Vet recalls time in ‘Rattlesnake Squad’
Tom Joyce Staff Reporter
Thurmond Midkiff doesn’t seem to have any lethal qualities about him.
The lifelong local resident is well-known for his warm smile and personality, possessing a caring attitude that has been exemplified through his leadership of military rites at more than 1,000 funerals in the area.
At age 89, the retired project manager and estimator for the John S. Clark construction company doesn’t get around as well as he once did — sometimes having to rely on a cane or walker during an interview at his home Tuesday. And one of the main tools needed for survival in a hostile environment — a keen sense of hearing — has abandoned him.
But there was another time and a place in which Thurmond Midkiff was a force to be reckoned with, when he served as a member of the U.S. Army’s famed Rattlesnake Squad in Italy during World War II. And just like the deadly creature that unit was named for, it inflicted many a deadly bite on the Germans.
The Rattlesnake Squad was a special group operating within the infantry which had some similarities to elite units such as the Green Berets.
It often drew dangerous assignments, such as being sent out to find the strong points in enemy lines in advance of an American attack. The “Rattlesnakes” would exchange fire with the Germans and at the spot where the least resistance was found, the rest of their company would push through the next day.
“We had the firepower,” Midkiff said of an arsenal that included two fabled weapons: Thompson submachine guns, of which the Rattlesnake Squad had 10, and Browning Automatic Rifles (BARs) along with hand grenades.
Another task was “ambush patrols,” which occurred when the Americans needed prisoners to interrogate for information. The Rattlesnake group would determine Germans’ ration or ammunition routes and wait to ambush them. Although it sounds “gruesome,” Midkiff acknowledges today, all the men knew whether they would be killing troops in their sights or trying to capture them.
“The ones we didn’t capture, we’d have to kill them right on the spot,” the local veteran recalled. And they had to accomplish this without firing a shot. Doing so would have given away the Americans’ position, “and then the Germans would be all over you.”
Combat, and death, was a way of life as the Americans fought their way across Italy to push out the Germans.
“It was either kill or be killed — you didn’t have no choice,” Midkiff said, although he says those experiences can be hard to reconcile in one’s mind later.
“You don’t really get over it — you just put it behind you.”
Midkiff’s military memories from spending two winters overseas also include sleeping outside in the cold without tents and waking up in the morning covered with snow, crossing frigid rivers with water up to the armpits and having no dry clothes for replacements.
He tried to keep a pair of dry socks under his helmet to at least have dry feet despite lacking waterproof boots.
“Rough” Early Life
It might be said that the ordeals Thurmond Midkiff endured in World War II were basically all in a day’s work for a young man who had grown up hard after being born in July 1924. His family initially lived in Flat Rock. His father, George Washington Midkiff — a Purple Heart recipient in World War I — worked in the nearby granite quarry.
In 1936 when Midkiff was 12, his father died as a result of dust he breathed as a stone cutter causing a condition known as silicosis. In 1939 Midkiff’s older brother died, leaving him to support the family as the oldest boy of six children remaining.
He worked in a cotton mill in Virginia for 50 cents per hour, in a furniture factory, cutting wood, sawmilling, setting up pins at a bowling alley and other odd jobs.
“I had a tough, rough life when I was growing up,” Midkiff said, “and I believe that’s why I got along so good in the service.”
At 19 he was drafted, and though Midkiff didn’t volunteer he and others of his generation were proud to go and fight. Even in rural North Carolina, the importance of a growing world conflict was not lost on them.
“I knew it was going to be something,” Midkiff said of his thoughts at the time. “I think World War II was justified, but I don’t know about some of these others.”
After less than six months of training, Midkiff found himself bound for the war zone in November 1943, leaving on what the troops called a “liberty ship” that took them to Casablanca in North Africa.
Infantry Hit Hard
Midkiff was assigned to the infantry, a challenging assignment he blames on his own actions during the classification stage.
“I made a mistake,” the veteran said of how he responded when asked about his hobbies during a process that sought to determine where a soldier’s talents could be best used. Not knowing exactly what was meant by a hobby, Midkiff replied that he liked to hunt and fish.
“So I got sent to the infantry,” he said. “That’s the roughest there is.”
Midkiff was assigned to the First Armored Division upon arriving in Italy, and subsequently to the 34th Infantry as a rifleman. He held leadership posts such as squad leader, and gained the rank of sergeant.
The infantry took many casualties while engaging the Germans in the mountainous terrain of Italy and often it was a matter of pushing the enemy off one hill only to have it occupy a higher one.
It would get to the point where a soldier didn’t know what day it was or even care. That was probably when the troops did their best fighting, the local man said, pointing out that those who stayed around for six or eight months got the feel of things and had a better chance of surviving.
