top of page

Sid Feder with the Blue Devils

Sid Feder, AP Correspondent, wasn't new to the 88th Infantry Division's history when he wrote an article in 1946 chronicling their wartime experience. He had been writing about them since their days at Camp Gruber and had checked in on them in Italy as early as February, 1944. On May 11, 1944 at 8:40 a.m., Frederick Faust, a famous writer and war correspondent embedded with the 351st, visited the CP requesting permission to accompany the lead elements in their attack on Santa Maria Infante. That evening at 9:45 p.m. Feder also visited the CP with other reporters to inquire about the impending attack. It was only a few hours later that Faust was killed in the initial push into the town. Feder mentions Faust in the article that has been reproduced below (including the accompanying photos) from The Saturday Evening Post, September 7, 1946.

The Blue Devils

Stumped the Experts

By Sid Feder

Military wise guys said the all-draftee 88th Division would never see combat. But it wasn't long in Italy before both American and German professionals were applauding these original "apprentice sad sacks."

WHEN the raw draftees who composed the 88th Infantry Division began to gather on a dusty Oklahoma plateau in the summer of 1942 - green "apprentice sad sacks" who didn't know a muzzle from a trigger - certain military wisenheimers took one look and shuddered. "This outfit," they said, "will never get overseas."

Exactly one year, seven months and eighteen days later, the 88th Division Blue Devils were holding down a 10,000-yard battle sector on the bitter Italian front - the first all-draftee division overseas and in combat.

When the 88th, now a well-drilled unit, arrived in Africa en route, there were still some die-hards.

"This outfit," they sneered, "will never see action. We'll stay here and police up."

Six months and fourteen days later, the 88th led the liberating forces into Rome, after smashing 109 air-line miles in thirty-one days-actually 350 miles up and down the man-eating mountains.

Axis Sally, one of Jerry's top propaganda broadcasters, gave the Blue Devils their nickname-blue for the color of their four-leaf-clover shoulder patches, formed by crossed eights; devils for the way they fought.

"You Blue Devils," she wailed on the air one night during the rush for Rome, "are bloodthirsty cutthroats. You don't fight like gentlemen."

Another grudging Nazi tribute came in the spring of 1945, in the final fling across the Po and through the Alps; when Major General Schulz, commander of the crack German 1st Paratroop Division, was captured.

"We fought you on Mount Battaglia, on Mount Grande and here," he said simply. "The 88th is the finest we ever fought against."

These were not professional soldiers. The "bloodthirsty cutthroats" were just bank clerks and farmers and shoe salesmen and schoolteachers who, two years before, happened to be the right size and shape for Uncle Sam's draft boards.

Taken raw from every state in the Union and mixed with a strong dash of Regular Army officers, they were molded into a great fighting unit. The recipe is pure American.

They were the first draftees in action anywhere as a division. And they were still in Italy more than a year after V-E Day, the last American infantry on the peninsula the dogfaces described as "a string of mountains tied together with mud and krauts."

Their job of fighting Germans done, they were, appropriately, sitting on the touchiest keg of dynamite in Europe, as the force on guard in the Trieste area, where our British and Jugoslav "cousins" nearly came to blows just before the end of the war. Few of the original Blue Devils were left in this Trieste policing force, of course. But their successors were ready to carry on in the Blue Devil tradition, if anything went wrong with the delicate internationalization arrangement the Big Three foreign ministers finally agreed upon for Trieste this summer.

The Blue Devil tradition was built by unexpected warriors of the most unmilitary backgrounds. For instance, take balding Curly Carmon - Lt. Col. Frank William Carmon, Jr. - an embalmer in Windsor, Connecticut. Curly was just an ordinary fellow, who even caught the measles after entering the Army. His record, though, was not so ordinary. He rose from private to battalion commander, with the DSC and the Silver and Bronze Stars among his breast trappings. Once Curly jumped onto the running board of a car carrying escaping Germans, grabbed the driver by the throat and hauled him out.

