Bert Winzer, the son of florists, graduated from Emmaus High School in 1940 and made twine at an Allentown jute mill until the Army drafted him during World War II.
He volunteered for an elite commando unit of Americans and Canadians called the 1st Special Service Force, forerunner of today's special forces.
After a mission to Kiska in the Aleutians to oust the Japanese, who had fled the island just before the force's arrival, the commandos landed in southern Italy. They made a celebrated cliff-side assault on German troops holding a mountaintop, then attacked a series of smaller peaks.
This Memorial Day, Winzer, now 89 and living in Lower Macungie Township, remembers what happened at the foot of one of those mountains near Mignano, Italy, on Jan. 4, 1944, and his other experiences in the war.
Our company was trying to take the hill. We were crawling. The Germans could see what was going on, they could see us coming, but we couldn't see them. They were firing down at us, and we were firing back. But we were pinned down.
My bunk buddy Jake Zier was off to my left about six yards. We were behind rocks. He didn't follow the rules. If you're shooting at somebody from behind a tree or a rock, you don't come up at the same place twice, because if there's a sniper, he's aiming at that point.
Jake came up from behind the same rock a second time, and a bullet took the whole top of his head off. I can picture that as if it was yesterday.
It was a traumatic thing. I guess I went numb. But you can't let it bother you. You've got a job to do and you just do it.
The first real action we had was a month earlier at Monte la Difensa, between Naples and Monte Cassino. The regular Army lost 2,500 men trying to take it, and they gave it to our commander, Col. Frederick. Our fellas went up the back of the mountain, threw ropes up a cliff and came up behind the Germans. Takeoff time was 0600, and it took them three hours to scale it.
My company — 4th Company, 3rd Regiment — was supply at that time, and that was because we couldn't get anybody to supply us. Nobody would carry the kind of weights that we did. We carried the ammunition, water, meals, bedding, medical stuff up the trails after the initial group had gone up on the ropes and secured the mountain.
I carried a 5-gallon can of water on my back going up the hill the first time. Then we carried the wounded down. That trip up was six hours, and another six hours bringing litters down. We recruited prisoners to help. Those Germans were glad it was over. They knew they were going to a prisoner-of-war camp and that they would be alive.
Col. Frederick sent down for whiskey and condoms. What, are they having a party up there? The condoms were to cover our rifle barrels, keep the rain and dirt out. You just slip them over the end. You didn't have to take them off if you had to shoot. It was a doggone good idea.
After la Difensa, my company stopped being supply and we went into the front lines. We took these different, smaller mountains in the area, and that's when Jake was killed.
I had a little incident way before the war, when I was 9. Maybe it conditioned me for when Jake got hit.
My brother was 13. We were on our way to Sunday school, running up Harrison Street in Emmaus, a dirt road at the time. Suddenly he fell over. I bent down to talk to him. "George, what's the matter?" He said, "I can't see." Then he was dead. Death certificate reads cancerous attack on the heart.
Maybe that helped me. I knew that death was possible.
[In February 1944] we got into Anzio right behind the invasion and we were there for 99 days. We dug foxholes along the Mussolini Canal, with plenty of space in between because we were so short of men.
At night we would go through the Germans' camp on patrol and not let them know we were there, and we'd put these cards on their gear, DAS DICKE ENDE KOMMT NOCH, the worst is yet to come, so they'd see them when they got up.
The Germans were in foxholes about 30 yards back from the canal, same as we were. There were sentries, but we bypassed them.
The patrols were every night or every other night. It was reconnaissance to find out how many Germans were in the line and their positions so that we could direct artillery. We'd wade across the canal and sneak through the minefields — six people, a sergeant and some privates. I was a Pfc.
German planes would come over to bomb, and our antiaircraft would be firing around the beach area, and we'd hear the flak coming down in the darkness. We'd just flatten out and hope it didn't hit us.
Somehow the leader was able to find his way through the minefields, but we lost a number of people. One of them was the fella who shared my foxhole, Ronald Summers, a replacement we got while we were overseas. He took my place on the patrol that night. I'd been going out pretty regularly. Company commander said, "Stay in, send your buddy up." He stepped on a mine.
Our firepower was unbelievable. We had 60 mm mortars, .30-caliber machine guns, Johnson automatic rifles, bazookas, Thompson automatics.
