“The more darkness in night attacks hinders and impedes the sight,
the more must one supply the place of actual vision by skill and care.”
Scipio Africanus (236 BC – 184 BC)
The paratroopers of Jake’s squad were lined up at the doorway of their dark green C-47 Skytrain preparing to load up. Their plane was one of 226 transports scattered among twelve new airfields recently gouged out of the Tunisian hardscrabble. The sun was low in the western sky as the boys began to climb up the narrow aluminum ladders that hung from the doors of the planes.
If all went according to plan, they would drop near midnight, by the waning light of the full moon, and attack their targets shortly after moonset. Wherever it was they were going, it could never be as dreadful as North Africa. Jake and Johnny were ready to jump into Hades itself while Danny kept repeating, “Where the hell are we going?”
General Matthew B. Ridgway moved his 82nd Airborne Division from Oujda to Kairouan in the beginning of July. Everyone sensed they were getting close to their first combat jump.
Upon arrival at Kairouan they pitched their tent city in the shade of pear and almond trees, which protected them from the brutal July desert sun that often pushed temperatures to 125 degrees. The trees also offered some concealment from the prying eyes of Axis reconnaissance planes. An occasional romp in the surf of the nearby Mediterranean substituted for showers and cooled them from the ever-present hot, dry desert siroccos.
Ridgway desperately wanted to deliver his entire division in one airlift. There simply weren’t enough transports because General Dwight D. Eisenhower allocated some of the American C-47 Skytrains to the British. Ridgway was forced to cobble together a Regimental Combat Team under Colonel James M. Gavin. The 3,400 troopers in the 505th RCT would be the first Americans to take the fight to the continent of Europe. The jump was scheduled for the night of 9 July. The remaining battalions of the 504th PIR would be flown in the next night.
Gavin was true to his word to Doc McIlvoy. Immediately after their discussion, he increased the food and water rations and enforced the Atabrine tablet discipline. He still trained the men hard but mostly at night out of the scorching heat of the day. There were no more mass practice drops. Casualties from training accidents went to near zero. The 82nd Airborne was slowly recovering from the depths of depravity it suffered in Oujda and morale began to rise. The 505th was a proud unit with tremendous espirit de corps. They were once again becoming the physically and mentally tough fighting machine Gavin had envisioned.
A few days before the jump, each company was brought into a large tent to study their objectives. The Allies planned a sea borne landing along a one hundred mile stretch of the southern coast of Sicily. The British Eighth Army under General Montgomery – four divisions, an independent brigade and a commando force – would land on the southeast coast of Sicily on a forty-five mile front ending near the port city of Syracuse.
The Seventh Army, under General Patton, would land near the seacoast towns of Scoglitti and Gela. The first American amphibious wave of the 1st “Big Red One”, 3rd “Rock of the Marne” and 45th “Thunderbird” Infantry Divisions and Lieutenant Colonel William O. Darby’s 1st, 3rd and 4th Ranger Battalions would spearhead the sea borne invasion.
The airborne assault, codename Husky One for the American effort and Ladbroke for the British drop, was designed to buy the sea borne element sufficient time to build up adequate forces on the beachheads. The paratroopers would accomplish this by seizing the high ground inland above the town of Gela and controlling the roads inland from the beaches.
Gavin’s greatest concern was the flight to the drop zones. In order to avoid flying over the invasion fleet, the planes would navigate a circuitous route looping around the convoy of ships. This lengthened the flight time to more than three hours. To avoid detection they would fly only a few hundred feet above the sea. These factors were daunting enough to the most experienced aircrews and Gavin knew the pilots who would ferry his troops were mostly green and inexperienced. Even though there were no alternatives, it still gave him sleepless nights.
Captain Louis Wolff’s Item Company had been designated for a special mission. He gathered his troopers around a covered sand table. Behind the table, hanging on the wall was a large blurry blowup of a reconnaissance photo. In front of the photograph, standing on a low platform, was the unpopular CO of the 3rd Battalion, Major Edward C. Krause. He earned the nickname “Cannonball” for his gruff manner and fiery temper.
