- 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
The attack went off as planned, and the infantry reached the top of the ridge and continued to attack down the far side. As they went over the top of the ridge, the (ire became intense. We were going to have a very serious situation on our hands. This was not a patrol or a platoon action. Mortar and artillery Ore began to fall on the ridge, and there was considerable machine-gun Ore. 1 was worried about being enveloped on the right; some of the 45th Infantry Division should have been down on the left toward the beaches, but the right was wide open, and so far I had no one I could send out to protect that flank. If the German column was coming from Biscari, the tactical logic would have suggested that they bypass me on the right and attack me from the rear. At that time I had a few engineers I kept in reserve, and two 81mm. mortars. They were commanded by a young officer, Lieutenant Robert May, who had been my first sergeant almost a year earlier when I had commanded C Company of the 503rd Parachute Infantry. He sent two or three troopers off to the right as a security patrol. Later, men with Mountain Pack 75-mm. artillery pieces from the 456th Parachute Artillery joined me. These were artillery pieces that could be broken down into several parts and carried by paratroopers or mules. Occasionally, troopers, having heard where we were, would come in from the direction of Vittoria. I began to try todig in on the back of the crest of the ridge. The ground was hard shale, and I made little headway. The entrenching shovel was too frail, so I used my helmet to dig; it wasn’t much better. But we needed protection from the mortar fire that was becoming quite heavy, and I kept digging.
The first wounded began to crawl back over the ridge. They all told the same story. They fired their bazookas at the front plate of German tanks, and then the tanks swiveled their huge 88-mm. guns at them and fired at the individual infantrymen. By this time the tanks could be heard, although I could not see any because of the smoke and dust and the cover of vegetation. Hagen came in, walking and holding his thigh, which had been torn badly by fire. Cannonball had gone forward to command the attack. It did not seem to be getting anywhere, however, as the German fire increased in intensity and our wounded were coming back in greater numbers.
The first German prisoners also came back. They said they were from the Hermann Goering Parachute Panzer Division. I remember one of them asking if we had fought the Japanese in the Pacific; he said he asked because the paratroopers had fought so hard. Ahead of us, mixed with the olive trees, were low grapevines that covered men on the ground quite completely. I went back a few hundred yards to check the 81-mm. mortars and to see how many other troopers had joined us. A few had. Lieutenant May had been hit by mortar fragments. I talked to the crews of the two Pack 75-mm. artillery pieces and told them we were going to stay on the ridge no matter what happened. We agreed that they should stay concealed and engage the less heavily armored underbellies of the tanks when they first appeared at the top of the rise. It was a dangerous tactic, but the only thing we could do, and tanks are vulnerable in that position. I was determined that if the tanks overran us, we would stay and fight the infantry.
I went back to try to dig my foxhole. By then it had become evident that I would never get deep enough, so I decided to dig the front end about eighteen inches deep, and the back end about a foot deep; then if I sat down in it and put my head between my knees, a tank could roll over me without doing too much damage. So I continued from time to time, when circumstances permitted, to try to get farther into the ground.
At the height of the fighting the first German Messerschmitts appeared overhead. To my surprise, they ignored us and attacked the small railroad gatekeeper’s house repeatedly. They must have thought that that was the command post; it was indeed a logical place for it to be. They did not attack any of us near the top of the ridge. A few more troopers were still coming in. Now added to the enemy smallarms fire was the tank fire.
Captain Al Ireland, who was still with me, suggested that he go back to the 45th Division and get help. It was the best idea I had heard all day. I had been so busy handling the tactical crisis that the possibility had never entered my mind. The mortar Are continued in intensity, and moving along the hack of the ridge to check the security on the right and the position of a 75-mm. gun the troopers were dragging up, I found myself lying on the ground bouncing from the concussion. The best way to protect yourself was to place your palms Mat on the ground as though you were about to start doing pushups, and thus absorb the shock of the ground jolts.
In front of us, beyond the vineyard and about four hundred yards to the right, was a small group of buildings. Slowly, very slowly, a German tank became visible. We first saw the right track of the tank come around the corner of the stone house. Then we saw the muzzle of the gun. A Tiger tank is an awesome thing to encounter in combat. Weighing more than sixty tons, and armed with an 88-mm. gun and machine guns, it was far more formidable than anything we had ever seen, and we had nothing in our own armored forces to compare with it.