“To act in concert with a great man is the first of blessings.”
Marquis de Lafayette (1757 – 1834)
The order was unsettling and reverberated up and down the long thin skirmish line of kneeling soldiers. The men snapped their razor-sharp ten-inch bayonets onto their rifles with the audible clicks of metal on metal and waited for the order to charge up and over the crest of the ridge. The Charge of the Light Brigade, thought Johnny Kilroy.
This group was made up of paratrooper stragglers from various units and some infantrymen from the 45th Infantry Division. Colonel Gavin assembled this mixed bag of troops in one last desperate effort to hold Biazza Ridge. They awaited Gavin’s order to attack.
A few days before, Gavin would have never predicted he’d be leading his men in a battle that would decide the fate of the entire invasion. He and a few of his staff had been dropped over thirty miles southeast of their drop zone. Without a radio they had no communications and no idea where they were. He and his small contingent headed west during that first night picking up small groups of similarly lost paratroopers along the way.
At daybreak on 10 July, while Captain Wolff’s Item Company was taking the pillbox complex after lighting the signal fire above Gela, a frustrated Gavin was holed up in a grove of olive trees waiting for nightfall. It was too dangerous to move in daylight so the small group of rank-heavy paratroopers took turns sleeping and standing watch.
A disgusted Gavin contemplated his situation. Here he was, CO of a Regimental Combat Team whose mission was essential to the success of the invasion of Sicily, and all he could manage on his first day on the job was to avoid capture.
Somewhere to the northwest was a raging battle and all he could do was listen. For all he knew, the first mass combat drop of U.S. Army Paratroopers in history had been a total disaster. His mind worked overtime conjuring up all of the worst-case scenarios he could imagine. Were all his men killed or captured? Were his troops scattered all over the island? Not only was it personally appalling for him to be out of contact with his command but also reflected negatively on the airborne doctrine he had so passionately championed.
After sunset, he and his little entourage moved out, careful to avoid enemy positions while heading toward the sounds of the battle. After the first skirmish, his side-folding butt stock M1A1 Winchester carbine jammed. So did the carbines of many of his staff officers. They moved through the night and by virtue of road signs and information from captured Italian prisoners, eventually located American lines. They were challenged by an outpost of the 45th Infantry Division and just before dawn slipped into the recently captured town of Vittoria. Gavin wasn’t satisfied with simply finding American lines. He still sensed a battle developing ahead and he was determined to get into it. He commandeered a jeep and headed west toward Gela. A few miles down the road he ran into a large group of paratroopers bivouacked in a tomato field and just awakening. Major Krause had collected this force, mostly from his own 3rd Battalion, and was resting them. Whether it was from his own lack of sleep or the lack of aggressiveness displayed by the normally bellicose Krause, Gavin became enraged.
“What about your objective, Major?”
“We were dropped off target, sir.” Krause stiffened at the rebuke he knew was coming.
“Apparently, so was everyone else,” Gavin replied. “What the heck are you doing here?”
“We assisted the Forty-fifth in capturing the town.” He was referring to Vittoria. “I’ve been collecting stray troopers and supply bundles. I rested my men overnight.”
Gavin shook his head in disgust. “What’s down that road?” He pointed west along the road to Gela where sporadic gunfire could be heard.
Krause cleared his throat. “I’m not exactly sure, Colonel, but I have scouts and an OP out that way. There’s a German force down the road but I haven’t been able to determine its size yet. There weren’t supposed to be any Krauts on the island, sir.”
Gavin ignored the news while glowering at Krause. “Get your men ready to move out, Major. I’m taking a patrol to scout the road west. Move up as soon as you can.”
Gavin took a platoon of paratrooper engineers west on the Vittoria-Gela Road. Continuing toward the increasingly louder gunfire, the patrol soon rounded a bend and came upon a railroad crossing with a small stone gatehouse.
The ground rose gradually ahead for half a mile to a ridge about one hundred feet high. On both sides of the road were olive trees and beneath them tall burnt brown grass that provided some concealment but little cover. Through his field glasses Gavin could see Germans dug in on the ridge and firing in their direction. He reached into his map case and studied the map. Directly on the other side of the ridge was the north-south road from Biscari. If the Germans attacked down that road they would drive a wedge between the 1st and 45th Infantry Divisions and split the American forces. This was a golden opportunity for them to destroy the two American divisions and defeat the landings. Gavin knew intuitively he had to take and hold that ridge to interdict any German force heading toward the beach. Biazza Ridge suddenly became a commanding piece of terrain and critical to the success of the invasion. What he didn’t know was that a potent German armored column was already attacking southward from Biscari toward the beaches. Gavin was about to unknowingly attack the flank of this powerful force with a handful of light infantry.
