“With Force and Spirit”
The 173rd Field Artillery Battalion in World War II

Fifth army patch

INTRODUCTION


The 173rd Field Artillery Battalion, U. S. Army, remains one of the forgotten units of World War II. Published histories of the Italian Campaign as well as internet sources rarely if ever mention it. This site accordingly is designed to provide a brief, basic introductory history of the battalion. The narrative is drawn largely from a hard-to-find volume, the official history of the unit, Capt. Benton Burns’ 173rd Field Artillery Battalion (1945). Interested readers should consult Burns for more information.

EARLY HISTORY


The origins of the 173rd Field Artillery go back to two groups on civic-minded men in nineteenth-century Milwaukee. In September 1884, twelve men joined together to form the nucleus of what eventually became the 1st Light Battery, Wisconsin National Guard. In 1916, with tensions rising along the border with Mexico and war raging across Europe, the War Department created the 1st Field Artillery, Wisconsin National Guard. The 1st Light Battery became Battery A of the new unit. At the same time, the National Guard raised two new batteries, Battery B in Green Bay and Battery C in Racine. Battery A deployed to the Mexican border, where it served from June until October, 1916.

Among the other Wisconsin units on the border that year was another unit whose later history would closely involve the 173rd Field Artillery of World War II. This was the brand new 1st Wisconsin Cavalry. In September 1898, another dozen men in Milwaukee had formed an honor guard to welcome General Philip Sheridan to the city. That group became the nucleus of a militia group known as the Light Horse Squadron. In 1916, the squadron was federalized as the 1st Wisconsin Cavalry, and like the 1st Field Artillery went to the troubled border. It served a year there before moving to Fort Sheridan, Illinois for demobilization. The nation’s entrance into World War I abruptly altered those plans. The army promptly ordered the 1st Wisconsin Cavalry to Texas, where it was refitted and redesignated as the 120th Field Artillery. Meanwhile, called into action, the 1st Light Battery became the 121st Field Artillery. Both Wisconsin units were attached to the 32nd Division. In France, equipped with three-inch guns, the 120th Field Artillery earned five battle streamers. Functioning as heavy artillery, the 121st Field Artillery fought in six campaigns and was similarly honored. When the war ended, the 121st was demobilized, but the 120th reverted to cavalry, spending the interwar years as the 105th Cavalry Regiment, Wisconsin National Guard. [1]

A NEW WAR

By 1940, war was raging across Europe and Asia, and the United States shook off its isolationism to prepare for possible conflict. On October 1, 1940, the army assigned the 105th Cavalry to the 32nd Division and once again shifted it to artillery. As the 126th Field Artillery regiment, the unit entered federal service and began training with 75MM guns at Camp Beauregard, Louisiana, and later at nearby Camp Livingston. In December 1941, after Pearl Harbor, the United States entered World War II. In February 1942, the 32nd Division was “triangularized.” At that time, the army united the second battalion of the 126th Field Artillery with the second battalion of the 121st Field Artillery, the regiment’s 155 MM gun battery. Together, the two battalions formed the new 173rd Field Artillery Regiment, initially under the command of Col. Waldemar F. Bredister. The new unit was equipped entirely with 155 MM “Long Toms.” What remained of the old 121st headed to the Pacific with the balance of the 32nd Division. In August, however, the new 173rd Field Artillery moved to Camp Gruber, Oklahoma, where it was assigned to the 16th Field Artillery Brigade, 10th Corps. As regimental historian Capt. Benton Burns later noted, “life became somewhat grim under a rigorous training program.” New recruits from across the country steadily diluted the unit’s Wisconsin identity. Meanwhile, more organizational changes also were in store. In February 1943, the new regiment was re-divided and separated. The first battalion became the 173rd Field Artillery Battalion, under the command of Lt. Col. Harry T. Ketcham, while the other battalion emerged as the 985th Field Artillery Battalion. [2]


DEPLOYMENT

Strenuous training continued until July, when orders came to prepare for deployment overseas. The 173d Field Artillery trekked cross-country by train to New York City and boarded the U. S. S. Monticello after midnight on August 21. The Atlantic crossing took twelve uncomfortable days, and was marked by an on-board explosion that killed a sailor and temporarily disabled the ship. On September 2, the men finally disembarked in Oran, Algiers, formally assigned to the 18th Field Artillery Group, Fifth Army. There they joined their old friends in the 985th as well as the 932nd and 936th battalions, the latter three units all howitzer equipped. More training followed until October, when the battalion moved overland to Bizerte, Tunisia. The unit’s commanders maintained a heavy regimen of preparation for the front despite heavy rains that arrived in November. Finally, on November 23, the unit boarded the Thaddeus Kosciuszko for transportation to Naples, Italy. Arriving in Naples, the battalion quickly moved south to the suburb of Bagnoli. [3]


