Return to Pisa
By William D. Kaufman
It took me more than 45 years to get back to Pisa. Almost half a century to make the return trip. The first time I was there I was part of an infantry task force which was dug into the south bank of the Arno River. The Germans were on the other side.
I suppose it would be more accurate to say that the time I was in Pisa as a soldier I was only half there. The Arno River, a not very significant slash of water which winds its way across the belly of most of Italy, cuts the city in half. The southern half, which we occupied for several weeks, was not a very impressive piece of terrain. Except for the commercial avenue that hugged our side of the river front, it was a hodge-podge of little houses, many of them quite ancient, some tiny shops, a small number of minor factories, a few modest churches. Somewhat further to the rear there was a scattering of fields and meadows and some farmhouses, one of which we set up as our headquarters.
The north side of the Arno, the German side, was something else. Here was the Pisa the world comes to see. Within its center, no more than a half-mile from our positions, is found the famous Piazza del Duomo, the square on which there sits the Leaning Tower, the great cathedral and its jewel-like Baptistery. About a mile beyond the Piazza is the ancient University of Pisa, built in the 12th century and for a time the classroom of Galileo, inventor of the new universe.
It was within this cache of Renaissance splendor that a division of German troops was dug in, as were we, waiting for the attack they knew would come. They were huddled within the large stone buildings that faced our side of the river bank. At times we could hear them talk, and when the breeze was right, we could smell the aroma of their cooking.
The Germans had a number of advantages over us. To begin with, they were highly experienced infantry troops. They had fought and slowly retreated for more than a year from the toe of Italy to their present position a few miles below their formidable Gothic line. In contrast we were brand new to infantry warfare. Until three days ago we were an antiaircraft battalion, with considerable action in North Africa and Italy, that had been on its way to the Naples staging area for the imminent invasion of Southern France.
Somewhere enroute from Rome we were given new orders converting us into an infantry task force which was assigned to replace elements of an infantry division in the Pisa line. In the next two days we were given a â€œcrashâ€ course in infantry tactics and issued the necessary mortars, BARs, and portable machine guns that came with the territory.
We moved into our positions late at night hoping to keep the Germans unaware of the activity going on in our side of the Arno River. We were cautioned to move in as silently as possible, and we did, but no one had advised the troops we were replacing to depart the same way. There seems to be a tradition in warfare that those who leave do so with an abandon that is as loud as it is quick. And that was the way it went that night. The Germans either slept through the din and clatter or chose not to fire their mortars to avoid retaliatory fire from our side.
We set up our command post in the old stone farmhouse which was about a mile back of our forward companies. It must have been built centuries ago from rock and stone hewed out of the Apennines which loomed not far off in the distance. I was quartered in a low-ceiling storeroom which was vacant except for a bad-smelling massive dog of unidentifiable lineage. When I sacked down for the night, I tried to expel him, but as I approached his direction he growled ever louder and with such sincerity that I retreated to another corner of the room. We shared our quarters for the duration.