“I wish my wife could have seen this,” said 2nd Lt. Euel Akins of Statesboro, Georgia. A Joint Forces Color Guard had just presented arms to him, a member of Pershing’s Own had bugled “Taps,” and three generals and an admiral had shaken his hand. Euel Akins is 98 years old. He was the only World War II veteran among the 27 war vets aboard Honor Flight Savannah’s recent tour of Washington, D.C. Euel wasn’t a 2nd lieutenant when he climbed the rock face of Italy’s Mount Belvedere – in the dark. Back then, in 1945, he was a private. And scared.
As our tour bus moved from one war memorial to the next, I asked Euel to tell me about his experience in Italy. When Euel was 21 years old, the father of three children, the Army was gearing up for the D-Day assault. “They were drafting everybody,” Euel said. He was ordered to report to Camp Blanding in central Florida for training.
After 17 weeks, Euel’s unit shipped out of Newport News bound for Naples, Italy. From there they boarded boxcars north to a “replacement camp.” Row upon row of tents housed thousands of troops, arranged according to rank. When, say, a sergeant was wounded or killed in action, “They called up a sergeant from the replacement camp,” Euel explained.
When Euel arrived in Italy, the newly minted 10th Mountain Division had been charged with taking Riva Ridge and Mount Belvedere, the linchpin of German strongholds along the spine of the Apennine Mountains. Before the assault began in mid-February, Euel was called up to join the experienced climbers of the 10th Mountain Division. At Camp Blanding in Florida, he had been trained to operate a heavy machine gun, but having grown up in coastal Georgia, he was no mountaineer. Nevertheless, Euel was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 87th Regiment of the division.
George Hays, the commanding general of the 10th Mountain troops, had planned a surprise attack on the entrenched Germans. He tasked his soldiers with scaling the sheer rock face of Riva Ridge — a feat the Germans considered impossible — at night. If that succeeded, the lower stronghold on Mount Belvedere would be easier to take.
Using five different routes, 700 soldiers of the 86th infantry battalion climbed the sheer 2,000-foot cliff with weapons unloaded, ordered not to fire until the sun rose. Stealth was paramount. The surprise was complete, the Germans overrun and the stronghold seized.
The following night, with Riva Ridge secured, troops of the 85th and 87th battalions, along with remnants from the 86th, began an assault on Mount Belvedere. Euel was part of the 87th regiment. Shouldering his heavy machine gun, Euel began the ascent.
“How did you manage to climb a mountain in the dark?” I asked.
“Just follow the man ahead of you, that’s what General Hays said,” Euel replied.
At daybreak when the battle erupted, the Germans opened fire with artillery and machine guns. A shell landed near a man in Euel’s platoon.
“I’m hit, I’m hit,” the man yelled.
“Of course, we couldn’t stop and help him,” Euel said. “ ‘Keep moving forward’ is what the general said.”
To this day the battles for Riva Ridge and Belvedere are regarded as the most daring nighttime mountain attacks in U.S. military history. And 98-year-old Euel Akins was there among us, his spine as straight, his step as lively as the active-duty generals who shook his hand.
What accounts for his vitality, his good humor, his many years? It could be genetic, it could be lifestyle. Or it could be an attitude he learned young while climbing a steep mountain face in Italy during WW II.
“Keep moving forward.”
Carol Megathlin is a writer living in Fairhope, Alabama, and Athens, Georgia.