Beachhead #2

 

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BEACHHEAD #2 -- SICILY

Assembling at this time for the invasion of Sicily was the most formidable armada of ships ever witnessed in the course of human events. To elaborate on the formation of this gigantic task force would serve little purpose, since many histories of the ships, both individually and collectively, have been written. Suffice it to say that never before, (and probably never again), will the assemblage of such a Naval Task Force take place. For the purposes of this history I will mention the names of but a few of the vessels involved, and then only because they were the prime carriers of the men and equipment of the 45th Army Infantry Division to which the Beach Battalion was attached.

Of the three major task forces scheduled to make the assault on Sicily, ours was the Western Naval Task Force, commanded by Vice Admiral H. Kent Hewitt. Among the many units in this force was Task Force 85, (Scoglitti Task Force), commanded by Rear Admiral A.G. Kirk. Embarked on the ships of this group was the 45th Army Infantry Division, Reinforced, consisting of some 25,800 officers and men, and commanded by Major General T.H. Middleton. Among the Reinforced Elements of the Division was the 40th Combat Engineer Regiment, to which was attached the First Naval Beach Battalion, commanded by LtCdr J .V. Eubanks, USNR.

Ships involved which have a place in this narrative were the USS ANCON, USS LEONARD WOOD, USS JAMES O’HARA, USS HARRY LEE, USS DOROTHEA L. DIX, USS ANDROMEDA, USS FLORENCE NIGHTINGALE, USS CALVERT, USS NEVILLE, USS FREDERICK FUNSTON, USS ANNE ARUNDEL, USS CHARLES CARROLL, USS THOMAS JEFFERSON, USS WILLIAM P. BIDDLE, USS SUSAN B.ANTHONY, and the USS ARCTURAS. Other vessels involved, except for the support force of battleships, cruisers, destroyers and carriers, were primarily landing craft which were numbered rather than named, and whose actual association with the Beach Battalion cannot be identified at this time. Generally speaking, the majority of our battalion personnel embarked on the transports APAs or the cargo AKAs for the actual assault on the beaches.

Departing the United States in June 1943, the First Beach Battalion’s trip across the Atlantic was uneventful. There were, of course, the normal run of reports of sightings of enemy submarines and aircraft, the run-of-the-mill flow of scuttlebutt, which inevitably accompanies the movement of any large contingent of ships in wartime. Whether or not the reports were valid is not known to the writer, but in any event no elements of the First Beach Battalion were lost enroute to our rest and staging area near Oran, Algeria. The ships of our task force inched their way past the ugly sight of scuttled warships of the French Navy, victims of the political mish-mash involving the Vichy government, and anchored in the magnificent protected harbor near the picturesque village of Mers-El-Kebir. Soldiers and sailors were unloaded and trucked to a practice area near the town of Arzew, several miles to the west of Oran. Then back to the ships and orders distributed. Target SICILY. Bets were paid off and one and all settled down to hurry up and wait.

Shipboard conditions on the voyage from Norfolk to this staging area in Algeria were crowded but livable, nothing like the conditions we were to face in the actual assault run from Africa to Sicily. The food as I recall was nourishing though far from tasty, and notwithstanding the crowded conditions we did receive two hot meals per day. Poker and crap games, although banned, flourished in the hot, fetid troop compartments, and, by the time the ships anchored off the coast of our invasion target, what little money there was, ended up in the hands of a comparatively few individuals whose civilian occupation, I strongly suspect, was that of professional gamblers. But on a monthly salary of $21.00 for an apprentice seaman or fireman, how much could one person lose, and of what use was it anyway where we were headed? Other than time spent in line for meals, and spent in forming up for calisthenics, time was spent in conjecture as to just where we were headed and what we might expect in the way of enemy air attack and ground opposition. How many of us would survive to come back for the next one? The war had given us only a stray wisp of death over our essentially civilian forces. How would we react to real enemy opposition for the first time?

Ever present were the mandatory shipboard emergency exercises. Our constant companion was the trusty lifebelt worn throughout the voyage. A walk on deck, good practice for picking your way through a beach area minefield, would reveal a general show of faked indifference and bravado on the part of all troops embarked. Soldiers felt sorry for the sailors and vice versa. Each thought the other had the wrong end of the stick. Some looked rather poorly, but no one is the picture of health just a day or so away from the unknown reception on enemy defended beaches. A closer examination would reveal an underlying fear of the unknown. Who is there to say that he did not share that fear? For most, it would disappear when the orders were given to head for the beach. Fear and bravery are relative. Each of us has a measure of both. The mix is what is important.

