THE RARE BREED
Recognizing Area Veterans Of World War II
Richard Sanders Served Four Years
With The Army's "T-Patchers"
RICHARD and Billie Sanders, early 1941.
Married 55 years before her death in 1995.
A 1937 graduate of Palacios High School, Richard Ellis Sanders was already married and in the Army when America was plunged into the war by the Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.
The son of C. D. and Beatie Ellis Sanders, Richard was born at the family home near the Tin Top community on Independence Day, July 4, 1918. After graduating from PHS, he attended Baylor University for a year, moved to Houston, and married Willie Alice "Billie" Forbes, a student nurse at Memorial Hospital, on March 23, 1940.
Richard was inducted into the famed "T-Patchers," the 36th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army on Jan. 14, 1941. As Texas National Guardsmen, many members of the 36th had trained at Camp Hulen during the 1930s and the division was overwhelmingly Texan.
When Pearl Harbor came, Richard was in training at Camp Bowie, Texas. Following several months of war games and further training at Camp Blanding, Fla.; Camp Edwards, Massachusetts and different camps, a solemn 36th Division sailed out from the New York Port of Embarkation on April 2, 1943. By fast convoy, the 36th arrived at Oran, Algeria 11 days later.
Until Rommel's Afrika Corps was decisively whipped at Tunis and Bizerte, the 36th was held in combat reserve. Then the 36th formed the backbone of the newly organized Fifth Army, serving as "school troops" for divisions that were being prepped for the Sicily invasion.
The 36th's time came at Salerno on Sept. 9, as the first American division to invade continental Europe.
Sanders was originally assigned to Service Company, 141st Infantry, but later was transferred to Headquarters Company, in charge of MPs, guarding prisoners. One of the fellow GIs that Sanders had to place in the "stockade" numerous times for various problems while in Africa, went on to win the Congressional Medal of Honor at Salerno.
One of the truly veteran divisions of World War II, the 36th made two amphibious assaults, at Salerno and on the Riviera, and saw intense action in four countries: Italy, France, Germany and Austria during 366 days of combat operations.
Sanders participated in all of those landings and campaigns.
After the invasion Italy at Salerno, during which the 36th suffered more than 4,000 casualties, the division was pulled out for rest and refitting. Returning to the line, the 36th relieved the 3rd Infantry Division near Mignano and Venafro, Italy, then came heavy fighting along the Bernhard Line and battles for Monte la Difensia, Monte Maggiore, Monte Luggio and Monte Sammuero. Thoroughly exhausted by Dec. 30, 1943, the division was again pulled from the line.
THE RAPIDO "BLUNDER" The 36th returned to the front on Jan. 15, 1944. This time, the assignment was to cross the Rapido River, which would later be called "one of the most colossal blunders of the Second World War," a "murderous blunder"...and the subject of hearings in the U.S. Congress.
In recalling the Rapido episode with survivors 50 years later, The Houston Post, in its Jan. 23, 1994 edition, said: "If Texans have reason to remember the Alamo, they have reason to remember the Rapido as well. Many more Texans died there in two vain river-crossing attempts than fell at the Alamo, and for a far less purpose."
Following are excerpts from the division's pictorial history book, "The Fighting 36th," and the July 1996 issue of World War II magazine about the Rapido disaster:
The Rapido was a small and unimpressive but swift-flowing, ice-cold river, 35 to 50 feet wide, 10 to 15 feet deep, with banks varying in height from 3 to 6 feet. There was a four-mile wide approach over flat, open soggy ground.
The 141st and 143rd regiments of the 36th were ordered to cross the Rapido near Sant' Angelo, a village atop a 40-foot bluff that was defended by the numerically superior crack German 15th Panzer Grenadier Division, considered one of the best German units in Italy.
Maj. Gen. Fred L. Walker, commander of the 36th; and Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Keyes, commander of II Corps, had misgivings and both tried to convince their superiors that the crossing should be further upstream where it was less formidable and with more cover. They were overruled by Fifth Army commander Lt. Gen. Mark W. Clark.
"We are undertaking the impossible, but I shall keep it to myself. This is going to be a tough job and I don't like it," Walker wrote in his diaries.
The 141st and 143rd regiments began the task in dense-fog on the night of Jan. 20 with each unit already below strength by as much as 500 men. What replacements they had received to fill gaps left by heavy losses suffered in the Bernard Line battles were newly arrived in the war zone.
