Veterans Memories: William M. Sumner

Company I, 351st Infantry Regiment


They recalled all 4F classes and I was inducted into the U.S. Army in January 1944. I was 20 years old when I joined the service. I came from Lewiston, Idaho.


I was drafted. I joined the 88th Division in August of 1944. I was not an original member of Camp Gruber. I was a replacement in the 351st Regiment, 3rd Battalion, Company I. I was an assistant BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle) man. I was on the frontline.


From Idaho I went to Spokane, Washington, then to Fort Douglas, Utah. It was a replacement depot. I received infantry training at Camp Swift, Texas. I was assigned to a special Military Police Battalion charged with the front gate security of 4th Army Headquarters. Every morning my duty was to open the car doors for all the high-ranking officers, Colonels and Generals.


The General requested the special form-fitting uniforms for this duty to be with white leggings and all suntan color. They were all cut to size or tapered and tight. We cut our legging down to half way. We bleached our canvas leggings to white and hooked them to the bottom of our shoe and laced them up the side. We also bleached our belts white. When I got transferred to Camp Breckenridge, Kentucky they tore into us because we had bleached our clothes. So they had to reissue all new clothes. Fort Sam Houston is in the city of San Antonio, Texas. This was my first exposure to the South and many things were strange to me. While I was there I got a tattoo on my left arm.


The war was being stepped up and more Infantryman were needed so I was one of a group picked to go to Camp Breckinridge, Kentucky for advanced infantry training with the 75th Division. Then to Fort Mead, Maryland where I got on a ship in New York and went to Liverpool, England. I traveled on a luxury liner. It was the USS Mauritania. It took us eight days to go from New York to Liverpool. The Mauritania was tied up right alongside the Queen Mary. We left New York and when we got to Liverpool the Queen Mary was already there. The Queen Mary took only five days to get across. She held 10,000 troops. We had to zig zag every seven minutes to go across the ocean because it takes a little more than seven minutes for a submarine to zero in on the ship with a torpedo. So we went over unescorted. We sited quite a few submarines, but we were never fired at. We would change course every seven minutes with 8,000 troops aboard. We slept in the halls, stairways in the kitchen wherever there was a place to sleep. There were more bodies than beds. The water was not rough going over.


A fortunate thing happened to me when we got to Liverpool, England there were 8,000 troops aboard and about a fourth of them were officers. I was put on a detail to unload the officer's baggage and it took about 10 days to offload. This was a special detail because the other people that left our group went from England across the English Channel and they joined the 83rd Division in France (the 83rd received a lot of casualties). They got the hell shot out of them. I was held back and I did not have to go. We were stationed at an English Army camp, while we were on this detail, in Manchester, England. I spent some time there in Manchester; then a group of us were sent to Southampton, England to board Liberty ships to cross the English Channel. We stayed in port for two days to wait for stormy seas to calm down. When we crossed over I was in a group that landed on the now famous Omaha Beach and went to an airport in Cherbourg, France.


We landed in LCI's (Landing Craft Infantry barges) from over the side of the ship onto the barges by rope ladders. When we hit the shore; it was very muddy from recent rains, and we were drawing quite a lot of sniper fire from some of the houses. We lived in the hedgerows for three weeks, and at night we would steal rations from the supply depot on the beach. We played poker in our pup tents for English, French, and American money and when that ran out we used cigarettes. We landed on Omaha Beach and went to an airport in Cherbourg, France. We then boarded C-47 airplanes and we all wore parachutes just in case we were hit. We landed someplace south of Leghorn, Italy or Livorno and proceeded to go to the frontline.


Most of us were assigned to the 88th Division (Blue Devils). "Axis Sally" named the 88th Division the "Blue Devils" because we were noted for not taking any prisoners just shooting them. She mentioned the 88th quite frequently on her radio programs.


