Chapter 9: Airborne Reinforcement
Early on the morning of 11 July, in order to bolster the Gela forces, General Patton ordered the 504th Combat Team to drop into the 1st Division’s beachhead that evening.1 At 1900, about the time that Colonel Gavin on Biazzo Ridge was issuing his second attack order of the day, Col. Reuben H. Tucker’s 504th began taking off from the airfields in Tunisia—the 1st and 2nd Battalions, 504th Parachute Infantry; the 376th Parachute Field Artillery Battalion; and Company C, 307th Airborne Engineer Battalion—in all a few more than 2,000 men.2
One hundred and forty-four aircraft from the U.S. 52nd Troop Carrier Wing in the aerial column flew a basic nine-ship V of V’s formation stepped down to make it easier to see the silhouette of the lead aircraft against the sky. The air over the Mediterranean Sea was quiet and calm. A quarter moon offered some illumination. Many pilots, who remembered the earlier flight, were confident that this mission would not suffer from the vagaries of the weather. Knowledge that they would be flying a course over friendly territory made them feel secure. They looked forward to a relatively quiet and peaceful night—a milk run.
The course had been worked out in planning sessions attended by General Ridgway (the 82d’s commander); Maj. Gen. Joseph M. Swing (American airborne adviser at Allied Forces Headquarters); British General Browning (the AFHQ airborne adviser); and representatives from Air Chief Marshal Tedder’s Mediterranean air command and Admiral Cunningham’s Mediterranean naval command. Concerned because the airborne troops might be fired on by friendly naval vessels off the Seventh Army assault beaches, Ridgway had tried repeatedly to get assurances that the Navy would clear an aerial corridor to the island. He had even gone to General Browning with a strong request for assurances that the Navy would not fire on any reinforcing missions. Since it had already been planned that any reinforcing mission would be flown over the same route used by the 505th Combat Team, General Ridgway was most anxious lest his follow-up
units draw fire from the large number of naval vessels which would be off the beaches. General Browning could offer no such assurances.
On 22 June, General Ridgway had presented his views to a joint conference presided over by General Eisenhower. The naval representatives in attendance refused to provide a definite corridor for any airborne mission flown after D-day in the Seventh Army sector. Ridgway had then written to General Keyes, the Seventh Army deputy commander, and recommended that, unless a clear aerial corridor into Sicily could be provided, no subsequent airborne troop movement be made after D-day.
As a result of energetic action by Generals Keyes and Swing, General Ridgway and the Troop Carrier Command received assurance from the Navy on 7 July that if a follow-up air transport movement followed certain designated routes and made its last leg overland, the withholding of friendly naval fire could be guaranteed. Accordingly, the 504th’s route was carefully plotted to hit the island at Sampieri, thirty miles east of Gela and at the extreme eastern end of the Seventh Army zone. Once over land, the troop-carrying aircraft were to turn to the northwest and fly toward the Gela–Farello landing ground—over friendly lines all the way—along a corridor two miles wide and at an altitude of 1,000 feet.3 Earlier AFHQ radio instructions and Seventh Army warnings were supplemented at 0845 on 11 July when General Patton sent a top priority message to his principal subordinate commanders. He directed them to notify their units, especially the antiaircraft battalions, that parachutists would drop on the Gela–Farello landing field about 2330 that night.4
General Ridgway, on Sicily, visited six crews of antiaircraft artillerymen near the 1st Division command post during the afternoon of 11 July to make sure that the warning had been sent down the chain of command. Five crews had received the warning; the sixth had not. When he brought this to the attention of an officer from the 103rd Coast Artillery Antiaircraft Battalion he learned that a conference of all officers from the antiaircraft units in the vicinity was being held later that afternoon. The officer assured Ridgway that he, personally, would see to it that the subject of the airborne mission was discussed.5
Following the prescribed course, the air column rounded the corner at Malta in good shape and headed for Sicily with all formations intact. A few aircraft encountered some light antiaircraft fire from Allied shipping north of Malta, but no damage was done and the column continued serenely on its way. Inside the planes, some paratroopers closed their eyes and dozed; others craned their necks to look down at the sea.
