From Sicily to Dachau: A History of the 45th Infantry Division


March with the 45th Infantry Division–the “Thunderbirds,” a division made up of National Guardsmen from Colorado, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Arizona–as they battle their way across hot, rocky Sicily; prevent the Germans from splitting the Allied invasion force at Sicily; endure the frozen hell of winter mountain combat near Monte Cassino; and save the Anzio beachhead from annihilation in one of World War II’s bloodiest battles. Under constant attack for four months, the “citizen soldiers” of this National Guard unit, which included thousands of Native Americans, held their position against seemingly endless “human wave” attacks by the Germans.

From Italy the 45th went on to blaze a path through southern France and into Germany, finally liberating the notorious Dachau concentration camp outside of Munich in one of the most controversial–and, until the publication of this book–secret actions of the war. Based on extensive research and interviews with scores of veterans, The Rock of Anzio is written with an immediacy that puts the reader onto the battlefield and shows us war through the eyes of ordinary men called upon to perform extraordinary deeds during four amphibious assault landings and 511 days of grueling combat.


Lieutenant Colonel Felix Sparks and First Lieutenant William P. Walsh’s I Company moved out and headed for the Dachau camp gate, totally unprepared for what they were about to encounter. Between the town and the camp, Sparks’s men saw a string of thirty-nine railroad cars standing on the track. Some were open-top gondola cars, others were enclosed boxcars, and a few more were old third-class passenger carriages. There was no engine.

If ever the American soldier needed confirmation of the reasons why he was in uniform, why he was at war, why he was required to put his life on the line day after day, enduring all hardships and discomfort and danger, it was contained in these thirty-nine railroad cars. Here was the very embodiment of the evil Nazi regime that he had sworn to vanquish.

As they cautiously approached, the familiar, sickening stench of death greeted them. An officer gave an order and a soldier moved forward in a running crouch toward the nearest car, looked in, covered his mouth and nose with his hand, then motioned the rest of the men forward.

In each car were piles of rotting human corpses a total of 2,310 men, women, and children, to be exact either naked or partially clad in blue-and-white striped concentration camp uniforms.

Private First Class John Lee was one of the first men on the scene. He said, “We had seen men in battle blown apart, burnt to death, and die many different ways, but we were never prepared for this. Several of the dead lay there with their eyes open…It seemed they were looking at us and saying, ‘What took you so long?’ ”

(from The Rock of Anzio, ©copyright 1998 by Flint Whitlock)

At last we have a book that does the Battle of Anzio justice. After reading Flint Whitlock’s masterful account, I felt as I had done after seeing Saving Private Ryan: it was as though I’d been there. I was shattered, drained and yet filled with intense admiration for those men who’d taken everything the finest of the Wehrmacht and SS could throw at them——week in, week out. Not only did they take it…but they got up out of their foxholes and gave it back in spades. Although our year has just started, it is going to take one hell of a book to beat out The Rock of Anzio for the Military Book Club’s ‘Book of the Year’ Award. If you buy only one book this year, this should be it!

Michael Stephenson, Editor, Military Book Club

I know of no other division history as well-written and meticulously researched as The Rock of Anzio…. From my own experience, I well understand the amount of work that went into its creation.

Carlo D’Este, author of Patton: A Genius for War;
Fatal Decision; Bitter Victory, and more

By the author’s own admission, The Rock of Anzio covers considerably more ground than that one momentous battle in Italy. It is, at the same time, a complete history of the 45th Infantry Division and an accurate chronology of one of the fiercest battles of World War II. Unlike other unit histories, The Rock of Anzio is more than a parochial division history; it is a stark and realistic view of war as seen by those who were there…. It is a well-written and interesting account of the war in Italy…. From the effects of ‘Anzio Annie,’ a large German railway gun, to the controversy surrounding the 45th’s liberation of the Dachau concentration camp, Whitlock’s book captures the immediacy of combat so horrific and heroic that it will be remembered forever by those who read it. Without a doubt an essential part of most military and historically minded readers’ libraries.