During the winter of 1944/1945, my unit, Company "I", 3rd Battalion, 351st Infantry Regiment, 88th Division, was spent on the front lines without advancing, which made it easy for us and the enemy (Germans) to get to know each other's positions. We went on reconnaissance patrols and combat patrols dressed in white to blend in with the snow. Those patrols were scary because we went behind the enemy lines.


Then we crossed the river and we went into Florence, Italy. We went to a place called Pistoia. That is where I spent most of the winter in the North Apennine Mountains. That was the mountain that overlooked Bologna in the Po Valley. We stayed there for five months and went on patrol, shot at each other in the mountains. We were on Highway 1 and it snowed for three months. We were all in the same spots all the time so the Jerry's knew where we were and we knew where they were. In Italian it was a Tedeschi or a German soldier. We would go on patrol with all of our clothing in white so that the German's would not see us in the snow. We made our clothing out of bed sheets. We wrapped our rifles and helmets in white. Everything white.


We would go on patrol with six to eight men or go on a platoon patrol that consisted of 36 soldiers with a platoon sergeant and a platoon leader. We patrolled almost every night. We would cross into enemy lines and go take a house and kick the German's out. We would take the house and claim it as ours until the German's would take it back. I was never injured in active duty.


We would go back to the rear for a rest and this was called "Tent City". This is where the quadrangle tents were that were four sided. The quadrangle tents were in the rear for rests. The tents were usually in a spot were they could not be seen yet the German 88 caliber artillery could get into them. The 88 caliber is a gun that is 88-caliber size. Its mussel velocity was the same as our M1 Rifle. So they used them as a rifle to shoot people. One landed in the middle of the tent and split it wide open.


Every time we would get into chow line they would start shelling. There was an Italian sitting up on the hill that had radio contact with the Germans. He would tell the Germans that we were all lined up to go to dinner and the shelling began. So we figured out where he was and we sent out a TD or tank destroyer unit with a 90 milliliters gun. They blew him all to hell. We had no more problems after that.


We got shelled almost everyday and we all had dug holes in our tents and just lay on the ground. The 88-rnillimeter were a very scary artillery. They shot at us at Omaha Beach and one guy had it hit right between his feet, but it was a dud and did not go off If you heard the noise from a German's 88-millimeter artillery shell you were okay, but if you never heard the noise, it had hit you. They were very scary. We were pinned down a lot of times. When they came in they screamed, you could hear them coming. If you heard them come all the way, then you were okay. I was with various guys in the foxholes.


One time there was about 10 guys and we stayed in a basement under a house that we took over. We were sitting up in the North Apennine Mountains and we had one person on guard on the entrance to the basement on this night I was in the bunker in the basement laying with my face up against the wall of dirt. A 240-millimeter artillery came in and you could hear it going wuwuwuwu. It landed right in front of our house. It was a concussion type of bomb. I thought that we were buried alive because all the dirt got in my face and I was covered all over. It basically caved in. But we were all okay and laughed about it later. It was funny. We laughed a lot. We went out and looked and there was no snow. They had blown it all away.


We had another house in a different position that we relieved people up on the front line. I was in the forward position in the foxhole and the guy that was with me every night used to fall asleep on me. We had to have someone watching because the Germans would send out a patrol and one time the German patrol infiltrated our area and couple of them came through. So, we were very cautious of them having counter attacks against us. But every time I was supposed to be on guard or go to sleep and get my two hours of sleep all of a sudden, I would hear him snoring and he would be sleeping with me. So, I had to stay awake all the time.


We would go on patrol in the snow that was over a foot deep. Each person had to walk in the same steps as everybody else did. But once in a while you would not make it through that same hole in the snow. The top of the snow that had frozen would break up and make the ice crystals slide down the hill making noise. The Germans would here the ice crystal noise and start shooting. We would just stand still and not move because we were all in white, so we blended right into the snow.