Map: http://static.howstuffworks.com/gif/d-day-invasion-8.jpg


BAPTISM OF FIRE

The unit remained at Bagnoli until December 13, when it moved forward and went into line during a rainstorm near the town of Roccaravindola, on the banks of the Volturno River. At 16:17 hours the next day, Battery A opened fire, marking the battalion’s first action. Initially the unit’s three batteries took part in harassing and interdiction fire. On December 21, the 173rd FA hurriedly moved to a plateau near Rocchetta to support the 2nd Moroccan (Free French) Infantry Division in an anticipated push against the enemy. There the rookies of the 173rd discovered that they formed nothing less than the linchpin between the Fifth Army and the British Eighth Army to the east. Indeed, with neither army claiming responsibility for the position, the battalion remained perilously alone, without infantry support, until January 5, 1944, when a detachment of French North African Berbers known as Goumiers began nightly patrols. Between the still-rainy weather and steep terrain, Batteries A and C were not on line until Christmas Eve, and Battery B required two additional days. All the men celebrated the holiday on the 26th because, as Captain Burns remembered, the turkeys sent to them were so frozen that they required an extra day to thaw. The rain finally halted that day as well, but the temperatures also fell. Only half the men had overshoes, but all received the 5th Army patches they would wear for the remainder of the war. As a headquarters 155 MM division, the battalion would be assigned to no division permanently, but rather shifted to wherever its fire was most needed.

On December 28, the battalion began to pound the Germans’ Bernhardt Line at the town of Atina, hitting targets up to 24,000 yards away. German counter-battery fire initially proved ineffective, but on December 30 a German round killed three men on Battery A’s number 3 gun and wounded several others. The next day a blizzard swept across the ridge, blowing away the men’s tents and burying the position in snow. The winds meanwhile were fierce enough to blow one of the unit’s two observation planes 100 yards to the rear, even though it had been staked to the ground, and bend the wings of the other. Enemy fire continued to hit the battalion’s position as well, and it grew in intensity early in January, mortally wounding a private in Battery C on the ninth.

On January 19, 1944, the battalion again moved forward, to a valley near Coll’ Alto that was so narrow that the batteries had to go into position one behind the other. The weather remained cold and hazy as well; on January 25 six British Spitfires mistakenly strafed the unit’s Service Battery. As the First Battle of Monte Casino opened, French and Germans in the immediate sector attacked and counterattacked. The battalion maintained its fire to the point that the guns’ tubes began to wear out, finally requiring replacement in February. News of the Allied landing at Anzio on January 22 initially offered cheer, but as that offensive became bottled up, talk of quick entrance into Rome faded. The winter dragged on, with a heavy snowfall on February 10 and heavy rains subsequently adding to the men’s misery. A succession of infantry passed by as well: the First Italian Motorized Brigade replaced the French and North Africans in late February, while the new Polish II Corps came up in mid-March to participate in Operation Dickens against Monte Cassino. Finally, on March 26, the battalion pulled back to the rear near Pignataro. As the unit rested and refitted, army inspectors culled the unit for potential infantry replacements needed up front. [4]


THE ROAD TO ROME

On April 3, with the weather clearing at last, the battalion took a new position near Mintumo, on the edge of the Petrella Hillmass, and unlimbered in a pasture a mile inland and a mile south of the Garigliano River. The position allowed the battalion to strike the far-western end of the German Gustav Line, especially the heavily fortified towns of Formia and Gaeta, while supporting the 85th and 88th Infantry Divisions. Counter-battery fire claimed Pfc. William Earnhart’s life in late-April, while two of his comrades died crossing a mine field. On the night of May 10, the anticipated “big push” for Rome, the Fourth Battle of Monte Cassino, began with a massive artillery bombardment. First Battery B and then C and A crossed the river over the next several days in order to assail the enemy. Nearly encircled at Cassino, the Germans finally gave way. Allied forces including the 173rd FA now raced forward in pursuit, the battalion relocating over the next several days to a succession of positions in Formia, San Angelo, Itri, Terracina, and at the Abbey Di Fossanova on the edge of the now-flooded Pontine Marshes. There the pursuit temporarily slowed, but the battalion then moved on to Belvedere. On May 28, IV Corps relieved II Corps, but this brought no respite to the 173rd FA, which simply was transferred into the 77th Artillery Group, IV Corps. Acting with that organization, the battalion moved to Piperno on May 28. There, the battalion temporarily reverted to II Corps and moved up to Cori and then Artena to support II Corps infantry as well as the Anzio units that had broken through. Despite heavy German air attacks the battalion began moving again on June 4, first to Frascati and then into newly-occupied Rome itself. It went into battery in the Forum Mussolini, but did not fire due to the anticipated damage to windows in surrounding structures. The battalion remained in the city until June 7, when it took a new position north of the city along Highway 2. [5]