Wolff joined Major Krause in front of the aerial photo. Krause spoke first. “Before I let Captain Wolff brief you on your mission, I want to remind you this battalion is made up of the toughest bad asses in the army. You’re going to go in amongst them and stack bodies!”
The boys listened in silence. Krause continued. “Intelligence tells us there are no German combat units and no heavy tanks.” This information was important to the paratroopers. Being light infantry, they were particularly vulnerable to heavy armor. They did carry a rocket launcher, called a “bazooka”, a light, portable anti-tank weapon, but the paratroopers never seemed to have enough rockets for it. Besides, they knew the bazooka could not stop the heaviest German tanks.
“We’ll be landing and assembling after dark. The challenge is ‘George’, the response is ‘Marshall’,” Krause explained.
“Who’s that?” Dom Angelo chuckled. The whole company broke up in laughter. Everyone knew that General George Marshall was the Chief of Staff, the highest-ranking officer in the military and President Roosevelt’s right hand man on matters pertaining to the War.
Krause continued. “Very cute! Now pay attention! Item Company has been assigned a detached special mission. You men will be dropped on a different target than the rest of the battalion. I’ll let your company commander brief you.” With that, Krause stepped off of the platform and gave way to Captain Wolff.
Wolff snapped the tarp off of the sand table. He used a long wooden pointer to direct attention to locations carved into the sand. “We are tasked with the mission of reducing this pillbox complex at this road junction. Then we hold this road junction until relieved.” He moved the pointer from the sand table to the blurred blowup of the photo and back. A murmur arose from the group as the troopers in front crowded closer. The targets were arranged exactly like the mock-ups they had repeatedly attacked in training.
Before Wolff could continue, Sky spoke up. “Captain, are those ridges on both sides of the drop zone to scale?” The drop area for the entire company was in a narrow valley between two high ridgelines at the western end of a large lake. The paratroopers looked around at one another. They instinctively understood this narrow drop zone would be difficult to find at night.
“Yes, everything is to scale,” Wolff answered and continued. “Everyone except First Squad, Second Platoon will attack the pillbox complex and secure the road junction. Nothing gets by us to the beach. Nothing!” Wolff paused for affect and then continued. “Now this is important, First Squad under Lieutenant Clark will set a signal fire on this hill at exactly zero-two-hundred hours.” Wolff rested the pointer on a bulge in the sand table. “We’re lighting the way for the Sixteenth Infantry Regiment of the Big Red One,” Wolff explained. “They’ll land where they see the beacon, so this mission must be picture perfect.”
“Sir,” a voice called from the crowd. “Where is this place? Where are we going?”
“You’ll find out soon enough. Right now I want each officer to bring his platoon up to the table one at a time and explain their exact mission down to the squad level. Your officers and sergeants have already been briefed.”
“Sir,” another voice called out. “That drop zone is pretty tight, isn’t it?”
“I know, son,” Wolff answered. “I’ll talk to the pilots…see what we can do.”
Wolff looked around at his company. “All right men, gather around the table.” He turned to First Lieutenant George E. Clark Jr.
“George, pick two men and come with me,” ordered Wolff.
“Yes sir. Where are we going?”
“To find my pilots.”
Lieutenant Clark quickly scanned the group and pulled out Jake and Johnny. Wolff grabbed the smaller original reconnaissance photos and the four men exited the tent and climbed aboard a waiting jeep. Johnny jumped into the driver’s seat.
Wolff tapped Johnny on the shoulder. “We’re heading for the Three-fourteenth TCG area, this way.” He pointed to a row of large tents in the distance. Johnny gunned the engine and the jeep kicked some dirt as it briefly spun out and headed toward a row of four-man tents. Johnny stopped directly in front of one of them.
“Wait here,” Wolff ordered. Photos in hand, he pulled the tent flap back and entered. “Excuse me, I’m looking for Captain William R. Bommar.”
A figure rose up from one of the bunks and swung his feet to the bare dirt floor. He was resting on his bunk, fully clothed with his boots on. “I’m Bill Bommar.” The other officers in the tent grunted and rolled over in their bunks.
