For Rex Graham, Europe became an endless Hell

By JACOB PERRYMAN

jperryman@timesobserver.com

War can be a pursuit of inches.

Weeks-long trudges back and forth over a few contested yards are interrupted by days-long sprints over dozens of miles between engagements.

A slow toil to forge a road from objective to objective cleared not by machinery, but through the expense of blood, sweat and lives.

No one knows this better than the men who pushed into Axis-controlled Europe between 1943 and the end of World War II in 1945.

Men like Rex Graham.

Graham served as a corporal with the 45th Infantry Division, 1st battalion, 157th infantry regiment; a group that was tasked with invading Europe repeatedly.

“I was in Company ‘C’ and ‘D’ of the 157th. They were from Oklahoma, Arizona and Colorado. It was a National Guard division,” Graham recalled. ” ‘C’ was a rifle company and ‘D’ was a weapons company. ‘D’ they supported the rifle companies with mortars and water-cooled machine guns.

“I joined them as a replacement in North Africa. There was about eight guys from Warren in the 45th and we had gone over as replacements and so we got all split up. So we were in North Africa waitin’. There was no fighting on the continent of Europe yet. The 45th sailed right from the United States right there to North Africa and we were one of the first ones on the continent of Europe in Sicily. They were in Sicily 19 days when they needed replacements. They came right from the states and invaded Sicily as a full division.”

Sicily would prove to be the first of five incursions into Europe.

“I think we made two invasions in Sicily and they tried an end-run,” Graham said. “Then we made two invasions in Italy, the Salerno and the Anzio. Then we made that invasion in southern France.”

Graham’s summary of the journey belies the distance traversed, both in extent and effort.

“They invaded Sicily,” he began. “Sicily to Italy. After Sicily fell, there at Salerno we made the invasion. We made our way all the way around and there at Anzio is where we were stalemated. After Anzio broke out and fell, north of Rome. Then after Rome fell, we come back and took some more amphibious training. Then we landed near a place called Marseille, right there by Ste. Maxine. We went in at southern France and all the way in up through Grenoble and then into Germany. We swung clear around and come down through by Dachau, where the concentration camp was, and the day the war ended we were in Munich Germany fightin’ on the streets. On the way, our 3rd battalion in our regiment captured Dachau.”

A closer look at his division’s journey outlines a much longer, and bloodier, journey.

In July of 1943, the 45th division invaded Sicily during Operation Husky. By August, the island had fallen paving the way for the invasion of the European mainland in Italy.

“We started in Sicily,” Graham said. “I went all through there.”

The 45th landed in Italy near Salerno, which lies approximately 40 miles south of Naples, in September.

“My first company commander when we were in Salerno,” Graham recalled. “He pulled me out of a goddamn canal I was in up to above my knees and muck in the bottom. All hell was flyin’ and he pulled me out of there. He said ‘Keep comin’. Keep comin’ and I’ll get you out of here.’

“Then after I left them, this same captain, he got up a tried to take a machine gun nest out. The guys told me when I seen them again. They killed him and he was a hell of a nice guy.

“So we were some of the guys that made it, but we lost 100 guys that days. You have 200 guys. We lost 100 guys in about five hours and then the rest of us got out. Retreated back and they pushed through us and that was at Salerno. Just a lot of losses.

“Then they transferred me to ‘D’ company. ‘D’ company lost two sections of machine guns and two sections of mortars that were attached to us. So they looked up the records and they found out I was trained for it. So I got pulled out of ‘C’ company and sent to ‘D’ company.

From Salerno, Graham’s unit advanced nearly 81 miles through Italy to the 1943 German winter line in the mountains around Venafro, near the Volturno River.

“The winter line up in Italy, we were way up in the mountains and geez it’s cold and you had to contend with it,” he said. “At times they had to bring us sunglasses because there was no shade or anything. When the sun would come out on the snow, it finally started snow blindin’ ya.”

In January of 1944, the 45th division was moved off the winter line and prepared to debark for Anzio beachhead.

“Then they pulled us off the winter line and loaded us at Naples and we went in up at the invasion of Anzio,” Graham said. “That was a real thing. There was a lot of guys from Warren up at Anzio and Nettuno beachhead. There were guys with other divisions. I know Pelligrino was with the 3rd division and he was on there, and Nels Larson was with the 3rd division. He was with us on there.”

The division would spend more than four months on Anzio beachhead before allied forces finally broke through into wider Italy.

“Of course on Anzio there were a lot of divisions on there,” Graham noted. “What we did is we was gonna cut the foot off the boot of Italy and trap everybody down below. Well it was a good move when they made it, but they didn’t do it with enough troops.

“So we got on there and we got stuck on there. Probably about 15 or 20 divisions. We were on there for four months. We had a piece of ground with the ocean to the back and it was about seven miles deep and about 14 miles long. Christ they had a thousand guys on there just gettin’ hammered every day, every day.

