Remember the Alamo? Some of that was made up after the fact: a story told of brave men, which the mission’s defenders undoubtedly were, who fought to the last man which they did not. It took 150 years, more or less, for the best source to be uncovered—a memoir by a Mexican Army officer who helped defeat the Texans and who informed us that half a dozen men surrendered and were executed. We’re now about halfway through the same historical cycle on another famous Lone Star battle that has an odor of fabrication, or worse. This one also features the most enduring episode of Texas anti-Semitism and actually had its roots in the bucolic Liri Valley of Italy, in January 1944. There, the U.S. 36th Infantry Division, a former National Guard unit known as the Texas Division— or “Texas Army” as its soldiers liked to say—and famous for its “T” shoulder patch, crossed a river on a mission.
What happened next has been called a lot of things including a deadly fuck-up but to military historians it’s known as the “Rapido River fiasco,” the “Rapido episode” or the “Rapido assault”: a few thousand Americans trying to cross to the west bank of a strategic river, opposed by half as many Germans. Didn’t bode well for the success of the mission that the body of water being crossed was not the Rapido at all, but the Gari River, a detail that apparently only came to light sometime later. It didn’t matter, in any case. The Texans were there to be defeated and that’s what happened, whatever the name of the fast water where they were shot down.
The crossing became a running gun battle, over two nights, the kind of extended shootout that Texans should have thrived in—yet instead of victory, the 36th lost 1,700 men, about ten percent of whom were killed outright, which is actually not a bad percentage in warfare unless you happen to be one of the ten. Besides insignificant German losses the most extraordinary statistic was that, of the Texas Army’s casualties, almost half or 900 men were simply “missing” when the shooting stopped, their bodies presumably floating down the river—or lost, or surrendered, which Texans don’t do but they did at the Rapido, in droves. Two whole regiments of the 36th were essentially destroyed and there were consequences. According to one reference, “On March 2, 1944, Texas Independence Day, with memories of the disaster still fresh, a group of 25 officers of the 36th Division met in an Italian farmhouse and pledged to do everything possible to prompt a postwar inquiry into the Rapido fiasco.” The failure of the attack would shake the state after the war, leading to a Congressional inquiry and to accusations that a lone Jewish officer had destroyed the best of Texas manhood—prompting whispering that continues even today. All in the name of the sideshow that was the Italian campaign in World War II. What started one night with an artillery barrage “to soften the Germans up,” went wrong quickly and turned even uglier later, in Austin and in Washington.
The beauty of battle, why we as a highly-evolved species still like war so much, is the sheer disorder inherent in this ultimate roll of the dice. Anything can happen. And even after the best-documented military campaign, it can still be hard to know exactly who shot whom—the Rapido River gunfight is an excellent example of that messy reality. The Hollywood version of the river crossing would probably include noble Texans rowing under fire, but apparently that’s not what happened or what principally happened. There was a bridge that could also be crossed, under gunfire, and it was used too. Over the course of the battle the Texans made it to the west side of the river and the next night more men crossed over. On the east side of the river, before the attack, an expected narrative of the battle might have been Texas exceptionalism, the Alamo redux if you like. No one bothered to tell the Germans. When the attack failed, Lone Star State honor required a scapegoat. And for that, luckily there was a Jew at hand.
In command of American troops in Italy during practically the whole of the Second World War was a career army officer, Lieutenant General Mark Clark, the son of a WASP career officer and of a Romanian Jewish mother. Clark was raised Episcopalian but in the U.S. Army of the time, whose officer corps was heavily Southern and Protestant, he was still a Jew. Gen. Clark ordered the Rapido attack against the misgivings of his subordinates—a dispute that we will not attempt to resolve here, especially since the endless arguments—about what might have been—are just that, debating an unknown or the unknowable. The attack didn’t succeed but in warfare that doesn’t mean it didn’t need to be ordered. The Congressional inquiry found that Gen. Clark’s assault was daring but not reckless: and if anything, his reputation has grown through time except in Texas where Mark Clark, dead these thirty years, is still hated.
Inevitably the horror of the failure of the attack has become wrapped up in our feeling for the general who ordered it. The stories of the men who experienced the battle are also entwined in the defeat: Up until a few years ago there were rumors still of a yearly reunion, usually in Lubbock—many of the men who served in the Texas Division were from the western part of the state, for whatever reason—of survivors of a ghost company of the 36th which started the fight with something more than 120 men and ended with 17, and its officers dead. That the assault failed is certain. But the how and why gets rehashed continuously, in books, in colloquia, in chatrooms and on Facebook: just last month a woman wrote on the 36th Division association’s Facepage, “There are no Mark Clark fans in this family.” She was a descendant of a survivor and hating Gen. Clark now gets passed down generation to generation. The Battle of the Rapido River—or more properly, the Gunfight at the Gari, which sounds equally dramatic—has become another example of the danger of the “Lone Star myth,” the idea that Texans, in some areas of human commerce, violence being one, are better than anyone else.
