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  • James Houser

January 20, 1944 - The Rapido River, Texas' Black Day of World War II

Updated: Jun 1, 2021

January 20, 1944. American troops try to cross the Rapido River in Italy, and the result is a fiasco and Texas's worst day of World War II.

The 36th Infantry Division is the main force component of the Texas Army National Guard to this very day, and that was just as true in 1942. When the United States mustered for war, the 36th Division, composed almost entirely of Texas and Oklahoma Guardsmen, soon found itself en route to Europe. First to England, then to recently occupied North Africa, the division trained and prepared for commitment to the invasion of Italy. It fought through difficult battles at Salerno and the Italian mountains before it was finally prepared for a major stroke in January 1944.

36th Division lands in Italy - By U.S. Army Signal Corps in the National Archives

Allied forces in Italy were a mixed bag, containing not only British and American troops but also Canadian, South African, Indian and New Zealand divisions. The American troops were commanded by General Mark Wayne Clark, a very young and ambitious general who was a favorite of many of the top brass and senior War Department politicians. Problem was, Clark had very little experience in field command and was eager for glory. Clark's Fifth Army faced tough German commanders and soldiers in strong defensive positions throughout the mountains. He devised a two-pronged plan to break them: an attack across the Rapido River to hold their attention, while an amphibious attack struck behind the German lines at Anzio.

The 36th was designated to carry out the diversionary attack. Poor timing, bad weather, and lack of preparation meant that they would have to cross the river in shoddy boats. Many of the new arrivals were fresh recruits and had not been trained. Worse, the artillery fire that was supposed to suppress the German troops barely made a scratch on the Nazi positions. At 7pm on January 20, 1944, the two lead regiments, the 141st and 143th Infantry, slipped down the muddy slope to climb into assault boats and head for the other side.

The Rapido River, 1944

Once they landed, they immediately came under fire from the German 15th Panzergrenadier Division - a tough veteran unit that wasn't messing around. As the Texan Guardsmen struggled to secure a foothold, they were mown down. The 141st landed in a minefield and was instantly forced to struggle back to the boats and try to withdraw. Even though a second attack secured more ground, the murderous German fire prevented bridges from being laid and destroyed many of the boats, making evacuations more and more difficult. Without the bridges, no tanks could be crossed, and the infantry could not struggle against the hail of steel. After almost a day of fighting, the 143rd mostly withdrew, but most of the 141st was trapped and forced to surrender.

The 142nd Regiment had been supposed to follow, but the division commander had held it back when he realized it would do no better than the others. All together, the Texans had lost almost 2,000 men in their failed attack. The 141st and 143rd had been almost wiped out. One officer reported going across the river with 184 men and coming back with 17.

The attack was a fiasco, and didn't even accomplish its objective. The Germans reacted quickly to the Anzio landing and had it cordoned off and under siege quickly; they hadn't been fooled for a second by the Rapido battle. The price of failure was high, and Clark blamed his subordinates for poor execution of the plan, even though he had been the one to force the 36th to attack quickly and without enough planning.

Texan politicians were infuriated, even though a 1946 investigation by Congress cleared Clark of any blame. They felt the 36th Division had been sacrificed needlessly, but Clark insisted that he thought the attack had been necessary. Either way, the war in Italy dragged on, bloody, muddy and futile in all respects.

Mark Clark's name is dirt in Texas to this day. And they're not keen on forgetting grudges.

The best book by far for the Italian Campaign, including the Rapido, is Rick Atkinson's The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944 (New York: Henry Holt, 2007), part of his "Liberation Trilogy" that covers Allied forces from North Africa to the surrender of Germany. My only regret is that it doesn't cover the Italian Campaign after the fall of Rome on June 4, 1944, but that's another story.

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