Colonel James F. Skells
3rd Battalion, 143rd Infantry Regiment
James Frank Skells was born in 1911 within a small cottage to parents both from London, England, who had moved to the United States and settled in the tiny town of Watertown, South Dakota. Despite their foreign upbringing, the couple had managed to find their way in America as Skells’ father landed a job as a banker. A somewhat typical young boy, he enjoyed playing with his friends, reading, exploring, and attending school. At age 11 Skells’ father lost his job and Skells, the oldest boy, had to help work to support his family as a paperboy. While working for the paper he became interested in military service and first decided to try a Civilian Military Training Camp (CMTC) in high school. Finding he greatly enjoyed it, his sights were next set on the U.S. Army academy at West Point. Although well enough, preparing for the academy was expensive and Skells spent an entire year focusing on work, eventually using all his life savings to travel to New York City, attending prep courses, and taking the entrance exams for the academy. Anxious and eager to begin, he was overjoyed to receive his appointment in July 1931 and, funded by the generous donations of several local organizations, began his studies that fall. The next four years of Skells’ life were spent at the academy, seeing him succeed academically and physically, and truly preparing himself for the leadership roles he was to have in the future. At graduation in 1935 Skells was congratulated by a speech from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt before receiving his commission and going off into the service.
Skells’ first appointment was at Fort Sam Houston in Texas where he was attached to the HQ then K Company of the 9th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division. At the time the largest congregation of troops stateside, Skells’ recalled that his time leading the unit was great experience for both training and small unit tactics and was particularly thankful for a company commander who took him under his wing. During this period Skells married his wife, Lillian, who he had met while at West Point, and settled with her at the fort. Both loved their experiences in the area, embracing the heavily Mexican culture, the public celebrations, and many friends they mad. In his last year Skells received important experience as the 2nd ID transitioned to a new field organization, moving towards motor-driven combat arms versus horse-powered. It was a new and big step for the Army and Skells worked as one of its primary instructors. In 1938 He moved to Fort Benning for various training programs, having his first daughter in the process, before getting a new assignment in 1939 to become a platoon commander of the 66th Tank Battalion testing light tanks. In 1940 he officially joined the 2nd Armored Division, becoming a captain and helping to train and organize the growing division. At one point on maneuvers Skells even got to share a field breakfast with General George Patton while in this role. By the spring of 1941 the division was mostly shaping up and Skells, a proven training officer, went to New York to begin working on the 4th Armored Division. While with them he and his family once again moved, this time to Fort Knox, Kentucky, where he began work with the 5th Armored Division as a motor officer. He enjoyed the position fine, but remembered this period fondly for his love of the Bluegrass state, spending many hours exploring all that its rural countryside and urban center of Louisville had to offer.
When Pearl Harbor hit on 7 December, things were rushed into action and by February 1942 he had moved with the 5th AD to Camp Cooke, California. Less than a month later, however, he got orders to move to San Antonio to take Aerial Observer training which he had applied to while at Knox. Back in Texas again at Brooks Field, he learned the basics of aerial operations, equipment, reconnaissance, and photography before getting an assignment to the 9th Observation Squadron in New Jersey, primarily a sub-spotting outfit. Although having no qualms, Skells got worried about potentially missing the war in this role and after being refused pilot training, volunteered to go overseas with his original armor or infantry branches. He got his wish, as well as a promotion to major, and traveled to Casablanca in June 1943. After a brief time in a replacement depot, Skells was assigned to Allied Forces Headquarters, that of General Eisenhower, in Algiers. Appreciative of the position, Skells was still hoping for a combat position and after a letter to the commanding general of the 1st Armored Division, he was transferred as the air liaison S-3 for Combat Command B of the division. Officially in a frontline ground unit, Skells sailed for Italy in November 1943, spending Christmas with his new command before first seeing combat in January 1944, supporting an attack near Mignano. His job primarily had him organizing air support and strikes for the division while on the attack, rarely finding himself right up front or in a strong commanding role. Nevertheless, it was still his riskiest job yet. Skells recalled one instance where he was in a high position observing the enemy for a prepared strike. As he began calling in coordinates and confirmation for the hit, his position began getting shelled as artillery rounds landed all around him, leading him to snuggle himself underneath a stone wall for cover. Despite the German fire, the air strike was successful, but Skells learned quickly that Germans could pinpoint radio transmissions and that he had to be careful. Eventually, however, Skells began feeling there was not much to do in this role as he continually received staff assignments that kept him busy and away from combat. As a result, he once again asked a division commanding general, this time visiting General Walker of the 36th Infantry Division, for a new role as a battalion commander. Having lunch with the general and his staff the next day, by that night Skells was assigned as the commanding officer of the 3rd Battalion, 143rd Infantry Regiment.
