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Technical Sergeant Adolph T. Volker

Platoon Leader and First Sergeant

C Company, 141st Infantry Regiment

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Born into a family of Bavarian immigrants in 1913, Adolph Thomas Volker likely got his first taste of German culture from a young age as he grew up among the forests and bustling towns of West Orange, New Jersey. Not long after leaving school early to begin an apprenticeship, Volker began his work as a tool grinder and maker with the local Essex Diner Company, creating appliances, kitchenware, and other materials for distribution at local eateries and wholesale retailers. Life was steady albeit punctuated by the occasional excitement, such as a car crash that flipped his car in 1935 and the wedding to his lifelong love just a year later. Rumors of war in Europe swirled as Volker practiced his now somewhat tedious trade. Following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor Volker, like many Americans, began dealing with a personal passionate desire to serve in the nation's bolstering armed forces to do his bit in the war against the man who shared his name.

Volker enlisted as a volunteer in May of 1942 and was well distinguished in his training, receiving the sharpshooter qualification on the M1 Garand as well as top marks in usage of the BAR. Upon completion of training, a now recognized leader and capable soldier, Volker received his first assignment to join the 36th “Texas” Infantry Division in Company A of the 141st Infantry Regiment. The change of scenery and pace was likely a bit of a culture shock to the New Englander but he nonetheless took the challenge in stride, even being selected to train in one of the division’s top schools for Intelligence and counterintelligence operations. In April of 1943, after what seemed like infinite training, he and the rest of the division began their trek overseas to Africa (for more training) before finally getting their first taste of the enemy.

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His discharge paper
His discharge paper

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With victories in Africa and Sicily, the Allies sought their most ambitious combat operation in Europe yet-the landing of American and British troops upon the beaches of Salerno, Italy. While Salerno was the main target of the operation, the men of the 141st Infantry Division found themselves farther south near the farming community and Roman ruins called Paestum. Waiting offshore on 8 September the men were warned that despite the recent surrender of Italy, the German army fully intended on keeping the peninsula and pushing any invaders back into the sea. Hearts were pounding and mouths were dry when the call to quarters sounded right before midnight of 9 September. As Volker and the Texans got into their boats, circling around the mighty fleet, it was not until 0330 in the morning that Volker took his first steps on Europe’s shores among the first wave of 36th Division troops to hit the sand.

 

At first, the going seemed easy. Flak batteries lit up the sky as the 1st Battalion men began to get their equipment together and prepped for moving. Just as soon as it began, however, the peace and quiet of the Italian early morning were broken by the crash of German artillery and thunder of incoming armor towards the exposed and vulnerable T-Patchers.

The landing area of the 141st, called Blue Beach, formed the right flank of the regiment and consisted of almost entirely flat farming terrain occasionally dotted by shallow irrigation ditches and scrub of brush. With no meaningful forms of cover Volker and his men quickly dove into the little crevices and sought camouflage amongst the scattered vegetation. The German fire was fierce, coming from a crossfire setup amongst the hills at the edge of the region. As dawn came so too did a more direct and fierce German counterattack. Supported by five Panzer IV tanks, German infantry and light vehicles assaulted the fledgling regiment, going as far as overrunning and cutting off the entire battalion from its unit until they were forced to retreat under heavy grenade bombardment. At this point the battalion was practically neutralized as an offensive force, suffering heavy casualties and put into a state of emergency defense to ensure bare survival.

After a day of withering fire and nonstop German attack, the 141st Infantry decided it was time to go on the offensive. Maneuvering the 2nd and 3rd Battalions around the 1st in an attempt to free and regain it, the 1st Battalion too took up what men it could and sought to break its way out of the German kill zone. Then Private First Class Volker was sitting in a ditch as he noticed two squads from Company A approaching in a vector to fall right into what he knew was a German ambush. Jumping to his feet and grabbing his Garand, Volker unhesitatingly found two nearby GIs to come with him and signaled for the two squads to halt. Curious but hesitant, the two squads watched as Volker took his two companions on a “daring flanking maneuver” around a set of rocks and trees which Volker envisioned to hold some sort of German forces. Artillery and mortar fire landed all around them as the three men ran their way around the positions under small arms fire to get around and get at the possible danger. Eventually, Volker’s predictions proved true and the trio began to open fire on a group of 10 German soldiers huddled around a light field gun waiting to ambush any Americans that had walked down the path. Calmly directing the other two GIs, Volker brought effective fire upon the position and managed to kill one German in the fighting. The remaining nine, confused, trapped, and terrified, threw down their arms and called out in surrender to the unseen American force. Now the Germans found themselves a new Adolph to report to.

