Little had happened during the early hours of September 14. Lost men of the 34th Infantry Division had drifted through the lines with information of the Altavilla attack. Engineers were laying a minefield in front of Charlie Co. With the coming of Baker Co, Charlie Co moved to the north and Baker Co filled in the center of the battalion sector, astride the road, tying in with Able Co on the right. A wire line had reached the battalion from the regiment. Except for a German tank attack in a sector north of the battalion position and continual enemy air raids, the day moved uneventfully. During the afternoon patrols from Charlie Co moved to the east and across the La Cosa without enemy contact. Then the 1st Platoon of Baker Co was ordered to move out before dark and outpost an unnumbered hill southeast of Albanella. An SCR 511 was sent with this platoon.
An order to be prepared to counterattack a German force that was preparing to attack from north of the La Cosa never materialized. After dark Capt Duncan, Baker Co took his 2nd Platoon and moved out to join the 1st Platoon south of Albanella since radio contact could not be made. The morning of September 15, dawned clear and hot. Messages from the Baker Co outpost reported flares during the night and German vehicles were observed at some distance, but no enemy contact. Air raids over the beaches and light shelling in the battalion sector were the only visible enemy activity. Rations had been procured by the S-4 but as yet no blankets were available. A combat patrol from Charlie Co was sent out in the afternoon toward the valley between Albanella and Altavilla northeast of the battalion sector. Its mission was to make contact with the Germans. The patrol would stay out over night and return the next morning. During the day, the battalion commander contacted the 3rd Battalion of the 531st Shore Engineers on the top of Mount Soprano. Word reached the battalion that on the night of September 14/15, the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment had dropped on the drop zone south of Paestum and was now in position on, and south of Mount Soprano.
The remainder of September 15, passed with no enemy activity or contact in the battalion sector. On the morning of September 16, at about 1000 hours, the regimental commander was called to the VI Corps CP. There, he was instructed that his two battalions would leave from Albanella that afternoon at 1400, to attack and seize Altavilla. Artillery support would be furnished by the 36ID. It was noon when the 1st Battalion received an order to move to Albanella and be prepared to attack the town of Altavilla. Troops would move out and the battalion commander would receive the attack order at Albanella. The battalion spread out over the flats and along the slope of , Mount Soprano was too widely dispersed to be pulled in rapidly. A foot messenger was sent by the S-3 to Capt Duncan and his outpost to tell them to meet the battalion in Albanella. Able and Charlie Cos began to pull in outposts.
While Charlie Co prepared to move, its combat patrol returned. They had much to report. They had engaged in three firefights. Considerable enemy artillery and mortar fire had fallen on them. However, the resistance seemed so scattered that it was deemed unimportant. A regimental patrol reported that some forty enemy tanks were located on the reverse slope of a hill about a mile and a half southeast of Altavilla. By 1400, the battalion was moving with a file on either side of the dirt road which ran northeast through the defense sector to Albanella. The order of march was Able Co, Charlie Co, 3rd Platoon of Baker Co, and Headquarters Co, 1400 hours, which was the time scheduled for beginning the attack, found the battalion walking with some four miles yet to be covered before Albanella could be reached. Companies had dropped their spare machine guns and individual field bags in company piles for the S-4 to pick up. The remaining weapons, including light machine guns and mortars, were being hand carried. All the ammunition that could be hand carried was being moved. One vehicle, a quarter-ton truck, was the sole battalion transportation. Troops had such rations as they could carry and only the water in their canteens “was available as they moved out in the hot sun along the dusty road.
When the battalion moved across La Cosa flats German artillery shelled the column causing some casualties. The climb up Albanella Hill was difficult for both, the machine gun Platoon and the 81-MM mortar Platoon. Only the efforts of the battalion executive officer kept them moving. As the battalion commander and the S-3 moved with the point to the road junction several hundred yards north of Albanella, the battalion commander attempted to move a small fallen tree. Attached to the tree was a small concussion charge which knocked him down though it did not injure him. At the road junction, at 1600, a messenger met the battalion. He had come to guide the commander to where Col Tucker would issue his order. The battalion commander directed the S-3 to take the column through Albanella and swing north on a trail that showed on his map as going from Albanella to Altavilla. He would meet the battalion there and issue his order to the company commanders. Further, he wanted Capt Duncan located and his force tied in with the column. Then the battalion commander left.
Once the battalion had entered the narrow streets of Albanella, the trail could only be located through conversation with Italian civilians. Finally, one Italian led the battalion through several backyards and down a slope that led into the trail. There, the S-3 left the battalion halted, and moved east across the draw to the next ridge several hundred yards away. On the trail that moved north on this second ridge, he located Baker Co moving north. While guiding Baker Co to the battalion column, Capt Duncan and the battalion S-3 met the battalion commander. Col Williams had already issued his order to the other three unit commanders. He reviewed what little information he had. The 1/504 would move out at once with the mission of seizing Hill 424 which was northeast of Altavilla. The 2/504 would follow and seize Hill 315 and an unnumbered Hill. The battalion would stay out of Altavilla. The battalion would cross the line of departure, which was at the bottom of the Albanella Hill, in single file. Able Co would lead, followed by Charlie, Baker, and HQs Co. All resistance en route to the objective would be bypassed if possible. The battalion would be dug in on Hill 424 by daylight. The trail on which the battalion commander stood led into Altavilla. However, just east of Altavilla, the battalion would swing off the trail onto the high ground and approach Hill 424 from the east.