Off the Seventh Army beaches, though, all had not been serene on 11 July. Dawn of the 11th had brought with it a heavy aerial attack. At 0635, twelve Italian planes had swept down over the transport area off Gela, forcing the ships to weigh anchor and disperse. Two transports received near misses. One, the Barnett, was badly damaged by a near miss which blew a hole through her side. Enemy air attacks against the beaches and shipping continued throughout the day.6 At 1400, four planes strafed the Gela beaches while a high level enemy bomber dropped five bombs in the anchorage area. In the Scoglitti area, four bombs fell about 700 yards off the port bow of the Ancon at 1430. At 1540, around thirty Junker 88’s attacked the Gela area, harmlessly bracketing the cruiser Boise with bombs but striking the Liberty ship Robert Rowan (one of seven arriving in the first follow-up convoy). Loaded with ammunition, the Rowan took an enemy bomb in her Number Two hold, caught fire, exploded, and sank in shallow water. Her bow exposed, with smoke pouring from the hulk, she provided a perfect beacon for later waves of enemy bombers.
Around 2150 came a massive strike. Near Gela, the Boise and all the destroyers except one were closely straddled. Many ships were damaged by near misses. Bomb fragments hurt another Liberty ship. Again the transports weighed anchor and dispersed. The sky over Gela became a confused jumble of friendly and enemy aircraft flying among the puffs of smoke of ground and naval antiaircraft fire. The melee lasted about an hour. Just before the planes carrying paratroopers of the 504th crossed the coast line, the enemy bombers withdrew. The antiaircraft fire died down. Into this calm flew the 504th.
The leading flight flew peacefully to the Gela–Farello landing ground. At 2240, five minutes ahead of the scheduled drop time, the first paratroopers jumped over the drop zone. The second flight was in sight of Biviere Pond, the final check point, when the calm was rudely shattered by a lone machine gun. Within the space of minutes, it seemed as though every Allied antiaircraft gun in the beachhead and offshore was blasting planes out of the sky. The slow-flying, majestic columns of aircraft were like sitting ducks. As one company commander (Capt. Willard E. Harrison) remembered later: “... guns along the coast as far as we could see ... opened fire and the naval craft lying offshore ... began firing.”7 Only the few planeloads of paratroopers who had jumped several minutes ahead of schedule floated safely to the correct drop zone.
The first flights of the second serial were just turning into the overland aerial corridor when the firing started. Squadrons broke apart, tried to re-form, then scattered again. Eight pilots gave up and returned to North Africa still carrying their paratroopers. Those pilots who managed to get over Sicily dropped paratroopers where they could. Troops dropped prematurely, some dropped in the sea. A few planes turned to the east and
released their loads in the British zone. Six aircraft received hits as paratroopers were struggling to get out of the door. Many pilots, after dropping their paratroopers, tried to escape the gantlet of fire that extended the length of the beachhead corridor by turning immediately out to sea, flying as low as possible, and taking evasive action against the deadly hail of fire rising from the ships.8
Control over Army and Navy antiaircraft gunners vanished. One aircraft passed low over the bow of the Susan B. Anthony (off Scoglitti) and close by the Procyon. Not identifying the C-47 as friendly, both ships opened fire. The plane crashed in flames just off the stern of the cruiser Philadelphia. Seconds later, fire from all the nearby ships blasted another C-47 out of the sky.9 At his command post in Scoglitti, General Bradley, the II Corps commander,
watched in helpless fury as the antiaircraft fire from both ground and naval batteries cut the troop carrier formations to pieces. At the Gela–Farello landing ground, waiting to receive the paratroopers, General Ridgway was thunderstruck at the events around and above him. At his command post just north of Gela, Colonel Bowen, the 26th Infantry commander, felt stunned by the terrific volume of naval fire.
