Operation of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regimental Combat Team, in Sicily during the period July 9, 1943, to August 19, 1943. Personal Experience of a Regimental Headquarters Company Commander.
Capt Adam A. Komosa
This archive covers the operations of the 504-PRCT, in which it participated in the first large scale night airborne operation in military history. After the jump, the paratroopers were scattered over an area of sixty miles in the southern portion of the Sicilian Island. After their reorganization, they moved out to their assigned sectors along the south and west coast of the island. In order to orient the reader properly, it will be necessary to go back several months and give a short resume of the events that lead up to this campaign, which was described by Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister of England, as not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning.
There was much talk about the soft underbelly of Europe, long before the invasion of Sicily was begun. Preparations were made for a tough and bloody course of the war with the realization that, while the Italians were sure to collapse under the blow, the Nazis would fight stubbornly and bitterly. The Italian nation was disgruntled with its own government, shaken by the reverses in Africa, unhappy with the swaggering Germans in its midst, Italy was, in short, poised for the knockout.
There were other considerations besides the desirability of knocking out the Axis weak sister that prompted the Anglo-American strategy. There was a good chance of trapping a substantial German army in southern Italy, besides the certainty of tying up many German Divisions, both of which, if accomplished would relieve the pressure on the Soviet front, and keep many troops from the defense of occupied France. Control of Sicily would mean, also, control of the Mediterranean and insurance of the shortest supply line from Britain and the United States to India and China.
In broad terms, the attack against Sicily was to be made by two task forces. The American 7-A, the Western Task Force, would land on the southeast coast of the island, while the British 8-A, the Eastern Task Force, would land on the extreme southeast tip and around the eastern side of the island. The American 7-A was commanded by Gen George S. Patton. It consisted of six divisions organized into two Corps, one under Gen Omar N. Bradley and the other under Gen Geoffrey Keyes. Certain French Moroccan troops were to be available and held in Africa as a General Reserve.
Once ashore, the US Army’s mission was to secure the left flank of the operation from enemy resistance, while the center and right flanks drove toward the central highlands of Sicily which dominate the valleys and approaches. At this point, the American was to make contact with the British 8-A, which after securing all the eastern coast and ports, was to move inland. The plan was to sever the island from its mainland connections and force it to fall of its own weight. The strongest concentration of defense was known to be centered in the northwest and center of Sicily. The assault was planned according to the cardinal principles of warfare – strike where the enemy least expects it or, Hit ’em where they ain’t.
Oujda – North Africa
The Regiment was camped outside of Oujda, French Morrocco. The campsite chosen was typical of sites for American training camps. On one side of the town, there were the beautiful rolling plains, ankle-high grass which looked like a soft green carpet flowing gently over the hills and blending into the beauties of the mountains on the left and the blue Mediterranean on the right. So the camp was located on the other side of the town in the middle of the worst dust bowl on the continent of Africa. The Camp was located in a desolate, sterile, rocky, dusty, heat-seared valley, which seemed to be a Nowhere zone in North Africa instead of the censor’s Somewhere in North Africa, found on the letterheads of these troops so recently from the States. In addition to the scheduled jumps in tricky winds, there was the worst epidemic of dysentery ever imagined in a latrine orderly’s nightmare, and jumps scheduled or unscheduled were made all through the day and night. Men on guard wore entrenching tools as standard equipment.
Oujda brought the Regiment the first taste of extended field conditions. Troops lived in long straight rows of pup tents, interspaced with slit trenches. They squatted on the ground and ate from mess kits at the field kitchens. They bathed, shaved and washed in their helmets and learned the meaning of water discipline.
They washed their clothes in wooden tubs or in halves of discarded oil drums. They gave each other hair cuts. Despite the climatic conditions, the camp at Oujda was to become the greatest parade ground the Regiment and Division had graced to date. We were to be the proud recipient of virtually every dignitary in northwestern Africa. The proud 82d Airborne Division paraded before 15 allied generals in less than a month.
The Division colors were dipped for Gen Mark W. Clark (CG 5-A), Gen Carl A. Tooey Spaats (CG AAF NA-TO), Gen George S. Patton (CG 7-A), Gen Omar N. Bradley (CG 82-A/B), Gen Alfred M. Gruenther (CoS 5-A), Gen Dwight D. Eisenhower, and an impressive row of French and Spanish dignitaries, including Gen Luis Orgaz, High Commissioner of Spanish Morrocco, and many others. With all the visits we had been receiving from dignitaries, it was quite obvious that they had big things in store for us. As Gen Eisenhower (SHAEF) told us some sixteen months later, I owe you a lot, but I will owe you much more by VE Day.
All told, the 82-A/B was at Oujda for six weeks. The training was essential, but how, when, and where? The soldiers tried to train in the day time. It was too hot and dirty to do anything. Allied HQs had us slated for a night airborne operation on Sicily. A high parachute operation had never before been attempted by any army, so organization and training for it offered many new problems. The many intangible and indefinable difficulties of fighting at night in hostile territory, when every object appears to be and often is the foe, had to be overcome. Rapid assembly of the troops and reorganization after landing by parachute appeared to be the greatest problem. Training began at night, compass marches by small groups, organizing in the dark, from simulated parachute drops and glider landings, moving across the country at night and organizing positions, digging fox holes, laying wire, preparing minefields by the light of the moon. Emphasis was placed on training in judo, demolitions, commando fighting, and the use of the knife. All this worked out well but bayonet practice at 0200 was a little too unique to bring enthusiasm. It was too hot to sleep in the day time and as a result, the troops became exhausted.
