“The soldier trade, if it is to mean anything at all,
has to be anchored in an unshakable code of honor.”
Carl von Clausewitz (1780 – 1831), On War
Private Jake Kilroy knew he was right behind his buddy Johnny out the door. But now, on the ground, he couldn’t see any other parachutes in the landing zone. He rolled up on his knees and slowly pulled his chute into his arms as quietly as possible. Still, he could not avoid the soft metallic sounds as his harness buckles and gear clinked together. The landing had been a decent one considering the high winds and broken terrain. He had just missed a stone wall and the weight of his load carried him violently into the hard baked ground. He shook off the cobwebs and strained to orient himself.
He tensed to listen to his surroundings but the drone of the planes and the distant crack of small arms and anti-aircraft fire made hearing nearby sounds impossible. His heart was pounding and he felt the familiar surge of adrenaline course through his body. Visibility was getting better as his eyes adjusted to the darkness and he could see the shadowy outlines of the high ridges both to the east and the west. Item Company was dropped right smack on the money.
After Jake cleared his parachute and gathered it into his arms he released the bellyband harness and the reserve chute. Still on his knees, he shoved the bundle of silk and canvas into a nearby hedge and slowly removed his gas-operated M1918A2 Browning Automatic Rifle from its Griswold case. He set the selector to “slow-auto” to conserve ammunition. This was really stupid, he thought. If he contacted the enemy, they would certainly not wait for him to unpack and load his weapon. He slammed a twenty round magazine of .30-caliber ammunition into his B-A-R and racked the bolt to chamber a round. It sounded louder than he expected.
“George,” the voice in the dark whispered.
“Marshall,” Jake replied.
A figure came out of the darkness. It was Sky Johnson. “You alone, Jake?”
“Let’s roll up,” Sky said and began walking. Since they were at the beginning of the stick, they would walk in the direction the plane was heading. The troopers at the end of the stick would walk the opposite way in order to meet somewhere near the middle.
The two boys walked carefully, making as little noise as possible. They came upon a paved road in the direction of their line of advance and slowly proceeded in that direction. If it was the same road as on the maps, it would lead them to a junction that was their rally point.
“George, ” said another voice from the darkness.
“Marshall,” Sky replied. Joe Boothe, Dominic Angelo and Johnny Kilroy stepped out of the shadows. “It’s Boots, Yank and Dom,” said Angelo. “Who we got?”
“Jake and Sky,” answered Jake as he tapped Johnny on the arm. They were both relieved to see each other.
The group moved out along the road with Jake and Johnny bringing up the rear. After a few moments Jake heard something on the other side of the wall. Johnny heard it too. It sounded like a whimpering animal. Until now, the group had not fired a shot and not been exposed. They could not take the chance of being discovered so Johnny leaned his M-1 on the wall and took out his bayonet. He peered over the wall slowly and made out a figure curled up in a fetal position with his face buried in his arms. He carefully hopped over the wall holding his bayonet in a striking position. Slowly, he disappeared below the wall.
“Jake,” Johnny whispered as his head popped up. “You’re never going to believe this. Come on over.”
Jake propped his B-A-R against the wall and hopped over. There was a soldier uncontrollably whimpering while trying to stifle the sounds. Jake bent over to get a better look. It was Staff Sergeant Gene Bancroft. Jake stood up and looked at Johnny who shrugged his shoulders and shook his head. Lying at their feet was the toughest, meanest, nastiest bastard they had ever met in the army and he was crying like a newborn baby.
“C’mon Sarge, let’s get you out of here, “ Jake said feeling nothing more than pity for a man who had completely lost it on his first combat jump.
“Enema? Is that you?” Bancroft sobbed. Jake’s pity immediately turned to anger.
Johnny kicked Bancroft in the rump and slapped him on the helmet. “Snap out of it you sorry piece of shit.” Johnny pulled Bancroft to his feet. “Let’s get the hell out of here,” he whispered while wiping the dirt from Bancroft’s tunic with hard slaps and rough hand brushes.
Bancroft struggled to gain his self-control. He took off his helmet, shook his head and wiped his tear-streaked face on his sleeve. “I don’t know what happened,” he sniveled. “I’m all right now. Don’t tell the rest of the guys, okay?”
