Chapter 7: Death and Glory in the Wheatfields

Updated: Jul 3

LAIATICO (pp. 25 - 31)



First Day 9 July 1944 At 0400 hours the regiment began advancing in a column of battalions over these rolling grain fields that had been mowed clean. Occasional deep drainage lines broke the smoothness of the ground and these ditches offered the only available cover. As the Second Battalion advanced, heavy rifle and machine gun fire was received soddenly from the left flank. At the same time two enemy flares, (a white flare followed by a green one) were fired near the suspected enemy strongpoint. Directly following this a concentration of enemy artillery fell on the Second Battalion. This temporarily split the battalion in two. Company H set up its mortars and fired at the suspected enemy position. By radio relay contact was made with the supporting 913th Field Artillery Battalion and soon heavy artillery fire on the German strongpoint answered the enemy. Company F executed a holding attack while Company G moved to the rear and then west in a flanking movement; Meanwhile the Regimental Commander, Colonel Arthur S. Champeny was moving among the men, openly exposed to the enemy fire and his calmness and disregard for his personal safety inspired and reenergized the men. G Company thoroughly surprised the enemy with its flanking movement and soon enveloped the right flank of the German strongpoint, allowing the battalion to continue its advance. Again very heavy enemy artillery fire was rained on the Second Battalion, halting its progress in the open grainfields. The drainage ditches, offering the only cover, were also being systematically covered by the German artillery.


Meanwhile the Third Battalion was advancing and shortly after the Second Battalion was fired on the Third Battalion received rifle and machine gun fire from its front and left flank. Due to lack of cover from this fire the Third also halted. The companies were deployed and hastily dug in. At dusk the Germans counterattacked Company K. By immediate radio relay message, a heavy concentration of artillery fire from the 913th Field Artillery Battalion was placed in and among the advancing Germans. The counterattack was repulsed with many enemy casualties, and the Germans withdrew hastily in much confusion. All through the evening the supporting 913th Field Artillery placed artillery fire on the known enemy positions and in addition, Chemical Mortars from the 84th Chemical Battalion moved into position and added to the artillery fire. The tanks attached to the regiment had experienced considerable difficulty in advancing due to the extensive mine fields. The tanks did not reach the leading Infantry elements until late afternoon and six tanks were knocked out by mines. Had the tanks been present when the initial enemy fire was received the German strongpoint could have been liquidated without delay. The regiment was deprived of this important fire power most of the day. Both battalions were alerted for an attack at any time during the night.


Second Day, 10 July 1944 The 34th Division which was on our left flank had been unable to keep abreast and as a result the 351st Infantry was again in a Spearhead position. Division Artillery cub planes reported enemy troops assembling on our left flank in the zone of the 34th Division and this posed a serious counterattack threat. The Regimental Commander was ordered to hold in present position due to this threat. The threat failed to materialize, however, and the regiment was ordered to continue the attack with battalions abreast at 0900 hours. The Third Battalion launched its attack on time and advanced rapidly some three hundred and fifty yards to the forward slopes of the hill, but there it was halted by very heavy mortar, artillery and flat trajectory self-propelled gun fire which caused severe casualties. The men dug in hurriedly and remained in position, receiving long range sniper fire and intermittent artillery throughout the day. The Second Battalion had better success in its attack. Heavy supporting artillery concentrations supplemented by chemical mortar fire was placed on high ground in the vicinity of LAIATICO throughout the attack. A gain of more than one thousand yards was made before the companies were stopped by heavy enemy artillery and small arms fire. Due to the lack of cover and concealment, it was impossible to maneuver from these positions. The LAIATICO hill mass now confronting the Second Battalion presented a serious obstacle to our advance. The Germans had excellent defensive positions and unlimited observation, whereas the Second Battalion had no cover or concealment, leaving the men feeling naked to the enemy's view. As the men said, "they were looking right down our throats." Without doubt this was the enemy's key point of defense and it had to be wiped out before the advance of the regiment, as well as of the division, could be continued. The First Battalion was released to the regiment from Division Reserve, moved up, and at 1800 hours this Battalion was put in Regimental Reserve.


Third Day, 11 July 1944 The burden of the action was borne by the First Battalion on this day. It was ordered to seize the road junction southwest of LAIATICO and send out reconnaissance patrols from that point to another road junction to the northwest to contact the 34th Division. The First Battalion moved out and advanced through the town of ORCIA-TICO without opposition. The battalion secured the designated road junction and from there sent out a patrol to make contact with the 34th. This patrol was unable to find the enemy or the 34th Division at the previously designated contact point. In the late afternoon the First Battalion was counterattacked in its new position; but this was repulsed by heavy artillery, machine gun and rifle fire, and severe casualties were inflicted on the enemy. All day the Second and Third Battalions remained in their positions, subjected to merciless artillery and self-propelled gun fire. A night attack to be made by the First Battalion was planned by the Regimental Commander and approved that evening by the Assistant Divisional Commander who stayed at the Command Post to follow the progress of the night attack.


