143rd Regiment Memorial

Waco's stone monument to the 143rd Regiment is located between the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and the Interstate 35 frontage road along the banks of the Brazos River.

I find I spend the most time on Netflix scanning the menu for choices rather than actually watching, the streaming version of Springsteen's "57 channels and nothin' on."

It's a consequence of a single account profile that lumps my preferences in with those of my wife and three daughters plus Netflix's gradual shift away from the foreign and independent films I like to watch to original programming aiming to hook you into a series rather than a single viewing.

One recent offering, however, caught my eye and subsequently tipped me into a rabbit hole of memory. The three-part "Five Came Back" looked at Hollywood directors who served in the military during World War II. The directors — Frank Capra, John Ford, George Stevens, William Wyler and John Huston — employed their film-making skills in supporting the war through movies and shorts meant to prop up morale and inform the effort on the home front.

All five came back changed by their experience of war, particularly Stevens, who filmed the Allied liberation of Nazi death camps. That change is seen in the dark or realistic strands found in such films as Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life," Wyler's "The Best Years Of Our Lives," Ford's "They Were Expendable," Huston's "The Treasure Of Sierra Madre" and Stevens' "The Diary Of Anne Frank."

As a bonus, Netflix features the war documentaries made by those directors, including Huston's "San Pietro" (also called "The Battle Of San Pietro"). It's an account of the tough fighting by American soldiers to take the Italian village of San Pietro from well-entrenched German defenders.

Huston's film captured the essence of the Italian theater for American and British forces, a slow, bloody slog up the boot of the Italian peninsula, with cold, wet weather and mountainous terrain precluding the dramatic breakouts or victories seen at D-Day and the campaign in France.

"San Pietro" was known for ground-breaking realism, with images of American soldiers killed in the fighting and battle footage of troops under German fire — except that the later didn't happen.

Baylor English professor Greg Garrett, whose academic background includes a healthy dose of film study, found in research at the National Archives in the 1990s that "San Pietro's" film footage had been shot after the actual battle, a recreation of the fighting done with the participation of the Army.

So when I saw "San Pietro" as a Netflix offering, rabbit hole stop No. 1, I had to watch it — and discovered a further Waco connection.

It turned out that the main American force in the December 1943 battle was the 143rd Regiment of the 36th Division, a regiment with a substantial Waco and Central Texas contingent in a division made up largely of Texas and Oklahoma recruits and draftees.

The 143rd took heavy losses in the fight for San Pietro, its central attack stymied until success on the flanks turned the German position and forced its withdrawal. It reminded me of a story I had done years ago on a book about the battle five months later to cross the Gari River, misidentified later as the Rapido River. There, an ill-advised attack across a flooding river on a fortified German line turned into a bloodbath, decimating the 141st and 143rd Regiments. 

Nearly one-fourth of the 6,000 Allied soldiers in the attack were killed or wounded; fewer than 200 Germans were. Some 50 years after the battle, I found survivors were still bitter at the command failure, one compounded months later when American Fifth Army Lt. General Mark Clark chose to sideline an Allied advance that might have surrounded a retreating German army. Instead, he sent troops on to Rome, some said to beat British ones from liberating the famous city.

Americans did enter Rome first, but the retreating Germans were able to continue the war in Italy for months more. Clark was later formally cleared of those charges — but not in the minds of many of those Texans who fought in Italy.

As the Greatest Generation, the one that fought World War II, dies out, I've noticed so much of our commemoration of that war focuses on D-Day, the massive, bloody invasion of Europe that led nearly a year later to the defeat of Hitler's Germany. Less attention gets paid to the war in the Pacific, even less to the Italian campaign.

It's easier to celebrate the sacrifice of those who died in a dramatic victory than those who died because of poor leadership, a formidable enemy, miserable weather or disease.

Those deaths, though, are just as much a sacrifice, their families wounded just as much. I suspect the Memorial Days that "Five Came Back's" directors celebrated were far more sober and serious than those of people like me, touched only peripherally by war.

One final stop in this rabbit hole. Waco has a monument to the 143rd Regiment, a stone marker with the unit's coat of arms and motto "Arms Secure Peace." It's located between the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and the Interstate 35 frontage road, with the Brazos River as backdrop.

It had higher visibility when there was a turn-around under the I-35 bridge, but the widening and improvement of the bridge in recent years have changed access to the memorial.

It now takes a specific visit to see rather than a drive-by reminder. Like the scores of service identifiers on gravestone markers in Waco and McLennan County cemeteries visited this Memorial Day, is there for a purpose.

Tribune-Herald entertainment editor