Green Beach

 

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GREEN BEACH – SALERNO

By Lt. O. J. (Jack) Elliott


With the announcement of the Italian “surrender”, our attitude toward this landing lightened up. We didn't have the customary exhilaration, the high, the adrenaline pumping as we turned toward the shore. The segment I was with was embarked in an LCI (Landing Craft Infantry), below decks until we grounded and the ship's control officer opened the doors to the deck. Simultaneously with grounding on the proverbial sandbar, a barrage of gunfire greeted us. It gave me the feeling that I had stumbled into the midst of the working part of a Fourth of July fireworks display of gigantic proportions. I wished for my sunglasses. With no real reason to hold back, I made my way down the lending ramp which ran down the bow of the landing craft, followed closely by Ensign Randy Herman, a very gutsy, very young kid who was to perform many duties preparatory to bringing in the following a landing craft waves. We waded through waist deep water to the point where water meets sand and instinct told us to drop. We did.

It was time to re-think this thing. We had not been told of the fact that there was a farmhouse and a canal tollhouse, directly behind this beach. We reviewed what we did know and decided that this welcome was by hostile Germans, not the friendly Italians we had been led to expect. Randy and I reviewed what we did know. We knew that the tide was coming in and that our bodies except for shoulders and head were now fully immersed and our position would become untenable; we knew that the fire coming from the farm house and the canal toll house was becoming heavier, indicating eagerness and plenty of ammunition; we knew that they knew we were there and that the LCI was there. We knew that the shallow beach we were looking at was mined, and that the British Engineer sappers had not yet been there. Maybe we had landed on the wrong stretch of beach; probably not. We had been told that the Germans had copies of our plans, where landings were to be made and would be waiting for us. The surrender fiasco negated our expectation of very little real resistance. But the plain, bald truth was that they certainly had been looking for us to land in this very spot.

So, we decided we preferred taking the chance of setting off one or more of those German “Daisy Cutter” land mines to lying there and either drowning or becoming so exposed to increased small arms fire that we would soon be dead meat. We wished each other luck; Randy took off first and ran a superb fifty-yard dash to the friendly slope of this huge sand dune, which appeared to be about fifteen feet high. I followed, stepping in what little I could see of his footprints. (We found out later from the sappers that the takeover of beach defenses by the Germans just a few days prior caused so much resentment by the Italian labor crew that most of the beach mines hurriedly installed on this stretch of beach were buried with the safeties on.) We weren’t as brave and fearless as we thought.

Gradually, more and more of the Battalion elements assigned to Green Beach showed up. I suspect they were brought in to Red Beach and walked down to Green Beach. I had other problems at the moment. We shushed everybody, and confirmed our initial belief that we were hearing German and voices, almost whispers, as though there were very close and didn't want to be heard by those invaders in their territory.

By now, my good friend the Cincinnati lawyer Bill Seaman, had arrived and we agreed that those voices could mean trouble. I carefully climbed up the slope of this sand dune, making as little noise as possible, realizing later that with all of the firing I didn’t have to play gumshoe. I slowly edged my head above the rim and found myself staring at a well-camouflaged pillbox, gun slits and machine gun barrels poking through at the ready. (They probably had no choice but to let us reach the protection of the dune because none of their gun slits would have permitted lowering the trajectory to the level of the mined stretch of beach). The whispering stopped. I had the distinct sensation of something crawling up and down my back. Some post-war psychiatrist can field that one. I stared at this concrete thing with its protruding gun barrels and could sense those inside staring at this alien whose head had slowly appeared over the edge of their latrine - yes, we had dug into the side of the dune directly below the pill box, and it was, in fact, their latrine. I wish I could say that I carried this confrontation off with a mustache-twirling bit of savoir-faire, with something witty such as, “Hi Schultz”, but the gritty truth is that my muffled remark was, “Oh shit” as I slid back down the dune, still unaware of its contents.

Bill and I discussed this situation, just one more of the unknowns to crop up in the illustrious career of our Battalion. (He wrinkled his nose; I wrinkled mine; each of us thinking the other had become careless in the excitement of the past few hours.) Our decision was made easy by the German gunners walking out of their pill box with hands up, voluntarily surrendering for some unknown reason. Chief Causey, A-3, took action. Grabbing his weapon, a Tommy gun, he corralled these bewildered prisoners of war. He didn’t quite know how to finish this off; he didn’t really know what to do with them, so he marched them up and down this beach area just below the dune line. A bit of humor was now added. The Chief had grabbed his helmet in a hurry when he dashed off to make his capture. It was without a liner. In this mode, those helmets are used for buckets, for washbasins, etc. The equipment was never intended to be worn without a liner, but Chief Causey didn’t want any monkey business to louse up his moment of glory, so refused to remove his liner less helmet, and provided a welcome bit of humor, cradling his Tommy gun in one arm while trying to hold his helmet on with the other, and trying to impress his prisoners with the authority of his position. He was great. We loved it.

