“Viva l’America!”: The 332d Infantry on the Italian Front

By Matthew J. Seelinger, Chief Historian

For the Allied Powers, battered and exhausted after nearly three years of bloody, indecisive, trench warfare, the American entry into World War I in April 1917 represented a glimmer of hope in their struggle against Germany and her allies. Within a year, American troops poured into Europe to shore up the weary French and British along the Western Front and helped to finally push the Germans back. While the vast majority of American forces were sent to France and fought in campaigns such as St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne, a small number of American troops played an important role on the Italian front, a virtual sideshow to carnage of the Western Front. The 332nd Infantry Regiment, under the command of Colonel William Wallace, was the only American unit to serve on the Italian Front, and while its participation in the fighting there was brief, the 332nd played an invaluable role in the final victory. Moreover, after the fighting, the 332nd later served in a capacity that would be repeated by American forces nearly eighty years later.

The history of the 332nd Infantry commenced with its organization on 30 August 1917 at Camp Sherman, Ohio, and assignment to the 83rd Division. The regiment was comprised of large numbers of men from Ohio, including many from Cleveland, Akron, and Youngstown. Those assigned to the regiment came from a variety of socioeconomic and ethnic groups, leading one soldier to claim that the regiment resembled a “polyglot boarding house.”

After initial training and drill at Camp Sherman, the 332nd moved by train on 18 November to Camp Perry, Ohio, for rifle training. Located near Toledo along Lake Erie, Camp Perry proved to be a miserable experience. Upon arrival, the soldiers were greeted by a cold rain, which later turned into wet snow. The camp turned into a sea of mud, and the tents sheltering the troops offered little protection from the elements. As a result, many men fell ill, and a suspected case of smallpox forced the vaccination of the entire regiment. When the 332nd began departing Camp Perry for Camp Sherman on 11 December, the camp was struck by a furious blizzard, further adding to the soldiers’ misery.

Once back at Camp Sherman, the 332nd settled into several months of intensive drill and training to prepare them for combat on the battlefields of Western Europe. Finally, in May 1918, the regiment began to prepare for the departure to Europe. On 25 May, the 332nd began its journey to the eastern seaboard via the B&O Railroad. The regiment arrived at Camp Merrit, just outside New York City and remained there until 6 June, when the men of the 332nd boarded the Cunard liner H.M.S. Aquitania for the voyage to Europe. At 8:15 on 8 June, tugs began pulling the ship away from the pier and into the Hudson River. The 332nd was finally on its way “over there.”

Upon its arrival in Liverpool, England, on 15 June, the regiment traveled by train to Southampton to board channel transports to France. The short voyage gave the men of the 332nd their first glimpses of war. The wrecks of several ships sunk by German submarines littered the passage between Southampton and Le Havre.<BR.<BR /> Upon arriving, however, Wallace and his men soon learned they would not be fighting in France. The disastrous defeat at Capporetto in October 1917 left the Italians in dire straits. At a 6 February 1918 meeting of the Supreme War Council in Paris, the Italian Minister of War requested that General John J. Pershing send a battalion of American troops to the Italian Front, primarily to bolster the morale of the Italian Army and people, but also to serve as tangible proof of American-Italian cooperation for the war effort. Pershing agreed with the request and ordered the 83rd Division to be broken up, with the 332nd to go the Italian Front and the remaining units to serve as replacements. Pershing’s reasoning behind his decision was based on the fact that all other divisions in France at that time were either already at the front lines or were en route. On 25 July, the 332nd began the journey to Italy.

At 1500 hours, 28 July 1918, the 332nd arrived in Milan. An Italian military band greeted the Americans with “The Star Bangled Banner.” Throngs of cheering Italian citizens showered the soldiers with flowers, accompanying the bouquets with cries of “Viva l’America! Viva l’Italia.” These celebrations would be repeated in nearly every town the 332nd entered.

