By Mr. Steve Ghiringhelli (Drum)April 17, 2014
Olives! Broken barrels of black olives bobbed on the dark waters in the Port of Naples as an ocean liner carrying American troops to war steamed into the harbor in early 1945.
Since a little taste of Italy would be somewhat of a morale booster for 10th Mountain Division troops fighting in Italy during World War II, Cpl. John Stone said watching the olive barrels bump along the USS West Point that night was like a sign of things to come for him and other Army cooks attached to the division's 85th Mountain Infantry Regiment.
"We used a lot of fresh Italian ingredients, as much as we could, no matter what we were cooking," Stone said. "We also learned to cook a lot of pizza. This woman and her daughter -- they taught us how to do it right."
Because food plays a strong role in combat efficiency, Stone said Soldiers, returning from fighting on the frontlines, entered feeding lines relieved to find something other than ordinary Army fare.
"It was a break from the C rations and K rations," he said. "The fellows really liked it."
'Georgia on My Mind'
Born and raised in LaGrange, Ga., Stone said he grew up exploring the vast countryside of his youth. When he wasn't hunting in the woods or pulling fish from lakes and rivers, he was courting his high school sweetheart, Christine.
After the U.S. entered World War II, Stone and several friends drove the hour or so south to Fort Benning, Ga., where they volunteered to enlist and train as "glider troops" with a new airborne unit established there (later called the 88th Glider Infantry Regiment).
The young men were turned away, however, because the specialized unit had already met its quota, Stone said.
Several months later, he hopped a bus for Atlanta, where he was drafted into the Army at Fort McPherson. The tall 18-year-old with black hair and "piercing blue eyes" proposed to his girlfriend before departing for basic training.
After boot camp at Camp Bowie, Texas, Stone was attached to the 652nd Tank Destroyers Battalion at Camp Hood, Texas, where he was trained in heavy weaponry and participated in large-scale exercises known as the Louisiana Maneuvers.
He said it was out of the blue one day that orders came down for some of the Soldiers to pack up and board a train.
"They called us and said we had 15 minutes," Stone recalled. "(We were going) to Camp Hale."
Mountain winter warfare training with the recently formed 10th Light Division (Alpine) at Camp Hale, Colo., was intensive, often navigated with skis and snowshoes through subzero conditions and heavy snow.
For a country boy from Dixie, the climate at Camp Hale was a huge shock.
Upon his arrival, Stone was immediately asked questions about his background and skill set, including whether he had ever skied or climbed mountains. More at home in the Appalachian foothills and oppressive humidity of the South than the treacherous slopes and subzero temperatures of the Rocky Mountains, he told them he knew very little of mountains -- let alone skiing.
He did mention his tracking, hiking and hunting abilities from the woods back home. But what especially caught his superiors' attention was when he talked about fishing in Georgia's backwaters, where he would clean and filet his fresh catches before cooking them on an open fire.
He was ordered to the Cooks and Bakers School at Fort Riley, Kan.
He said after several weeks trapped inside a classroom, he was desperate to return to the fresh air of the Rockies.
"It was good to get out of there and be back in the mountains," he sad.
The minute he returned, Stone was sent up on maneuvers and taught how to ski.
"I wasn't any good at it," he said. "I would get going pretty good, but would end up in a heap."
He said he had better luck on snowshoes, especially during the famed six-week "D-Series" in March and April of 1944, when two opposing teams engaged in mock battles, slept in the snow and humped 90-pound rucks through snow several feet deep from dawn to dusk.
"It was rugged training," Stone said. "I couldn't feel my feet and fingers most days and nights.
"It was 32 F below zero," he continued. "Some of that was real touchy. That's the way it went."
The 90-year-old veteran said just as important as their mountain training was unit morale, which came from the confidence each Soldier had in himself, his gear and his fellow Soldiers.
"It was training that had to be done," he said. "Our general was doing what was right. He was training us for what we were going to get into."
After a stop in the intense heat of Camp Swift, Texas, for heavy weapons training, the elite mountain troops had their wits -- their minds were sharp, bodies resilient and they were ready to face the Nazis in the Apennine Mountains.
Lake Garda, Mussolini
Stone was one of about a dozen cooks in the 85th Mountain Infantry Regiment who could set up a hasty field kitchen and, within 30 minutes, serve hundreds of Soldiers in feeding lines.
The cooks ensured Soldiers had their rations for the frontlines as the division forged ahead in the Apennines. Stone said the kitchen crew, which typically set up more than five miles back, dug a hole in the ground for a field oven and then stacked sandbags around it for the stoves.
"The meals were good, hearty, meat-and-potatoes type of meals with any vegetables that were available," he said.
