Grant Park vet’s tales tell story of Italian battle

For years, the World War II exploits of the late Marshall A. Webb might have been known only to some of his family members. They’re scattered across the area, from Grant Park to Limestone, Momence, Bradley, Morocco, Ind., and Campbellsville, Ky.

Thanks, though, to a video interview — now archived at the University of Kentucky’s Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History — Webb’s wartime activities now are gaining international attention.

Specifically, Webb talked about a bloody but often forgotten battle in Italy. In his 1986 conversation with researcher Arthur Kelly, Webb tells of his first stop in North Africa, fighting his way into Italy and marching triumphantly through Rome before his 339th Infantry met determined German resistance in the village of Tremensuoli.

Marshall’s son, Roger, wasn’t aware of all the incidents his dad spoke of in the video. He admits it was an emotional experience seeing his dad tell the stories, 10 years after Marshall was buried.

“He didn’t talk much about the war to me, but I get it: This is something special to have these historical records. But he’s always just Dad to me,” Roger said. “I just see Dad when I hear the man tell those stories.”

Roger works at Security Lumber and Supply in Bradley and was honored to show off some of his dad’s medals and other wartime souvenirs on the day of this interview. He has seen the interest growing in his dad’s record of those deadly assaults.

Marshall’s tales began to get noticed when an Italian author tapped into his eyewitness stories for a soldier’s eye view of the battles. The three-month assault — trying to break the German’s well-fortified Gustav and Gothic lines — cost Marshall’s unit hundreds of men.

When the Allies finally prevailed, the 339th went on to fight through Austria and into the Munich area before victory was declared. Along the way, Marshall carved his name into trees and walls, letting the world know how far a country boy has come in a war he wasn’t sure he would survive.

“Along the way he wrote poems and kept notes,” Roger said. “One of the books he filled up … when you turn it over you realize it was an SS journal that he picked up along the way.”

A visit to the Nunn Library website offers a look at the video that tells the rest of the story. Marshall talks about the time he spent guarding the dead bodies of former Italian leader Benito Mussolini and his mistress. He even explained why he took time to smack “Il Duce” on the butt before he left that area.

His video descriptions cover the attacks and counter-attacks, and constant mortar fire in Tremensuoli. He talks about exhaustion, minefields and the heroism that led to capturing German machine gunners. He covers special moments such as meeting Gen. Mark Clark and witnessing the Germans’ concentration camp at Dachau.

His unit didn’t liberate the camp, but he was there before all of the dead prisoners’ bodies were buried. He saw battle-hardened soldiers weep at the horrific sights.

“So, Dad didn’t talk about those things, but he kept the habit of writing all sorts of things down,” Roger said. “He carried a little notebook in his shirt pocket, and he kept track of things. I remember seeing the note when he recalled the name of that prison camp. He wrote it in one of those books, just a note amid everything else he was keeping track of that day.”

Roger admitted that he picked up that habit, and he produced a small notebook from his pocket.

“Dad also brought back his shooting eye,” Roger said. “I assume he was pretty good before he went to war, but I bet it’s different when your life depends on [your marksmanship]. He could shoot squirrels with a just a regular sight, while others were using a scope. He was good.”

And he made time to sit down tell some of the stories that are being lost these days.

“This is a great argument for saving oral histories,” said Douglas Boyd, the director of the archives at the Nunn Library. “Who could better tell the stories of what happened in that little town than someone who was actually there?

“We’re lucky to have his memories on file.”