Bill Tannatt of Englewood, Fla. and Milton Dorr of Worcester, Mass., started out as members of the Yankee Division, the Massachusetts National Guard’s 26th Infantry Division, and ended up in the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division of the 5th Army during World War II.
They trained to be soldiers together. They hit the beach at Anzio together. Fought the Germans for the Italian boot together. Slogged their way across France in the cold and snow together. Crossed the Rhine into Germany together. And finally, marched into Austria together as the war in Europe came to a close.
They both received the Bronze Star for heroism and the French La Croix de Guerre. Both were slightly injured by shrapnel from German 88 artillery shells.
And both promised to stay in touch after the “Good War” ended. They didn’t.
Tannatt thought his buddy died a couple of years after the war. Dorr got his friend’s address wrong and never made contact with him after the shooting was over. They had one last beer together, said their goodbyes, and that was it.
Then a few weeks ago Tannatt, who has immersed himself in computers at 81, decided to play around with a software program designed to help a user find someone’s telephone number. It worked.
Fifty-five years after the war, he called a number he found listed in a Cape Cod phone directory for Milton Dorr.
“I tried to called him for a month almost every day. Finally, I call one day, and got his son-in-law. He told me Milt’s home phone number.”
“It was unbelievable,” Tannatt said. After talking at length on the phone and exchanging e-mails, Tannatt learned Dorr has a sister who lives north of Tampa. He’s going to see her in March. The two will get together for the first time in more than half a century when Dorr comes to Florida early next year.
Tannatt has a daughter who lives in Cape Cod, and Dorr has a summer home on the cape. Tannatt plans to go north next summer to spend some time with his daughter. The two old soldiers will meet again up there.
Tannatt recently sat in his East Englewood living room looking through a scrapbook from long ago. The world of a brash, 20-year-old soldier came flooding back into his face as he eyed the yellowing pictures before him.
“That was the Anzio Express,” he said as he pointed to a black and white photo of a monster German cannon mounted on a railroad car.
“The shells were so big and slow you could hear them coming. They sounded like a freight train.”
The Germans were trying to hit the Allied fleet with this artillery. They would roll the cannon out of its mountain tunnel hideaway once a day and fire it from Rome at the ships 25 miles away. Tannatt couldn’t recall if they ever hit anything.
It was Anzio, one of the worst battles of WWII for American forces, that introduced the two young soldiers to war. The American 5th Army, 6th Corps and the British 1st Infantry Division — 40,000 strong — under the command of Gen. Mark Clark came ashore along the Tyrrhenian Sea coast in Italy. It was early 1944. The Allied campaign was aimed at liberating the country.
Waiting for them in the hills overlooking the beach at Anzio was the Hermann Goring Division, one of Adolf Hitler’s elite infantry units with supporting artillery. The Allied troops were quickly pinned down by superior German forces, who mauled them from Jan. 22 until late May when they finally broke the enemy’s stranglehold and marched victoriously north toward the “Eternal City.”
By then, Allied troops at Anzio had taken 28,000 casualties. In this battle alone, 22 American soldiers received the Medal of Honor for heroism, the most of any single battle during WWII.
Tannatt and Dorr had become old soldiers in four months. More than half a lifetime later, Tannatt remembers, “Anzio was the worst of it. I came across the beach a green rookie. A few months later, I was one of the senior men.”
They were telephone linemen. Their job was to keep communications between battalion headquarters and front-line company command posts operating.
“We couldn’t move during the day because the German observation was just so good,” Tannatt recalled. “We’d go out at night and repair the lines destroyed during the day by artillery shelling and other things.
“We’d crawl along with the line in our hands until we came to a broken end. We’d try and find the other end, check out both lines with our field phones to make sure they were working, then we’d re-spliced the break,” Tannatt said. “One night we mistakenly picked up a German line and connected it to ours. For a few moments we were in communications with the German switchboard until we realized what we had done.”
It was dangerous work. They were shot at a lot. The two communications repairmen also had to watch out for German patrols.
“They decided to set up an outpost for us during the day, half-way between battalion headquarters and the front-line companies,” Dorr said. “We were located in a small farm house that had a big brick oven out back.
“Just as soon as the Germans found out we were there, they started honing in on us with their 88s. Their artillery shells got closer and closer. We finally realized they were shooting at us.
