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March 30, 1944 – Deserted city where Nero fiddled while Rome burned

Anzio and Nettuno run together along the coast of our beachhead, forming practically one city. There is really only one main street, which runs along the low blocks just back of the first row of waterfront buildings.[1]

The two cities stretch for about three miles, but extend only a few blocks back from the waterfront. A low hill covered thick with tall cedar trees rises just back of them, and along some of the streets there are palm trees.

I had supposed these two places were just ancient little fishing villages. Well, they are old, but not in their present form.

Anzio is where Nero is supposed to have fiddled while Rome-burned, but in more recent years he would doubtless have been sprawling in a deck chair in the patio of his seaside villa, drinking cognac.

For these two towns are now (or rather, were until recently) high-class seaside resorts. They’ve been built up in the modern manner within the last 20 years. They are much bigger and much more modern than I had supposed.

When you look at them from a certain place, they extend 200 yards from the water’s edge, forming a solid flank of fine stone buildings four and five stories high. Most of these are apartment houses, business buildings, and rich people’s villas.

Today there is no civilian life in Anzio-Nettuno. The Germans had evacuated everybody before we came, and we found the place deserted. A few Italians have straggled back in, but they are few indeed.

In the path of warfare over here, “business as usual” seems to have been the motto of the natives. Adult civilians have stayed in some places despite the fall of heaven and earth upon them. They’d stay and deal with the Germans while we were blasting their towns to bits, and those who survived would stay and deal with us when the town changed hands and the Germans began showering the same death and destruction back upon us. The ties of a man’s home are sinewy and strong, and something that even war can hardly break.

But in Anzio and Nettuno the expensive villas are deserted—the swanky furniture wrapped in burlap and stored all in one room or two. The little hovels are empty also, and so are the stores. Scarcely a door or a window with whole shutters remains. There is no such thing as a store or shop in business today in these two towns.

When our troops first came they found things intact and undamaged, but the Germans changed that. Little by little, day by day, these cities have become eroded and torn from the shells and bombs of the enemy.

It has happened slowly. The Germans shell spasmodically. Hours will go by without a single shell coming in, and then all of a sudden a couple of shells will smack the water just offshore.

A few buildings will go down, or the corners fly off some of them. One day’s damage is almost negligible. But it is cumulative, and after a couple of weeks you realize that less of the city is left whole than two weeks previously.

Today you can’t walk half a block without finding a building half crumpled to the ground. Between breakfast and lunch the building next to the mess where we eat was demolished. One man was killed, and our cook got a broken arm.

The sidewalks have shell holes in them. Engineers repair new holes in the streets. Military police who direct auto traffic occasionally are killed at their posts.

Broken steel girders lie across the sidewalks. Marble statutes fall in littered patios. Trees are uprooted, and the splattered mud upon them dries and turns to gray. Wreckage is washed up on shore. Everywhere there is rubble and mud and broken wire.

Yet this German shelling and bombing has had only the tiniest percentage of effect on our movement of supplies and troops into the beachhead. One day of bad weather ac tually harms us more than a month of German shelling.

It is a thrilling thing to see an LST pull anchor when its turn comes, and drive right into the harbor despite shells all around. And it is thrilling too, to see the incessant hurry-hurry-hurry of the supply trucks through the streets all day and all night despite anything and everything.

From all indications we are supplying our troops even better by sea than the Germans are supplying theirs by land.[1]


[1] Ernie Pyle. With Fifth Army Beachhead Forces in Italy. (By Wireless). The Commercial Appeal, Memphis. News Clipping.

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