Having completed the ground and refresher training, the Division was now in the process of its next move, closer to combat. On the morning of Jun 16, 1943, the advance elements departed by truck for the advanced take-off airfield and dispersal area at Kairouan, Tunisia. The forward bases were dispersed over a wide area in the vicinity of Kairouan, the third holy city in all Islam, according to Uncle Sam’s Guide to North Africa. Holy cities are off-limits of course, not because they are Holy, but because they are too filthy even for healthy soldiers to enter. So, the Regimental Combat Teams were bivouacked in a huge arc around the city in scattered olive groves and cactus patches. As attended, the area was very dusty and the scorching heat unbearable. Within 275 short miles lay the enemy in Sicily nervously waiting for the invasion which certainly would come soon. The troops began to sense the nearness of the battle. Situation huts were set up immediately and conferences held about the pending attack on the iron-muscled underbelly of Adolph’s Festung Europa. The training was as usual, continuous, with both day and night exercises. Troops got up at 0430 and started at 0600. They got madder and meaner. The Krauts could expect anything.
Emphasis was placed on night assembly in simulated parachute drops. Planes could not be obtained from the Air Corps for the purpose of making night parachute jumps. The Combat Team was in an excellent state of training, but there was a serious gap in the combined Ground Forces – Air Corps training. An Air Corps liaison officer was attached to the 82-A/B’s HQs, but he was not used to the best advantage. He did not operate as an integral member of the Division Staff and was not in a position to coordinate plane requirements, etc.
An Airborne liaison officer was later attached to the 52-TCW. He was made assistant S-3 and proved a real value to the unit in its planning and training. The spirit of cooperation between the 82-A/B and the 52-TCW was excellent; however, the inadequate organization proved the stumbling block. Cooperation alone was not enough for the closely-knit teamwork required.
The 52-TCW arrived in the theater qualified for daylight operations and parachute drops over familiar terrain, but unqualified for night operations. At the start of the training program, the wing did night formation and navigation flying with navigational lights. After becoming proficient with navigational lights, the formation flying was done without navigational lights and with resin lights.
Occasionally the Air Corps was used to work with Col Edson D.Raff’s 509-PIB’s Scout Company on DZ and resupply exercises. However, the Wing did not fully appreciate the value of these projects and used most of their training time to fly large formations and token drops which had little operational value. Very little real effort was put forth by the 52-TCW to check the location of pin-point DZ’s at night. Equipment containers were made available in an effort to get the 52-TCW to drop simulated loads on a DZ on practice flights.
Very few times were containers used to check the DZ location by the navigator and the jump signal by the pilot. Air photos, for training aids in the location of DZs by night fly, were not used in the majority of training flights.
Training of a practical nature was difficult under the existing set-up without a control command over the 52-TCW and the 82-A/B. Despite the necessity of such a step, a full-scale rehearsal of the operation was not conducted. Final training was further hampered because the Wing Air Corps over the final three weeks were engaged in shuttling troops and supplies to advance bases. No exercise involving support aviation, other than a demonstration, were held as were no exercises involving aerial resupply.
On the Fourth of July, the mechanism of final battle preparation swung into full gear with Gen Matthew B. Ridgway, CG of the 82-A/B, and his staff flying to Algiers where they joined the Command Staff of the 1st Armored Corps (reinforced) to complete plans for the invasion of Sicily under Gen Patton, Commander of the highly secret 7-A.
Every man in the division was filled with speculation on the wheres and whats of the immediate future, but the flies, sand, and sun had done their job in their own insufferable way. With the body hardened and the mind still filled with thoughts of the disagreeable training area, anticipation for the future and combat could not have been keener. Morale was at a peak. The men wanted to tackle anything.
Information of the enemy indicated that the entire island of Sicily had been prepared for defense. Towns, consisting almost entirely of stone buildings, were reported organized as centers of resistance. All beaches were reported protected by batteries, pillboxes, barbed wire, and mines. Roads were understood to be blocked by AT obstacles. Strength, of the defenders, was stated to be somewhat between 300.000 and 400.000 men.
The plan for the invasion of Sicily provided for landings to be made on the southeastern extremity of the island, with the British and the Canadian forces on the east coast and American forces on the south coast. The American assault forces were to consist of the 3-ID, the 1-ID, and the 45-ID with attached units, which were to land in the vicinity of Licata, Gela, and Sampieri, respectively, and parachute troops from the 82-A/B, which were to land inland from Gela. Bradley’s II Corps consisted of the 1-ID and the 45-ID Divisions.
After landing, the Paratroopers of the 82-A/B were to be attached to this Corps. The plan of invasion called for one parachute combat team to drop just north of an important road junction about seven miles east of Gela, between known large enemy reserves and the 1-ID’s beaches, with the mission of preventing these reserves from interfering with the amphibious landings. The assaulting paratroopers were the 505-PRCT (Col James M. Gavin), reinforced by the 3/504-PIR (Col Charles W. Kouns).
Their mission was thus stated in Field Order #6 issued by the II Corps, 1. Land during night D-1/D in area K and E of Gela, capture and secure high ground in that area. 2. Disrupt communications and movement of reserves during the night. 3. Be attached to the 1-ID effective H+1 on D Day and 4. Assist the 1-ID in capturing and securing landing field at Ponte Olivio. In compliance with Field Order #1, of Force 543 (7-A), the division devised a Movement Table, under which the 504-PRCT, as a second lift, was alerted for movement the evening of D Day or, in the event of negative instructions at that time, the evening of D plus 1, or any day thereafter.
