The British tried it, the Canadians tried it and elements of the 5th U.S. Army gave it a shot to no avail. Now it was the American 10th Mountain Division’s turn to take on German Gen. Fridolin von Senger’s entrenched troops in the Apennines Mountains of Italy during the winter of 1944.
“Our division commander, Maj. Gen. George P. Hays, ordered us to fix bayonets and climb up Mount Belvedere at night with our rifles unloaded so that someone didn’t accidentally fire his weapon and alert the Germans,” former Pfc. Robert Tidwell recalled 65 years later.
He was a BAR (Browning Automatic Weapon) man in Company C, 85th Regiment, 10th Mountain Division. Part of Gen. Mark Clark’s 5th Army .
“This was a critical area overlooking Highway 64, part of the Apian Way, in the Apennines Mountains. The Allies had been trying for months to break through the German line at Mount Belvedere,” the 88-year-old Port Charlotte man explained.
It was the 10th’s baptism of fire. The division had arrived in Italy from the U.S. some months earlier. It began moving into the area in November 1944 and by January the entire division was ready to advance on the German’s heavily fortified defensive position.
“Gen. Hays was a feisty little man. He had received the Medal of Honor in World War I. He was a fantastic general and tolerated no fooling around,” Tidwell recalled. “His idea was to keep pushing the Germans back. Keep them constantly retreating.
“The Germans had those mountains fortified like you wouldn’t believe. We kept quiet until we reached the top about daylight,” Tidwell said. “We caught the Germans eating breakfast the next morning. When we opened up on them all hell broke loose.”
At this point the German line gave way and the 10th Mountain Division took control of the high ground. This ground was won at a substantial price. The division suffered 975 casualties taking the mountains away from the enemy.
Tidwell went up to a ridge overlooking the Po Valley after the fighting was over. He was one of the lucky ones. The young BAR man had not received a scratch taking the the high ground away from the Germans.
“We left the 5th Army behind as we pushed the Germans through the Po Valley. Gen. Hays wanted to cut the them off at the Brenner Pass in the Alps in Northern Italy,
“The 10th got to the Po River and we had no boats. Gen. Hays told his regimental commanders to return south and find some boats to get us across the river,” Tidwell said. “They found a battalion of DUWKs (landing craft) that could get us across the river.”
Although the Germans established their last real line of resistance along the Po River the 10th made the crossing and kept on going despite the enemy offensive.
“We were pushing them so fast they didn’t have a chance to set up. We just kept on pushing,” he said.
The 10th kept the pressure on what was left of enemy forces during the last couple of weeks of the war in Europe. The bedraggled German forces retreated into the Alps.
When it came time to surrender, Gen. von Senger, commander of enemy forces, let it be known he would only surrender to Gen. Hays and his 10th Mountain Division. The German general considered the 10th the finest Allied fighting force in the Italian campaign.
After V-E (Victory in Europe) Day the 10th stayed at Brenner Pass, along the Italian-Austrian border, long enough to prevent Josiph Tito and his Yugoslavian partisans from moving into the area and taking over after the Germans were defeated.
Eventually the division moved south to Naples and boarded a boat back to the States. After a 30-day leave the 10th was aboard ship sailing out of New York Harbor for the war in the Pacific when the second atomic bomb was dropped on Japan. The ship returned to port immediately.
“I got back in time to be in New York City to celebrate V-J (Victory over Japan) Day,” Tidwell recalled with a smile. “We stayed up all night drinking. Everybody was really carrying on.”
He returned to his parents’ home in Alabama and started college at the University of Alabama. Tidwell began working for the Post Office in 1945. In 1977 he retired after 32 years on the job. By then he was the manager of the post office at the University of Alabama.
He and his late wife, Mary, moved to Port Charlotte in 1985. He has one child, Sue Postle.
Name: Robert T. Tidwell
D.O.B: 8 Nov. 1922
Hometown: Athens, La.
Current: Punta Gorda, Fla.
Entered Service: March 1944
Discharged: March 1946
Rank: Private First Class
Unit: 10th Mountain Division
Commendations: World War II Victory Medal, Good Conduct Medal, European Theatre medal
Battles/Campaigns: Italian campaign, Northern Apennines Mountain Campaign, Po Valley, Brenner Pass
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Monday, Dec. 2, 2010 and is republished with permission.
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