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I Survived the Battle of Cisterna: The Story of Pfc. James Palmer, 1st Ranger Bn

BUFFALO, NY (Timothy Lawn) – Anzio, Italy, January 1944, at 0130, the intermittent roar of firing from an eight-inch howitzer battery and the drizzle of a light chilly rain made Pfc. James Palmer and more than 760 of his fellow Rangers more than eager and ready to carry out their special mission.

Palmer, a native of Buffalo, New York, was assigned to the 6615th Ranger Force, 1st Ranger Battalion.

The mission the 1st and 3rd Army Ranger battalions, commanded by Col. William Orlando Darby, was ordered to carry out was to infiltrate and assault supposedly lightly defended German lines, to seize and hold the town of Cisterna and its surrounding farms, and link up the following day with the 3rd Infantry Division, commanded by Maj. Gen. Lucian K. Truscott.

That link-up would never come. The moment Palmer and the other Rangers marched across the line of departure their fate was sealed. By daylight the two battalions of Rangers found themselves trapped in an iron vise of angry German defenders determined to push the U.S. Army back into the sea.

That day’s bloody battle would be where Palmer and the rest of his Ranger buddies would make military history, fighting in a Ranger battalion’s last stand, and cementing the Army Rangers’ fighting spirit and tenacity during World War II.

The Rangers’ minds were far from making military history when they headed toward Cisterna.

As night gave way to daylight, Palmer and his fellow Rangers skirted the edge of a large open field on the southern edge of Cisterna. They realized they were in a risky situation, because crossing an open field in daylight was suicide, but they had orders to take the town. It wasn’t quite daylight, so they made the dash for the village in the hopes of reaching it before the sun came up.

The German defenders of Cisterna were a robust and mixed force of combat hardened elements of the German 715th Motorized Infantry Division, the Hermann Goering Division and elite paratroopers from 2nd Parachute Lehr.

Under the leadership of Field Marshal Albert Kesserling, the Germans had transformed the rugged Italian countryside. They created interlocking defensive strongpoints using any man-made and natural environmental obstacle to their advantage. Unfortunately for the Rangers, they had paid particular attention to the built-up village of Cisterna.

The German defenders had Palmer and the two battalions of Rangers exactly where they wanted them, the open field they had to cross was essentially a kill zone, and they closed the trap on the small force of Rangers coming at them.

From farmhouses, stone fences, orchards, vehicles and tanks, the Germans counterattacked, opening up with a violent fusillade of direct and indirect fire and savagely attempted to destroy the American assault force. In response, the Rangers fought back with equal ferocity.

“A lifetime of action,” Palmer told a Buffalo newspaper reporter while recovering from his wounds.

As the battle intensified, the Rangers quickly assessed that they were surrounded. Palmer and his Ranger buddies fought back with everything they had. Using bazookas, sticky mines, carbines and grenades, the Rangers fought with savage ferocity. Some of the Rangers even resorted to jumping onto moving tanks and dropping grenades into hatches to destroy them.

“It was really tough back there, because them ‘Jerries’ (Germans) were firmly entrenched and all we could do was watch and try to pick them off as fast as we sighted them,” Palmer said in a wartime interview.

As the day’s battle progressed the Germans grew in strength, firing point-blank with tanks, flak wagons and artillery, the Germans brought deadly firepower down upon the lightly armed Ranger assault force.

Though they had the upper hand, they also quickly realized that the surrounded Ranger force was not going to go easy. As the day wore on, the Germans in frustration took captured prisoners and marched them in front of vehicles in an attempt to force isolated pockets of Rangers to surrender.

Efforts by other units attempting to rescue Palmer and his fellow Rangers were unsuccessful. By the end of the day, out of 760-plus Rangers assaulting Cisterna, official Army records indicate that all but six men were either killed or captured in the fight for the town.

In the ensuing melee, Palmer disappeared, a statistic, either killed or captured. His family was duly notified that he was listed as missing in action.

Through fate or divine intervention, Palmer was one of those lucky six who survived the savage maelstrom and return to combat duty as a Ranger.

At some point during the savage mid-afternoon battle, Palmer managed to break out and survive the slaughter. A 4.2-mortar battalion discovered a dazed Palmer walking along a road. When they questioned him he only could recall being part of a surrounded force that had been taken by surprise and ordered to surrender. He spent a couple of weeks recuperating and becoming friends with the soldiers, one of whom would later become a lifelong friend.

Palmer later would return to fight with the Rangers but his luck would quickly run out. A short time later he suffered massive shrapnel wounds to his arm and back, and was sent home for the duration of the war to recuperate.

Palmer was neither meek nor shy. He started life as an orphan at Father Baker’s Orphanage in Buffalo, New York, was later raised in foster care by a Ms. Margaret Ryan returning to his maternal grandparents at age10.

Right after Pearl Harbor he enlisted in the Army at the young age of 17 and volunteered for the U.S. Army Rangers. He was selected and trained with the original fighting force.

Palmer earned his mettle in North Africa before heading to Italy. He is a proud member of the original founding World War II Ranger battalions and in possession of the famed 1st Ranger Battalion Scroll sleeve insignia.

“We were dirty SOBs, under a great soldier (Darby) … and we kicked the crap out of them… (Germans),” Palmer said.

The battle of Cisterna is penned in history as a tactical and bloody defeat for the 1st and 3rd Ranger battalions but the brave actions and sacrifices of soldiers like Palmer and his fellow Army Rangers add a sharpened edge to the scroll they proudly wear.

Palmer was awarded the two Purple Hearts, Bronze Star, Combat Infantryman’s Badge and European Campaign Medals.

Personal note

I met and interviewed Jim Palmer, 91 years, in the comfort of his home, his daughter Julie, doted over him as we talked; He was pleasant, and seemed to enjoy the attention.

During the interview, my zest to capture his combat experiences came up a little shy, he seemed to have difficulty recalling his wartime memories. What he did expand upon was how proud he was to have been an Army Ranger under Darby, and that they had kicked the crap out of the Nazis.

Palmer had war wounds that earned him a 100 percent disability rating, a rare rating even for those days. After the war, he married, sired a son and four daughters, and watched them grow and be successful.

There were times I feel he did remember some experiences, but I grew aware that he seemed to possibly retreat due to the pain or sorrow those memories evoked.

Regardless, Palmer’s short story came to life with the help of volumes of official Army published papers, period newspaper clippings and interviews with him while he was recuperating on convalescent leave, and family documents, including his uniform and military regalia.

Palmer’s interview is fact, based on fact. His memory may have dimmed with time but the story is still there. A young man at war who experienced and lived to tell about one of the greatest battles of the Second World War fighting as a Special Operations Soldier.

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