Sergeant Natale J. Sabbatini
Anti-Tank Company, 143rd Infantry Regiment
Natale Joseph Sabbatini was born in a southern Memphis suburb in the winter of 1910. His parents, both Italian immigrants, moved to the city when his father got a job as a carpenter with the local railroad. The fifth of a whopping seven children, Natale grew up in a small and cramped household as he matured in the bustling Tennessee metropolis. His family was a very religious one, devout Catholics, and it played a large role in his life. Upon graduating from high school he spent several years studying at the local Christian Brothers College while one of his sisters decided to join a convent and become a nun. The Great Depression ended his time at school, however, and he returned home to work, eventually becoming a grocer and clerk with the National Brands Store, staying employed here as the war began.
Receiving a draft notice in April 1942, he was given a deferment until being called again in September 1943 when he was finally inducted into the United States Army. Sabbatini’s first four months of service were spent doing basic training at Camp Blanding, Florida before he spent an additional month in specialized training as a heavy machine gunner, finally graduating on 22 January 1944. On 25 February he officially shipped overseas to join the American 5th Army in Italy which had suffered severe casualties over the prior winter attempting to break through the German winter line. He arrived on 20 March and was quickly attached to his new combat unit, the 36th Infantry Division, which was resting in reserve positions near Caserta. Unfortunately for the rising machine-gunner, the division decided he was best put to use as a mule-packer and handler with the 143rd Infantry Regiment’s anti-tank (AT) company. At the time the division had been spending much of its combat career crossing and climbing the mountains of central Italy, often too steep or cragged for vehicles, leaving weapons and equipment, like the 57mm guns of the AT company, hauled manually by mules and their handlers.
Fortunately for Sabbatini, he would never have to fully utilize this rather unpleasant job as the division was instead mobilized for action on the Anzio beachhead in late May. Mostly a flat plain stretching from Anzio to Rome, he was instead assigned as a gun crewman as the division arrived alongside the other American divisions in late May 1944. On 25 May the American forces began their assault in a massive attempt to break out from the Anzio lines. Deployed on the regimental left, Sabbatini’s company was tasked with defending the flanks of the 143rd from German panzer attacks which had commonly battered the infantry forces there before them. For the first few days of the assault, the 143rd was primarily in reserve, finally moving to the front line to relieve the 3rd Infantry Division on the night of 27 May. The next few days proved legendary for the division as they engaged German forces near the town of Velletri. Once considered a dot on the map towards Rome, the crucial crossroad point proved a last-stand holdout for many of the German forces tasked with holding the Eternal City. The 143rd played a significant part in the 36th’s attack by keeping the bulk of German troops in battle while other units on the flank worked around to encircle the city. On 28 May the regiment was hit especially hard by a heavy German armored counterattack as Panzer IVs and StuGs began slamming against the T-Patchers. Sabbatini and the other anti-tank crewmen worked tirelessly to hold off the onslaught, keeping the German-occupied while General Stack, assistant commander of the division, led a battle group behind the city unopposed. In the days after the capture of Velletri the division pushed deep towards Rome, with Sabbatini’s company providing anti-tank support along the flanks and rear for the 143rd. On 5 June 1944 he, mounted on the ¾ trucks which towed their guns, and the rest of the anti-tank company drove through Rome in celebration of the first Axis capital to fall.
The fighting was done yet, however, and for several weeks the division sought to stave off German counterattacks north of the city. While not as heavy-fisted as their time near Anzio, the German attacks included plenty of artillery which knocked out several guns and trucks of the company. One of the company’s most notable engagements came during a fight from 22-23 June when the 143rd was tasked with taking a series of hills near Gavorrano. Warned by locals of a heavy German tank presence, the anti-tank company was maneuvered into positions to assist in the assaulting infantry. Unfortunately for the gunners, their 57mm cannons proved ineffective against the German armor platoon consisting of three Panzer IVs and a Tiger, which knocked out the assisting tank destroyer. At one point the anti-tank company crews were firing point-blank into the hull of the tiger, doing nothing to stop its advance as rounds simply bounced off of the hull. It knocked out one of the AT guns and several other anti-tank teams, including three reinforcing tank destroyers, before the 143rd was replaced in the sector by the 142nd Infantry. It was likely a demoralizing experience for the T-Patchers, but symbolic of their special role in providing at least some anti-tank support for the largely small arm-equipped infantry companies.
Towards the end of June, the 36th was removed from the line and prepared to perform a new invasion on the coast of Southern France. Sabbatini and the 143rd participated in the amphibious assault, dubbed Operation Dragoon, by landing on Green Beach (near Dramont) with the 1st Battalion of the 143rd at 0945 on 15 August 1944. The fighting in Southern France was rather fast-paced and smooth compared to the rugged battles experienced in Italy. Pushing back the retreating German 19th Army was a mobile campaign with the AT company spending most of its time riding and maneuvering around in attempts to support the advance. They did see some notable success, however, when German armor did attempt to put up a fight. In one instance, near the Condillac Pass on 29 August, Sabbatini’s company was responsible for ambushing and knocking three German tanks all on their own.
As the Germans moved into their winter fortress of the Vosges mountains in October the anti-tank company found itself a bit less effective. Intended for use against armor in open terrain, the forested mountain valleys of the Vosges meant the guns were used somewhat sparingly to defend narrow passes and support infantry assaults with close-range fire support. During one of the 143rd more famous engagements of this period, supporting the 442nd Regimental Combat Team in rescuing the “lost battalion” of the 141st Infantry, Sabbatini’s company participated by providing defensive fire along the Biffontaine-Laveline line, keeping German forces from flanking the Nisei troops and T-Patchers as they worked to free the trapped soldiers. An interesting anecdote emerged from Sabbatini’s time in the Vosges when, while clearing a house in one of the villages he was positioned at, he came across an old WWI-era photograph depicting an American couple with a printer’s mark on the back from his own hometown of Memphis. Amused by the find so far away from home and decades after it was initially left there by a WWI doughboy, he wrote home in hopes of getting the photograph recognized and returned. Published by his local newspaper on 5 January 1945, several locals recognized it as showing the cousins of a local soldier who had served in the 128th Field Artillery during WWI. For some reason, he had lost the photo in the area nearly 25 years prior, now finally making it back home in 1945.
The Vosges campaign came to an end as the allies broke across the Alsatian plain and rushed towards the Rhine in the early months of 1945. After a month of rest in February, the 36th went back on the line to begin a renewed push against the repositioned Germans by crossing the Rhine on 7 March. The primary assault of this period came on 15 March when the division, driven by the 141st and 142nd, began attacking German positions along the Siegfried line near Wissembourg. The attack was strong but faced tough German opposition, slogging down after its first few days. The 143rd, at first in division reserve, was brought back into the fight on 20 March to keep the attack moving. It was on this day, or potentially the 21st, that Sabbatini himself was wounded while operating his gun against the entrenched German positions. Based on the unit’s reports it was likely an artillery wound and one serious enough to knock him out of the war for several weeks, putting him in a field hospital as the 36th finished the war in Austria. He returned to the company after healing but was not allowed to take over his former position as a gun crewman, instead becoming the company clerk and overseeing the records of the men. For the duration of occupation Sabbatini served in this role as the 36th celebrated the end of its combat career. On 9 December 1945 Sabbatini was selected to join a group of other T-Patchers heading back to the United States ahead of the entire division, which would follow a week later, arriving home on the 22nd, receiving his official discharge from the armed forces at Fort Knox on 30 December.