Near death at Terminale
After the conquest at Belvedere, we were sent to fight in another range of mountains to the northeast. The battle for Mount Terminale began in early March. On March 3, 1945, my platoon was acting as the advance column on the south flank of Terminale.
As we moved carefully ahead, we saw the bodies of Americans and Germans strewn about the mountainside. I passed a badly wounded young German who was pleading for someone to kill him. I moved by him and a moment later heard a single shot behind me. I didn’t turn around to see who had fired it.
We were approaching a particularly well-defended point in the German line, and I ordered the platoon to halt and wait for our support units to move up on our flanks. Far below in the valley, I could see a U.S. tank maneuvering to cross a small stone bridge, and I wondered idly about the Roman legions who had built that bridge while they, too, possibly were at war in these mountains.
Later that afternoon the German bombardment had increased. I was standing near a farmhouse that gave some small protection when I heard the familiar voice of Steve Knowlton. He had been separated from his unit on night patrol, and he was working his way back to it. We exchanged brief remarks about the intensity of the German mortar fire. After Steve left, the Germans began shelling even more heavily in our direction. Within minutes, I was hit.
I heard a deafening blast and saw stars in many colors, the predominant one being bright red. A mortar shell had exploded in a small oak tree just above my head. The tree then had burst apart in a violent rain of splintered wood and fragments of mortar shell. The first pain came from my shattered left forearm, which felt as if it had been hit with a baseball bat. I tried to stand up, but my right leg was useless, and I fell back. I gazed into the face of Sergeant Hutchens, another platoon leader in F Company. He was yelling words I know he didn’t believe:
“You’ll be okay, Pete. Lie back, you’re okay.”
It was about then that I realized that I’d also been hit in the face. I was spitting teeth, gagging and choking on the blood in my throat.
I tried to elevate my smashed arm to slow the flow of blood. Sergeant Hutchens moved away. Two buddies came by, looked at me, and left without speaking. I wondered if I was already dead.
It occurred to me that I had promised these two pals several personal items of value if I was killed: my wallet, a sheath knife, an automatic pistol, a mess kit, and my watch. I removed my watch from my elevated left arm with my right hand and discovered that I had been hit in the fingers of that hand, too. I tried to conceal the watch and my wallet under my shirt. As I did so I found that blood from two chest wounds was pouring onto my stomach and congealing.
Among Vail’s volunteers, we tracked down Bob “Buckwheat” Buckley, Tony White and Brooke Franke Gagnon. They all said it was tough, that they loved it and suggested that if you try it you’ll love it too.