Jake was about to say something but Johnny stepped in front of him. “I’ll tell you how it’s going to be, Sarge.” Though Johnny was speaking in low tones, the anger was hissing through his teeth. “The next time you call him Enema, the whole fucking battalion is going to know how we found you tonight. This is Jake. As long as he’s not Enema, your secret is safe with us.”
Bancroft took a deep breath. He was regaining his courage. He nodded and picked up his gear. “Fair enough.”
“That way,” Johnny pointed. All three hopped over the wall. Bancroft led the way.
“Whew,” Jake whispered to Johnny. “Thanks!”
“You’re welcome. That rat bastard deserved it. We’ll have to watch our backs from now on.
That scumbag just might try to get even.”
“Fine. But somehow he doesn’t intimidate me so much anymore.”
The troopers moved up the road, gathering more boys as they went until they marched into the company at the rally point. The boys moved as quietly as they could but it was impossible to eliminate the rustling sound of shuffling feet and the noise of steel plinking on metal.
Under the light of the fading moon they could see the pillboxes a few hundred yards distant. So far they had not made contact with the enemy. When Bancroft and his small group arrived, they immediately sought out Lieutenant Clark. They found him sitting on a rock in a clearing just off the road surrounded by the other members of 1st Squad. His right boot was off and he was wrapping his ankle tightly in a thick bandage.
“Welcome, Sergeant. You report to Second Platoon. Leave Sergeant Copping and First Squad with me.”
“Right.” Bancroft went off looking for his platoon.
“Everyone here, Sergeant Copping?” Clark asked while slowly sliding his boot back on.
Copping looked around and quickly counted heads. “First Squad is all present. What happened to you, sir?”
“I think it’s broken, Sergeant. I felt it snap when I landed,” Clark said while sliding his bayonet down the inside of his boot on the interior side of his ankle. “Bad landing.” He looked at Copping. “Can I borrow your sticker?”
“Yes sir. You plan on making this march?” Copping handed his bayonet to Clark.
“That’s my mission, Sergeant.” Clark took the bayonet and slid it inside his boot on the opposite side. He laced his boots as tightly as he could and then wrapped the entire lash-up with tape he scrounged from the engineers. A medic offered him a morphine Syrette but he refused.
“Gather around boys,” Clark said. The twelve-man squad came in and knelt in a circle. “If I fall out, Sergeant Copping will lead the mission.” He stood up to test his makeshift splint. “Make sure you each have a phosphorous grenade and plenty of ammo”.
Copping turned to Clark. “Where’s Captain Wolff, sir?”
Clark shook his head. “Not here yet,” he said as he took a step to test his weight on the injured ankle. It was painful but tolerable. He looked to his troopers. “We got less than two hours to travel three miles, find the spot and light the fire. The moon will be down soon so stay in contact with the man in front of you. We need to all get there together.” The boys murmured their acknowledgement. “Tedesco, take the point. You speak the lingo. I’d rather talk my way through than have to fight our way through. Capice?”
“Yes, sir. I got it.”
Copping moved into the center of the group, “Dom, you go with him. Jake, Johnny, bring up the rear. Sky and Danny, stick close to the lieutenant. Okay, let’s move out.”
Just then there was a small commotion down the road. Clark strained to see in the waning moonlight. Some troopers were leading a mule into the temporary encampment. There was a soldier on the mule. It was Captain Wolff.
“Holy Christ,” Clark exclaimed. “Jesus coming into Jerusalem.” He immediately hobbled over to the captain along with the other platoon leaders.
“What happened, Captain?”
“I’ll be fine. Gather close. We’ll set up our CP right here.” He was helped off the mule and onto a low wall in a small clearing that would contain his command post.
“He broke an ankle,” somebody whispered.
Wolff summoned his platoon leaders closer. He looked at First Lieutenant Kurt Klee, 2nd Platoon leader. “What kind of shape are we in, Kurt?”
“Good to see you, sir,” Klee answered. “We’re in pretty good shape. Some jump injuries, a few boys still missing but it looks like most of the company is together and right on target.”
“Outstanding, Kurt. Looks like I owe one ballsy smart-ass pilot a case of scotch.”
