Sgt. Lawrence Gilbert of North Port, Fla. was a member of the 1st Ranger Battalion attached to the 1st Division, part of Gen. George Patton’s 7th Army that landed in Sicily on July 10, 1943 during the middle of World War II.
In 38 days Americans, under “Ol’ Blood ‘n Guts” and the English 8th Army commanded by Gen. Bernard Montgomery, ran the Italians and the Germans out of Sicily. It was Gilbert and tens of thousands more “foot sloggers” like him who did the fighting.
The 1st and 3rd Ranger Battalions hit the beach in Higgins Boats at Gela, Sicily, along the southern coast, at 4:30 a.m. They faced a heavy concentration of coastal artillery, machine guns, mortars and spot lights.
A 100-foot high sand dune loomed before them in the dark. It was covered with barbed wire. The enemy was protected by two machine gun emplacements that provided defenders with intersecting fire.
“The Navy softened up the shore installations with heavy artillery from our ships,” Gilbert said. “The Air Force bombed the area and the wheat fields behind the town as we charged onto the beach from the water. The whole town was back lit by a big red sky from the burning fields.”
The Ranger units fought their way into town as the Italian Army fell back and moved out.
“Come daylight, German tanks counter-attacked us. We had no artillery ashore that would take out a German tank so we had to depend on our Naval guns that began knocking out the enemy tanks as I stood on a hill outside Gela and watched. “
Allied forces were on the move in all parts of Sicily as the Germans and Italian armies fought a delaying action. Six weeks later the two Allied armies met at Messina as the last of the Axis forces fled across the Messina Straits to Italian mainland.
Gilbert and all three Ranger units followed enemy forces into southern Italy on Sept. 9, 1943, where they landed at Salerno on the southern coast of the country. They were attached to a British unit which formed the extreme left flank on the beachhead.
Thanks to heavy British naval fire, Allied forces at Salerno were able to move forward off the beach in a few days and capture the high ground and the mountain road that linked the area to Naples, further north along the west coast of Italy.
The German defenders and their Italian compatriots didn’t relinquish ground without a fight. Foot by foot the Rangers and other Allied units fought their way to Naples during the fall of 1943. By that time, the Germans had laid waste to the ancient city as they continued retreating.
Gilbert and the 1st Ranger Battalion kept advancing until late October when they found themselves stalled high up in the mountains above Naples facing everything Gen. Albert Kesselring, commander of Axis forces in Italy, could throw at them.
“When we started up into the mountains my unit had 70 men. By Thanksgiving there were only 18 men left on the line,” he recalled 60 years later. “I had yellow jaundice and was sick as a dog. I had to go back to the hospital in Naples. Many other soldiers in our unit came down with trench foot because of all the rain and cold, and many others were killed or injured in the continuous enemy bombardment.”
He rejoined the 1st Ranger Battalion just in time for the landing at Anzio on Jan. 23, 1944. The Rangers lead the assault troops at Anzio. This was his third landing of the war.
Gen. Mark Clark commanded the Anzio landing got pinned down on the beach by the Germans.
“We were facing the Hermann Goering Division, some of Hitler’s best troops,” Gilbert said.
“We were trying to expand our beachhead. The Rangers’ job was to take Cistelna di Latina, a road junction town near the beach. That’s when I got captured.
“Our three Ranger battalions were the point of the 3rd Division’s counter attack. The 1st Battalion started off the beach at midnight. It was our job to bypass everything and set up road blocks in Cisterna. The 3rd Battalion was suppose to be diversion and get the German’s attention.
“What we found out later was that our Ranger battalion walked into he middle of two German Divisions about to go on the offensive at Anzio the next morning. We were surrounded and behind German lines.
“By 2 p.m. we were having a knock down and drag out fight with the Germans. A bunch of our guys got captured. By then most of our officers had been injured or killed,” Gilbert said. “We were fighting a bunch of SS paratroopers who threatened to started shooting our men if we didn’t surrender.
“One of the German paratroopers emptied the contents of a machine pistol into a crowd of American prisoners. Capt. Sands, our battalion executive officer was in command of our unit, and he decided to surrender. By then half of our battalion and been killed or wounded.”
What was left of the Ranger unit was trucked to Rome. Then they were paraded in front of the Roman Colosseum and filmed by German cinematographers for propaganda purposes. From there the Rangers were shipped in boxcars to Stalag II B in northern Germany near the Polish border where they spent almost a year on various work details and surviving life in the camp.
