The Taking of Panini Pass

John Ross groaned as the bucket of water brought him out of darkness. As the room kept spinning he began to remember why he was on the floor looking at a pair of high-shined Army boots. He’d lost his temper again and told the company first sergeant “‘your wife is fatter than a barnyard sow.” He wondered if they would throw him in the stockade this time. A hairy, meaty fist grabbed his shirt and yanked him to his feet. First Sergeant Polowski said, “My wife is the Army, and by god, you will go and fight for your country.” John couldn’t believe the speed and power of the punch, with which the older and heavier man had blindsided him with. First Sergeant Polowski looked at John and said, “never take you eyes off of your enemy, consider this a private lecture.”

The troops on board of the ship were weak and pale from being constantly seasick during the long voyage to England. Many couldn’t remember the last time they had felt good. The never ending swells churned up from the storms continuously buffeted the old transport ship. To make matters worse the sailors were riding them good about it. Some of the troops on board were to be left in the infantry but a few of the select soldiers had completed parachute training and were the newly created special operations troops in the war against the Axis powers.

The coast of England was gray and forbidding as the old ship neared port. The fog never seemed to lift, and the damp air was chilling to the bone. Many of the men had recovered a bit of their swagger as they neared the pier for disembarking. The common thread of conversation involved women, drinking and food. Once ashore they were loaded on to transport trucks to take them to their new home nicknamed, ‘Soggy Bottoms.’

The tents were already drooping wetly from the constant rain, and the mud was everywhere. John thought to himself, ‘I will get through this damn war alive, come hell or high water.’

The bugle sounded reveille at 0500 hours on the first morning ashore. Fifteen minutes later the troops were beginning their 5 mile run though the hills surrounding the base. John always enjoyed the running and physical side of the Army since he knew the stronger he was, the better his chances to survive the unknown. The mix of Irish and Cherokee ancestry had created a strong, swift, yet stubborn individual with a very strong will. John knew that if he could keep from mouthing off to the NCO’s his life would be much easier.. Since his run-in with the first sergeant he had been keeping a low profile and trying to steer clear of trouble. Tonight, most of the men had been given passes to go into town as a reward for their hard training and long voyage over. Even the English beer would taste good after such a long, dry spell.

John dove into the pile of soldiers and began to swing at anything in an English uniform. Some drunken fool had insulted the queen and the English weren’t pleased at all. A large red-faced bloke swung, but John saw it coming and ducked. He threw a left hook into the exposed side of the opponent and when the soldier bent forward John unleashed an uppercut all the way from Oklahoma. The Tommie was out before he thudded to the wooden floor, one down and a lot more to go. The shrill whistles began to make themselves heard in the melee. The MP’s came in swinging their attitude- adjuster clubs on anyone who was still fighting. This time John controlled his fighting urge, and stopped his aggression in time. In stomped a small terrier of a man, but with a steely look about him surveying the demolished room. Clearing his throat he said, “my name is Major Andrews, and you will return to your troop areas immediately, and be assured, there will be consequences for this trouble.”

Three grueling weeks later, and the 509th was on the way to join in the struggle against the Italians and Nazis in the mountainous terrain of Italy. The group was finely tuned and ready for a good fight against the enemy. All of the long months of physical training, along with the homesickness had worked their tempers to a thin edge. John looked up as First Sergeant Polowski studied him with an evaluating look. The first sergeant nodded a quiet acceptance of approval at the soldier John had been molded into. Since their ‘private lecture’, John had buckled down and done everything and more that was demanded of him. John knew that everything that the First Sergeant had taught him would help keep him alive in the months ahead. Soon, they would receive their operational briefing from divisional headquarters.

The Colonel looked over the troops and said, “We’re going to drop behind enemy lines and our objective is to take control of a vital point called Panini Pass.” The Colonel went on to tell the men that the pass controlled the high point guarding the enemy supply line on the mountain roads. Everyone knew that this was going to be a well defended location, due to the strategic importance to keep control of movement and supplies. John knew the Italians were known to be tough on any battlefield, but in their own backyard they would be twice as tough. There was a long silence as the men digested the orders, and began to question their own preparation and inner strength. They would be leaving for battle in just three days.

The jumpmaster of the plane came back where the paratroopers were seated and yelled out loudly, ‘five minutes to jump.’ The Captain told the men to stand and attach their jump lines since each one had been checked out for correct rigging less than one hour ago. John clipped in and waited quietly as he thought about the family farm in Grady County, Oklahoma, and the friends from school, who were still back home living a much safer life. John thought to himself, ‘it’s time to find out what you’re made of.’ As that thought went through his head the line in front of him began to move. As he approached the open door the roar of the wind was like the sound of a tornado that was much too close. When the man in front of John vanished into the darkness of the night sky, he exhaled slowly and flexed his knees to relax.

The wind hit him like a runaway steer, and it took a moment to become oriented to the position of the stars in the sky. The chute jerked open harshly, but it was a welcome pain he felt. Once he the felt his descent begin to slow, he began to plan his initial movement before touching down on the ground. He knew that in theory they would all land within a mile of each other, but even in daylight jumps that was often impossible to achieve. He didn’t want to think of anything but the plan that they had been drilled with, and the positive projection given at the final briefing. He checked the straps holding his rifle and grenades, then felt for the 45 pistol that was next to his canteen. He dropped his long line with the hope that he would feel a slight push from it as the cord touched the ground a scant 20 feet before he would impact. John realized that the best he could wish for, was that no enemy waited below as he approached the ground.

