- 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
My own flight with the Regimental Headquarters group was uneventful until Linosa was due. It was not to be seen. Malta, which was to be well lighted to assist our navigators, could not be seen either. Suddenly, shipsby the score became visible in the ocean below, all knifing their way toward Sicily. Obviously, we were off course, since our plan called for us to fly between the American fleet on the left and the British on the right. In fact, the Americans told us that we would probably be shot down if we flew over them. We continued on, finally dog-legging to the left on the basis of time calculation. Soon the flash of gunfire could be seen through the dust and haze caused by the preinvasion bombing, and finally the coast itself could be seen off to the right. Unfortunately, many of the planes overflew the Malta dog-leg, and the island first became visible on the left, thus causing confusion and widespread dispersion of the troopers.
We turned inland; the small-arms fire increased; the green light over the jump door went on, and out we went. The reception was mixed. Some of us met heavy fighting at once, others were unopposed for some time, but all were shaken up by the heavy landings on trees, buildings, and rocky hillsides.
I managed to get together a small group and start across country, searching for the combat-team objective. I had with me Captain Ireland, the combat-team personnel officer, and Captain Ben Vandervoort, the combat-team operations officer, and three other troopers. The cross-country going was rough, but we pressed on. Soon we came face to face with our first enemy.
It happened about an hour after we had landed. I was moving ahead with about twenty troopers who had joined us by then. I was leading, and Vandervoort was alongside. I moved along through the shadows in the olive groves, over stone walls, darting across moonlit roads, going in what I hoped was the direction of our objective. There had been occasional bursts of small-arms fire, sometimes quite close, but so far we had not seen an actual enemy. Suddenly, there were foreign voices, then the sound of a man whistling some distance away. As he got closer, it sounded like “O Sole Mio.” I had my group stay down, and I moved up to a stone wall that paralleled the road he was coming along. It was a lone man, walking down the middle of the road, hands in the pockets of his baggy uniform pants. After twenty years of military service, I was about to meet The Enemy face to face. I stuck my head up over the stone wall. It seemed a long way up, but it was really about an inch, just to clear my carbine over the top of the wall.
I gave him my best Italian, “Alto!” He stopped in his tracks. Vandervoort rushed through an opening in the wall with a .45 in one hand and a knife in the other.
“I’ll take care of him,” Van said. I wasn’t sure what he meant, but I said, “No, let’s get the hell out of the middle of the road. Let’s get over into the shadows and maybe we can get some information out of him.”
There was still some doubt as to whether we were in Sicily, Italy, or the Balkans, although the odds strongly favored the first.
About half a dozen of us surrounded him, and I tried the few Italian words I knew.
“ Dore Palermo? ”
No reply. He seemed to be either too scared or too bewildered to answer.
“ Dove Siracusa? ”
I figured that if he would point in the general direction of either or both of these two cities, which were at opposite ends of the island, we could get our first fix on where we were. Since he acted as if he had never heard of either, for a moment it seemed that perhaps we were not even in Sicily. But he was obviously very scared. We had heard that the Germans had scared the wits out of the natives with their stories about the atrocities committed by American parachutists. They spread the news that we were long-term convicts who had been granted our freedom in exchange for becoming paratroopers. This was given credence by the practice in many parachute units of having all the men shave their heads. After the battle of Sicily was over, the Sicilians told us that shaved heads were one of the things that had convinced them that the Germans were right.
But to get back to Giuseppe, or whatever his name was, I hadn’t been able to get anything out of him—not his name, where he was from, or where he thought we were. I reluctantly decided that we would have to take him along. Vandervoort had taken an intelligence course and knew how to handle a prisoner in a situation like this. The idea was to take the belt out of the prisoner’s trousers and to cut the buttons off his fly so that he would have to hold up his trousers when he walked.
Van put his .45 in its holster, pressed his knife against the Italian’s chest, and said, “I’ll take care of the bastard.”
The Italian was muttering, “Mamma mia, Mamma,” over and over again. His concern was understandable. The moonlight was shining on the knife blade, and it looked as though it were a foot long. He took off his belt and dropped it. Then Van went into phase two of the operation and reached for the fly with one hand, bringing the knife down with the other.