At one point Gilbert and several other guys escaped the POW camp for five days. However, they had no plan, no escape map and no food. All they knew was they wanted to go east and hook up with the Russians.
They climbed aboard a train but they had no clue were they were headed. The next day the train stopped. Then it began backing up into a German army instillation.
They were captured and turned over to the Gestapo for questioning. A short time later they found themselves back at Stalag II B. They were put in punishment camp that had better conditions than their main stalag.
“In January or February 1945 the Russians were coming our way. We were moved out of our stalag and we began marching west along with thousands of civilians,” he said. “We started walking one morning when the snow was up to our knees in the middle of the road.
“We were headed for Tarmstedt and Marlag-Milag, a Navy POW camp near Bremen, Germany close to the North Sea. It was 500 or 600 miles to the west and we walked from January 1945 until May 1945, just before war’s end,” Gilbert recalled.
“A couple of days before we reached our final stalag the Germans brought in a bunch of concentration camp prisoners. These guys looked like they were already dead, but they just didn’t know how to lie down,” he said. “They were put in a compound next to us. We gave our turnips to the concentration camp people.
“When we gave them our food they all gathered around the stuff we left for them and the damn guards in the towers turned their machine guns on them. Our guys were throwing bottles and rocks at the German guards and yelled all kinds of profanity at them. Then they turned their guns our way and we still kept throwing rocks and yelling at them.”
A British armored division reached the Navy stalag a few days after we arrived. They crashed through the barbed wire enclosure with their tanks. By then the German guards had run off, Gilbert and his comrades were free.
“We took a beat up old liberty ship back to the United States. It took us 21 days to go from South Hampton, England to New York City,” Gilbert said. World War II was over for him.
Sgt. Gilbert saw action in Korea
After World War II Sgt. Lawrence Gilbert joined the Army Reserve as a member of the 1st Infantry Division, 7th Regiment — Gen. George Custer’s old regiment. When the Korean War broke out in June 1950 his unit was activated.
He spent 14 months in Korea arriving in December 1950. Gilbert spent many months fighting in the cold and then in the heat before he returned to he States.
When he returned from Korea he joined the 1st Battalion, 197th Field Artillery of the New Hampshire National Guard. Like in Korea his battalion was activated and sent to Vietnam, but not his company.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Sunday, April 11, 2004 and is republished with permission.
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Lawrence R. “Red” Gilbert
April 13, 1921 – October 13, 2012
Lawrence R. Gilbert “Red”, age 91, of Hare Road in Milton, died October 13, 2012 at home.
Born April 13, 1921 and raised in Farmington, son of Wilfred and Vera (Remick) Gilbert, he resided there until 1973, from 1973-1981 at Ayers Lake in Barrington, from 1981-2006 in North Port, Florida and resided in Milton since 2006.
A Veteran of the United States Army, a Ranger, he served during World War II and in Korea. A Prisoner Of War, he was recipient of a Bronze Star, also 3 Humanitarian Service Medals, Army Commendation Medal and 2nd Combat Infantry Badge.
Red was a member of the VFW, the American Legion, the DAV, Descendants of WWII Rangers, American Ex-POW, Combat Infantrymen’s Association and the NRA.
He was a retired lineman, a civil service employee at the former Pease Air Force Base and retired from the Army National Guard after 31 years.
Widower of the late Elizabeth Gilbert who died in 1993, he resided with his grandson Jim Thomas and wife Debra for over 19 years, also survived by a daughter Bette (Thomas) Howard of Rochester, many grandchildren, great grandchildren and great great grandchildren, also a brother Everett Gilbert of New Mexico. He was predeceased by 2 sons: Robert Stewart and Joseph Thomas, a daughter: Barbara (Stewart) Lachance and a sister Phyllis Gilbert Carlson.
A Memorial Service will be held on Wednesday October 24, 2012 at 1:00pm with a calling hour one hour prior from 12-1pm at Peaslee Funeral Home, 24 Central Street, Farmington, NH 03835, with military honors provided by the United States Army. Urn interment will be at the American Legion Lot at Pine Grove Cemetery in Farmington. In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be made in his memory to: Descendants of the World War II Rangers C/O Ben Temkin 80-35 Springfield BLVD, Queens Village, NY 11427. To express condolences, please visit: http://www.peasleefuneralhome.com