World War II magazine

Whitlock, like Stephen Ambrose in his recent Citizen Soldiers, makes a campaign vivid through the frequent quotations from the memoirs, diaries, letters, and oral interviews with the veterans of the 45th Division…. Interest is heightened by selections from the many Native Americans in this outfit…. Whitlock first leads readers into the grand strategic picture and then down through headquarters to the Tommies and GIs and their young officers on the line. An excellent read, lively and informative.


A textbook on bravery…. Whitlock captures the graphic depth of the superhuman efforts by the Thunderbirds to survive and succeed…. For students and soldiers, this book is a primer on bravery.

National Guard magazine

Whitlock is thorough in his descriptions of the history and actions of the 45th and its adversaries, describing what was happening on both sides of the battle lines…. Flavored with a regional angle, The Rock of Anzio approaches World War II from the viewpoint of the local boys——our neighbors, fathers, and grandfathers…our heroes.

Grand Junction (CO) Sentinel

This book is a towering cenotaph to the men of the 45th Division….

James Bird, 45th Division veteran

The best book I have read that gives a true insight to combat.

Dr. Robert LaDu, 45th Division veteran

As a former member of the 45th Infantry Division, I have enjoyed reading The Rock of Anzio. I am presently reading it with interest for the second time…because I cannot believe that the author has captured so accurately the horror of those days without having experienced it himself….

Jeremy Waldron, 45th Division veteran

My father was a member of the 45th from North Africa to ‘somewhere outside of Rome,’ where an artillery shell took him out. He never talked much about it and took most of his personal stories with him this past January. This book gave me a chance of closure on this, as I finally got to know the reason for the silence.

Bill Fields, son of a 45th Division veteran ( review)

My father-in-law was in the 45th from North Africa until Munich. The personal stories detailed throughout allow the reader a brief glimpse of what the soldiers in the 45th endured in fighting for our country…. I couldn’t put it down….

A reader in North Carolina ( review)

My late grandfather was a Thunderbird, and seldom talked of his World War II days. After reading this book, I now know why. I can only imagine what it must have been like to live for days on end in a wet foxhole, always cold and miserable…. The Rock of Anzio tells the story that my grandfather was never able to tell, a story that should be told.

Paul Magnanti ( review)

The Rock of Anzio kept my interest from cover to cover. I have read many unit histories, and this work is the most complete…. I also never knew of the conflict between the Thunderbirds (45th Division) and the Rainbows (42nd Division) over the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp (even having visited it). The author does a great job——buy this book!

Capt. Mitch Reed ( review)

My father served with the 45th Division from June 1941 until the end of the war…. Although my father described some of his war experiences to me as I was growing up, he has not been willing to go into much detail. As a result of reading this book, my father and I have had several detailed conversations about the war and his experiences; these conversations have been a rewarding experience for my father and me.

Richard Foster, son of a 45th Division veteran

The best book on World War II I’ve ever read.

John Steinle, President,Colorado-Wyoming Museum Curators Association

“Having just finished reading The Rock of Anzio, I just wanted to write and tell you how much I enjoyed it–so much, in fact, that I had to go back and re-read sections of it. It’s a powerful book. As a divisional-level history, I don’t think I’ve read anything quite as good, well-researched, or as balanced in terms of the ‘mix’ of topics and themes. Just outstanding!

“Having read previously about elements of the 45th—I read Alex Kershaw’s The Liberator, about Felix Sparks several years ago—The Rock of Anzio— was just a fantastic addition to my knowledge base and personal library, as well as being so well-written. (I might add, in passing, that one of my family’s longtime friends who was also my 9th grade teacher was one of the men of the 42nd who liberated Dachau alongside the 45th’s troops.)”

Jack H. (Nick) McCall

Westview Press/Perseus Books, 1998
5500 Central Avenue
Boulder, CO 80301-2877
(303) 444-3541
ISBN 0-8133-33997
Price: $22.00 softcover
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