“Never mind, Kurt.” Wolff motioned to the rest of the platoon leaders and their NCOs. “After we take the pillboxes, we need to take that large stone farmhouse behind them. Then move the entire force to blocking positions on this road. Dig in tight and hold the position. Nothing gets through to the beach. Not even a damned field mouse. Understand?”
“Yes, sir,” Klee nodded and moved out to position his troops.
“George, are you and your boys ready?” whispered Wolff to Lieutenant Clark.
“Yes sir, we have the whole squad. We’re just about to leave.”
“Very well, George.” Clark was about to turn away when Wolff continued. “George, your mission is the most important objective for Item Company tonight.” Wolff paused. “So whatever happens, make sure you light that fire.”
“Yes sir. We’ll be back by morning to help out here.”
The young boys of 1st Squad moved out into the darkness in single file. The group turned west onto a trail that would bring them to the heights overlooking the objective of the 1st Infantry Division; the coastal town of Gela.
Sporadic sounds of gunfire cracked through the night from all over the island. Small arms and machine gun fire, with an occasional explosion, echoed mostly from the north and east. There were small firefights and sharp clashes occurring in scattered locations. The sounds were disconcerting but the column silently continued.
The moon had set and they were now in complete darkness. All of the night training exercises and constant drills paid off as the small group successfully navigated the three-mile cross-country trek to their exact target location. As the column reached the final rise in the road, Clark looked to the south to discern the shimmering surface of the Mediterranean Sea about a mile away. The dim outline of the city Gela was also scarcely visible near the shoreline. Farther up the valley was a small stone farmhouse alongside a wooden barn. He assembled his boys.
“Teddy, make sure the house is empty. Take Dom and torch it.”
As the two paratroopers approached the farmhouse, Clark found a rock to rest on. The pain in his leg, aggravated by miles of marching, tortured him in waves. He addressed the remaining men. “Set up a defensive perimeter and get good cover and concealment. This place will be like daylight in a few minutes.” He looked at his watch. “It’s almost oh-three-hundred. We’re late so hubba-hubba!” The boys moved out. Jake set up his B-A-R near Clark’s temporary CP to cover the road. Johnny covered Jake’s position on one flank with his M-1.
Tedesco knocked on the farmhouse door. The old Sicilian couple was fully dressed when they answered the door. In the background behind them were three young girls cowering under the kitchen table. Tedesco began speaking to them in Sicilian while Angelo checked the barn. The old woman argued back with animated hand gestures. They argued for a minute before Tedesco and Angelo returned to Clark.
“They won’t leave, sir,” Tedesco informed Clark.
“Shit!” was all Clark could manage. “Tell them the United States Army will pay for the house.” Clark was sweating. He looked toward the sea knowing the invasion fleet was just beyond the horizon. “If they still won’t leave, light it up anyway.”
“Sir,” Tedesco protested. “There’s little kids in the house.”
Clark lost his patience. He was late getting to his objective. The pain in his leg was nearly unbearable. This was the only structure in the vicinity that could serve as a beacon and the occupants wouldn’t leave. And now it seemed his boys were reluctant to burn it. He was about to dress down Tedesco and burn the house down himself when Angelo spoke up.
“Sir, that barn is made of wood. It’s full of hay. It’ll burn for hours and you’ll see it for miles. Sir?”
Clark hesitated, glared at Angelo, absorbing what he had just been told. Tedesco and Angelo looked back at him with anxious, pleading puppy-dog eyes.
Jake overheard the exchange and spoke up. “Beg pardon, sir, but that farmhouse is stone. It won’t burn so good.”
Johnny joined in. “That barn looks like a tinderbox, sir. Should burn all night long.”
Angelo agreed, nodded, “All night long, sir.”
“All right, all right,” Clark conceded wiping the sweat from his brow. “Burn the damn barn but get those people out of the house, just in case.”
“Yes sir, thank you sir,” Tedesco headed back up to the farmhouse as Angelo made his way to the barn.
The old couple continued to argue with Tedesco who had difficulty explaining they were not going to burn down the house. They were still arguing when Angelo tossed the first phosphorous grenade into the barn.
“Fire in the hole!” Angelo yelled as he tossed in another phosphorous grenade and ducked behind a tree. The grenades went off with a pop and a blinding flash of bright white. The intense heat generated by the grenades instantly ignited the hay, which in turn ignited the wooden frame. In a few minutes the conflagration engulfed the entire structure. The old couple took the children and sought cover in a nearby orchard as the fingers of flame reached out into the night.