Wolff reached out and shook his hand. “I’m Captain Lou Wolff. Glad to meet you. I’m told you’re the flight leader of the group that’s taking my company on this mission.”
“I am. I’ve been expecting you.” Bommar tapped the bunk beside him. “Have a seat. I’ve been studying the problem.” Bommar paused. “Do you have any ideas?”
Wolff was immediately impressed with Bommar’s business-like manner and spirit of cooperation. Wolff pulled out the aerial photos and Bommar fished a flashlight from his musette bag along with a map. Together they studied the pictures alongside the map.
“Look here,” Wolff pointed to the map. “When we hit the coast, we should be able to see this river coming out to the sea. The full moon should reflect off of it nicely. Then we can track the river up to this huge inland lake, follow the lake west until we spot this railroad track which should lead us to this major road and we should hit the mouth of the valley and drop zone right on target.” Wolff traced the photo as he spoke and Bommar marked the map.
“The Acate River and Lake Bivieri,” Bommar noted. “I agree on the lake.” He pointed to the photo taken in daylight. “But the Acate River is dry. It shows up in this photo but it won’t be easy to spot at night. The lake should be easy to find under a full moon once we hit the coast.”
“Roger that.” Wolff continued to be impressed by the young aviator. He certainly did his homework. Wolff had another request. “Can you be the last group of nine planes in the serial?”
“Because I’m going to ask you to approach the drop zone with your planes one behind the other and not spread out in echelon. The drop zone is far too narrow for the standard jump pattern. And if you’re last, you won’t get all tangled up with the rest of your group.”
Bommar contemplated the request. “I can arrange that.”
“Great, thanks.” Wolff replied. “Now I know why they picked you for this mission. But I got one more request.”
“The landmark for the drop, the point at which we can get all of our guys on the target, is this white house right here,” Wolff pointed to a white dot along a road that was just a bit bigger than the white pillboxes near it. “As we come up the valley, this house is only visible from the right side of the plane. I’m asking if you would sit on the right side.”
Bommar stiffened. The right seat was the co-pilot’s seat. He looked directly at Wolff. “Sir, I don’t sit on the right side.”
“I know, I know,” Wolff replied. “As the lead plane commander you sit in the left seat. I get that, but hear me out.”
Bommar nodded but he was visibly uncomfortable. Wolff continued. “That landmark is hard to spot near all those pillboxes. If we drop on the right landmark we’ll land where we’re supposed to be. If we’re late, we miss the DZ. If we’re early, the tail end planes drop my boys into the lake. The whole mission depends on recognizing this one right spot. The guy who makes that decision and turns on the green light needs to be exceptional, on top of everything. I need that guy to be you. So, Captain, just this once, for me and my boys, would you please sit in the right seat and be that guy who decides when to drop us?”
Bommar deliberated on Wolff’s logic. He could not let his ego get in the way of the mission’s success. Sitting in the right seat for one mission was inconsequential when compared to the lives of the paratroopers that would be in his hands. “Yes, sir.”
“Great! Thanks.” Wolff shook his hand. “I’ll be flying in the lead plane with you. See you on the flight line.”
The fully burdened boys of 1st Squad pushed and shoved each other up the small steps and through the door onto their C-47. The plane rocked as they struggled forward and into their seats. Captain Wolff handed each man a piece of paper. Johnny began reading it.
Soldiers of the 505th Combat Team
Tonight you embark upon a combat mission for which our people and the people of the free world have been waiting for two years.
You will spearhead the landing of an American Force upon the island of SICILY. Every preparation has been made to eliminate the element of chance.
“Sicily!” Johnny mumbled. He looked to the bottom to see it was signed by Gavin. Struck by the historical significance and the simple eloquence of the letter, he decided to save it. He folded it carefully and slid it into his jacket pocket after taking his seat. “So, it’s Sicily, again.”
Jake turned toward him. “Again?”
“Yeah, again. We’re invading the most conquered island in history. Those poor people were invaded by the Greeks, Romans, Muslims, Vikings, Spanish, Franks, Italians, Normans.” Johnny closed his eyes and looked up. “Let’s see, did I leave anybody out?”
