Article first published in Vol. 13, 1995. Updated in 2017
By Leigh E. Smith, Jr.
The 36th Infantry Division consisted of men from Texas and the surrounding southwestern states. One unit of the 36th was Company E, 2nd Battalion, 141st Infantry Regiment. Comprised of Hispanic-American soldiers from El Paso and the surrounding area, this company alone lost more than half its men in a controversial World War II battle.
Two El Pasoans, Manuel "Manny" Rivera, Jr. and Ricardo Palacios, Jr., were members of Company E when it shipped overseas in April 1943 and were involved in the ill-fated battle.
During the Italian campaign, 5th Army Commander General Mark Clark needed a diversionary attack to prevent the Germans from attacking the main Allied invasion forces landing at Anzio. They planned an assault across the Rapido River in the Cassino Valley in the central part of Italy. The 36th division was one of the primary units involved, and in less than 48 hours, more than 1,700 men from the division were killed.
Rivera, in the weapons platoon of Company E, says, "The unit breakdown for an infantry company in the 1940s was three or four rifle platoons and a weapons platoon armed with .30-caliber light machine guns and 60 millimeter mortars,” he says. “I ended up as the weapons platoon sergeant.
Rivera was responsible for attaching his weapons section to a rifle platoon that was going to attack. Palacios was one of the rifle platoon sergeants. “Whenever we needed help from the weapons platoon, we got it,” recalls Palacios.
Prior to the actual assault, two reconnaissance patrols tried to determine the Germans’ strength. In order to travel light and be as quiet as possible, Rivera said, “We couldn’t take anything but a blanket, a shovel and a few cans of C or K rations and our weapons.” The patrol leader, another El Pasoan, Gabriel Navarrete, led the patrol across the river. A mortar shell exploded near Rivera and Navarrete, wounding both seriously, as well as several others. “Navarrete and I put the wounded in a boat,” recalls Rivera, “and since Navarrete was hit in the shoulder, I said, ‘You go in the boat and I’ll swim the river.’” Rivera swam back to the American side of the river and told the company commander, Captain John Chapin, who was later killed in the assault, that the patrol had failed.
Rivera went to the hospital and was treated for his wounds. He rejoined the outfit later, just prior to the battle for Rome, and discovered that several of his friends had been captured or killed during the Rapido River assault. Rivera said, “If you didn’t get wounded, if you didn’t get killed, if you weren’t captured, you weren’t at the river.”
Ricardo Palacios participated in the actual attack, and he recalls what happened: “The night before the assault on January 21, 1944, I went to a meeting with other platoon sergeants and Captain Chapin to hear about the assault, and where we would meet if we were successful. You could tell everyone was pretty uptight after the reconnaissance had failed.”
After the unsuccessful crossing attempt, the combat engineers constructed a pontoon bridge to try the crossing again. “The Germans let as many cross as possible,” Palacios said, “and then they opened up on us with machine guns, mortars and artillery. The only thing we could do was stay there, dig our foxholes and wait for daylight.”
When morning came, those on the German side of the river who were not already dead were captured, including Palacios, who was a POW for 16 months. (See related story.)
After the Rapido River assault, Company E regrouped and received replacements to fill the badly depleted squads. The unit fought in the Cassino area and then was pulled off the front line for a brief rest. It went back into action at Anzio, and Company E and the 36th Division fought on and liberated Rome from the Germans.
After leaving Italy, the division landed in Southern France to take pressure off the Normandy landings. Rivera was once again wounded in France but stayed with the unit until it reached the Rhine river.
When remembering the Rapido river assault, both Rivera and Palacios agree: “All the guys that were there deserve the Silver Star Medal. The heroes are not here. They’re over there, the ones that were left behind. There’s no such thing as a living hero.”
Image caption: This sign and baseball field, formerly known as Delta Park, are the only public reminders of Company E's sacrifice and contribution to WWII. Photo by Leigh Smith. See Update 2017 for photo of recent memorial.
“They were brave men -- Captain Chapin and all the others,” Rivera says 50 years later. Rivera was awarded the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars, two Purple Hearts and several other campaign medals. His decorations and pictures of him and Company E hang in his living room.
The recognition of his unit has gone unnoticed for years. A small baseball field on Delta Street, across from the Youth Center, was named for the unit, and is the only reminder that Company E, 141st Infantry Regiment, 36th Infantry Division, composed mostly of local Hispanic boys, served with honor in Europe.
The names of those who fought & died are memories for relatives or fellow soldiers who live in El Paso. Soldiers like Manny Rivera and Ricardo Palacios are living reminders of this brave and proud unit.