Clark stood up and felt the heat of the fire on his face. “Time to go boys. This fire will attract every enemy soldier within miles.” The squad pulled in from their makeshift perimeter and gathered around Clark who counted heads and looked at his watch in the light of the blaze. “Sunrise is at zero-five-fifty-hours. We have two hours to get back to the rest of the company. Dom, Teddy, point! Sky, Danny Boy, rear! Move out!”
Jake sidled up alongside Clark. He took the officer’s arm placed it around his neck. Before Clark could protest, Johnny took the officer’s carbine, slung it and took his other arm on his shoulder.
“We’ll go faster this way, sir,” Jake explained.
Clark offered a slight objection. “I don’t think…”
Johnny interrupted. “It’s all right, Lieutenant. Keep the weight off the leg. We’ll go as long as we can and two others will take over. Otherwise, you’ll slow us down, sir.” Johnny smiled and Clark relented.
The small column moved quickly and without stopping as they retraced their path back. Every few minutes, Clark would look back toward the huge glow in the dark sky to affirm his signal fire was still effective. Far out at sea, the troop transports and landing craft of the 1st Infantry Division began to orient themselves toward the fiery signal beacon.
The sky became lighter but the sun had not quite broken the horizon when Lieutenant Clark’s unit arrived at the rally point. Jake and Johnny carried Clark all the way back. On the way, Johnny noticed Sicily looked eerily like North Africa except for its mountainous terrain. The ground here was also hard and crusty and the natural vegetation was sparse. The only differences he could see were the orchards of olive trees and grapevines separated by either stone walls or thick rows of cactus like bushes. At least these poor Sicilian farmers battled the angry land for sustenance and survival.
The distant rumble of the naval bombardment signaled the start of the amphibious invasion. Wolff had deployed his troops for an attack on the six small pillboxes protecting a large three story stone building that appeared to be a winery. First they would attack and seize the bunkers and then regroup and assault the large stone building behind them.
Wolff was listening on his 5.5-pound SCR-536 “handi-talkie” when Clark came up to the CP. “Mission accomplished, Captain.” He grinned through the pain. “We lit up the sky. I’m sure they saw that blaze in Africa.”
“Excellent, George,” Wolff replied. “Stand fast right here with your squad and wait for orders. It’s about to get dicey up ahead.”
The mortars of the Heavy Weapons Platoon opened the attack with the familiar hollow thump of mortar rounds exiting their tubes. From 400 yards away they lobbed their three-pound explosive warheads right on top of the pillboxes. While the enemy ducked down under the firing slits to avoid the flying shrapnel, the paratroopers raced forward. When they were close enough, they lobbed smoke grenades, which was the signal for Klee to halt the mortar barrage. The .30-caliber machine guns took over having previously sighted on the pillbox firing slits. They poured fire at the openings, which kept the enemy down. Behind the curtain of smoke and suppressing fire, the paratroopers were virtually invisible as they rushed the bunkers and tossed grenades through the openings. There were numerous muffled explosions and then white flags appeared from the firing slits. It was a miracle anyone was left alive in the bunkers. The boys had moved quickly and executed the fire-and-maneuver tactics with great professionalism.
Paratrooper medics moved in to treat the wounded. They huddled beneath the shelter of the pillboxes attending to American and Italian casualties as Wolff waited impatiently for Klee to report in. Suddenly his handi-talkie squawked. “Home Plate, this is Second Base.”
Wolff answered. “Go ahead, Second Base.”
“We hit a home run, sir.” All objectives were taken.
“A few wounded sir. We’re treating them now.”
Wolff closed his eyes in a solitary prayer of thanks. He was thankful he hadn’t got half his command killed in his first combat. “I’m moving up with Lieutenant Clark’s squad. Get the rest of the company in position for the next assault.”
“Yes, sir. Out.”
The command group and 1st Squad moved out. Captain Wolff was astride the captured mule; his broken ankle in makeshift splints, grimacing with every step the balky animal took. Lieutenant Clark sat on an M-1 Garand rifle suspended between two of his boys like a swing as they moved forward. His ankle had swollen tremendously inside the tightly wrapped boot. It could no longer bear any weight. Despite the excruciating pain, both officers refused morphine.
