The inscription on the front of the white ball cap siting on the coffee tale says it all: “America’s most Decorated 34th Infantry Division.” Below the inscription was an irregular shaped patch showing the head of a bull in red on a solid black background the 34th Division’s insignia.
Almost a lifetime ago, Chet Jollay of Rotonda, Fla., now 82, [at the time of this interview] was a light machine-gunner in the 34th Infantry. For 40 months he saw action in the North African and Italian Campaigns from November 1942 until May 1945 during World War II.
“Our company had 108 percent casualties by the time we were through fighting in North Africa,” Jollay said. “I’ve been asked, ‘How do you do that?’
“Replacements,” he explained.
Even after the men of the company had won the North African Campaign, the Allied forces’ first offensive action against the Axis troops in Europe, most of the fighting was yet to come.
“We landed in Algiers on Nov. 8, 1942, my birthday,” he said with a chuckle. Jollay was 23.
“Our first battle was the Faid Pass in North Africa. We took a bad beating,” he recalled. “We were all lined up that first morning when our tanks took off. Later we could see burning tanks in the distance. We thought we were beating the heck out of (German Gen. Erwin) Rommel’s tanks, but they were begetting the heck out of us.
“For three or four days we were surrounded by Rommel’s Afrika Korps. The second night of our encirclement, one of our P-39 fighters flew over and dropped a small parachute with a note: ‘Hold at all costs. We’ll come get you.’
“For two days we held, but no reinforcements arrived. That night a second plane flew over and dropped another note. It read: ‘Get out the best way you can.'”
It was a sorry situation. What was left of the thoroughly demoralized division fought its way back to Allied lines, the Germans in hot pursuit. They hadn’t eaten in four days and were so exhausted they couldn’t carry their own equipment.
“When we finally got back to our lines Pulitzer Prize winning war correspondent Ernie Pyle was waiting for us,” Jollay said. “I talked to him for a moment as we headed for the chow line.”
From there the 34th regrouped and was resupplied with more men and equipment. Jollay had lost half his company–killed, wounded or captured by the Germans–in their first engagement.
Hill 609 in North Africa was payback time for Jollay and the others in his unit. The 34th was holding a section of the hill the Afrika Korps was trying to capture. The Germans had pounded the Allied division with mortar shells and heavy artillery fire for some time without much success.
“Next morning when the fog lifted, the Germans were right in front of us. I opened up with my machine-gun. My gun got so hot it wouldn’t stop shooting. I had to twist the the belt of bullets to stop it from firing,” he said. “It was a short battle, but it was fierce. The Germans eventually retreated back down the hill.”
By late April or early May 1943, Rommel, known as ‘The Desert Fox,’ was history in North Africa. His troops had been out-gunned and out-fought by Allied soldiers who were superior in number and better equipped than their German counterparts.
Jollay and the other survivors of the 34th in North Africa were no longer the green troops who had been clobbered by the Afrika Korps at Faid Pass six months earlier.
The next invasion for his division was Salerno, Italy.
“It went along pretty good after the initial invasion,:” Jollay said. “It wasn’t long before we took Naples and began heading north up the Italian peninsula. That’s when we first started getting into the foothills. The Germans had every spot zeroed in for their mortars and artillery.”
It was around this point that Jollay was hit in the shoulder by shrapnel from an exploding shell. He ended up in a hospital in Italy thinking he might be sent home because of all the time he had been on the front line.
No such luck. He was returned to his unit just in time for the Battle of Mount Pantino. It was another major contest between Gen. Mark Clark’s Allied forces and the German command in Italy under Gen. Albert Kesselring.
Again Jollay survived and pushed on with the remains of the 34th to Monte Cassino. The Germans held the ancient Benedictine abbey at Monte Cassino and all the high ground in the area.
The Allies’ two primary objectives were to draw the enemy away from the Anzio beachhead and to move as quickly as possible toward Rome. Problem was, Cassino blocked the Allied armies’ path up Highway 6 to the Eternal City.