A photograph from Red Beach at Paestum
A photograph from Red Beach at Paestum

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A stateside press release about Volker's Silver Star action
A stateside press release about Volker's Silver Star action

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A map of the 36th ID landings at Salerno
A map of the 36th ID landings at Salerno

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A photograph from Red Beach at Paestum
A photograph from Red Beach at Paestum

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In addition to the prisoners, Volker captured two light field guns and thanks to his actions, allowed Company A to continue their advance to break the German grip on the beachhead, later joining the other two battalions in pushing back the determined embedded defenders. In recognition of his valorous actions and their major role in the success of A Company on the beach, Volker was awarded America’s third-highest medal for valor, the Silver Star.

With a bump in rank and prestige, Volker followed the 141st as they made their way through the Italian continent towards the Gothic line. Performing new mountain-warfare-specific training after the landings, the division eventually came to face their biggest obstacle yet— San Pietro. An ancient village nestled under the shadow of the gargantuan Hill 730, also known as Mt. Sambucaro. Moving back onto the line after 10 days of rest on the night of December 16-17, the 1st Battalion of the 141st made its way northeast of the mountains to secure the left flank of the divisional line. The next day the battle began as the 143rd Infantry sought to clear out the mountain villages while the 1st Battalion was tasked with beginning the assault on the heights of San Vittore, the start of taking Hill 730. The battle was a near-vertical climb with fighting taking place amongst rocky crags and cliff faces. Men tossed hand grenades and peaked through rocky cracks in order to attempt to get a line on the enemy forces. The fighting was extremely rough and when a torrential downpour hit the area on the 20th, all roads turned into a quagmire of mud, delaying food, water, and ammo from reaching the now fully engaged 1st Battalion up on the heights. It was here that Volker decided to once again push himself beyond all limits in service to his country. Volunteering for the supply train, Volker now found himself loading his body with back-breaking amounts of supplies to walk up the mountain for use by his battalion. Burdened down to the point of collapse, Volker consistently and continually made trips over sleet-laden, heavily muddied, rain-flooded, and hostile fire-filled rocky cliff faces in order to bring the battalion the crucial supplies they needed on his own bareback. Each trip took over nine hours but with “superhuman effort,” he carried on the body-breaking task for six days straight without reprieve. For his incredible feat of strength, will, and devotion to his fellow soldiers, he was awarded the Bronze Star.

Thanks to the help of men like Volker sacrificing all their strength to keep the battalion on the move, the GIs eventually made their way towards the top of the mountain but became stuck on a height with German forces heavily entrenched across the peak. Under such extreme exhaustion and counting many casualties, allied command decided to launch a specialized operation to finally push the Germans off the hill. Volker and Company A were attached to a unit of elite commandos from the First Special Service Forces (FSSF) and tasked with undergoing a secretive nighttime raid on the German positions to finally and permanently dislodge them from the massive mountain fortress. The attack began on 0200 on Christmas Day and thankfully the hill was taken with only light resistance. Unfortunately for Volker, however, he became one of the battalion’s only casualties when he was wounded during the assault. The wound was not too serious and he did not spend too much time in the aid station, but it was enough to award him the Purple Heart while his regiment was getting its final relief on December 28.

The following month became infamous in its operations for the 36th Division. As a member of Company A, Volker was involved in the first-wave assault across the disastrous Rapido River. Joining his fellow GIs to cross the raging river under heavy artillery in small rubber boats, Volker was one of the lucky few to not get wounded or killed in the withering fire. By the end of the battle his battalion remained with a measly 10 officers and 66 enlisted men standing, Volker among them. The fighting would not let up, however, and less than two weeks later his battalion was combined with the similarly battered 3rd Battalion to begin their part in the attack on the mountaintop abbey of Monte Cassino.

Monte Sambucaro at San Pietro
Monte Sambucaro at San Pietro

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Location of the FSSF-141st IR assault
Location of the FSSF-141st IR assault

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A German position at San Pietro
A German position at San Pietro

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Monte Sambucaro at San Pietro
Monte Sambucaro at San Pietro

