Probably the oldest memory I have of my dad mentioning his time in Italy with the 351st involves Livergnano. I was a young boy when one day he happened to be telling me about something or another about the war, and he said, "It happened up there in Livergnano." He laughed, then said, "Well, we called it Liver and Onions." That moment has always stuck with me even after all these years.
In tribute to the men who fought for that town, and those who later defended it, I thought I would reproduce the account of the 91st Division, 361st Infantry Regiment's assault as published in the Miami Herald in 1944. I found this document while leafing through 91st Division documents at the National Archives.
(The following is a story written by Mr. Bell, War Correspondent, “Miami Herald”, Associated Press)
L I V E R G N A N O
With the Fifth Army in Northern Italy, Oct. 26.—There’s a little Italian town high in the Apennines a few miles south of the big industrial city of Bologna, a town called Livergnano.
Perhaps I should say, “There was a town”, for Livergnano isn’t—any longer. Even the old church on the hill has only a steeple left. The homes chiseled out of solid stone into a high cliff are still there, though their furnishings are smashed. The caves under the cliff at the end of town opposite the church remain, made even deeper by tank guns which were wheeled up and fired point blank at 20 feet. The buildings are gone – except half a dozen ground floor rooms which are virtual caves.
“We took Livergnano today”.
The statement, made by a public relations officer at Fifth Army Headquarters the day I arrived there, didn’t mean much to me; and apparently little more to him. I remember asking, “Was it an extensive battle? Is it important?” “Oh, just another town on Route 65,” he replied, “Held us up for three or four days.”
Yes, it had held us up for a few days. It was important, and the battle of Livergnano was perhaps the most desperate and costly of the entire Italian summer and autumn offensive. American dead still lie buried under crumbled Livergnano. Men still grow quiet and tense when they speak of Livergnano. Men still are under daily German artillery fire in Livergnano.
Ask the men of K company if Livergnano is important. But I should not have said that; for the men of K company – 81 of them – are German prisoners, 12 escaped, and the rest died there. Ask the men of I company, who took La Fortuna a few hundred yards short of Livergnano and were shot to pieces for three days while other companies fought fiercely up the road. Ask the men of A company, who fought their way into a church just short of the town, found the basement full of Jerries and the units threw hand grenades at each other until a German tank rolled up, literally to blow the Americans out of the church into a machine gun cross fire. Ask the men of B and C companies, who fought blindly but with the unbelievable courage against a German army stronger in number, with better observation and a greater firepower.
Ask any of them – who survived. They’ll shake their head and tell you they don’t know how they did it. Col. Rudolph Broedlow, regimental commander sits starring into space, then turns and says, “I guess the boys just had so much guts the Kraut couldn’t understand.”
“Occupy Livergnano at all costs,” was the command, fashioned way up among the high brass somewhere. The high command told the general, who told the Colonel, who told the battalion commander, who told his company commanders.
On Sept 8, I company crawled up out of the woods and threw a road block at La Fortuna, which is only a house along side of the road. This was to keep the Jerries from coming south on Route 65, if they didn’t cut I company to pieces too fast. That night K Company drew the assignment to enter Livergnano…and German strategy never was better! ‘Twas one of those things. Everything le Boche tried worked. K Company couldn’t do anything effective.
If you could drive up the highway into Livergnano you could see why it happened, and how the first platoon of K company, moving at night and at the edge of the city, dove into the big house there when a machine gun suddenly cut loose, and sighed with relief. They listened. All was quite. “Guess he was just shooting for the hell of it” they decided. The second platoon ran into fire from above and broke down the hill. Guns down there spoke and the Americans turned back – into the convenient house at the edge of town. The third platoon, with no knowledge of the events was neatly maneuvered into yes, the same house.
A whole company of Americans in one house. They had no anti-tank guns, no place to use mortars. The Germans had herded them into that house – and some time after midnight brought up a tank gun, maybe two, and started point blank fire. An 88mm shell has tremendous power. Steadily the building crumbled.
