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Private First Class William R. Armstrong Jr.

Rifleman

G Company, 141st Infantry Regiment

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William Robert Armstrong Jr was born amidst the glowing Victorian homes of the Mount Washington neighborhood in Baltimore, Maryland in 1912. His father, a veteran of the Spanish-American war, returned for enlistment as an NCO in the 91st Infantry Division when William turned 6 as the United States sent troops overseas to aid in the fight against imperial Germany. Upon return, his father moved around from job to job to provide for the family before settling upon a final career as a wholesale salesman for a Maryland candy company. The job paid well and William was able to grow up comfortably. After graduating high school in 1930 William found work as an insurance clerk and later salesman for the New Amsterdam Casualty Company. Like millions of other Americans, he watched the descent of the nation into another global war and like his father, was called to serve in June of 1942.

Once fully entrenched into army life William completed basic training as a rifleman and joined the mobilizing Texas national guard at Camp Edwards, Massachusetts as a member of G Company, 141st Infantry Regiment, 36th Infantry Division. Arriving in the unit prior to their departure, Williams followed the Texans across the ocean and arrived in North Africa on April 13th, 1943. The time spent in Africa was primarily focused on training the troops for Mediterranean combat and amphibious assaults while building unit cohesion between the guardsmen and the new additions like Williams. In early September he and the 141st boarded English landing craft and headed towards their first baptism in fire. At 0530 on September 9th William and his mates of the 2nd Battalion plowed through the clear Mediterranean waters towards Yellow Beach on Salerno’s sandy shore. Although landing after the other two battalions of the regiment, German machine gun and artillery fire was just as intense and constant as the T-Patchers made their way inland. William and his comrades didn’t have it easy and fierce counterattacks of Panzers and half-tracks sought to shove the 2nd and 3rd battalion positions back into the sea. The 2nd battalion played an especially important role in repelling the armored assault as they were in charge of the main road which led down to the beachhead. Had they not successfully held them off with rifle grenades and rockets, the entire division landing might have been at risk.

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The Battle for Salerno continued over several days but with a fierce will and resolve to win, the T-Patchers were able to beat back the Germans at every turn and secure their title as the first allied troops to land in mainland Europe. For the next few months, the 141st fought alongside the 5th Army in the drive towards Rome and the liberation of Italy. Williams marched alongside his Texas counterparts every step of the way, even getting his boots quite wet at the disaster known as the Rapido.

With Allied advances around Monte Cassino stalled, high command sought to open a new Italian front with an amphibious landing at Anzio. The 36th was assigned to create a distraction for the landing forces so Commanding General Mark Clark devised a plan for an evening crossing of the Gari (misidentified as Rapido) river on January 20th, 1944. While the first night consisted primarily of attacks by the 1st and 3rd Battalions, William and the men of the 2nd Battalion watched helplessly in reserve as comrades were gunned down in their rubber rafts trying to cross the raging river and those who made it to the other side barely made it a few hundred feet before meeting a similar fate. Heavily devastated by the previous night’s attacks, the 3rd Battalion was complemented by William and the 2nd the next night for another attempt at crossing the well-defended river. Morale obviously was not high as throughout the day awaiting nightfall the men were met by crawling survivors of the prior attack warning of the utter devastation awaiting them on the other side of the river. Hesitantly shipping off after several delays, William and G Company began their crossing at 2100. By 0550 nearly all units of the battalion were across, however, constant mortar and artillery fire caused consistent casualties throughout the night. Moving towards their main objectives at daybreak, G Company and the rest of the battalion did not get past the first clumps of barbed wire before devastating German fire began cutting down officers and NCOs left and right. The men instinctually hugged the few rocks and trees along the flat plain. By 1500 the regiment had lost an estimated 20% of its strength and only managed to gain a few hundred yards of ground across the river. All battalion and company commanders (excepting E Company) had been killed or wounded and the men were led by the few officers or noncoms left standing. The afternoon was plagued with strong German counterattacks and the GIs of the 141st could not be expected to hold out. A retreat was called and, still under heavy fire, the men fought their way back to the bank to get across to safety as fast as possible. By the end of the two-day fight the regiment had suffered over 1,000 casualties and the 2nd battalion only marked a grand total of 300 men left standing, William among them.

Landing at Salerno
Landing at Salerno

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Battle map of the Salerno landings
Battle map of the Salerno landings

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Evacuating wounded from the Rapido
Evacuating wounded from the Rapido

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Landing at Salerno
Landing at Salerno

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The fight for the Gari river absolutely destroyed the 36th Division, especially the 141st Regiment. William’s battalion, beginning full of combat-experienced veterans, was now dwindled to the size of a single company. The division primarily fought defensively for the next two months and received much help from the 34th Division in securing the line as they tried to recoup from the disaster of the “Rapido.” In March the unit was rotated into a period of rest and not long after William was forced to say goodbye to the 36th ID for good. Likely due to his status as a survivor of the 141st in the Rapido, William was rotated to a rear-echelon ordnance unit in the Service of Supply where he no longer had to deal with the harsh reality of combat he came to know so well over the past half-year. William called this period of relief a “breathing spell” and was able to continue service in a much safer and menial manner. During this period, he actually managed to pick up a new hobby which helped him cope with his memories of combat--fishing. Walking along a stream in Italy, he once encountered an Italian man fishing for trout and used vague sign language to ask the man for a hook. Before long, William was on the path of a lifelong fisherman.

William returned home sometime in 1944/1945 after completing his tour in Italy and returned home wearing the regimental DUIs of his prior combat unit with pride. Continuing his work in insurance, he later took over the house left by his parents who passed a few years after the war and in his free time mastered the art of crafting fishing lures for the hobby he picked up thousands of miles away by an Italian stream.

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Armstrong making fishing lures in his post-service years. Note his army musette bag he still used fo
Armstrong making fishing lures in his post-service years. Note his army musette bag he still used fo

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