Thursday, November 11, 2010

Bill’s First Combat Jump

The date of today’s post is Veteran’s Day here in the United States – November 11, 2010 . I want to take this opportunity and thank all of our veterans, past and present for their sacrifices made for our freedom and to keep our country safe from harm.

The Jump

The 40 mile an hour winds recorded by the C-47 crews over the Mediterranean Sea persisted over the Sicilian coastline and the Drop Zone (DZ) at the jump altitude of 400 feet. During training, the jumps were canceled if the wind exceeded 15 miles an hour because of a much higher likelihood of injury in stronger winds.

Only a few of the seasoned paratroopers had ever jumped in winds above 25 miles an hour. Despite these impossible conditions, when the jump light indicator changed from RED to GREEN, the order to stand up and hook up was given. Bill shuffled toward the rear of the aircraft burdened by his heavy load. His feet followed the heals of the man in front until no more floor was left. The howling dark wind was punctuated by beautiful terrifying flashes of light from thundering munitions. Whipping ropes of anti-aircraft tracers streamed up from the ground, occasionally exploding nearby and rocking the aircraft. Taking a deep breath of the suicidal gale, and with a hefty measure of faith, Bill hurled himself out of the door.

Bill had a terrifying experience on this, his first combat jump. From the reports of C-47 pilots and his own recollections, we gain an insight into the conditions facing the men in the Headquarters Company serial. At 400 feet when Bill left the relative safety of his aircraft, he could hear the explosions, the ack-ack of anti-aircraft fire, the sirens wailing, the burps of German MG 42 machine guns, and the pops and cracks from small arms fire. Perhaps, he heard the wind blown voices of the enemy below.

He had almost certainly never jumped in such high winds before, and due to the wind, he couldn’t have been sure from which direction the sounds emanated. Were they directly below him? Or were they off to the left? Maybe the right? Perhaps they were behind him? He probably could see the flames of Gela burning to the north west, circled by the tracer fire from the anti-aircraft batteries that surrounded the city. Other fires could likely be seen burning far off and much closer to him. His long distance vision would have been obscured by the haze from the pre-invasion Allied air attack. He probably smelled the cordite from explosions, and the wood and oil smoke from the fires. In the poorly lit conditions, he was unsure of the terrain. His eyes strained while his hands vainly pulled on his risers hopefully heading for a favorable patch of dirt.

The ground was especially rocky on Sicily and jumping at a low altitude of 400 feet many troopers were injured with broken legs, ankles, bad sprains, and so on. Bill was among these men. He landed hard, badly jarring his knees. Full of adrenalin he said he didn’t even notice the pain in his knees until later. Bill would suffer the pain until he had a chance to visit an aid station later in the invasion possibly in the early morning of July 10th.

The Post Jump Firefight

During a visit with Bill in 1996, he told me about his jump into Sicily. He said that after he jumped he hit the ground landing roughly on solid bedrock. Bill felt for his Tommy gun, but it wasn’t there. The jump winds were so strong that they snapped the cord which connected his primary weapon to his jumpsuit and had sent it hurtling away from him. Now his only weapon was the combat bayonet sheathed in his boot. Using his switchblade jump knife, he hurriedly cut though his jump gear and took off his parachute harness. Looking around he found that he was alone.

He did his best to hide his chute in the sparse countryside and took out his compass and silk invasion map. He knew he landed short of the drop zone. From his vantage point of about 200 meters, he could see the glow of Gela burning far away to the north west. He decided to cut across country towards the Headquarters Company planned collection point.

The Headquarters serial actual DZ is shown in the bottom right hand corner of the map below. It’s in an area about 30 miles from the planned DZ and collection point which is located in the top left hand corner of the map. The north west direction Bill set out in is also shown on the map as a blue line.


Not far into his trek, Bill came across a pill box complex like the one pictured below.