With a hip jarring shock, John hit the ground with his knees tucked and rolled with the impact to lessen its effect. He quickly collapsed his chute and rolled it up, and then took out his 45 pistol while listening intently for danger. With no sound of enemy fire John began to move quietly looking for the rest of his squad. As they assembled silently the first sergeant spoke quietly taking roll call. Out of the squad of 45 men only 39 could be accounted for in the initial head count. As they fanned out searching in the darkness, they could begin to hear muted groans from their injured comrades. John silently cussed to himself about the six injured men that would have to be guarded and cared for, further weakening the squad even before they began their move for Panini Pass.

They began to move out at 0400 hours, moving quietly with only an occasional muted sound emitted from their equipment. The terrain quickly steepened, narrow paths ceased to exist, and then the near vertical climb began. The walls began to close in and the men came closer than was optimal for combat. As the grey sky began to show first light the first sergeant turned to look his squad over. As Polowski gave the silent arm signal they began to spread out.

The helmet flew off as the first sergeants skull exploded. The sharp crack of a high-powered sniper rifle followed. Everyone hit the ground and tried to find the direction of sniper fire. The enemy now knew that the Americans were there. The shrill scream froze the men in place as the shells began to hit around them. As the ground began to erupt with devastating effect, men began to die. Bodies were flung high in the air, sometimes only an arm or leg pin-wheeled in the sky. John realized that to stay in place, was to invite sure death.

As he gritted his teeth in anticipation of a bullet, John rose quickly to his feet and began to scramble upward. After an eternity of ten seconds he dove to the ground and rolled to the side as bullets sprayed the area. Taking shelter behind a large rock John signaled to the decimated soldiers below. Taking courage from his example, they began to surge up the steep wall of the canyon. The two hidden machine guns opened up from either side above them, and more paratroopers went down, never to rise again. They were pinned down and the artillery rounds began to walk up the steep gulley behind them.

John rose to his feet again and signaled the men to get on the move quickly. The remaining eight para-troopers moved on his command, but the two freshly inserted soldiers from the intelligence division crawled over to a fresh artillery crater, and quickly ducked out of sight. These two were not part of the regular team and had decided to think for themselves, and wait the barrage out. They never heard the shell that turned their bodies into a spray of red and brown earth. The old saying of, ‘ a shell never hits the same place twice’, was proven wrong. John shook his head at the sight before turning to get a visual fix on the two machine guns that had them in dire straits.

Quick, choppy hand signals from John to the remaining eight men and the covering fire began. Drawing from inner reserves, John soon had maneuvered behind the machine gun nest on the left. Saying a silent prayer he took out two grenades, pulled the pins and threw. Hugging the ground, the dirt and rocks fell around him, then only silence for a brief, short moment. Looking around the piece of rock that provided scant cover, John saw that his throws had been on the money. He silently said to himself, “Polowski, you old mule of a first sergeant, I will never forget your lecture.”

All remaining eight warriors of the 509th began to pour concentrated fire at the remaining machine gun nest. This strategy gave John the opportunity to climb even higher in order to bring death from above to the enemy. He pulled the pin on his last grenade and heaved a perfect throw that went just behind the gunner in the nest. He hugged the ground and held his helmet tightly. Nothing, but the sound of the machine gun firing at his comrades.

John thought to himself, ‘ now, the crap has really hit the fan!’ Carefully raising his head, he tried to take inventory of the opposition enclosed within the sandbags and rocks. He said quietly to himself, “John, me bucko, its time to shine.” He knew that he didn’t have the angle to use his gun on the enemy. It would have to be down and dirty time. He attached the bayonet to his M1 and checked that his 45 was still in place. From a custom leather sheath on his thigh he drew out the hunting knife given to him by his father after basic training. John’s father had told him as he handed him the knife, ‘John, I pray you don’t have to use this, but it belonged to my grandfather and it saved his life once’

John gripped the knife blade between his teeth and began his approach. Using the skills he had learned as a youngster years ago, when hunting with his father on the plains of Oklahoma. As John approached the nest, he quietly wiggled forward on his stomach to the sandbags in back. Rising silently as death, John took a slow breath and leaped over the top into the unknown.

He landed in good position, just behind the gunner and buried his bayonet between the shoulder blades of the enemy. He ducked and shoulder rolled to his left while drawing his Colt 45 from the holster. John fired at the same time as the ammo belt loader pulled the trigger on his Italian made pistol. John’s side exploded in pain, and as light flashed before his eyes, he saw the forehead of the enemy soldier blow apart from his bullet. John collapsed to the ground from the pain. The pistol flew from his hand as the boot made contact. The unobserved officer had chosen his time for attack well.

As the barrel caressed the side of his face, John’s hand began a frantic search on the ground for anything to defend himself with. ‘Dead Americani’, said the officer as his trigger finger began to tighten. John’s family flashed before his eyes as his left hand thrust upwards. With a scream of agony, the enemy officer looked down in surprise at the elk handle protruding from his inner thigh. The pain to John’s right hand intensified as the trigger was pulled rapidly in desperation. John had wedged his small finger in front of the hammer on the Italian’s pistol. He could pull the trigger, but it wouldn’t save his life. The blood gushed from the severed artery in the officer’s left thigh.

With a groan of final surrender the Italian folded to the ground, already the light was fading from his disbelieving eyes. John removed the weapon from his opponents hand, then pulled the knife from the dead mans leg. He carefully wiped the blood from the blade, and said a silent prayer thanking his ancestor and father for the gift. As John began to lose consciousness he could hear voices coming closer. He closed his eyes with relief, his comrades would see him to safety.

Two weeks later as John lay in the base infirmary the visiting American general saluted and said, ‘soldier, taking out those two machine gun emplacements opened up the way for the capture of Panini Pass. You earned yourself a silver star, and of course, a purple heart. Unfortunately for you, the doctors say your wound requires a long re-cooperation period. I believe this will best be accomplished back home.’ The general saluted John, and as he was walking away he turned and said,”that is one helluva bowie knife you carry.’

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