The mission posed a number of problems never before encountered. First, should the transports fly into formation in order to quickly deliver a mass of troops on the objective? There were two disadvantages in formation flying, 1. inflexibility in the event of hostile interception and heavy flak, 2. necessity for intensive pilot training into formation flying of C-47’s. The advantages were that the accurate delivery of troops would depend on fewer skilled navigators and the troops would be delivered en masse, not by single ship drops, over the objective. If delivered in the wrong area, each unit would be still a complete fighting force. It was decided to fly in a nine ship formation, i.e., a V of V’s, with approximately one and one-half minutes between each flight. Serials contained up to 52 planes.
When to drop was the next question. Training, the experience had led the troopers to believe that at least a half moon would be necessary both for the flight and drop. Moonlight would greatly facilitate the assembly and reorganization of the troops after landing. On the target date selected (July 10, 1943) the moon would be almost full. The ideal solution would be to complete the dropping of all units before the moonset.
Thus there would be several hours of darkness to carry out defensive organization and operations against the enemy. The exposure to interception by hostile fighters and the risk of extensive enemy attack causing heavy casualties eliminated the day drop.
July 10 was selected as D-Day. At dusk of July 9, the 505-PRCT and the 3/504-PIR, departed in 226 C-47’s from ten airfields near Kairouan, Tunisia. The estimated flight and air rendezvous time between Kairouan and the intended Drop Zone in Sicily was three hours and twenty minutes. The 3/504-PRCT, (Col Charles W. Kouns), was alerted throughout D-Day for the second lift, at the fields and loaded in the planes, waited while a negative message from Gen Ridgway was delayed in delivery, but was finally received at 1840 when Col Hal Clark of the 52-TCW decided that it was too late for the mission to be undertaken.
The next day D+1, at 1100, orders were received that the second lift would be flown that evening. The basic load of combat equipment for the individual paratrooper was checked. The bundles and equipment were complete and the aircraft were dispersed according to the parking plan at the departure airfields. The equipment bundles were raised and hooked into the para racks under the bellies of the planes. Plane loads were lined up near their respective planes. The chutes of each individual were checked by each plane jumpmaster. The troops then enplaned 30 minutes before takeoff. The planning for the final take-off had been complete and thorough, which, with the execution of the final plans, were probably the outstanding features of the entire airborne operation. Bundle and para racks loading, dispersal arrangements and parking plans, all went off like clock-work.
Allowance was not made for the time required to inform all shipping and shore batteries of the impending flight. Ground units beyond the 1-ID area knew nothing of the operation. The 504-PRCT was not familiar with the situation or countersign of units on the flanks of the 1-ID area. The African sun, like a bloody curious eye, hung on the rim of the world as one hundred and forty-four planes coughed into life, spewing miniature dust storms across the flat wastes of desert airfields. Thin aluminum skins of C-47’s vibrated like drawn snare drums and, as paratroopers sought their predesignated seats, they wrinkled their noses at the smell of gasoline and lacquer that flooded the planes’ interiors.
The take-off proceeded in three plane V formations as planned. Flights, squadrons, and groups assembled at rendezvous points. By dusk the planes were airborne and the formations started flying their course for Sicily. The planes were to cruise north over the churning sea to Malta, thence to the southeastern coast of Sicily at Sampieri, thence along the coast to the Biviere Lake southeast of Gela, thence inland to the Forello airport. The approach was to be low level, keeping a low and closed formation across the Mediterranean, rising to a jump altitude on the approach to the Drop Zone to 600 feet. A twenty-minute oral warning was to be given to the jumpmaster by the crew chief, then a five minute red light warning, finally the GO on the green light.
The air was relatively quiet; the night was lighted by a quarter moon and the highest hope for a safe crossing seemed justified. Some men closed their eyes and dozed off to sleep, while others anxiously craned their necks to peer ahead or to look down at the white-capped waves which tossed fifteen feet below the planes. Some formations missed Malta, planes lost their leaders and a few planes followed a British formation which was at the same time flying a token parachute force into the vicinity of Siracusa.
Parachute Drop on Sicily
Approaching the Sicilian coast, the plane formation was suddenly fired upon by one American machine-gun. At first, it appeared as a flare. Then the fire suddenly became very intense. Immediately, as though a prearranged signal, friendly anti-aircraft and US Naval vessels lying offshore fired a devastating torrent of AAA fire. The plane has no slit trench to get into, nor can it assume the prone position or take cover. We felt like trapped rats. It was a most uncomfortable feeling knowing that our own troops were throwing everything they had at us.
(An account from Robert F. Door) Troop transport planes carrying American paratroopers careened all over the sky, bursting into flames, disintegrating, spraying men in all directions. It was horrible, recalls Capt Charles E. Pitzer, who was a pilot of one of the planes. Elements of the 504-PIR were shot to pieces by friendly fire on July 11, 1943, as they approached Gela, Sicily, for a jump. More than 300 brave men died.
A day earlier, July 10, 1943, the Allies had landed 170.000 troops into Sicily in the largest amphibious operation to that point in history. Now, 2000 paratroopers of the 504-PIR were scheduled to make up a second attack wave, jumping into the harbor city of Gela from C-47 Skytrains and C-53 Skytroopers (C-47s customized for parachute operations). Instead, fellow Americans would kill many of the men in the greatest friendly fire disaster in American history. The operation was codenamed Husky, the Invasion of Sicily, and it began on the night of July 9–10, with Pitzer and 226 other pilots dropping 2200 paratroopers of Col James Gavin’s 505-PIR into Gela. The 82-A/B (Gen Matthew B. Ridgway), thus launched the first-ever significant combat parachute assault by Americans. Several transport planes were lost, but that gave no hint of what was to come.