German Buncker

A German Pill Box in the area around Vittoria

Source: Author’s Collection


Bunker in ngrass

Same Pill Box Obscured by Grass

Source: Author’s Collection

He heard the voices of maybe two or three enemy soldiers outside the pill box. They were moving around in the dark apparently on a perimeter patrol looking for paratroopers. They were unaware of his presence. He quietly lay motionless in some grass as one moved toward his position.  He waited for him to pass, then rose, grabbed him from behind and using his bayonet blade, stabbed him to death. The man was a German soldier armed with an MP-40 submachine gun. Bill took the MP-40, rolled away several feet and then lay low on the ground.

The other enemy soldiers heard the attack and ran back into the pill box complex shouting. Very soon after, enemy troops began pouring out of the entrance. They too were Germans. He said that they were coming out of the pill box like a bunch of angry bees out of a hive. He said he shot them as they ran out and kept firing until no more came out.  He didn’t say if there were other troopers with him. There must have been others because he said the pill box was taken during the fight.

After it was over he picked up a Lugar pistol from a dead German officer and kept it as a souvenir. He sat down briefly to take stock when an unexpected wave of self disgust surged through him at the realization of how many men had died at his hands.

When he recovered he continued the trek to the Headquarters collection point, in the vicinity of the planned DZ in the map above.

© Copyright Jeffrey Clark 2009 - 2010 All Rights Reserved.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Flight to the Sicily Drop Zone

For Operation HUSKY everyone in the 505th PIR jumped because the gliders which usually brought in Service Company personnel (besides the jumping riggers and other personnel) couldn’t land on the Island’s rocky volcanic terrain in the Drop Zone (DZ) around the Gela area. The Service Company was under the command of Regimental Headquarters commander Col. William Ekman, so they flew in the Regimental Headquarters Serial during combat jumps. This is significant, because it allows Bill’s movements before, during and after a combat jump to be traced.

In total, the 82nd Airborne Division’s portion of the Allied airborne invasion included 226 C-47’s separated into 5 serials flown by the troop carrier groups assigned to the 52nd Troop Carrier Wing (TCW) of the US Army Air Corps. From the 505th PIR, the Headquarters battalion serial was flown by the 316th Group, 1st battalion by the 313th Group, 2nd battalion by the 61st Group, and 3rd battalion by the 314th Group. 

Planes started to leave the aerodromes nearby the Kairouan base at 8:10pm on July 9th and continued until 9:16pm. For the 505th PIR, the first serial included 3rd Battalion while 1st battalion was carried in the second serial . The third serial carried Regimental Headquarters, with 2nd battalion in the forth. (After Action Report: Operation HUSKY)

Bill’s Headquarters serial was comprised of 33 planes and contained Headquarters Personnel, the Headquarters Service and Demolition Squad, the 307th Engineers, the 456th Artillery, and the 307th Medical Corps. The first plane from this serial took off at 8:35pm on July 9th from the Enfidaville aerodrome. It was the lead plane carrying Col. Gavin. Planes took off in groups of three at 30 second intervals. After take off each group of three planes formed a V shape and then joined to form a larger group, ideally consisting of nine planes in a series of Vs as depicted in Figure 1. Each nine plane group was separated by a flying time of six to 10 minutes. Source: Ingrisano, M., 1991, “Valor Without Arms: A History of the 316th Troop Carrier Group 1942 – 1945”, Merriam Press: Vermont, Page 18.


Figure 1: Nine C-47 aircraft formation comprising a part of a serial

The planned flight path for Operation HUSKY is shown in Figure 2. Bill was to fly over the Mediterranean for 40 miles to a point (due west from Cape Bon)east of Sousse, Tunisia,  then to turn and head east for 202 miles toward Malta, on the way passing south of the island of Linosa. At Malta, he was to fly for 62 miles in a northeast direction. South of Cape Passero, Sicily he was to turn in a westerly direction for 35 miles, then take a jog to the northwest for 14 miles until his plane crossed the Sicilian coast near Gela and arrived over his drop zone at 11:30pm about 3 hours after take off.