The regiment’s stay in Milan, however, was short, and the men immediately reboarded the train. Early the following day, the 332nd arrived at Villafranca di Verona, twelve miles southwest of Verona. Italian Army trucks transported the regiment to Sommacampagna, where the 332nd resumed its training for the upcoming fighting. The regiment’s stay in Sommacompagna soon proved to be less than pleasant. Rations were of poor quality and billets for the soldiers were infested with mice and fleas. The men were widely dispersed, making inspections and drill difficult. To make matters worse, dysentery had broken out, killing one soldier and leaving many others too sick for drill. As a result, Colonel Wallace moved the 332nd to Valleggio, where the men could be billeted in a central area and sanitation could be more easily maintained.

At Valleggio, the 332nd made up for lost time. Wallace employed a large amphitheater for open warfare and had a realistic set of trenches constructed so his men could practice trench warfare. Each battalion lived and operated in the trenches for three day periods, while another battalion practiced raiding and maneuvering against them. In addition, Wallace also secured a battalion of Arditti, Italy’s most experienced shock troops, to assist with the training of his men.

On 2 September 1918, the 2nd Battalion, under the command of Major William G. Everson, received orders to the front. The battalion was assigned a position with the Brigato Veneto, an Italian brigade comprised of soldiers from Venice. The American sector stretched for a mile along the western bank of the Piave River and centered on the village of Varago. The sector proved to be quiet. According to Everson, the sector became “quite a drawing card for all kinds of generals, newspaper men, etc., etc. In fact we are still in the game of propaganda and Italian officers and men are brought here to get a little extra pep.” Apart from expending some ammunition, shooting down a couple of Austrian observation balloons, and reading the propaganda leaflets the Austrians had showered upon them, the 2nd Battalion would not see any major action until the rest of the regiment was brought up.

Up to this point, the 332nd had escaped the war relatively unscathed, but on 12 September, the regiment’s luck ran out. During a drill at Valleggio, a Stokes mortar exploded, killing seven men and wounding nearly forty others. As it would turn out, the 332nd lost more men in this particular accident than it would in combat during the Vittorio-Veneto offensive.

On 2 October, the command that every man in the 332nd had been waiting for: break camp and begin movement to the front. The 1st and 2nd Battalions arrived at Treviso, eighteen miles northwest of Venice on 4 October. The two battalions quickly resumed training, including a practice river crossing on 7 October in preparation for an assault across the Piave. Later that evening, the 332nd was presented with a standard of colors from the Italian Colony in New York City, in appreciation of the regiment’s assistance to the Italian war effort.

Within the first week, the men of the 332nd undertook a series of long marches in which no one was excused from participation. Each morning, the companies of the regiment separated, each pursuing a different course along the roads. Marches were made “in double file, not in squad formation, so that when the march began, the interval lengthening between men, each company appeared larger than it really was.” The companies maneuvered their way along the highways each day, all marching in different directions. A daily change in headgear was also ordered; one day overseas caps were worn, the next day campaign hats, while the third day saw every man wearing his steel helmet. Moreover, the men were ordered to change their dress from day to day; jerkins were worn one day, overcoats the next, raincoats the following day. All of this was done in sight of Austrian observers in attempt to convince the Austrians that large numbers of American troops were arriving to take their places along the Piave. One thing that the marches did achieve was to increase the American soldiers’ hostility towards their Austrian foes. Several Americans were overheard vowing how they would treat the enemy “for causing this hell.”

During the night of the 21 October, the men of the 332nd were subjected to one of the other new horrors that this war had wrought: air power. While many of the men were sleeping, a group of Austrian planes staged an air raid that lasted eleven minutes. While terrifying, the raid failed to do anything another than scare several of the men out of their slumber.

Preparation for the upcoming offensive against the Austrians continued in earnest. Colonel Wallace soon learned that the 332nd would be assigned to the Italian 31st Division, British 10th Army. On the 28th, Wallace received orders to begin marching his regiment to the front.

The offensive against the Austrians, led by British, Italian and French forces, had commenced a few days before, with very heavy fighting taking place along the entire front on 27 October. The 332nd halted at Varago to await repair of the bridges over the Piave River, which had been destroyed by the retreating Austrians. Beginning at 0900, 31 October, the 332nd resumed marching and crossed the Piave. By this time all available forces were needed to overtake the rapidly fleeing Austrians. Their swift withdrawal came as a surprise to the Allied commanders, who expected the Austrians to fight a stiff rearguard action, particularly at the river crossings. Instead, the Austrians hastily retreated, pausing only to demolish every bridge in an effort to delay the Allied advance.