Amphibious landings started in the morning. German aircraft spent the day attacking the invasion fleet, fraying gunners’ nerves. Ridgway considered too old to parachute, reached Sicily by sea. He concluded that a second airdrop was unnecessary, but by then the momentum was unstoppable. A second drop, initially planned for July 10, was hastily rescheduled for July 11. One hundred forty-four transport planes would carry the soldiers of the 504th. An order was issued to ensure that ships would be informed about the paratrooper transport planes passing overhead. But many of the ships’ crewmen insist to this day that they never saw the order. Incredibly, naval commanders told Ridgway that the Navy could not guarantee the safety of his force.
Pitzer remembers cruising at 400 feet, the altitude at which drops were made. It was radio silence and lights out, said Pitzer. Approaching the armada of Allied ships offshore from Gela, Pitzer and other transport pilots flew in V formations of nine planes each. Gunners aboard the ships had been shown recognition slides to help them distinguish aircraft types. Twin-engine aircraft of similar appearance in these briefings included the C-47 as well as the German Junkers Ju 88 bomber. But as darkness fell, most gunners would never see the aircraft they were about to shoot.
The first two formations of transport planes followed their prescribed course and discharged their paratroopers squarely on target. These would be the only airborne soldiers to float down safely to the correct drop zone. When the next formation appeared over the shoreline, a never identified nervous gunner on the beach began shooting. Other scared gunners onshore and aboard ships sent volleys of fire lofting into the night sky. Accusations would later descend on the gunners like artillery fire. Maurice Poulin, a coast guard seaman 1st class who manned a 20-MM AAA gun on the troop transport USS Leonard Wood (APA 12), calls the blame a bum rap. We had been under attack by German dive bombers, he says. We did not know paratroop planes were coming. Poulin went on to say that ships had given orders to elevate the guns at 75 degrees and fire when attacked. Crews in the gun tubs aboard the Leonard Wood sent their volleys of fire soaring skyward without seeing their targets. We shot down many planes but had no knowledge of whose they were, Poulin said.
Tucker was aboard a C-53 that began to disintegrate before reaching the shoreline. After a very confusing conversation between him and the pilot, the plane made a U-turn to fly back toward Gela. Under intense fire from friendly guns, Tucker and his paratroopers jumped. On the ground, he removed his helmet and banged it against a tank hull to alert the crew to stop firing on the planes. It seemed as though every Allied gun battery on the Sicily beachhead and offshore was blowing C-47s and C-53s out of the sky. The US Army’s own official history reads the slow-flying, majestic columns of aircraft were like sitting ducks. Dozens of transport planes were hit. One exploded in midair. Others, on fire, tried to ditch to save the paratroopers. Squadrons broke apart, tried to re-form, and scattered again. Eight pilots turned back for Tunisia still carrying their paratroopers. Those over Sicily dropped paratroopers wherever they could. Some of the jumpers descended into the sea and drowned. Some were killed by friendly fire while dangling from their chutes in the night sky. One transport plane caught fire and headed down, veering sharply to avoid hitting an Allied ship. Careening across the water, the plane trailed a long orange plume of flame as men, some of them on fire, rained from the fuselage. (End of Account)
Planes dropped out of formation and crashed into the sea. Others, like clumsy whales, wheeled and attempted to get beyond the flak which rose in fountains of fire, lighting the stricken faces of men as they stared through the windows. More planes dived into the sea and those that escaped broke formation and raced like a covey of quail for what they thought was the protection of the beach. But they were wrong. Over the beach, they were hit again and this time by American ground units, believing the planes to be German. Before planes fell and from some of them, lucky men jumped and escaped alive, the less fortunate were riddled by flak before reaching the ground. 27 planes were shot down over the beach area and many more damaged, some of which never did reach their base.
Planes forced down near the coast were machine-gunned by shore parties as paratroopers attempted to launch rubber boats which were a part of the plane equipment. The pilot of one of the planes which did return told of his difficulties: a few minutes before reaching the DZ with the paratroopers, a shell smashed into the starboard side of the fuselage and knocked out a hole, four by six feet, while a fragment from the shell slit the aluminum and every rib from hole to rudder. Passing through the plane the fragment ripped off a door as a second ack-ack blast carried away a portion of the left stabilizer. The explosions also blew away a large piece of equipment, and the impact was so great that it felt like a motor crash in the pilot’s cabin. The airplane spun at a right angle and nearly pulled the controls from my grasp. For a second I didn’t realize what happened, then finding myself put of formation I began a violent evasive action. I saw three planes burning on the ground and red tracers everywhere as machine-gunners sprayed us as if potting a flight of ducks. Meanwhile, I had out into a less dangerous spot to give the parachutists a fighting chance to reach the ground. But I’ve got to hand it to those boys; one, who had been pretty badly hit by shrapnel, insisted on leaping with the others although he had been ordered to remain in the plane.
One of the more harrowing reports was that of Lt C.A. Brew, Fox Co. His statement shows that some men were lost because a warning of the flight had not been conveyed to the men of one unit, and others because each division then had its own password. I was jumpmaster in plane 531. This plane was leading a formation of 3 planes and was number 7 in our company. The pilot of my plane gave me the warning 20 minutes out of the DZ. After the red light came on, he had to give me the green light in about 1 minute, due to the plane being on fire. We jumped into a steady stream of AAA fire and not knowing that they were friendly troops. There were 4 men killed and 4 wounded from my platoon. Three of these men were hit coming down and one was killed on the ground because he had the wrong password. After landing we found out the countersign had been changed to (Think)-(Quick). The AAA we jumped into was the 180/45-ID. They also were not told that we were coming. Later we found out that the 45-ID had been told we were coming but word never got to the 180-IR. We tried to reorganize but found we didn’t have but 44 men including 3 officers. We searched all night for the rest of the men. After accounting for them we took care of the dead and wounded and started toward our objective. We arrived at the 504 CP at 0200 Jul 12, 1943. About 75 yards from where I landed, plane 915 was hit and burned. To my knowledge, only the pilot and three men got out. The pilot was thrown through the window. Another plane was shot down on the beach and another plane was shot down, burning about 1000 yards to my front. Although there were three planes I know of, being shot down.