Composing military history is the art of reconstructing the un-reconstructable but suffice it to say that the Rapido engagement was intended by Gen. Clark as a diversion, to assist units landing at the nearby Anzio beachhead and to take pressure off other Allied forces in nearby mountains trying to take Monte Cassino monastery (a four-month battle nicknamed “Stalingrad in the Mountains”) defended by the well-dug in German 1st Parachute Division. Prolonged enemy resistance (Italy would still be in play a year later, when the Soviets captured Berlin) is tribute to what a determined defender could do, as at the Rapido, and why the German Army was an especially good fit at the task. In Italy, the Germans were facing a less experienced and less numerous enemy than the Red Army. The weather was good, or at least better than in Russia, and Italy is made for defense—one mountain range or river after another—which is presumably why the Roman Empire lasted as long as it did. And Germans had been fighting in Italy since Roman times, which meant they had the experience in their bones. This was their backyard and the Texans were trying to climb the fence. A British attack to seize high ground and protect the flank of the Texans’ assault failed at the last moment. British officers liked to say that the Germans were “easy to trick but hard to panic,” and after the artillery bombardment warned of the Texans’ approach, the only chance was if the Germans panicked, which they did not. That was not explanation enough later in Austin, however.
After the war, the association of 36th Division veterans fulfilled their farmhouse oath by approaching the Legislature, which passed a resolution demanding an investigation and characterizing the river crossing as a “murderous blunder.” Gen. Clark was accused by surviving Texans of a disregard for human life and a failure to heed information available to him at the time. Borrowing from the Nazis, the sub-context throughout was that Clark was somehow, as the Nazis would have called it (Texans failing to recognize one of the reasons why they had just fought the war) an “untermensch,” a lesser person and therefore unfit for command. He was described before both state legislators and Congress as inexperienced although his experience level was at least equal to that of most other American commanders. This was the beginning of the scapegoating. Even today on websites devoted to military history and military affairs, there’s chatter about “the Jew Clark being promoted,” after the Rapido battle, “by the Jew Eisenhower,” though Dwight Eisenhower, the supreme Allied commander, was not Jewish. As with the Alamo, neither logic nor fact has been consistently applied. But the Texan personality is in evidence everywhere in the discussion.
In fact today if you visit the Texas National Guard headquarters, at the Camp Mabry barracks in Austin, where there’s a museum much-devoted to the 36th, a marker tells you everything you need to know about the character of the unit: “Throughout the war the 36th would be referred to as the Texas Army, both in its own ranks and in the rest of the armed forces. In bars and clubs, both at home and, eventually, overseas, soldiers who wore the T-Patch insignia of the division were apt to insist that everyone within earshot stand when they sang ‘The Eyes of Texas.’ If men from other units refused to do so, the result was usually a brawl.” As for the commanding general, another marker at the Texas Military Forces Museum informs us, “Bitter survivors swore they would never forgive Mark Clark for ordering the hopeless assault and most maintained a healthy hatred or disgust for the general for the rest of their lives.” Healthy? If that is true, why is it true? Unlike the Alamo where the facts were lacking for so long, the Rapido is more a question of interpretation.
Of course the British also disliked Gen. Clark and may have had good reason. After the Anzio breakout, and after Monte Cassino fell, as the German “Winter Line” defenses began to crumble, Gen. Clark was ordered by his overall commander, a British officer, to destroy a retreating enemy army. Instead, Clark wheeled his forces left and captured Rome, the first Western European capital to fall to the Allies. The British were livid and no British account of the war in Italy fails to mention Clark’s grandstanding. Yet it is the Rapido assault for which Gen. Clark is loathed and not by the Brits. The “Gunfight at Gari” still resonates today because we’re knee deep in the debate about race and racism, gender and sexism in this country. A fact about discrimination that we often miss—whether it’s anti-Semitism, as in this case, or any other kind of prejudice—is that there’s usually a practical reason for the hatred. It’s not a mere visceral reaction to those unlike ourselves or those who pray to a different God. In the Rapido context it wouldn’t have mattered had Clark been black or Hispanic or Muslim, or if the era were today. Whether it’s money that is in play, or power or, as in the Liri Valley, reputation, there’s always a reason for blaming others. Skin color and religion may not really matter that much—to paraphrase a famous army saying, there are no racists in a foxhole. Instead it’s an excuse.