Figure 2: HUSKY Flight Plan

Source: North Africa Air Force: Report of Operations

Figure 3 shows the same (approximate planned flight path) on a Google map:

Figure 3: View HUSKY Planned Flight path in a larger map


The actual course of Bill’s serial and that of the entire aerial armada deviated from the plan by flying south and east crossing of the island of Linosa in Figure 4 below. It then disastrously missed the turning point at Malta and instead flew east much farther than planned. It overcompensated for the error by flying too far north west, arriving at a point east of the planned Cape Passero and thereby crossing the Sicilian coast at a point far to the east south east of the planned DZ. A portion of the invasion force splintered and faired even worse by flying all the way to Syracuse (Siracusa).


Figure 4: View Husky Actual Flight path in a larger map

It was strong winds and bad visibility which together conspired to send the invasion force off course and over time. Ultimately the planned DZ’s were severely missed. The wind speed for the drop was predicted to be 10 to 15 miles per hour. As the serial crossed the Mediterranean, the air crews became aware that the actual wind speed was between 35 and 40 miles per hour at an altitude of 400 feet. The leading aircraft did not see the guide beacon at the Malta turning point, which led to the serial being 30 minutes late over what they thought was the DZ.  The haze from Allied bombing reduced visibility. To make things worse the light of the moon was gone having set earlier than forecast. In truth the air crews had at best only a general idea of their location.

The serial was hit by flak prior to flying over the DZ. C-47 crews reported that anti-aircraft fire was seen at Licata, Gela, and over Ponte Olivo. Gela was reported to be on fire and was encircled by light anti-aircraft fire. Ground fire was reported as light and erratic.

The scheduled jump time in Figure 2 is shown as 23:30 hours (11:30pm) on July 9th. Due to the problems encountered, the 316th was 36 minutes late in dropping troopers from the Headquarters serial. This means that Bill probably jumped into the sky above Sicily at about six minutes after midnight on July 10th. He had been in his plane for three and a half hours.

After the jump, the planes of the 316th headed back to their base near Kairouan without incident.

Quoting Michael Ingrisano, a pilot in Bill’s serial, on the success of the mission reveals just how badly they were mis-dropped:

“The 316th fared worst of all. Deflected by the wind, it missed Linosa; it missed Malta; and it missed the south coast of Sicily.” Three planes, carrying a demolition section dropped their troops south of Syracruse, 65 miles from their objective. “Over Sicily the rest of the 316th promptly lost their way again, dispersed, dropped their passengers, including task force commander [Gavin], all over southeastern Sicily.” Overall the results were disappointing in that less than a sixth of the paratroopers were delivered on or near the DZ………” (Ingrisano 1991, pg. 18 - 19).

According to the 505th PIR After Action Report, the Headquarters serial was dropped about 10 miles south of Vittoria and 30 miles from its designated drop zone.

The mis-drop was a critical error and one which would nearly doom the whole invasion. When Bill saw the green jump light turn on in his C-47 he had no idea of the extent of the trouble about to engulf him.

© Copyright Jeffrey Clark 2009 - 2010 All Rights Reserved.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Preparing for Operation HUSKY – Invasion of Sicily


Preparing for the Jump

For the 505, final preparations for Operation HUSKY, the invasion of Sicily, took place on July 9th at the 82nd Airborne’s base near Kairouan, Tunisia. The day began early for the men with a breakfast before dawn followed by the issue of ammunition, weapons, rations, survival gear and other items including:

  • Main parachute and reserve chute.
  • Weapons – Thompson “Tommy” submachine Gun or an M1 rifle depending on each man’s preference, four fragmentation grenades, one smoke grenade, bayonet, trench knife, and switchblade jump knife.
  • Clothing comprising a jumpsuit, jump harness, helmet, gloves, silk map with escape routes, compass, wristwatch, two extra pairs of socks, a spare pair of underwear, and a handkerchief.
  • A mussette bag containing a mess kit, one K and one D ration, toothbrush, “tooth powder”, razor, bar of soap, pencil, paper, 10 packs of Camel cigarettes, matches, cigarette lighter, and water purification tablets.
  • Invasion arm bands with an American flag were handed out to be worn on one sleeve, while on the other they were to wear a white band for easier identification at night.
  • In addition each man carried 30 feet of rope, blanket, shelter half, gas mask, entrenching tool, two first aid kits, a Mae West life preserver, and a canteen of water.