“Hmm,” Jake mused. “Did they ever stop anybody? Defeat them, I mean?”
“Not one,” Johnny answered without hesitation. “The stepping stone between Africa and Europe was always raped but never loved.”
“You make that up?” Jake asked.
“Nah. I read it somewhere.”
“Hey Dom,” Private Danny Peregory shouted down the line of seated paratroopers. “You have people here? Maybe get us a homemade meal?”
“Nah,” Private Angelo answered. “But wait till we get to Naples. My people are there. Teddy has people in Sicily.” He pointed to Private Carmine Tedesco.
“Yeah, I got relatives in Palermo.” Tedesco was from the Bronx. “They don’t have no use for Mussolini. They’re farmers, not Fascists. I just hope they’re smart enough to keep their heads down when the shit hits the fan.”
The men settled in, trying to find comfortable positions for the long plane ride. The same scene was repeated all over the small airfield as the forty-five planes were loading up.
Captain Wolff was the jumpmaster. Sergeant Copping was the pusher and was seated at the end of the stick, closest to the pilot’s cabin. Bancroft was seated near Wolff by the exit door. The sergeant insisted on calling Jake “Enema” and Johnny knew Jake seethed every time he heard it so he sat between them. He would never let Jake get too close to Bancroft.
Abruptly, the familiar whine of the starter motors broke the calm. The sputtering, explosions of the fourteen cylinder engines produced loud coughing and jerking as the Hamilton Standard propellers picked up speed. The smell of smoke, gasoline and oil permeated the cabin. In a few moments both engines were running smoothly. The cabin vibrated with the familiar drone of the radial engines as the pilots ran them up to speed. Slowly, they began to move.
Their plane moved in line with other C-47s as they taxied toward the head of the runway. From the portholes the men could barely see other C-47s taking off in the opposite direction through the swirling clouds of dust being kicked up in every direction.
They were near the end of the line, among the last planes in the serial as Wolff and Bommar had agreed. Their plane began the slow 180-degree turn to line up with the runway. When the turn was completed, the pilots stood on the brakes and ran the engines to full speed. The cabin rocked violently as the torque of the engines tried in vain to twist the structural backbone of the heavily laden transport plane. The pilots released the brakes. Slowly, the fully loaded 25,000-pound aircraft heaved forward and headed, nearly blind, down the runway.
The transport lifted gently off the ground and into the heated desert air. Once the landing gear was up, the pilot banked the plane and smoothly fell into formation as the lead plane in the last nine plane V-of-Vs. They were on their way to Sicily.
The flight plan was a difficult one. The route almost doubled the straight-line distance from Kairouan to the drop zones in Sicily. In addition, they would have to keep formation in near total darkness. While the C-47 had a service ceiling of 24,000 feet, they would fly this leg at 300 feet above the waves for the entire 415 mile trip. It would require tremendous concentration.
The first leg would be easterly until the pilots sighted the special beacon on Malta. Then a sharp course change to due north would line up the flight with the southeastern tip of Sicily. Upon reaching that waypoint, the planes were to turn due west and run along the southern coast until reaching their landmarks. At that point they were to turn inland, ascend to jump level, find their drop zones and release their paratroopers. The challenge itself was daunting enough but nature had a surprise. Immediately upon leaving the ground and heading east, a stiff crosswind from the north began driving the entire air armada slowly but inexorably off course.
The cabin quieted as each man settled into his own personal routine. They camouflaged their fear and anxiety in different ways. Some would talk in hushed whispers. Others slept or pretended to sleep, heads bobbing to the rhythmic motion of the airplane. A few fingered Rosaries or had their Bibles out and were struggling to read in the darkened cabin. Specs of light glowing brighter then dimmer betrayed the handful that chain-smoked their way through the flight, illuminating their faces in an eerie glow.
All of them felt the buffeting as the crosswinds relentlessly pounded the planes further and further south of their intended flight path.
Johnny turned toward Jake whose head was leaning back against the bulkhead. A moment ago, Johnny thought he saw Jake reading but now he seemed to be sleeping. “Jake. You awake?”
