Not a day goes by that Dane Broadfoot doesn’t think about his time in World War II and the roughly 600 days of combat he experienced with the 1st Armored Division.
Sometimes it’s the devastation he saw in Italy while serving as a combat engineer, building bridges and roads, and clearing minefields.
Sometimes it’s the unusual situations he got himself into, like swearing at a passing general, who then stopped to ask his name.
And there’s the piece of history he saw, although he didn’t realize it until about a week later.
That was in late April 1945 when Broadfoot, a young corporal with the 16th Engineering Battalion, was traveling through Milan in a truck as their column pursued the retreating German army. Partisans who had been fighting the Germans and the Fascist army controlled the city but there were still snipers in the area, and GIs were moving quickly.
As they came through the city, they noticed bodies hanging upside down in one of the piazzas, or squares.
“We’d seen these people hanging in the square, five of them hanging up, then there was a pile (of corpses), probably six foot high, that they’d piled up,” he said. One of the bodies hanging upside down was a man with “boot-pants” on; a woman was hanging next to him, also upside down. They were covered with bullet holes.
The image was burned into his memory, but it wasn’t until a week later when he read Stars and Stripes that he realized what he’d seen – Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini and his mistress, Clara Petacci, had been captured and brought to the city for execution, then hung upside down in the piazza as a statement.
“If I’d’ve known it was Mussolini, I’d have shot him myself,” Broadfoot said recently. After all, Mussolini was partly responsible for him fighting a war in Italy.
Now a retired contractor in Post Falls, Broadfoot was a carpenter when the bombing of Pearl Harbor thrust the nation into war. He wanted to be a Navy aviator, but he wasn’t quite 21, the minimum age for that position. Before he reached that age, he was drafted into the Army and trained as a combat engineer.
It was a good fit, he said. “I’ve always been handy in construction.”
He was part of a group of replacements who joined the 1st Armored Division before it invaded Italy in September 1943. They landed at Salerno in the southern part of the country and slowly fought their way north to Naples, Cassino, Anzio, Rome and through the Po Valley.
Broadfoot said he sometimes watches documentaries of Italy, which show the beautiful countryside and historic cities. But that’s not his memory of the country. He recalls the devastation of war, with mountains and valleys and roads too narrow for the big vehicles of the battling armies.
Combat engineers stayed at the front of the advancing troops, building bridges and clearing minefields.
One town was so booby-trapped it had a mine in front of every door, he said. When people ask him how he managed to defuse so many mines, he replies “damn carefully.”
They would bridge rivers by placing inflatable pontoons in the water and laying tracks over them, section by section, until they reached the other side. Sometimes the pontoons would deflate, and soldiers would have to get in the water with an air hose to pump them up.
Broadfoot was on a bridge one day holding a hose for a soldier in the water when a Jeep barreled through a guard station. The officer inside had overruled the order to halt from the guard, who had to jump out of the way to avoid being hit. As it sped past, Broadfoot exploded:
“Who’s the son-of-a-bitch that’s trying to run us over?” he recalls shouting. When the captain came out and asked if he knew who was in the Jeep, he replied. “I don’t give a damn if it’s Mark Clark,” the commander of U.S. troops in Italy.
The captain said it was Gen. Clark. Broadfoot replied: “I still don’t give a damn.” The Jeep pulled over and stopped; the general got out and came over to Broadfoot.
“Soldier, what’s your name?” the general asked. Broadfoot told him.
“He said, ‘Keep up the good work, you’re doing a damn good job.’ I said, ‘Yes sir.’ ”
Broadfoot was wounded once, shot in the leg by a sniper while crossing the Arno River; other members of his unit were killed or severely wounded. After a doctor removed the bullet, Broadfoot told him he wasn’t wounded that badly and would go back to his unit. The doctor said no, ordering him to report to the field hospital.
“I went in the front door and out the back door,” Broadfoot said, and returned to his unit. A couple weeks later, his captain grabbed him and said he had orders to court martial him for disobeying a direct order. He explained that he hadn’t disobeyed them, he’d reported to the hospital – then left.
The captain tore up the papers.
Asked why he didn’t just take a few days off to recuperate, Broadfoot said he wanted to get back to the men he served with. “You’re like brothers. You know they need you, and you’re going to be there.”
He was offered a battlefield commission to become an officer, but refused. A letter about 40 years later from his former commander, Capt. George Davis, noted Broadfoot was the only soldier he recalled who balked at such a promotion.
To this day, Broadfoot has trouble explaining why. If any officer had ordered him on a suicide mission, he believes he would’ve gone without a second thought. But if they’d asked him to pick people to go with him, he doesn’t think he could have done it.
“I guess I didn’t want the responsibility,” he said.
By the end of the war, Broadfoot was a corporal. After a few months of occupation duty in Germany, he was sent home and discharged in December 1945. He returned to southern Missouri, where he was raised, and thought about using the G.I. Bill to go to college, “but I got married instead.”
He and a brother moved to Oregon and started sawmills, first in Hepner, then in Grants Pass. In 1960 they opened Broadfoot Lumber mill in St. Maries, Idaho, which they sold in 1965. After that, Broadfoot went back to something he’d done in the Army, building roads. He built them in Idaho, Washington and Montana until retiring about 13 years ago
For many years, Broadfoot said he didn’t talk about his war experiences. That was a mistake, he now realizes. He urges soldiers returning from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan not to keep everything bottled up inside.
“I think it gives you a relief to open up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid to talk about it.”
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