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Borderlands: El Paso's Company E Survivors Remember Rapido River Assault (with 2017 update)

A unique resource of faculty edited college student articles on the history and culture of the El Paso, Juárez, and Southern New Mexico regions.

El Paso's Company E Survivors Remember Rapido River Assault

By Leigh E. Smith Jr. (Articles first published in Vol. 13, 1995)

Company E Update 2017

With war clouds looming on the horizon, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a Congressional Bill in August 1940 authorizing him to call up 360,000 members of the Army Reserve and National Guard for a period of one year of active duty. It was the mission of the National Guard and Reserves to train a new conscript Army. In November 1940, the 36th Infantry Division, with approximately 12,500 men, was federalized. The Division consisted of men from Texas and surrounding Southwestern states.

""Image caption: Photographed in 1995, Manuel “Manny” Rivera fought heroically in the Battle of the Rapido River in WWII. (Photo by Leigh E. Smith Jr.)

Company E of the 141st Infantry Regiment, 36th Infantry Division, was located in El Paso, Texas, and included many local boys. Their commander was Captain John L. Chapin. John Chapin was a local El Pasoan who attended school in both the El Paso and Ysleta school districts. Chapin joined the National Guard and became a member of Company E, later to become its Commanding Officer. Chapin’s nickname by many of the men was “Daddy Long Legs” because of his height, but many men just called him “Captain John.”

Chapin declined five promotions to stay with Company E because most of the men in his company were Hispanic and non-English speakers.

Chapin thought that if he took a promotion he would have to leave the unit, and Company E would probably be left to a non-Spanish- speaking commander who might mistreat the soldiers. His men respected him for his reasoning.

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 an 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. An assault across the Rapido River in the Cassino Valley in the central part of Italy was planned. 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. Company E alone lost more than half its men in this controversial World War II battle.

Rivera, in the weapons platoon of Company E, said, “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. 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,” recalled 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,” recalled 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 priorto 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 recalled what happened: “The night before the assault on Jan. 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.

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 agreed: “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.”

“They were brave men — Captain Chapin and all the others,” Rivera said 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 .See UPDATE 2017 on Company E articles to see how the men are honored today. 

The names of those who fought and 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.

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