Skells officially joined the 36th Division on 3 February 1944. The command he had envisioned was not as expected as Skells’ battalion was around half-strength of its usual command with his heavy weapons company at less than 25% of their usual number. The 36th had been ravaged only a week and a half prior to Skells’ appointment when they had been tasked to cross the heavily armed Rapido River. With devastating casualties from the battle rocking the 143rd Infantry, Skells found his battalion in a weakened and demoralized state. His first day in command saw them move from the Rapido to lines near San Angelo, removing them from the immediate vicinity of the river, and then a few days later was relieved by the 2nd New Zealand division to move towards the village of Cairo. Arriving here on 5 February, the village sat at the base of Monte Cairo and was flanked by Monte Castellone, both large mountains within view of the mountain fortress of Monte Cassino, and both well-fired upon by German artillery in the area. The next day, Skells and his battalion moved after dark to assemble north of Cairo and on 7 February, they relieved the 3rd Battalion of the 168th Infantry Regiment, 34th Infantry Division along the Cairo-Terrelle road. Now once again in a combat defensive position, Skells had his men work to improve their positions and patrol the area while enemy artillery hit their supply trains behind them. The next day Skells, concerned about the positions, removed the men and met up at a bivouac area near Cairo where he and the battalion were attached to the 142nd Infantry Regiment. On the 11th Skells and his battalion were put on top of Hill 706 on the crest of Monte Castellone, taking defensive positions along the rocky crags of the area and organizing several combat patrols which were engaged by the Germans, causing some of their first casualties since the Rapido. That night Skells had a mule train deliver supplies to their position, specifically asking that all space not essential be filled with 81mm mortar shells to fill his weapon teams for possible action.
Little to Skells’ knowledge, his position was about to become the focal point of a major German assault planned by the highest command staff and a place where he would earn our nation’s second-highest decoration. With its flanking position north of Monte Cassino, the German command was worried about the allies using the lower mountain roads for a maneuver around their lines to hit the rear of their defenses. Although the allies had not realized this potential, the Germans had and decided to act preemptively to prevent them from taking advantage. Deemed “Operation Michael,” the Germans sent three full battalions to assault the American positions. The primary unit, the IV HochGebirgsjaeger (mountain) Battalion moved along the San Angelo hill towards Skells’ position on Hill 706 in preparation for the surprise attack supported by the infantry of the 200th Panzergrenadier Regiment. In the early morning hours of 12 February, while Skells and his men rested in their positions, a massive 109-gun artillery bombardment blasted their positions. From 0400 - 0610 the artillery, including 28 screaming Nebelwerfers, pounded the mountaintop, causing several casualties and pinning down the entire battalion with its blistering fire. At one point Skells’ executive officer convinced him to move around as the area around their command post was getting hot, and right after they did so it took a direct hit from a large artillery round. Had he stayed there a minute longer he probably would not have made it. Knowing a counterattack must be imminent with a barrage this size, Skells commanded his now amply-supplied mortars to begin dropping on all possible routes up the mountain (he had them zeroed in the day before on each possible avenue). The assault was massive. Containing nearly two battalions, primarily that of the Gebirgsjagers, slammed into Skells’ line, attacking ferociously with rifles, grenades, machine guns, and even the occasional hand-to-hand combat. Thankfully Skells’ mortars, skillfully sighted in on the avenues of advance, were able to make a notable impact on the advancing Germans but even so, the situation was dire. Seeing his line wavering and buckling under the attack, Skells decided he needed to act. Running forward on his own, he dashed between the battle positions on the frontline personally reorganizing his men. As spots became overrun or weakened he would guide infantrymen and machine guns to new positions with advantageous fields of fire. This was all done while running “with complete disregard to his own life,” as intense mortar, artillery, machine gun, and rifle fire blasted around him. At various points Skells found himself jumping right into the foxholes of his machine gun teams, personally directing them to point their fire at different clusters of enemy troops to break up their attack at key moments. To say it simply, Skells was all over and everywhere all at once making sure his line did not break, encouraging his men, and pushing them to perform with extreme courage to hold fast against the German horde. With his battalion severely understrength, he twice called in for reinforcements and slowly, was given larger chunks of the regiment to stop the onslaught.