The 132nd Field Artillery Battalion of the 36-ID would support the battalion. As yet no forward observers or liaison officers had reported. Elements of the 505-PIR would be screening the right flank of the regiment. The best the battalion commander had time to do in issuing his order was to point at a hill in a group of hills. In the town of Altavilla a fire was burning. No recent enemy information was available. Company Commander orders and reconnaissance were to be made as the battalion marched out in response to a message to move. As the battalion commander moved out with Able Co he directed the battalion S-2 and the S-3 to tie the column in. Then a forward observer reported in to the battalion commander who instructed him to move with Able Co. That forward observer moved away and was not seen again by the battalion. The S-2 and the S-3 contacted the battalion executive at the tail of the column who informed them that elements of the 81-MM mortar Platoon were still closing in. Since he was closing the column up, the S-2 and the S-3 moved up and crossed the line of departure with Baker Co.
Thus, at approximately 1730 hours on September 16, the 1/504 moved out towards Hill 424. Some three and one-half hours after the time scheduled by the VI Corps, the regiment was moving out in attack. Even with this time lag the battalion commander had had no time for reconnaissance or coordination. Company commanders were briefing platoon leaders as they marched out. Troops were almost wholly in ignorance of the mission other than the words Hill 424 and Altavilla. And, to them, Altavilla meant only what survivors of the 36-ID Division had told them as they had drifted through the battalion defense sector during the previous days.
TERRAIN AND TACTICS
Of what importance was this hill toward which the battalion was moving? On September 12-13, the Germans pushed the 1st Battalion of the 142nd Infantry Regiment off the hill. Again on the night of September 13/14, the Germans had viciously beaten back the 1/142-IR, the 3/142-IR as well as the 3/143-IR Infantry. From Hill 424 the enemy could see the beaches at Paestum. He could watch movements across La Cosa Creek and the Sele-Calore Sector. As long as he held the hill he had excellent observation of the VI Corps Sector. On the southwest slope of Hill, 424 sat the town of Altavilla, unimportant in itself since the hill commanded it completely. However, as the hub of several roads and numerous trails toward the Calore River, it served as a focal point toward which German troops could be quickly moved. Looking from Albanella toward Altavilla, Hill 424 appears as the critical terrain feature. Just south of Hill 424 is the Unnumbered Hill that does not seem to merit further attention when the objective is Hill 424.
Some five hundred yards to the southwest of the Unnumbered Hill and almost a nose of it is Hill 315. About one thousand yards southeast of the Unnumbered Hill is Hill 344. Closer inspection would reveal that the Unnumbered Hill, instead of being a satellite to Hill 424, completely dominates it as well as Hill 315 and Hill 344. On the slopes of the hills were intermittent streams, dry now, that had cut deep gullies into the slopes. Numerous additional erosion features such as dips and gullies marred the hillside. Many of these had steep sides and narrow bottoms. Trails that went from Albanella to Altavilla followed north on noses jutting from the hill mass. These trails dipped through draws and gullies and often formed narrow defiles as they did so. Lining the trails were trees and stone walls. In places, the trails moved along terraced levels with drops on one side and walls on the other. A profusion of minor footpaths and trails joined the main trail, the one along which the battalion was moving. Cultivated fields and farmhouses were surrounded by stone walls. Along portions of these walls, there were trees. Cognizant of the terrain and affected by the heavy American artillery, the Germans had adopted a set of peculiar tactics to hold the hills. Occupying only certain features with outposts and observation parties the enemy would be alerted as American troops entered the hill mass. From their well-covered positions would come the enemy’s main force which, after locating the American forces, would maneuver through gullies and ditches to hit the American forces from all directions. Often they were not detected until they were on the positions. With these tactics, the enemy had driven out the previous 36-ID attackers.
THE APPROACH MARCH
Return now to the 1st Battalion of the 504-PIR as it moved northward on the trail toward Altavilla. The point of the battalion column, the 1st Platoon, Able Co, was moving rapidly. As the point came to the creek north of the Albanella Hill a cub plane dropped a message that warned of some German outposts several hundred yards to the north. Behind the
point, the battalion column was still closing up. Heavy enemy artillery was falling in the draw from which the battalion had come. With more caution, the point moved north and just before dark, as it reached a spur fifteen hundred yards north of the Creek, a German machine gun opened up on it. To the east and west of this gun, on adjacent spurs, two more enemy machine guns joined the firing. As the point hit the sides of the trail, the point commander ordered his 60-MM mortar into action. Several rounds were all that was necessary to put the nearest enemy outpost out of action. Three or four Germans (Polish-Germans) who were manning this machine gun promptly surrendered. The machine gun to the west had been silenced by a squad that the company commander had dispatched. The east machine gun was taken care of by the screening force.