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The Blue Creek Comets of 1954 - Part 2
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Tuesday, February 11, 2014 3:10 PM

In 1945 Italy, the Bells of San Benedetto resolved the fate of the ’54 Comets

By GERALD SINN

Special to the Progress

Part 2 of 7

It was an armistice. No country would attack or bomb the ancient city of Rome in World War II. Thus, when the U.S. 85th Mountain Infantry Regiment entered Rome it was a walk through; Mussolini’s fascists were out of the war. That was in June of 1944. Roman citizens praised our soldiers and allies for their freedom. Still, a lot of war was ahead, as the 85th marched north from Rome into the Apennines Mountains. It would take four months to reach Po Valley. The Allies would not win the war until they knocked the Nazis out of Po Valley.

Otis Pease came into the war on January 13, 1945. He was 29 years old. America needed sugar, so he worked at the sugar beet factory in Paulding until March 1944.

Then he joined the Army, leaving a young family behind. The USS West Point, his troop ship with over 2,500 soldiers aboard (for the 85th Infantry), in time docked in Loriento, Italy, near Pisa. That put him in the middle of World War II in the spring of 1945. A place not to be.

As a private first class mortar gunner, Otis was in fox holes through snow, rain and mud; shooting into Nazi foxholes 25 to 50 yards away. Since he was a super semipro baseball pitcher back in Latty, his sergeants used his skills to throw hand grenades in Nazi foxholes and machine gun nests.

A soldier in Otis’s unit, named George, tells of Nazi mortar shells hitting an American foxhole only 12 feet away on Feb. 23. Only pieces of three American bodies were found later – which drove George into extreme shock. He actually cried four days in a row when withdrawn from the front line, though he didn’t remember a single day of crying.

What Otis had seen, in those three months, from Pisa to the Po River was “combat in hell.” That he had escaped death in the Apennines Mountains took courage and skill beyond reality on the battlefield. PFC Otis L. Pease was truly an American hero. A worthy recipient of the EAME Medal for bravery, meritorious and heroic achievement. Three bronze stars were attached, for serving in battle campaigns in Rome/Arno, North Apennines and Po Valley.

IN PO VALLEY

It was a pleasant day on April 23, 1945 – sunny, mild, no rain, no wind, quiet; unusual for the Po Valley. It was so quiet you could hear sound three miles away. In fact, 119 B-24 bombers from the U.S. 15th Air Force were dropping 2,500 bombs at that moment, and the explosions were coming in loud and clear.

The mighty 85th Infantry was packed up, today would be the day they cross the Po River – and do it for America. PFC Otis Pease would be a part of it. He’d just heard the 15th AF bombs in the valley. He also knew General Eisenhower and Mark Clark had picked his famous 85th Infantry to spearhead the last ground battle in WWII in Italy. Today, with no Nazis in sight, it should be easy to cross the river.

By noon the 85th moved into the very small town of San Benedetto, on the Po River. This was a massive undertaking, the whole 5th Army was in the valley. The river was not deep and only 150 yards wide. The banks were like desert sand, flat, no trees, no protection, you could see for miles on the other side. The 85th was ready to move into Germany to end the war. They moved tanks, trucks, guns, boats, equipment and ready-to-attack soldiers. There were still no Nazis in sight.

THE BELLS OF SAN BENEDETTO

The first platoon was in position and started moving across the river. In concert, bells in a steeple started ringing. It was from a nearby church in San Benedetto, the only church in town. Soldiers thoughts were it was a tribute to the troops. What ever else would they think? Shortly after, enemy artillery fire came blasting in, hitting two of the U.S. boats. Soldiers were falling everywhere.

It wasn’t caught immediately, it kept happening. Bells rang after our troops moved up in position to cross the river – each time the bells rang, Nazi artillery fire exploded on our troops. The injuries and deaths were adding up.

Suddenly it happened. Otis was hit by shrapnel, from an artillery shell when boarding a transport boat. He fell to the ground by the vehicle hidden from the medics. Others were also injured. It was chaos. What was Otis thinking? Will he live? His wife, his four children needed him in Latty. He couldn’t leave them. What were his injuries? There was pain. He had a breathing problem. He was losing blood. It was very possible, this could be the day he would die.

