Remarkable stories of war told by those who fought for a proud nation. Their words. Their voices. Our first episodes tell riveting stories from World War II, then we move on to the Vietnam War and other dramatic conflicts.
Capt Warren “Bing” Evans Part II: The Allied Invasion of Italy
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Captain Warren “Bing” Evans served in World War II as a Ranger. The Rangers were an elite American task force that trained and operated with the famous British Commandos. Using the element of surprise as their main weapon, the Rangers played an important role in the Invasion of Normandy, the Dieppe Raid, and many other significant campaigns.
In this episode Evans recounts the allied invasion of Italy, including the landing at Salerno and the battles of Monte Cassino, Anzio, and Cisterna. He also describes being captured and escaping from a prisoner of war camp in Poland.
If you’d like to learn more about Captain Evans, check out his book, Heroes Cry Too.
If you like listening to Warriors In Their Own Words, check out our other show, the Medal of Honor Podcast. The link is in the show description.
I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Warriors In Their Own Words. In partnership with the Honor Project, we’ve brought this podcast back at a time when our nation needs these stories more than ever.
Warriors in Their Own Words is our attempt to present an unvarnished, unsanitized truth of what we have asked of those who defend this nation. Thank you for listening, and by doing so, honoring those who have served.
Today, we’ll hear from Captain Warren “Bing” Evans. Evans served as an Army Ranger in World War II. In this final part of his interview, Evans recounts the Italian Campaign, including the battles of Monte Cassino, Anzio, and Cisterna, and describes being captured and escaping from a prisoner of war camp in Poland.
Capt Warren “Bing” Evans:
Venafro starts at Naples and opens up in a northerly direction across the boot and narrows down into almost a funnel shape. At the end of that, in that funnel, they sat atop of a mountain there and they were observing us. And every time we'd try to advance, they'd throw the book at us. It's a beautiful valley ringed on both sides with mountains. The old monarchy used to have their castle there. Now, it was a hospital. We used it for a hospital. Colonel Darby, at that time was colonel, I was in the third battalion and I was a lieutenant commanding a company, and he asked me to take a patrol on top of that mountain to see what we could find. And of course, the one thing that most people don't realize is the fact that rangers probably, there are no way to count the number of patrols that would infiltrate through the lines, come up in behind and get in amongst them and find out what they'd have. That was a lot of our expertise.
So I did. I took a patrol up there and found out what was on top of the mountain and came back and reported to the colonel and he said, "Do you think you can take the top of that mountain with your company?" And I said, "Yes, I think we can." So he said, "Good. Tonight you take your company up there and take it." Well, I took my company up there and we took what we thought was the top of the mountain, but it wounds up in daylight, there are two tops. And there's a gully there. It was pretty sheer on one side and pretty sheer on the other. They couldn't reach us and we couldn't reach them. They'd pick us off like flies. And I reported that to the colonel, and I don't think you want to hear some of the words he used, but in essence, he said, "I don't care what you do, get to the other side of that mountain."
I thought about it for a while, and I did something. You know, on top of a mountain your voice carries like you're in the same room. And I yelled over and I said, "Can anyone over there speak English?" And the voice came back as though you were answering me, said, "Yes, I can." I said, "Fine. This is an unusual situation. Why don't we declare a truce and I'll stand up over here and you stand up over there and let's talk this situation over." He said, "Okay." And I said, "Well, give me five minutes." He said, "Well, let's make it ten." First gave me an indication he might have had more over there than I thought he had. But at any rate, at the end of that time, I yelled over and I said, "Are you ready?" He said, "Yes, but you stand up first."