The unit diary from the IV HochGebirgsjager Battalion described the fight as “bloody and cruel,” with repeated surprise and counterattacks from Skells and his men. It details Skells continually putting together positions on the slopes with trenches and bunkers made of rocks and stones that were difficult for the mountain troops to knock down, leading constant fire missions against the advancing attackers, consistently inflicting more and more casualties upon them. Eventually, however, the German assault penetrated the American lines, forcing Skells and his men back onto the other side of the peak. Although they had gained ground, the German suffering did not stop as their artillery continued pounding the former American positions despite repeated calls to cease. According to German accounts, this friendly fire caused almost 100 casualties during their brief occupation of the hill. While the Germans dealt with this, Skells was devising another plan. This time, using both his surviving men of the battalion and his new reserve units, he would flank around the side of the hill to attack the German positions and regain the ground. Taking direct command of companies I and K, Skells maneuvered the men around and launched a massive surprise counterattack while the Germans were still cowering from their own artillery. The attack was a huge success and the Germans were quickly routed out of the line and back down the hill, recapturing the position and regaining the critical point for the allies. Monte Castellone was saved.
Although the fighting was over, its aftermath lay all around the surviving T-Patchers as hundreds of dead and wounded littered the mountainside. While the GIs spent the rest of the day resting and securing the line, the next morning found a German runner approaching Skells’ position to request for a truce. After receiving approval from command, Skells joined Colonel Hal Reece, of division headquarters, and Captain Theodore Andrews, another 143rd IR officer, to walk down and meet the German representatives to begin the temporary truce. Skells, holding a small tattered American flag given to him by one of his men for identification, made his way with the others until they encountered a small group of German officers who looked similarly weary and disheveled. According to one of the German accounts of this incident, Skells and the others were “cursing and swearing in their language,” as they jaunted down to the lines, shaking their heads at the destruction around them. The German officers were rather cordial with the American party, conversing with each other and joking around before beginning what became a 4 ½ hour truce. One German officer told the group quite soberly, “today we laugh; tomorrow we kill.” With the officers overseeing the ceasefire, medics from both sides began to retrieve the German dead, the Americans partially for pity, partially to keep the Germans from seeing their defensive positions. After an initial three hours, the truce was extended due to the large number of casualties still needing to be evacuated, finally ending around 1330 that afternoon. By the end, over 165 German soldiers had been evacuated from the contested area.
The next few days were quiet for the battalion as snow and rain continued to afflict the already exhausted GIs. Although the battalion was put into reserve status, Skells continued to organize patrols to test the German lines around the area, as it was still a critical venture for the allied forces. An official report described the impact of these patrols as providing “great value” for the information they brought on the German battle line, praising Skells for the “skillful manner” in which they were organized, the detailed instructions they were given, and the precision of their information gathering which allowed the patrols to go without a single casualty. On 25 February Skells and his battalion were relieved by Moroccan troops, moving to Raviscanina for a 40-day stay of rest, recuperation, and further training in mountain combat.
The battle for Monte Castellone stood tall in the history of the American fight at Monte Cassino and in the history of the 36th Infantry Division. According to the 143rd Infantry’s after-action reports, the attack was repelled due to “the fighting spirit and resolved determination” of all the men involved in the battle, further stating that had they failed to defend Monte Castellone, “the entire allied defensive line… would have been seriously threatened.” For Skells’ “unusual gallantry and heroism” leading his troops through his selfless and courageous frontline actions on the battlefield, and during one of his first instances of direct combat command, he was put in for the U.S. Army’s second highest decoration for valor in combat, the Distinguished Service Cross. His official citation reads:
James F. Skells, Major, O-19830, 143d Infantry Regiment, for extraordinary heroism in action on 12 February 1944, on Mt Castellone, Italy, near Cairo, Italy. The Third Battalion was in a defensive position on the south slope of Mt Castellone when just before dawn the Germans laid down an intense mortar and artillery barrage lasting two hours. Following the barrage the Germans launched a fierce counterattack penetrating our lines, necessitating reorganization of the front line elements. With complete disregard for his own life under intense artillery, mortar, machine gun, and rifle fire he went forward to the forward elements of the battalion, reorganized the companies, placed the machine guns in position, and directed fire against the enemy. He then took command of the remaining elements of Companies I and K and personally led his Battalion in a quick, vicious counterattack against the Germans forcing them to withdraw. Accomplishing his mission he placed his reserve unit on the flank securing the Battalion’s position. His magnificent courage, outstanding devotion to duty, and superb leadership were a perpetual inspiration to the troops under his command, and reflect great credit upon himself and the Armed Forces of the United States.