While the command group moved up and into the nearest pillbox, Lieutenant Klee was organizing the second attack. The basic plan was the same. Open with a mortar barrage, close in on the winery from three sides under the cover of the barrage and breach the stone house with rockets and grenades. The occupants of the house had seen what had happened to their comrades in the bunkers and were firing a steady but inaccurate stream of machine gun fire in the general direction of the paratroopers.
Klee met the group as they approached the captured pillbox and addressed Captain Wolff. “We have eight Italian prisoners, four more wounded and we pulled four dead out of the bunkers.”
Wolff thought for a moment. He had not anticipated prisoners. Paratroopers operating behind enemy lines were ill equipped to handle Prisoners Of War (POWs). Wolff had an idea. “Kurt, give them a white flag and send them toward the beach. Let the infantry deal with them.”
“With a guard, sir?”
“No, we can’t afford to waste a man.” Wolff looked at the ragged group of prisoners, some bandaged, others bleeding, uniforms disheveled and in tatters and all covered in a fine white chalky dust blasted loose inside the bunkers. “They don’t look like they have any fight left in them. Make sure they’re disarmed, point them to the beach and send them on their way.”
Klee gave the orders and the shattered group of Italians headed down the road to the beach.
“Are you set for the attack?” Wolff asked.
“Just about.” Klee looked at Clark. “But we could sure use your squad,”
“Take them,” Clark replied through a grimace. “Bruce, you’re in charge.”
Copping stepped forward. “Where do you want us?”
“There,” Klee pointed to a small ridge about a hundred yards from the southwest corner of the building. “From the ridge you’ll have a good vantage point. We’ll need supporting fire on the upper floors when First Platoon makes the assault.”
Copping looked at the rise in the ground and nodded. He took the squad off toward the ridge and had them approach the crest in low crawl. He could clearly see the upper floors of the winery as he peered over the rise. Machine gun fire was emanating from the windows but it was sporadic and poorly aimed. He slid down the embankment to the waiting squad.
“It’s right over the ridge about a hundred yards out,” he pointed. “Jake, pick your spot for the Browning. Everyone else spread out and stay low. When I give the word, scramble to the top and let go with everything you got at the upper windows. Don’t shoot low! Our guys will be rushing the place.”
The young paratroopers nodded. Jake inched up to peek over the top of the rise and shuffled left until he found a spot with good visibility and a relatively flat surface for the bipod of his B-A-R. He slid down below the rise and nodded to Copping. Johnny dropped the musette bag he had been carrying that held the extra ammunition for the B-A-R. He took a position near Jake. The rest of the squad fanned out at five-yard intervals.
Copping gave a hand signal to Lieutenant Klee. In a few moments mortar rounds were dropping in and around the stone building. The enemy machine guns went silent as the gunners ducked to avoid the shrapnel. Flying debris and smoke obscured the front of the winery. The pop and hiss of smoke grenades could be heard as the paratroopers closed in on their objective.
“Now,” yelled Copping and the squad crawled to the top of the rise. The riflemen fired at the upper windows in rapid succession until their eight rounds were exhausted. The last round was followed by the ejection of the empty “en bloc” clip punctuated by the telltale ping of the clip exiting the receiver. The boys quickly jammed another clip into the open breach of their M-1 rifle.
Jake moved the selector on his B-A-R to “fast auto”. At that setting it would fire 650 rounds per minute. He knew he would run out of ammo quickly if he held the trigger so he fired three and four round bursts. He dug the bipod into the cement-hard dirt and muscled the nineteen-pound weapon steady during each burst. It only took about ten seconds to empty his twenty round box magazine, spraying all of the third story windows. When his magazine was exhausted, he rolled on his back and under the cover of the slope, yanked the empty magazine and slapped in another twenty rounds. He repeated this maneuver over and over until he reached to his ammo belt only to find he had used up all twelve magazines. Feeling for the musette bag, he fished out another magazine. As he slammed it home, he glanced at Johnny. His friend was doing his job, laying covering fire onto the openings in the house. So was everyone else.
The noise was deafening as nearly the entire company was firing at the windows of the winery from different vantage points. Stone chips and dust flew in all directions. Return fire became sparse but the enemy rounds crashing into the ground and smashing into the olive trees gave notice that death filled the air.