Capt James Frederick Parr, USN, on DD-618 (USS Davison) was also an eyewitness of the tragedy. His son, Terence, reports the story as follows, in 2007, on Father’s Day, as we approach the anniversary of that invasion, I decided to record what I remember from a conversation I had with my father, a few months before his 90th birthday. The conversation started out normal enough. Dad, told me about the German Heinkel bombers. Oh, that was an effective bomber. I remember an attack by three Heinkels during the invasion of Sicily. They flew towards our invasion fleet from inland, soared up and over the hills lining the beach and turned 90 degrees for a bombing run along with our ships, which were sitting like ducks in a row.
I said, Wow! What happened? They almost got our ship. I looked up at the bombers, saw one of the bomb bay doors open, a bomb fall out and arc just over our ship to explode in front. While I’m sitting there trying to process that, I hear my dad say quietly to himself, we shot down 23 aircraft. I looked at him and he had this glassy faraway look in his eye that I had never seen before. But, dad, you said there were only three bombers. No, they were ours, he said. Dad, you’ve got me totally confused. Son, there was a tragic friendly fire incident during the invasion where we shot down our own C-47 planes filled with paratroopers. Huh?! Are you talking about the famous incident? Yes, he said. How did it happen? I’ve never heard an explanation. Dad began, I was on the bridge when the admiral in charge of the invasion fleet called on the radio to tell us that the paratroopers were coming in on a different vector than we expected and not to fire on them. The Admiral said they are friendly, repeat, they are friendly. Then, some kid in a radio room in the bowels of one of the ships replies, Friendly hell! They just dropped a stick (slang for a bomb) on me. And then the whole world just opened up on ’em. It was raining bodies and body parts. Shrapnel from a 5-inch shell would literally rip open a C-47 like a tin can, spilling the paratroopers out over the ocean.
I’m thinking, Jesus Christ! It was just a terrible coincidence that the Heinkel bombers had come over the fleet just before the paratroopers were coming in? I sat there stunned for a second and then asked, well, couldn’t people tell they were C-47’s not German bombers? Jittery kids with binoculars? I once saw a beat-up American fighter slowly drift towards the beach to ditch and somebody on a nearby LST open up with an AAA gun, ripping one wing off. The fighter flipped over and smashed into the surf, killing the pilot.
I was really shaken up and moved by what he had told me. On my drive home, I realized that I somehow felt disconnected from him. He had given me a glimpse into the atrocities of the war he’d experienced, revealing a side none of us had ever seen. There was a hidden compartment that he kept tightly locked, like many WW-2 veterans. In later conversations, he would point blank refuse to answer further questions because I had not experienced combat. He only would say that the bond between men that have faced death together was stronger than between brothers. It’s not something we can discuss.
Lt M.C. Shelly, HQs Co 2/504, was standing in the door of his plane when it crashed. He was thrown clear of the plane and all other occupants were killed. One of the planes got lost on its return flight. The plane, of which no remains have been found, carried as an official observer Gen Charles L. Keerans, ADC 82nd A/B. In the returning planes were four dead and six wounded parachutists, and eight full loads which had not been given the opportunity to jump. These included 10 officers, 2 warrant officers and 95 EM.
The troopers were scattered from Noto to Livata, a distance of over 60 miles. After landing the paratroops that landed in the 45-ID area were fired upon by ground troops of that unit. Upon making an unpleasant landing against a stone trail in a vineyard. Chaplain Delbert A. Kuehl was immediately fired upon by members of the 45-ID. The Chaplain still stunned from the landing, gave the countersign, and attempted to identify himself as an American. But, the soldier would not cease firing. The Chaplain, still stunned and not too happy about the existing situation, for the first time in his life uttered a curse word. While several of the men with Chaplain Kuehl established a base of fire by shooting into the air, he maneuvered around the left, through a vineyard, then closed in from the rear, tapped one of the frightened soldiers on the back, had the others cease-fire and directed one of them to guide him to the Company CP, where the Company Commander of that unit was immediately oriented.
Capt Charles M. Conover (1-ID), had this statement to make, on the night of July 11-12 1943, while on duty at the 1-ID HQs located approximately 600 yards inland from the beach and two miles east of the city of Gela, the Division CoS, Col Stan B. Macon, informed me that a friendly airborne drop will take place in approximately 30 minutes. Col Macon instructed me to personally tell all installations in the immediate area of that fact and to hold fire on any ships which may come over. In approximately one-half hour, I watched the Naval Units fire on aircraft coming in low cover over the sea. A great many planes flew directly overhead, and I noticed that they had their wing lights on as well as an amber light near the nose of the ship. For the most part, installations in my immediate area held their fire, however, to the east of our position along the beach, ground elements took up the fire from the Naval Units.
I should add that approximately 30 minutes before these airborne troops landed, the enemy had been over the beach installations dropping flares and a few AP and heavier type bombs. The men were, therefore, all alerted and manning their weapons. The next day found many paratroopers all over the area – reorganizing – some of them fighting with our own infantrymen. Had the Naval and ground elements been informed of this Airborne operation beforehand, many lives and planes would have been saved.
