Cosmo Pizzo, Hero and Foot Soldier in WWII

Having been exposed to WWII military officers much of my life, I often wondered what it was like being on the other side—an enlisted man.  When I became an enlisted man myself I learned to respect the lower ranks.  Many years later I wrote about the Fifth Army in Italy in a book called “Full Duty,” in which my research showed how bad off the foot soldier really had it.  I was right to respect these soldiers, and I chose to write about one (of many) who suffered both during and after the War.  It was not an easy life after the German 88’s ceased trying to kill him, as my story shows.

Born in a poor, Italian immigrant section of Chicago on March 22, 1925, a little kid grew up on the streets while his parents both worked hard to keep a tenement roof over their heads.  Yet, they knew they were better off than they had been in Italy.  But one thing they did not know was that their small son, Cosmo Pizzo, was going to be an American Hero and offer his life for his country many times over.  And they had no idea that heroism leaves scars.

Cosmo attended public schools in Chicago when he was caught and forced to go.  The rest of the time he ran with local gangs learning lessons his teachers didn’t want him to know, but which served him well later on.  For instance he learned to support his buddies no matter what.  With a grasp of two languages, English and Italian, Cosmo made his way through a tough Chicago existence until June 25, 1943, when he was drafted into the US Army Infantry.  He probably didn’t even know what an infantry was.

Cosmo waiting for the Army

Transported to Ft. Logan, Colorado, Cosmo completed thirteen weeks of basic training.  He was smart and kept his head down.  He was also tough enough to withstand a very rigorous training period.  In fact, in some ways he was better off in the Army than he was on the streets of the Loop in Chicago.  He had regular meals and a roof over his head every night.

Then he was shipped out in a new unit, the 85th regiment of the Fifth Army.  Little did Cosmo know what lay in his future.  The Fifth Army was organized by the author’s first cousin, Major Laban Jackson of Louisville, Kentucky.  Jackson had been General George Patton’s Headquarters Commandant.  Because one of his guys organized the Fifth, Patton thought he would get command.  But General Eisenhower awarded the Fifth Army to another general he knew, Mark Wayne Clark.  Patton was crushed, but later realized it was for the best.  Cosmo never knew.

Here is a brief history of the 85th, the Custer division, as found on the Internet:

On 15 May, 1942 the 85th Infantry Division was reactivated. Basic infantry training was begun in June, 1942 at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, under the command of Major General Wade H. Haislip. In April, 1943, it participated in large-scale army training in the Louisiana Maneuvers near Leesville, Louisiana. In August with Cosmo among them, the Division was moved to Camp Coxcomb, California for desert warfare training. In October, the division was transferred to Fort Dix, New Jersey, for final preparations before shipment overseas. Major-General John B. Coulter was transferred as commander and retained this position throughout the war.

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The 85th left the United States on 24 December, 1943 and arrived in Casablanca, French Morocco, 2 January, 1944. It received amphibious training at Port aux Poules near Arzew and Oran, Algeria, 1 February to 23 March, then embarked for Naples, Italy, arriving on 27 March. The 85th soon found itself in the middle of fierce battles against the Italians and Germans.  Cosmo had a rifle; his job was to slaughter as many of the enemy as possible.  He did his share fearlessly and he protected his buddies.

A selected advance detachment appeared on the Minturno-Castelforte front north of Naples, 28 March. The Tenth Mountain Division was committed to action as a unit, 10 April 1944, north of the Garigliano River, facing the Gustav Line, and held defensive positions for a month.

On 11 May, it launched its attack, taking Solacciano, Castellonorato, and Formia. Itri fell, 19 May, and the 85th continued to mop up the Gaeta Peninsula. Terracina was taken and the road to the Anzio beachhead was opened. The Division pursued the enemy to the hills near Sezze until helped out by friendly forces from Anzio. The Gustav Line had been smashed and the 85th started for a rest area, 29 May, but was ordered to the Lariano sector which the Division cleared by the 31st. Driving on Rome, the 85th pushed through Monte Compatri and Frascati, entered Rome, 5 June 1944, and advanced to Viterbo before being relieved, 10 June.

The target of the 85th was Rome.  But they were held back by a German general who was much more experienced than Clark.  He was General “Smiling Albert” Kesselring, a man who kept good cheer among his officers and men.  The facts were that the Germans began to run out of ammunition, men and equipment.  The Fifth Army, on the other hand, had plenty of each.  It was supplied by soldiers from seventeen nations.