All of this weighed between 80 – 90 pounds.

Over July 7 and 8, briefings had been held to go over each unit’s mission during the coming invasion. Today, units were briefed again to reassure the men. They were told that enemy opposition consisted of the Italian Army with some specialist German technical personnel. Since the British Army had easily beaten the Italians during the North African campaign most paratroopers thought they would be easily defeated wherever it was they were to invade. At this time they still didn’t know their target of invasion. 

The 505 leaders of course knew the destination was Sicily, but they had no idea that instead of Italians, the tough and thoroughly Nazi Hermann Goring Division occupied the invasion zone. They were cruel and easily one of the most brutal German units of the war. General Omar Bradley, a member of the Allied intelligence group known as “ULTRA” knew of their presence, but to tell anyone outside of the group would risk jeopardizing Allied intelligence. Bradley kept silent, much to his personal moral chagrin.

The risk was great because as early as 1938, Polish mathematicians Jerzy Rozycki, Henryk Zygalski and Marian Rejewski secretly had been able to crack 75% of Enigma messages. Long before the war, in the 1920’s Poland had been concerned about German intentions. In 1931 and 1932, the French obtained information from a spy, Hans-Thilo Schmidt, about how the Enigma machine worked. The French and English were given this information, but were unable to crack the secrets of the German Enigma Machine. Subsequently, the information was passed onto the Polish. Studying this material, the Polish mathematicians were able to develop the code breaking techniques which revealed the secrets of the Enigma Machine. Marian Rejewski even designed the first mechanical device to beak the codes and dubbed it a “Bomba”.

The advances made by the Poles were cut short in 1939 due to the impending German invasion of Poland. In July 1939, the Polish mathematicians met secretly with the British and French outside of Warsaw and handed over the secrets of how they were able to break the German codes. Using the techniques developed by the Poles, in 1940 the British, through the efforts of Alan Turing and his group at Bletchley Park was the first British team successful in breaking the encoded German radio communications. Alan Turing would develop and implement a mechanical deciphering machine that he called the “Bombe”. Turing wouldn’t be able to crack the Enigma cipher permanently until June 4th, 1944, with the seizure of the Enigma code books from U-505 by the USS Pittsburg.

In 1943, the Allied knowledge of the Enigma machine was of paramount importance and obviously needed to be held secret for the remainder of the war. Even to the point of denying vital information on troop concentrations to front line leaders including General Patton himself.

Days before the invasion, in his role as a rigger, Bill had packed and checked some of the chutes used for the invasion. He had volunteered for the Sicily jump. Riggers were regularly asked to volunteer to make combat jumps to instill confidence that the parachutes were correctly packed. The days leading up to HUSKY were hectic and stressful for Bill as he moved from one task to another, inspecting parachutes and jump kits, undoubtedly finding errors – some life threatening.

On this day of the invasion, he had to control his thoughts and emotions trying not to think about the mistakes he may have missed during inspecting and packing, leading to visions of troopers plunging to their deaths because the parachutes he packed didn’t open or the stitching holding customized equipment packs failed.

On top of this Bill was a trained combat paratrooper. Once a rigger landed, his roll was identical to that of any other combat company trooper, so when Bill hit the ground in Sicily, he would have to perform in combat. Ironically, like early paratroopers who had to pack their own chutes, he was responsible for parachute quality control and was expected to perform his duty as a combat infantryman on the ground. The pressure on Bill must have been immense, but he did have one distinctive advantage. He was a paratrooper of the elite 505th PIR. He was trained to control fear and to channel it and other emotions into effective weapons that would increase his chances of survival. To use the motto of the 505th, Bill was “READY”.

In the afternoon of D-Day the men dressed for combat. Once final preparations were completed they sat down to dinner at 4:00pm. After that they were loaded onto trucks and taken to one of 10 aerodromes surrounding the Kairouan base which were operated by the 52nd Troop Carrier Wing. Being part of the Regimental Headquarters serial, Bill went to Field G, “Enfidaville” where equipment was loaded onto the planes and checked. They rested for a few hours in the shade underneath the C-47 transports awaiting the order to board. During this time some men chatted amongst themselves while others read.

