Today, the dozen men who stepped off the tour bus parked at the Andy Griffith Museum are frail. Some walk with canes. Many take shuffling steps with walkers under the watchful eye of caretakers.
But in 1944, those men were warriors, enduring the chaos of battle as they fought to hold a crucial Italian position.
The group are members of the Anzio Beachhead Veterans of World War II, and they chose nearby Hillsville, Virginia, as the site of what could very well be their last annual reunion.
It was an emotional time for all involved, because they have a story like no other.
The Battle of Anzio was an attempt to lure German troops off the Gustav Line during what was known as Operation Shingle. What was supposed to be a soft landing quickly escalated into a bloody battle that forced the soldiers to dig holes, where they lived and fought for four months to hold their position.
“I don’t want to use the word hell, but if there is anything that is close to hell, that was as close as you could get,” said Clyde Easter, a member of the 3rd Infantry Division and president of the veteran’s association.
“I went in on the day the campaign began, Jan. 22, 1944, was wounded in March by a machine gun, came back to the beachhead and was wounded again a couple of months later,” Easter said.
Being wounded was probably the best outcome he could have wished for, according to Easter.
“On that beach, one of three things happened,” he said. “You were wounded, captured or killed. If you were lucky, you were wounded.”
He became quiet and tears welled in his eyes.
“In my division, we suffered 50 percent casualties,” Easter said.
The idea behind the landing was the soldiers would land and fortify their position, which was located 35 miles from German-occupied Rome, according to Easter.
Nice plan, but Hitler had other ideas.
“Hitler ordered the beachhead taken, and sent eight of his top divisions to take it,” Easter said. “We had two divisions and we ran into a wall.
“It ended up that we dug holes in the ground and stayed there for four months while being bombarded with artillery and shot at the whole time,” he said, voice cracking.
The battle became a back-and-forth proposition.
“In our situation, the battle was something of a stalemate,” Easter said. “They would push us back, eight divisions against two. We would send patrols out after dark and that’s when I got shot the first time. We’d get shelled and we’d get shot at, but most of the action was at night.
“Hour by hour, day by day, week by week and month after month mortar shells would fall on us, blowing huge craters in the beach. They’d lay barrages on us where you could hear guys in the other holes getting hit and screaming. The concussion would nearly blow us out of our holes. And that was 24 hours a day.”
“The Germans had better position, but we used what we called a slip trench, which was about a foot deep and seven feet long,” he said. “That’s where we slept and lived for four months.”
For those who have not endured the chaos of war, it may sound strange, but Easter said he intentionally tried not to get to know his fellow soldiers.
“In combat, you don’t bond with anyone because they can be killed and that can affect you emotionally,” he said. “The bond on the beachhead was about looking after each other. It wasn’t until after the battle that the bonds formed.”
Those bonds today are as tight as family, Easter said.
Looking at the frail, elderly warriors standing in line at the museum, he became quiet once again.
“These men are closer today than blood kin. We’re closer than words can express,” he said. “What’s so sad these days is hardly a week passes without me learning of the death of one of my brothers. Ten years ago, we had hundreds at our reunion. Today there are 12.”
Easter said because of the age of the men, he doesn’t know whether the group will ever reunite again.
“That’s up to them,” he said, looking at his fellow warriors with pride.
Keith Strange can be reached at 336-719-1929 or via Twitter @strangereporter.