To most of us the city of Oran, which we visited on liberty before finally boarding our ships for the assault run to Sicily was a great surprise. Having been raised in a small farm community in Iowa, my conception of Africa, the “dark continent”, was of a desert-like countryside policed by prides of lions and tigers. What a rude awakening to find instead a city filled with narrow, twisting, filthy alleys swarming with bands of grubby Arab urchins begging. Begging for almost anything - candy, gum, cigarettes, and soap - almost anything they could turn around and sell at their own shrewd profit margin. If the begging didn’t work, the same little hucksters would try to sell you their “beautiful 16 year old sisters”. Never any other age. I think if just one of these enterprising little rascals had changed his pitch by one tiny notch and offered a superb choice of his “beautiful 15 year old sisters”, he would have cornered the market. We ran across one desperate but enterprising young man who was offering and elderly bundle of rags, a haggish, wizened creature of at least 80, as HIS beautiful sister, probably age 16.

The time spent in and around Oran during this ill-conceived R & R is vague, and I have been unable to come up with any verifiable time span. I think that some of us stayed in the Oran-Arzew area for dry-run rehearsals with our companion Army Engineer units, while others embarked for the area around Bizerte, Tunisia, one of the most fiercely defended last ditch battles by the Germans in Africa. It was a desolate, heavily bombed city, but evidence of its beauty in better times could be seen if a street or building had escaped the fighting. An “illegal” diary kept by Vic Rose, “B” Company indicated our arrival in Oran 22 June, and departure 24 June. I put these dates in the record but I seriously doubt that we remained combat-loaded for the 15 day interval from 24 June to the 10 July D-Day.

I have no trouble remembering the small things - that God awful swirling red dust in the mornings which turned into a muddy quagmire with the coming of the afternoon rains; the insufferably bad Tunisian beer sold by the Arabs in dirty, wicker-covered bottles; and the terribly depressing sight of the poverty in which the native population lived. Finally, you have never, never experienced Africa in all its olfactory glory until you have innocently wandered too close to one of the camels, the pick-up truck of the desert. That tangy aroma from the camel, (bad breath with a hump), or the distinctive essence rising from the driver, or the inevitable combination of the two, produces a formidable odor of no small consequence, a nauseating nostril twitcher that would “gag a dog off a gut wagon”.

From available documentation, (again, copies of orders to Lieutenants Elliott and Sleder), it is apparent that the Beach Battalion units re-boarded their ships, either at Mers-El-Kabir or Bizerte, Tunisia, 1 July 1943, and that the actual assault run began 5 July. The First Beach Battalion was about to come to grips with its second landing. Thus began the saga of Operation “HUSKY”, the code name assigned to the invasion of the island of Sicily, the doorstep to the Italian gateway to Europe, all to follow closely the Allied occupancy of the island.

The story of the vast water-borne invasion from the time it left its temporary bases in Africa until it disgorged itself on the shores of the island is a story of the United States Navy, and for those of us who participated in it, an unforgettable story. Details of the interwoven intricacies of this gigantic undertaking have been set forth in other histories at other times and will not be repeated herein. “There is no way of conveying the enormous size of this fleet. On the horizon it resembled a distant city. It covered half the skyline, and the dull-colored camouflaged ships stood indistinctly against the curve of the dark water, like a solid formation of uncountable structures blending together. Even to be part of it was frightening. I hope no American ever has to see its counterpart sailing against us”. . So wrote war correspondent Ernie Pyle, telling of the great flotilla as it embarked on what is still to this day the biggest amphibious operation in history, involving almost 3,300 ships. Seven Reinforced Allied Divisions would participate in the assault landings, two more than would make the initial landings in Normandy almost a year later.