Bill’s Bible

Many paratroopers carried a Bible into combat. Bill had one which is dated March 17, 1943. It’s pages are worn and the cover is battered from being kept on his person throughout the entire war.

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Bill’s Bible, with his name, serial number, unit assignment (505th PIR), parents address and date.


Back Pages indicating he received it while training at Fort Benning

The bible has several verses that are underlined or highlighted in blue or black ink. These passages provide us with a rare insight into his mind and likely highlight some of the reasons for his desire to become a paratrooper. Perhaps while resting before the Sicily jump, Bill took out his bible and read from the passages he had underlined, gaining strength from their words and reaffirmation that he made the right choice in joining the 82nd Airborne.

One notable highlighted verse is:


“Verily, Verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.” John 12: 24

As a paratrooper, Bill probably felt like he was falling into the ground. If he died the fruit of his death would be freedom from Nazi oppression for the people his was liberating.

Prior to that, the following words are underlined:


“……One soweth and another reapeth” John 4:37

The Nazi’s had sown their seeds of oppression. Maybe Bill felt that his mission at this time in his life was to help them reap what they had sowed.

He must have been buoyed by verses like this one below relating to his involvement in this righteous cause:


“For I am with thee, and no man shall set on thee to hurt thee: for I have much people in this city”. Acts 18:10

There are other highlighted verses relating significantly to self sacrifice. For instance,


“Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I might take it again.” John 10: 17

“No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This commandment I have received of my Father.” John 10: 18

By his own volition, Bill was putting his life on the line. He had the power to do that. He alone was making this choice. If he died it was because he made the decision to fight for freedom, not because the tyranny of Nazi oppression had willed that he die.

One might reasonably assume that he did it for the prestige, adventure, glory, and the extra pay paratroops received as danger money. To take this position is at clear odds with the verses Bill had underlined as well as with Bill’s behavior before and after the war. He didn’t have to become a paratrooper. As we know, his father discouraged it, saying that the paratroopers were a suicide outfit. He wasn’t drafted either. He freely enlisted in a different outfit so that he could be transferred over to the paratroopers at a later date.

He never wanted to be glorified; never asked for any recognition for what he did. In fact, he tried not to talk about it. After the war was over he went back to his job at the paper mill. Bill received the Combat Infantryman Badge (CIB) which was awarded for valor under fire for his action in Sicily. Having a CIB meant that he was retroactively eligible to claim the Bronze Star medal, one of America’s highest awards for valor in battle, but he never applied to receive the Bronze Star.

The verses and his behavior give some insight about Bill. They indicate that his character was one of self sacrifice, without asking for anything in return and reveal a uniquely spiritual and distinguished mind, especially for a man as young as he was then.

Scanning the underlined Bible verses gives the reader the impression that Bill knew what he was doing and why he was doing it. That Bill possess these qualities; to understand life, and to freely decide on his mission as a paratrooper at such an early age is really quite extraordinary. During the time that Bill received his Bible and made the Sicily jump he was only 20 years old!

The Eyes of the World are Upon You

While Bill tried to relax underneath his C-47 someone came around with the countersign (password combination) they were to use to identify one another in darkness after the jump. It was “George-Marshall”.

PARATROOPERS, IDENTIFIED BY WHITE ARM BANDS, preparing to emplane for Sicily.

Paratroopers making ready to board for Sicily

Photo Source: HyperWar: A Hypertext History of the Second World War

Just before boarding their planes, the troopers finally learned of their destination when each was handed a copy of a message which Colonel James Gavin had written. It read:

“Soldiers of the 505th Regimental Combat Team

Tonight you embark upon a combat mission for which our people and the free people of the world have been waiting for two years.

You will spearhead the landing of an American Force upon the island of SICILY. Every preparation has been made to eliminate the element of chance. You have been given the means to do your job and you are backed by the largest assemblage of air power in the world’s history.

The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of every American go with you.