“The oven behind the house had 3-foot-thick brick walls,” Dorr remembered. “Bill and I decided to hide in there. We lay side by side in the fire box. We no sooner got in the oven when we heard the screech of an 88 shell coming in faster than hell. The farmhouse exploded. There was nothing left of the place.”
Their only injury that night was a minor shrapnel wound from a spent hunk of 88 that punctured Dorr’s lip. Tannatt would get his a few weeks later at the conclusion of the battle.
“I felt something hit my arm. I swore my arm was gone,” he said. “Evidently, a piece of shrapnel from an 88 hit me in the arm. It didn’t even break the skin and draw blood, so I couldn’t get a Purple Heart.”
Their months under fire from the Germans who held the high ground made an impression on both of them.
“Anzio was something we couldn’t get away from,” Dorr said. “Even when you weren’t on the front lines, you had to dig a foxhole for protection because of the ‘Anzio Express.’”
While looking at his scrapbook, Tannatt spotted a picture of his buddy.
“I’ll tell you what kind of guy Milt is,” he said, his voice catching. “They decided he should be awarded the Silver Star for bravery while at Anzio, or we could both get Bronze Stars. They couldn’t give two Silver Stars to both of us for the same action. Milt saw to it we got Bronze Stars.”
When they finally broke the Germans’ ring of steel on the Anzio beachhead, the Allied troops turned north and marched up the ancient Roman road. This was the same highway Caesar’s legions used on their conquest of the known world almost 2,000 years before.
On June 6, 1944, they took Rome.
“Nobody remembers that battle because it was the same day as the Normandy Invasion,” Tannatt said. “That’s what everyone remembers about June 6, 1944.
“We were the first army to ever take Rome from the south. Rome has always been taken from the north,” he explained.
After garrisoning Rome for a while, the 5th Army was detailed south to Naples. It went into training there for an amphibious landing. Tannatt and Dorr were put aboard landing crafts and sailed for the French Riviera and the South of France in mid-August 1944.
“We pretty much walked ashore the first day,” Tannatt said, “but the next day we started slugging it out with the Germans.”
That wasn’t quite the way Dorr recalls the beach assault in southern France.
“During the landing at Sainte Croix, Bill’s landing craft hit a German mine going in,” Dorr said. “He did some bobbing around in the water until he was rescued. I don’t know how he survived it, because he was carrying a switchboard.”
“The boat went to the bottom. I was lucky — the water wasn’t that deep,” Tannatt said.
When they reached the Vosges Mountains at Sainte Die, France, in late September 1944, Allied troops fought a deadly battle in the woods with a German S.S. unit. They were some of Hitler’s best soldiers.
“These guys thought they couldn’t die unless they were shot with a silver bullet,” Dorr said. “There was rain and snow. It was cold and miserable and we were catching it in the forest from enemy artillery. An American unit got cut off and was about to be annihilated by the S.S. If it hadn’t been for a Japanese-American battalion that came to their rescue, they would have been devastated.”
This Japanese battalion received more commendations for valor than any outfit in the American Armed Forces during WWII. Even so, the unit was forced to fight in Europe because officials in Washington didn’t trust them to fight in the Pacific Theater.
From France, the two linemen detoured back into northern Italy. From there, they headed toward Germany, crossing the Rhine a couple of weeks after the main assault on the “Fatherland.” The enemy was fighting a rear guard action that proved costly to Allied forces.
“Some of the fighting was rough,” Tannatt said. “It depended on the terrain. They’d fall back to the next position they could defend and beat the hell out of us guys coming in.
“We had just crossed the Rhine River, and I saw these planes coming toward us. We took cover,” he said. “As they flew our way, they dropped their bombs. They hit two miles away from (American) Rhine bridges they were trying to knock out. Our anti-aircraft guns were shooting at the planes over here, and they were over there.
“They were the first enemy jet fighters any of us had ever seen. They flew over so fast that Allied artillery couldn’t track them, and the German bomb sites were apparently so crude they didn’t work properly on the jets,” he said.
As they fought their way through Germany, it was obvious the Third Reich was crumbling.
“We were traveling down the Autobahn one day and we came to a rest stop,” Tannatt said. “When we got out of our trucks, as far as we could see were German planes. There were hundreds of them parked under cover in the trees. Hitler had turned the Autobahn into a runway because we had flattened his airports. They were all just parked there out of gas.”