We were on a platoon patrol and we were going to take a house and when we waded across the river we ran into a bunch of Bouncing Betty's. The Betty's were across the river on the shore. It is a mine that has strings for the triggers and you trip the strings with your foot or when you lay on them. They go up about four feet in the air and they blow up. Right at your face level. There was a whole bunch of them. I was very lucky. My buddy in front of me got hit with a Bouncing Betty. He was in front of me and I was crawling on the bank when he got hit. There were several others that were killed. We carried all of our killed and wounded out and back to Headquarters.


I worked with BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle) Man. His name was Joseph Cacias. He was an Aztec Indian from San Antonio, Texas. I was his sixth assistant. I asked him why he lost so many BAR assistants. He answered that they didn't listen to what I told them to do so they were killed. So, I listened to him and I did everything he told me to do. I stayed with him wherever he went. I was with him for eight months. When the war was over he went home. He was extremely hardened. He had no sympathy for the Germans. I know of incidences that he had done that I do not want to talk about. I believe that this man kept me alive during the time I spent with him and I too did the same for him.


Even though we were in constant danger, we had a lot of laughs while up on the front lines. One night was very quiet (which means something may be about to happen); I heard the familiar pop of a grenade, so I jump down in my bunker just as it hit the top and went off I grabbed the telephone to tell the CP (Command Post) that the Germans were firing grenades at us and at the other end of the line was this guy laughing, he was really laughing and having a lot of fun. It was my old buddy, Gazda from Pennsylvania. He said he thought he saw a rat on the top of my bunker so he threw the hand grenade over there to kill it. He was always doing crazy things, and we had a lot of fun together.


I was on the frontline until the war ended in May 1945. The first time we went on the front line we (before crossing the Amo River) saw this airplane flying around and I turned to someone and said, "What are they doing? Practicing?" "No he was called, Bed Check Charlie." It was a little Taylor Cub or Veronica Airplane. It came over shooting/bombing us every night just before dusk. Everyone would try to get him, but they couldn't. It sounded like a Maytag engine. When he went over we knew whom it was.


We stayed "on the line" usually about three weeks, then, we would go back to a rest area. On numerous occasions, we rested in Montecatini, Italy. This town is a mineral springs area with lots of hotels and was our favorite place to go.


When the war was over I was with four other guys chasing the German's in the Po Valley and stopped and left our helmets and rifles in a house and we went looking for eggs. We found our eggs and we started talking with some Italians and when we came back our unit was gone. So we were stuck. So we started to walk down the road with no helmets or rifles. We heard from some Italians that the war was over. We ran into a pile of Germans and they were marching in a column and they just marched right on by and let us go. We continued to walk down the highway and pretty soon here comes our weapon carrier. It was our Platoon Sergeant and they picked us up and took us to camp.


In the spring, when the snow melted, we moved across the Po Valley, and we had the Germans on the run most of the time. The Italians greeted us with open arms everywhere we went. They gave us lots of pane & vino (bread & wine). When the war ended in the European Theater my unit was in a small town in the Italian Alps. We would go out collecting artillery pieces left over from the Germans. Nearly the entire town was from Pennsylvania. They had gone to Italy to visit shortly before the war started, and the authorities would not allow anyone to return to the U.S. We really enjoyed that town because most of them spoke English. After that we went to Lake Garda in Northern Italy and lived in a Villa on the lake for a couple of weeks because the CO's (Commanding Officers) thought we needed a rest. All we did was swim and live like a king during that time.


After the war we then went to a place called Ghedi Airport where we had 70,000 German vehicles and over 100,000 German prisoners. It was a large airport. I guarded the vehicles, although there was not much to do. The Germans did not bother us. The Germans were talking to us at this time. They wanted to take on Russia and they wanted us to go with them. They were after the Communists. The Germans were fascist.


We went in there for about two weeks and worked with the Japanese 442nd Regimental Combat Team. They broke us in on what we had to do for the guard duty. The 442nd Regimental Combat Team the beginning of the 100th Battalion of the US Army as the most decorated unit in the history of the United States. The 100th Battalion was a small unit and they formed the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. They were with us in Italy until they had to go to France. The Germans had pinned down all of the people in the Black Forest and a Japanese group was sent in to take them out. And they did. Then the 442nd came back to Italy.