Since it is our first fight at night you must use the countersign and avoid firing on each other. The bayonet is the night fighter’s best weapon. Conserve your water and ammunition.

The term American Parachutist has become synonymous with courage of a high order. Let us carry the fight to the enemy and make the American Parachutist feared and respected through all his ranks. Attack violently. Destroy him wherever found.

Good landing, good fight, and good luck.

Colonel Gavin


Every time I read these words from Gavin I can’t help but feel that they must have evoked in the men a strong surge of empowerment, self-confidence and a willingness to do whatever it took to succeed. Boarding his C-47, these emotions must of welled up in Bill as Gavin’s message echoed in his young mind, boosting his resolve. According to personal accounts, a lot of the men read and re-read these words from their beloved Colonel, before stashing them away inside their jump suits.

Minutes later Bill’s C-47 roared down the runway taking off at around 8:30pm. The largest seaborne and airborne invasion in the history of the world (at that time) had just begun.

© Copyright Jeffrey Clark 2009 - 2010 All Rights Reserved.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Gavin’s Boys


James M. Gavin

 General James M. Gavin

Image Source: National Archives, Washington

Gavin treated each man under his command with the same love a father has for his own son. The men adored him for it. He believed strongly in leading by example in every situation. In battle he could always be found at the very front, sharing fox holes and taking fire just like any other enlisted 82nd Airborne soldier.

The literature is replete with examples of General Gavin’s unique and effective style of leadership. There are two stories that have always stuck in my mind and give meaningful context to Bill’s jeep encounter with Gavin.

This one took place in Normandy the day after the 82nd Airborne jumped:

“One of the parachute officers who accompanied Jim Gavin was Thomas Graham, who recalled an incident that typified the young general’s style of command:

A paratrooper came stumbling and running toward us, shouting, ‘They’re coming! They’re coming!’ He was nearly hysterical. As he approached, we could see that he was one of our younger troopers, probably only 18 years old.

Suddenly the boy halted – I’m sure he recognized General Gavin. In a soft voice Slim Jim asked, ‘What is the matter, son?’

The trooper burst into tears and answered: ‘I thought they were coming!’

Despite his countless burdens, Slim Jim spent a few minutes talking to the boy and assured him he would get some rest. Then the general told his orderly, Cpl. Walker Wood, to accompany the distraught boy back to his unit and relay his rest orders to the trooper’s company commander.” Source: William B. Breuer “Geronimo! American Paratroopers in World War II” 1992 p. 249

This next story took place in Sicily, during the pivotal and desperate battle of Biazza Ridge.

“[Harold] Eatman spotted the head and shoulders of a man in a shallow hole scraped into the stubborn shale. He shouted his unit, hoping that the GIs on the line hadn’t been so spooked that they’d just open up on him. He ran to the man and was surprised to find it was Jim Gavin, out in front. Eatman slid to the ground next to him. He was drenched in sweat, and his canteen was empty.

‘Is there any water here?” Eatman gasped.

Gavin reached around for his own canteen.

‘Here, son, take some of mine.’

Eatman, tired and hot and dusty as he was, thought that he shouldn’t be drinking the colonel’s water. He was a paratrooper and he was supposed to practice water discipline. He put the canteen to his lips but did not drink. He handed it back and thanked Gavin, then took his place on the line.” Source: Ed Ruggero “Combat Jump: The Young Men Who Led the Assault into Fortress Europe, July 1943” 2003 p. 294

Encounters like these and Bill’s hitch hiking story spread like wild fire through the ranks of Gavin’s commands. With each one Gavin gained increasing and lasting adoration from all of his men.