Operation “HUSKY’ was, among other things, the first allied landing in World War II on Axis home soil. The island was defended by Italian Armies and their German partners, and the landings were to be the start of one of the longest, bitterest, and most controversial campaigns of the war. As reported in Time-Life Books in their history of the Italian Campaign in World War II, the campaign was marked by blunders, omissions, and discord on the Allied side to the point where at times it became almost scandalous. Evidence of this, as it applied to or affected the First Beach Battalion will be discussed later in this section. Generally speaking, and without going into details which have been published many times, the main bone of contention was that the British wanted the invasion of Europe to commence in Sicily, whereas the Americans wanted it to commence on the European mainland, preferably with an English Channel invasion directly on to the mainland of France.

Politics and high level planning aside, the concern of the men of the First Beach Battalion was more basic in nature. How could this vast armada be hidden from German view? How much did they know about this tremendous force moving toward them? If they did know about us, what reception would be waiting for us on the beaches of this place they call Sicily? Would the Italians drop their Axis partners, surrender and get out of the fight? The range of our pre-landing speculation was endless. Or, on the other hand, would the size and scope of this flotilla, never even remotely visualized in the history of mankind to this date, heading for their front door so demoralize the enemy that they would be ineffective in their attempted defense of the island? Actually, for us “snuffies” in the bottom bunks of the lowest level of the troop compartment, we didn’t give a tinker’s damn what the strategy or long term effects might be. We were miserable and even though the seas were calm when we embarked they didn’t stay that way for long.

The ship, (in my case the USS CALVERT), was bulging at the seams with passengers and equipment, as were all the attack transports. Many more men than bunks and more to feed than space in which to feed them. Accordingly we took turns sleeping, eating, and using the heads, (latrines to the Army). Nor was there enough deck space topside for all of us to be up there at the same time. Many had to remain below in the hot, stinking troop compartments - airless, or nearly so. Initially, the trip started off quite pleasantly, other than the overcrowding described above. The seas were calm, and an occasional breeze could be felt on deck. At night it was a never-ending pleasure if you could find a spot to squeeze into along the rail, to marvel at the phosphorescence in the water as the bow cut through the calm surface of the Mediterranean Sea.

The smooth sailing was short lived as the weather took a nasty turn for the worse on D minus l, the night before the night of the landings, (almost causing the responsible brass to cancel the invasion as we later learned). By the time the first assault wave was scheduled to depart for the beach, the sea had grown tremendously, bringing back memories of the mountainous surf the Beach Parties had to contend with in the landing attempts on the west coast of Africa in late 1942. Even the largest of ships were rolling and pitching in the building storm. The wind was increasing alarmingly, which boded ill for the scheduled drop of airborne troops, and did in fact prove disastrous, forcing them to scatter their drops in unscheduled places all over the island. The weather worsened significantly as D-Day progressed. By dusk of D-Day the seas were mountainous. Those of us who had already come ashore marveled at the ability of the widespread convoy of ships of all sizes and types to stay afloat in the wallowing, convulsive seas. We all learned a lesson in respect for the abilities of those in charge of that mammoth flotilla, many captaining their first vessel in the war’s accelerated commissioning.

We were made agonizingly aware of the immensity of the weather problem when the landing craft for the initial assault waves were lowered from the davits of the transports in their unloading areas some 7 to 8 miles off shore. Initially, the assault troops were loaded into the small landing craft - personnel, (LCVPs), prior to their being lowered into the churning waves below. This was quickly determined to be a disaster. The tremendous rise and fall of the swells would momentari1y hold a landing craft on the swell, then drop away to a trough, causing the lines from the davits to snap under the full weight of the boat and its personnel, pitching the boat crews and terrified troops, heavily loaded with guns and ammunition, to their deaths in the frothing witch’s cauldron in the blackness somewhere down there below the speechless others on deck awaiting their turn.

To eliminate additional troop casualties from this disastrous method, the small boats were subsequently lowered into the water with only the boat crews aboard, (as was done in the North African landings). Then when, (and if), the boats were “safely” in the water and detached from the davits, the assault troops were ordered over the side to make that treacherous trip down the cargo nets to the landing craft, presumed to be down there somewhere in the blackness. This method, of course, as we had learned earlier in the rolling seas off the Atlantic coast of Africa, had serious drawbacks also. Debarking troops, if they managed to make their way safely down the spaghetti-like cargo nets, soaking wet and slippery, ignoring the occasional crushed fingers, and placing the first foot tentatively on the landing craft’s gunwales with the other still in the webbing of the cargo net only to find a moment later that the boat had disappeared into a trough 10 or 15 feet below the level at which the frightened soldier had first placed that tentative foot on the boat. The unfortunate troops were left in the air, desperately trying to find a segment of net into which they could place at least one foot, knowing that they must hang on somehow until the boat came back up on the next rise - and then try it all over again.

