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Joseph LaBarbera, of Smithtown, served in Darby's Rangers

World War II veteran Joseph LaBarbera, now 95

World War II veteran Joseph LaBarbera, now 95 and a Smithtown resident, in a photo from his days as a member of the Army's Darby's Rangers. LaBarbera was left for dead by German soldiers fighting near Monte Cassino, Italy in 1944 -- and eventually made his way back to the American lines. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Joseph LaBarbera, whose wiry body still attests to his days as an Army boxer, says he was never frightened those years ago during World War II, his faith in God's protection unshaken.

But his faith was tested on the coast of Italy, when the Army commando unit he served in -- made famous in the 1958 film "Darby's Rangers" -- was virtually wiped out on a single day south of Rome.

"I was sure God would protect me," said LaBarbera, a Manhattan-born son of Italian immigrants. "And he did."

LaBarbera, 95, a former postal employee now living in Smithtown, had been among the Army Rangers who nine days earlier had taken part in the invasion of Anzio -- the first successful Allied invasion of the European mainland.

But the fortunes of the elite military unit turned ugly on Jan. 30, 1944, when the Rangers were ordered to capture Cisterna, a farming village that controlled a key highway leading to Rome, some 25 miles north.

Resurrected by Col. William O. Darby, World War II Ranger battalions were patterned on British commando units. First trained in Scotland, Darby's Rangers were designed to operate by slipping quietly into enemy positions, and leading the way for larger conventional forces.

But an axiom of war is that plans go astray. Poor reconnaissance at Cisterna blinded the Rangers to the presence of newly arrived German reinforcements. And casualties in previous battles meant the Rangers sent to Cisterna included large numbers of replacement officers and troops, which sapped their effectiveness.

Scheduled to use the nighttime darkness for cover, the Rangers did not reach the outskirts of Cisterna until after daybreak. Waiting Nazi troops trapped the advancing Americans on a plane outside of town, sweeping behind them like a closing gate.

With his eyesight failing, and left almost entirely deaf from injuries he suffered during the war, it is difficult for LaBarbera to reconstruct the battle from memory. But an account of the fighting can be pieced together from published reports, including a battalion roster that lists LaBarbera by name.

Darby himself provided an account of the rout in his book "Darby's Rangers: We Led The Way," which was published after he was killed by an artillery shell two months later.

"All around Cisterna the Germans, who had shown no sign of strength twenty-four hours before, had moved in large numbers of soldiers," Darby wrote. "Their artillery sent its blistering fire into our attackers. Houses, once invitingly empty, were now nest for snipers and machine guns."

Of a force of 767 men from the First and Third Ranger battalions who were sent to Cisterna, all but six were captured or killed, during what has been regarded as a colossal failure studied by military analysts ever since.

LaBarbera was a member of the Fourth Ranger Battalion, which was fighting a few hundred yards from the First and Third, and which suffered heavy casualties as it attempted to rescue the others.

Their numbers decimated and their spirits shaken, the Rangers would never fight again as a unit during the war.

"These men were shell shocked," Darby recalled of the aftermath. "At first they would tell their story only to their own cooks and truck drivers who had remained behind. We had all lost too many comrades and friends in the ill-fated assault to want to discuss the experiences with outsiders."

David Stieghan, the Army's Infantry branch historian, said the loss at Cisterna helped shape today's Army Rangers, by reserving them for specialized operations, rather than for more general infantry engagements.

"It was a bridge too far, and showed that under certain conditions, even Rangers could be defeated," Stieghan said. "It showed they should be used more carefully with more planning and with a careful risk analysis."

But the wheel of fate eventually turned in LaBarbera's favor.

Left for dead by German soldiers weeks later during fighting near Monte Cassino, LaBarbera eventually made his way back to the American lines.

"I hid in the bushes, and Germans who were on patrol walked right past me," he said. "I could hear them speaking German, but I didn't move and they never saw me."

While recovering from his wounds he met Anela, a 19-year-old Italian woman. She became one the estimated one million foreign women who married American GIs during or soon after the war.

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