The Last Western Allied Battle in the ECHO
On May 2, at 1330 hours the 1st Bn, 71st Infantry moved out from Ehrewald Austria toward Fernstein with Lt. Col. William Fowler in the lead. The point company was Company C, commanded by 1st Lt. Archibald McLeod. The mission: Climb Mt. Wanneck, which was close to 8,000 feet high, and attack the German positions from the rear and clear Fern Pass so the 44th could progress to the Italian and Austrian border. When the Battalion moved out, Division Commander Dean was on had to shake the hand of every man and wish them all “Good Luck.” Six Austrian members of the German army guided the Bn over the mountain. All men were advised to step in the footsteps of the person he was following to avoid stepping into a snowdrift of 4 to 6 feet deep. They had no climbing equipment and hand carried all weapons, making for a very difficult and tough and slow advance. Radioman Ernie Balint humped the severe icy slope while packing a SCR-300 radio set which alone weighed over 38 pounds.
The target city, Fernstein, was headquarters for the 47th Volksgrenadier Division and its commander, Oberst Karl Langesee and his staff. The Bn reached a point where they could see the enemy below, a weird feeling, according to Rudolph Mazzio. At this point the men had to be very quiet. Coming in from the South, the Germans were quickly surprised. After the battle, the Germans were shocked to learn that the Bn had come in over the mountain, thinking they were paratroopers. When the Bn reached the base of the mountain, 4 men were sent to cut the wires under the Fernstein Bridge. They were sure it was wired for demolition and were concerned it would be blown. At 1745 hours, Co C started to move into the attack. Within a few minutes, the firefight was on and a fierce fight was encountered on the road to the bridge.
Crossing was a big concern because there was no way of knowing if the wires had been cut. However, they made it over and attacked the buildings in town. Germans attempted to escape into the surrounding mountains but many were killed or captured. 103 prisoners were taken, together with a battery of 88’s. Once the battle was decided, a defensive position was set up to stop any counter attack. After the battle, the Division command described the attack as a brilliant and energetic maneuver which caused the complete disruption of the German defenses and succeeded in preventing the destruction of the Fernstein Bridge. After the battle was over, John Sitko started back over the bridge and was killed by a sniper. Was he the last solider to die for the 71st?
After the battle, the 44th progressed forward and linked up with the U.S. 5th Army troops coming north from Italy. The 1st Platoon of the 44th Cavalry Reconnaissance Troop proceeded through the Reisa Pass where a link up was effected with the U.S. 10th Mountain Division inside Italy, just south of the Italian-Austrian border on May 6, 1945.
The hope of the Nazi's, an Austrian redoubt, was finished. The next assignment: Brief occupation duty then an intended redeployment to the Pacific and the invasion of Japan.
This account provided by Rudolph “Duke” Marzio, Company C, 71st Infantry
Mt Wanneck, snow covered and 2,400 meters high.
Fernstein Hotel, HQ for the German 47th Division,
focal point of the attack
Soldiers from the 44th I.D. and the U.S. 10th Mountain Division meet at the Italian and Austrian Border.
Two feared German 88's were captured at Fern Pass