We worked side by side with the famous 442nd Regimental Combat Team (all Japanese) until we learned the duties, and they went home to the U.S. Colonel Miller was in charge of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. He was a really nice guy. All of the Japanese troops knew that when the Colonel told them to move out he would not give them any direction, but he would see them there. He would not tell them how to get there, just get there. When the Japanese left us in charge of the Ghedi Airport they went by motorcycle, horse, any old way they could figure out how to get there. He was a very good Regimental Commander, but very lax in that manner.


We convoyed vehicles and German prisoners through Brenner Pass into Austria until they were all gone. After all the prisoners and vehicles were disposed of, we were all reassigned to different units. I was sent to Montecatini, Italy and assigned to the 402nd Engineer Battalion. I operated the Battalion shower unit on a small creek about a quarter of a mile from the main Headquarters. I lived in a small tent all by myself and had an army cot for a bed. At night the Italian kids (Palao and another kid) and their parents would come and visit with me and teach me how to speak Italian.


The shower unit was a series of duckboards for a floor with a large tent over the boards. We used the water from the creek and ran it through a heater that was butane to heat the water in the boiler, and it was pumped into the showerheads in the tent. The Italians that lived there used to tell me when the rains came, I might get flooded out. I just laughed at him because I thought it was kind of funny. My tent and cot was right alongside the creek. It was a small creek that I had got my water from. I did not believe them until one morning about 3:00 a.m. I was surrounded by water. I woke up and the bottom of my bed was wet. I got out of bed and I was in knee-deep water. The whole area was now a small lake. The tent was gone all of my duck boards that belonged to the shower unit were gone. The only thing left was my hot water tank and motor to drive the showers. I guess you know that I was out of the shower business and I transferred to Rome.


The Battalion was being prepared to go to the Pacific Theater to fight the Japanese, but the war ended when they dropped the Atom Bombs. Shortly after that the entire Battalion transferred to Rome, Italy; they set me up running a large shower unit there. We were stationed at an Italian Army base that had been used by Mussolini as his Officer Candidate School (something like West Point). We lived there a couple of months. I was friendly with a Staff Sergeant, and we ran around together. He drove a Weapons Carrier. We drove that thing everywhere. At that time, I got myself a little dog, a terrier. This dog hated Italians. No kidding it did. Every time we saw an Italian walking down the street, I would have to hold his front legs from keeping him from going after them. He was my buddy for a while. He went everywhere with me.


Now that the war was over, the 402nd Engineer Battalion was deactivated. I didn't have many points at this time. I was sent back to the 88 Division and that is when I joined the 339th Field Artillery. I was a TS, Corporal Technician running the shower unit. I was reassigned to Battery C, 339th Field Artillery Battalion, 88th Division, and they sent me to Gorizia, Italy (one block from the Yugoslavian border to keep peace there).


While in the Artillery, I was sent to Venice, Italy to NCO (Non Commission Officer's) school for three months. We lived in hotel on Lido Isle across the bay from Venice, but we got to go to Venice every other night; and other nights were for study. By this time, I had mastered the Italian language pretty well, which made things more fun and interesting. When I returned to Gorizia, I was promoted to Sergeant and became the Battalion interpreter. I had spent 18 months in Italy.