It was now daylight. The firing from the gun emplacements behind the dunes, tanks having been added to the armament in the farmhouse and the canal toll house, stopped. Almost immediately we understood why. A heavily laden LST, loaded main deck and top deck with trucks also loaded, was slowly approaching the beach a short distance from where we had taken cover. They couldn’t seem to understand our efforts to wave them off and get them to retreat from this area. It was a tragic mistake. Since we had landed we had tried to get word up to Red Beach to stop all incoming landing to Green Beach. Nothing worked in time to save this one. The German forces in the tanks, farmhouse, and canal house, deliberately held their fire until the LST had grounded, anchored, and opened the bow doors and let the ramp down. It was really a horrible sight. Before the first truck had started down the ramp the barrage began. The ship was literally torn to pieces, truck after truck hit, and caught fire. Then the shells began to pierce the hull, igniting fires and explosions on the tank deck. We could only lie there and watch. The only possible good to come of this incident was its obvious message to the Task Force Commanders, “Don’t send anything else in here until you wipe out those gun emplacements behind the beach.”

Green Beach was closed down immediately. The battalion elements were ordered to Red Beach and joined the forces there shortly after dark. Our Battalion Communications Officer, Orville Pence, and I were ordered to stay one more day to guard against the possibility of any strays heading towards the beach. We then joined the rest of the Battalion at Red Beach, before returning to our base at Karouba to wait for the “next one”. Salerno is the one I will remember most vividly.

From the Beach Battalion point of view, the unloading at Red Beach ran very smoothly. But without our newly authorized equipment, proving its weight in gold on its very first outing, this could never have been true. Even though we were not confronted with an avalanche of mishandled small boats as we were in Sicily, we faced a new headache here. The British Eighth Army had been loaded for this invasion directly from their African bases. They had just completed their exhausting desert battles with the “Fox” - German General Rommel. Men and equipment were tired, worn out. As the unloading began this feature created an alarming situation. These beat-up trucks (petrol burning lorries) weren’t able, in most cases, to get their rear wheels off the LST ramps - the front end stuck in the sand. Loading slowed to an almost total halt. Incoming traffic had to lie to offshore, at the mercy of aerial attacks and artillery fire from the German forces, who must even at this early stage. be amazed at how successful they were at stalling this combined American and British invasion force

Our DUKWS and bulldozers were quickly brought to the beach, positioned so that their winches could be attached to the British vehicle front ends. The winching-in usually let the trucks be pulled  on to ground firm enough and level enough that they could be turned loose under their own power. The British higher ups frequently commented on the disaster that would have befallen them without the services of the Beach Battalion and their equipment. It should be remembered that for the first eight or nine days, this invasion at Salerno was in serious danger of becoming a rout. Many of us will never know how many orders had been prepared ordering the invasion forces back to the beaches for evacuation from the beach.

As the landing forces were driven back towards the beach areas, Task Force leaders realized that drastic action had to be taken. This resulted in some of the greatest feeling of pride, admiration, and envy I have ever experienced. That night, and every night until the German forces were driven back, the biggies, our heavy cruisers, battleships, and the British Navy “Monitors”, moved close to shore and lobbed a steady stream of shells into the positions of the German concentrations. This dangerous exposure of our ships to enemy shelling and bombing, and the equally exciting daytime action by our destroyers, went on for eight days. On D+9, the Task Force Commander pronounced “all beaches safe. Proceed with invasion orders”. Two weeks later the beaches were closed and the small harbor at Salerno was made available for a limited amount of traffic until the badly sabotaged harbor at Naples could be cleaned out and some real unloading begun.

The Salerno invasion was a real butt-buster; dangerous as hell, but still exciting. Our little Beach Battalion contingent even got itself shelled by a German long-range battery in the ring of mountains behind the beaches. This shell (undoubtedly an 88mm since they ringed the mountains around the harbor), landed in what had been our chow line a few minutes before. Battalion personnel were scattered around in an orange grove, sitting on boxes, vehicles, stretchers, and the ground. Commander Eubank was slurping his down in his hammock, a short distance from the rest of us. When the shell landed the chow line was empty. A few of us took some shrapnel. All were flattened to the ground and lost in a dense fog of dirt, smoke, dust and fumes. But as befitting a seasoned veteran crew, we returned to our eating of what could be salvaged from our mess kits. Some Brass showed up a little later, inquiring as to how we were and “by the way, we thought we saw an explosion on the beach in this area - was there?” No one answered, we just pointed to the crater right next to us. Some heads-together discussion followed and then, “have to get back to the ship; good luck”. And so the Battalion dispersed itself again, some to Naples, most back to Karouba, our North African Base in Tunisia. Salerno - our third assault landing, was now history.

I’ll now turn my co-author pen over to Bud Vey to give you his impressions of Salerno, and then on to the next landing of the Battalion.

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Tim White
Revised  October 21, 2008