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Monte Cassino, a key stronghold in the German line held by veteran Fallschirmjager units, had been under fire from Allied forces for a decent amount of time before the 36th Division came in to relieve the 34th. The 141st specifically relieved their infantry upon the mountain's southern base on February 9 as the battle-weary T-Patchers looked to find yet another staggering salient before them. With no time for rest, the regiment was sent immediately into battle and the 1st Battalion (joined with 3rd and parts of 2nd) was tasked with taking an area known as “Snake Head Ridge.” The fighting was brutal as men crawled up rocks and cliff faces, through ruins and crumbled walls, tossing grenades in close quarters up hills in any attempt to hit the enemy, using a grand total of 1,300 grenades within the first few days of the fight. Due to the German’s advantageous high ground positions, any movement had to be done at night with all the valley floor and surrounding area subject to brutal enemy fire during the day. Nonstop rainstorms turned the already treacherous mountain into a pile of mud and slush, causing logistical and maneuvering issues. By the time it had captured a few of the ridges, the 141st was practically a skeleton and desperately held on to what little terrain it had for over 10 days while praying for quick and sudden relief. Volker, having fought nonstop since the landings, somehow still found a burst of energy to perform above the call of duty.

On the night of February 24-25, the battalion task force sent out a patrol consisting of one officer and three enlisted men, Volker among them. Their task was to sneak around the south of the regimental positions and onto Hill 517, the location of a German Fallschirmajger company that had been battering them with countless hidden gun positions. Once reaching the area, Volker volunteered for the most dangerous of the mission and “skillfully infiltrated” the German lines to scout out nearby gun positions, mines, observation posts, and any other German strongpoint he could find. Returning to the patrol on completion of his task, Volker and the others ran into a sentry guarding some ruins on the hill, killing him silently, and searching the body for further intelligence. While doing so, three Germans spotted the group and rushed them from behind, starting a close-quarters firefight which ended in the deaths of all three Germans without a single casualty to the patrol. Although alive, the fighting alerted nearby German positions as machine guns and mortars opened up on the patrol with illuminating flares fired over the entire area. Volker and his compatriots were unfounded and managed to take out a further two machine-gun nests with rifle grenades and another with rifle fire before they were forced to withdraw, splitting up but returning all safe and sound back to their lines. Upon report, Volker’s intelligence proved extremely accurate, and regimental mortars began to rain down fire on every German emplacement he had found, destroying or neutralizing the vast majority in the early morning hours. For his valorous actions and gallantry in the daring night patrol, Volker was awarded a second Bronze Star for valor.

The regiment was relieved the next night and proceeded to a well-deserved rest area before receiving some much-needed replacements and resupply to continue on in the Italian fighting. The following months found the 36th on the move, breaking the German winter line and pushing closer and closer towards their primary objective of Rome. Battling through the well-fortified Germans stronghold at Velletri at the end of May, fighting was getting fierce as the gateway to Rome slowly opened. Taking Velletri and the nearby high ground on 3 June 1944, Volker and the 1st Battalion were informed that the German forces in the area had broken into a route. Ordered to chase down and finish off the broken infantry, the battalion hopped onto the backs of tanks and trucks, making their way toward the small town of Marino, immediately south of the Italian capital. It was here that Volker once again distinguished himself in action.

 
Monte Cassino
Monte Cassino

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The location of the Marino battle site
The location of the Marino battle site

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Monte Cassino
Monte Cassino

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The next day as the 1st Battalion approached roughly half a mile southwest of Marino, Volker’s squad noticed a wounded GI lying in a field 1,000 yards beyond the company position with two more soldiers next to him, suppressed by the German machine gun team which had shot their comrade. Grabbing three men from his squad, he decided it was time to attempt a rescue. As his squadmates waited nearby Volker advanced into the “fire-swept area” dashing his way to the casualty, barely missing the German machine-gun bullets sprayed in his direction. Throwing the wounded GI over his back, he carried him to the cover where the two suppressed soldiers sat. Improvising a litter, he grabbed the other two men and with them, began running the wounded soldier back to safety all the while under fire from the German gun position. Miraculously the group made it back to the company lines unscathed and the wounded man was brought to the aid station as the other two men rejoined their own platoon. Within the next several hours the company went on to liberate Marino and drive through Rome, officially liberating the first Axis capital, the very same day. For his actions in rescuing the wounded GI and leading back the two suppressed soldiers, Volker was awarded his third Bronze Star for valor.

A true hero of Italy and an incredible soldier of the 36th Infantry Division, the New Jersey German who probably got knocked for his name more than once proved himself a brave and bold combat leader who acted without hesitation to answer the call. A highly decorated and battle-weary dogface, Volker continued fighting with the 36th but was able to head home early after the invasion of Southern France, arriving home finally in March 1945. Returning as a war hero, Volker sought no applause and instead began a career as a corrections officer at the Caldwell Penitentiary in New Jersey before retiring to Florida in the 70s, passing there in 1986.