Sixty-two years ago, with World War II still under way and Allied forces pinned down on Anzio Beachhead, a terse Associated Press story, datelined Naples, Italy, March 8, appeared in newspapers:
"A grim secret kept locked in the hearts of allied troops in Italy for over a month now has been placed in the record of heroic but hopeless 'last stands.'"
This new chapter concerned two lost battalions of Rangers who set out on what for them was a routine assignment to "raise hell" in Cisterna di Littoria at 1 a.m. Jan. 30 and by noon of that day had been swallowed into oblivion.
Historians may argue whether the demise of Darby's Rangers - named for their founding commander, William Orlando Darby - was the result of faulty intelligence and poor planning on the part of those who sent the Rangers on their mission to capture Cisterna, or was due to the German General Field Marshal Albert Kesselring's experienced judgment and strategic deployment of forces.
But the fight that ensued that fateful Sunday was the end of three battalions of untested replacements and battle-hardened veterans, most of whom had spearheaded invasions and fought their way through Africa, Sicily and Italy. Only a handful of men from the 1st and 3rd Ranger Battalions escaped Cisterna after an overwhelming force of German soldiers - equipped with mortars and tanks and outnumbering them 10 to one - surrounded them.
As Rangers ran out of ammunition and were captured, the Germans marched their captives toward those Rangers still fighting, demanding their surrender by threatening to kill their fellow Rangers. They followed through on that threat and stories later circulated of other atrocities, including the tale of a medic who was killed for refusing to surrender until he had finished treating a badly wounded Ranger.
'So long, Colonel'
Rangers of the 4th Battalion threw themselves against German lines in a desperate, but unsuccessful, effort to reach their trapped comrades. The 4th Battalion endured more casualties, including five of six company commanders killed, that day than did the 1st and 3rd combined.
Shortly after noon, Sgt. Major Robert Ehalt, 1st Ranger Battalion, radioed a tearful Darby, telling him that the commander of the 1st was badly wounded and the commander of the 3rd had been killed. The tanks were closing in, Ehalt reported, and he had only five men left.
"So long, Colonel," he said, "maybe when it's over, I'll see you again."
Darby, who had protested the use of his Rangers as conventional troops in the operation, contending they were trained for a different type of fighting, is said to have gone into a room alone and cried. Within weeks, Darby's Rangers were disbanded.
Many Rangers who participated in the battle are making plans to attend the reunion of World War II Rangers in Lawrence this June. Two of them are Frank Mattivi, Excelsior Springs, Mo., and Ben Temkin, Queens Village, New York, N.Y.
Mattivi, a retired autoworker, was a first sergeant in the 1st Battalion who was captured at Cisterna and spent 16 months in a German prison camp. Temkin, a CPA who still maintains a successful accounting practice, was a sergeant with the 4th Battalion.
Mattivi was the subject of an ad in a book published in commemoration of the Rangers' 2005 reunion in Phoenix. Placed by Ray Sadowski, who was a private in Mattivi's company at Cisterna, the ad's message was simple: Thank you, Frank Mattivi, for saving my life!
When questioned about the ad, which referred to an incident at Cisterna, Mattivi is matter-of-fact: "About 10 or 11 that morning, three tanks started moving toward the house that Ray Sadowski was at the top of. I don't know what made me do it - I guess it was just part of the job - anyway, I jumped up on the side of a tank and dropped a phosphorus grenade in it. I didn't know that one of our men on the other side had a bazooka, and he fired and hit it just below the turret, and the concussion knocked me off the tank. We knocked out two tanks. That was what that was all about."
Around noon, the Rangers began running out of ammunition. Mattivi, whose F Company of the 1st Battalion was the lead company into the battle zone, explains the critical development: "Intelligence kind of messed up. Well, they had good plans, but it didn't turn out. We were supposed to have backup by the British, half-tracks and tanks, but they got stopped, then we were up there kind of on a limb."
War is not civilized. Mattivi said he saw wounded Rangers shot where they lay and when he and a group of captured Rangers were taken to a ravine, they thought they were going to be executed. "Yep, I sure did. They marched us down there, it was kind of a creek running along there, and some Germans were behind us and some were in front of us. We got down there, and the ones that were behind us started to come around front, and we thought maybe that is what they were going to do."
Mattivi spent the rest of the war in a prisoner-of-war camp until he was liberated by the Russians. His National Guard unit, which he had joined while employed by the Civilian Conservation Corps, had been one of the first sent overseas when America entered the war. While stationed in Ireland, he learned of a new special forces group and joined the Rangers "mainly to escape the boredom." Mattivi is one of the originals trained in Scotland by British Commandos.
Proud to serve
Ben Temkin's lasting memory of Italy is that he was always cold. A sergeant in D Company of the 4th Ranger Battalion, he slogged his way through the freezing water and mud of the canal his battalion used for cover as they advanced toward Cisterna, a goal they never reached when they were stopped short of Isola Bella by a barrage from German tanks, self-propelled guns, automatic weapons and small arms. Temkin was one of the battle-tested Rangers who had participated in the invasion of Sicily, landing at Gela, where the Germans had illuminated the beach with klieg lights.
"It made you feel vulnerable, like they were all firing at you," he said.
Gela, he said, was typical of the invasions in which he participated. "At first you don't know what to anticipate. You're not scared during the battle, but you are before and after."
Comparing the news coverage of World War II versus today's conflicts, Temkin stated flatly, "If any World War II invasion had been shown on TV, the people would have said, 'Bring the troops home.'"
He says he had compelling reasons for volunteering for the army: "I was an American and it was the patriotic thing to do. And I was Jewish."
He volunteered for the Rangers because he "wanted to be at the front of the war."
Temkin is a first-generation American whose father, Joseph, came to America to avoid conscription in Russia. Once in the United States, Joseph volunteered for the Army and fought in France during World War I, gaining citizenship for himself and his wife, Yetta, who had remained in Russia but later immigrated to America.
Ben Temkin loves to tell the story of sporting a new mustache when he returned home at the end of World War II. His mother greeted him joyfully, saying, "Benny, Benny, you look like a movie star."
"I was thinking Clark Gable at the least, maybe Tyrone Power," Temkin says, "so I asked her, 'Who?'"
'A Crazy Plan'
Ben Temkin is gifted with a keen intellect, quick wit and good health - he ran in marathons until six years ago. He and Frank Mattivi are typical of the Rangers who will be meeting here in June. Though both maintain they were just doing their jobs, their heroic actions created a debt impossible for future generations to repay.
The end of Darby's Rangers as a fighting unit is best expressed by Art Wilson, St. Clair Shores, Mich., formerly a private in Company D, 1st Ranger Battalion. While confined in a German prison camp, Wilson used a tablet provided by the Red Cross to pen a poem, the last four lines of which read:
This is the tale of the Rangers,
And the end of the famous Band,
For they were captured in "Sunny Italy"
Obeying a Crazy Plan.