Fourth Day, 12 July 1944 At 0300 hours the First Battalion jumped off on its night attack. After an advance of five hundred yards, very heavy enemy machine gun fire halted the advance and the men became widely dispersed. The resistance was not overcome and by daylight the battalion was under direct enemy observation from LAIATICO. Intense enemy artillery blanketed the battalion throughout the day. All that day the 913th Field Artillery subjected LAIATICO to continuous heavy artillery fire with chemical mortars also firing both high explosive and white phosphorous shells. The 91st Division filled in the gap between the 88th Division and the 34th Division during the day, but remained about six thousand yards to our left rear. The 88th reconnaissance Troop relieved the 91st Reconnaissance Squadron and was given the mission of protecting the left flank as well as maintaining contact with the 91st Division. During the night plans were made for another night attack to be made by the Second and Third Battalions abreast.


Fifth, Day, 13 July 1944 At 0300 hours the Second and Third Battalion launched their night attack. Simultaneously, three ten-minute concentrations of light and medium artillery and chemical mortars were fired on LAIATICO, the chemical mortars firing two rounds of white phosphorous to each round of high explosive. The Third Battalion proceeded with greatest possible speed northwest and toward the ridge projecting east from LAIATICO. Machine gun positions and snipers were encountered but by-passed in the Third Battalion's speed to reach the objective. The Third Battalion seized a German Regimental Command Post, finding the majority of the Germans huddled in dugouts and eaves to escape our artillery fire and the white phosphorous. They were panic stricken and surrendered without resistance. The swiftness of our penetration stunned the enemy. The Third Battalion followed our supporting artillery so closely that the enemy bad no time to get set in prepared defensive positions before our doughboys reached them. The Battalion Commander, Lieutenant Colonel Harold B. Ayres, then Captain, immediately reorganized his companies and prepared to continue the attack westward along the ridge to LAIATICO. Meanwhile the Second Battalion attacked with comparable success. They advanced north with the capture of LAIATICO, their first objective. This battalion attacking in the same manner as the Third, smashed through the demoralized enemy defenses; While advancing up Hill 214 heavy machine gun and machine pistol fire was met but overcome by the heroic, rapier-like advance of our men. Considerable bayonet fighting ensued and the efficient training of our men showed itself to good advantage. Many Germans were found suffering from white phosphorous burns inflicted by our chemical mortars. Holding Hill 214, the Second Battalion set up machine gun positions firing on the sunken road leading into LAIATICO. By daylight our men occupied much of the high ground around the town and by 1100 hours the Second Battalion had advanced three hundred yards north of LAIATICO. By mid-afternoon the Third Battalion bad cut the road running north of LAIATICO and established contact with the Second Battalion. This deep penetration of the LAIATICO position by the Third Battalion and the rapid exploitation by attacking the enemy from his rear and flank indicated the determined aggressiveness of these men. At that time, the heaviest enemy artillery barrage experienced since this regiment entered combat, fell on the town of LAIATICO and its northern outskirts. Included in these unbelievably heavy concentrations were Nebelwerfers, which we called "screaming meemies", fired from three directions-north, northeast and northwest. This was made possible for the Germans by the advanced position of the regiment in reference to elements on our right and left. Again, we were the "Spearhead" Regiment.


The day had been one of the most victorious days in the history of the regiment. The 1060th German Panzer Grenadier Regiment was virtually destroyed, along with some companies of the 1059th German Regiment. The 5th Company of the 1059th was attempting to make a relief at the time of the attack and were captured almost intact. At the end of the day four hundred and twenty-five prisoners of war had been dispatched to the prisoner of war enclosure, and German casualties were estimated as at least three hundred killed or wounded.


At 2400 hours 13 July 1944, the attack was continued to seize the high ground, completing the capture of the LAIATICO hill mass -- the regimental objective. This was easily accomplished with no resistance. The total casualties for the 351st Regiment during the LAIATICO attack beginning from the town of MONTECATINI totaled seventy-seven killed and three hundred and twenty wounded. With the elimination of this key point in the German defense line, the entire division was able to resume its advance, continuing for a distance of approximately eleven kilometers before serious resistance was again encountered.


The President of The United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, cited the Third Battalion of the 351st Infantry Regiment for its remarkable and outstanding fighting in the battle of LAIATICO. The citation follows:


'THE 3rd BATTALION, 351st INFANTRY REGIMENT, is cited for outstanding performance of duty in action, during the period 9 to 13 July 19441 in the vicinity of Laiatico, Italy. During the attack on strongly fortified German positions in the vicinity of Laiatico the 3rd BATTALION occupied an advanced position, devoid of cover and with both flanks exposed, and for three days withstood heavy enemy artillery and mortar bombardments as well as three vicious enemy counterattacks supported by tanks. Displaying courage, skill and determined fighting spirit, the battalion frustrated all enemy efforts to defend the town and surrounding strategic positions. On the fourth day, the 3rd BATTALION launched a night attack and penetrated the German stronghold from the flanks and rear. Aggressively exploiting its breakthrough, the battalion seized a German regimental command post after a savage hand-to-hand struggle in the darkness and cut the main escape route from the Laiatico hill mass. As a result of the 3RD BATTALION'S prodigious efforts, 425 prisoners were taken, 250 Germans were killed or wounded, and a large quantity of enemy weapons were captured which were promptly employed with telling effect against the battered German forces. The timely capture of this key enemy defensive position compelled the Germans to abandon a carefully prepared, strongly defended line and opened the route of advance to the Arno River. The fearlessness, heroic determination, and aggressive fighting spirit of the officers and men of the 3rd BATTALION, 351st INFANTRY REGIMENT resulted in a performance which brings honor to the Armed Forces of the United States.'

From: 351st Infantry Regimental Information and Education Office (1945). History of the 351st Regiment, World War II.