It was mid morning before the remaining paratroopers of the 3rd Battalion joined his small patrol of engineers and they assaulted the ridge with the fire and maneuver tactics they had so often practiced. A few hundred paratroopers attacked through the stands of olive trees across a broad front in the face of withering machine gun fire. The ripping sound of the German Maschinengewehr 42 machine gun, called the MG-42 by the GIs, was as distinctive as it was deadly. The rate of fire was so high, 1,200 rounds per minute, that it was impossible to distinguish one shot from the next. The German machine-gunners spewed their deadly waves of bullets at the advancing paratroopers, shredding tree limbs and cutting leaves from their branches. Paratroopers eventually moved around the flanks forcing the Germans on the ridge to withdraw.
Although the enemy withdrew in good order, Gavin’s small force gave chase. While he believed he was spoiling a German attack by pricking at the column’s flanks, he actually ran head on into a frontal attack by a German battle group called a Kampfgruppe. The German commander had felt the pressure on his left flank and changed his attack plan. Instead of continuing toward the beach, he turned to face the new threat. This new plan of attack would aim his heavily armored tank column directly at the lightly armed paratroopers on Biazza Ridge.
Captain Wolff summoned Lieutenant Klee on the afternoon of 10 July. He ordered Klee to take a small patrol east to find Major Krause and the rest of the 3rd Battalion
Klee set out with Johnny and Jake Kilroy, Joe Boothe, Dominic Angelo, Danny Peregory, Sky Johnson and Sergeant Bruce Copping. The small patrol made it to a supply depot. There Jake replenished his B-A-R ammo with two twelve magazine belts. The extra thirty-six pounds on top of his eighteen-pound weapon convinced him he would have to rid himself of the B-A-R at his first opportunity. Let someone else haul the squad automatic weapon around next time.
The men stocked up on water and K-rations. Each K-ration box came with one day’s supply of 3,000 calories broken into three meals. The main food for each meal was sealed in a small metal can. The variety was sparse and men quickly tired of meat and vegetables, meat and beans or meat and eggs. Canned cheese, a fruit bar and some candy were also included along with drink packets of lemonade or instant coffee. Some toilet paper, waterproof matches, a flat spoon, dried biscuits, cigarettes, gum, sugar and a can opener rounded out the package.
The patrol moved out along the railroad tracks in single file and in silence until nightfall. After they crossed the Acate River on the railroad bridge, Klee ordered the men to catch a few hours sleep in shifts. Most had been awake for over forty hours and were bone-tired. They continued their eastbound search before dawn on 11 July but were pushed south toward the coast by the sounds of a battle straight ahead. A German force heading south from Biscari was pressing the 45th Division. Klee found a company CP. The officers told him about a group of paratroopers assembling west of Vittoria on the east-west Vittoria-Gela road. Klee headed southeast toward Scoglitti and then turned northeast to intersect the road.
The patrol approached the road by mid-afternoon. The closer they got, the louder the sound of battle. They had stumbled upon a full-fledged firefight. They ran into Major William Hagan, 3rd Battalion XO, conferring with Colonel Gavin. They were summarily ordered to join the skirmish line. The men took positions just off of the Vittoria-Gela road that bisected the eastern and western slopes of Biazza Ridge. They would take part in the last desperate counterattack Gavin was planning to avoid losing the ridge and the beachhead.
All during the day, the force Gavin had sent over the ridge in the morning had been in a wild fight. Their initial charge had removed the Germans from the top of the ridge but as the paratroopers swept down the western side they were exposed to heavy mortar and artillery fire. They went to ground and tried to dig in but the hard shale was unforgiving and the earth surrendered only shallow holes. Despite these challenges, the paratroopers fought hard and kept pressing the Germans with fire and movement. It was a seesaw battle for most of the day, both sides giving and taking as circumstances created opportunities that were both seized and lost. Casualties began streaming back over the ridge to the hastily established aid station near the gatehouse. Minor wounds were quickly treated and the men were sent back into action. The more seriously wounded were hauled back to the field hospital in Vittoria.