So I did. And then he stood up. Now I'll skip a lot of the story. For a couple three days there, we had a truce every afternoon about that same time, and we couldn't quite throw the souvenirs far enough to get back and forth. But I found out his name was Hants. That's all I knew. He was in this country at Michigan State at the Kellogg Center learning hotel management. His father and mother ran the largest hotel in the center of Leipsig, Germany. And in the meantime, we had patrols coming up in and around, and we knew pretty much what they had, and we knew what we had to do. And so they sent a paratroop colonel up, he was going to send the company up to relieve us. And I was pointing out to him where they had their sharpshooters, where they had the machine gun placements, where I thought their headquarters was. And every time I'd say something like that, he'd come back and say, "There's nothing over there, lieutenant." And I'd say something else and he'd say, "Lieutenant, there's not a damn thing over there." And finally in exasperation, he stood right straight up and he said, "Lieutenant, there's not a damn thing over there. Why haven't you taken the other side of that mountain?" And it was then that Hants stood up on the other side, nursing his burp gun. Gunner said, "He hasn't been here long has he, lieutenant?" And those are stories you don't usually hear. We infiltrated through. I gave the order to try to take Hants alive. He would never tell me his name. He did tell me the reason he could not come over. I tried to talk him into a steak dinner. I hadn't seen one in two years. I tried to talk him into coming over and I'd introduce him to a Red Cross girl. He was interested, but I hadn't seen a Red Cross girl either, although I heard we had them. But anyway, I gave the orders to take him alive if we could, but he was killed that night.
Now there's a sequel to that story. I spent 15 months in a prison camp. I escaped three times, twice I was recaptured. The third time I made it to the American lines at the Elbe River, and they took me to Leipzig, Germany. And the headquarters of the 5th Army was in a hotel in the center of Leipzig, Germany. And I asked some questions because all of a sudden the thought went through my mind, "Hants, Leipzig Germany, hotel." As you know, you'd get to thinking about it. And I found out that it was owned by an old couple and I couldn't find them for a long time. But an MP was helping me and he found an old couple that he thought might be the couple. And I went to them. They were about a mile from the hotel in a little three room apartment. She was short and squat, sitting here as I am now, she wasn't much taller than I was. He was about as tall as I was and very spare. And their name was Schuler. I didn't tell them any story at the time, but I had got orders to move out. So I went to see them the last time, and Mrs. Schuler, knowing it was the last time, said to me, "You know something about our Hants, don't you?" And I told her the story and she put her arms around me. I cried and she put her arms around me and leaned her head on top of me and said, "Thank you for that. Thank you." Now, those are stories you don't often get told and my outfit is filled with them.
At the time of Salerno, no, you knew what you had to do, but you realized also that you were a vulnerable human. Up until this time you were a well-trained soldier and you were a little better than they were, but now you're beginning to realize that you've been watered down a little bit. That the group that came out of Scotland and landed in North Africa was not the same organization that you still had, although you had the heart of it. The guts of it was still the old Rangers.
I would say when we landed in Salerno that we were only at 40% or 50% strength from the originals. And by the time we were at Anzio, we were probably 20% because by that time we'd fought through San Pietro. And so really the organization that went into Anzio, the Cisterna part of it, I would say that if we were 20% would be strong. Today, I don't imagine that there are more than a half a dozen of us that started with them and ended with them left alive today. Now understand many of those we've lost recently.
We had met pretty much a stonewall at Cassino, at Montecassino, and we had to do something to break their stranglehold on that and we were mounting up casualties trying to get through that particular area. So we went in behind them again, landed behind them, and that was the purpose of Anzio was to cut the Apennine highway, which was feeding the troops to the south and refueling the troops at Cassino. That was the main purpose of it. Now there was a lot more went into it than that as far as detail, but that was the main purpose.
Anzio, now this landing was different than all the others for me. I don't know about the others, but this was my fourth landing and I operated pretty much that the whole landing in a vacuum. The best way I can explain that vacuum is if you saw saving Private Ryan, you saw moments of dead silence where action was going on, but there was no sound. This is the way it was at Anzio for me. I was operating in a vacuum. I seemed to have done everything right and we landed and it was a very successful landing and we didn't have many casualties and we got seven mile inland. That little force that we had was seven mile inland, and I had a patrol on the Alban Hills overlooking Rome before they pulled us back onto the Anzio beachhead, which was one of the biggest mistakes we ever made. We should have gone onto the Alban Hills and established ourselves there instead of down on the beachhead plane. That's a long way around to tell you that, after three invasions, the fourth one I operated in a vacuum.
