Castle Aghinolfi is “ominous, threatening and sinister, towering over the battle area,” one American soldier wrote of this Italian landmark in World War II.
It also was important strategically.
The castle and the German guns in the surrounding nest of mountains stood between the Allies and an important naval base at La Spezia. It stymied the invasion of the Po Valley - the breadbasket of Italy.
The castle also had a commanding view of the important north-south coast highway and key surrounding towns.
It was the linchpin for the network of machine gun nests, artillery, mortars, bunkers and sniper hideouts that continually thrashed American troops for much of the fall and winter of 1944-45. Most of those menaces were so well-camouflaged that aerial spotters couldn’t find them and soldiers couldn’t see them - even from 20 feet away.
The castle’s slopes were ringed with a spiral of stone and mortar walls that easily repelled bombs, artillery shells and mortar fire.
This jagged piece of country was “among the most formidable defenses in the entire 200-mile-long Gothic line,” Hondon B. Hargrove writes in “Buffalo Soldiers in Italy,” a book he dedicated to Vernon Baker.
Breaching it “could lead to the collapse of all German forces in Italy,” says Hargrove, who commanded an American artillery battery.
One of the most important battles in that effort began April 5, 1945, when Baker’s platoon joined the fight for the castle. The Japanese-American 442nd Infantry Regiment also played an important role, silencing much of the artillery in the mountains surrounding the castle.
In fewer than 20 days, Americans marched into La Spezia. By early May, the Allies took Genoa and the enemy was fleeing Italy as Hitler’s Germany finally laid down its arms.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic with map: A soldier’s path to honor