On the western side of the ridge the battle began to go badly. German Mark VI Tiger tanks had arrived on the scene in force and were making their presence felt. The high-pitched supersonic fire from their .88-millimeter guns echoed across the battlefield. They shredded the stone walls of farmhouses and the trees in the olive groves and kept the infantrymen hugging the dirt in their shallow holes. Occasionally, small teams of men maneuvered their M1A1 Rocket Launchers into firing position only to see their 2.36-inch bazooka rockets bounce harmlessly off the frontal armor of the Tigers. Some bazooka teams maneuvered to the rear of the tanks to score effective hits but were vulnerable to German infantry when they did so. Other troopers disabled the tanks with hits on the treads or bogey wheels. But once they gave away their position with the bazooka’s large back blast and smoke signature, German infantry and armor pounced on them. They became the most hunted men on the battlefield with Tigers firing both their machine guns and main guns at individual soldiers. It was raw flesh against cold steel and only the continued forceful attacks and fire and movement of the paratroopers kept the superior enemy force from overrunning their position. The aggressiveness of the paratroopers confused the superior German force. On more than one occasion during that hot day, the Tigers actually retreated to regroup and re-arm giving the besieged paratroopers a brief respite.
Casualties continued to mount. As more reinforcements trickled in, Gavin committed them to the battle. Two crews from the 456th PFAB, each with a .75-millimeter M1A1 Pack Howitzer, struggled to drag their cannons up the long sloping ridge. Gavin positioned them on the flanks of the ridge where they were able to lay direct fire on the Tiger tanks. The paratrooper artillery crews would disappear from the enemy’s sight by pulling their guns below the crest of the ridge only to emerge in a different place. This grueling cat and mouse game went on for hours until a German .88 knocked out one of the guns. As the remaining artillery piece ran low on shells, the Germans began making grudging headway up the long western slope.
By late afternoon Gavin was in danger of losing the ridge. He called up an artillery spotter from the navy to secure gunfire support from the ships offshore. At the same time he assembled a force just beneath the crest of the ridge to counterattack the Germans if they made it to the top. The lone remaining towed .75-millimeter cannon was positioned in the center of the line. Gavin’s small force was hanging on by a slim thread.
Klee and his squad came upon the scene just as Gavin was deploying his last-ditch counterattacking force and were immediately ordered to take positions in the ranks. The boys wished each other luck with pats on the backs and taps on the helmets and slipped into the line.
Gavin then called for his men on the western slope to withdraw in good order and called in naval gunfire. The five and six inch shells began landing on the western slope. The able-bodied did an about face and joined the skirmish line. There were perhaps a hundred paratroopers across a ninety-yard front preparing to charge. They were all that stood between victory and defeat.
Gavin paced up and down the center of the line, shouting at the top of his voice, hoping to be heard above the din of the battlefield. “If the tanks break through, we take on the infantry. We do not withdraw. We go in one direction only. Forward!”
His officers and NCOs repeated the order up and down the line of grim and determined troopers. For most of these reinforcements, this would be their first combat. Their strong desire to prove themselves and not let each other down overcame their fear. The adrenaline was flowing and their senses were in overdrive. Most of these young boys would never again be as brave as they would be this day. Some would die. Others would suffer devastating injuries. The remaining, having witnessed the wanton and random destruction of their brothers around them, would forever see the world differently. They would become more thoughtful and more careful before they risked their lives again. But on this day they swallowed hard through dry mouths and gripped their rifles with sweaty palms. On this day they would stand tall, grit their teeth, lean into the fire and charge. On this day, boys would become men!
Johnny stood up with his rifle at port arms and awaited the order. “I didn’t think wars were fought this way anymore,” he shouted to Jake thinking of the long lines of British soldiers and American militiamen in the Revolution.
“Helluva’ way to fight a war,” Jake agreed as he loosened the sling on his B-A-R and looped it over his shoulder to take some of the weight. Without a bayonet he would move forward firing his B-A-R from the hip.
The noise was deafening as smoke and dust swirled everywhere near the ridge. Suddenly the artillery barrage stopped. Someone yelled, “Ready, men!”
The drone of a diesel tank engine and the clanking noise of tank treads could be heard just below the crown of the ridge. The long barrel of the .88-millimeter high velocity gun of a Mark VI Tiger poked its way menacingly over the crest. The airborne artillerymen quickly muscled their howitzer to bore-sight it at the emerging tank. Holding their ears, the crew fired at the vulnerable underbelly and scored a direct hit. The explosion was enormous. The men cheered as the turret flew off and flames and smoke belched from the view slits. The tank seemed to rise in the air a few inches and drop dead in its tracks at the pinnacle of the ridge. Thick black smoke and brilliant flames gushed from the mangled and lifeless vehicle like some slain dragon-monster.