Capt Edward H. Solomon, 18/1-ID, gave the following account of how it looked from the Gela beach, during the afternoon of July 11, 1943, the 18-IR, a part of the force that landed on the Gela beach, was notified that American paratroopers of the 82-A/B, would be landed within our lines at 2300 this evening. At approximately 2250 the same day, Gela beach was bombed by 3 or 4 enemy bombers. The enemy’s effort was met by a fairly intense display of AAA fire, by the planes were gone within a minute or two. A few minutes later, at about 2300, we could hear the roar of planes coming toward us from the direction of the sea. The navigation lights could be seen shortly thereafter. We knew they were troop carrier planes with their loads of American paratrooper.
At this time our CP was in an olive grove approximately 1000 yards from the beach. As the planes arrived over the scores of ships anchored offshore, they were met by a steady stream of fire from the ships’ AAA guns. Some of the beach Ack-Ack guns soon joined in adding to the hail of fire. The low flying transports had to plow through to reach their drop zone. Needless to say, most of them never made it. We viewed this weird fratricidal disaster with a feeling of helpless frustration. The heart-rendering scene which was being unfolded before our eyes were over in a matter of minutes. But the damage had been done. It was irrevocable. A paratrooper, one of the more fortunate ones, landed in our immediate area. We reached him just as he was rolling up his chute. His chagrin at the latest turn of events was aptly expressed with liberal usage of expletives that have no place in this monograph. His opinion of his Brothers-in-arms was not complimentary to say the least. His point was well taken.
Fired upon by our own Navy and shore troops, in one of the greatest tragedies of World War II, the men of the 504-PIR were scattered like chaff in the wind over the length of breadth of Sicily. By morning only 400 of the regiment’s 1600 men (excluding the 3/504) had reached the regimental area.
Other planeloads of the 504-PIR men dropped in isolated groups on all parts of the island, and although unable to join the regiment, carried out demolitions, outlines of communication, established inland roadblocks, ambushed German and Italian motorized columns, and caused confusion over such extensive area behind the enemy lines that initial German radio reports estimated the number of American paratroopers dropped to be over ten times the number actually participating. Roadblocks were alerted to watch for German Fallschirmjäger (Paratroopers) and brisk fights started between US Airborne and ground troops. Even the 1-ID in whose area the drop was supposed to take place, carried the 504-PIR as an identified German Parachute Regiment in its G-2 Report.
3 miles southeast of Niscemi, a group of between 95 and 100 troopers, under Lt George J. Watts, and Lt Willie J. Ferril, Item-504, ambushed a force of 350 Germans, from the Herman Goering Division, retreating up the road. These paratroopers organized a strong point on a hill around a large Château, later identified as Castle Nocera. They had already shot up a German patrol, and one small group had demolished an Italian patrol, killing 14. Eleven of these Italians were killed by two privates, Shelby R. Hord and Thomas E. Lane. The Germans made repeated attempts to dislodge them, and failing to do so, tried to ignore them and by-pass Castle Nocera, which overlooked the main Niscemi-Gela Road. The troopers made several sorties on the German troops moving south toward Gela. Finally, the German movement changed and started back northward.
On the following day this force began to increase. At noon an enemy column was observed coming up the road from the south, with the Germans were several American prisoners. Lt Ferril withheld fire until the Germans were almost opposite his position. Then the Germans suddenly halted for a ten-minute break. The Troopers waited until the Germans started to get up and put on their packs and then fired on them with devastating effect. The battle lasted all afternoon. It was joined by two enemy tanks that shelled the Americans from the far-off Mils. Late in the afternoon, a German lieutenant came up the hill with a white flag to arrange a surrender, but when he saw the Americans were parachutists he refused to surrender and went down the hill again.
Then the battle was resumed and lasted until dusk, when the Germans withdrew, leaving 50 dead. The cost to the Americans was 5 killed and 15 wounded. These troopers held their position continuously, inflicting heavy losses on the enemy until contacted and relieved by elements of the 16/1-ID. Lts Watts and Ferrell, both gallant young paratroopers were later killed. Watts was killed on Hill 1205, near Venafro, Italy, south of Casino, Ferrel was killed near the Mussolini Canal, at the Anzio Beachhead.
Approximately 2 miles northwest of Biscani, Lt Peter J. Baton, HQs 3/504 and Mortar Platoon Leader, took charge of 3 planeloads that landed intact. He rounded up all the equipment and men he could find and proceeded west toward Niscemi. At 1200, Jul 10, scouts encountered 2 Italian cars towing 47-MM AT guns. They killed the occupants and took the guns. With this added equipment, positions were prepared, manned, and the roads to Biscari covered and mined. At about 1230, a column of Italian motorized Infantry estimated to be a battalion was moving in from the direction of Niscemi with an 11-ton tankette in the lead. Sgt Suggs, HQs 3/504, and his men destroyed the tank with the captured 47-MM AT guns and so disorganized the column with this fire, supported by his own 81-MM mortars, that the enemy retreated in confusion. The following day, Lt Eaton’s group contacted a battalion of 180-IR and continued to fight with this force till the following day when he learned the location of the Battalion CP and joined it in the vicinity of Gela.
