Ken Johnson
Free Press Correspondent

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November 8, 2012
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Local WWII vet remembers "other" European war

He's tall. Ramrod straight. An old soldier now. He is a Purple Heart veteran of the big war in Europe that ended 68 years ago.

Today, it's almost like he's a veteran of some "different" big war. This soldier didn't make the Normandy landings on D-Day in June 1944. Instead, he was fighting in Italy for 11 months before that.

The soldier is Rex Raney, who served with the "Thunderbirds" of the 45th Infantry Division all through World War II.

His story is shared by others from western Colorado - National Guard members who became part of the 45th Infantry Division.

These days as we reminisce about Pearl Harbor and the Normandy landing, not many mention the "forgotten" battles. For the 45th, there is no forgetting Sicily, Salerno, Anzio and Rome, let alone their fourth amphibious landing, France.

That was six weeks after Normandy, shortly after they had helped liberate Rome.

This landing on the French Riviera also opened the French seaport of Marseilles so U.S. supplies could be landed. With that, all our troops in France were able to move and shoot. The 45th was a key part of the forces that liberated most of southern France in four weeks.

It took another eight months of deadly battles before Germany finally quit. The 45th wound up taking Munich.

And the Dachau concentration camp.

Raney was still in Fruita High School when he enlisted in the National Guard. That was 1939. A war started in Europe in September that year.

Like so many young men in those Great Depression days, a few dollars a month from the Guard was good money, and needed.

In September 1941, starting his senior school year, his Colorado Guard unit, the 157th Regiment, was federalized. It was part of President Roosevelt's plan to get America ready to fight the new war. Raney was able to graduate before soldiering became his full-time job for the next four years.

As part of the 45th Division headquarters staff, Raney was never far from the battle lines all through WWII.

From training in 1941 to action in 1943, Raney's unit saw 511 days of combat in their two years in Europe.

Even in France and Germany their exploits and efforts, pushing the Germans from the French Riviera at St. Tropez to Munich from July 1944 to May 1945, are pretty well forgotten these days. It's overshadowed by the battles in the middle of France following D-Day. The movie stuff.

The 157th Regiment, which had lots of other western Colorado lads, was one of the three regiments making up the 45th Infantry Division. Lt. Col. Felix "Larry" Sparks led a battalion of the 157th. After the war, the 157th came back to Colorado and its commander was Sparks.

Sparks, who died in 2007, was not only a fearless military leader for two straight years of combat (and two Purple Hearts), but a giant in Colorado lore. After the war, Sparks went to CU Law School, then moved to Delta. He wound up being a district attorney, a Colorado Supreme Court justice, a member of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, and the Adjutant General of the Colorado National Guard. Sparks had led the unit that liberated Dachau concentration camp near Munich, Germany, April 29, 1945. Sparks retired as a brigadier general.

A short look at the fighting 45th is pretty fascinating if you didn't have to be part of it.

The 157th, on five ships, reached Algeria in late June 1943. The African campaign was over as "The Desert Fox," Gen. Rommel, had been defeated by then. Our guys practiced amphibious landings for two weeks. They, and the rest of the 45th, were assigned to Gen. George Patton for a landing on Sicily.

We wanted an Italian foothold and time to build up our armies in England for the Normandy assault. The 45th was to get their first taste of combat as spearhead for the entire U.S. portion of the operation. (The Brits and Field Marshall Alexander were also involved.)

July 10, 1943, we landed on Sicily. It was no cake-walk. The fighting was a lot different from training. Patton had expected little from our "untrained amateurs" but they distinguished themselves in short order.

Patton later said, "The 45th is one of the best fighting units I have ever seen."

From Sicily, which fell in five weeks, we landed Sept. 3, 1943 at Salerno, on the "toe" of Italy. Salerno was next. That led, after tough lessons about Italy's mountainous terrain and German defensive skills, to our taking Naples.

The 45th and other troops then sneaked up the coast to Anzio, going ashore on Jan. 22, 1944. But for bad leadership, the 15-miles-wide Anzio beachhead could have let us trap the main German forces in Italy and shortened the war.

Raney, Sparks and 36,000 other young men, Americans and Brits, made a textbook amphibious landing at Anzio. The generals decided to leave them in that pocket while adding another 35,000 troops, instead of continuing the attack.

That strategy left the U.S. troops in a murderous kill zone for four months as we landed a total of 135,000 troops. They were finally ordered forward.

The initial landing had found the Germans disorganized and scattered. Our sojourn on the beach let the Germans quickly organize and push back. Hard.

Four months of shelling, bombing, strafing and waves of attacking troops. Far too many dead Americans and Brits. Rex Raney was wounded, a Purple Heart to follow. Sparks was wounded.

"I don't know whether it was artillery or a bomb," Raney said of his wounds.

Raney, who quietly described the various battles, didn't have any criticism of the generals. He did say, pensively, with a trace of a rueful smile, that despite Gen. Mark Clark constantly getting great newspaper headlines and news stories, building a very famous reputation, the troops didn't agree.

"We called him 'Mark Time' because of the months we were stalled," Raney said.

After the Anzio breakout, it still took a full month to reach Rome. It was 36 miles away.

Finally on the move and about to combine our Anzio units with those coming up the center of Italy from Monte Cassino, Clark ordered the 45th to change course and "beat the British into Rome." Instead of cutting off and capturing the retreating German army, the 45th entered Rome on June 4, 1944.

Gen. Clark got his headlines.

(Pres Walker, another Grand Junction boy but in another unit, wound up in Rome a bit later after having seen the battles in the North African desert. )

Aug. 15, 1944, they landed ashore in southern France. That French "second front" was on the gravel beaches of the French Riviera near St. Tropez and Cannes. An irony of that landing is that, by freeing the French seaport of Marseilles and the French railway to Paris, supplies could pour in directly from the U.S.

Until then everything had to be off-loaded in England, put in smaller vessels and shuttled to our temporary harbors. Think about the nightmare of just getting artillery shells to our troops that way!

Both the D-Day troops and those from the Italian campaign had supplies and fuel to move fast. And they did.

These battle-hardened veterans of the Italian campaigns liberated most of southern France in four weeks and carried the southern front all the way through Germany.

It still took another eight months of deadly battles before Germany finally surrendered.

The 45th had an enlisted guy who shared the soldiers' daily frustrations through cartoons, Bill Mauldin. They also had news coverage by war correspondent Ernie Pyle, who was nearly killed in Italy.

The Raneys moved to Grand Junction a few years ago after Rex's long career in the Delta County school system. Leaving friends of a lifetime was hard, but he needed to be closer to the VA Medical Center. He stays fit by walking a couple of miles a day. (I didn't ask if it reminds him of the stroll through Italy, France and Germany.)

Last year, another former National Guardsman, Dan MacKendrick, was his escort on one of the Western Slope Honor Flights to Washington. It was a modest thanks to a soldier who saw some of the toughest fighting in World War II - in that "other" European war.

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The Post Independent Updated Nov 9, 2012 04:22PM Published Nov 8, 2012 03:35PM Copyright 2012 The Post Independent. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.