Our initial plan was to take the port of Anzio and to move inland and protect the troops that were to land the next day. They landed without incident. There was no problem. We had almost our full force into a beachhead that was seven or eight miles deep and that was it, probably 15 miles long. And then we sat there and waited while they built up their forces. It was a mistake as far as the man in the field was concerned, it was a big mistake.
When we landed in Anzio and we got three or four miles inland and were told to hold up for a minute, I heard this child crying and evidently in the barrage beforehand he'd been separate or she'd been separated from her family or they had been killed and she was whimpering, cold, hungry, wet, miserable. We found this little girl. I don't think she could have been more than five or six years old, and that's an interesting story in itself. But anyway, I picked her up and for the next day or two before we were ordered to move out again, why she would clinging to me and we got her dry and got her fed and she'd climb into my bedroom with me. And anyway, we got pretty close, so it came time for us to have to move out again. We'd received orders. And so the story had gotten back about her and I called her my little angel because she couldn't understand me, but somehow another, she knew that I had a soft spot for her, my little angel. And so they sent a nurse up in a Jeep to pick her up and they took her back. And of course then we advanced and I had lost track of my little angel, but today the only statue in all of Anzio is the statue to Angelita, the angel of Anzio, the little girl with the peaceful doves flying around her head. That's the only one on the beach where we landed. And that's a story that's easily verified. And as it turned out, whether it's true or not, the nurse and the little girl were hit by an artillery shell and were killed before they got back to where they were going to the hospital. And that's the story of Angelita.
Now, when we were there 50 years later, why all of a sudden two or three Angelitas came out of the woodwork? But the real story of the angel of Anzio Angelita was one that we started, my little angel. That's part of Anzio.
We landed, I think it was the 22nd of January, and we were in Cisterna on the 30th of January. That's when we were annihilated. We were sent there because Cisterna sat straddling the Apennine highway, and so the beach hadn't yet accomplished its objective, and so we were sent in. We had been so successful and all the previous action we were sent in to infiltrate through the lines and two battalion strength this time to take Cisterna di Latina and sit straddle the Apennine highway and cut the supply line to Cassino. That was the objective that we were told about.
The night that we were briefed for this, Colonel Darby and Colonel Damer were briefing us for that. Colonel Damer was his executive of the force now, and our commander was Major Alvin Miller. And we were told that night that there was a headquarters of a Paratroop brigade and a few scattered outposts. One of the old timers left today is a man named Les [Cannis]. He followed in my footsteps all the way along. Les was commanding F Company of the Fourth Battalion. I was commanding F Company of the Third Battalion. As they briefed us, I knew that they were wrong. I had had patrols there and I knew that they had brought up a lot of armor and I knew they had a lot of troops in that area. And so when we were told what they had, I spoke up and said, "Colonel, there's a lot more there than has been indicated and we're running into a buzzsaw." The only man to back me up was Les [Cannis]. We were the two old timers. At that time, Colonel Darby very West Point and very proper said, "Those are my orders. Those are your orders."
This was the time we were going to take our whipping. You knew it had to come sometime. You knew we couldn't keep on just being successful. Raid after raid after raid, the invasion after invasion after invasion. 19 major battles, four invasions, six campaigns. You knew that sometime you were going to make a mistake. It's a mistake we didn't make, but it's a mistake we paid for.
You know, today you take 17 or 18 days in combat and the army pulled you out of it. They know that, that's about all the human being can stand, and here we'd been in it for two and a half years. And so in order to survive, you operate in that vacuum. That's just all there is to it.
I got a notice from Joe Larkin, who was the lead of the Third Battalion, that they were in serious trouble and that they needed my help. So I went the entire length of the column and got up there to where they were. And now I can anticipate the next question. Why? Because part of our training and part of the mystique of the Ranger is you never leave a fallen comrade on the battlefield. You always protect them or take them out or fight with them or die with them. You never leave them. And you asked me why if I had the feeling that I could have fought my way back, why I would negotiate the whole column and get up there where the fighting was the thickest and the hardest because of that, I just couldn't leave a fallen comrade. That's part of the creed today, the 75th Ranger regiment. If you've said anything about them, you know that their creed is never to leave a fallen comrade.