At about 0200, July 10, Maj William H. Beal, 3/504 Executive Officer, and Capt William W. Kitchen, landed beside an Italian garrison. The enemy having knowledge of the presence of paratroopers were combing the area in the dark. About 200 yards away, Maj Beal heard machine gun and intermittent carbine fire, he knew then other paratroopers were in the area. At about 0730, an advance patrol of Canadian troopers came up and gave their positions to Maj Beal. He asked them to assist him in attacking the Italian garrison but was unable to secure it since they had another mission of establishing and protecting beachheads in another zone. He then worked his way back to the beach; where he got assistance; returned, captured the garrison, and released six paratroopers which were imprisoned by the Italians. Maj Beal continued his search for sore men, and with what he rounded up, went back to the beach, where they remained all night.
On the morning of July 11, Maj Beal went out to the 1-ID HQs afoot to arrange for transportation in order to enable him to rejoin his unit. The next day, July 12, Maj Beal, Capt Kitchen, and 13 enlisted men left by RAP crash boat to rejoin their unit and stopping en route at the coast towns to pick up any paratroopers that still may be there. Landed at Scoglitti on Jul 13, and reported to the 505-PIR CP, with Capt Kitchen, one other officer and 48 enlisted men from various organizations.
At Vittoria, Maj Beal was told that the Battalion CO had been captured and he was in command. He proceeded to organize the remainder of the battalion preparatory to continuing operations. When the reorganization was effected, the total strength of the battalion was 4 officers and 90 enlisted men. The battalion then moved out to join the 504-PIR. Maj Beal was later killed at Chiunzi Pass, between Maiori and the valley of Naples, Italy.
The CG of the 82-A/B, Gen Matthew B. Ridgway, and his special command party disembarked from the Monrovia and set up a Division CP about 3 miles southeast of Gela and one mile from the coast. As the reassembly progressed, preparations for action were being made. On Jul 15, the 3/504 rejoined the 504-PRCT. The 505-PRCT assembled in this area also, thus forming the 82-A/B. Upon completion of the assembly, the 504-PRCT had one manually drama 76.2-MM Pack Howitzer for artillery support. At noon on the Jul 15, a directive was received from the 7-A, ordering the 82-A/B to assemble in the Palma di Montechiaro area, to relieve elements of the 3-ID in that area by dark, Jul 19 and to be prepared to advance west.
The projected zone of action of the division was a coastal strip including Highway #115 and extending 5-10 miles inland, until, in the vicinity of the Verdura River, west of Ribera, the right boundary, shared with the 3-ID, turned north to Palermo. The left boundary was the sea. The movement west from the assembly area near Gela began at 0600 Jul 17, to the new area west of Palma. On Jul 17, at 1100, Provisional Corps directed immediate relief of the 3-ID in the 82 A/B zone. On the afternoon of July 18, the 504-PRCT moved to an area near Realmonte, from which it could undertake an advance the next day.
The Provisional Corps Field Order #1, issued at 1500, July 13, directed the Division to advance by 0800 on July 19 from the Realmonte Line, and the Division Field Order #2 of the same day, directed the 504-PRCT to relieve Combat Team #59, by 0800 on July 19, secure crossings over the Canne River by daylight and continue westward. Battery A and B of the 83rd Chemical Battalion and Battery A of the 82d Armored Field Artillery Battalion were attached to the 504-PRCT for this mission.
By noon, July 18, some elements of the Combat Team made an envelopment to the far side of Realmonte even before formal orders were issued. The Combat Team moved out into the attack, spearheading the coastal drive of the 82-A/B. With Italian light tanks, motorcycles, donkeys, bicycles, trucks, and even wheelbarrows for transportation the regiment pressed forward; a cooky, spirited bunch of mechanized paratroopers heading into battle.
Before dark, the CT secured the Canne Rive bridges and the high ground to the west. At 0300, troops of the 2/504 were in Montallegro at 0900 at the Platani River; at 1015 at the Maggazolo River and at 1200 had occupied Ribera. Upon continuing the attack, the point of the 2/504, came under small arms fire a few minutes west of Ribera, but without being caused any delay by casualties, except on three different occasions from strafing by M-109’s.
Resistance, for the most part, was light, the Germans had withdrawn to the north and east, leaving behind garrisons of Italian soldiers who would fire a few shots, and having saved face (and other portions of their respective anatomies) would raise the white flag of surrender. Before 2100, they had reached and were stopped by the Corps phase line halfway between Ribera and Sciacca.
At 0430, July 20, the Combat Team was directed to proceed with the attack by 0600. The attack began on schedule, and leading elements entered Sciacca at 0925, but the preparation of a difficult bypass around a demolished bridge on the western outskirts of Sciacca and the removal of mines in that vicinity so delayed the main body that it did not pass through the city until about noon. There were many formidable pillboxes, the same of which, were three stories high with basements. There were one or two on every hill and in places where they could command the roads, all of them were expertly camouflaged and surrounded by double apron wire. Tank traps approximately 15′ x 8′ x 10′ with 12″ spikes in the bottom were dug across the road. They were camouflaged with cross pieces placed over the tops of the pits, Callahan matting or burlap placed on the crosspieces and strewn with dirt.
The Italians apparently learned this trick from the Natives in the Ethiopian campaign. No vehicles to my knowledge have been caught by these ingenious traps. The 2/504, then leading, was turned north on the San Margherita Road with Tumminnello as the night’s objective and Combat Team 2/504 continued west on Highway #15 toward Menfi, which was entered by 1800. By nightfall the 2/504 reached a point about 8 miles north of Sciacca, both sides were somewhat delayed during the afternoon by minefields, and the 1/504, leading from Sciacca to Menfi, was fired on briefly by a battery of 75-MM guns, which were quickly captured.
The advance during the day was about 20 miles. The number of prisoners taken approximately 1000 and our own casualties, 2. North of Sciacca an abandoned German bivouac area and AAA position was discovered as well as a large Italian QM dump. The 2/504 which had stopped about 5 miles short of Tumminnello the night before, resumed its advance the morning of the July 21 and reached the town at 0800.