This quote from a trooper before the upcoming Sicily invasion sums up well how the men felt about their beloved leader:

“We’d follow him straight to Hell, if he asked us, and plant our color over Satan’s C. P. ahead of schedule.” Source: H. L. Covington “A Fighting Heart: An Unofficial Story of the 82nd Airborne Division” 1949 p. 31

Gavin equally reciprocated the respect and loyalty the men had for him. In his 1978 book, “On to Berlin”, Gavin writes:

“…Not long after this I received a complaint from the Office of the Post Commander. The Regimental Adjutant of the 505th came into my office and told me that one of our troopers had been arrested for having sexual intercourse with a young lady on the lawn of the courthouse in Phenix City. The Regimental Adjutant was asked by Post Headquarters, ‘What is he going to do about it?’ – meaning me. ‘Well,’ I replied, ‘in view of the fact that that young man will be asked to give his life for his country in the next few months, I suggest we give him a medal.’ I heard nothing further of it.” Source: James M. Gavin “On to Berlin: Battles of an Airborne Commander 1943 - 1946” 1978 p. 8

Gavin expected the highest sacrifices from his “boys” as he fondly referred to them. His daughter in quoting Gavin’s personal diary before the invasion of Sicily, writes:

“Gavin expected every paratrooper to jump and ‘fight to the last man and last round of ammunition’ to achieve victory” Source: Barbara Gavin – Fauntleroy “The General & His Daughter” 2007, p. 33

In Normandy Gavin had this to say:

“About Noon on D-Day plus 1, I met with Matt Ridgeway at the point where the Sainte Mere Eglise road crosses the railroad just east of the Merderet [river]. As far as we knew we were on our own. Matt and I decided right then that if the seaborne assault had been called off or beaten back, then we would continue to fight to the end.” William B. Breuer “Geronimo!” 1992, p. 249.

The Fighting 505

Bill used to tell another story about Gavin that I cannot find in the history books.

Gavin often used to speak of how paratroopers loved to fight. Indeed Bill often told stories of the fights he had during the War. In one case he picked a fight at a London pub with a burly British paratrooper, who Bill said “beat the absolute tar out of me.” When Bill returned from WWII while readjusting to civilian life he used to pick fights in bars just for the hell of it.

Gavin often commented on his boys’ apparent obsession with fighting. This quote from a letter Gavin wrote home while at Oujda is particularly illuminating:

“The troops are getting along fine. Of course they have the usual parachutist difficulties with drinking and fighting. The wine occasionally leaves them mesmerized. I think that is the word, it sounds good anyway. If it isn’t that, it raises them in their own esteem to stratospheric heights of self-appreciation. Any sign on the part of anyone encountered during this inflation that may be considered derogatory is the sign to fight and they are off. MPs also have the same effect on them. I hope they fight as well in combat as they fight around the barrios. I believe they will.”

Source: Barbara Gavin – Fauntleroy “The General & His Daughter” 2007, p. 34

The story Bill used to tell was about a fight incident that happened while the 505 was based in North Africa. He didn’t mention if it happened in Oujda or in Kairouan. I have scanned the history books exhaustively, but have not found a single mention of it. It will be shocking and unbelievable to some, but Bill was adamant that it happened. It’s shocking, because it’s a story about a fight involving an enlisted 505 paratrooper and Colonel Gavin himself.

Bill said the incident happened like this. An enlisted paratrooper walked up to Gavin and challenged him to a fight saying something like he could beat Gavin up. He didn’t say how the situation escalated, but it got to the point where Gavin said “Okay, we’re going outside of the camp to settle this.” Bill said he took off his rank insignia and some of the guys including Bill went out to watch the fight. The two fought each other using a combination of Judo and boxing. According to Bill, the trooper gave a good account of himself, but Gavin was clearly the superior man in unarmed hand-to-hand combat and ultimately won the fight.

Bill said there were only a few troopers present, so the story suggests that Bill was in close proximity to Gavin at the time. The identity of the trooper who picked the fight is unknown and Bill would never divulge his name. Bill’s silence is understandable and admirable. If the story was leaked, the ramifications on Gavin could have been serious especially in light of what was to later happen to General Patton for slapping the soldier in Sicily. Both Gavin and the trooper could have been severely disciplined.

Aggression isn’t something typically associated with General Gavin especially in light of the stories recorded in relation to the way he treated his men.

In writing Ridgeway’s Paratroopers, author Clay Blair incorporated part of an interview he had with Ralph (“Doc”) Eaton. As the 82nd Airborne Division Headquarters Chief of Staff from December 12, 1942 until August 15, 1944, Doc Eaton knew the 505 and Gavin very well.