It was a disaster. Deadly accurate enemy artillery and mortar fire inflicted an enormous toll....markers for lanes thru minefields were either destroyed by exploding shells or were lost, causing more casualties....guides became disoriented in the fog, darkness and noise...shell and mine fragments ripped rubber boats and jury-rigged plywood boats that were to be used for the river crossing....boats that did reach the river overturned in the swift water or were punctured by German fire, with many GIs drowning....telephone lines were knocked out, field radios lost....about 100 men did cross the river on footbridge, but the bridge was destroyed, isolating the men on the far side with no communication. They dug in under the far side bank, but later they were never found....
At daybreak, the troops withdrew to their original positions, but Keyes, under pressure from Gen. Clark, ordered Walker to make a second assault with the two regiments on Jan. 21. Parts of three battalions did cross the Rapido, but could not establish a bridgehead of more than 600 yards under the merciless pounding from the Germans....one battalion ran out of ammunition...all boats and bridges, along with communications, for the battalions were wiped out. Supply and evacuation were impossible.
The gallant battalions beat off the counterattacking Germans until their ammunition ran out. The sound of American weapons gradually faded into the night.
Gen. Walker finally convinced Keyes to order a withdrawal on the night of Jan. 22. All of the troops in the bridgehead were killed, wounded or captured -- except for about 40 who managed to swim the icy water to safety.
In 48 hours of the Rapido disaster, the 141st and 143rd Infantry regiments suffered 2,128 casualties. One company of the 141st regiment was reduced from 187 to 17 men. German losses were negligible, and scarce reserves were never committed. A full view photograph of the attempted Rapido crossing area, taken from atop the 40-foot bluff, published in "The Fighting 36th" pictorial history book, shows the stupidity of the costly attempt.
Later, the 36th would move upstream to virtually walk across the Rapido in the face of light resistance and moved against the German flank. A successful bridgehead was established on Jan. 26.
It was during the battle of the Rapido that Sanders received word that Billie had given birth to their first child, Richard, Jr.
The 36th remained in the line for about a month along the Rapido and the hills above Cassino before being relieved on Feb. 26. Other than a few days in January, this was the first rest for T-Patchers since Nov. 15.
FAST-MOVING 36TH SETS RECORD After rest and training reinforcements, it was a fast-moving "Texas" division that re-entered the line in May 1944. The 36th participated at Anzio, opening the gateway to Rome, into Rome, then‹in August‹ the southern France invasion, followed by the dash up the Rhone Valley, battling Germans in the Vosges Mountains, Alsace-Lorraine, and entering southern Germany in the spring of 1945, to end the war in the Austrian Tyrol.
The 36th's newspaper, "T-Patch News," reported in its May 8, 1945 edition that Austria was the sixth country for the T-Patchers to enter, and that in France, the division had set an American Army record for consecutive days in contact with the enemy -- over 200. It also said that in 25 months overseas, the 36th had taken over 50,000 prisoners. A bunch of them had been guarded by Sanders and his fellow MPs.
With an over-quota of "points" and having become a new father while overseas, Sanders was the first in his outfit to get the cherished ticket for home when the war in Europe ended. And that, brings up another story.
Sanders and his uncle, W. L. Ellis, who was actually younger than Sanders, served together in the same outfit from the time Sanders had joined the 36th back in 1941 and Ellis was already there, having joined up earlier. When it came time to come home, Ellis was younger and did not quite have enough points.
Sanders returned to the USA aboard a Liberty ship. While he was at sea, Ellis reached his needed points and caught a ride aboard an airplane. "He darned near beat me home," Sanders says.
After four years and nearly six months of service with the T-Patchers, Sanders received his discharge in June 1945, with the rank of Tech Sergeant. He mentions no medals or ribbons, other than the Good Conduct.
After his discharge, Sanders returned home in the Palacios area and later bought the family farm. Richard and Billie (who passed away in 1995) had three children -- Richard Sanders, Jr. of Palacios, Billie Ruth Jackson of Milano and Mary Helen Johnson of El Campo. There are also four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
As an aftermath to the Rapido "blunder" it should be noted that Congressional hearings on the Rapido disaster were held in 1946 by the House Military Affairs Committee.
After two days of hearings, including resolutions from both the Texas Legislature and the 36th Infantry Division Association that charged General Clark with "disregard for human life and military information," the panel accepted the Army's view that "the attempt to cross the Rapido was a legitimate if difficult operation" and that Clark "exercised sound judgment in ordering the attack."
No further inquiry was deemed necessary.
RICHARD SANDERS, 2002
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