The Bronx Was Never Like This

Or take peppery, red-headed Charley Shea, who hawked hot dogs in Yankee Stadium before he was tapped by Selective Service. The night the 88th Division jumped off for Rome, Shea got caught out in a mine field where the enemy was cooking up a mess of machine-gun trouble. He wiped out three guns, killed ten Germans, became the 88th's first Congressional Medal of Honor winner.

The all-draftee 88th, unlike the outfits of National Guard and Regular Army origins, was the only division in Italy not afflicted with a public relations officer. Half a dozen soldier-combat correspondents gathered material for home-town newspaper consumption. Aside from that, the Blue Devils' performance had to speak for itself. No press agent in uniform fed bang-bang stories back to civilian correspondents.

But the Blue Devils were doing plenty to merit newspaper attention. They went into the line in March, 1944, and started out with 100 straight days in battle, fighting from the Garigliano to Rome, and to the Arno beyond. They broke the back of the Gustav Line and the heart of the Hitler Line. Sometimes they were so far out in the cragged peaks that planes had to drop supplies to them.

The 88th beat the Regular Army and National Guard divisions into Rome in July, 1944. A year later, the Blue Devils won another race. This was just after the final whistle had blown and they had battered their way nearly 400 miles to the north. Many of the savage SS and Gestapo killers wouldn’t surrender. Dozens headed for hiding places in the Tyrol. The Brenner Pass had to be sealed off to lock the door.

The Blue Devils, along with the 85th Infantry and 10th Mountain Divisions, plunged for the narrow Alpine passage. Only the day before, Lt. Ralph Haines, a Handsome Orlando, Florida, officer, had joined the Blue Devils. Telling his men to follow, he and his jeep driver took off.

After an all-night dash, they skidded into the sheer snowy pass and met the lead forces of the Seventh Army moving south from Austria. The door was locked. All the way it was a ride through threatening Nazis who had an idea their leaders hadn't actually given up.

“We did a little bluffing," Haines recalled, “and some plain fast talking.”

Even when peace came to troubled Italy, the last to find out were the Blue Devils. Far out in front, and out of communication, they fought on five hours after the official finish.

There was little hilarity among the Blue Devils at the end. Pfc. Francis Lenahan, of Roxbury, Massachusetts, took just three words to sum it up for all of them - for all combat men everywhere, in fact. "I made it," he sighed, and it was a prayer of thanks.

The 88th Division men had kept the faith handed them back in Camp Gruber, Oklahoma, on activation day in 1942. "We challenge you to take up the job we didn't get done," Capt. John Quigley, president of the 88th's World War I Veterans' Association, had said.

The Blue Devils had good leaders for this mission. Maj. Gen. John Sloan, veteran of thirty-one Army years, was the first commander. They called him Johnny Eager. He was a stickler for military niceties, but the men respected, even revered him. There was unanimous regret when ill health forced him to leave Italy in August, 1944.

Bull Kendall - Maj. Gen. Paul Kendall, from California - took over then. As a one-star general, he had gone on sniper hunts. Once I heard him give a tank commander what was perhaps the most artistic "chewing out" a full colonel ever received, because the colonel wouldn't bring his armor up until the infantrymen cleaned out a couple of guns.

No division boasted three finer fighting regimental commanders than started combat with the 88th - Colonels Arthur S. Champeny, James S. Fry and "Uncle Joe" Crawford.

Colonel Crawford was a brilliant tactician who went from the 88th's 349th Regiment to Washington and the General Staff. The Germans nicknamed him "kraut killer" in the Anzio area.

Gray-haired Colonel Champeny, of the 351st Regiment, a World War I veteran from Kansas, always argued that "we had to walk then; now we ride too much." Going over 3000-foot Mount Civita on the way to Rome, he and his staff ran into a German artillery battery. His capable executive officer, baby-faced Vic Hobson, of Birmingham, Alabama, relates: "The old man went out there with only that cane he carries and rounded up the lot of them."