Under the cover of smoke and confusion, a bazooka team sprinted to the center of the action and fired a rocket at the main entrance of thick double wooden doors. The rocket exploded with a tremendous blast sending shrapnel and wooden splinters in all directions. The bazooka team reloaded and sent the next rocket through the open doorway to explode deep in the interior of the building. Fire, smoke and debris could be seen blowing out of the open first floor windows. Huge wooden casks inside were riddled with holes. Wine and blood flowed freely on the floor. Suddenly, a white flag was seen waving from a third story window.
“Cease fire, Cease fire!” someone yelled and as quickly as it began, it was over. The paratroopers came out from cover and gathered near the front door as enemy soldiers streamed out in a single file, hands over heads, some wiping eyes with elbows, others coughing, still others bleeding. The troopers guided them to the rear, continually motioning them to keep their hands in the air. A few Italian-American paratroopers barked orders in the native language. There were close to forty enemy soldiers in this parade of the vanquished. When the line stopped, some troopers entered the winery. They found six dead Italian soldiers and a dozen heavy machine guns with close to a million rounds of ammunition in the basement. Again the paratroopers suffered no fatalities. Some began to believe they were truly invincible.
“Bruce,” yelled Klee as he raced over from the command post. “Take charge of these prisoners.” Copping nodded.
The other paratroopers funneled the line of prisoners back to where 1st Squad had assembled. Copping lined them up and the men began searching them for concealed weapons, maps or orders. What they were really looking for was souvenirs.
Johnny noticed something strange about the last prisoner in line. His uniform was different. Although all of them were caked in white dust and debris, the cut of this uniform was unique. Danny was searching him, his netted helmet at a jaunty angle dangling his special chinstrap. He was smugly chewing a fresh piece of gum as he emptied the pockets of his captive. Boothe and Angelo held their rifles on the line of prisoners.
“Lookee here,” Danny announced. He was holding a wallet and fingering some personal pictures of the prisoner’s family. “What else do we have?” He removed a large watch and slid a ring from the prisoner’s finger. The prisoner was tall with blond hair and blue eyes. He had an ugly scar on the right side of his face, which glared angrily at Danny as he went through the pockets of his tunic.
Johnny walked over and stared hard at the prisoner and his uniform. “Wait a second, Danny Boy.” Then he asked the prisoner in Italian if he was Italian or German.
“Fallschrimjager… Fallschrimjager,” the prisoner answered motioning to himself with the thumbs of his raised hands. Then he pointed to Danny and Johnny. “Fallschrimjager!”
“Chrissake, he’s a Kraut. There’s not supposed to be any Krauts on the island.” Johnny brushed some dust from the prisoner’s sleeve. “And a noncom.” He turned to Danny. “And a paratrooper. We need to get this guy to Captain Wolff.” Johnny looked at the booty in Danny’s hands. “You gotta give him back his stuff.”
Danny stiffened. “No dice, Yank, this is mine. I liberated it. Fortunes of war. I ain’t giving shit back!”
Johnny wasn’t looking for a confrontation with Danny, especially in front of the rest of the guys who had stopped searching prisoners to stare at them. He tried a diplomatic approach.
“You’re right Danny Boy, its a soldier’s privilege to liberate souvenirs. Something to show our grandkids some day.” He pointed to the watch and ring in Danny’s hand. “But this is personal stuff. It has nothing to do with the War. It’s personal. And it’s not something you want to be caught with if you’re captured.”
Danny was listening but wasn’t convinced. Jake stepped over to Danny. “Hear him out.”
“If you want a real souvenir, take this.” Johnny reached for the prisoner’s collar and unlatched the pin behind a small metallic badge affixed to the upright collar. It was an oval shaped laurel wreath. The bird, a hawk or an eagle, was diving down from the upper right to the lower left, superimposed over the wreath. The wings were sharply swept back defining a bird of prey on the attack. In the claws was a swastika. On the reverse side was the manufacturer’s stamp, G.H Osang-Dresden. “This is the German Luftwaffe paratrooper badge. Now, this is a war souvenir. You won’t find many of these lying around.” He handed the badge to Danny whose eyes went wide with delight.
