These are some stories my stepfather, Carl Nitka, a Polish-American, told me about his experiences in World War II.
Carl either enlisted or was drafted into the Army out of Kingston, N.Y. He never mentioned it and it is not important. He went to Texas for basic training. There were stories about snakes in his sleeping bag, run-ins with scorpions, and armadillos. Since he was always an early riser, he was sent to cooks and bakers school and became a cook. He followed up on this for the rest of his life. He never cooked professionally but took great pride in cooking at home. Somehow during this time, and I suspect drinking might have had something to do with it, he missed a troop movement. The Army merely assigned him to a company from Texas. I believe he was the only Yankee in the group.
North Africa was his first stop. The Americans and the British were pushing the Germans out. That the British would stop everything at mid-afternoon and have tea never ceased to amaze him. The British also had their Gurka troops supporting them. These were a warrior class from Nepal. They were not very big people but, according to Carl, they were fierce and loyal fighters. Naturally they were issued guns, but their weapon of choice was a curved knife every one of them knew how to use expertly. There was one story that he told, where an American officer came up to him one day and said, “Sgt. Nitka, do you remember me telling a Gurka soldier that if he came across a pair of German officer’s boots, I would be glad to pay him for them?” When Carl acknowledged that he did, the officer told him to look in the bag on the ground. Looking in he saw a pair of black boots, with the legs still in them, cut off at the knees.
After chasing the Germans out of Africa, they followed them to Sicily and then up the Italian boot to Rome. One of his proudest moments came after the liberation of Rome. The troops were granted an audience with the Pope. They were given instructions that proper protocol called for the Catholics to kiss the Pope’s ring and for non-Catholics to just shake his hand. After he kissed the ring, the man in back of him, a big Texan, shook the Pope’s hand and said “Howdy do, Mr. Pope.” They all cracked up.
Somewhere during the Italian campaign he became involved in the battle for Monte Cassino. This was a Catholic monastery high on a hill. The Germans had turned it into a fortress and were firing down on the troops below. The Americans were ordered to drive out the Germans but not damage the monastery. Many men died rather than destroy a building. It was during this time that he got into some trouble with his commanding officer and was relieved of his duties as a cook and became a forward observer. As you may expect, the survival rate of forward observers was well below that of cooks.
During this battle he was called upon to interpret for some Polish soldiers who had been captured manning German machine gun nests. He asked why they would be fighting for the Germans when Germany had captured Poland. They told him that there were four Poles and one German in each nest. The Poles manned the machine gun while the German watched with a pistol. If they didn’t fight, he would shoot them.
I don’t know if it was in this battle or in a subsequent one, but his battalion got cut off from the rest of the troops and became surrounded by German forces. He never spoke too much about this except that it was for a pretty long time. They were eventually saved by the troops of the Japanese-American unit. He always spoke well of them. Following their rescue he was shipped back home. He remembers waking up in a padded cell. It took a while to be debriefed and discharged. He was finally sent home with a service-connected disability, and later joined The American Legion.
Robert Lang, ex-USN