Staff Sergeant Roy E. Yates
Private First Class Darwin D. Bruce
Anti-Tank Company, 143rd Infantry Regiment
This knife, known as a Cattaraugus quartermaster knife, was worn and used by two different individual soldiers of the 36th Division, seeing action from North Africa to France on their belts. Below are their stories and the combat this knife, but not all of its owners, survived.
The first soldier, Roy E. Yates, was born on his family’s dairy farm in the rural farmland outside of Waco, Texas. He and his three siblings grew up among the dusty and quiet farming community there. After three years of high school, he decided to quit and instead return to help his father run the farm as the Great Depression began to affect the bustling family. After several years of doing so, however, Yates decided to move on to other responsibilities and in November of 1940, enlisted in the national guard. Assigned to the HQ Company of the 143rd Infantry Regiment, 36th Infantry Division, he was still in service when Pearl Harbor shook the nation and brought the 36th into federal mobilization. He served throughout the division’s training period, maneuvers, and eventually traveled overseas with the division to North Africa in 1943 where he transferred to the 143rd’s anti-tank company, now a Staff Sergeant, likely leading his own section of anti-tank guns.
The second veteran, Darwin D. Bruce, was born in the tiny Oklahoma town of Drumright in 1922. At a young age, Bruce’s parents were divorced as his father ran off, leaving behind him and his other siblings to fend for themselves with his mother. As the man of his household he grew up working to help support his family and during his second year of high school watched as his home was attacked by the Japanese Empire at Pearl Harbor. Despitement his commitments at home, he could not sit still and voluntarily enlisted into the army in February 1942 where he was assigned to one of his state’s national guard units, the 36th Infantry Division. Attached to the 143rd Infantry’s anti-tank company, Bruce went on through much of the division's later training and shipped overseas to North Africa with them in 1943.
At some point during their time in North Africa, Bruce and Yates became acquainted with each other, likely while members in the same gun platoon of the anti-tank company. It was also here that Yates picked up this knife. Although the knife was branded as a “commando,” weapon, they were often purchased at army PXs as a utility tool serving both common everyday functions in the field as well as a close-quarters weapon if ever needed. While the division sat in wait for their own jump at the action in the Mediterranean theater Yates decided to spruce up the knife a little bit by carving his name, serial number, “North Africa,” and other designs into its sheath. In September 1943 time for doddling came to an end when the division was finally called up for combat duty, sailing towards Italy for their baptism by fire.
Both Yates and Bruce landed at Salerno with the rest of the division on 9 September and braved a hail of fire as their 57mm guns provided much-needed fire support for the troops suppressed by German machine gun, artillery, and armor fire. During the early campaign, German armor had a strong upper hand against the fledgling allied forces and thus their anti-tank company got its fair share of acting within their intended role, supporting infantry attacks and defending key positions from enemy tanks. The invasion took a heavy toll on the new division, however, and after a fierce fight spent several weeks in reserves recuperating, only going back into the line in mid-November. It was here that the anti-tankmen of the 143rd found themselves fighting a new kind of warfare amidst the mountains of central Italy. Assaulting points like Monte Maggiore, San Pietro, Monte Sammucro, and more, Bruce and Yates worked to provide fire support for infantry operations by lighting up German entrenchments, positions, and troops when spotted. It was a much different type of combat than Salerno, but they nonetheless played an important role in the division’s operations. By January 1944 they found themselves near the Gari River, misidentified as the Rapido, where they were soon to experience an action like no other.
On 20 January the division was slated by the commander of the 5th Army, General Mark Clark, to attack heavily fortified German positions across the Rapido as a diversion for Allied troops landing at Anzio. Although the 36th leaders knew the attack would be a suicide mission, they were compelled to carry it out anyway. While the infantrymen got in position to make the crossing, Bruce and Yates brought up their guns to an offensive position where they could fire upon the Germans while the GIs made their advance. The crossing began that night as the anti-tank troops attempted to provide supporting fire, however, they quickly became apprised of the terrible circumstances of their situation. The Germans, not only sitting in a higher position, had fortified their emplacements with numerous pieces of artillery and as the T-Patchers began their assault, quickly came under withering fire from the enemy guns. Artillery, mortars, machine guns, and more pounded into the infantry while the anti-tank gunners, firing at whatever they could from their disadvantageous position across the river, were similarly sighted in on by the enemy and met with their own hail of German shells. The artillery was nothing less than incredible and at one point, as Bruce and Yates watched their infantry get slaughtered from afar, an artillery round landed right next to their position shooting shrapnel all over the place. While Yates was unharmed, Bruce was not so fortunate and large chunks of fragmentation blasted into his arm above the elbow, across his shoulder, and in his back. One piece, in particular, broke the joint at the top of his shoulder, tearing the bones in his arm and leaving it dangling loose. It was an extremely severe injury and, likely with Yates’ help, he was evacuated to a field hospital. The battle went on for several more days and by the end Bruce was joined by thousands of his comrades.
