- 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 artillery paratroopers decided that they would take a chance and engage it directly with a 7o-mm. gun. The To was the only artillery piece the parachutists could get in 1943. No one had ever intended that the 75 would be an antitank gun, certainly not against the front of a Tiger. Nevertheless, the paratroopers snaked their gun up the ridge until they were plainly visible and could get a direct line of sight on the tank. Field artillery in the front lines, shades of gallant Pelham at Fredericksburg! The tank inched forward, the driver probably hoping that we did not see him. It was obvious that his problem was to get far enough out so he could swing the gun at us and then fire directly, but in order to do this he had to get at least half of the tank exposed. It continued to move out slowly, very slowly. The crew of our 75 mm. were on their knees and lying down, with the gun loaded and ready to fire.
Suddenly there was a tremendous explosion. The tank had fired and hit the ground just in front of the gun, knocking the troopers like tenpins in all directions. I was standing just at the left rear, watching the action, and I was knocked down too. Probably I hit the ground instinctively. The troopers got up and ran off like startled quail. A second later they realized, to their embarrassment, what they were doing, and they ran back to the gun. They fired one round that hit the tank or the corner of the building. In the smoke and dust the tank backed out of sight.
That was the last we saw of it. To my amazement, none of the gun crew were hurt. Tanks began to work their way forward off to our left, coming directly up through the vineyard. Although the tank we fired at had backed up, I got the impression that the tank activity was increasing and that we were facing a pretty heavy attack that would come over the ridge at any moment. Back to digging, with little progress.
Two troopers came from my left rear in an Italian tracked personnel carrier. They were equipped with rifles and wanted to go over the top of the ridge to engage the Germans. I suggested that they not do it, warning them that they would be knocked out, but they insisted they could take care of themselves. They added that they wanted to “scare the Krauts” into thinking that we too had armor.
They had hardly gotten over the top of the ridge when a direct hit exploded the vehicle into flames. All the next day it was still there, smoking, with two skeletons in the front seat. An ambulance that must have been from the 45th Division showed up, and a doctor from the 505th took it over. He drove it over the ridge—he was on the running board. It was engaged in fire, and he was knocked to the ground.
I had established an aid station with medics who were off to the left, a couple of hundred yards away. They were bandaging casualties and giving them morphine and sulfa. The fire continued in considerable volume into midafternoon. About this time Cannonball came over the ridge and said that all the men in his battalion were killed, wounded, or pinned down and ineffective. I told him we were going to stay at the top of the ridge with what we had and fight the German infantry that came with the tanks. He said that we didn’t have a chance, that we’d be finished if we tried to stay there. He went to the rear. I could have relieved him of his command, but I knew how he felt and I let him go.
About four o’clock a young ensign, who had parachuted with me the first night, came up with a radio and said he could call for naval gunOre. I was a hit nervous about it, because we didn’t know precisely where we were, and to have the Navy shoot at us would only add to the danger and excitement of what was turning out to lie quite a day. We tried to Ax our position in terms of the railroad crossing over the road, and he called for a trial round. It came down precisely where the tank had disappeared. He then called for a concentration, and from then on the battle seemed to change. I kept thinking of Shiloh, bloody Shiloh. General Grant, sheltered under the riverbank, his command overrun, refused to leave the ßeld, counterattacked, and the battle was won.
In about an hour I heard that more troopers were coming, and at six o’clock I heard that Lieutenant Harold H. Swingler and quite a few troopers from Regimental Headquarters Company were on the road. Swingler had been a former intercollegiate boxing champion; he was a tough combat soldier. He arrived about seven o’clock. In his wake appeared half a dozen of our own Sherman tanks. All the troopers cheered loud and long: it was a very dramatic moment. The Germans must have heard the cheering, too. although they did not know then what it was about. They soon found out.