Compounding the situation was the roll and pitch of the transports, which terrorized the troops on the nets with their heavy outward, rolls over nothing but ocean and then the smashing counter roll against the rough, barnacle-encrusted sides of the ships. Farther down the side, many soldiers were caught on this counter-swing and crushed between the landing craft and the transports’ hull as both vessels gyrated in the churning seas. It was not a night to remember. I, personally, have no idea how many casualties resulted from these circumstances, but if all transports were in a situation similar to ours on the CALVERT, (as I’m sure they were), the resultant casualty total must have been significant. Until, and unless you have inched your way down a wet, slimy, slippery network of rope which is constantly in vertical and horizontal motion as its occupants try to take one more step to their destiny down there in the blackness, with 40 to 50 pounds of food, ammunition and weapons fastened somewhere on their bodies, sliding, grasping, slipping into that ridiculous little boat wallowing around in the monstrous and remorseless seas, it would be difficult to envision what a terrifying experience it could be. Finally, the knowing that once the first stage - a standing room only space in the landing craft - had been reached, they were to be transported somehow in this bucking, rolling piece of lumber with a ramp, through the pounding surf which would turn out to be just as ugly as they were imagining, onto a stretch of enemy beach, reported to be heavily mined, with the enemy lying in wait behind the dunes, cross-hairs zeroing in on their boats as they made the final approach, did absolutely nothing to erase the terror of the cargo net descent a short time before. And yet, thousands and thousands of US civilians, dressed briefly in brown or blue, made this descent into the maelstrom from their transports and this run to the beaches exactly as I have described. An amphibious landing operation under these conditions is a real character builder. The fact that we were now melded into a unified, battalion strength group of men, going through this new experience together, tightened a few more turns in the bonds that were increasingly bringing us together as a cohesive unit - The First Naval Beach Battalion. On a personal note, the writer was fortunately of very small stature at the time of this landing, spindly to be precise, and when my trip down the net resulted in falling into the small boat, my back pack broke the fall, and I realized I had made it - in one piece; a small piece to be sure, but still one piece. Others disembarking with me were not so fortunate. Many felt that their $21 monthly paycheck had been earned on just this one night. I can’t argue with that.

An actual documentation of the landing locations or sequence of the battalion personnel is not available. It probably didn’t exist. We were scattered all up and down the coast, having been assigned ship space on a “whatever is left” basis by the Army, and many came ashore as individuals or in small groups as hitchhikers. It took the better part of D-Day for us to re-group into some semblance of an operational amphibious beach control battalion, paired off with our Army Engineer Corps “shore party” counterparts. The re-organization under these trying circumstances was aggravated by the time it took to accomplish this on foot. Walking was difficult - everything we had brought ashore on our backs or tied to us had to be manhandled as we slogged around in the sand or surf trying to get to where we belonged. It is hard to believe, but at this time, and for this long-planned invasion, the First Beach Battalion had been sent overseas, all 450 of us without a single piece of equipment that we obviously would need to accomplish even a small part of what was expected of us. Not a jeep, not a truck, nothing but our bare hands to handle the broached or abandoned landing craft that early in the day had piled up on the beaches in alarming numbers -jack straws in the sand. A miserable collection of obsolete communications equipment was in our possession, carried ashore and up and down the beaches on the backs of our radiomen and signalmen. Our doctors must have been given some equipment, possibly from the ships from which they debarked, because I remember them taking care of large numbers of our own paratroops shot down by the guns of our own ships the night of D-Day; the result of the allied paratroop drop colliding with a totally unexpected enemy air raid over the beach area.

