Despite just being a Lieutenant Colonel a little over a year prior, General Clark would be given command of the newly created US Fifth Army and tasked with preparing for the invasion of Italy. It was in this campaign that General Clark would see his greatest controversy and find himself regularly at odds with his British counterparts.
On September 9th, 1943, Clark’s Fifth Army made their landings at Salerno, and while they met initial success despite fierce resistance, they became bogged down and failed to advance quickly.
The Germans meanwhile were masking troop movements for a massive counteroffensive that would take place on September 13th. This German attack was nearly successful in crushing the landing, but Clark’s men were able to fend it off at a high cost. General Clark was regularly seen in some of the most forward positions during this action and as a result, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his frontline leadership.
However, British military leadership would blame Clark’s poor planning and execution for the difficulties and high casualties at Salerno. But leave it to the consummate politician/General to walk away with an award out of this ordeal.
A Texas-Sized Problem For General Clark
The difficulties faced at Salerno would foreshadow the rest of Clark’s experience in war. But in one particular battle, Clark’s decisions would lead to the virtual annihilation of the 36th Infantry Division also known as the “Texas” Division since it was comprised primarily of men from the Texas National Guard. General Clark sent the 36th “Texas” Division across the Gari River in what would become known as the Battle of Rapido River in January of 1944.
The crossing was off to a rocky start as, despite the fact that the river was unusually swollen and moving at a very rapid pace, General Clark ordered the attack. When the 36th made it across, the Germans were waiting for them, and the result was devastating for the Texas men of the 36th.
After two days of fighting, the survivors retreated across the river in defeat with over 1,300 men killed or wounded and another 700 plus captured by the Germans. It was one of the worst disasters for the US military in World War 2. The Germans, on the other hand, are thought to have only lost about 65 men killed.
General Clark would go on to finish the war, but not without additional controversy regarding his decisions. After the war, his actions at the Battle of Rapido River would be the subject of a Congressional inquiry pressed on by none other than representatives from Texas.
While General Clark was absolved of blame for the disaster, Texas never quite forgave him for the desolation of their beloved 36th. General Clark would continue his career, eventually serving as the Far East Commander at the end of the Korean War.
History will debate whether this man was truly out of his league or just a common Army officer tasked with learning as they go in a rapidly expanded Army, the people of Texas have their minds made up about it.