Map: http://dsf.chesco.org/heroes/images/GustavLine.jpg


ROME TO FLORENCE

On June 11, the battalion reverted to IV Corps command and went into support of the 36th Division near Montalo. Over the next two weeks, the batteries “leap-frogged” each other in constant movement north, with Battery C temporarily detached on June 22 in support of the 1st Armored Division. The battalion finally halted north of Bagleri, where it remained until July 3 in order to retube the guns. That night it moved to a new position south of Riparbella, where it remained a week while the Germans counterattacked all along the front. On July 6, Secretary of War Henry Stimson and 5th Army commander Lt. Gen. Mark Clark visited Battery C. Four days later, the battalion was on the move again, this time to Rosignano, recently vacated by the enemy. Four days later, it moved again, first to to Pastina, and then to St. Elmo and Tripalle. From there it supported the stalled Allied assault on Pisa before falling back to Peccioli for rest and refitting. On August 4, Battery C went back up front, but the rest of the battalion remained in the rear, only moving to an assembly area at Pode Urio. The batteries reunited at Monterappoli on August 18, remained five days, and then took positions near San Paolo on the Arno River. By this time the British had cracked the so-called Albert Line and taken Florence. There the 173rd FA remained, encountering only light opposition, until September 6, when it moved up Highway 65 through Florence and took a position just north of the city. [6]


Map: http://www.custermen.com/Maps/ArmyMap1.jpg


BLACK ROCK

With Florence taken, once again the Germans fell back hurriedly to the Gothic Line. The two armies raced up Highway 65, in Capt. Burns’ words “like a giant stone crusher swallowing towns whole and leaving piles of rubble in their wake.” The 173rd FA maintained heavy fire from successive positions in Le Croci, Camoggiano, Gagliano, and finally Gragano. Moving through Futa Pass in the Gothic Line, where the enemy had mounted a vigorous rear-guard action, the battalion went on to Traversa. While there the autumn rains and hated Italian mud returned. With difficulty the battalion went into position off Highway 6529 into a valley near Sambuco, which became a massive artillery park that included the 85th Division’s artillery as well as other units, 86 guns in all. The site became known in army slang as Black Rock for a notable landscape feature. On October 7, orders were received to move, but because of knee-deep mud and the steep terrain the actual movement was nightmarish. Bulldozers and tractors proved necessary to pull the battalions trucks and guns out of the valley. Only on October 15 was the battalion finally reunited at Qunizano, along Highway 65. [7]


A SECOND WINTER

At Quinizano the mud, coupled with the bad condition of the shelled highway, made immediate passage impossible. Indeed the unit needed local oxen and wagons to get food and supplies to the men. Literally stuck in the mud, the battalion came to a stop. Its commanders rotated men through the winter to the mammoth rest center at Montecatini, while those left at the front continued firing on the Germans, endured counter-battery fire and air attacks, and with difficulty given the conditions once again retubed the guns. Snow began to fall in December as the weather turned cold. One man died and nine others were wounded on November 10 when Battery A’s No. 1 gun exploded. Two more died from enemy fire on December 10, and another four casualties fell on December 28. An additional two men were wounded on January 4, 1945. On January 12, with snow on the ground, the 173rd FA began shifting to a new position several miles in the rear, in a valley off Highway 65 near Firenzuola, in response to a German drive down the coast. After stringing wire the men pained the guns white in order to make them less obvious to enemy aircraft. Food and ammunition sometimes became scarce due to the difficulty of supplying the position. Yet throughout the winter, the three batteries maintained their fire against the enemy, sometimes with an 8” howitzer temporarily assigned to the battalion. [8]


