Beachhead #3

 

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BEACHHEAD #3 - SALERNO ITALY

BACKGROUND

It should be remembered that the entire complement of the First Beach Battalion had been brought from the States in a large number of ships of all types, and landed over a wide area of beach in Sicily. At the completion of that operation, all units of the Battalion were briefly in one location, the port village called “Porto Empedocle”, literally living on nuts and berries. The Battalion in its entire history was never provided with a field kitchen of any kind. We ate off the land and off various army units to which we were attached. At Porto Empedocle, while waiting for transportation, we had no army friends. Thanks to our doctors, who scoured the countryside on foot, we ate - not well, but thanks to the medics, without fear of anything worse than dysentery.

Finally, and gradually, transportation came in the form of various landing craft on their way back to African ports. It is believed that our Porto Empedocle assemblage represented the last time the battalion was entirely centered in one place. With our departure from the Porto Empedocle/Aqrigento area in late July, the second of the five landings of the battalion ended. We returned, aboard available shipping to North Africa and immediately embarked on a systematic and comprehensive training program consisting primarily of “dry runs” or more understandably, practice amphibious landings. Here again my memory is dim as to our exact locations in Africa however the names of Mers-El-Kabir, Arzew, and Mostaganem are etched in my memory so our return must have been to the Oran area. Mostaganem particularly brings back fond memories since that was the location of an establishment known as “The American Bar”, reputedly serving the only hamburgers available in North Africa (at least commercially). Also available was a taste-tingling Arab beverage reputed to be beer. Served hot (no ice in North Africa) from its wicker encased bottle, this lethal concoction convulsed the stomachs of even such stalwarts as John Zesut and Vic Rose, two Battalion specialists in fermented beverage procurement and consumption. And the hamburgers? Not bad really if you overlooked the proprietor of the bar in the back room skinning camels.

From the time the battalion departed Sicily until the time of the landing at Salerno, a scant five weeks went by but the time seemed more like an eternity since all pretty much knew that the next landing was going to be somewhere on the Italian coast and, at that time, the Italians had not yet surrendered nor were we privy to any information about German troop strengths on the peninsula. The monotony of waiting was alleviated to a degree by the seemingly endless dry runs and debarkation drills we were subjected to. Probably because of the carnage encountered in Sicily while debarking down landing nets from troop ships in monstrous seas, the emphasis seemed to be more on debarkation drills than anything else and probably rightly so. As it turned out however the net drills were quite useless since the Battalion units which made the Salerno landings were embarked on landing craft type shipping and in general, at least on red beach, stepped ashore at Salerno Bay onto dry land. Green beach was different and units landing there had to wade in from the landing craft due to the beach gradient.

As Jack Elliott remembers it, a good portion of the battalion was transported to our new base at Karouba prior to the Salerno landing. The men were housed in an abandoned airplane hangar and the officers in what was left of the former French Officer’s Quarters. Lieutenant Elliott, in this group, had this to relate after their first few days in this location. “First night - air raid sirens erupted and we ran out to watch the fascinating sight of the giant searchlights crisscrossing each other until one picked up a bomber. Several then converged on the plane in a pinpoint of brilliant light. The anti-aircraft emplacements then opened up and it was Dante’s Inferno in Technicolor. We all stood there gawking like Iowa farm boys at the Little Egypt exhibit at the county fair, (Lt Elliott and the writer are both small town Iowans and we know whereof we speak), until somebody said, “It’s starting to rain”. Another gawker yelled ‘ouch’. We then became aware of the fact that flak -shrapnel from the anti-aircraft batteries - was falling on us, out there without any protection, even our helmets. Quickly inside. Nowhere to go, so sat on the steps from ground floor to first, thinking we were protected. A brand new battery of British Bofors anti-aircraft artillery was just a few feet from where we had picked to wait out the raid. Off it went, pom-pom pom-pom. . Our shirts were literally lifted from our backs. The sensation was not of noise although in theory there must have been plenty of that, it was of air being sucked out of you and your surroundings. Not good. Second night - management had spent the day distributing smoke-makers all around the base. A large collection of cruisers and destroyers were in the harbor several hundred feet away, all with smoke facilities. Sirens, the drone of planes, our heading for holes in the ground this time. And then we started gasping. We were the bottom layer of a blanket of thick chemical smoke, undoubtedly quite effective in hiding the assembled fleet and buildings from the bombers overhead but devastating to those victims, us, of the over-eager trainee smokers. Third night - As soon as it started to get dark we borrowed a couple of jeeps and headed for the hills overlooking the Mediterranean near Bizerte. From that night on when smoke started, we headed for our vantage point in the hills.”

Those of us who had moved from the Oran area to the Bizerte area in preparation for the oncoming landing continued our practice landings in that area with little diversion except for the daily visits (by radio) of the famed “Axis Sally”. She would come on the short wave each night with comments on what we had done that day. What was a bit unnerving, was that she was able to tell us exactly where we were going and when we were scheduled to land. She would also remind certain individuals (by name) that their wives/girl friends were back in the states sleeping with the draft dodgers or 4-Fs that were in the States. We found out later that our landing operational schedules had somehow fallen into German hands. That with her Arab spotters on the beaches where we were carrying out our practice operations made her pronouncements invariably accurate. Apparently none of this made those in charge uneasy enough to discuss any changes in plans, however.

We now had vehicles. As a result of Lt. Elliott’s defense of the Beach Battalion personnel’s failure to prevent the terrible loss of landing craft in the landings at Sicily - an ordeal, he reports, as he had to read his critique before a board of amphibious captains and commanders, and then answer questions for the better part of an hour. His final comment may have helped. He held out both hands, palms up, and quietly said, “Gentlemen, these are the tools and equipment we were given to handle that storm on the Sicilian beach. There are two here, count them”.

