Ten Lessons I Learned from Dad’s War Service Part 3: "Action in Italy"

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This short series provides glimpses into the war service of my father, 1st Lieutenant Robert J. DeGray, one of the 100 million soldiers who served (on both sides) during World War 2.

My father, Robert J. DeGray served in the Army of the United States from December 10, 1940 to January 24, 1946, with continuing service in the reserves until December 1953. During this time he rose in rank from Private to Captain, served in many roles including as a tank commander in Italy, and received a purple heart. This series of articles will document a few of the key moments in his service career, and attempt to document a few lessons we can learn from his experience.

7. Italy with the 1st Armored

When my father arrived in Italy in the fall of 1944, the U.S. Army had made great strides in the battle for Italy. The campaign began with the invasion of Sicily in July, 1943. This was followed by the invasion of the mainland in September. The southern part of Italy quickly fell under Allied control, taking the Italians out of the war, but the Germans put up stiff resistance south of Rome at the Gustav line.. In January 1944 the Allies attempted to outflank the Germans with a seaborne invasion at Anzio, but the German response nearly wiped out the landing. It was not until the summer of 1944 that the Allies were able to reach Rome. The Germans set up another defensive line (Gothic) north of Rome and this was unsuccessfully attacked in the fall of 1944.

It was during the winter pause at the Gothic line that my father would have joined the 81st Armored Reconnaissance Squadron of the 1st Armored Division. The 1st Armored had already seen service in the North African invasion, Tunisia, the invasion of Italy at Salerno, the beachhead at Anzio and much of the hard fighting in-between. All of this is sketched out in a 64 page booklet that was distributed to the soldiers of the 1st Armored shortly after the war. (Part of it is available online.)

My father’s service with the 81st Armored Reconnaissance Squadron is probably encapsulated in just two paragraphs of this little booklet:

During the winter of 1944-45 units of the 1st Armored Division alternated between rest areas and front-line duty. Because the terrain prohibited the use of more than a few tanks at any one time, many of the men in the division, who had been trained for specialized jobs, parked their vehicles and took up rifles and submachine guns to become infantrymen for a while.

The final campaign in Italy began for the 1st Armored Division at dawn on April 14, 1945. The German bastion of Vergato fell that day to the 81st Reconnaissance Squadron and the attack was pushed north on Highway 64 toward Bologna. The division fought three days, gaining 10 miles to the north, before being relieved by an infantry division.

The sad part is that I don’t know much more from direct evidence. Like many of ‘the Greatest Generation,’ my dad didn’t talk much about the war. About his time in Italy I remember only a few stories. The first was of sneaking up on the flank a German tank that was hiding by a wall, and shooting the track off it through the wall. I don’t know for sure what kind of tank my father was commanding at that point, but the fact that they could make such a shot indicates they had a pretty big gun. It could have been an M3A5, an M5, or an M24, all of which found service in the 1st Armored.

But what I do know is this: in the last phase of the Italian campaign, the 81st Reconnaissance Squadron attacked north toward Vergato. That attack took place on April 14th, 1945. On that same day my dad earned his purple heart, and apparently had a tank burned out from under him. I wish I had the purple heart and its citation, but I don’t. I do have copies of what were called ‘extracts,’ pertinent summaries of changes in rank and awards. Under “Award of Purple Heart,” this one says:
ROBERT J. DEGRAY, 01010278, 1st Lt, Co “F”, 81st Cav Rec Sq, Mecz, Italy, 14 April 1945. Entered Service from Hartford, Connecticut.

I have a vague memory of my father saying that he was walking in front of the tank, with a member of the tank crew, looking for mines, and that one exploded, killing the other man and wounding my father, especially in the hand. But I have nothing in the documentation to confirm this story.

What I do have is a note my father wrote years later in conjunction with an attempt by the Army to get him to pay for some missing equipment. We’ll tell that story later, but the pertinent note says “The entire personal property of this officer was destroyed in a tank which burned while engaged in action against the enemy at Vergato, Italy about April 5, 1945. For verification see records of 81st Reconnaissance Squadron, 1st Armored Division.” Notice the discrepancy in date, April 5th vs. April 14th. Was there action at Vergato before the offensive started? (It was, after all, a reconnaissance squadron.) Or is the date wrong and this is the same action in which he earned the Purple Heart? I wish I had the data to tell.