The main gun of another Tiger appeared above the crest, moving slowly into view. The artillerymen repeated the dance with their artillery piece and took aim at the new threat. The tank stopped, refusing to expose its underbelly, its weaponry pointing uselessly to the sky.
Gavin sensed this was the moment. “Let’s go,” he yelled and the thin line surged forward as one organism up and over the crest of Biazza Ridge.
The German infantry advancing up the western slope were caught off guard, shocked at the sight of the charging paratroopers with flashing bayonets coming fast down the slope directly at them. The machine gunners were caught with their MG-42s on their shoulders as they hauled them up the slope to set up atop the ridge. The German rifleman were barely able to get off one or two shots with their bolt-action Mauser Gewher 1898 rifles before the storming paratroopers were in their midst. The few tanks that remained functional on the western slope could not bring fire on the Americans intermixed with their own infantry and were forced to withdraw. Gavin had timed the charge perfectly.
The surge of the paratroopers carried into and through the surprised German infantry formations. The sight of the screaming horde with bayonet-tipped rifles panicked many Germans to flight. They retreated through the scattered smoking hulks of tanks and trucks knocked out by the artillery barrage. They ran headlong through the orchards and vineyards in fear-driven terror. The paratroopers surged forward into the olive groves pushing the retreating enemy before them. Some turned and fought. A flashing bayonet or a burst of rifle fire quickly cut them down. After a few moments the entire German force was in headlong retreat with the keyed up paratroopers in hot pursuit.
The scene on the western slope was ghastly. The carnage wrought by the artillery was devastating. Bodies were broken and strewn about the ground amid burnt and smoking human and mechanical wreckage. The stench was ungodly. Groans and screams of wounded and dying men were everywhere.
Jake and Johnny managed to stay side-by-side during the charge down the hill. Jake fired his B-A-R in short bursts and focused on avoiding spraying rounds into American paratroopers who had gotten ahead of him. That effort became difficult as soldiers of both sides swirled together in the wild melee.
Johnny avoided using his bayonet. The idea of sticking the ten-inch blade into someone repulsed him. He preferred shooting his M-1. The bayonet would be his last resort.
The flight of the enemy and the downward slope of the western side of the ridge gave the Americans great momentum. The rout was total and complete but the Americans were scattered all over the battlefield having chased their prey beyond visual sight. If it were a cavalry charge, the bugler would have blown recall on the trumpet.
Jake and Johnny, breathing heavily and separated from the group, pulled up by a low rock wall near a small stream that ran alongside a wide track to a vineyard. They stood hands-on-knees trying to catch their breath when Jake heard something between the sounds of their deep breaths. He peered around the wall. In a bend in the track stood a German Mark VI Tiger tank parked less than fifty yards away. Four crewmen, obviously unaware the battle had reached them, were standing casually outside their tank. Two of them were looking at a map while the other two were examining one of the bogey wheels on the tank tread. The tank’s engine was idling. There were no German infantry in sight.
Jake nodded and raised his B-A-R. Johnny gently lowered the barrel with his free hand. “They’re not armed. Let’s take them prisoner.”
Jake looked at Johnny intently. He said nothing but his eyes asked why take chances?
“They may have some intelligence,” Johnny answered the unasked question. They were getting to know each other well enough to read the other’s thoughts.
“All right, cover me,” Jake said reluctantly as he replaced his twenty round box magazine having lost count of the rounds he expended. Johnny worked the bolt on his M-1 manually and ejected two live cartridges before the clip came flying out to land quietly in the long brown grass. He jammed in a fresh clip of eight, racked the bolt to chamber a round and nodded to Jake.
“I got this. It’s my idea, it’s on me,” Johnny said as he brushed by Jake and stepped out into the open. He moved quickly toward the four Germans huddled around their tank. He raised his M-1 to his shoulder as he swiftly closed the open ground between them. “Hande luften,” he yelled in stilted German. “Kommen sie hier, schnell!”
The four tank crewmen were shocked to be caught outside their vehicle by an American infantryman and quickly raised their hands. One of them began yelling, “Kamerad, Kamerad.”