This short-sighted bit of economy-minded stupidity resulted in the loss of so many landing craft that had been promised to the allied forces assembling in England for the cross-channel invasion training, that that, and other, planned operations had to be delayed for weeks, and in some cases, for months. Some one in the planning section of “HUSKY” had decided that the army and navy beach groups could push the broached craft off with nothing more than the brute strength of men up to their keisters in pounding surf. The boat crews were nothing to brag about, but with the minimal training they had been given, it is understandable why they were so quick to abandon their broached craft as “lost to enemy action” and head for the dunes with visions of destroyer, cruiser or carrier duty dancing in their heads. The tragic aspect of this scene, repeated all day and night over the entire length of the invasion beaches, was that in several instances, two or three men from the battalion, with no experience whatsoever in what they were doing, climbed aboard a broached craft, started the engine, brought the boat around to the correct angle to the beach, backed it out through the surf and in a short time delivered it to its mother ship, gratis. If the battalion had been properly equipped, many of the abandoned landing craft could have been salvaged in this same manner and returned to their ships for continued use in this and the invasions still to come. Lieutenant Elliott, now the Battalion Executive Officer, risked court-martial by writing a lengthy, scathing, minutely documented condemnation of the officers responsible for what he felt was gross negligence and inexcusable dereliction of duty. He was not court-martialed; he was not censured; he was not praised. Someone must have read the report. A short time after we had returned to our new African base at Karouba, the inland protected harbor near Bizerte, Tunisia, we sent a large group of men to Algiers “for delivery of vehicles for the USN First Beach Battalion”. A few days after the drivers and the vehicles returned, a large field near the tents and huts of the battalion bristled with a collection of vehicles and equipment of every description. Everything we had asked for except for PT boats to be used for offshore traffic control, and LCIs for use as salvage vessels. Men and officers were swarming over this equipment with stencils at the ready. I don’t know what the Freudian connection might be, but our nine doctors started an instant love affair with the nine mammoth D-l4 bulldozers, the largest in the Caterpillar Tractor Corporation’s arsenal. The Battalion morale was pretty good.

To get back to the invasion. No operations order can be found, but it is believed that the majority of the Battalion landed in the first three waves with the assault troops, standard procedure so that landing lights, communications, and medical evacuation stations could be organized before the follow-up troops came storming across the beaches. After the first two days it was possible to step back and assess the battalion’s situation. It was apparent that we had been landed on a stretch of about 15+ miles of soft, hot sand. With only two days in this mid-summer heat, wind, and salt-water spray, the men were already suffering from bad cases of sun poisoning. Lips were swollen, salt-encrusted, split-open pieces of raw meat. In most cases the men appeared to have a small orange in their mouths that they were unable to swallow. Those who had ignored orders, issued for their own protection, and had stripped down to the waist, now regretted their actions while they watched the blisters break as they worked in the surf. Those of light complexion suffered the most. But, as Alexander the Great, among others, was known to say at times, “War is Hell”.

Some of the early chaos was unavoidable. Battalion personnel had been sent ashore from thirteen transports and AKAs (cargo ships), onto an early scattering of five different areas ranging from 10 miles northwest of the little fishing village of Scoglitti to six miles south. The rampaging surf made a shambles of the planned landing schedules. As D-day wore on, it became ever more difficult for approaching landing craft to find an uncluttered stretch of beach on which to land its cargo or personnel; they cruised off-shore until they found an open spot and roared in to unload and get out of there. Chaos. Fortunately for the Beach Battalion, enemy resistance was again much lighter, than expected. As a result, in spite of our wide dispersion, it was possible to consolidate our units and prepare the beach areas quickly for the vast unloading job about to begin. Of immediate concern was the number of landing craft lost or stranded on the beaches. As previously noted, this may have been justified to some extent by the rampaging seas and the seeming inability of the control boats to bring the landing waves into the proper beaches at the proper times, but generally speaking, and without undue indictment of the boat crews as a whole, there seemed to be overwhelming evidence of carelessness, negligence, and a serious lack of training in the handling of the landing craft. The crews manning the landing craft from the USS Leonard Wood, the Coast Guard transport, however, performed in an entirely different manner; their superb landing and retraction technique proved beyond any doubt that if the run-of-the-mill crews had been given the same training, many, possibly a majority of the landing craft lost might have been saved. It was an expensive lesson. The fact that many boats were re-floated arid saved by beach battalion personnel after they had been abandoned by their ship’s company crews speaks for itself. Lack of training and lack of discipline proved very costly in this invasion. Upwards of 200 of these personnel landing craft were stranded on the beach. A valid record of just how many landing craft were permanently destroyed by tidal action after having been permitted to be caught by the wave action and tossed high and dry on the beach, invariably parallel to it, and impossible to re-float, is unknown. But a glance up and down the beach would confirm the fact that the number was significant.