There was a sergeant, Dave Covington, a little guy of Kenosha, Wisc, and another sergeant, Luke Owens, a wirey little fellow from Griffen GA. They saw what was happening and as the last platoon broke for the house they had dashed for the next house. The Germans had figured even that possibility and had a machine gun zeroed on the door. The first man who tried to go through that door was cut down, instantly killed. Sgt. Owens dashed to the side, the other following. They found a hole, crawled in – and were deep in a pig sty under the house.
B Company, supposed to come up to support K Company, was pinned down; their captain, who had gone on a scouting patrol, pinned in the house with K company. A company was pinned in the church below. C company was under a terrific fire back along the road at La Fortuna.
Sgt. Troy Pons, Silver Springs, Fla., was one of the men who had followed Sgt. Owens into the pig sty. Sometime during the night, when a Jerry who evidently didn’t know they were down there came along, Sgt. Pons picked him off. Then Sgt. Pons left his mates. He was going to find the rest of the company. He hasn’t been seen since, probably being a prisoner.
For when daylight came the Jerries methodically shelled that house down, around the heads of K Company. Capt. Chetlain Sigmen, Seattle, talking with the battalion headquarters by radio phone, said he had been asked to surrender. He was talking to his commanding officer when the voice stopped…….
Back at American observation posts they watched the Americans filing out of the shattered house. Col. Broedlow, hoping a desperate measure might free them, ordered a terrific arty barrage. But the Germans didn’t run, leaving their prisoners behind. They got away somehow, taking 81 Americans with them.
All that was left of K Company, the 10 lads who had been led down into the pig pen by Sgt. Owens, never knew what had happened. They lay all day listening to the shelling, heard German voices and moving vehicles. Late at night they escaped.
So! The Germans are disorganized, are they! They’re short on artillery – yes. They’ve lost morale? Don’t talk thus before any United Nations soldier in Italy.
Sadly the Americans viewed the scene from which their comrades had been taken as prisoners. Grimly they set their teeth and went back to work. They called for bombers and for two days Spitfires dived and blew the town apart….
And there was a guy from Bakersfield, California, Sgt. John Sumpter. Back in the states he had been a typical “Eight-ball” soldier. He always was in trouble, always punching someone in the nose, always out of step. Then the outfit came over here, where the chips are down. The battalion eight-ball took things in stride. He became a “Hell of a soldier, afraid of nothing and a born leader.” It wasn’t long, after the outfit got here, that he moved up the scale.
So, when company B went back into action determined to take Livergnano tough Sgt. Sumpter led the first squad for the battle to take the high cliff overlooking the city. Machine gunners were in caves at the foot of the cliff and opened fire. Sgt. Sumpter drew his men around a bend in the road 25 yds away and called for tank guns to fire into the caves. The Jerries poured out and were disarmed.
Then Sgt. Sumpter went to the reverse side of the hill, shouted gruffly “Come on; you guys,” and started up the hill. Every German mortar in Italy poured shells on the hillside. Machine guns cracked. Tank guns thundered. The sergeant and his platoon went on, shooting with tommy guns, throwing grenades, evading shell holes. On and on they walked – and the Germans up there threw up their hands in despair.
“You must be the elite American troops” an English-speaking German prisoner said, “It seems impossible for you to come through that mortar fire.” “I dunno what elite means” growled Sgt. Sumpter, “but if you mean good, that’s right…B Company 361 Infantry buddy.”
Up came the remainder of B company. They set up observation. They directed American tank fire. The other companies, A and C, moved, in, almost unmolested – because this time the Americans had the upper hand, could direct their tanks and artillery fire. Remnants of the companies cut to pieces three days before, went in with grim determination and guns spouting death. Even the remnants of ill-fated K Company, which had been reorganized, led replacements into the general triumph.
They went into a city, battered down by American big guns, by dive bombers – and after we got there, by German Artillery. They had carried out the general’s order, to take Livergnano “At all costs”.
Yes, the PRO was right; “We took Livergnano today.”