As for Colonel Fry, the 350th Regiment’s hard-chinned little "krauthater" from Idaho, his men pinned the name "Fearless Fosdick” on him the day he personally led a platoon cleaning out a dug-in enemy stronghold. After the surrender in Italy, when the 88th Division went into the SS stronghold of Bolzano, the arrogant Nazis quartered there swaggered around armed for ten days. A liaison officer from the 15th Army Group told Blue Devil officers they couldn't start “ordering these people (the Germans) to move out, because we have a deal with them." Finally, on May eleventh, the velvet gloves were taken off and Colonel Fry was made town commandant.

He laid down the law. One German colonel wanted to argue. "Colonel" Fry snapped, "where I come from, we shoot guys like you just to hear them drop." The argument ended.

It was under men like this that the 88th Division troops evolved from peaceable civilians into effective fighting men. As early as the summer of 1943, the 88th was a hot outfit on maneuvers in Louisiana. A couple of times, though, the Blue Devils had the official observers going around in circles. Not being regulars, they just couldn't see the sense of following the book exactly. So they fought out the mock battles along their own lines.

In November, the division went overseas. Although individual units saw action earlier, it was not until March 5, 1944, that the division as a whole first engaged the enemy, taking over the front along the Garigliano, between the Anzio beachhead and Naples, where British forces had been stopped cold, weeks before.

It was a patrolling, static war at first in this initial appearance of an all-draftee division. The first month's casualties were 99 dead, 252 wounded, 36 missing. That was a quiet front in Italy.

On Easter eve, under cover of darkness, pack mules hauled an altar to the top of Hill 411, out near bristling Casteforte - "Little Cassino" to the troops. An outdoor church was set up within sight of the Germans. As dawn broke, Chaplain Oscar Reinboth, of Seward, Nebraska, spoke in German, over a loud-speaker: "This is Easter morning. We Americans are about to hold holy services. From your lines, we invite you to join."

The big guns stopped, and you could, actually feel the stillness. Lt. Charlotte Johnson, Army nurse from Painesville, Ohio, sang the hymn. The traditional services were spoken. Then it was over. The hill that was a church for an hour became a military objective again.

Static warfare ended at 11:00 P. M. on May eleventh with the simultaneous eruption of 2000 American artillery pieces. Fifth Army kicked off under the avalanche, with the 88th Division in the center. Two miles in front of the Blue Devils' 351st Regiment lay Santa Maria Enfante [sic], the ferociously defended backbone of the enemy's Gustav Line. Every inch of the two miles was honeycombed with mines and machine guns and pillboxes.

The Blue Devils made the first mile without much trouble. Then the Germans started to punch back. It took sixty hours to go that second mile.

First word of trouble came when the walkie-talkie sputtered: "Faust got it."

Author Frederick Faust, widely known as Max Brand, adventure-storywriter, had come to gather material for a book. All the afternoon before, Colonel Champeny had pleaded with him not to go with the assault point.

"Colonel," Faust argued, "I'm writing a book about the infantry, and I’m going to see how they fight." He saw, but never lived to write about it.

A machine gun was scything one company from a stone house, and the second battalion commander, Lt. Col. Ray Kendall, of Manchester, New Hampshire, who had led the first 88th unit into the line in March, charged it, pulling the pin on a grenade. The Germans couldn’t have missed him blindfolded. Mortally wounded, he jammed the live grenade against his stomach and toppled face forward on it as it went off. The action saved his men.

That first night, too, F Company, under Capt. Carl Nelson, of Pittsburg, Kansas, was isolated. For thirty-six hours, there was no word. On Sunday morning, what was left of the second battalion hurled itself into humpbacked Santa Maria. The town was one huge pile of pulverized rubble. From the waddy where F Company had last reported, four bleary-eyed figures stumbled. They told how the company had been ambushed and captured. They were the only ones to escape.