Lesson Learned: There are a lot of heroes who never get their names in history books. World War 2 seems to about with them, and I count my father as one of them.

Second Lesson Learned: If you get a purple heart, keep it for your kids and tell the story. You may just want to forget it, but they won’t.

8. A Little Tourism

After Vergato, and after the spring 1945 campaign in Italy, the European war wound down quickly. VE Day was May 8, 1945. My father’s service record shows him as a personnel officer in June, 1945, probably one of the many officers working to return the troops to the United States. At some point between there and the end of December, 1945, he too was shipped home, and received his honorable discharge from the active forces on January 24, 1946.

But during the interim, he apparently got the chance to do a little European tourism. I have prints from a roll of film he apparently shot. The prints are about two inches by three inches. They were processed in Interlaken, Switzterland, sometime in August, 1945. I’ve included most of the roll in the gallery below, with my father’s own notations where they exist.

The pictures were taken in three places: (1) Mount Vesuvius and Pompeii, in Southern Italy (on August 3rd), (2) Mondragone, Italy, a beach town in southern Italy on August 18th), and (3) Lugano, Switzerland. So he and his friends got around quite a bit before coming home.

Lesson learned: take the chance to relax and enjoy when you get it.


Ten Lessons I Learned from Dad’s War Service Part 3: "Action in Italy" — 7 Comments

  1. Sir,
    I’ve been researching this unit for some time now. I’ve a 1LT Otto H. Pabst buried here. He was killed on 20 Apr 45. I however can’t find the daily report for action on his date of death. If you have information pertaining to action on that date I’ll gladly welcome it. We at the Florence American Cemetery use the information for our interpretation tours and the more information we have the better. I think I’ve his photo but I’ll need another one to vet the one I have.

    John M. Luncheon
    Florence American Cemetery

    • I wish I could help more. I have been unable to find daily reports or even my father’s Purple Heart citation, so I’ve had to piece together information from Internet research. Do you have reports from any part of that spring offensive. I would love to get even a few more glimpses into those few days of action.

  2. Hello:

    You seem to know more about the 81st than we do.

    My father was a staff Sargent in the 81st Cavalry Recon Squadron in Europe from Feb 16, 1945 to May 11, 1946. The patch on the left shoulder of his Eisenhower jacket is from the 1st Armored Division (Old Ironsides) the patch on his right shoulder is of a Lion from the 106th Infantry Division. Best we can figure is that he was trained in the states for the 106th but moved to the 1st upon arrival in Europe. His name was James D Macheske.

    Can’t find much on the 81st so just thought I’d pass this info in case you have anything to offer.



    • I wish I knew more about the 81st. What I’ve written has been pieced together from hours of internet searching and pursuing dead ends. I would love to hear anything you have learned.

  3. Great article. Thanks for sharing!

    I am the Secretary of the Board of Directors & Historian at the Takodah YMCA in North Swanzey, NH. I am currently heading up a project to research 12 young men that were lost in WW2. They were all campers that attended our summer Camp in the 1920s, 30s, and/or early 40s.

    Did you, by any chance, ever hear the name Robert Slade? He was a Staff Sergeant who, from what I can tell, served in the same place at the same time and in the same division as your Father during WWII. Robert, however, was killed on 4/22/1945 during the Spring Offensive.

    I know it’s a shot in the dark, pun not intended, but I figured it’s worth a try.


  4. My dad (Henry L. Ripberger) was a Staff Sargent in the 81st Recon of 1st Armored Division. Served in North Africa and Italy. Was with them when they first formed at Ft. Knox, KY back in 1940. I have a few picture of him and others, without captions. A map of their 1941 3 month maneuvers through the south, a very long, rolled up photo of the entire division it appears, or maybe just their battalion, but it’s unique. He (and mom and I) attended several of the 1st Armored Division reunions and mostly hung out in the 81st Recon hospitality suite. I sent away to the National Archives for copies of his record to see what they entail. Like your dad, mine didn’t talk about it either and finding old patches and normal medals (nothing heroic) got him to talk some, but he died in 1989 and I really wish he was here now.

  5. Hello,
    Do you know if your father was in Northern Ireland in 1942 for training prior to England and then into North Africa? If he was I might have a little information on locations etc.

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