The enemy, prepared at this point in a pass, a strong natural position, fired point-blank at the column, killing 6 and wounding 8 of Fox-504. The column immediately deployed. Col William P. Yarborough, the Battalion Commander ordered Fix Bayonets and made a long bayonet attack, capturing the position with all its personnel, an Italian Colonel, a battery of 75-MM guns and 2 90-MM guns. At the end of the day the 2/504 was occupying Sambuca and the remainder of the Regiment was moving from Menfi to San Margherita.
The grueling Mediterranean sun, however, told on the foot-weary paratroopers; it was march, march, march, day and night. They prayed for the enemy to make a stand so that they could stop and fight – and rest. For five days and nights this continued and in an outstanding tribute to the physical stamina of parachute troops, men of the 504 waited and fought their way from Agrigento to San Margherita – a distance of 150 miles. At 0830, July 23, Corps orders were received by Division to move without delay to seize Tripani.
The 505-PRCT moved by truck to Trapani. A treaty of surrender was immediately dictated by Gen Ridgway to Adm Manfredi, Commander of the Trifani district, requiring cessation of resistance, preservation of stores, and the posting of guards on all military and naval property. In addition to Adm Manfredi, Gen Antonio Sodero, who was to have succeeded the Admiral in the command of the district, and 2639 other prisoners were taken during the evening of July 23 and the day of the 24, in and around the city of Trifani. Also captured were an uncounted amount of guns, other artillery and naval material, and stores, which, were hidden in tunnels in the mountains.
During the afternoon of July 23, Col Yarborough, CO 2/504, entered Castellammare Di Gulfo with a recon party and persuaded the Italian Colonel to surrender his forces. The defenses were strong. The shoreline was rocky and sharp. All beaches were mined. Coastal guns were covered by smalls arms and automatic weapons. All approaches were covered, except that inland. The defenses were all pointing out to the sea. The approach to Castellammare was a winding road on the face of a steep bluff. An anti-fascist reported this road as being prepared for demolition. He disclosed the position of the charges to the engineers before they could be blown. Approximately 10 tons of explosives (similar to TNT blocks) were tamped with sandbags underneath the road in a tunnel 3 feet square and 24 feet in length, with electric detonating leads running up to a farmhouse several hundred yards from the road. These charges were immediately neutralized and removed by Capt (Spike) Harris and his men of Charlie 307-A/B Engineers. Had this road been demolished, Castellammare would not have been accessible by vehicle. Due to the nature of the terrain surrounding the town, it would take a considerable length of time, effort, labor, and material (not available) to reconstruct the road. Apparently the individual or group assigned the mission of demolishing this road decided it most unwise since they would be merely isolating themselves and cutting their own life-line.
On the morning of July 24, Combat Team 504 proceeded to Alcamo where a Division Command Post was captured along with large enemy equipment and stores. The final objective was taken, the south and western portion of Sicily was in the hands of the Americans, The Regiment then moved south to Castelvetrano to police the occupied area and garrison it against the possibility of enemy counter-attack, assembly captured stores, and gather in straggling prisoners. This was to be the work of many days. Prisoners were still being picked up and drifted in from isolated outposts for weeks to follow. Enemy barracks and stores which were being looted were placed under guard and the food stores later appropriated to feed prisoners. Among the food stores taken were 28.000 hard rations from one warehouse, 700 pounds of beef, 2000 pounds of sugar, 600 pounds of coffee, 400 gallons of tomato paste, and a huge supply of Italian uniforms. The Egadi Islands, Favignana, Levanzp, and Marettimo situated 10-20 miles off Trifani which had been out of communication with the mainland since July 23, surrendered July 29 to Capt Richard Gerard, of the G-5 Section and Lt Louis P. Testa, PWI, who approached Favignana in a sailboat and negotiated a surrender with Col Silvio Serralunga. The population of the islands is about 6000; their garrison was nearly 1000.
The Relief – Return to North Africa
The 82-Abn was relieved and directed to return to its base in Kairouan. Orders were received to send staff representatives to the 7-A HQs in Palermo to formulate plans to move the division by truck to Palermo, thence by sea to Bizerte and thence by truck to Kairouan. The G-3 and assistant G-3 departed from Trifani on Aug 17, on this mission. The Division Commander was in Algiers when these orders were received. At 1500, Aug 18, a radio from the Division Commander at Algiers was received at Trifani, directing the Chief of Staff and two parachute Combat Team Commanders to meet him at 1600 on Castevetrano airfield. At Castelvetrano the Division Commander informed these officers that all arrangements had been made and that, commencing the next morning, the troops in Sicily would be prepared for air movement back to Kairouan. During the night units scattered over the western end of Sicily were alerted by radio, telephone, and courier. The Division had only 24 trucks to move personnel and equipment to the airfields, which were as much as 45 miles away. At 0200 the orders were confirmed.
On that day, Aug 19, the Combat Team moved out to the Castelvetrano airfield, loaded up quickly into C-47’s, and was transported back to Kairouan. Speed was essential and it is well indeed that the movement was executed by air without red tape and complicated coordination. The troops and equipment simply loaded up and took off for North Africa, the staff officers who had been in Army HQs at Palermo formulating the move by sea to North Africa arrived with approved but complicated plans for a rail-water journey just in time to board the last transport plane to Africa. The official confirmatory orders for the truck and sea movement arrived three days later, after the Division closed in the Kairouan Area. Only sixteen days until D Day (Italy).