With Santa Maria lost, Kesselring had to pull back to his stronger Hitler Line defenses. It was a race - could the novice 88th catch the Nazis before they holed up? The Blue Devils could. Quickly, the Nazi propagandists announced that the "honor" of bearing Hitler's name had been withdrawn from these fortifications.

They made the correction just in time. The following day, after a set of guns in a hillside church bad been silenced during a five-hour battle, long-jawed Lt. Col. Walter Yeager, of Macon, Georgia, led his 349th Battalion into Fondi, heart of the Hitler Line.

Veteran regulars and guardsmen of the 3rd, 34th, 36th and 45th Infantry and the 1st Armored Divisions, along with the 88th and 85th, were sent scrambling up the roads to Rome for the honor of leading the way into the first European capital liberated in this war. The Blue Devils won.

At 7:30 A. M., June fourth, Mike Shea's 88th reconnaissance patrol went in. On the books, he's officially Lt. Roger Shea, of Orange, Massachusetts. He had a one-jeep party - Sgt. Johnny Reilly, of Watervliet, New York; T/5 Roy Cutler, of Moweaqua, Illinois; Corp. Cassie Kuemin, of Detroit; and Pfc. Jack Cottrell, Rochester, New York; Mike Regan, North Bellmore, Long Island; and the inevitable Brooklynite, Matty Fitzpatrick.

Creeping cautiously along, they went two kilometers past the blue-and-white Roma city-limits sign. A hidden machine gun suddenly opened up. Under orders, they turned back to report. "Damn that kraut-the bum spoiled everything," Fitz postscripted the report.

They were the first into Rome, and this is their first public credit for it. For some reason, Gen. Mark Clark would never permit correspondents to identify their unit as leading the way.

That night, a small group of engineers and special troops dashed in along another road to prevent demolition of the Margherita Bridge over the Tiber. Led by Maj. Gen. Robert Frederick, youthful commander of the 1st Special Service Force and later head of the 45th Division, this force also included Col. Kingsley Andersson, engineer commander, and Capt. Mark Reardon, New York combat engineer.

Through darkened streets they sped, capturing nine and killing three Germans trying to cross the span. About 11:00 P.M., some ten or fifteen shadowy figures slipped out of an alley, single file, against the protecting blackness of the buildings.

A burst of fire greeted General Frederick’s "Halt!" The sound of an American M-1 and a carbine could be recognized. But with bullets coming, all hands took cover. Two men were killed. Frederick suffered wounds in leg and hand. They returned the fire. Finally, the general made himself heard. "Cease fire-cease fire!"

Out of the darkness stepped a group of Americans who wore the 88th's blue clover leaf.

"Mighty sorry, sir." Their commander saluted, recognizing the others. “We were told there were no Americans here - figured you were krauts." The Blue Devils won their battle diplomas in that drive, at a cost of 1978 casualties. The push to the Arno was shorter, but even bloodier. In twenty-seven miles, 2399 were killed, captured or wounded by an enemy desperate to set up his Gothic Line defenses.

The walled mountain fortress of Volterra, a citadel that withstood a two-year siege in the first century, B. C., was a bitter objective. So was Laatica [sic], sitting on an all-important hill mass, where the 351st Regiment's 3rd Battalion won the division's first Distinguished Unit Citation in a four-day battle.

Then there was the smash at San Miniato, a thirteenth-century hilltop stronghold, twenty-two miles east of Pisa. Nearing San Miniato, Lt. Resbert Martin, of Detroit, and his forty-five men were surrounded in a house by 200 Germans. They decided to call by radio for artillery help. This was a ticklish business; a shell landing just a few yards off target might blow the building his unit was in clear off the hill.

Back in the command post, General Kendall anxiously listened in.

"I'll bring in the 155's," he suggested over the radio. "The Long Toms'll wipe them out."