“Kommen sie hier, schnell!” Johnny repeated as he lowered his rifle. The German tankers started walking toward him. He motioned to them by pointing his rifle barrel up at their heads repeatedly. Then he tapped his free hand on his helmet. They quickly put their hands on their heads. One of them was wearing a sidearm in a shoulder holster so Johnny kept his M-1 pointing directly at him as they closed the distance to about ten yards.
Suddenly the turret of the tank started to turn the main gun toward the Americans. Johnny raised the M-1 to his shoulder and took aim at the armed prisoner. He would die first.
“Nicht sheissen, nicht sheissen!” yelled one of the prisoners as he waved his hands frantically at Johnny. The others were wide-eyed and pleading. They all dropped to their knees. One of them turned and began screaming orders in German toward the tank. The turret still turned slowly toward the paratroopers.
Jake jumped out from behind cover. “Yank, the hatch,” he screamed. “I got these guys.” Jake was running forward with his B-A-R at his shoulder.
Johnny saw the hatch in the commander’s cupola was open. He dropped his M-1 and raced by the prisoners toward the tank. One of the prisoners was still screaming orders toward the tank but the gun continued to turn. The prisoners knew if their crewmate fired the gun, the Americans would kill them all. The turret continued to move gradually as the lone remaining crewman manually cranked it around.
Johnny pulled a grenade from his web belt. In one motion he slipped his razor-sharp Schrade-Walden switchblade knife from his shoulder scabbard and slit the electrical tape holding the spoon tight to the grenade. He hopped up on the tank chassis, pulled the safety pin and dropped the grenade into the open hatch as he jumped off the other side.
The turret was now pointing directly over the heads of the prisoners and the .88-millimeter main gun fired and split the air with a deafening supersonic roar. The shot was high and smashed into a twisted olive tree a few hundred yards behind Jake, turning it instantly into splinters. The shock wave knocked Jake to the ground. The crewman in the tank did not have time to depress the muzzle of the gun before the grenade went off. Bloody debris erupted from the open hatch.
Jake angrily retrieved his helmet and motioned to the prisoners to place hands on heads and begin walking. Johnny came around the tank, black smoke now curling from the hatch, and picked up his M-1. He joined Jake as they walked their shaken prisoners back toward their lines. They walked in silence for a few moments, decompressing from the frantic action.
Johnny took a deep breath. “Good thinking, Jake. Another few seconds and we’d have been dog shit.”
Jake nodded. He was struggling to regain his hearing. “Hey, I didn’t know you spoke German that well.”
“I know six words, “Johnny lied. “And I used all of them.” He was smiling the smile of a relieved survivor after a close call. “But you learn something every day.”
“Really? Like what?” Jake asked.
“Like, a Tiger tank has five crewmen, not four.”
The two men marched their prisoners back up the ridge. The counterattack had been a complete success. The Germans were weakened first by artillery and then routed by the paratrooper-led infantry. They would later ask if the Americans at Biazza Ridge had fought the Japanese in the Pacific because they fought so well.
The word came down that Colonel Gavin ordered all units to consolidate on the ridge for the night. The two paratroopers and their prisoners worked their way back up the slope. The hill was strewn with carnage. They saw dead and wounded men, material and body parts and smelled cordite mixed with the ubiquitous smell of burnt flesh. Army medics treated wounded soldiers of both sides all over the battlefield. Other troopers were helping injured buddies back over the ridge. The dead were left where they lay for the time being. Only their dog tags were collected. An upright rifle stuck by its bayonet into the rocky ground, some with a helmet on the butt stock, marked where they fell.
The two paratroopers came upon Major Hagan, 3rd Battalion XO, lying on a stretcher and conferring with Lieutenant Klee. Klee saw his two men first.
“Jake, Johnny, over here,” Klee beckoned.
The two men herded their prisoners toward the officers. Johnny spoke first. “Tiger tank crew…minus one. The tank is in a clearing around that bend past the vineyard.”
“You captured a Mark Six?” Major Hagan’s thigh was wrapped with a thick bandage, which was bleeding through. Despite the pain he was ecstatic.
“Yes, sir, Major,” Jake replied. “But it might not be functional. Yank here had to drop a frag grenade into it. I’m sure there are pieces of Kraut all over the inside.”
“Excellent work, men,” Major Hagan complimented. He motioned to a nearby staff officer. “Take these prisoners to the command post at the gatehouse.” Just before two brawny soldiers lifted his stretcher to cart him away, the major turned back to Jake and Johnny. “Well done, men.”