Although Skells humbly credited his award to the actions of all the men under his command, his incredible bravery and frontline initiative played a major role to inspire and command his troops towards a final victory, securing a critical juncture of the entire allied line from certain defeat.
The period of rest allowed Skells to refill his battalion to a level not seen since before the Rapido tragedy. It was during this time that he was awarded his Distinguished Service Cross, on 11 April 1944, and received a battlefield promotion to lieutenant colonel. On 21 May, however, the long-needed rest came to an end as Skells and his men landed on the battered shores of Anzio. With shell holes and burning hulks dotting the landscape, the freshly rejuvenated T-Patchers were quickly put into action preparing for an assault on Cisterna to support the already-pummeled 3rd Infantry Division. Although only threatened by sporadic artillery fire, by 26 May the battalion, supported by tanks, engineers, artillery, and medical personnel, was preparing to advance through the 3rd ID line when a runner suddenly reached Skells half an hour before dark, warning him that the 3rd ID had already taken the city and that he was to immediately redirect his forces towards Velletri. Relieving elements of the 34th Division near the new target in the early dawn hours, all three battalion commanders of the 143rd Infantry went forward to reconnoiter their new situation. Skells went forth in a jeep with his driver and S-3 but, overestimating their distance, somehow ran straight into a forward post manned by Fallschirmjager all armed with MP40s. Caught totally unaware and without any ability to defend themselves, the trio had no other option but to surrender to the German forces without a fight. Skells felt that this was the end of the world, thinking “this cannot be me in this stupid predicament, I must be dreaming,” in shock that he, who had only just received his battalion command and fought off a massive assault at Monte Castellone was now to be handed over for imprisonment without a single shot. One of the paratroopers came up to him saying “for you, the war is over,” and as the group slowly got out of their jeep, hands held high, Skells’ time as a combat commander came to an end.
Moved back through the headquarters of the Hermann Goering Division, Skells was first put into a Rome movie studio that was being used as a temporary POW holding camp. Here the Germans attempted to interrogate him for information but apparently mistook his rank for their equivalent of a 1st lieutenant, believing he had to be a plant for someone of his age to claim such a low rank, so the questioning did not last very long. Once the allies began encroaching, however, he and his fellow prisoners were thrown aboard a train to begin a long journey northward. The second day of the journey, at a waystation outside Rome, fell on 6 June, the day of the allied landings at Normandy. Here he overheard several relieved German guards expressing great joy that the war would be over soon, allowing them to return home to their families. Traveling through Florence, Verona, and the Alps, Skells spent an extended time in Munich at an international allied prisoner collecting point where he was able to engage with countless members of the other allied powers, including a member of the Royal Family and numerous large-statured Sikhs from India (one of whom he befriended and received a chocolate bar from to take on his journey). Eventually, the train continued on through Regensberg where Skells watched a “huge armada” of bombers pound the town as they passed by, causing a huge tongue of flame to leap into the sky only a few miles away from them. In Leipzig, another bombing raid found the prisoners scurried off the train into an air raid shelter, with Skells noting numerous angry civilians accosting the guards as to why these foreigners were given priority over their own people. Finally, the trip brought him through Berlin to Schubin where he was offloaded and brought to OFLAG 64, an officer’s POW camp exclusively for American ground forces. Given the new name of “Prisoner #3243,” Skells found himself surrounded primarily by officers captured in the North African campaign. As time went on, however, more and more men from both the Italian and mainland theater joined their ranks, creating a tight community of American ground commanders all experiencing their incarceration together. The prisoners were mostly allowed to run things themselves, organizing activities and managing their own food and supplies distribution once provided by the Germans and the Red Cross. Skells himself even became a barracks commander, one of thirteen in the camp, and oversaw dozens of prisoners under his (unofficial) command. His primary concern during this time, however, was simply to keep busy, as the weeks on end could easily become dreary and drab if one consigned himself to his confinement. Picking up soccer and several other sports to keep his body busy, he retained his mental acuity by teaching algebra and other subjects to the younger officers, truly making the most of a tough situation.