A soldier yelled, “Medics!” Otis heard him. He had shrapnel in his right arm and shoulder. He knew he would never pitch another Ohio baseball game again. But how do you fix a torn or severed carotid artery on a battlefield? Severed arteries were fatal. Forty-two others were injured already, in one hour, at San Benedetto, and 20 dead.

THE BELLS

Italian civilians reported how two fascist drifters rang the church bells in the tower to signal the Nazis. It was the ringing of the church bells at San Benedetto that caused Otis’s lifetime injuries and threatened his life.

It was like a miracle that a medic found Otis that day on the battlefield. Also, what a feat it was to find a stint or hose in his medic kit in 1945. Whatever was used, it got Otis to a hospital.

Years later, in 2012, talking to Otis’s son, Max, he said, “I was never informed how Dad got to a hospital that day, he wouldn’t talk about the war.”

Max was too young to remember what country Otis had served in. He did say, however, “Dad told me numerous times he’d seen the fascist Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini, hanging up side down on a meat hook – he was close enough to spit on him.”

To put figures together: Otis was injured on April 23, 1945; Mussolini was captured on April 27 in Milan, Italy, then executed on April 28 by the military of Italian Resistance; his revengers hung his body at an Esso gas station on April 30, for one day only. The only day that Otis could have seen Mussolini was April 30, 1945 in Milan.

It was clear then. Otis was put on a vehicle and driven 65 miles from the war zone in San Benedetto, to a hospital in Milan. There he would have recovered good enough to ride to the nearby hanging later. U.S. soldiers would never miss revenge on Mussolini’s crimes. Though it’s obvious Otis didn’t throw stones at Mussolini, as did the real Italians.

THE RETURN HOME

The U.S. Army kept Otis in the Milan hospital for 30 days, then put him on a plane to New York City, but they didn’t send him home. He went to Percy-Jones Medical for nine months (in Fort Custer, Michigan). His wife Doris and the kids got to visit only once or twice. His family was in disarray.

Paul and Max were Otis’s older sons. They were in fifth and fourth grades at Latty School when their dad came home from the war in February 1946. Otis was unable to work as he did before. His sons were valiant, good students and good friends to many. They faced the burden to help keep their family together. They stayed in school, while other students did not. Years later they made a life for themselves with good homes and families.

Max told of going over to the Nickel Plate railroad tracks to pick up chunks of coal to take home for fire and heat. Engineers in a locomotive saw him gathering coal in passing. “Amazing,” Max recalls, “how more chunks of coal seemed to lay next to the tracks in snowy months.”

American veterans serving in World War II gave the ultimate sacrifice, then had to adjust when coming home. Otis had memories to overcome: the disappointments of daily life, a bout with alcohol and anything else a foxhole explosion of a Nazi shell would do to a soldier’s life.

THE CUSTODIAN

An important time was when Otis got the custodian job at Latty school. He became a friend of the young Lions. He was a sports fan and his sons were star athletes in basketball and baseball. Otis walked out on a new job at GM to watch his sons play in a district final baseball game at Kingsbury Park in Defiance in 1952. He wasn’t asked back. That’s devotion by a real sports fan. He was an outspoken guy for the Comets; he added support when the team needed him.

COACH NEWTON

Otis was also a good friend of coach Charles Newton, when his boys were freshmen and sophomores. It was learned 60 years later that Coach Newton was a WWII pilot (15th Air Force), whose B-24 bomber Group dropped 2,500 bombs on Po Valley, Italy on April 23, 1945. That was within a mile from where Otis was injured on the Po River – the same day and hour. They were both helping to save America in the same place at the same time in World War II.

It was their memory for a lifetime. Otis’s son, Paul, was on Coach Newton’s Latty Lions “first five” in 1951. That was the year the Lions won their first Paulding County basketball championship after 27 years in waiting.

Next week: Meet the varsity coach and the team

© Gerald Sinn 2014

e-mail: jerpro@msn.com