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Private First Class Ross J. Farzo

Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, 141st Infantry Regiment

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Born in 1914 and raised in the small Pennsylvania town of Beaver Falls, just outside of Pittsburgh, Ross John Farzo was the son of two Italian immigrants who traveled to the United States in the years immediately prior to the outbreak of World War I. Settling down in the tiny community of Beaver Falls, the Farzo’s prospered and by 1922 Ross was a middle of 6 children all supported by his father’s job as a laborer with the local Municipal Water Company. Education wasn’t a super high priority for the family with so many mouths to feed and so as soon as he was of age Ross joined his father and helped to construct, repair, and maintain the various pieces of infrastructure which supplied the local areas with water and sewage. It wasn’t a glamorous existence but along with his two brothers and father, they got the job done. Times were not to be easy, however, and in 1932 his father passed away leaving the boys to provide for themselves, their mother, and three sisters.

After several years of struggle through the Great Depression, the Farzos came out, like many other Americans, to the call for war. Although none had ever ventured outside of their small town, six months after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor rocked the nation, Ross was drafted into service with the United States Army, leaving behind a brand new wife and a family which largely depended upon him. Following the completion of basic training and some general time getting to know life in the service, Ross received his orders to report to a Texas national guard unit that was gearing up for serious service overseas: the 36th Infantry Division. He joined the division as it was bolstering up its local forces to full strength and received his permanent assignment to serve in the HQ Company for the 2nd Battalion of the 141st Infantry Regiment. The division performed lots of training stateside before shipping overseas to Oran for more but it wasn’t until September of 1943 that they finally reached combat.

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Ross and the 141st alongside the rest of the 36th landed early in the morning of 9 September near the ancient city of Paestum. The fighting was rough and the 141st particularly was pinned down under heavy fire for several days upon landing, but the T-Patchers were able to rally and broke out, beginning a long and grueling campaign through the Italian mainland. The division fought up, down, through, and around the many Italian mountains, hills, and plains as it marched northward towards the infamous Winter Line stretched across the country. Making tremendous progress through Naples but getting held up in the fighting at San Pietro. Ross made it through this time unscathed but was yet to face the division’s most dangerous task of crossing the Rapido River.

With the winter line and Monte Cassino holding up the Allied advance, the landing at Anzio was planned to divert the German line and break a new foothold. The 36th, not selected for the amphibious assault, was instead tasked with distracting the German forces in the area away from the invasion. At the behest of 5th Army commander General Mark Clark, the target was to be an area along the Rapido River on the Gari, where German forces had dug in across the 40-foot wide waterway. Commanding general of the 36th Infantry, Fred Walker, strongly disagreed with the plan and attempted everything he could to call off the assault. Not only was the German position fully stacked with troops, but it had been built up over months and there was no defensible ground immediately on the other side of the river, leaving troops open and vulnerable to attack. Clark refused any such change of plans and after days of arguing, the command to begin the assault was given.

The 141st and 143rd regiments were the ones tasked with attacking the river with the 141st moving against the more heavily defended part of the line. The 3rd Battalion went over first the night of 20 January which was fairly smooth. When Ross and the 2nd Battalion went to cross the next night, however, things got rough. The water grew fast and the feeble bridges put up by engineers the night before had been destroyed by artillery during the day. The few boats they had been given were fully inadequate for the task, barely staying topside, falling apart and capsizing leaving heavily-ladened GIs fighting for their lives in the rushing water. Now aware of the 36th’s tactics, the Germans were not going to let the crossing go so easy. Artillery and small arms fire rocked the beach throughout the night and minefields all along the shore maintained a steady stream of casualties from those who managed to survive the crossing.

Evacuating dead and wounded from the Rapido
Evacuating dead and wounded from the Rapido

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Evacuating dead and wounded from the Rapido
Evacuating dead and wounded from the Rapido

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Ross and the HQ Company finally made their way across at 0400 in the morning on 22 January. Enemy fire had lightened up in the early morning hours but grew stronger as the daylight broke. As expected, the situation on the ground was an utter disaster. The German positions well-lodged and fortified in the hills rained continual fire on the GIs attempting to piece together ramshackle defenses out of the sand and dirt. Many companies were without their officers and clusters of dozens of men huddled aimlessly simply attempting to avoid the withering fire. Smoke pots and screens were deployed as daylight hit to try and hold the relief. The attack for the day went on as scheduled, but like the days prior, was beaten back brutally within the fire section of barbed wire. Digging in wherever they could, casualties mounted and the situation quickly dissolved into a fight for survival. Unlike his training and previous engagements, Ross found himself less than 100 yards from the frontline. The HQ Company men were no longer runners or wiremen, but riflemen, as every man was needed to help with the wounded and hold the positions. The entire regiment had only made it a few hundred yards up the shore and by noon no progress had been made. The afternoon proceeded accordingly and Ross found himself alongside hundreds of others abandoned across a river they never wanted to cross. Ross’ commanding and executive officer were both killed and every company commander except for one had been put out of action. At 1600, however, hell broke loose. The Germans, attempting to drive the GIs into the river, launched a massive counterattack which truly devastated the American forces. The fighting became hand to hand in many places and by the end of the day, roughly 50 surviving stragglers made their way back to the river and crossed in any way that they could.

The next morning brought confusion and solemnity to the 36th Infantry Division. In the span of only two days roughly 2,000 men were missing, wounded, killed, or unaccounted for. Among these was Private Ross Farzo. With so many men killed and wounded across the river, it took several days to find and figure out who was truly amongst the dead and who had been captured. A few days into the search and rescue Farzo’s body was found amongst a cluster of those who had been killed in the fighting on the 22nd. While the hospital was unable to make out the exact cause of death, according to official records he was killed in the field and brought back under a sheet.

While Farzo’s family was, like many others, first notified of his status as missing in action, it was not long before they received the second telegram notifying that he had in fact been listed among the 1,300 dead and wounded. To begin to describe the suffering and grief of Ross’ family is likely impossible, but they were not alone as hundreds of other families unknown to them experienced a similar fate. Ross was first buried overseas in a graveyard with hundreds of his comrades who fell alongside him but in 1949 his body was recovered and brought home for burial in his hometown of Beaver Falls where he remains to this day.

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