“They really could throw some big shells at you. In Anzio, they had this big gun. Oh Jesus, they called it Anzio Annie and man. They had that up in a mountain in a railroad tunnel and they’d bring it out mostly at night. So they’d wheel that out of a tunnel on tracks and they’d fire that. Christ, you’d swear a house was comin at you. You’d hear that thing whistlin’. All the time we were on Anzio, that thing just shelled the hell out of us. They were firing that thing and everything else at us there at Anzio. That’s a big shell that come out of that. Boy, that thing really made a noise when it was comin’ through the air. They always said, if you can hear the bullet your safe, because if you don’t hear it it’s comin’ right at ya.

“We were on Anzio and they dropped leaflets tryin’ to discourage us. It was nothing but just constant pressure. You were under pressure all the time. Getting shot at night and day. Finally they broke out and took Rome.”

After the breakout at Anzio, the 45th moved north to secure Rome and the surrounding environs before being withdrawn for yet another invasion, this time of France. The 45th division invaded southern France near Ste. Maxine in August 1944.

“We made a landing in southern France and worked our way all the way up through southern France,” Graham recalled. “We traveled up along the Swiss border all the way up to Metz-Nancy. Then we swung down into Germany.”

From Ste. Maxine to Metz-Nancy is a journey of just under 475 miles through the southeast of France. Along the way, the division pushed to the German line at Villersexel before being recommitted west in September. The division met the German line near the Meurthe and Mortagne Rivers south of Metz-Nancy in October. The journey was marked by constant fighting, including the allied capture of Grenoble, France.

After 86 days on the front line, the division was moved to a rest area in November of 1944. At the time, they had been at the front 352 out of 540 days in Europe.

By late November, the division was recommitted and moved east toward the famed Maginot Line near southern Germany.

By December, they had reached the Siegfried Line, a series of fortifications near the German border that barred entry to the country itself. On Dec. 15, 1944, Germany itself was breached near Nothweiler.

January 1945 saw a German push back resulting in the 45th division falling back toward the Maginot Line near Mouterhouse, France.

In February, the division was relieved before being committed in March to fighting near the Siegfried line in the industrial centers near Saarbrucken, Germany. That month, the division broke through the Siegfried Line, captured Homburg and eventually moved east to cross the Rhine between Worms and Hamm entering the heartland of Germany. The division began a more than 300 mile trek through Aschaffenburg and Nurnberg and then south toward Munich.

The division took Nurnberg on Apr. 20, 1945.

“We circled all the way down and into nurnberg. There were really some good battles there,” Graham recalled. “We went through Nurnberg. When we was fightin’ at Nurnberg, our own planes strafed us one time. Cripes, I was glad to be in a big city were you could get behind a big building.”

After taking Nurnberg, the division completed the crossing of the Danube on Apr. 27.

Apr. 29 saw the division just outside of Munich, where they liberated Dachau. While Graham’s battalion, the 1st, was committed outside the camp, the 3rd battalion liberated the camp.

“When we was gettin’ near to where Dachau was, you could tell there was somethin’ they didn’t want ya to see,” Graham recalled. “They put one hell of a fight up tryin’ to keep them out of there but they couldn’t. Then they went in there and found all of these stacks of bodies and everything. That was terrible.”

Days later, on May 1, Munich was captured and garrisoned. By May 7, Germany had surrendered.

“When we finally got to Munich, that’s when we got our relief,” Graham said. “We started gettin’ better, but you didn’t get much time off of the line.”

Despite being eligible for discharge, it would be months before Graham returned home.

“After the war was ended, we garrisoned Munich for about a month and then they started gettin’ the 45th ready to head for Japan,” he recalled. “So, if you had enough points to get out they should of taken you out, but they didn’t have any transportation home. What they did was they took all of us guys with points and left us to garrison. So I got sent over to Austria and put in the first division and garrisoned up in the mountains of Austria. So I got out of there in October.”

The rest of the 45th that went on to the Pacific theater were alerted the war with Japan was ended on the way there. As result, they shipped straight to states.

“Cripes, they beat me home,” Graham noted.

Along the way, Graham garnered the European-African-Middle Eastern service medal with six bronze stars and one bronze arrowhead, a good conduct medal, a combat infantryman badge and a bronze star medal. He also walked away with something else many members of the division didn’t: His life.

“I lost, let’s see, about four company commanders, three first sergeants, then a lot of other guys,” Graham recalled. “The leaders, you know, that got killed, a lot of people think those guys are safe because they got a lot of stripes, but they’re just as vulnerable as the next guy, maybe a little more.”

In all, during the campaign in Europe, records list casualties for the 45th of 213 officers and 3,437 enlisted men killed, 740 officers and 12,989 enlisted men wounded, 1,431 officers and 40,138 enlisted men injured and 156 officers and 3,459 enlisted men captured.

“The hell of it is, you had to see guys go every day. It wasn’t like you was with the same guys every time. Cripes, you’d see a replacement and maybe three days he’d get hit and gone. Like I said, I lost four company commanders and I lost three first sergeants. I lost about two or three squad sergeants, but that’s the way it went. Just for some reason you never got hit.”