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MEMORIAL DAY: D Company’s Last Survivor

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During the Italian Campaign combat casualties were often evacuated by mule due to the steep terrain. PHOTO: Army Signal Corps

In October, 1944 some tough, cocky young kids from Marin County who a little over a year earlier had been racing up and down San Rafael’s Miracle Mile in search of girls, found themselves on the battle-sharpened tip of the Allied Advance in Italy.

After days of sustained combat against crack German divisions dug in and determined to make them pay for every inch of Italian real estate they took on the road to Rome, the kids – members of D Company, 133rd Infantry, 34th Infantry Division – found themselves locked in a murderous battle with other kids from the German 29th Panzer Grenadiers and 4th Paratroop Division in Italy’s rugged Apennine Mountains.

American GI's make their way up a mountain trail in Italy, probing for mines as they go. PHOTO: U.S. Signal Corps
American GI’s make their way up a mountain trail in Italy, probing for mines as they go. PHOTO: U.S. Signal Corps

The 133rd, members of the famed “Red Bulls,” was spending itself in a series of attacks against one of the most vigorously defended sectors of the German’s vaunted Gothic Line,  a never-ending series of mine fields, reinforced positions, and machine gun emplacements supported by German Mark VI Tiger tanks, halftracks and artillery. The Germans had the high ground, superior firepower, and the experience.

“It wasn’t like the movies,” one of the kids from Marin said years later. “It was murder. They had better machine guns, tanks and artillery. We used to fire our heavy .30 calibers (water-cooled machine guns) through our blankets to keep the muzzle flash from giving away our position. Their MG42’s were faster, lighter… and they just kept ripping into us.”

One of the kids in D Company was James D. “Jimmy” Beach, son of Edward and Mary, a likable soldier with a quick smile and a cocksure attitude who, like most of the Red Bulls, used to talk about beating the Axis single-handed in letters back to his parents in Marin City.

“He was a great guy and a good soldier,” Staff Sgt. Louis Ardito, who served with Beach in D Company, said after the war. “He would have been a great man…”

Ardito and Beach were moving forward with the rest of D Company up the steep hills near Crocetta, Italy on Oct. 17, 1944 when they were bracketed by the deadly blossoms of accurate mortar fire. Ardito, barely able to speak of the moment even years later, said that’s when the unforgiving Fortunes of War kicked in and Beach took a fateful step forward.

“Jim caught the worst of it and went down,” he said. “If I’d been a little more to the left or right it would have been me.”

The medics found Beach, dead, a “single penetrating shrapnel wound” to his back. He wasn’t the first buddy Ardito had lost, nor would he be the last, but the memory of that moment, that day, that battle – stayed with the Fairfax resident the rest of his life.

“They strapped Jimmy to a mule, which is how we evacuated our casualties in Italy, but the Germans started shelling us again and the mule took off – with Jim’s body. We found the mule a few days later, with Jimmy still aboard, but that shook the boys,” he said. “It was one of those things that happens in war.”

Beach was 20 years old when he was killed, having celebrated his birthday with his new family – Dog Company – in the field.

Both men came home to Marin County after the guns stopped, Ardito with wounds of his own, lasting memories, and some medals. Beach’s body was repatriated back to the States in 1948 and he was re-buried under a plain marker in Mt. Tamalpais Cemetery. The Marin Independent Journal ran an updated obituary and his parents visited the grave until they died, the family lined died out, and Beach’s marker began to grow over.

Ardito also used to visit his friend, on Memorial Day and other days when the memories came back in a rush, and he told his wife Dorothy about how Beach died years later, when he could without breaking down and scaring her. After the war he ran a successful landscape contracting company and stayed in touch with the survivors of Dog Company until time did what the Germans couldn’t and all the Red Bulls were gone.

Ardito died in 2013.

His wife Dorothy – Dog Company’s last member by virtue of attrition – visited both grave sites this weekend, making sure Beach’s marker was cleared of grass and the flags both men went to war under flew over them both once again.