“Now that’s a real find,” Jake added. “Almost as good as a Luger,” Jake offered, referring to the German pistol that was the Holy Grail of war souvenirs for all GIs. “Give him back his personal stuff Danny Boy, please.”
Danny looked at the badge in his hand, seemed to study it. He was pleased with this rare find and handed the wallet, photos, watch and ring back to the prisoner.
“What outfit are you with?” Johnny asked. The prisoner stared blankly at him while he put his family photos in his wallet and stuffed his watch and ring into his pocket.
“No English, huh?” Johnny asked the same question in Italian. No response. He tried again in German with the same few words taught to all paratroopers. Still, the same blank stare.
Copping walked over. “Yank, Jake, take this guy to the CP and turn him over. Find out where the lieutenant wants us and hurry back.” He turned to his squad and pointed to the prisoners. “Give ‘em a white flag and point them south.”
Tedesco translated the orders to the gathered prisoners and sent them on their way. They were grateful to be alive and marched willingly down the road toward the sea.
Johnny and Jake escorted the German prisoner toward the CP.
Jake looked at Johnny. “There’s not supposed to be any German combat troops on this island.
What the hell is this guy doing here?”
“I wonder what outfit he’s with. And a paratrooper too,” Johnny replied.
“The brass is going to shit when they find out we’re up against German paratroopers.” Jake looked at the prisoner. “I wonder if this joker actually made any combat jumps or if he is just some rear-echelon pussy who stole that badge from a real fighter.”
The prisoner’s jaw tightened imperceptibly but he said nothing.
“This guy is probably a cook or something,” Jake continued his insults. “He doesn’t look tough enough to even be leg infantry. Forget about being a real paratrooper.”
Both Jake and Johnny were startled when the prisoner answered in perfect English. “I have survived two combat jumps. One in Belgium and the other on Crete.” He looked directly at Jake. “I am a paratrooper. A real fighter! I am not a cook and I am not a pussy cat.”
“Son of a bitch,” Johnny laughed as they walked toward the command post. “I guess you can’t insult any paratrooper, no matter whose side he’s on.”
“And I would have made many more combat jumps if Der Fuhrer had not forbid it,” the prisoner continued. He stared into the inquisitive eyes of both American paratroopers. “Our casualties were too great.” He paused. “Something you will soon learn about.”
“Your English is very good,” remarked Johnny.
“I attended university in America,” the prisoner explained. “And since I am prisoner, perhaps I shall be returning to America soon.”
“That makes us even, bud. We’re headed for Germany,” Jake chuckled.
“So, what outfit are you with?” Johnny decided to try one more time.
The prisoner considered the question for a moment. “Oh well, you will find out anyway very soon. I am with the Hermann Goering Fallschirm Division. We are converting into a Panzer Division. You will soon be introduced to our newest Mark Six Tiger heavy tank and soon learn why paratroopers take so many casualties.”
Johnny was stunned by the revelation. There were not supposed to be German combat units on Sicily and certainly not German tanks. He hid his surprise by tapping his airborne shoulder patch. “Eighty-second Airborne, Mac. Your people will soon learn why American paratroopers give so many casualties.”
They continued walking toward the company CP in silence. When they arrived, Wolff was resting on a large, flat rock outside his captured bunker. He was dispatching runners and issuing orders for the defense of the road junction.
During the hike back to the command post the prisoner had at times been smug and argumentative. Now, at the last moment, he let down his hard façade and softened. He turned to Johnny and said, “Thank you for letting me keep these,” he pointed to his watch and ring. “They are family heirlooms and cannot be replaced.” He reached into his boot and pulled out an SS dagger and then unfastened his belt buckle. He handed both to Johnny. “Souvenirs.” He then stiffened to attention. “I am fortunate to be captured by men like me. Men of honor.” The prisoner snapped a salute, a small tear forming in the corner of his eye.
The two paratroopers answered with casual sloppy salutes as the prisoner was taken away. Johnny turned to Wolff. “He speaks damn good English as you can see Captain and get this…he’s with the Hermann Goering Panzer Division, Tiger tanks and all.”
Wolff’s jaw dropped. He had seen a captured German Mark VI Tiger tank in North Africa and it was virtually unstoppable. Heavy German armor meant the American paratroopers would be woefully outgunned.