I'd fire rifle grenades across the canal. My weapon was a bolt-action M-1903 rifle with an M-7 grenade launcher. There were two types of grenades, explosive and phosphorus, and I had six of each. You put the grenade on the end of the rifle and set the rifle down on the ground and it goes off at an angle.
We were the first ones into Rome, in June of '44. We were assigned to secure the bridges over the Tiber River. Before dawn on the 4th, we were going up this street, on a grade, toward one of the bridges and a sniper opened up with an automatic. The sergeant and I saw tracers going by. We hit a plate-glass window of a storefront and went through it to get out of the line of fire. Three or four fellas got hit. Some forward person took out the sniper.
After that, the Italian people came out in droves and actually stopped us. They were hugging and kissing us. Sergeant put a gun up in the air, let go about 15 rounds. They took off.
Three months later, we were in the mountains on the border of Italy and France, in a bivouac area right behind a little knoll, when I got hit. It was an international incident — German artillery fire from Italy into France hit me, an American; a Canadian gave me first aid; and a Russian-American Jewish doctor operated on me.
It was around noon. We were out policing the area, cleaning up tin cans, things that could reflect light. A shell came over the knoll and I heard it and I twisted to go down, and that's when it hit me in the shoulder. Blood was coming down my arm into the palm of my hand. One of my buddies said, "Hey, you better lay down," and another guy knocked me down.
They took me in a jeep to a field hospital in a good-size French hotel. The doctor tried to follow the shrapnel's path but he didn't get it. Later there were six Army doctors going around, deciding whether people would be discharged, and I said I still had pain in my shoulder. They poked around until I winced and they said, Oh yeah, it's still there.
I went back up to the operating room. They gave me a local, got hold of the shrapnel with a forceps but it slipped off a couple times. Then they flushed the wound, put a bandage on, gave me the shrapnel and I walked out. I went around showing everybody the shrapnel. In 10 days I was back on the line.
The 1st Special Service Force, called the Devil's Brigade and the Black Devils, received a Presidential Unit Citation and disbanded Dec. 5, 1944, in France. A parachute commando who never had to make any combat jumps, Winzer was reassigned to the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. He was in Belgium on Dec. 16.
"They trucked us in to Bastogne, and that night all hell broke loose," he said. It was the German counterattack, the Battle of the Bulge. "The Germans would attack, and we would back them off. There were a lot of tree bursts, shells hitting the trees, shrapnel flying around, and it was in the snow, so it was difficult getting around. We didn't know we were surrounded until the Germans asked us to surrender and Gen. McAuliffe said nuts."
Winzer received a Purple Heart for the wound he suffered on Sept. 26, 1944, near Menton, France. He came home in September 1945.
The next year he married Joyce Meeker of Allentown, whom he met in 1941 at a big band dance at the Empire Ballroom on Hanover Avenue. They had a daughter, Pamela Deppe, and a son, Kim. Joyce had multiple sclerosis and died in 1981. Winzer then spent 27 years with Elaine Behringer, until her death fromAlzheimer's disease in 2008.
He worked at the Ritter & Yost Plymouth DeSoto dealership in Allentown and at Cliff Motors in Hellertown before getting a job at Mack Trucks in the mid-1960s. At the 5-C plant in Allentown, he mainly spot-welded cabs in "the jungle," so called because of the way water and electrical cables hung down from the ceiling. He retired in 1984.
Winzer belongs to Lehigh Valley Chapter 190, Military Order of the Purple Heart; VFW Post 8282 in Breinigsville; and the 1st Special Service Force Association. In 1984, he was among 700 association members who went to Rome for the 40th anniversary of its liberation.
He remains friends with a Canadian who served in his company, Charles Mann of Kincardine, Ontario. A 1968 film, "The Devil's Brigade," tells the story of their unit. Starring William Holden and Cliff Robertson, it highlights the December 1943 assault on Monte la Difensa.
The 1st Special Service Force was nominated last December for a Congressional Gold Medal. Of its 1,800 men, 74 Canadians and 123 Americans are still living.
"We did what we had to do. What I am thankful for, really, is that I can say I never killed anyone," said Winzer, an active member of St. James United Church of Christ in Allentown — the church he was married in. "While I was shooting, somebody else was shooting."
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