In the lead aircraft of the third serial, which broke apart even before reaching Sicily, Colonel Tucker was dumbfounded. His aircraft, well off course, flew through the smoke pouring up from the still-smoldering Robert Rowan, came out on the Gela side, and went in low over the 1st Division beaches. Heavy fire raked the aircraft. The pilot could not find the drop zone. By this time, the plane was alone. The wingmen were gone, the rest of the serial completely scattered. Going forward, Colonel Tucker instructed the pilot to turn west until he could locate some identifiable geographical feature. Licata eventually came into view. The pilot turned and flew back toward Gela. Though the fire was still heavy, Colonel Tucker and his men jumped over the landing ground. On the ground, Tucker stopped the crews of five nearby tanks from firing on the aircraft with their .50-caliber machine guns.10
Other paratroopers and aircrew members were not so fortunate. Some paratroopers were killed in the planes before they had a chance to get out. Other paratroopers were hit in their chutes while descending. A few were even shot on the ground after they landed. It seems that each succeeding serial received heavier fire than those preceding it. The last, carrying the 376th Parachute Field Artillery Battalion, received the heaviest fire and suffered the greatest losses. Flight Officer J. G. Paccassi (the 61st Group) lost sight of his element leader after the turn to the northwest had been made and he went on alone to the drop zone, encountering heavy antiaircraft fire all the way. Paccassi’s plane was hit just as the paratroopers went out the door and he quickly turned and headed out for sea, flying almost at surface level. Just off the coast, the plane was hit again, the rudder shot away, then both engines failed. As naval vessels still fired, Paccassi crash-landed into the sea. The destroyer Beatty fired on the downed aircraft for five seconds with 20-mm. guns before realizing that the plane was American, then dispatched a small boat to pick up the survivors.11
Two survivors from an aircraft of the 314th Group picked up by the destroyer Cowie stated that their element of three planes passed over the drop zone, but received such intense fire that the pilots considered the dropping of paratroopers suicidal. Their plane turned back to the coast and followed it south at an altitude of 500 feet before being hit. As the plane filled with smoke and flame, the pilot ordered everybody out just before the plane crashed.12 The destroyer Jeffers picked up seven survivors from an aircraft
of the 316th Group which had crash-landed nearby—the entire five-man crew, plus Maj. C. C. Bowman from 82nd Airborne Division headquarters, who had been flying as an observer, and one paratrooper who had refused to jump.13
Capt. Adam A. Komosa, who commanded the 504th’s Headquarters Company, later recalled:
It was a most uncomfortable feeling knowing that our own troops were throwing everything they had at us. Planes dropped out of formation and crashed into the sea. Others, like clumsy whales, wheeled and attempted to get beyond the flak which rose in fountains of fire, lighting the stricken faces of men as they stared through the windows.14
Chaplain Delbert A. Kuehl made a bruising landing against a stone wall somewhere in the 45th Division sector, well southeast of Gela. Almost immediately after landing, the chaplain and a few men with him were taken under fire by American troops. Confidently, Chaplain Kuehl shouted the password. The reply was heavier fire. While he tried in vain to identify himself as an American, the firing continued. Then, as several of the paratroopers fired into the air, the chaplain maneuvered around the flank, crawled through a vineyard, and closed in on the American position from the rear. He crept up to one soldier who was blasting away at the paratroopers, tapped him on the shoulder, and asked him what he was doing. The firing soon stopped. It appears that not every American unit had the same sign and countersign.15
Of the 144 planes that had departed Tunisia, 23 never returned, 37 were badly damaged.16 The loss ratio in aircraft was a high 16 percent. Brig. Gen. Charles L. Keerans, Jr., the assistant division commander, had been aboard one of the planes that did not return.17
Of the six aircraft shot down before the paratroopers had a chance to jump, one carried 5 officers and 15 enlisted men from the 504th’s Headquarters and Headquarters Company; another carried 3 officers and 15 men from the 2nd Battalion’s Headquarters and Headquarters Company; and the remaining four carried 1 officer and 32 men from Battery C, 376th Parachute Field Artillery Battalion. Of these 9 officers and 62 men, a few miraculously survived. Lt. Col. L. G. Freeman the 504th’s executive officer, 2 other officers, and 12 men (11 of them wounded), crawled from the wreckage of their downed plane. 1st Lt. M. C. Shelly, from the 2nd Battalion’s Headquarters Company, standing at the door of the aircraft when it crashed, was thrown clear. All the other occupants were killed. One of the Battery C planes was shot down at sea, carrying with it all the occupants. From the other three aircraft, 5 men saved themselves by using their reserve chutes—2 managed to get out of one plane after it had been hit twice and was afire, 3 men were blown clear when antiaircraft fire demolished their planes.
