36th Division remembered as Battle of Salero recreated on Krueger Hill
Ten years ago, Justin Jolly’s interest in military history led him to websites where he discovered that people with similar interests were conducting battlefield reenactments not only for the public, but also as tactical exercises.
Today, Jolly is unit leader of a group named after the famed Baker Co., 141st Infantry Regiment, 36th Division, from World War II. Saturday afternoon, his unit will stage a reenactment of a World War II battle at Salerno.
The event will begin at 1:30 p.m. on Krueger Hill, and is open to the public free of charge as part of a celebration of the 76th anniversary of the authorization of Camp Bowie in Brownwood. It is also timed during the weekend the nation pauses to remember the 15th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Prior to the reenactment, the Brown County Museum of History in downtown Brownwood will host a “Meet the Reenactors” reception at 10 a.m. Saturday, where visitors can see and learn about the equipment and weapons used by soldiers in World War II. Cost of admission to the museum event is $5.
Camp Bowie in Brownwood was authorized on Sept. 19, 1940, and construction started eight days later.
“I enjoy history,” Jolly said in a telephone interview. “I’m getting my master’s degree in history this December from the University of Texas-Arlington.”
Jolly, who is also vice president of the Texas Military Historical Society, lives in Fort Worth, and plans to continue his formal education by pursuing a doctoral degree in history.
“We are totally self-funded,” Jolly said of the
reenactment group. “It’s sort of like a hobby.”
His unit accepts invitations from various places to recreate battles, and the Battle of Salero has been chosen for Krueger Hill next weekend. Its other upcoming engagements are appearances in October at Gainesville and Van, and events early next year at Waxahachie and Durant, Okla.
“The public reenactments are carefully scripted, and the outcome is predetermined,” Jolly said. “The difference between those and the tactical events, which are not open to the public, is that either side can win. It just depends on which side can out-maneuver the other.”
Jolly said as many as 40 participants are involved in reenactments, and that was the case in September 2015 when his unit staged battles on Krueger Hill as part of a ceremony and symposium held to recognize the 75th anniversary of the authorization of Camp Bowie in Brownwood.
The 2015 reenactment program was also held on Krueger Hill, where the camp’s headquarters were built. The demonstration for the public followed the dedication of a new flagpole replicating the scene that towered over Camp Bowie before the Army base closed. The restoration was completed by property owner and Camp Bowie historian Pat O’Brien.
Gen. Walter Krueger, formerly the commander of the VIII Corps, was stationed on the hill and his home was built near the headquarters. Krueger went on to lead the Sixth Army in the Pacific during World War II.
“We like to have more of us portraying Americans in the reenactments, because people like to see them swooping down on the enemy,” Jolly said. “You never know how many will be able to attend, and last year we had about 30 on the other side against about 10.”
The ages of reenactment soldiers range from 14 to 50 or 60. Most such groups restrict involvement by men older than 60, he said.
“The tactical exercises are physically demanding,” Jolly said, “while the reenactments, not so much.” Still, the warriors find themselves carrying equipment that soldiers in World War II had, and walking across rugged terrain.
The units involved in these exercises are very careful to find authentic uniforms and equipment, Jolly added. Vendors are screened, and products must meet certain standards.
“I’m especially interested in the Italy campaign in World War II,” Jolly said. “I feel that part of the war in Europe is often overlooked.”
That is one reason Jolly was attracted to this unit of the 36th Infantry Division. According to the history of the Army unit he researched for his website, 36thbaker.weebly.com, the 141st regiment of the 36th “Texas” Division was mobilized in San Antonio, and sent to Camp Bowie at Brownwood, along with all other elements of the 36th division. The 36th Division underwent training and troop replenishment before going from National Guard soldiers to the U.S. Army. After training in Louisiana, the division returned to Camp Bowie.
In April 1943, the division set sail from New York for North Africa to prepare for the invasion of Italy. Its first battle was at Salero on Sept. 9, 1943, as part of the Operation Avalanche invasion of Italy.
They landed near the ancient Greek colony of Paestum, and the Germans threw everything they had at them to try to push them back into the sea, including Mark IV panzers. The regiment held its ground, and fought the panzers off with rifles and grenades. After 12 days of bloody fighting, the Germans withdrew north and the beaches in Salerno bay were secure. The 36 th was then ordered to push the Germans out of a town called San Pietro.
The 141st spent almost a full year in combat, including 137 days in Italy, 204 days in France, 17 days in Germany and four days in Austria. The 141st sustained over 6,000 casualties, with 1,126 killed, 5,000 wounded and 500 missing in action.