On the two linemen went to Strasbourg, France, by November 1944, the “Colmar Pocket” in January of ’45, the “Siegfried Line” by March and then on to Nuremberg in mid-April.
“I stood at the podium where Hitler had stood at the stadium in Nuremberg,” Tannatt said. “At Kassel, Germany, we were housed in a plant that had made German V-2 rockets.”
Dorr ended up fighting “wolf packs” in the mountains around Salzburg, Austria, when the war in Europe came to a close.
“These were diehard Nazis who wouldn’t quit,” Dorr said. “Germany had already surrendered. We had a hell of a time with the ‘wolf packs.’ We had to get some of the surrendered German soldiers to talk to them before they put their arms down.”
About that time, Tannatt lucked out and got a week’s pass to visit the Riviera.
“It was great,” he said.
A few weeks later, he came home in style aboard the luxury liner Queen Elizabeth. When they docked in New York Harbor, the Teamsters Union was on strike. They spent an extra day aboard ship waiting for their bags to be unloaded. He hasn’t though much of the Teamsters ever since.
The old soldier recalls a couple more things from long ago.
“I’ll always remember Roosevelt saying, during one of his Fireside Chats, ‘Our boys will never shed blood on foreign soil.’
“He was wrong. But World War II was a necessary evil.”
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Saturday, Nov. 11, 2000 and is republished with permission.
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Old soldiers meet after 55 years – Bill Tennatt, Milton Dorr started in Anzio
North Port Sun (FL) – Tuesday, March 27, 2001
Bill Tennatt of Englewood, Fla. and Milton Dorr of Worcester, Mass., went to war together more than half a century ago, came home together and promised to keep in touch.
But they hadn’t seen each other since that day 55 years ago when they had a beer in a Worcester pub and said their goodbyes.
When the two old soldiers finally met again recently at a North Port, Fla. mobile home park, they had the time of their lives talking about the “Good War” and their part in it. Bill and Milt hit the beach at Anzio, midway up the Italian boot as part of the 3rd Infantry Division during the January 1944 landing.
During World War II, they were telephone linemen whose job it was to maintain the lines of communication between battalion headquarters and front-line company command posts. By the time the Nazis were defeated 16 months later, the two had received four Bronze Stars for bravery, two French La Croix de Guerre with Palms for valor, two Purple Hearts for injuries under fire and two Presidential Unit Citations.
Anzio preceded the Allies’ Normandy Invasion into France by a few months. Hitler’s elite Hermann Goering infantry division, backed by a superb German .88-millimeter artillery unit, were waiting for the Americans when they landed at Anzio.
For almost four months, Allied forces, under Gen. Mark Clark, took a beating before they broke the enemy’s iron grip. There were 28,000 Allied casualties in this battle alone.
Some 22 American soldiers received the Medal of Honor for heroism at Anzio. There were more Medals of Honor presented than in any other battle during World War II.
Bill and Milt were part of those who fought their way off the beach at Anzio onto high ground and eventually on up to Rome to liberate the “Eternal City.” By then, they thought of themselves as “old soldiers.”
When they think of the war, they sometimes recall Bill Maulden’s cartoons of “Willie and Joe,” two beleaguered G.I.s who struggled in the front lines of the American forces during WWII.
“Maulden did some stuff that was really terrific,” Bill said. “I’ve got a small book of his ‘Willie and Joe’ cartoons from the war.
“I always liked the one Maulden did after we had taken Anzio. It showed Joe standing up on top of the mountain looking down at the beach where we had been trapped. He’s saying: ‘We was there and they was here.’”
Sheep and artillery
“After we broke out at Anzio, I was walking along during the daytime through a field littered with German helmets and rifles — all kinds of war souvenirs,” Milt recalled. “‘Gee this is great,’ I thought.
“We walked a little farther, up by a flock of sheep in a pasture. The sheep herders were gone, but their dogs were still taking care of the sheep. When they saw us, they started barking. When they did, the Germans opened up with their artillery. We were right in the middle of the sheep, and they were blasting the daylights out of us.”
‘I survived, they didn’t.
The German artillery was so accurate and so fierce that the men stopped going out during the day to repair the telephone wires strung out on the ground. It became a night adventure. They were sent out in two-man teams.