A total of twelve officers and ninety-two men were aboard the eight planes which returned to North Africa without dropping: two planes with personnel from the 504th’s Headquarters Company; one plane, Company F, 504th; two planes, Battery C and two planes Battery D, 376th Parachute Field Artillery Battalion; and one plane, Headquarters Battery, Division Artillery. Four dead and six wounded paratroopers were taken from the planes that returned.
A final computation would show that
the 504th Combat Team suffered a total of 229 casualties on the night of 11 July 1943: 81 dead, 132 wounded, and 16 missing.18
In less than an hour, the 504th Combat Team had become a completely disorganized unit. The first few sticks landed on and around the drop zone, and the bulk of the parachutists carried by the lead group managed to drop fairly near the Gela–Farello landing ground. For the most part, the other groups dispersed before they reached the drop zone, and a large number of the aircraft dropped paratroopers between Vittoria and the Acate River in the 45th Division’s sector. The 504th’s dispersal was as great as that of the 505th; with paratroopers landing on Sicily from Gela on the west to the east coast. Colonel Tucker himself did not locate General Ridgway until 0715 the next morning. At that time, of his 2,000-man force, Tucker counted as present for duty the equivalent of one rifle company and one battery of airborne howitzers. By late afternoon, the effective troops of the 504th numbered only 37 officers and 518 men.19
General Eisenhower quickly demanded a full report of the disaster. On 13 July, Brig. Gen. Paul L. Williams, commanding the Troop Carrier Command, submitted his report to Lt. Gen. Carl Spaatz, the NAAF commander. Williams stated that the heavy ground and naval antiaircraft fire directed against the troop-carrying aircraft showed a definite lack of coordination between air, naval, and ground forces, or a definite breakdown in the communication systems used to disseminate the instructions of higher headquarters to lower echelons. General Williams would not say which opened fire first—the Navy or the Army—but stated simply that his troop carriers were fired on by both ground and naval antiaircraft batteries.
Endorsing General Williams’ report, Spaatz added that the greatest mistake, in his opinion, was the failure to place definite restrictions on all antiaircraft units during the time period when the aerial column approached Sicily as well as during the period when the parachutists dropped. Air Marshal Tedder agreed with Spaatz and Williams, but went even further. He considered the airborne mission to have been operationally unsound because it had required aircraft to fly over thirty-five miles of active battle front. “Even if it was physically possible for all the troops and ships to be duly warned, which is doubtful,” Tedder said, “any fire opened either by mistake or against any enemy aircraft would almost certainly be supported by all troops within range—AA firing at night is infectious and control almost impossible.”20
Admiral Cunningham, quick to defend the naval gunners, felt that the lack of antiaircraft discipline was only partially responsible for the tragic occurrence. At night, he pointed out, “no question of A.A. undiscipline can arise. All ships fire at once at any aeroplane particularly low flying ones which approach them.” Nothing
less than that could be acceptable to the Navy, otherwise merchant vessels and naval combat ships would incur severe losses and strong damage. The major cause of the tragedy, Cunningham felt, was either bad routing or bad navigation on the part of the aircraft crews.21 The exact cause of the catastrophe could not be pinpointed. A board of officers appointed by AFHQ to investigate the circumstances uttered only generalities. Despite agreement that advance warning had been given to naval vessels and ground antiaircraft batteries, some individuals and units hotly denied ever receiving such a warning order. Other units and individuals claimed that enemy bombers returned and mixed with the friendly aerial column. Still others reported that the antiaircraft fire came from enemy guns. To the last charge, it was true that at least one plane was brought down by enemy machine gun fire near Comiso. But returning pilots and paratroopers
alike noted that the heaviest fire came not from the right—the direction of the front—but from Allied guns to the left of the overland aerial corridor. As one pilot said: “Evidently the safest place for us tonight while over Sicily would have been over enemy territory.”22
General Ridgway probably expressed it best of all:
The responsibility for loss of life and material resulting from this operation is so divided, so difficult to fix with impartial justice, and so questionable of ultimate value to the service because of the acrimonious debates which would follow efforts to hold responsible persons or services to account, that disciplinary action is of doubtful wisdom.
Deplorable as is the loss of life which occurred, I believe that the lessons now learned could have been driven home in no other way, and that these lessons provide a sound basis for the belief that recurrences can be avoided.
The losses are part of the inevitable price of war in human life.23