A week later we received word to send a group of Battalion men, all drivers, in Company strength, to Algiers to “pick up equipment consigned to the First Beach Battalion”. Off they went, happy to get out of camp for a few days, and with much curiosity as to what the word “equipment” meant. Their return was unannounced. Late one afternoon we saw this convoy of trucks, DUKWs, jeeps, weapons carriers and big, shiny, yellow Caterpillar Tractor D-l4 bulldozers on their prime movers, pull up along the road near our pyramidal tent and Quonset hut quarters. Seventy-one vehicles in all, including 21 of the best little war machines known to man, the beloved C-5 Jeep of Willie and Joe fame. I think the battalion morale must have gone up a few notches as we swarmed over these newly added tools to our repertoire. Just to look, walk around, kick the tires, try the steering was fun for one and all. Yes, FUN. The battalion was loose, even though we knew that we were off to another invasion landing in just a few weeks, and that some would not be coming back. Our melding into a unified battalion was increasing all the time.

The battalion did not have to wait long for the next invasion. Salerno, a little town on a beautiful bay south of the big anchorage at Naples, was to be the target. Several Divisions of the British Eighth Army, who had just finished the chase of Rommel across the desert and were instrumental in the defeat of the German Afrika Korps, were to land in the northern sector, near the town of Salerno. The Americans were to land some 15 miles to the South with two divisions, the 36th (Texas), under General Walker, and our old friends, the 45th under General Middleton. The First Beach Battalion personnel were assigned to the northern sector, the British area.

Shipping was so scarce for this landing that the Beach Battalion was limited to one reinforced Company. Company “B” was selected, reinforced by personnel from Company “A”. We were attached to a British Royal Engineer Shore Party known as a “Brick”. Some of Company C was sent on temporary duty to the American Sector. We think that this group stayed in Italy with the American forces, moving with them up the coast to Naples, forming the group that came to be known as the “Schoolhouse Gang”.

On 15 August 1943, Operations Plan No. 1 for operation “buttress” (subsequently changed to “AVALANCHE” was received by the Battalion. For those of you who are history buffs. I have included a copy of this order as an appendix. Although marked SECRET, the order has been declassified. As stated above, Company “B”, reinforced by personnel from Company “A”, were selected for this landing. The northern sector, nearest the town of Salerno, designated as “RED BEACH”, was in charge of the Battalion’s Commanding officer, Jim Eubanks; the southern sector in charge of our Battalion Executive Officer, Jack Elliott, was designated “GREEN BEACH”.

Before getting into the description of the Battalion’s part in these landings, I am going to insert a quotation from a caustic book by Eric Morris titled

SALERNO

A Military Fiasco

“The mistake was Eisenhower’s. After the Allies scored victories in North Africa and Sicily, the next step was the continent, but where? It was decided to keep the landing destination secret. Even the preliminary bombardment of the beaches by naval guns was eliminated, at great risk to the troops landing. But anybody with a simple compass could draw a circle centered on the nearest Allied air bases in Sicily and come to the conclusion that the only suitable harbor within round-trip distance was the port of Salerno.

Salerno was to be taken by the first integrated Anglo-American force. The American contingents chosen for the landing were the Texans of the 36th Division, totally inexperienced in battle, and another National Guard Division, the 45th, largely drawn from Oklahoma and New Mexico. As for the British, what some of their troops learned on landing so dismayed them that they mutinied (for which some of the mutineers were later sentenced to death). To win the battle, the Allies needed to gain the high ground; for nine bloody days what they gained were the beaches drenched in their own blood”.

Complicating this whole mess was the questionable decision by the Allied Headquarters to announce the surrender of Italy while the invasion fleet was offshore on their last segment of daylight runs. While we sat out there to be counted and divided up by the Germans who had quickly thrown the newly-non-combatant Italians out of their defensive positions and moved their own men and far superior armor, tanks, and artillery batteries into position, we were led to believe that the landings would be unopposed. We should have suspected something when late in thee afternoon of D minus 1 German Stukas came down our column of landing craft, setting several afire with their single strafing run. Why did they do that? We still, at least at our level, could not put two and two together and come up with the entirely possible, really probable, solution; the Germans were now in charge of the defense of the beaches we were scheduled to assault starting at midnight.

At this point my co-author, Lt. Jack Elliott, will take over the writing chore and describe the operations on GREEN BEACH. This was the beach on which “B” Co., Platoon 6 (reinforced) was scheduled to land. Responsibility for preliminary examination of the beach area, rerouting of succeeding waves as necessary, guide duties for personnel and equipment of the battalion landing in following waves, installation of flank and landing point beach markers, and posting and supervision of guard and watched details was assigned to Ensign Herman (B-6). Lt (jg) Yeager had identical duties for RED BEACH to the north. Responsibility for preliminary and subsequent detailed hydrographic reconnaissance for LCT and LST landing approaches, final determination of acceptable landing points in cooperation with Royal Engineers responsible for reconnaissance of beach exits inland, general supervision of naval beach functions and advance preparation of ship cargo diagrams to supplement the loading plans to Lt (jg) Winn (B-6) for Green Beach and Lt (jg) Moe Levenstein for Red Beach. The supervision of salvage operations and coordination of the salvage operations on the beach with the Task Force Salvage Officer operating from seaward was assigned to Lt (jg) Shearon, (A-3) for Green Beach and to Lt. (jg) Walrath (A-2) for Red Beach.

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Tim White
Revised  October 21, 2008