In the case of the 36 and 50-foot boats, part of the problem stemmed from tendency to swamp over the stern when loaded too heavily aft, or to fill with water and swamp when the ramp was lowered and the boats were too heavily loaded forwarded. Most common though was the taking on of the seas over the sides, particularly when overloaded, or when permitted to broach to, parallel to the shoreline. The rapid build-up of wet sand around the hull made any craft left in this position for more than fifteen minutes almost impossible to re-float under its own power. A ship, such as an LCI equipped with winches was the only hope for this class of strandees. Even if we had been given such salvage vessels, the sheer numbers of stranded boats would have prevented saving them all. In just a few short hours in this kind of surf and sand, boats were smashed beyond salvage possibilities. What proportion might have been saved if we had been given the equipment is pure guesswork. Even a few would have been a good return on the investment of whatever it cost to equip the Beach Battalion with the LCIs. Some, in a position to know, reported to us that with just two of these craft equipped with powerful winches we might have saved as many as 150 of the over 200. A very, very good investment.

The good part of the landing craft performance in HUSKY was the example set by the larger craft, (LCTs, LCIs & LSTs) and the DUKWs. From our viewing positions these vessels were manned by experienced, competent, crews. They beached at the time and locations scheduled, were relatively easy to unload, and, when unloaded, retracted with few problems. More extensive use of these craft, in particular the amphibious trucks called “DUKWs’ in all future operations was obvious to anyone on the beaches during these landings. The DUKWs could come ashore at a reasonable speed, considering their dual capabilities of running on land or in the water, cruising up through the soft-deep sand on their big fat tires to their assigned supply dumps. Quickly unloaded, they nosed their way back to the beach, bothering no one, slipped into the surf, bounced their way through it, and were soon back at their mother ships waiting for the next load. No effort was required by any battalion personnel on the beach.

After the initial assault landings, the battalion spent the better part of the first two days consolidating its units in and around the tiny village of Scoglitti. Operations continued in that area for the next nine days. During that time we performed the usual communications, salvage and stevedore work. The medical operations plan seemed to us to be poorly designed. The medical situation was already troublesome. Nine young doctors, barely started in their civilian practices and 72 hospital corpsmen were forced to idle away their time between invasion landings in irritating “made work”. Now to find that in an actual wartime invasion their duties consisted primarily of passing bodies across the beach into landing craft for transport to the hospital ships was even more irritating. This waste of medical talent, training, and knowledge was the subject of bitter criticism in the operational report prepared after the invasion by Lieutenant Elliott, our Exec, who was not known for his silence when something like this occurred in any of our operations.

Considering the number of Army medical personnel on the beach at any given time, it was soon apparent that no Navy medics were necessary as long as the Army was taking care of the evacuation and beach treatment of its dead and wounded. Without going any further into the organizational aspects of this particular landing in Sicily, I would be remiss were I not to take this opportunity to thank Mr. Elliott and the other Battalion officers and senior Petty Officers whose input made the Sicilian Operational Report possible: for having the guts to speak out and say what they believed at a time when it was not deemed fashionable or advisable to “rock the boat”, so to speak. Well done, gentlemen.

Having covered some of the technical aspects of the assault landings, a short narrative of the more personal aspects of this landing can now be made. Again, exact times escape, but as I recall, the assault time frames were in the wee hours of the morning, considerably before daybreak. Enemy action, while not as extensive as expected, was present in all of its reality. Especially nerve-wracking to the uninitiated was the never-ending air attacks and artillery barrages on the beaches. Notwithstanding the deep, soft, shifting sand. I managed to excavate a rather large foxhole during my first few minutes on the beach, doggy fashion. Not that it was all that valuable, since the nature of our work kept us out of such holes and on the surface of the beach day and night. The holes quickly became somewhat of a nuisance and hazard to beach navigation, but in my mind it was reassuring to know it was there if the occasion arose to use it.

