing men faster than they could be replaced, but orders remained unchanged: the 88th Division was to keep going. There were no more reserves, but the North Apennines campaign had to continue.

Fighting not only the Germans but the treacherous terrain as well, the 88th was exhausted. In forty-four days of fighting, the 88th had lost more than 6,000 men killed, wounded, or missing. By November, there was nothing more they could do in the drive through the Apennines. Orders came in to hold and dig in where they were. Finally the Blue Devils were going to get the rest they needed so desperately.

After resting in Montecatini, the 88th was once again headed back to the front on 24 January 1945. They were to relieve the 91st Infantry Division near Loiana and Livergnano. They did little more there than heavy patrolling and maintaining defensive positions, and were once again pulled out of line for further rehabilitation. This time they went through special training to prepare for the impending spring offensive.

The offensive began in April. The Germans had spent six months digging themselves into caves, wrecked buildings, and rocky ridges. Machine guns, mortars, and artillery were well hidden and placed everywhere. The 88th Units were shuttled up and down the front in the hope of confusing the enemy. The Germans were not fooled and built their strongest defensive position south of Bologna and right in front of the Blue Devils. That turned out to be a big mistake: when the Germans tried to pull themselves out of a trap placed by the 10th Mountain Division, the 88th Division’s flanking maneuver held them in place. The Germans were caught, and the Fifth Army broke through into the Po Valley.

Once the past the Po Valley, the 88th headed to the Alps. On 25 April, the Blue Devils became the first Allied troops to enter Verona. Vicenza fell three days later. The effort of the Allies paid off. At 1600 on 2 May, German forces surrendered. The war in Italy had ended.

On 4 May 1945, the 88th Division joined the 103d Infantry Division, another draftee division, driving south through Brenner Pass from Innsbruck. On 7 May, it was announced the Germans had surrendered unconditionally. For those fighting in the European Theater, World War II was over.

The men in the 88th did not celebrate wildly, but instead reflected a quiet joy. Many thought it was too good to be true. Many mourned the men that did not make it to see the end. All the soldiers cared about now was wrapping the job up and going home.

The Blue Devils moved into Bolzano, the city that had once been the headquarters of the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe. On 31 May, the 88th gave Bolanzo over to the Allied Italian troops, but since tensions were so high between the Italians and the Germans, the 349th Infantry stayed to prevent trouble. The rest of the division was sent to Lake Garda, where they were given the assignment of guarding 300,000 POWs. Some of the soldiers had enough points to ship out during the summer, while others were moved to Trieste for occupation in the fall. Many of them remained in Italy for the next two years. The division was finally inactivated on 24 October 1947 in Italy. Today the 88th’s lineage lives on as the 88th Regional Support Command, U.S. Army Reserve, with headquarters at Fort Snelling, Minnesota.

In 344 days of combat, the 88th Infantry Division lost 2,298 men killed in action and 9,225 men wounded. The Blue Devils proved that with rigorous training, teamwork, competent leadership, and fierce determination, an all-draftee division was more than capable of fighting well against a well-trained, well-equipped, and battle-hardened enemy. Even under the worst circumstances, the men of the 88th gave their all and wound up playing and integral part in the defeat of the German Army in Italy. The Blue Devils saw to it that MG Sloan was good on his word: the 88th Infantry Division had well finished the job it had started long before in World War I.