On this day in 1945, the uncle I never knew was killed in Europe just six weeks before the end of World War II. He was my mother’s oldest brother. She was a student at Thomas Dale High School in Chester, Virginia, when her brother Clarence, the oldest of nine siblings, died. She still remembers her mother’s reaction that fateful day when the official government car drove up the driveway of their Chesterfield County farm many decades ago, and how her mother’s knees buckled as she realized the presence of that car meant her son had been killed. Mom says her mother, who lived into her 80s, never completely got over the loss.
After retiring, Mom spent hours researching to fill the void of not knowing exactly what happened to her brother and eventually found Clarence’s sergeant, Dock Roberts, living in Texas. Another soldier buddy, Emelio Albert, lived in California. She traveled to both places to talk with them to learn about her brother’s journey as a U.S. Army soldier through war-torn Europe and his final hours, and she documented the treasured research for our family history.
The Italian Campaign was one of the most difficult of World War II, and some of the most difficult battles for foot soldiers were in Italy which was very mountainous with heavy snows in the winter of 1943 and heavy cold rains in the late winter and spring of 1944. The earth turned into a quagmire and foxholes were filled with water. Mud was so deep it was nearly impassable for vehicles as well as men on foot. In the summer of 1944, the ground turned to dust which swirled at the least disturbance. The unit veterans’ most vivid memories of the Italian fighting was the weather and terrain.
Clarence spent 15 months as a First Gunner in a Mortar Squad, part of the American forces who freed the little town of San Pietro in southern Italy from the Germans. From there they battled their way to the Riviera in southern France and on to the northern border of France, plus one day on Germany. He was killed in the last great battle the 36th Division of the 1st Battalion, Company D, 143rd Infantry Regiment of the Texas National Guard.
Clarence’s first battle was December 15, 1943. Starting December 8th, the 36th Division had been trying to take 4,000-foot Mt. Summacro (Hill 1205) so they could liberate the little town of San Pietro at the base of the mountain. Dock Roberts, Clarence’s sergeant, and Roy Goad, Commanding Officer of the 143rd Regiment, were wounded on Hill 1205. San Pietro was at the entrance to the Liri Valley and was heavily fortified by the Germans. It had to be taken by the Allies before they could enter the Liri Valley in the drive to liberate Rome.
The men of the 36th Division had come into Italy after fighting in the deserts of North Africa and were still wearing their summer uniforms. They were not prepared for the bitterest winter Italy had experienced in years. Most had no overcoats, raincoats, or even gloves.
Much of the fighting for Hill 1205 was by climbing, literally hand over hand, straight up the side of the mountain which was very rugged with sharp, jagged rocks. Germans were entrenched on the top, protected by large boulders along the edge of the top of the mountain. When the first Allied soldiers reached the top and surprised them, the Germans started rolling large boulders off the mountain.
The 1st Battalion of the 143rd Infantry Regiment moved on from Hill 1205 to the battle to liberate San Pietro at the bottom. Clarence was a replacement for the 36th Division and entered the fighting on December 15th. The next day they finally succeeded in capturing San Pietro but a high price was paid with 1,100 casualties.
San Pietro was the beginning of the siege — the first line of defense for Casino, which they liberated in 1944. Christmas of 1943 was spent at San Pietro. There is a picture of Clarence in the pictorial history book of the 36th Division, “The Fighting 36th,” taken on Christmas Day that shows him and a number of others sitting and standing around their dead comrades. Also, he had sent us a small snapshot of him in front of his tent, also taken Christmas Day. In the photo, he was sitting in a rumpled uniform and looked very tired.
Disastrous Rapido River crossing
Dock said the two-day attempt to cross the Rapido River on January 20 and 21, 1944, was a total disaster and many men died unnecessarily. In their attempt to clear the way to capture Monte Cassino they were to cross the river which was swift and deep, and take the town of San Angelo. The first night was unsuccessful so they were sent back the second night. The riflemen went across first, followed by a heavy mortar platoon. Dock and Clarence were in the mortar platoon from the 1st Battalion of the 143rd and crossed together on a footbridge. Many of the men drowned and many who were not swept away by the swift water were shot by the Germans on the hill above them. Most of the men who got across were killed by vicious German mortar and artillery fire. A few survivors, including Dock and Clarence, swam the icy waters back to the other side.
Clarence was in combat a total of 15 months, starting with the battle of San Pietro, and ending with his death near Bergzabern, Germany. It had been continuous, heavy fighting including such well-known battles as Monte Cassino, the Rapido River crossing, and San Angelo and more, all the way up the valley to Rome which was liberated from the Germans on June 5, 1944, the day before the D-Day invasion at Normandy.