On the hills of San Pietro that overlooked San Pietro, we had to get those before we could get through San Pietro. The battle for San Pietro was fought over several weeks and Hill 950 or something like that, the Germans controlled and we had to have that. And here again, I had a patrol in and around and amongst them and led the battalion up a night or two later. And we got in amongst them and we took our hill. I don't know what outfit it was supposed to take, the hill that was next to ours, but they didn't make it. I think it was a 82nd airborne outfit of some kind or another because they were in that area, but they didn't take theirs. And as a result, they were looking down our throats and firing on us from the next mountaintop. And so we started to advance on that. Now it's broad daylight, and they started dropping rifle grenades in on us and the colonel said, "You better fight your way back and rejoin the battalion." So we did. But a man named Earl Parrish who had received a battlefield commission and was one of my platoon leaders, officer, a second lieutenant, one of those grenades had fallen on him and it pretty much torn him up. And so we had to fight a rear guard action to get him back down the mountainside. And so doing, I got a silver star for that action. Earl Parrish gave his life, he died. We didn't make it, but it's this type of thing, we weren't going to leave him on that mountain side and we didn't.
And outside of one man, and you probably have met him, Randall Harris, is the only man that even received a distinguished service cross in the Rangers, in the original rangers. No man has had a congressional Medal of Honor. Colonel Darby used to say, "Who would I give it to?" And so occasionally we'd get a silver star and that was quite an honor. Randall Harris got his, because he stood in line with his guts hanging out on the Gela landing, stood in line to wait to get to the medical aid station. And he still commanded, in that conditions, commanded his company. He had received the Battlefield Commission.
You get a very successful athletic team, football team, undefeated, and all of a sudden they go into another game and they get pretty cocky. Perhaps it's cockiness, I don't know. Perhaps it's overconfidence. Perhaps it's an exaggerated sense of your own ability, but I would rather think it's exactly what I told you. It's just the fact that you owed the loyalty to the men involved.
At this time, fatalism was much a part of my whole being. I didn't expect that I would ever get home. In fact, my last thought as I was falling or hitting the ground, and as I say, I never could remember hitting the ground, wasn't my life flashing before me like people make a big thing about, or I didn't see a bright light at the end of the tunnel. My only reaction was, “Well, this is it.” And that's the way I went into action at that time. This is it.
As I told you, I can remember the ground coming up to hit me, but I can never remember hitting the ground. I have no memory of the last part of that day. I've often been accused of having what they call fugue, F-U-G-U-E, where I have deliberately shut it out of my memory. There's a possibility that that's the case, but I don't think it is. I didn't come to, although I have flashes of remembering something. I think the first time I escaped, for instance, I can remember the dogs. I don't remember the escape itself. I'm only what I have been told. But I do remember those dogs were on my trail and that I'm wondering was they came up there whether they were going to tear me apart before the guards ever got there.
Ed Christ, who was the past president of the Rangers, was my medic at the time. He would later a retired colonel, full colonel, but he was my medic and he said he was never so surprised in all his life after that smoke had cleared to see me still standing.
And so did you fight for the rest of that day? Were you told?
I don't know.
You were captured?
I absolutely don't know. I have no memory.
So you were captured that day?
I came to in a prison camp.
That's before my memory stayed with me. As I say, I had flashes. I can remember a flash of a little town, a little village up on the mountaintop, but I suppose it must've been in the Alps and the sun was shining on, it was a rainy day. I don't know where it was. I don't know anything about it, but I remember that village in that sunshine.
How long a span of time between the Anzio catastrophe and your memory catching up to you?
I would say a matter of two or three weeks, because when we came into Poland it was... My coming back was a gradual thing. I remember in Oflag 64 and wondering where I was, and knowing where I was, and then I would drift out, and then it would come back. And so I suspect that it was May, which would've been three or four months. It was early summer, late spring that I realized that actually where I was day by day, I have a memory of what happened from then on.