While Bruce moved to a hospital for long-term recovery, Yates went on continuing to lead his anti-tank gun section through several more engagements before the division was once again put in a reserve position to recover from the massive casualties they had sustained at the Rapido and the battles beyond. In May the division rotated back into the line, moving to Anzio to join the other American forces preparing to make a massive breakout move towards Rome. It was during this transition that Bruce, although scarred and likely still damaged from his wounds, rejoined the company to continue serving in spite of his suffering. They arrived at Anzio on 22 May and a few days later joined the breakout actions, driving northward chasing back the Germans to reach Rome.
The fighting was intense as German armor launched several strong counterattacks against the American positions, giving the anti-tank gunners plenty to keep busy with as the rest of the infantry attempted to hold the line. Substantial action was seen at Velletri, a large German stronghold just outside the city, where the 36th engaged in heavy combat against the enemy for nearly three days, suffering numerous casualties in the process. On 1 June the city fell and the division moved onward in hot pursuit of the opposing forces. It was only a few days later, though, that tragedy would strike in the face of victory.
On 4 June the anti-tank company was providing fire support for “Task Force Stem,” a combined arms unit covering the right flank of the 143rd’s advance up the Grottaferrata-Rocca di Papa highway. Moving around several potentially hostile hills, they captured roughly 70 German prisoners in the process and successfully secured the flank for the ongoing movement. With this, the march into Rome was open. Steaming ahead with the other infantrymen, around 1300 hours the 143rd was hit by a large cluster of German artillery fire attempting to halt their progress. During this bombardment, although none could properly attest to seeing it happen, Yates was either struck directly by the impact of a German artillery shell or set off a German landmine. In either case, an explosion erupted and when the smoke had cleared, his body was nowhere to be seen. Yates, at only 26 years old, was killed in an instant. One second there, the next not.
With no identifiable pieces, or presumably dog tags, the army was unable to officially declare Yates killed in action and thus was marked “missing in action” indefinitely, with his body being notated as “unrecoverable.” Rather than shipping whatever presumed pieces of him were left back home, his name was left amongst a list of those unable to be identified and returned to their families. When it was erected after the war, the Sicily-Rome cemetery inscribed his name onto a wall honoring the missing as a reminder of the many American soldiers who, although they stepped foot into Italy, never left.
At some point, before Yates was killed, he gave this knife, which he had carried from Africa to Bruce. In his possession, Bruce stamped his name and serial number onto the blade and continued to carry it with him, although likely more solemnly after his friend’s truly terrible demise.
Bruce drove through Rome with the rest of the regiment but was down a close comrade. Fighting with the 36th for their last few weeks in Italy, he pushed through the pain of the loss and made yet another amphibious landing in Southern France. Once again chasing German forces back, August through September of 1944 were spent rapidly advancing with little time to unhitch their guns. As they drove the Germans deep into central France the battle moved from the fields of the French riviera to the mountainous forests of the Vosges, turning into a slogging match of rain, snow, and mud that found vehicles and the anti-tank guns almost useless. It was during this transition that Bruce realized his time to fight was coming to an end. As he put his body through more and more combat after recovery, the severe wounds he received at the Rapido reopened, causing him severe pain and aching to the point of hospitalization. Sometime in early October, he reported to a division hospital where they diagnosed a hernia within his shoulder muscles, deformities in the healing of the bones, and chronic arthritis across his arm, shoulder, and back. Rather than force him to keep on in such a state, the division put in for his discharge and was immediately sent on his way home for a Section II medical disability discharge from military service. On 23 October 1944, his service officially came to an end.
Rather than return to Oklahoma, Bruce decided to stay on the east coast and began a new life in East Boston. Although released into the civilian world, Bruce was classified as disabled from his service wounds and at first, had difficulty finding work as a result. In early 1945 he secured a job as a gas station attendant where he worked through V-E Day and into the summer. On 2 June, almost one year exactly after his friend Yates, who had left him with his knife, was evaporated by German artillery, Bruce found himself again in harm's way, but this time at the point of an American’s gun. While working late that night two men, one with a gun, approached him and began threatening him to give all that he had in the store. Primarily robbing ration coupons and whatever money they could find, the thieves tied Bruce with a tight cord across his chest, a rope binding his hands and another latching his feet. As they pulled tight on the chest cord Bruce began to cry out when his disabled arm, still malformed from the artillery shrapnel, shot with pain from the pressure. Sneering at him as a “4F-er” who had ducked military service, the men tied him to a pole in a boiler room and left him alone as they rummaged through the shop. The next morning the police arrived to find Bruce writhing on the floor in his office after he had managed to break free from the boiler.
Bruce didn’t stay with the gas station too much longer after the incident, instead marrying a girl he had met later that month and starting work at a bank to set out on a long-term career. Although his banking prospects ended in not-so-great circumstances (embezzling funds about 10 years later), he still raised two children and led a happy life up until his death in 1983.
While there is no definitive answer as to when this knife was given to Bruce, it is likely that Yates gave it to him either before Bruce’s wound at the Rapido or in the few short weeks that he was back before Yates was killed outside of Rome. In either case, the knife stayed with Bruce until his medical discharge, bringing it back with him to the United States as a reminder of his fellow soldier who was never able to return home and the brutal combat they both endured attempting to free Europe from Nazi tyranny.