TO THE PO RIVER

From January 14 through March 15, the battalion was assigned to the 423rd FA Group before reverting to the 77th FA Group. The return to the old command signaled the beginning of a new campaign. Each battery in turn returned to the rear for retubing and repair. The new campaign, ostensibly for Bologna, began on April 15. The battalion maintained a heavy fire rate, initially from Firenzuola and then Sabino before moving to Mazzelli and Casalecchio in support of the 10th Mountain Division’s breakthrough. As the war entered the vast plains south of the Po River, both armies became more mobile as the Germans raced north, Taking prisoners as it went, the battalion pressed northward successively to San Giovanni, Crevalcore, and San Felice. At San Felice, on April 23, Battery A of the 530th FA joined the battalion as Battery D. The augmented battalion moved on to Gavello and Villa Poma. With the Germans heavily contesting the Allies trying to cross the river, the high command assigned batteries B and C to a two task forces mounted by the 88th Division and 91st Division respectively. Both task forces were to cross the Po as soon as bridges were in place. The other two batteries moved up to the bridge site. Evaporating German resistance, however, cancelled the task force plans. The battalion reunited at Zevio on April 28 and moved forward to Vicenza and then Castelfranco. The men of the unit took prisoners as well as a plethora of abandoned German equipment. [9]


Map: http://www.lib.utexas.edu/maps/historical/po_valley_spring_1945.jpg


FLORENCE AND HOME

The battalion fell back to Vicenza, where on May 2 the men learned that the Germans had surrendered. In the immediate aftermath, the battalion’s initial assignment was to round up and guard German prisoners before escorting them to Modena. Duties were otherwise light, and many of the men visited nearby Venice or Milan. At the end of May, the battalion moved to San Martino, outside of Verona, from which it continued to guard and transport prisoners until mid -June. Orders finally came relieving the battalion and ordering its disbandment. It fell back to Florence, minus men who did not have enough points to return home yet. Many anticipated reassignment to units headed to the Pacific theater, notably the 88th Division, until that part of the war ended on August 14. Slowly the battalion evaporated, men with the highest points leaving first, until the battalion officially ceased to exist on September 2, 1945. It left a record of over 500 days in combat and 129,877 rounds fired, It endured counter-battery fire 190 times. Pvt. Albert L. Sorrell won the Silver Star as a member of the 173rd FA, while 57 men won the Bronze Star. The unit lost twelve men killed and additional 46 wounded. Throughout the conflict the battalion lived up to the motto that appears on its units’ insignia: With Force and Spirit.[10]


NOTES

[1] Capt. Benton H. Burns, et. al, History 173rd Field Artillery Battalion (N. p.: n. p., 1945), 1-2; First Battalion, 121st Field Artillery, http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/agency/army/1-121fa.htm; The 32nd ‘Red Arrow’ Veteran Association, The 32nd Division in World War II, “The Red Arrow” http://www.32nd-division.org/history/ww2/32ww2-1.html. I used the copy of Burns held by the U. S. Army Military History Institute, Carlisle, PA.
[2] Burns, History, 2-6.
[3] Burns, History, 6-16.
[4] Burns, History, 16-28; Rick Atkinson, The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944, vol. 2, The Liberation Trilogy, (New York: Henry Holt, 2007), 454-55, 511, 528-21; Fifth Army at the Winter Line, 15 November 1943 – 15 January 1944 (Washington: War Department, 1945; reprint ed., Washington: Center for Military History, 1990)
[5] Burns, History, 28-39; Clayton D. Laurie, Rome - Arno 1944 (Washington: Center for Military History, 1994; online version, http://www.history.army.mil/brochures/romar/72-20.htm, updated 2003).
[6] Burns, History, 39-44.
[7] Burns, History, 44-48; Dwight D. Oland, North Apennines (Washington: Center for Military History, 1996; online version, http://www.history.army.mil/brochures/nap/72-34.htm, updated 2003).
[8] Burns, History, 48-55.
[9] Burns, History, 55-60; Thomas A. Popa, Po Valley (Washington: Center for Military History, 1996; online version, http://www.history.army.mil/brochures/po/72-33.htm, updated 2003).
[10] Burns, History, 60-69.


AUTHOR

Kenneth W. Noe is Draughon Professor of Southern History, Auburn University. His great-uncle, Pfc. Bennie Noe, served in Battery B, 173rd Field Artillery. All comments or corrections should be directed to <noekenn@auburn.edu>.