As I say, I never remember hitting the ground and I'm told that I walked around, and that I was mobile, but I wasn't saying anything or doing anything. And it was a matter of those two or three weeks that when they were moving by boxcar and when they were moving, whatever means they had, they marched to the Rangers around the coliseum and took pictures of them showing it looked like there were several thousand rangers instead of perhaps the two or 300 that they had. And I'm only guessing at how many, but it looked like an endless column going around the coliseum. And I've seen that, the footage of that, but I have no memory of that. I have no memory of the boxcars that they tell me about, and the misery of it, and the crowded facilities. I have no memory of that. Now I have been asked if I would undergo hypnotism to remember it. And my answer to that is why in hell do I want to get that kind of a memory back? So I just assumed forget about it. But anyway, that's the way it is.
Well, the one I can tell you about was they moved us out of Oflag 64, which was in Northern Poland. And the Russians were advancing and they moved us out of where we were, ahead of the Russians. A man by the name of Kenny Kerfoot, I think he was, might have had a little Oklahoma Indian in him, I don't know that. And another little dago Italian from Virginia by the name of Tony Liberto. The three of us walked away from the column and hid out, but there was a major battle developed overhead. We were headed for the Russian lines. We hid out in a potato cellar in the middle of a field. That's potato country, and the way they save their potatoes through the year was to put them in a potato cellar, because the winters get bitter. So these potato cellars would never really freeze. I could best explain it by go sit in a refrigerator for a long time, that's about what it would be like. Yes, we were cold and a Polish family found us there and put us in, brought us overcoats and other clothes and what have you. And the battle raged on. And eventually the Germans threw the Russians back temporarily and put their command post in our potato cellar. And that's how I was recaptured the second time. Nothing glamorous. But this time I was in civilian clothes, and so they tried me as a spy, which was nothing glamorous about that. It was perfunctory and sentenced to be shot. April 22nd sticks in my mind of 19 in '45, and you must remember war was over with May 8th in Europe. So they sentenced me to be shot. Then that's when I escaped the third time.
We were in Luchenwald, not to be mistaken with the famous Buchenwald, but Luchenwald. And in there they had some Norwegian political prisoners, when they took over Norway, Germany, they brought back the people who would not cooperate and they were political prisoners. And they were kept in this concentration camp, but they didn't count them as they did the soldier military personnel. They'd line you up five deep and they'd come home here, [foreign language] And if anyone was missing then they'd find out who it was and they'd have the dogs on their trail right now. But we infiltrated a couple of the Norwegian soldiers into our place in line and a man by the name of Pete Betcher and I walked away from that camp. And I think I told you that I don't think they know we're gone yet. It was that easy. And that's when we made our way then to the Elbe river. And that's where we got in with Fifth Army.
Now they weren't going to believe me for a while, because you see the Germans were infiltrating into the American lines in American uniforms. And so they took me back to the headquarters and put me through quite rigorous tests until they decided that I was what I said I was. And that's why I was in the headquarters. Now, Pete Betcher and I were separated then, because he was an enlisted man. So he went one way and it took me into the headquarters.
Must have been quite a relief for two and a half years of combat. POW for how long?
15 months, let's say over everything. 15 months.
I think the thing that makes me the most proud of having been a ranger is to look at the new Rangers. You say you've worked with them, if you've worked with them, I think that you have to sense the difference between a ranger and the average soldier. There's something special about them. And so when I see that something special, I'm proud of having been a ranger and proud of the fact that I'm part of their history and proud of the fact that they think they have to live up to me, if you understand what I mean.
After the war was over with and they discontinued the Rangers, because of the difficult training. But then, what was it, 1974, they reactivated because they found out that really they couldn't do without that type of an organization. I think up until then, they had done it differently. They had given ranger training at Fort Benning to what they call the Airborne Rangers in Korea. Then you had the Green Berets in, excuse me, but I've drawn a blank. In Vietnam.
They were in Vietnam.
And then they found out that they needed that type of person. So in 1974, they reactivated the 75th Ranger Regiment, which is made up of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd battalions now. And I'm proud to say that I am their honorary Sergeant Major. I suspect the biggest reason for that is, or I'm the only Sergeant Major left. And also by virtue of having been the First Sergeant Major, it wasn't because of anything exceptional, but I'm still proud of being their Sergeant Major, honorary.