''Hell, no, general!'' the answer came back, military etiquette forgotten.

''You use that big stuff and you'll blow this house across the Arno."

Eventually, between the smaller artillery and the fire from the Americans in the house, the Germans were repulsed.

In the fall of 1944, the Blue Devils, along with the 85th and 91st draftee divisions, hurled themselves at the Gothic Line and the awesome Apennines in their bloodiest show - forty days of mountains and Germans, rain and mud.

Of the thirty-six objectives the 88th Division faced in those forty days, only nine were towns. The rest were staggering heights, like 2950-foot Mount Pratelungo, where 349th Regiment soldiers had to claw their way up by bushes and rock overhang, while the krauts above rolled grenades down on them.

The Nazi master of defensive warfare, Smiling Albert Kesselring, threw the works at them. The 88th suffered some 6900 casualties in those forty ferocious days - roughly 105 per cent of an infantry division's front-line combat strength. More than 1200 were killed. But the Blue Devils took 5745 prisoners, and thoroughly mauled three German divisions.

On 2300-foot Mount Battaglia, for seven savage days the 88th's 350th Regiment threw back the pick of the Nazis. Fifty per cent of the regiment was lost there. Every company commander but one was either killed or wounded. Rain washed morale out of the foxholes and mud clogged the weapons.

Bob Roeder, the "soldier's soldier" from Summit Station, Pennsylvania, got his Congressional Medal of Honor on Battaglia. But the award was posthumous. Badly wounded, Bob crawled to an open spot where he didn't have one chance in a hundred. Leaning against a fragment of wall, he was still shooting at the oncoming Nazis when a mortar shell got him.

Once word drifted down that this time the enemy might drive us off. Manny Mendoza, the "Arizona Kid“ from Mesa who twice refused battlefield commissions because he wanted to be just a sergeant, headed for the crest.

Standing against the sky line, Manny fired every weapon he could lay his hands on and broke the attack. They found forty dead in front of Manny's positions.

Another time twenty picked Nazi paratroopers penetrated to the regimental command post. Crouching in the doorway, Sgt. Lee Beddow, of Birmingham, Michigan, killed them all. A mortar burst blinded him.

The 350th Regiment report for September twenty-ninth said: "One unknown hero was seen standing in full view of a charging group of fanatical Germans, firing his Browning Automatic Rifle from the hip. He killed twenty-four."

After weeks of leg work, Jerry Root, a regimental combat correspondent, found out the unknown hero had been Pfc. Felix Mestas, Jr., 180-pound Spanish-American husky from Walsambu [sic], near Denver. The last seen of Mestas, his tin hat had been blown off - and he was still firing.

On the west end of Battaglia ridge, the Blue Devils' 351st Regiment had two rough brawls - at sixteenth-century Castel Del Rio and Mount Capello.

On Capello's steep sides, two battalions were held up for hours. Then Capt. Charles Radosevich, of Centerville, Iowa, armed his fifteen men with six grenades apiece, and they pitched their way to the top.

On every inch of that Apennines advance, the Blue Devils' right flank was wide open as much as 10,000 yards, because the British forces alongside couldn't - or wouldn't-push. The 88th, as a result, took continuous murderous artillery fire from its right, as much as 1600 rounds a day.

Through the unprotected flank, the Germans crept at dusk one day and captured. the 350th Regiment's entire first-battalion command post, with Lt. Col. Walter Bare, Jr., of Muskogee, Oklahoma, and all but one member of his staff. Papers, secret battle orders and passwords were swept up.

At this stage there were virtually no replacements in the theater. It was reported all had been sent to Southern France in August. Companies were down to as low as eight men. On Mount Grande, after suffering seven days in foxholes waist-deep in water, under constant fire, some desperate men climbed out and stood exposed to German shells, hoping they wouldn't be hit too badly, but daring anything to be evacuated.