“I am now,” Jake smiled without opening his eyes.
“Seriously, we need to talk. I’ve been thinking.”
“Oh, that’s always dangerous.” Jake’s smile broadened even wider as he opened his eyes and looked at his friend. “What about?”
“About the jump.” Johnny hesitated. For a moment he couldn’t find the words. Finally, he blurted out, “If things get rough out there and we get in a tight spot…”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Jake interrupted. “We’ll be fine. We’re the most trained and best led infantry in the world. Nothing can happen to us. Krause said so!”
“That’s not what I’m talking about. You and me, we’ve had each other’s back since jump school. Remember the brawls in Phenix City, those survival night exercises at Camp Billy Mitchell, all of the shit we’ve been through? We always looked out for each other.”
“And we always will,” Jake interrupted again as he slipped a stick of gum into his mouth to relieve the pressure building in his ears. Over the long months of training they had bonded into inseparable friends, fond of and loyal to each other.
Johnny replied. “But this is combat and no one knows how they’ll react. I don’t want to let anyone down.” Johnny let out a slight cough. “Ahem. If I freeze up or lose my nerve, just make sure you kick me in the ass or do something to shake me up and get me going again.”
“Okay, Yank, I won’t let you freeze.” Johnny nodded his thanks. Jake’s confidence always inspired him.
Jake sat back, closed his eyes and faced forward. “Me too. Don’t let me freeze up either.” And one more thing,” Jake said without opening his eyes or turning toward Johnny. “I don’t intend to be taken prisoner. I’ll do whatever I have to do. If that’s a problem, as much as I like you as a friend, you shouldn’t hang close to me.” Jake looked directly at Johnny for the answer.
“That’s not a problem. They’re not taking me, either.”
Johnny reached a clenched fist out in front of Jake. Jake struck it with his own fist. With that simple gesture they entered into a blood pact. Because their personal honor meant everything, their word to each other was unbreakable.
As the formation soared on into a darkening sky, the young pilots struggled mightily against the wind to maintain formation. The cabin of the C-47 was silent yet filled with a palpable anxiety. Without warning the plane banked hard into a left hand turn and steadied on a course of due magnetic north. The crosswind now became a headwind and the buffeting turned into a disquieting turbulence as the twin radial engines clawed their way through the defying winds. Bommar sent word down the cabin for Captain Wolff. With the help of steadying hands and despite his gear load, Wolff made his way through the shuddering cabin to the cockpit.
The C-47 Skytrain had a seated position just aft of the pilots for the radioman-navigator. Since this flight would be made in complete radio silence and Bommar’s flight was the last in the serial, they did not deploy the third crewman in order to save the precious weight. Wolff sat in the vacant chair and leaned forward between the pilots. True to his word, Bommar was seated in the right hand seat, the co-pilot’s seat. He turned to Wolff.
“We missed the beacon on Malta,” he shouted above the engine noise. “We should have seen it fifteen minutes ago,” Bommar pointed to his aviator’s watch. “The group leader turned the whole group north.”
Wolff knew missing the waypoint was critical. They could not be sure where they were. If the formation came apart in the turbulence, most of the planes without navigators would be unable to find their way.
Wolff leaned forward, shook his head and hollered, “We can’t go back.”
“I know, I know,” Bommar agreed. “We probably missed Malta on the south side based on the crosswinds. Turning north should get us somewhere in the vicinity of Sicily. Maybe even the toe of Italy…depending on how far we overshot the waypoint. Once we hit land, I can find our landmarks.”
Wolff nodded emphatically in agreement. “Mind if I stay up here?”
“Suit yourself. We’re still about an hour from landfall if I got this figured right,” Bommar answered. “One more thing. I got word just before take-off that the ground winds in Sicily were over thirty-five miles an hour.”
Wolff shook his head at the news. They would be jumping into winds much higher than they ever trained for. So be it!
Wolff looked out of the front windscreen. The moon was low in the sky and shimmering off of the water of the Mediterranean Sea. The moonlit waves flashing by gave the sensation of great speed. Up ahead, slightly above the horizon, the faint flicker of engine sparks from the planes ahead was the only visible object in an inky black sky.
