- Historic Sites
The Jump Into Sicily
“For This Challenge, I Had Come Three Thousand Miles and Thirty-six Years of My Life”
April/May 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 3
I asked, “What in the hell is it?”
He replied, “They are prisoner-of-war tags. You’re supposed to put one on every prisoner you capture, and be sure to fill it out properly.”
This was no time for argument, when we were within seconds of roaring down the runway, so I merely replied, “O.K.”
About an hour after departure the personnel officer, Captain Alfred W. Ireland, threw them into the Mediterranean.
Due to the high winds, the entire air armada was blown far east of its intended landing zones. Some pilots made landfall along the eastern coast of Sicily and, having done so, turned back to find their way around to the southwest coast. Several planeloads actually jumped in front of the British army on the east coast. These troopers were from the 3rd Battalion and Regimental Headquarters. The first problem they encountered, to their surprise, was that the British had a different countersign. The American countersign was “George Marshall”—that is, when one met an unknown person that night, one was supposed to challenge by saying, “George.” The response from a friend was expected to be “Marshall.” Otherwise, a shooting engagement took place. To the dismay of the American paratroopers, they found that “George” was greeted by a fusillade of fire. One big, burly, redheaded Irishman, well over six feet tall, in the Regimental Demolitions Platoon, talked to me about his experiences afterward. When first challenged, he was shot at, so he decided to hide and to grab any British soldier he could get close to and explain his predicament. Soon a British soldier came by. He jumped out and pinned his arms to his sides and told him who he was. Thus, he learned the British countersign and survived. That detachment fought side by side with the British for several days, but was finally put aboard a boat and sent to the American landing beaches near GeIa.
The 2nd Battalion, commanded by Major Mark Alexander, was the next farthest to the east to land. It landed about fifteen miles east of GeIa, near the town of S. Croce Camarina, an area that had figured prominently in Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian Wars. As Major Alexander’s plane was crossing the Mediterranean, he stood at the door and watched its progress, looking for familiar landmarks. The red warning light to be ready to jump came on, and his troopers stood up and readied themselves. Suddenly, while they were still over the ocean, the green light came on. The men tried to push him out the door, as they were trained to do when the lead man hesitated, but he succeeded in fighting them off. He then went forward to ask the pilot, “What in the hell are you doing?” The pilot replied, “The copilot was in too much of a hurry.” They continued a bit farther, crossed the coast, receiving considerable tracer fire, and the battalion jumped.
Although they landed amid a number of huge pillboxes and areas organized for defense, they were quite successful in reorganizing the battalion. The Italian pillboxes were formidable affairs, several stories high, with apertures here and there, so sited as to overlook other pillboxes. The troopers quickly learned that the way to reduce them was to keep firing at the slits until a trooper could get close enough to throw a grenade into them. The battalion fought most of the night and by daylight had assembled a majority of its men. It then moved toward the coast near a village overlooking the town of Marina di Ragusa, and they organized an all-around defense for the night.
In the meantime they began to receive machine-gun and sniper fire from high ground near the area they had been in earlier. A British cruiser showed up off the coast, and Mark Alexander found that he had a lieutenant who could use a flashlight and communicate with the cruiser, using the Morse code. They requested fire support on the slope to the north of their positions. As Mark Alexander reported it later, “The cruiser immediately laid in two salvos. The first must have come in about seventy-five feet over our heads, and you can believe me when I say that the whole slope went up in flames. I called for a cease-fire, and we received no more harassment from snipers the rest of the night.” By daylight, July 11, his battalion turned north and moved in the direction of S. Croce Camarina, using donkeys, donkey carts, and wheelbarrows to help carry the weapons and ammunition. At noon his battalion captured S. Croce Camarina and later that afternoon captured Vittoria. They rejoined their division, the 82nd Airborne, on July 12. Meanwhile, those of us who had landed closer to the target areas had been having a busy time of it.