The two paratroopers nodded, embarrassed by the attention. Johnny turned to Lieutenant Klee. “What about our other guys, sir?”
Klee shook his head and looked toward the ground. “Danny Boy was wounded bad. He’s back at the aid station. Boots and Dom didn’t make it.”
Jake and Johnny were shocked. Soldiers were dying all around them and they accepted that outcome as the cold calculus of war. They certainly felt bad for all the fallen but losing a close friend was different. Just an hour ago they were laughing and joking with one another and now their friends were gone. It was a realization impossible to accept. It hit them both hard.
“What about Sky?” asked Johnny.
Klee pointed to a spot on the ridge near a small outcropping of rock. “He’s fine. He’s up there with Sergeant Copping. You guys need to join up with them. We’re digging in for the night. The colonel expects the Krauts to make one more try at the ridge.”
The two men nodded and made their way to the top of the ridge. Johnny stopped only to pick up bandoliers of .30-caliber ammo from some of the bodies they passed. The stony ground crunched under their feet as they navigated up the slope. Sky saw them coming and rushed down to meet them. They roughly hugged each other with great elation. Only the memory of their fallen buddies dampened their exhilaration.
“Glad to see you guys,” Copping slapped both of them on the back. “We thought you were gone for sure.” He walked them to the crest and pointed to a partially excavated foxhole. “Finish digging and you’ll have a safe place to sleep.”
Jake and Johnny set to work scraping out the hard shale and packed earth while Sky and Copping continued work on their holes. All up and down the line the men were digging furiously. Only the continuous sound of metal shovels striking earth broke the silence.
Some ammunition carriers from the 45th Infantry Division pulled up about fifty yards behind them. Soldiers from the trucks began distributing ammo and K-rations. Accompanying the ammo carriers was an M16 Gun Motor Carriage, called a halftrack. It had four M2 HB .50-caliber anti-aircraft machine guns in a synchronized gun mount on an electrically powered turret. The belt ammunition was fed from four attached canister drums. Another .50-caliber machine gun mounted behind the driver provided additional secondary protection. The quad-fifty mount was pointed skywards.
After an hour or so the holes were deep enough. The sun began to set and a cool breeze came up off the sea. Johnny settled down in his fighting hole while Jake leaned back and pulled a small Bible from his pocket and began reading in the fading light.
There was a slight commotion behind them and Johnny turned to see what it was. He was flabbergasted to see Colonel Gavin kneeling alongside their hole. He was carrying an M-1.
“So,” Gavin said, “you’re the men who captured that Tiger tank! Outstanding!” He looked at Johnny. “What’s your name, son? Where you from?”
“Private John Kilroy, sir. New York.”
“I’m Brooklyn born,” Gavin smiled. He turned to Jake. “And you, son?”
“Private Jake Kilroy.”
“No, Colonel, we’re not related,” Johnny answered.
“Hmm…” Gavin mused. “That’s not so unusual in this regiment. There’s a Sergeant Gavin in Second Battalion. I never met him personally. We’re not related either but by now he’s probably convinced everyone we are.” Gavin chuckled. “Well, I just wanted to say thanks and see how you men were doing. Good work today!”
“Thank you, sir,” said both in unison.
Gavin held Jake’s shoulder as he stood up. “Something to tell the folks about back home.”
“No folks to tell, sir. I’m an orphan,” Jake answered.
Gavin knelt back down and looked at Jake. “Me too, son. So maybe someday we can tell our grandchildren what we did here today. It’s a story worth telling.”
“Stay alert, men. I think the Krauts will attack again tonight. I know I would. And Colonel Tucker’s regiment is dropping onto Farello Airfield tonight about ten miles west of here. Pass the word.”
Gavin moved to the next foxhole. He said a few words of encouragement and moved down the line, no doubt advising the men reinforcements would be arriving by air. In fact, orders had gone out to the fleet and all ground units that paratrooper reinforcements were flying in.
Darkness fell and still no counterattack came. Unable to punch through Biazza Ridge with their armored spearhead, the Germans concluded the Americans were heavily armed and dug in strong defensive positions in great numbers. They decided to withdraw both Kampfgruppe during the night. The landings would no longer be contested. The Axis forces on Sicily would now be fighting to stave off annihilation.