Placed at the advance guard of the Italian 31st Division and covering a front of approximately four miles, the 332nd reached the Tagliamento River on the afternoon of 3 November. Wallace ordered the regiment to halt, placing the 2nd Battalion on the right, 3rd Battalion on the left, with the 1st in reserve. During the night, the Austrians on the opposite side of the river relayed to Captain Austin Story, commander of the 3rd Battalion, that an armistice was soon to go into effect. Having not heard any news of an armistice, Story replied, “We’re going to blow you up–get your heads down.”

At 0540 on 4 November, Wallace ordered the 2nd Battalion, now under the command of Major F.M. Scanland, to cross the Tagliamento. Crawling along the remains of a destroyed bridge, the men made their way across in the early morning darkness at Ponte della Delizia. Scanland’s men took the 400 Austrians defending the east bank completely by surprise. Expecting the Americans to be on the opposite bank, the Austrians ranged their artillery and machine guns too far; most of their fire went over the Americans’ heads, falling on the far bank. In less than twenty minutes, Scanland’s 2nd Battalion, attacking in a single wave with rifles, hand grenades, and machine guns, on a four-fifths of a mile front, smashed through the Austrian lines sending them into a headlong retreat, all at the cost of one dead, six wounded. As a result of their successful attack, the 2nd Battalion represented the first Allied infantry to cross the Tagliamento.

Once across the river, the 332nd rapidly expanded its bridgehead and pressed the attack. The pursuit of the Austrians continued with such rapidity that they never attempted to establish new positions. The 332nd pushed on, knocking out several machine gun nests, taking a three-inch gun, and capturing the Austrian supply depot at Codroipo, netting a huge cache of weapons, ammunition, and supplies.

Capturing the supply depot at Codroipo would turn out to be last significant accomplishment of the war for the men of 332nd Infantry. On 4 November, at 1500, an armistice with Austria went into effect. The men of the regiment celebrated that at least their part of the war was over. Most of the night was spent handling Austrian prisoners, numbering into the tens of thousands.

Much to the amazement of Colonel Wallace and other American officers of the 332nd, the Austrian generals were convinced that there were at least six American divisions facing them in Italy, and possibly as many as 300,000 men total. When told that the American forces in Italy were comprised of one regiment, the Austrian officers refused to believe it. Colonel Wallace quickly realized that the ruse created by continuously marching his men down different roads, wearing different types of headgear and other equipment clearly worked. “I realized that the propaganda had been good,” said Wallace, “but I never flattered myself it had been anything like that.” As a result of the 332nd’s deception, Austrian morale plummeted. Wallace’s deception may have shortened the war on the Italian front and saved countless lives.

The men of the 332nd spent the days following the armistice celebrating and collecting medals. The British Commanding General decorated Colonel Wallace with the British Distinguished Service Order and expressed his appreciation of the gallantry of the 332nd. Major Scanland received a silver medal for leading his battalion across the Tagliamento, and various other officers and enlisted men received medals for their service.

The terms of the armistice gave the Allies free use of the Austrian roads. With the Austrian Army no longer involved in the war, there was nothing between the Allies in Italy and Berlin. As a result, the Allied forces, including the 332nd were ordered to proceed north to a point designated “the back door of Italy.” The regiment traveled into the Alps, passing through Rivolto, La Santissma, Pozzuolo, Buttrio, Osaria, Ipplis, and Carmons. Colonel Wallace and Lieutenant Colonel Everson proceeded as far as Tolmino. The regiment’s advance, however, was halted by the announcement that Germany had signed an armistice on 11 November 1918. The end of the war could not have come soon enough, for the far northern areas of Italy and former Austrian controlled territories were being ravaged by an epidemic of influenza, killing people “faster than they could be buried,” according to Colonel Wallace.

While the men of the 332nd rejoiced at the news of the second armistice, their happiness was short lived. They would not be going home right away. Colonel Wallace soon learned that the regiment would be divided for occupation duty in areas formerly held by the Austrians.

Under orders of the Allied High Command, the 2nd Battalion was sent to the Italian port of Mestre, where it was to board transports for the Dalmatian port of Cattaro. On 15 November, Major Scanland received new orders that one his platoons was to be assigned to the 3rd Battalion and proceed to Venice, where the Italian destroyer Audace would transport them to the Croatian port city of Fiume, where they would join the 3rd Battalion.