Wolff looked north up the road and imagined a brace of fifty-six ton Mark VI Tiger tanks rounding the bend in the road and pounding the winery into rubble with their dreaded .88-millimeter high velocity guns. He immediately issued new orders to deploy his soldiers behind the ridges, hills and ravines that surrounded the road junction. He didn’t want to be caught in a static defensive position. Wolff spread his men out with orders to dig in but be ready to move on command. The small undersized airborne company had orders to hold, regardless of what the enemy sent against them. With the captured firepower and ammunition, they would be in a better position to do just that if they could use their superior mobility and not get caught in the bunkers.
There was a commotion down the road behind him and Wolff turned around to see. He could not believe what he saw and had to do a double take. Coming up the road from the beach, as if taking a Sunday stroll was General Matthew B. Ridgway, CO of the 82nd Airborne Division. His personal aide-de-camp, Captain Don Faith and two bodyguards from the 1st Infantry Division accompanied him. Ridgway walked right up to Wolff who was still sitting on a large rock. With Ridgway wearing his two-star helmet, Wolff didn’t feel like he was giving anything away when he hopped off the wall on one foot and snapped a smart salute.
Ridgway spoke first. “Good morning, Captain. What unit is this?”
“Item Company, Third Battalion and a handful of strays, sir.”
“What’s your situation, Captain?” Ridgway asked.
“Well, sir, we have control of this strongpoint. We’re spread out and dug in facing north. Anything coming down that road has to pass through us.”
Ridgway nodded. “Very good, Captain. Have you been in contact with any other units?”
“No sir.” Wolff looked up at the hills from the east to the west. “For all I know General, we’re the only airborne troops on the island.” Wolff was dog-tired and surprised himself by being somewhat cavalier with his commanding general.
Ridgway leaned in close to Wolff so only he could hear him. “For all I know Captain, you may be right.” He had a concerned look on his face. “We came ashore this morning and General Allen had not yet made contact with any of my paratroopers,” Ridgway said referring to the CO of the 1st Infantry Division, Brigadier General Terry Allen. “We’ve been walking for a few miles. Yours is the first unit I’ve been able to find besides a few stragglers that I sent back to our lines. And of course we passed by those prisoners you must have been sending down the road.”
“Begging the General’s pardon, sir, but I made a bad joke. The Eighty-second is on the island, in force. The other units may not be in the exact right place and they may not have reported in yet but we’ve been hearing gunfire and firefights all night. Our guys are raising hell.”
“I get your meaning, son,” sighed Ridgway. “But until I find Colonel Gavin and his battalion commanders we can’t organize or concentrate our forces where we need to.”
Ridgway pointed up the road to the north. “What’s out that way?”
“Objective Y, General. The major road junction leading to the beach from Niscemi and west to Vittoria.” Captain Faith pulled out an unmarked map and pointed out the road junction to the general. Ridgway knew blocking this road network leading toward the sea was the primary mission for his paratroopers. Looking around he realized only one small company, with a seriously wounded company commander, seemed to have found their objective. One company out of four battalions! He feared that the rest of his force may have been captured or wiped out. If that were the case then the entire American beachhead was in danger of being surrounded and pushed back into the sea.
Wolff continued. “I have scouts out and an observation post up that way but so far no contact with the enemy coming down the road.”
“That won’t last long,” Ridgway concluded. “The Italians have to move their forces south and contest the beachhead.”
“Which reminds me, sir.” Wolff remembered. “We have a German prisoner who says he’s from the Hermann Goering Panzer Division. The Germans are here and they have Tigers.”
Ridgway’s expression turned to stone. He was stunned and looked at his aide who seemed equally surprised. It was evident Ridgway was unaware of the presence of German armor.
Ridgway tried to mask his surprise. He turned to his aide. “How could we not know that?” He calmed himself and looked at Wolff. “We’ll send you up some artillery spotters, Captain, either from the navy or from the First Division. If those tanks do show up we’ll have a surprise for them.” He nodded at his aide who wrote something in a small notebook. “Meanwhile, you take care of that leg. I’m going to take a little walk up this road.”
“Sir,” Wolff protested. “We don’t know what’s up that way. It’s not safe.”
Ridgway ignored the plea and began walking with his small entourage. He looked back over his shoulder. “Sorry Captain, but I have to find the rest of my boys.”