Amidst a hailstorm of enemy artillery fire just off of the Anzio beachhead in southern Italy, a young hero was born under circumstances which have sent many soldiers back home in flag-draped coffins.
On the morning of February 12, 1944, 19-year old Corporal Gilbert Pritzel—serving as an infantryman with Company D, 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment under the 3rd Infantry Division—was engaged in combat with German forces on the Italian front when one of the 81mm mortars assigned to his company was destroyed by enemy fire. Pritzel and a fellow soldier made a 300-yard rush across an expanse of exposed ground while unrelenting enemy shellfire exploded about them. He and his fellow soldier survived the popcorn of explosions, were able to acquire a new mortar, and recrossed the pock-marked expanse which could have easily claimed their young lives with a single well-placed explosion. The new 81 mm mortar was delivered, set up, and fired—all within 30 minutes of the destruction of the previous mortar. Corporal Pritzel’s heroic actions earned him one of what would become five Bronze Star Medals for meritorious achievement in combat.
Born and raised near Higginsville, Missouri, Pritzel vividly recounted numerous situations in which only the grace of God can be attributed with his survival.
“While we were on Anzio beach,” said Pritzel, “we didn’t dig in very deep because water would fill our defensive positions. You just dug in deep enough to lie in your hole and keep shrapnel from hitting you.”
Pritzel related an anecdote regarding a day when his company was laying in their defensive positions while under attack from German artillery originating from the mountains flanking their position. An enemy mortar landed just feet from his defensive position while he and a fellow soldier scrambled to make themselves as small a target as possible and thinking that they were “goners.” Fortunate for the pair, the shell turned out to be a dud. According to Pritzel, some men in his unit unscrewed the top of the detonator and discovered that the mortar was filled with sawdust. Stuffed within the sawdust they found a little piece of paper with the phrase “This is all we can do” scribbled upon it in English. Pritzel states that it was well-known at that time that the Czechoslovakians were assembling ammunition for the German forces, and under somewhat unfriendly conditions. He believes that this was their method in tipping off the Americans as to the depleted state of the German ammunition supply.
Pritzel’s military service first landed him in Sicily, took him through North Africa and then into Italy. Around March of 1944, his unit entered southern France where he indicated that very little resistance was met by enemy forces.
“The French Foreign Legion had cleaned out most of the towns that we came through,” the veteran recalled.
But the mild resistance they encountered in the southern sections of France would intensify the further north they traveled and eventually provide his company with an unfriendly taste of World War I trench warfare. While engaged in combat with the Germans in the Vosges Mountains in eastern France, Pritzel’s unit oftentimes fell victim to a barrage of hellfire delivered from large rail guns that had been placed in the mountains above their positions. One of the rail guns, Pritzel recalled, was designed in a manner that allowed it to be rolled in and out of a crevice in the mountain. This allowed the gun to be pulled inside the crevice in the case of an aerial attack. Many times while being subjected to the deadly explosions delivered by the rail cannons, Pritzel’s unit was forced to fall back and take up a defensive position in trenches which had been constructed during the First World War. These trenches were still in good shape and had been dug in a zigzag pattern so that a shot could not be fired directly down a trench line in case they were breached by enemy forces.
Pritzel’s Company finally entered Germany with the rest of his division, where he recalls the German populace initially expressing terror upon their arrival.
We were checking a German basement for enemy soldiers, Pritzel recalled, "and when I entered the basement, there was an entire family with scared expressions on their faces and their hands in the air. I told them that ‘You can put your hands down—I’m not going to do anything.’ Hitler had told them that [the Americans] would kill them all and they were completely terrified of us. They turned out to be some of the nicest people that I’ve ever met.”
Despite the numerous engagements in which Pritzel was involved, he remains uncertain as to whether he actually ever took the life of an enemy soldier.
“I spent most of time behind an 81 mm mortar and never really saw what happened when they hit.”
In November 1945, after having spent over two years on foreign soil in support of the liberation of France and much of Central Europe, Staff Sergeant Pritzel was discharged from the U.S. Army at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri (in south St. Louis). Upon returning home from his service he jokes “I didn’t get any type of celebration for what I did. The Army just gave me a little bit of money as said to ‘get home.’”
Following his service, Pritzel worked briefly in farming and construction before embarking upon a 33-year career with Central Electric in Jefferson City, retiring from the latter in 1986.
Staff Sergeant Pritzel was presented the French Legion of Honor by Governor Jay Nixon in 2010 in recognition of the sacrifices he made in support of the liberation of France during World War. The 88 year-old Pritzel passed away in 2013 and was laid to rest in Riverview Cemetery in Jefferson City.
Jeremy P. Amick is a military historian and author dedicated to preserving our nation's military legacies.