- 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
A scream went up that could be heard all the way to Rome. The stories the Italians had heard about the atrocities of the paratroopers and Ethiopia must have flashed through his mind; he was being castrated. He screamed louder, grabbing the knife blade with his right hand. The blood ran down his hand as we fell in a kicking, yelling, fighting mass, and he got away. I do not know how he did it, but one second he was with us and the next he was gone. I was madder than hell. I asked Vandervoort, “What in the hell did you think you were doing?”
Vandervoort didn’t answer. I decided that we had better get going. By now we had probably alerted any enemy for miles around.
We walked on into the night, crawling over the high stone walls. Although some men were suffering from jump injuries, they drove themselves toward the cascading flame and white phosphorus of bursting shells that could be seen on the distant horizon. The sight of the shellbursts was reassuring, since it meant that we were in Sicily. And we were “moving toward the sound of the guns,” one of the first battle axioms I had learned as a cadet at West Point.
But human Mesh could do only so much, and the night was demanding. By count at daylight, there were six of us. I approached two farmhouses, but at both of them the natives were terrified and hardly would talk. I continued on in a direction I figured would take us toward our objective. Suddenly, as we came over the crest of high ground, there was a hurst of smallarms fire.
We hit the ground. There was a sickening thud of near misses kicking dirt into my face. I reacted instinctively as I had been taught in the infiltration course by hugging closely to the ground. In no time I realized that I would not continue to live doing that; I had to shoot back. I started firing with my carbine, and it jammed. I looked to Vandervoort about six feet to my left; he was having the same trouble. About fifty yards away an Italian officer stood looking at us through low-hanging branches of an olive tree. He was wearing leather puttees and reddish-brown breeches, both plainly visible beneath the branches. Captain Ireland gave him the first burst of his Tommy gun, and he went down like a rag doll. I began to fire my carbine single-shot. The leading trooper, who had gone down at the first fusillade, writhed and rolled over. He appeared to be dead, practically in the enemy position. Their fire increased, and there was a loud explosion like that of a small mortar shell. I decided that there was at least a platoon of enemy and that our best prospects were to try to work around it. I yelled to Vandervoort, Ireland, and the troopers to start moving back while I covered. It worked.
We had a close call and nothing to show for it but casualties, and our prospects were not very bright. I continued to move cross-country in a direction that would take me around the area where we had had the Are fight. We could hear intense firing from time to time, and we were never sure when we would walk into another Are light or how we would get into the battle since we couldn’t tell friend from foe. Then there was the problem of enemy armor. I decided to look for a place where tanks would be unlikely to travel and where we could get good cover to hole up until dark. I wanted to survive until dark and then strike across country again to the combatteam objective. It was the high ground east and north of GeIa, and there, with the help of God, I hoped to And troopers, and an enemy to fight. For this challenge, I had come three thousand miles and thirty-six years of my life—for the moral and physical challenge of battle.
By mid-morning we came to some good cover. It was a shallow ravine crisscrossed by several irrigation ditches. Along one of them was a thicket of underbrush. The ditch was cut out of the side of a gently sloping hill, and from its edge there was a good view for about half a mile across cultivated land. The ditch I picked was almost dry; the others had a lot of water in them. It did not appear to be a place where a tank would travel by choice. I took stock of our situation, and it wasn’t good. Among us we had two carbines that jammed, one Tommy gun, a pistol, and an M-I rifle. We were holed up like hunted animals. Tired, wounded, hungry, but too sick at heart to cat, we apprehensively scanned the countryside for any sign of friend or foe. Occasional bursts of rifle and machine-gun fire could be heard in the distance.
It had been a long day. We waited and waited for dark. Soon the Sicilian sun was low in the sky and quickly disappeared like a ball of Are into a cauldron. We began to get things together so as to be able to move out. Water was a Arst need; it was almost gone. For food we had a few cartons of K rations and some concentrated things in an escape kit. An escape kit was a small plastic box, about six inches square and an inch thick, that contained the essentials for escape and survival behind enemy lines, such as a map, water-purification pills, and a rubber-coated file that could be hidden in the rectum. I felt I had been a failure on my first day in combat and had accomplished nothing. I was determined to find my regiment and engage the enemy, wherever he might be. We went into the Sicilian night, heading for what we hoped was GeIa, somewhere to the west. It was a relief to be moving instead of sitting and worrying. Sitting and worry ing had been the hardest of all, and I had done a lot of it.