The landing craft I was in failed, as did many others, to make it across an outlying sand bar and as a result we got very, very damp on the run to the beach from about 20 yards out. Taxing my Charles Atlas (all 115 pounds of it) physique to the limits, and encumbered with pack, weapon, ammunition, rations, etc., etc., I waded through the waist deep surf at a very rapid pace, and finally, almost pooped out, I staggered onto the beach and collapsed. After I recovered from the initial shock of reality that there really was someone up there in the dunes shooting at us, and after I made contact with other battalion members that I knew, my self-assurance returned somewhat and from then on it was a piece of cake, (he said). Actually I can recall very little of the early hours of the landing aside from the fact that it was a new and frightening experience. We had received word, or heard rumors, that the airborne units scheduled to make their drops prior to the assault landing had run into extreme difficulties from the same foul weather that had plagued the ships and ground forces, and were scattered all along the coast and at unscheduled drops inland. Other rumors had German “Tiger” tanks coming in on our flank, a rumor that failed to materialize, and the rampant rumor of counterattacks was with us constantly during the first day of the landing. Probably the most unsettling event of our entire nine days on the beach was the night of that first day, when, during the course of a German air raid on the Seventh Army landing area attracting a horrendous display of anti-aircraft fire from every allied ship in the area, a flight of U.S. C-47s carrying two thousand paratroops from the 82nd Airborne Division came in very low, only a few hundred feet above the waves, and were immediately engulfed in the gunfire from approximately 5000 guns of all calibers from the fleet escort ships, the transports, the auxiliaries and from the beach. Everyone within reach of a gun, authorized or not, Army and Navy equally, finally felt they personally had a chance to take a crack at the enemy bombers overhead. The skies soon presented an awesome sight. The colored tracers strung out like so many strings of beads, crisscrossed the outlines of planes caught momentarily in the glare of the high-powered searchlights, and punctuated with the barnyard like variety of sounds from the exploding shells and enemy bombs was an unforgettable experience for every one of us. So this was what the simple word “war” was all about. Many new sensations and feelings were forged that night.

But the tentative feeling of “we creamed them” soon gave way before the terrible tally of what we had lost. The final tally of this unfortunate raid on our own troops - the incomparable paratroops of the 82nd Airborne, quickly blotted out any feeling of euphoria. Twenty-three of the giant C-47 transport planes had been totally destroyed. Thirty-seven were badly damaged and probably beyond salvage in this front line area. One of the C-47s crashed on our beach in front of our horrified eyes. Our medical corpsmen and doctors did their best but a wartime crash of any aircraft heavily loaded with human beings is no different from a civilian crash. Every one of us has seen pictorial presentations of those crashes on our nightly TV news or movie house “Pathe” News. There is no need to elaborate here. It was a sickening, sobering sight. Another sliver of reality in our gradually increasing experience of the meaning of the word war

The word had it that a failure in communications somewhere along the line resulted in the tragedy. A simple little thing like that erupted into the nightmare of hundreds of our own men being shot down by their comrades in arms. Looking back now, it is probable that even had the ships and shore batteries been aware of the incoming flight, the 82nd would have been unable to complete their drops unscathed. The arrival of the C-47s loaded with paratroops over the invasion fleet at the exact moment in time as the raiding German bombers in the pre-dawn blackness was a one-in-a-thousand occurrence. Major General Matthew Ridgeway, Commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, after reviewing reports of the disaster, later said, “The losses are part of the inevitable price of war in terms of human lives”.

The First Beach Battalion operations continued in the Scoglitti area for nine days from the initial landings on 10 July. On 19 July the Army ordered the beaches closed and the troops to start the march to the interior. That morning Beach Battalion personnel on the beaches noted something suspicious. What were those “things” in the surf rolling towards shore? A few of our trained scavengers waded out to see. The things were our things, slowly coming to us on the morning tide. Footlockers, duffle bags, loose miscellaneous personal belongings, uniforms and, as a final insult, the salt-encrusted Battalion typewriter, a miserable balky Underwood portable - reputedly the best they could come up with in the warehouses in and around Norfolk for a newly commissioned outfit for which no one had issued supply authorizations. It was salvaged, cleaned, de-salted, and used for such orders and reports that had to be typed, until we eventually reached our new base in Tunisia at a small inland port facility called Karouba, near the bombed out city of Bizerte.