Jake had dropped off into a semi-sleep while Johnny stood watch at the front of their hole. He was awakened by the familiar drone of the C-47 Pratt and Whitney engines as the V-formation of planes passed directly over their position heading for Farello Airfield. Serial after serial passed over at 700 feet in perfect formation. It was a spectacular nocturnal aerial ballet. Tucker was bringing his remaining two infantry battalions, an artillery battalion and a company of engineers. About 2,300 men were planning to make nothing more than a routine training drop on conspicuously illuminated, soft, flat ground inside American lines. The weather was perfect, the visibility excellent and the winds were calm. The conditions were textbook. All of the men along the line were staring at the endless stream of C-47s ferrying in their brothers.
Suddenly, out on the water, an anti-aircraft gun from one of the ships opened fire. Soon another, then another opened fire. The firing quickly spread like a virus. The multicolored tracers reached up into the sky at the transports. The slow, low flying planes were easy targets and many were hit immediately. Land-based anti-aircraft batteries joined the slaughter and soon most of the ships at anchor had guns blazing at the formation of friendly planes.
Jake snapped awake. “What the fuck! No, you assholes!” The other paratroopers along the line were also yelling but their pleas were drowned out by the cacophony of noise made by the anti-aircraft artillery. The men along the ridgeline were helpless as they watched the low and slow flying planes being repeatedly hit. It was mass murder. In desperation, the planes turned on their lights to indicate they were friendly. That made them easier targets. Some of the planes, damaged and smoking, pushed through to drop their paratroopers on the airfield. Others aborted the mission and turned back out to sea. Still others jettisoned their paratroopers immediately after being hit but before they crashed.
Paratroopers standing hooked up and ready to jump were shredded as bullets tore through the thin-skinned fuselage of their plane. Some scrambled out only to come down too fast under torn chutes. Others were ripped apart by gunfire as they drifted down and dangled helplessly. Before the formation of 144 planes scattered out of danger, sixty of the aircraft would be hit.
Jake and Johnny stood by powerlessly. They were screaming to stop firing. It was butchery beyond comprehension and their fellow Americans were perpetrating it. Jake was screaming so loud and hard tears began streaming down his face. The sight of burning parachutes, ignited by anti aircraft tracers, with helpless men dangling beneath them was too much to bear.
All of a sudden the Quad-50 on the halftrack behind them opened up with a deafening roar. The crew was firing deadly armor-piercing rounds at the transports. Jake jumped up and ran to the vehicle yelling all the way. “They’re ours! They’re ours!” Johnny followed him.
A young-looking lieutenant was standing near the halftrack. He appeared to be in charge. Jake came up on him quickly and startled him. “Cease fire, sir. Those are our planes!”
The officer didn’t hear due to the earsplitting noise of the guns. The Quad-50 kept pouring rounds into the over flying aircraft with devastating effect. Jake tried to climb onto the halftrack as he yelled but the officer, not understanding his intentions, pulled him down. Jake lost it. He shoved the officer to the ground and hopped up into the tracks and over the side into the rear of the M3 Halftrack. He pulled the gunner’s hands off the triggers. “Stop firing, those are our planes!” He was still screaming.
The gunner looked at Jake stupidly. “I got orders, Mac.”
Someone else said, “Who is this guy?”
The officer jumped to his feet, said, “Get down here right now, soldier.”
The gunner made a move to re-grip the trigger and Jake punched him. While the gunner was still stunned Jake unhooked his harness and grabbed him. With strength only realized when adrenaline fuses with pure rage, Jake tossed the gunner from the rear compartment of the gun carriage. The gunner landed on the officer and they both hit the ground.
Jake looked out at the two of them. “Nobody is firing these guns any more tonight!”
The officer pulled out his .45-caliber sidearm and pointed it at Jake. “Get down right now, Private or I’ll shoot.”
“I believe you would, sir.” Jake was enraged. “You’ve already killed some paratroopers tonight. Why not me too?” Jake stood defiantly in the vehicle.
The officer looked confused. He was certain he was firing at German bombers. He had no word American transports would be dropping paratroopers that night. He cocked the hammer of the .45 and pointed it directly at Jake’s head. “If I don’t kill you, you’ll be court-martialed for sure. Now, get out of my vehicle, soldier.”
“No fucking way, sir!”
Before the officer could react, he felt a cold steel rifle barrel poked under his ear. Johnny held his M-1 Garand with the stock under his armpit. “I would just slowly lower that forty-five if I were you…sir!”