In an attempt to circumvent the mountain monastery and breach the German stronghold, the 36th Division was ordered to cross the Rapido River. The Texas unit was slaughtered while fording the river by the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division.
After the disastrous river crossing by the 36th, Jollay and the 34th Division were thrown into the breach to make the river crossing, storm the hills overlooking the town and break through to Highway 6, which led to Rome. Three days earlier, Allied forces had landed at Anzio, along the Italian shore. They were quickly pinned down by a superior German force that again held the high ground.
Jollay’s 168th Regiment succeeded in crossing the river and making it to the base of the hills after negotiating mine fields, barbed wire and intense interlocking enemy machine-gun fire. With the help of a tank battalion the 168th had taken several of the hills by Jan. 29, 1944.
However, by Feb. 1 the Germans had recaptured the high ground from the 168th. By Feb. 11, the 168th Regiment and the other two regiments in the 14th Division were detailed to capture the monastery. The assault on the abbey was hampered by a blizzard and heavy enemy machine-gun fire.
At this point, Clark decided to withdraw what was left of the 34th Division and replace it with the 4th Indian Division.
It would be more than a month before the Allies leveled the monastery atop Monte Cassino with overwhelming air power. At 8:30 a.m., 575 heavy and medium bombers and 200 fighters stuck the abbey. Helping the Allied cause was an artillery assault from American, New Zealand an French forces.
“The day before they started bombing, we had been relieved and were moved back about a mile from the front lines,” Jollay recalled. “Waves of American bombers flew over in the morning. They turned the monetary into dust and rubble in a couple of hours.”
Despite the fact the 34th Division had dented the German’s Gutagav Line, the almost impenetrable defensive enemy fortification constructed to impede the Allied forces progress in Italy, their assault on Monte Cassino was a disaster. The enemy had blocked the Allied advance toward Rome at Cassino and the battle had done little to relieve the beating other Allied forces were taking at Anzio.
By mid-March 1944, Jollay and his unit found themselves dug in on the beach at Anzio. They had regrouped and received replacements, after being pulled out of the line at Monte Cassino, and sent by ship to the beachhead at Anzio.
“We spent six weeks in foxholes on the beach surrounded by Germans who had the high ground,” he said. “The Germans had a huge cannon mounted on a railroad car they’d fire at us from time-to-time. They also had little remote-control tanks filled full of explosives they would send into the lines. they could push a button and these tanks would explode. They were kind of a novelty.”
On May 23, 1944, the Allied forces began their major assault on the German’s ring of steel that had pinned them down for months along the shore at Anzio. The Allied units’ objective was to break through enemy lines to Highway 7 leading to Rome.
Then days later, the Germans were in full retreat. Jollay and his outfit, along with a number of other units, broke out and headed toward Rome about the same time that Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower was sweating out the Normandy Invasion along the coast of France. Together with the Allied army from the Italian campaign, the two armies spelled the Third Reich’s doom.
Jollay saw Rome from the back of a deuce-and-a-half Army truck as the 34th drove through the ancient city on its way to the front further north. But their advance ground to a halt in the Italian Alps when the snow began to fall a few months later.
In the Alps, we were in a three-story farmhouse when we first got there. When we left, the farmhouse was only one story because of all the fighting over it,” he said. “We couldn’t get anything to eat because they couldn’t get any food to us up on the front line.
“We had a hillbilly with us who took care of our food problem. He killed one of the hogs on the farm, dug up some potatoes and garlic and fried them in his steel helmet using lard from the hog he had butchered,” Jollay said.
When spring finally came, Jollay’s unit reached across the Po Valley in northern Italy with little German resistance. In May 1945, when the war in Europe ended, the 34th was near the Italian, Swiss and French border.
“By the end of the war, there were only five of us left out of 210 men in Company G that landed at Algiers in North Africa three years earlier,” Jollay said. “All the rest had been killed, wounded or captured.”
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Sunday, Jan. 13, 2002 and is republished with permission.
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