As the beach scavengers were pawing over the incoming debris, others arrived on the scene. Lifting their eyes to the horizon resulted in another shock on the eventful morning. Where were the ships? Where was the fleet? Where were the ships that brought us from Norfolk and landed us on this Sicilian capitol of the mosquito and sand flea malarial world? Gone. One ship, through our binoculars, appeared to be still at anchor. One of our Army Engineer friends offered us his DUKW for a quick visit to this last remnant of that mighty fleet that had brought us. The Captain of this AKA knew nothing of any orders that should have been issued to the Beach Battalion. He radioed one command after another, each one notch above the last. Finally, since he wanted out of there too, he slipped around official protocol and communicated directly with the Navy in Washington.

The end result was that we received verbal orders to wait on the beach for whatever transport the naval forces in that area could spare, and when that arrived, to proceed up the coast about 80 miles to a little town called Porto Empedocle and stand by there until shipping could be spared to transport us to our new African Base at Karouba.

The only memorable things I can recall of this tag end of “HUSKY” were the delightful open-air head/latrine dug for us within a few feet of a side-walk running through this little town, with nothing between the sitters and the curious, giggling- but-courteous, townsfolk. The population of the town was evidently in terrible shape economically as they had neither food to eat nor water to drink. There was an abundance of very pretty young ladies around town (if you scraped the dirt off their faces), who were not shy about indicating that they would indeed trade “anything” for food, water, candy, or cigarettes. We accommodated them as best we could, with rations, bitter chocolate, a few cigarettes, and of course whatever water we could spare; but being highly moral and provincial types, we of course refused their offers of “anything” in return. Oh I suppose I could come up with a few names of battalion members who, not wishing to hurt the young ladies feelings, took them up on their offers, but at this time, some fifty years later, why stir up a hornets nest among our wives (most of whom were not our wives at that time). Porto Empedocle also boasted some ancient Roman ruins just outside town, which stirred the imaginations of those of us who were archeologically inclined, and we spent a few hours going through the “historic district”. We did accomplish a few beneficial things while there, in that we were assigned to help guard prisoners in a huge German prison compound which was being run by the British. Permanent guards at the compound were East Indian Gurkhas whose stature, combined with their turbans and beards presented a very disconcerting picture to those German POWs who ventured too near the fenced compound. These were the same gentlemen whose combat specialty was slipping through the lines at night and presenting the enemy with lovely stainless steel necklaces which, when properly placed around the neck negated the necessity for any further haircuts since there was no longer a head to trim.

The other unusual event I recall was the jam-packed load we made on an LCT they sent to the Scoglitti beaches to pick us up for the night trip up the coast to Porto Empedocle. About halfway to our destination, this LCT (Landing Craft Tank), more affectionately called garbage scows, came to a stop, dead in the water at approximately 2 a.m. The absolute silence woke any of us who were sleeping, literally standing or leaning against something. Anyone who has been on a ship with its menu of sounds will remember the eerie “sound” of complete silence. No engines no blowers, no radios, all stopped. The reason was soon passed down the line - we were in a minefield of floating balls with spines all around the surface. Daylight introduced us to the reason we had stopped -we were surrounded by these evil looking, rusty globes with their “fingers” just waiting to be tapped for the explosives to work. I can’t recall whether the skipper maneuvered his way through the field or called for a sweeper. What I do remember is that we were now in a 6 mile per hour barge off the coast of a partially enemy-held area, wide open for any shore batteries or a tasty target for almost any kind of a German plane with a bomb or capable of strafing. We reached our port without anything happening to us. Not to worry.

A period of about ten days of irksome waiting finally came to an end. An LST (Landing Ship, Tank) arrived and we loaded up once more for the trip to the new base in Africa. The trip was not too pleasant. These LSTs have no keel and are about the length of a football field. When they pitch or roll it is downright scary. (Subsequent to the return of the Beach Battalion to the US in 1944, I was assigned to LST 818. and aboard her, made the invasion of Okinawa in 1945). The LSTs and their pups, the LCTs, had a reputation of “breaking up” when the length of the ship was longer than the interval between waves. Just snap in the middle like a license plate played with too long. But we finally did arrive at Karouba and took up residence in an empty aircraft hangar.

From the beginning of the assault runs 5 July 1943, to our arrival in Karouba on 27 July. 1943, a little over three weeks, the battalion had moved closer to being an operative unit. We were not too apprehensive about where they planned to send us next. We were now equipped with a lavish collection of equipment and vehicles. We were beginning to feel confident that we could perform even better in the next assignment. The Sicilian saga was now kaput. WHERE TO NEXT?

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Tim White
Revised  October 21, 2008