Some replacements, blissfully ignorant, were in combat eighteen days after arriving from the States. At the little road town of Belvedere, Lt. Ken "Pounds" Gray, of Fayetteville, West Virginia, had to round up 349th Regiment cooks, clerks and radio operators for the final stab at Hill 429. They made it.

The Apennines advance slogged along over Mount Grande, a bulging 1900-foot back breaker some eight miles below Bologna, in spite of heavy losses. But 3000 yards to the northeast the drive shattered at the end of October against the enemy trucking point of Vedriano, perched on a flat-topped hill in the Bologna road net.

If a fresh division, even a fit regiment, had been available, we might have made Bologna. With the desperate condition of the Blue Devils and the rest of the Fifth Army, it was impossible.

All that miserable winter, the Army sat down. From the enemy strongholds atop Monterumici and Mount Adone, United States positions were under constant fire. Worst of all, Italy had become the "forgotten front" back home. The soldiers felt it bitterly. There is no better morale builder for combat troops than reading about their fight in the papers from home. Now there was no mention of them.

By New Year's Day, 1945, the Blue Devils had suffered 11,825 casualties in nine combat months, including 2137 killed. In March, when they marked their first anniversary in action, they had been in combat 280 of a possible 365 days and had destroyed or damaged a dozen enemy divisions.

Spring came early to the Apennines that April, and the Fifth Army, which had nursed its wounds and received injections of fresh blood over the winter, exploded from a six-month hibernation. The rebuilt 88th Division was the heart of the opening attack.

The Blue Devils aimed squarely for Monterumici, from which the entire Army had been taking punishment all winter. It was a rough three-day slugging match. For example, the village of di Sotta lies just 500 yards below Rumici's summit. It took twenty-eight hours to go those 500 yards. Capt. Ray Sprout, of Dallas, took his men through di Sotta the first morning, dropping grenades into caves and holes. There was a fifty-foot well, and from its bottom, tunnels fanned out. The Jerries burrowed in these and the grenades didn't even muss their hair. When the Americans were thirty yards beyond the hamlet, the Nazis popped up ladders and started shooting them in the back.

But the German armies were soon fleeing northward, toward their Austrian redoubt. The entrance to the escape route to the Alps was the Po River crossing at the village of Revere, on the south shore, and Ostiglia, busy road town on the north bank. The enemy didn't make it.

Out of the mountains, the 88th rocketed across the valley, thirty miles in fifty hours, and put the cork in the bottle. There, on the broad, flat Lombardy plains, a German army died. Battered, bewildered, beaten to their back door by the Blue Devils and accompanying tanks and artillery, the surviving Nazis surrendered in droves - 5000 in twenty-four hours alone.

Vehicles by the hundred were left behind, to the joy of the weary infantrymen, who performed mechanical marvels getting the cars in running order to give their feet a rest.

Crossing the Po, the 88th hit at Ostiglia's solid line of guns guarding the north bank. Freckle-faced Lt. Ralph Decker and Lt. Les MacDonald, a stumpy farmer from Maradis, Maine - his men used to say, “Mac'll never leave a wounded man behind" - and sixteen of the 351st Regiment's famed ranger patrol tried the partly-demolished rail bridge. They crept and waded across the half-sunken span, rushed the guns and established the bridgehead.

Maj. Red Ayres and his men raced thirty-five miles in seventeen hours to slice the Po Valley down the middle and seize Verona. Hours afterward, a German plane landed on Verona airport. The German pilot, to say the least, was embarrassed. He thought the Wehrmacht still held the city.

By the end in Italy, the draftee Blue Devils had long since ceased to be unique. Every division was largely manned by replacements who had come in through Selective Service. But the Blue Devils had been the first to prove in a big way that the citizen soldier could fight. And some of their loudest praises, fittingly enough, had been sung by Regular Army men in other units - the same regulars who once refused to believe that a draftee could ever be anything but a sad sack. THE END


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page