When you've gone through as much as you have and trained as hard as you have, and then they discontinued it, you'd realize that no one was ever going to know or ever feel the essence of what it was and what it is to be a Ranger. It was forgotten. Now you see Normandy, if it hadn't been for Normandy in the 2nd Ranger Battalion and the 5th Ranger Battalion, no one would probably ever have known that there were rangers. They might have, but now you see, because of them, the 2nd and the 5th Battalion and the 6th Battalion also in Cabanatuan, individually we weren't much, but collectively we were a bunch of damn heroes. But that would've been forgotten if it hadn't been reactivated in '74. And then the Rangers that have come since and have perpetuated the memory and the magic of what it was to be a Ranger, otherwise, it would've been forgotten. Don't kid ourselves.
I think perhaps you're getting close now to the common thread that makes a ranger something special. I think that common thread is a deep and vibrant belief in something bigger than you are. The Rangers that are left, the Les Kness', the Bing Evans', is the Ed Dean's, I can name them. The common thread that I see left in those fellows is that they're all deeply religious. Now, this didn't start out to be a religious program, but there seems to be a strong inner confidence in the faith of the inner man. And I think if you don't have that, you're not going to be a good ranger.
Of a real honest to goodness pride, they're a breed of their own, like I like to think that the old rangers were. The difference is I think we were lean and hungry coming out of the Depression and the new ranger is bigger, more powerful, has weight training program, has had a good diet, has been fed, whereas a commander, we were fed kippered herring, these boys are fed stakes. I'm using that as an example, but they are different in that respect. We were the lean greyhound type and these guys are as fast as we were, but they're one of your comic strip musclemen. Superman.
I was on a football scholarship at South Dakota State. I'd been at the University of Minnesota before that, but they wouldn't let me into the university. Now of course they can't do that because of the NCAA rulings. But I was a fairly decent football player and I was pretty big man, but I was a skinny 225 pounds as a big man. And now you look at these boys today and what do you see? 260, 270. What's the Great Dane? 260 pounds of speed and muscle and power.
Yeah. So this is the difference between the old Rangers and the new Rangers. They're really bigger, more powerful. I don't know that they're faster. I think that they've been imbued with the ranger spirit. I think that they really try to live up to it for the most part.
No other branch of the service is going to be asked to do the same things that the Rangers will do. Let's take today. Grenada. Who was it that they sent in to Grenada? It was the Rangers. Who was it that had the most difficult part of Panama? It was the Rangers. Who was it that did the behind the lines working in Desert Storm? It was the Rangers. Yeah, you'd better be ready to live a life of danger if you're a Ranger. Hey, that makes good poetry, doesn't it?
Recognizing that I volunteered as a ranger fully knowing the hazards of my chosen profession, I will always endeavor to uphold the prestige, honor, and highest esprit corps of my ranger regiment. Acknowledging the fact that a ranger is a more elite soldier who arrives at the cutting edge of battle by land, sea, or air, I accept the fact that as a ranger, my country expects me to move farther, faster, and fight harder than any other soldier. Never shall I fail my comrades. I will always keep myself mentally alert, physically strong and morally straight, and I will shoulder more than my share of the task, whatever it may be. 100% and then some.
I appreciate what you've done today, and I hope that the people who see this recognize the fiber. I call it the essence of being a Ranger. And yet, if I were to say, perhaps something that you haven't asked me today, I would say the fact that the Rangers have fought through, I believe 11 different campaigns since World War II. That the Rangers have spearheaded every invasion that's been made. That the Rangers have fought just about every battle of every one of those campaigns. That the Rangers have had more patrols, active patrols in and around and behind the enemy lines, and probably the rest of the service put together that there are perhaps a half a dozen that you should be interviewing in my place, who those half a dozen that are left alive have probably had more days of combat than anyone in the United States Army, ever.
That was Captain Warren “Bing” Evans.
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Warriors In Their Own Words is a production of Evergreen Podcasts, in partnership with The Honor Project.
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