“Two of us guys would go out and lay a line,” Milt recalled. “If the line went out, one guy who originally went out and laid the line and one new guy would go out and fix it. That way everybody in the wire section knew where the line was.
“Well, I went out and laid the line and it was knocked out. So the sergeant came around looking for one of the original guys who had installed the line and a new guy to send out to fix it,” he said.
“I was under my blanket covered up. I was waiting for the sergeant to call my name, but he didn’t. He called Danny Prince and another guy to go out and fix the line.
“The other guy who went in my place died and Danny was hit,” Milt said. “I’ll never forget that guy who got it that night instead of me.”
As the 3rd Infantry Division fought its way out of Italy and into France, the weather turned cold. Then it turned totally miserable. The winter of 1944 in Europe was the coldest winter in decades.
“God it was cold. There was one of our guys just sitting on a bank holding a carbine in his hands. He was just sitting there not moving. When I went over and took a closer look at him he was deader than a doornail. He was frozen stiff sitting there holding his carbine. A piece of shrapnel had hit him and killed him instantly,” Milt said.
The division had been reassigned to the 1st French Army near the Colmar Canal in France.
“They sent us out on patrol behind enemy lines. We were walking around out there at night in the snow,” Milt said.
“The lieutenant who was leading our column was apparently confused about where to go,” he said. “All of a sudden, the lieutenant changed directions and we started across a field. We got about half-way across the field and the Germans opened up on us. The lieutenant yelled, ‘Every man for himself!’”
Milt and the others started running across the field of sugar beets. At some point he realized he wasn’t going to cross the field alive, so he dropped down and tried to hide behind some beets.
“When I was hiding, I started looking for muzzle flashes from the German machine guns. While I was lying on the ground, a guy beside me was killed by enemy fire,” he said.
“I jumped up and started running for the canal bank. Someone grabbed me from behind and yelled, ‘Please help me, I’ve been hit.’ I looked down and saw this guy with a bullet hole through his wrist. The bone was all shattered,” Milt said.
“All of a sudden everything seemed to stop. I took my first aid kit and patched him up. I took a piece of his shirt and made a sling for his arm from it.
“I was scared stiff because he was starting to turn gray and I thought he might die,” he said. “I took him with me and I made a turn toward a bulge in the woods ahead of us. Two other guys were crunched down beside the dike. They started yelling at us, ‘You’re going right into the (German) line.’
“I just kept going. As I got closer, I could see their machine gun and their helmets. I could see they were Americans. I had gotten right back to our company again, just by dumb luck,” Milt said.
Of the 14 men who went out on that night patrol in the “Colmar Pocket,” only five made it back alive.
Potato Masher Hill
“Potato Masher Hill” in France was another killer that Milt and Bill survived.
“We were holding the hill and then we ran into some Germans with some camouflaged uniforms who had disguised themselves with branches,” Milt said. “When they came up on us, an officer blew a whistle and they started yelling and firing. They knocked us off the hill.”
“After it got dark we fought our way back up the hill with Capt. Wadsworth,” Bill said. “He was the coolest Army guy I ever saw.”
“The Germans were on one side of the hill and we were on the other. We were throwing grenades at them and they were throwing ‘potato mashers’ (German hand grenades) at us,” Milt said.
“We ran the Germans off the hill by morning,” he said. “However, we lost a lot of replacements that night. They hardly heard a shot fired. They never made it up that damn hill.”
It was this engagement where Milt received one of his three Bronze Stars. They both received the French La Croix de Guerre with Palms for Valor and the Presidential Unite Citation for outstanding service to the country during this battle.
The two old men sat in the warmth of the Florida sun at a picnic table in a North Port mobile home park sharing remembrances. It was thousands of miles and more than half a lifetime away from the Allied front in Europe for a couple of young soldiers so long ago.
“I rarely watch the History Channel, and when people give me books about World War II I can’t read the damn things,” Milt said.
He still recalls, “That feeling in your gut you get when you’re on the front fighting eyeball-to-eyeball with the Germans … It’s something you can’t explain.
“How do you describe the knot in your stomach all the time? You go to sleep with it and when you wake up it’s still there,” he said.
“There are no words for it,” Milt said. “If you try and put it into words, people are going to say, ‘It couldn’t have been that bad.’”