A soldier's mad dash to beach

By: John Young, Waco Tribune-Herald

Nov. 13, 2008

Gayle Albritton drives at 90.

Not 90 as in mph. That's 90, as in years of age. His mph? At the man's vintage, comfortable and safe are a prerogative.

That wasn't his option on one chaotic day 63 years ago. His was a harrowing race amid crossfire across battle-scarred Southern Italy.

His velocity, his survival, and the survival of many others rested squarely on the frame of his hurtling military vehicle.

That's a way of saying he's a big fan of the Jeep.

Because of it, he can do what so many of his comrades with the 36th Infantry would never be able to do: look back and say, "I was lucky."

It's just one story of many that one hopes can be shared as we observe Veterans Day.

Albritton grew up in Kerens in Navarro County. He'd just moved to the big city of Waco and had found a pretty fair job when a bigger job beckoned: Save the world.

War was approaching. He joined the National Guard, three units of which trained here. When World War II came, they became U.S. Army. In Europe they would etch a legend ever associated with a most vaunted term: T-Patchers of the 36th Division. "T" for Texas.

Albritton and his Waco comrades spent almost three years in combat. That sounds pretty clinical. Three years in hell is more like it.

They landed on the bullet-crossed beaches of Salerno, Italy. They made a gallant but suicidal effort at crossing the infamous Rapido River. There, besides a raging and too-deep current, the Yanks faced an entrenched enemy that mowed them down. More than 1,700 of them died.

Albritton, whose job was to transport and oversee heavy artillery, was fortunate to be removed from the worst of it at the Rapido.

But on another day in the region, this time Staff Sgt. Albritton faced the full fury of the enemy in the most exposed way — in the seat of a Jeep.

The incident happened when his unit was surprised by German troops who'd been driven by Gen. Patton's army out of Sicily. The enemy not only captured many GIs but also took weapons and ammo.

There the unit sat with depleted ranks and no means to fight back. Albritton knew where to get the badly needed weapons — three miles back at the beach, where arms were being loaded for transport to another venue.

He commanded a convoy of three Jeeps, each towing a trailer over a perilous three-mile sprint under fire.

"I saw many a tracer cut between me and the windshield," he said.

They got to the beach. They loaded up with weapons. They turned around and headed back to the base. Then they did it again. And one more time for good measure.

Once that mission had been completed, the unit was well armed. For this, Albritton won the Bronze Star.

He doesn't want to take credit for anything special. "I was just doing my job," he said.

Only when the T-Patchers got home, right before VE Day, did the staggering toll of their quest become apparent. Of 75 in the company that had trained on the streets of Waco, those returning numbered 16. The others had been captured, wounded, or ...

The irony is that Albritton wasn't done serving his country. Later he would be called to Korea, where he survived similar harrowing matters in sub-zero, subhuman cold.

"I was lucky," he says of having emerged unscathed. "I don't know why."

Luck had something to do with it, yes. But that only half explains it.

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