After Rome, the 36th had a retrieval and training period near Naples where they prepared for the invasion of the French Riviera in southern France. That invasion was known as the 2nd D-Day invasion and was code-named “DRAGOON.” A fleet of more than 1,500 ships, including nine aircraft carriers, left Naples on August 13, 1944, passed through the Sardinia-Corsica Straits, and landed on the beaches of the French Riviera between Toulon and Cannes on August 15, 1944.
Clarence landed on “Green Beach.” They headed north through France toward Germany, driving the Germans north toward their homeland and liberating one French town after another. Dock talked about going through the town of Nancy which, I believe, was a little resort town. As “foot soldiers,” they traveled on foot, sometimes 100 miles a day, according to Dock, all the way up the Rhone River Valley to the Colmar Pocket in the Alsace region of northeastern France near the border into Germany.
Christmas at Strasbourg
Christmas 1945 was spent in the town of Strasbourg which has both French and German influence. That is where the tradition of a Christmas tree began, and it has one of the world’s finest cathedrals. It provided a far nicer Christmas for the 36th than the one in San Pietro the year before. Dock said they received heavier resistance as they approached the German border.
Battle for Bergzabern
Clarence and his unit spent the night before he was killed in the town of Wissembourg, France, about two miles from the German border. Their unit left on foot around 9:30 a.m. the next day — March 21, 1945 — and crossed into Germany around 10:00 a.m. Their mission was to take the village of Bergzabern, Germany. It was slow going and they did not reach the Siegfried Line, which had been opened up by the Armored Division ahead of them, until that night. They were in the main fortification of the Siegfried Line when Clarence was killed. Another member of their squad, Harry Yale, from Long Branch, NJ, was killed at the same time as Clarence.
Dock said there were little roads going off in all directions and their battalion took a wrong road and they were lost — behind the German main line! They heard the Germans talking on the mountain above them and they knew the Germans had heard them thrashing around in the woods below in that mountainous terrain. The Germans began firing their rockets and mortars, and during the battle Clarence and Yale were hit by shrapnel from a “screaming meemie,” the mortar most hated by the American soldiers because it had an eerie moaning sound similar to a woman crying, and there was no way of knowing where it was coming from or where it would land.
Under attack, the men scattered and the mortar gun could not be found. Emilio ran from soldier to soldier in the unit asking of anyone had seen Clarence and Yale, but no one knew where they were, and the unit couldn’t stop because they were actively under attack. Soldiers ran through the woods to escape the rain of fire, and one of the soldiers heard moaning as he passed through one area but it was unknown if it was Clarence or Yale, or someone else. Even if either or both had survived their wounds, they would have succumbed in the overnight freezing temperatures because it was the next day before Dock could go back and look for the missing. Official military records listed Clarence’s death as March 22 but Dock said it was that battle on March 21 when Clarence died.
The search for Clarence
The 36th took Bergzabern from the Germans the next day, March 22. After the fighting stopped, Dock and another sergeant went back to try and find their casualties. Both Clarence and Yale were dead, lying side by side, apparently hit at the same time with shrapnel from the same “meemie.” Dock went back the next day, March 23, with the litter bearers to pick them up, which may be the reason military records showed Clarence’s death on the 22nd, probably assuming the soldiers were killed during the battle for Bergzabern.
Dock said that Clarence never wore his dog tags but instead carried them in his pocket so he told the litter bearers to be sure they found Clarence’s dog tags. Sure enough, when they rolled his body over, the dog tags had fallen out of his pocket and down into the snow. Thank God that Dock went with the litter bearers because Clarence would probably have been listed as an unknown and we would never have known what happened to him.
Thankfully for the Americans, that was the last major battle because they overtook Bergzabern which sent the Germans on the run, retreating back to their homeland. Sadly, Clarence and Yale died just six weeks later the Germans surrendered and the European War ended.
Clarence Franklin Osborne was 27 years old. He was buried in the U.S. Military Cemetery in St. Avold, France. His body was later returned to the United States, arriving on December 17, 1948 — what would have been his 10th wedding anniversary. He was re-interred two days later in our family plot in Chester. His name is carved into the granite walls of the Virginia War Memorial that overlooks downtown Richmond and the James River. Today we remember his sacrifice along with that of other fallen heroes, yet another reminder that freedom is not free.
March 21, 1945. A day my grandmother never forgot.