The two pilots worked together, feeling each other’s movements on the yoke and pedals. It was the only way they could manage the difficulties of the tricky buffeting and near-zero visibility. The same scene was likely playing out in every plane of the 52nd TCG.
One hour to go. Wolff looked back into the cabin. There was little motion. Only the slight rocking of heads with partially closed eyes on blackened faces broke the stillness as the C-47 bounced and swayed on the wind currents. The men all appeared relaxed, their special chinstraps loosened and dangling, while bodies jerked slightly with each shudder of the plane. He suspected that they were anything but relaxed.
Wolff closed his eyes and leaned his helmet back on the bulkhead. Just a little rest was all his burning eyes needed. His thoughts turned to home. No, not that. Not now! He replayed the mission plan in his mind. His thoughts drifted to contingencies and what to do if certain things went wrong. Who could he trust? Who might be shaky?
The whole purpose of the airborne drop was to keep the Italians from counterattacking the invasion beaches. Being mountainous, southern Sicily had only a few major roads leading inland from the sea. All the 505th RCT had to do was block these few roads. That’s all!
The town of Niscemi was about ten miles from the coast. Wolff didn’t know much about the 3rd Battalion of the 504th PIR but they got the job of dropping just south of Niscemi to block the main road to the seacoast town of Gela. The 3rd Battalion, 504th must be a good one, thought Wolff, otherwise they wouldn’t have been picked for the job.
The 1st and 2nd Battalions of the 505th were to land further south on the Niscemi-Gela Road and block a major road junction called Objective “Y”. This road junction also joined a major crossroad that ran parallel to the coast to the large city of Vittoria. Objective “Y” was the single most important blocking position to control both of these major roads.
The rest of 3rd Battalion, minus Item Company, would seize the high ground south of Objective “Y” and provide a firewall between the beach and the enemy. If the Italians blew through the rest of the 505th, Krause would be the last line of defense.
Wolff believed Major Krause to be a poor leader who caused problems wherever he went. Under their breaths his officers called him the “shitstorm artist”. For this drop, however, Wolff and his company were thankfully detached from Major Krause.
Once dropped, Wolff and his 119 men and nine officers had their work cut out for them. Lieutenant Clark would take 1st Squad on a three-mile hike to light the signal fire. The rest of Item Company would block the road to the beach. But the priority of his mission, Wolff reasoned, was the signal fire. He had to make sure Clark successfully completed that mission.
If all went according to plan, the carpet the airborne would lay down along the key roadways would stop any enemy force from reinforcing the beaches. But when does everything ever go according to plan? What was it that he learned at West Point? Was it von Moltke who said that the best plans never survive first contact with the enemy? How many men would be dropped on target and how many would be scattered all over the island? The endless variations of potential pitfalls gripped his thoughts. The missions, orders, drop zones, objectives and combat leaders all swirled around in his head in an endless cacophony and he struggled to make sense of it. I can’t just think of everything that might go wrong. I have to stay positive.
Suddenly, he was overcome by the strange sensation that he had forgotten something. He and all of his troopers were loaded down with all sorts of gear but the nagging feeling that something was left behind gnawed at his subconscious. Hard as he tried, he couldn’t figure it out. Without intending to do so, he subliminally reviewed the standard paratrooper combat load.
Besides the main parachute and reserve, each man carried his weapon, usually an M-1 Garand Rifle with 150 rounds of .30-caliber ammunition. However, most of the men figured out how to scrounge an extra load of ammo. They also carried four fragmentation grenades, a smoke grenade, a Gammon grenade plus a ten-inch bayonet, trench knife and their Schrade-Walden switchblade knife. Some men carried an essential item for one of the crew-served weapons such as a mortar round or a bazooka round or a belt of .30-caliber machine gun ammunition.
