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Battle Of The Roads:
Every Soldier Has A Stake In Keeping
Italy's Highways Open
by Sgt. Stan Swinton, Staff Writer
The Sunday Stars and Stripes Magazine,
31 December 1944
WITH THE 5TH ARMY - The Road runs north. Like a twisted ribbon in a rock heap it veers through Futa Pass, winds between the crags at Radicosa, points northward to Loiano and dying Livergnano. Beyond are the Germans and Bologna.
Its name is Highway 65. After four o'clock the fog sifts down at Futa and drivers curse. Jeeps and trucks jounce and slide over an eternal procession of chuck holes and upthrust rocks. The snow falls more often and the mud freezes.
For months Highway 65 has been the greatest supply artery for the 5th Army. It is one of the best roads leading to the front - better than Easy Street or the Firenzuola route, which break off to the east; better than Highway 12, looping crazily northeast from Lucca; the equal of Highway 64, roughly paralleling it to the west; second only to Highway 1, skirting the Tyrrhenian coast.
Today Highway 65, along with the other roads up front, is a battleground. The struggle is old. Operations of modern, motorized armies basically depend upon roads and successful road maintenance. And the bare skeleton of highways available for Allied use in Italy has posed a tremendous and continuing engineering problem.
As the 5th Army thrust north of Florence, unending streams of heavy military vehicles hammered highways planned for pleasure cars and an occasional light truck. Side roads over which only ox carts jogged were pressed into service. Jeep trails were blasted up mountain slopes which challenge mules.
Nature, too, played a role. The 1944 fall rains were tremendously heavy. Waters poured down rocky mountain sides to gully dirt roads. Secondary routes were transformed into axle-deep sloughs. Mud plastered Highway 65 and surfaced axis lines.
The battle of the roads was joined. Tons of rock were blasted from Apennine crags, then crushed and utilized as fill. Ditches were gouged to funnel off the rain. Craters were patched. Massive log revetments were bullied into place.
Bulldozers, road scrapers and lesser weapons in the road maintenance arsenal played their part, but the starring roles went to men and not machines. Through day upon rainy day the engineer shoveled sirupy mod off the roads, hammered home crushed rock, leveled fills and dug drainage furrows. Passing vehicles sloshed mud upon his grimy fatigues and his feet were never dry.
It was a thankless task - but the roads stayed open. Ammunition, food, clothing and replacements, life blood to an Army, got through almost without interruption. Wounded were evacuated. The tenacity and skill of the engineers had triumphed. But the battle is only half won.
Winter has trapped the 5th Army deep in the Apennines and short of the Po Valley. New enemies - snow and ice - now confront the engineer. And upon his ability to conquer them hinges the success of winter operations.
The challenge is a bigger one than that successfully met by the engineers last fall, as a few statistics illustrate. A year ago January, 12 feet of snow blocked Futa Pass. Radicosa rates high among critical Apennine show points. Drifts up to ten feet have been recorded throughout the snow belt. La Cisa pass was mantled with snow for 64 consecutive days. In the acute snow period between December and March an average of 16 inches blankets the ground at higher altitudes. Even ignoring drifts, maximum depths approximate 39 inches. Snow hangs on in direct ratio to the altitude; below 500 feet the problem is secondary.
The engineers' program to meet this dual threat of ice and snow is of personal importance to every truck driver and jeep jockey who must wheel a vehicle up front. It is just as significant to service troops in Rome or Naples, for this winter can succeed in the measure that supplies are brought up over the eroded, overburdened highways.
Fifth Army engineers - experts like Col. William F. Poe, Engineer S-3, and Maj. John Kenyon, assistant Engineer S-3 - began to analyze the winter road hazards in September. Natives were interviewed, old records studied.
From sheafs of data they extracted facts upon which their plans could be based. Slippery roads will present as critical a problem as drifts. Thaws and quick freezes are inevitable. The Italians struggled to keep only two or three key routes clear through the mountains. If the Army is to be sustained, secondary routes ignored in peacetime must be kept in operation along with Highways 65, 64 and 1.
How to meet the problem? Rotary snow plows were mounted on trucks. Blades were salvaged from Italian plows which the Germans stripped in their retreat. Gravel and sand was heaped by roadsides to rescue the truck driver stalled before a slippery slope.
But the most unusual feature was the chain of snow posts. They were strung over the snow belt, which falls in Army territory. From them come up to the minute radio reports which are correlated at the 5th Army base station. Within their doors the stranded GI finds food, rest and assistance.
Visit a typical snow post and see how they work. Sgt. Forrest Fidell of Clementon, N.J., is in charge. Twice during the daylight hours and four times nightly he sends out his road patrol. When it returns with a report on conditions over the post's eight miles of roads, Cpl. George Martin of Belleville, N.J., and Pfc. Itlo Petrucci of Providence, R.I., quickly transmit the data to headquarters.
If your visit comes on a day when patrols discover snow of two-inch depth, you'll see Cpl. Jack Wright of Easton, Pa., and Pfc. Paul H. Reich of Columbus, Ohio, hustle out to a rotary plow, V-plow or road grader. The old fashioned shovel may get a workout, too. If there's need, crushed rock, gravel or sand will be spread over the packed snow or ice.
To the individual driver just about the most important snow post feature is the personal attention it is geared to furnish him. When the road patrol discovers a damaged or stalled vehicle, Pvt. Ralph Babbin of Gloucester, Mass., and Pfc. Joseph A. Butcher of Gainesville, Ohio, bring it in with their 10-ton wrecker.
Once back at the post the driver - and it might be you - receives first aid from Pfc. Thomas Fortuna of Cambridge, Mass., and Pvt. Grady Glasscock of Cambridge, Mass., trained medics.
Hot food, specially prepared by Pfc. Harry Schinstine of Phillipsburg, N.J., follows. Then there's a bunk and blankets for the driver to relax upon until his outfit sends for him. The engineers concentrated on the big picture of snow removal - but they didn't forget the GI who wheels the trucks over the roads they strive to keep open
Farther up front - beyond the Army and Corps territories - engineers attached to combat divisions will bear the brunt of the battle against snows. For them the struggle is more difficult, because equipment is limited.
"We use bulldozers, shovels and whatever else we can muster," reports Capt. Alvin Gosserlin of Lynn, Mass., who works with the 91st Division. "One thing which the average driver will be interested in is the road markers set up by the roadsides. They're from four to six feet high. Snow won't cover them and they'll serve as a guide."
The jeep trails will have to take care of themselves, of course. The highways will be problem enough. For the same reason, if your outfit is bivouacked on a small side road you'll have to keep the road clear on your own hook. But the Axis roads - Highway 65 and the others which keep the 5th Army fighting - are the engineers' task.
"Twelve hours after a storm the engineers will have things under control," predicts Lt. Kenneth H. Mayhew of Canton, N.Y., a 5th Army engineer. "Our job is to keep the highways clear for supply and evacuation. We licked the mud. We'll lick the snow."
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