There’s been a false ring to the complaints against Mark Clark from the start, just as the Alamo stories always seemed too good to be true. Modern warfare has yielded so many incredibly bloody battles that have not led to postwar political investigations (it is war, after all) that suspicions arise when there is a vendetta like Texas vs. Clark. Robert E. Lee ordered Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg that caused 6,000 casualties among his own men including over 1,000 dead, and doomed the Confederacy, but Southerners were still naming their children after him for generations. Texas casualties at the Rapido/Gari were light as battles go in a war that caused tens of millions of deaths: a few months later, at the Normandy invasion, a single German machine gunner is said to have killed as many as 200 G.I.s, more than all the dead at the Rapido put together—yet there was no Congressional inquiry about why the troops kept stepping out of landing craft into a chainsaw. At the beginning of the famous Battle of the Bulge, Gen. Omar Bradley was caught napping, and although the Bulge eventually produced a great American victory, it did so at the cost of almost 20,000 American dead. Omar Bradley did not face a Congressional inquiry, but his mother wasn’t Jewish either. And he didn’t have the powerful Texas Congressional delegation as an adversary. Reading the sources one gets the idea that with the Texans it wasn’t the bloodshed that really galled and led to the search for a scapegoat. In the Texas narrative, the bloodier the better. It was the losing that hurt so bad.
Dwight Eisenhower, who was a friend of Gen. Clark, is said to have described him as the best staff officer he ever knew, which is considerable praise since Eisenhower’s own reputation was built on being a good staff officer. Gen. Clark never testified at the Congressional inquiry and is said to have never spoken publicly, after the war, about what happened at the Rapido. Still, it followed him everywhere, and next to Monte Cassino has been described as the most-analyzed Allied battle in Italy: short, sad and deadly, a case study in how not to win. Texans blame the commander but an equally valid question is if the 36th was up to the task. Success in the field doesn’t necessarily follow from prowess in bar-fighting. A New Zealander general, commenting at the time, said that the Texans displayed courage in the attack, which we expect, but everything else key to success was missing. The later battle for justification on both sides was mostly waged in print. Clark wrote two books and the title of the first, Calculated Risks, speaks to the choices a commander must make.
“Nothing,” he wrote, “can minimize the losses of the 36th Division, which I selected for the tough unglamorous job at the Rapido because I knew its men had the stuff to get across the river if anybody could.” But he was totally unapologetic as he mentioned the pressure to win that everyone was under in Italy, including the Germans. “I heard no more about this attack until after the war, when I was stationed in Vienna. At that time, a meeting of former officers of the 36th Division in Texas passed a resolution asking Congress to investigate the Rapido River failure, which was blamed entirely on me.”
As a general, Mark Clark was a strategist more than a tactician or field commander, not a George Patton for example. He wasn’t necessarily the guy you would send to fight an individual battle but he was the one you might want to plan an offensive, or to determine how the fighting fit in with wider aims. The ugly truth is that Texans never understood that they didn’t need to win at the river, they just needed to show up. All the postwar second-guessing that if Gen. Clark had only ordered the assault to begin a little farther upstream, or downstream, or at a different time, or without a preliminary artillery bombardment, misses the strategy which is that the Texans were not being sent across the river necessarily to beat the Germans—but to keep them occupied or to keep them guessing. It’s something Clark could never say publicly, especially not to the troops themselves, but that’s the difference between a strategist and a tactician, the difference between a great general and a good one. Mark Clark may not have been a good general but he tried to be a great one. The aims are certainly different.
So, the vendetta continued. When Clark was nominated by President Truman as ambassador to the Vatican, Texas’ senior U.S. Senator, Tom Connally, protested. Protestants are said to have also objected because of Clark’s parentage, even though he liberated the Vatican during the war. Clark let his nomination lapse. His later career proved him right, however.
After Gen. MacArthur was fired by Truman in the Korean War, a tactician was brought in as overall UN commander, in order to stabilize the military situation, and then Clark became UN commander in order to finalize matters with the Chinese and North Koreans. That was a strategic job and one that he apparently accomplished. Later, he served in Washington as an advisor and is said to have coined the phrase “intelligence community” for the matrix of federal agencies that Edward Snowden recently outted. In the end, Texans still did not forgive him but the Army’s officer-class accepted him. He retired to become superintendent of The Citadel military academy in South Carolina, at the heart of the old U.S. Army establishment. That appointment officially ended the second battle of the Rapido, fought after the war and won by Gen. Clark. Both the first and second battles of the Rapido were lost by Texans.