On 17 November, as their ship pulled into port, the men of the 3rd Battalion viewed a welcome sight: the American flag draped over the governor’s palace in Fiume. Worries of a hostile reception proved groundless. Crowds of people gathered at the dock to welcome the Americans, showering them and the ship with flowers. To the Americans, it appeared as though the citizens of Fiume were welcoming them home rather viewing them as an occupying force. One Austrian colonel had declared to the Americans that the war had been a mistake and that the Austrian people had never wanted to fight against them. Overall, the American stay in Fiume was a pleasant one. Apart from searching for Austrian weapons in the neighboring town of Susek and a few protocol squabbles with the Italians about the proper display of the American flag, the soldiers of the 3rd Battalion spent much of their time honoring social invitations. In contrast to the Americans, the Italian occupiers received a hostile reception and were viewed with great resentment by the citizens of Fiume.

The Second Battalion arrived in the harbor of Cattaro on 28 November 1918. Upon landing, the battalion received an enthusiastic greeting from a “a mixture of nationalities found only in a petty Balkan state or a great American city.” Unlike the 3rd Battalion’s stay in Fiume, the 2nd Battalion’s posting in Montenegro was more difficult. Aside from the more primitive living conditions and miserable weather, the Montenegrins were openly hostile to the Italian troops who were also assigned occupation duty. Furthermore, different native armed factions vied for control. In January 1919, fighting broke out between revolutionary forces, who wanted Montenegro to become an independent republic, and government forces, who wanted Montengro to join the newly formed Yugoslav union. As their Army counterparts would do nearly eighty years later in the Balkans, the 2nd Battalion was deployed in an effort to maintain peace between the rival factions. Placing themselves in harm’s way, the battalion was able to keep bloodshed to a minimum with no casualties suffered by their own men, despite several incidents in which American forces were inadvertently fired upon In addition to their peacekeeping efforts, the 2nd Battalion distributed food and other relief supplies to the starving Montenegrins.

Finally, in February 1919, the 332nd began regrouping for the journey back home to America. The 1st Battalion, which had remained in Italy, arrived in Genoa on 13 February. The 3rd Battalion arrived a few days after that. The 2nd Battalion, however, did not reach Genoa until 9 March. On 29 March, the 332nd, aboard the Duca d’Aosta, set sail for the United States.

On 14 April, the 332nd arrived at Camp Merritt outside of New York City. One week later, the regiment paraded down Fifth Avenue before a crowd estimated at 350,000 people. Among the dignitaries on hand were the Mayor of New York City, numerous civic and business leaders from New York and Ohio, and over 10,000 individuals representing various Italian organizations within New York.

Immediately following the parade, the regiment returned to Camp Merritt. Three days later, the 332nd began the journey to Ohio, arriving in Cleveland the following day. On 26 April, the 332nd proudly marched through the streets of Cleveland in a parade held to honor the regiment, including 350 of its native sons. Colonel Wallace led the parade and accepted awards from the Italian-American community of Cleveland on behalf of the 332nd.

The following day, the 332nd returned to Camp Sherman to begin the process of demobilization. The men handed in their equipment. Discharge papers were issued and final lectures were given on topics such as re-enlistment, industrial employment, and “sex hygiene.” At the quartermaster’s office, the men received their final pay, bonuses, and discharges.

On 2 May 1919, the Headquarters Company and First Battalion of the 332nd were officially demobilized. The 2nd Battalion demobilized the following day. On 5 May, the 3rd Battalion disbanded and the regimental demobilization of the 332nd Infantry was complete.

While its participation in the actual fighting along the Italian Front was brief, the 332nd Infantry played an intangible role in the final victory. Its mere presence boosted the morale of the Italian forces. In addition, the ruse created by Colonel Wallace gave the Austrian’s the impression that large numbers of Americans had deployed to Italy, leaving the Austrians reluctant to stand and fight. Furthermore, the 332nd served as goodwill ambassadors and peacekeepers in the role as occupation forces after the war, in the always volatile Balkans region, a role later repeated by American forces decades later.