Most of those who didn’t died because they panicked, he said.
Midkiff said the Germans were a formidable foe. “They were trained from a child up,” he said. “They were disciplined.”
Though he saw many of his buddies die at their hands, the Mount Airy veteran harbors no ill will for the Germans today.
“I don’t have no hard feelings toward them,” he said. “They didn’t have no choice — they were fighting just like we.”
Midkiff’s military engagements took him to such locations as Anzio, Rome and Monastery Hill, the latter being the scene of a major battle.
“We had so many battles and lost so many men,” Midkiff said.
Once while trying to cross the Rapido River, the 34th Infantry Division lost about 2,200 men and he recalls the river being red with blood.
On another occasion, members of the Rattlesnake Squad were dispatched to Milan after learning that Italian leader Benito Mussolini had been captured there by Partisans (Italians who were against his regime). The Americans were hoping to capture the fascist leader and bring him back for trial.
By the time they got there, Mussolini and his mistress had been killed and were hanging by their feet with a couple of henchmen on each side.
Midkiff said the rank-and-file Italians were friendly toward Americans and their efforts to liberate them from dictatorship.
The local man returned to Italy in 2003 for a visit with one of his sons-in-law and said the Italians were still grateful for what the U.S. military had done.
Brushes With Death
It’s safe to say that Thurmond Midkiff had his share of close encounters during the war.
When not battling Germans in the rugged countryside, the U.S. troops sometimes found themselves trying to ferret out enemy soldiers holed up in bombed-out villages, often warding off sniper fire.
Once while in the town of Pisa, two German snipers were spotted shooting from a building and after one of them was taken out by return fire Midkiff told his men to cover him while he attempted to get the other by way of the downstairs.
But when making his way through the structure, Midkiff stepped on a loose tile and immediately thought it was a booby trap. “That German was coming down the steps,” Midkiff said of what was occurring in the meantime.
He dispatched the German, and realized he would have to step off the tile sooner or later. When Midkiff did, no blast occurred and he discovered that the loose tile was a hiding place for a wedding ring and other jewelry items. An Italian who’d occupied the place had hidden the jewelry from the enemy by wrapping it in a small handkerchief.
Midkiff later gave the ring to his wife, the former Mary Ellen Jessup, and she has continued to wear it to this day.
Another experience occurred in Pisa when one of the men in his unit saw its famous leaning tower and thought the structure had been bombed. “It’s about to fall!” Midkiff recalled the man saying before he was informed of the tower’s history.
Midkiff also tells how he wrote to his mother back home, asking her to send him a watch with a luminous dial. Wristwatches normally issued to the soldiers were in short supply, and timepieces were needed to coordinate missions and the like.
Before actually getting the watch in the mail — which he still possesses — Midkiff received another package from home he thought was the watch but actually contained a small copy of new Testament with a metal cover.
As someone who didn’t attend church growing up, he initially discarded the Bible but later retrieved it from the mud and learned to find solace in its content. “The words inside it is what kept me from harm, not the metal cover,” said the man who believes he got through a bloody war due to God’s blessing.
Upon returning home after being discharged in December 1945, Midkiff became a longtime, active member of Westfield Baptist Church.
He and his wife have three daughters and a number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Among the wartime mementos Midkiff keeps in the 102-year-old house he and his wife occupy on North Main Street — in addition to such items as the watch and wedding ring — are numerous photographs and medals.
Those include a Bronze Star, Combat Infantryman’s Medal, Victory Medal, Expert Rifleman’s Badge, Army of Occupation Medal and others.
Along with his wartime service, Thurmond Midkiff is proud of his role with the Honor Guard of Mount Airy Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2019. He has been with that organization for about 19 years, including serving as its chaplain as well as Honor Guard commander.
He had to relinquish the latter role earlier this year for health reasons. A gesture of thanks for his service occurred during Mount Airy’s recent Veterans Day activities when he was the grand marshal for an annual parade.
“It was fine,” Midkiff said of that experience. “I had led the parade before, but not as grand marshal.”
The Honor Guard attends funerals of former military members, providing a rifle salute and the playing of “Taps” in addition to presenting a folded flag to the next of kin. During the more than1,000 funerals Midkiff led military rites for over the years, the uniformed Honor Guard personnel braved intense weather and other harsh condition to stand at attention in memory of the dead.
Midkiff said he considers this the last gesture that can be made to show appreciation for those who served their country. “We might want the same thing,” he said of those who survive.
Yet in recent years, too many of the funerals Midkiff has attended have been for those who served in a war that involved what is considered America’s greatest generation.
“The World War II veterans are fading away fast.”
Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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