Kesselring knew the facts:  he could not hold Italy for a long time against such odds.  But he could retard the expansion of the Allies northward, and he did.  He was better at it than his predecessor, General Irwin Rommel.  Hitler thought Rommel was a pessimist and Kesselring was an optimist.  So he gave Rommel another assignment.  As it turned out, Smiling Albert controlled the Allies very well.

US General Clark knew his job was simply to keep fifty German and Italian divisions busy while the Allies formed an invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944.  Cosmo did not know the details; all he did was survive and make sure his buddies did the same.  He spent most of the next two years in the rain, snow and mud with bad food and wet clothes.  There were times when his group were told to attach their bayonets to their rifles and go fight the enemy hand-to hand.  This was very close-quarter killing.  It is one thing to sit back fifty or a hundred yards while you blast Germans into eternity.  But it is much different to face the enemy at arm’s length and stab them repeatedly in the guts with your bayonet.

After rehabilitation and training, the 85th took over the defense of the Arno River line, 15 to 26 August. The Division attacked the mountain defenses of the Gothic Line, 13 September, and broke through, taking Firenzuola on the 21st. The 85th advanced slowly through mud and rain against heavy resistance taking La Martina and gaining the Idice River Valley road, 2 October, and reaching Mount Mezzano on the 24th overlooking the Po River Valley. From 27 October to 22 November 1944, defense areas near Pizzano were held. On the 23d, the Division was relieved for rest and rehabilitation.

The 85th relieved the British 1st Infantry Division, 6 January, 1945, and limited its activities to cautious patrols until 13 March. After a brief training period, the 85th thrust southwest of Bologna, 14 April, pushing through Lucca and Pistoia into the Po Valley as enemy resistance collapsed. The Panaro River was crossed on the 23rd and the Po the next day. The Division mopped up fleeing Germans until their mass surrender, 2 May 1945, in the Belluno-Agordo area.

Through the entire campaign, the Division suffered some 7,268 casualties with 1,717 Killed In Action. Three soldiers from this division earned the Medal of Honor.

The mark of a survivor is that he is good at killing, at ignoring the bodies of friends and foes and at wiping the blood and insides of men from one’s boots after a battle.  From the outside it looks like successful war-making, but on the inside, it changes people.  They achieve victory for a while, but after the war is over they have to spend the rest of their lives trying to forget their successes on the battlefield.

Some actually managed to forget.  The author’s first cousin, Lt. Col Jackson, managed fairly well.  But others formulated strategies to deal with what they had seen and done.   Some were schizophrenics, some were alcoholics, and some woke up at night screaming at things no other could see.  That condition was called post traumatic stress syndrome.  There were as many personal strategies as there were men in battle.  Nobody was the same afterward.

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One thing marked the fighting men of WWII that seemed different from all other wars.  Soldiers just did not talk about their experiences.  Perhaps they should have.  Maybe they should have allowed their demons to escape in that way.

Anyway, it did not seem to let up.  Fierce battles went on for several years into northern Italy until the Germans surrendered.  Since the 85th was relatively new, plans were drawn up to transport them to Japan for the deadly fighting that would occur as Japanese protected their own shores.  (The Japanese demonstrated how intense their fighting would be as the US invaded Guam and other islands in the Pacific.)  However, President Truman ordered the A Bomb to be dropped (which had little effect) on the Japanese.  But Russia declared war on their former ally, Japan.   The Japanese decided they would rather have the Americans on their shores than the Russians and thus, the Japanese decided to surrender to the Americans before the Russians could arrive, and the war was essentially over.

Cosmo and his fellow troops were transported to Colorado where they were made civilians once more.  Then they began lives over again, never very far from their private hell.  If the war made them angry, frightened, mean people, that was they price they paid.

No doubt Cosmo wondered many times why he, essentially an Italian who knew the language in Italy, did not wander off from the hostilities where some of the most intense bloody battles of the war were fought, and reappear as a farmer on another mountain where men were in short supply.  But he didn’t.  He remained a loyal American soldier who did his duty, his full duty, in the lexicon of General George Patton.

Cosmo married soon after the war and began having children.  There were five kids in all and Cosmo should have been happy.  But the war had upset him in a personal way that went to the bone of his existence.  He died at the age of fifty-five in Arroyo Grande, near San Luis Obispo, California, hated by some and loved by others, but understood by very few.  Only those who went through his experiences could begin to understand what had changed him, or grasp the knowledge that heroism leaves deep, mean scars that no one can see.

Private Pizzo, one out of many, did his full duty; Americans are in his debt.  Cosmo, the typical GI, died in February, 1981.  Most likely he was still waiting for a German 88 shell to hit him head on.

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