Towards Christmas of 1944, however, the conditions in the camp began to worsen. Skells and his fellow inmates noticed the guards getting nervous as Red Cross parcels and food stopped arriving. The Russians were approaching. With no supplies or food, the prisoners resorted to turnip scraps and began to starve, showing signs of malnutrition and illness. On 16 January the guards randomly gathered all prisoners together, forcing them to grab their belongings and begin a forced westward March, abandoning the camp in the wake of the Soviet advance. On the first night, the column stopped at a collective farm near Exin where the prisoners were told to scatter throughout the grounds and barns to find rest. During the night, however, Skells had other plans, hiding in some straw bales in one of the barns. In the morning he listened as the column left, only leaving his hideout well after they had gone to find 20 other prisoners with the same plan as he did. The men paired off, splitting so as to not appear as a combat unit, as Skells and his partner headed east to find the Russians. They did not try to be stealthy whatsoever, encountering numerous Polish farmers telling them that all the German soldiers and settlers had left the countryside. Eventually, one farmer offered to put them and another pair up for the night, allowing them to rest finally free of captivity. On the next day they were preparing to set off when around noon a Russian patrol with a Studebaker truck, snow-painted half-track, and Harley Davidson motorcycle rolled into the farmhouse yard. With flowers adorning their vehicles from thankful Poles, the GIs approached them and asked for assistance to get back to allied lines. More than willing to help, the Russians brought him to a column of self-propelled guns whose crews greeted them, conversing in German with one of the American prisoners. The column commander was not as friendly, though, and shouted out orders which considered shooting the Americans as he had been warned the Germans may attempt to dress in American uniforms to evade capture. Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed and the former POWs made their way back to the Russian division HQ where they were questioned by an English-speaking division commander while sharing cigars. On the 18th they continued the journey to a corps HQ, this time being interviewed, filmed, and photographed by Russian war correspondents before returning to their old campsite, now a collecting point for liberated U.S. prisoners. Over the next few weeks, Skells mostly moved around Europe, first to Warsaw where he was kept with liberated Jewish prisoners, then to Odessa, Egypt, and eventually Naples where he was able to start fully recovering from the terrible conditions he faced his last months in the camp. In April he left aboard the S.S. Mariposa, the exact same ship that had brought him to North Africa so many years earlier, landing in Boston to a well-deserved 45-day leave with his family. It was with them that the European war came to an end and Skells, an experienced, decorated, and tired soldier, could finally rest.
Although Skells’ combat career was over, his service in the Army had many years to go. For the first few years after the war, he continued to move up the ladder, serving with Army intelligence in Washington, D.C. before a three-year stint with the 1st Infantry Division in Germany as the regimental executive officer for the 18th Infantry Regiment. In 1949 he returned home, getting an Army-paid degree in personnel administration from Ohio State and moving to the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel in the Pentagon where he played an important role in organizing the units and individuals sent to Korea throughout the conflict. In 1953, seeing the combat wrap up, he asked for a regimental command and was granted that over the 180th Infantry Regiment, passing parachute training as a refresher before heading overseas. He was well-regarded for his leadership of the regiment and received a transfer to command the 34th Infantry Regiment near Pusan which he whipped back into combat-ready shape, creating and initiating an intensive training program that totally revitalized the entire regiment, earning him the Legion of Merit. 1954 saw him travel home, doing doctorial work at the Army War College before going back to the Pentagon as staff for the Secretary of Defense, inspecting facilities, running personnel, working with the United Nations, and much more. After three years he once again sought a field command, this time in Hawaii as the G-1 of the 25th Infantry Division and head of division trains. In 1961 he began his final assignment, back in the United States, as the head of Michigan State University’s ROTC, growing membership to thousands of students and creating a nationally renowned program. Skells retired in July 1965 as a Colonel where he was awarded his second Legion of Merit for his instrumental services at Michigan State. By the end of his career, Skells had served over 30 years in the armed forces with experiences from company, battalion, and regimental commander to prisoner of war, aerial observer, executive branch staffer, head of division trains, instructor, and many more. Colonel James Skells truly represented the distinguishing traits of the excellent American officer corps and the epitome of devotion to lifelong duty to one’s country.
Many thanks are deserved to the family of Colonel Skells, specifically his son Peter, his daughter Pam, and her husband Arthur. Their assistance was critical in telling Colonel Skells' full and authentic story.