Stone said U.S. units often fed the Italians fighting on the Allied side. In turn, the partisans shared their spaghetti, pizza and lasagna, and U.S. Soldiers got to enjoy a taste of the surrounding countryside.
Stone, who got to stay in the mountain village homes of a few of the families, said the partisans were simple people, just like him, wanting to protect their families, their land and their way of life.
After major battles at Riva Ridge, Mount Belvedere and Mount Gorgolesco, Soldiers returned to base camp for food and much-needed rest.
"It was good to cook the Soldiers what they liked," Stone said. "War's a tough row to hoe. People who love each other and take care of each other help make it a great outfit."
The division broke out of the mountains in April 1945. On the way to Po Valley and Lake Garda, Stone and his comrades marched through many booby-trapped areas. Bombs detonated in trees, under the snow and behind rocks.
They pushed on, and the Germans eventually surrendered in Lake Garda a month later.
But before the war was officially over, Stone said his unit set up shop on the banks of Lake Garda in the lush palace of deposed Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.
"My company stayed in his private home -- as many of us that could," he said. "The rest stayed in other buildings."
Stone said Mussolini and his girlfriend, Clara Petacci, retreated towards Switzerland, attempting to escape with their lives. They were eventually captured, however, and killed by firing squad.
"I was there when they brought them down from the northern Apennines," Stone said. "They were hung up in Milan upside down. It was a terrible thing to see."
He said a throng of local Italians celebrated at the scene. Some threw rocks and wielded guns while others were more humane, like a woman who tried to fix the skirt on Petacci's corpse, which had fallen down around her waist.
"Some people were trying to get their revenge for different things," Stone said. "I think that was about the worst thing I ever seen during my time in service."
He said at one point, an elderly woman emerged from the crowd and screamed at Mussolini's body for taking the lives of her seven children.
"She cut him down to the ground," Stone said. "She jabbered something in Italian and shot Mussolini with her Beretta. She did the same thing, seven times, before throwing the gun down on him.
"She cried so hard," he said.
The 10th Mountain Division, which was deactivated after the war, lost nearly 1,000 Soldiers and suffered more than 3,800 casualties during its four months in combat.
When he considers his service, Stone said he feels proud of the 10th and the men who were in it.
"It brings back a lot of memories," he said. "I don't know of anything that I wouldn't do again if I was asked to, though.
"It was a really good group of guys," he added. "The 10th Mountain Division, what a great outfit. I think there's no division like it."
After the war, Stone married his fiancée, Christine -- "The lady of my choice" -- on V-J Day, Sept. 2, 1945.
On the road to a delayed honeymoon in Miami, the couple passed through Sarasota, Fla. "As soon as we hit the city limits, I fell in love with it," Stone recalled. "I told my wife we should go home, pack a suitcase and move down to Sarasota. And that's what we did."
Stone's hardscrabble turns on the battlefields of northern Italy followed him into life, where he embarked on his dream career of becoming a professional firefighter.
Although he would rise quickly through the ranks at the Sarasota Fire Department, Stone would suffer surface melanomas, the loss of an eyebrow and permanent damage to his foot after a boot melted to it during a four-alarm fire.
When not fighting fires, he helped out in the kitchen at the firehouse.
"They didn't need my help, but I wanted to cook," he said, laughing.
Stone retired from the fire department in 1978. He and his wife returned to LaGrange that year. The two never had children, and Christine passed away in 1994.
Working at a local mall several years later, Stone met Kathy Baker, whose husband had also passed away. When they married, he inherited three grown children who dubbed him "Papa John" at the wedding.
"I tell many people," he said. "I don't see how the good Lord seen fit to give me two perfect wives when some men can't even get one."
Stone, who inherited eight grandchildren and 10 great grandchildren, spent many years traveling with his second wife before she passed away four years ago.
Linda Strohecker, Kathy's oldest daughter, whom Stone now "claims 100 percent," said she looks in on her beloved, but fiercely independent "Papa John" whenever she can.
"He is not so steady getting around anymore," she said. "But he's very proud. He still wants to live alone and drive occasionally -- although I have gotten him to give up driving past dusk."
Jack Grady, a Navy veteran of World War II, said his fellow congregant at First Baptist Church on the Square in LaGrange is a likable man with a tough backcountry air that can make his friendliness hard to detect.
"When you get to know him, you come to really appreciate him," Grady said.
Stone, who uses a cane for his bad leg and calls himself an "old codger," contends that he feels just like the young man he once was.
The woman he claims as his daughter said she expects he will outlive her.
"He's healthy as a horse," Strohecker said. "It could have been that mountain training."