In addition to their helmets, tunics and gloves, they were each issued two extra pair of socks and shorts, a handkerchief, silk escape map, wristwatch and compass. Each man carried a musette bag for personal hygiene items such as toothbrush, toothpowder, soap, safety razor and blades. The musette bag also held a mess kit, four “K” rations, ten packs of cigarettes, paper, pencil, matches, cigarette lighter, Halizone tablets for water purification, a thirty foot rope, blanket, a water filled canteen, shelter half, entrenching tool, two first aid kits and a gas mask. Officers and NCOs also carried a .45-caliber sidearm with extra ammunition. A Type B-4 inflatable life preserver, called a Mae West by the troops for the buxom-blessed movie star, rounded out the standard over water combat load.
For the life of him, Wolff couldn’t figure out what he left behind. Or was it a person? Did I leave Superman or Captain America behind? They would sure come in handy in this fight!
“Land ho,” Bommar shouted. Wolff’s eyes snapped open. He had dozed off just slightly beneath consciousness. He was near that dream state on the thin edge of sleep where sense and nonsense coexist and the hour flashed by quickly. “We’re going up to take a look. They already know we’re here.” Anti-aircraft “flak” and tracers were rising up from the shadows of the land. It was not yet heavy and it served to highlight the location of the landmass.
Bommar followed the engine sparks in front of him, as he pulled back on the yoke and rose up to 2,000 feet and leveled off. “There,” Bommar pointed forward out the left window. “Southern coast of Sicily. We’ll make our run along the beach like we planned.”
Wolff nodded, keeping his eyes on the planes in front. They slowly banked left until the land was on the right side. They traveled west along the southern coast of Sicily for a few minutes. Suddenly the planes in front banked sharply left. Bommar found himself the lead pilot of his own little nine-plane serial.
“You’re not going to follow them, are you?” Wolff asked.
“Nah, I know my way from here,” Bommar answered as they both watched the entire group turn back south over the Mediterranean and away from Sicily.
“Where the hell are they going?” Wolff asked out loud. Before anyone could answer, Bommar pointed forward to the right. There, shimmering in the distant moonlight was the unmistaken outline of Lake Bivieri running parallel to the coast. Wolff looked toward the eastern end and found the faint outline of the dry bed of the Acate River, which he visually traced to the sea. Bommar nosed his plane over, banked slightly right and headed for the riverbed. The other eight planes in his V followed at 500 feet.
“That’s it!” Wolff was excited. “There’s the river and the lake. How long?”
“Hard to say. Strong winds up here. Ten minutes give or take,” answered Bommar.
“Tell me when we’re about five minutes out.”
Bommar nodded. The anti-aircraft fire and multi-colored tracers were coming up from their right. It was not all aimed at them. Other flights of C-47s were also drawing their share of fire. Bommar maneuvered his plane up the riverbed and then across the lake. He picked up the railroad tracks and followed them to the southern section of the Niscemi-Gela Road. It would lead him right to the head of the valley.
“Let me line up my ducks,” he said flashing his landing lights. On queue, the eight planes behind the leader moved from an echelon formation to a loose straight line and closed up on the leader. “Five minutes,” he said over his shoulder.
Wolff took a deep breath and smiled. “There’s a case of scotch with your name on it if you drop us on the mark.”
“Johnny Walker Black,” Bommar answered without interrupting his search for the landmarks. He reached a hand back over his left shoulder. “Good luck, sir,” he said to Wolff.
“Thank you, sir,” Wolff shook his hand and made his way to the back of the cabin.
“Five minutes,” Wolff repeated as the seated troopers helped him clump back to the rear.
When he reached the rear of the cabin Wolff turned to look toward the cockpit. Bommar was looking over his shoulder flashing the thumbs up signal. He had spotted the key landmark. Wolff snapped off a sharp, respectful salute. If we had more guys like Bommar, Wolff thought, we’d win this goddamn war in six months!
The red light alongside the door flashed on. Wolff took his planeload of paratroopers through the equipment check sequence quickly. He then gave the order to stand in the door and took his position at the head of the stick. The rest of the troopers pressed together toward him like a coiled spring under tension, both ready and anxious to release.
The red light turned green. With a deep breath, Captain Louis Wolff pulled himself out of the door and into the darkness.