After I was assigned to the 339th Field Artillery, I had too many points and I was ready to go home. I reenlisted in the Army for three more years. I had decided to make it a career. The war is over and it was 1946. Because I had too many points they took me out of the Artillery unit and put me in charge of the Battalion (alcoholic) Bar. I was the bartender and handled all of the cash. One morning we had to go get some coke and we had a lot of empty coke bottles loaded on a 2-½ ton truck. We had to go to a town called Udine to pick up the coke. So we were driving along, we had left at 3 :00 a.m. and I fell asleep and while I was asleep the driver fell asleep too. We ran off the highway and hit some trees. We were bouncing off the trees and all the coke bottles were scattered across the countryside. The only injury I got was a scar on my forehead. We called for another truck to come and went about our business. The Italians came and picked up the coke bottles and kept them. When we went back to camp, Colonel Hubbard, a West Pointer, he was pretty rough, called me in and told me I was a Non Commissioned Officer in charge of the vehicle and that he was going to break me to a Private. I was a Sergeant then. He lectured me from Pearl Harbor till I had the accident. He broke me to a Private. So, I was a little upset about this.


There was a section in the Court Marshall Code in which an enlisted man was disciplined for no reason. So I went to a one star General and talked to him. He was in charge of Division of Artillery and he out ranked the guy. We were in the 339th Field Artillery Battalion and he was my boss. He was a real nice guy and not a West Pointer. He didn't particularly like West Pointers. So, therefore, he got me promoted back to Sergeant.


I was called to go back to Headquarters from the bar and I was walking in the wintertime, it was really cold. I think it was in February. I was putting my gloves on while walking through the quadrangle and out of the comer of my eye I saw the Colonel walking perpendicular to me. I decided not to say anything to him and to pretend I did not see him. I was pissed off at this point. A Lieutenant came up to me while I was walking and said the Colonel wants to see you. I turned around and the Colonel was running towards me and I saluted him. He said, "You did not return my salute when you were corning across the quadrangle"! I tried to make excuses that I had a cigarette in my mouth, my gloves I was putting them on, but he did not take that as an excuse at all. He lectured me again out in the middle of the quadrangle and he had told me that he had just promoted me back to Sergeant. I just shrugged my shoulders and that he was very disappointed with me. So when that was over I went in and got my promotion.


Udine was in the Venezia-Julia area near Gorizia. Gorizia was where I was stationed after the war. I went from there to Venice to go to NCO School. I went to school we were sort of like OCS (Officers Candidate School). We had a real nasty Lieutenant. His name was Lieutenant Ryan. We called him "Radar Ryan". He was pretty rough. We trained under him. When we came back six weeks later to the unit, I got a diploma of the Lido Study Center 88th Infantry Division. There are a couple of the people on the 88th list that were members of the Lido Study Center. So, when I came back to Gorizia and joined the unit I was with the 339th Field Artillery Battery C. Captain Zeller then promoted me to Sergeant as soon as we came back in that night.


I got Hepatitis and yellow jaundice after the war. The war was over, and I was ready to go home. From Venice I went to Naples and got on a Liberty ship with a lot of people. It took one week to get home. The seas were very rough. One day when we were sailing by the Rock of Gibraltar some guy jumped overboard. I guess he was shell-shocked. The ship went back to find him but never found him. The ocean was just like a piece of glass. It was so smooth, but they never found him. When we came into New York we hit a real bad storm just before coming into New York. It was really rough and that was a scary time. One ship that was with our group broke in half. It was filled with soldiers coming home. It spilt in half at the Ambrose Light Station. It lost many lives.


I was going to make the service my career, but I became a policeman. So I stayed in a total of nine years in the service. I was a Staff Sergeant when I left. I earned a combat infantry badge for being on the line combat at least three weeks. You earned $10.00 a month for the duration of service. I earned a marksman rifle badge, bronze star for combat, army presidential citation for 351st Regiment in Combat duty in Italy, 88th Division Patch a Cloverleaf, Cross S's. Combat Infantry badge, Good Conduct Bar, European Campaign Ribbon and Victory Metal and the Crest for the 339th Field Artillery. My memories are good. I had a lot of close calls. The chow line and the front lines were very scary. I will never forget any of it. I had a lot of fun. I enjoyed the country. I learned a lot. I would not trade that time for anything. It was a good experience. I am proud to be an 88th Division man.

From veteran interviews conducted by Lana D., 88th Infantry Division Association, California Chapter meeting, 2002.