It was 1st Lt. William Standish’s worst nightmare. He and the men in his platoon were charging a German-held house in the fog atop Hill 566, just south of Bologna, Italy, during World War II. The fog lifted and they were standing in the open, 50 feet away from an enemy machine-gun position.
“The Germans opened up on us. Even though we were right on top of them, we lost a lot of guys killed and wounded trying unsuccessfully to take the house,” the 84-year-old Port Charlotte, Fla. man recalled six decades later. “We had to fall back. I was hiding behind a wooden shed just outside the house. A couple of young replacements were cowering behind the shed with me.
“I told them to keep their heads down, but they poked them out from around the shed. Both were killed,” Standish said.
It was Oct. 4, 1944. Standish was serving in Gen. Mark Clark’s 5th Army in Italy. The then 24-year-old lieutenant was a member of the 3rd Battalion, 337th Regiment, 85th Infantry Division, fighting its way up the Italian boot from the disastrous landing at Salerno in September 1943. Before that ill-fated invasion, Standish took part in the Invasion of Sicily on July 10, 1943. They landed at Gera, Sicily, along the southern coast.
That day at Hill 566, Standish was pinned down by enemy fire. Most of his men were dead or captured. He wondered what his chances were.
“All of a sudden, Sgt. Arge Emory was standing along one side of the shed where I was hiding, looking down at me on the ground.
“‘What the hell are you doing standing here with no weapon?’ I asked him. He replied, ‘I’m captured, and I think you are, too.’
“Two German soldiers stepped out from behind him. Their burp guns were pointed right at me,” the retired lieutenant said.
Standish and his sergeant were marched inside at gunpoint to join a dozen other captured American soldiers. What was left of the lieutenant’s platoon was outside in the rain, killed or injured.
A German sergeant major was in charge of the unit holding the house and putting deadly pressure on the advancing American unit. He could speak a little English and Standish could speak a little German.
“During a lull in the fighting, the sergeant major ordered me to take my men and help him and his troops get the injured German soldiers inside so they could be treated by German medics,” Standish said. “I asked him if he would send extra German troops to bring in the injured Americans so they could be treated, too. He ordered a machine gun unit to stand down and come with me to rescue the injured American soldiers.”
When Standish and his men had helped rescue soldiers from both sides, they all ate the American’s K-rations the POWs were carrying.
“All the while, I was constantly bitching and muttering about being a German POW. I said to nobody in particular, ‘This is ridiculous. I wish to hell the Germans were our prisoners,'” Standish said.
He kept up this dialogue with himself about the injustice of getting captured by the enemy this close to the end of the war.
“A couple of hours later, the German sergeant major asked me what happened to German prisoners captured by the Americans. I told him, ‘They’re sent to Africa and get to watch movies every night. They have clean clothes and good food. They have nothing to worry about.’
“As I kept talking about the Germans surrendering, his soldiers began buying my surrender pitch. A while later, the sergeant major asked, ‘How could we go about surrendering to the Americans?’
“I told him, ‘We could bandage every one of the German soldiers who aren’t wounded and make them look like walking wounded. Then we could take the German and American wounded and send them together with the unwounded German soldiers unarmed through our front lines.'”
The sergeant major agreed to the plan. Since Standish still had his walkie-talkie, he called ahead and let the Americans holding the front lines know an unarmed band of Germans and American wounded were headed their way.
The lieutenant stayed with the dozen or so uninjured former American captives in the house that had been held by 40 German soldiers minutes earlier. The soldiers of the Third Reich had deserted their post, thrown down their arms and marched off to the safety of an American POW camp a continent away.
When the group of former American POWs and new German POWs reached the American positions, the soldiers of the 85th Division couldn’t believe their eyes.
“When I finally got back to my unit, they wanted to know how I had talked the 40 German soldiers into surrendering,” Standish recalled with a smile. ” I told them, ‘I guess I was just a good talker.'”
1st Lt. William Standish of Port Charlotte received the Silver Star Medal and two Bronze Star Medals for valor in World War II. In addition, he was awarded the Purple Heart, European Theater Medal with four bronze battle stars and WWII Victory Medal.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Tuesday, Sept. 9, 2003 and is republished with permission.
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William C. Standish, Sr.
William Standish, 93 of West Milford, NJ formerly of Port Charlotte, FL, passed away on Tuesday October 16, 2012.
Bill was born January 13, 1919 in Cedar Grove, NJ. His loving wife Margaret predeceased him in March 2002, he was also predeceased by two sons, Charles Troll (Ida) of Hawthorne, NJ and Joseph Troll (Lisa) of West Milford, NJ. He is survived by his son William Standish, Jr. and his wife Betty Ann, nine grandchildren, and eight great-grandchildren.
He was an electro-mechanical engineer working direct and as a consultant with various companies. He was a design engineer on various US and Canadian Naval projects and on Minuteman Silo projects. He was president of the Port Charlotte Chapter Deborah Hospital Foundation for six years.
He was also a member of the BPO Elks and the American Legion. He was a life member of the VFW, Disabled American Veterans, and the Knights of Columbus.
During World War II he served as a 1st Lieutenant with the 45th and 85th Infantry Divisions. He served two years of combat starting with the invasion of Sicily to Fall of Bologna. He was a POW and while being held he convinced his captors to surrender to the Allied Forces. He was awarded the Distinguished Unit Citation (often referred to as the Presidential Citation), the Silver Star for Gallantry in action, the Bronze Star for Valor in Action, an Oak Leaf Cluster for the second Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, Mediterranean Medal with four Battle Stars and an Arrowhead for Amphibious Landings, the American Defense Medal, Victory Medal and the Combat Infantry Badge. Arrangements will be private.
Published in The Record/Herald News, North Jersey, NJ on October 19, 2012