A harmonica stopped a bullet from hitting Pcf. Al Partridge ‘s heart during the 5th Army’s assault in Italy’s Apennine Mountains in January 1944.
The 81-year-old Port Charlotte, Fla. resident, who served as a sniper and scout, was a member of the 2nd Platoon, Company A, 1st Battalion, 86th Infantry Regiment of the 10th Mountain Division. They were attached to Gen. Mark Clark’s 5th Army, which took a beating at Anzio when it attempted the first invasion of the Italian boot during World War II.
The 5th Army had fought its way off the beach and was attacking the Germans in the Apennines Mountains overlooking the historic Po Valley farther north.
“The Germans stopped Clark’s advance at the northern edge of the mountains. Since he was unable to break through, he called for the 10th Mountain Division,” Partridge said. “We were green troops and the Germans had some fine alpine troops who were seasoned fighters. We appreciated that fact; we knew they were good.”
For the past year or more the division had spent its time training at Camp Hale near Vail, Colo. The 10th was a light infantry division especially equipped to fight in mountainous terrain and snow.
“We got (to Italy) in December. The 1st Battalion was assigned to attack Riva Ridge. It was a very steep 1,500-foot-high ridge that ran for 3 1/2 miles along the face of the mountain chain,” Partridge said. “It commanded a view of the Po Valley below. The Germans had artillery set up behind the ridge and lookouts were stationed on top of it. Our job was to knock out the artillery’s eyes on the ridge.
“They brought us in at night and we stayed at the base of the mountain in several farmhouses, out of sight, during the day. My platoon was at the extreme right the night of the push,” Partridge recalled. “We climbed the ridge all night long with full field packs. We were going to have to go up there and stay up there.
“I had my ’03 sniper rifle with a scope. It was a 1903 bolt-action, Springfield rifle that shot five rounds. It was the last weapon I wanted to have. I would have much rather had something with good firepower, like a Thompson submachine gun.”
In single file, the men of Company A struggled up the face of Riva Ridge in the dark holding on to underbrush and dragging themselves along, trying not to disturb the shale that broke and slid down the mountainside at their feet.
Keeping quiet was the order of the day.
Every soldier in the division that made the attack on Riva Ridge that night went up there with the chamber of his weapon empty. The soldiers’ officers didn’t want someone in the attack force to accidentally fire his weapon and alert the Germans.
“We got to the crest of the ridge and waited until daylight to attack. Our lieutenant had the 29 men in our unit spread out in a skirmish line along the ridge. When a whistle was blown, we all went over the top yelling our heads off, throwing grenades and shooting,” he said. “The Germans were just waking up and having breakfast. They were so surprised and scared they ran down the other side of the ridge into a heavily wooded area.”
Because Partridge and the others were green troops, they didn’t dig in right away and wait for the Germans to counterattack. They stood on top of the mountain they had just captured from the enemy looking at the vista like a bunch of tourists, he said.
“We were standing around having a great time. There was the Po River out in front of us, and way to the north of us 75 miles was the outline of the Italian Alps. It was a beautiful, sunny morning,” he recalled. “I went into one of the Germans’ observation bunkers. This dugout had bunks, (and) an iron stove with coffee on the stove. There was a table with an open can of kippers, some German sausage and some black bread. I was starved. I hadn’t eaten in 12 hours, so I started stuffing the sausage in my mouth.
“Also on the table was a little Hohner harmonica that I put in my left shirt pocket along with my Prayer Book I received from the Army chaplain,” he said.
He and his buddy finally got around to digging a foxhole that was approximately 2 1/2 feet deep.
“All of a sudden — bam! I found myself on the ground. I didn’t know what hit me. The bullet hit my harmonica in my pocket and deflected. Instead of going through my heart and lung it went down through my diaphragm and big intestine and lodged next to my spine,” Partridge said. “Sgt. Stan Milanowski was hit by the same burst of bullets that hit me. It went in one side of his neck and out the other.”
Partridge scrambled into his shallow foxhole on his back. The next thing he knew, Milanowski was on top of him with both hands covering the holes in his neck. Moments later, another soldier, Frank Fairweather was lying on Partridge’s legs in the foxhole as German bullets flew over their heads.
“Roy Stein Jr., at 18 the youngest guy in our outfit — we called him Junior — came running up beside us with his light machine gun. He started spraying the Germans along our flank with bullets,” Partridge said. “Roy held them off and drove them back until some of our guys could help him out. Stein received a Silver Star for what he did. As far as I was concerned, he deserved more.”
A couple of weeks later, Milanowski was back on the front line with a couple of Band-Aids covering the bullet holes in his neck. Partridge wasn’t as lucky.
“They strapped me to a stretcher and lowered me down the cliff we had just come up the night before. We got halfway down and spent the night in a little stone shepherd’s hut,” he said. “As they started down the mountain the next day, the Germans spotted us and started shooting .81 mm mortars at us. The medics ran with me on a stretcher until they got to a ravine and out of sight.”
He was doped up and out of it during the stretcher run, he said. The medics finally reached an ambulance, a Jeep with four stretcher racks, that took him to field hospital in a farmhouse where he underwent surgery.
Pfc. Al Partridge ‘s war was over.
This story first appeared in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Sunday, July 24, 2005, and is republished with permission.
Click here to view the War Tales fan page on FaceBook.
All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.
Albert Fernandes ” Al” Partridge, 84, of Port Charlotte, Fla., died Sunday, March 16, 2008, at Shands Hospital in Gainesville, Fla.
He was born Nov. 18, 1923, in New York, N.Y.
Al was a physical education and fourth-grade teacher for many years. He served in the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division and was also a member of the Association. He was a member of the Purple Heart Association, the British Long-Bow Society, the Lee County Archers, American Legion Post 110 in Port Charlotte, the Port Charlotte Yacht Club and the Traditional Small Craft Association. Al will be fondly remembered as an avid sailor, archer and craftsman.
He is survived by his loving wife of 30 years, Cindy A. Partridge; son, Lance Fernandes of Doylestown, Pa.; daughter, Jenny Bailey of Roanoke, Va.; and several grandchildren, nieces and nephews.
A memorial service with military honors will be held at 2 p.m. Monday, March 31, 2008, at Roberson Funeral Home Port Charlotte Chapel.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to The American Cancer Society, 992 Tamiami Trail, Unit C-2, Port Charlotte, FL 33953. Friends may visit online at http://www.robersonfh.com to sign the guest book.
Arrangements are by Roberson Funeral Home & Crematory, Port Charlotte.