“The 505 may well have been one of the best trained and highly motivated regiments the Army ever fielded. ‘They were awesome,’ an 82nd Airborne Division staffer [Doc Eaton] recalled: ‘Every man a clone of the CO, Gavin. Tough? God they were tough! Not just in the field, but twenty-four hours a day. Off-duty they’d move into a bar in little groups and if everyone there didn’t get down on their knees in adoration, they’d simply tear the place up. Destroy it. And God help the straight legs they came across.” Doc Eaton thought he had never seen such killers. They reminded him ‘of a pack of jackals’.” Source: Clay Blair “Ridgeway’s Paratroopers: The American Airborne in World War II” 1985 p. 51.

‘Straight legs’ was the Airborne term for the regular GIs. It’s a reference to the fact that they wore straight leg trousers. In contrast, the paratroopers were permitted to tuck pant legs into their jump boots giving them a distinguished and instantly recognizable non-regulation ‘baggy pants’ look.

What is interesting about Doc Eaton’s quote is his observation that every man was a clone of Gavin. Does this extend to the 505ers love of fighting? One cannot tell for sure. Even Gavin seemed a little surprised by the men’s apparent proclivity for their aggressive past time:

“Early in July 1942 the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment was activated at Fort Benning Georgia. I was assigned as its first commanding officer. Its training program was just about as tough and demanding as we could make it. The troopers responded well. However, despite the rigors of training, they always seemed to have enough energy left to get into fights in Phenix City, Alabama and its environs during time off.” Source: James M. Gavin, “On to Berlin”, 1978, p. 4.

None of this analysis is meant to prove anything. I leave it up to the reader to reach his or her own conclusions on Bill’s Gavin fight story. For me at least, I believe it happened. Everything else Bill told of the war has been revealed by the test of time to be truthful, unvarnished and without regard for his or anyone else’s ego.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Rest and Recreation in Oujda

“About the only respite from the grinding training schedule were the occasional passes that were given out so that eventually everyone was able to take in the sights of nearby Oujda. Usually one such trip was enough. The few bars that were there featured ‘wine coolers’ as the best they could offer, and a single look at the one ‘maison de tolerance’ was enough to discourage even the most hardy. Other women were just non-existent. Perhaps the one thing that was of interest was the chance to see and talk to members of the famous French Foreign Legion which had a unit stationed nearby.” Source: Allen Langdon Ready 1986 p. 14

A Chance at Playing Casey Jones

Bill used to tell a story about these French Legionnaires. On R&R trips into Oujda he used to stop by the French Foreign Legion’s base where they maintained a nearby railway station. The station was a real draw for many troopers. It was a chance to fulfill a cherished boyhood dream to play at being the great railway engineer and American folk hero, John Luther ("Casey") Jones. Before cars and airplanes, in the age of railroads, Jones’ passenger train the Cannonball Express slammed into a stationary freight train on a wet night with low visibility in April 1900. Miraculously, Jones was the only fatality. His actions in attempting to avoid the accident won him fame across America and indeed the world. He was assured immortality in a popular ballad written in his honor as well as many subsequent works by musicians and poets to the present day.

Like most young men his age, Bill had grown up with the legend of Casey Jones. To every boy of the era he was the greatest railroad engineer of all time. During summers Bill played with his brothers taking turns imagining they were the hero Casey Jones in the dangerous job of railway engineer at the controls of the Cannonball Express.

With this background, the Oujda train engines became a natural target for the little leisure time the 505ers were allotted. During encounters with the French, the currency of most value in North Africa was the American cigarette. Bill said the quality of the French cigarettes was poor and the Frenchmen didn’t have many of them. The engineers at the railway station would readily exchange a pack of American smokes for turn at the controls of their locomotives.  He said the engineers would let the troopers drive the trains at a thrilling full speed up and down the tracks around Oujda. Bill thought it was a steal since he didn’t smoke.


CaseyJonesStamp American Railway Engineer Casey Jones (1863–1900) depicted on a 3-cent US postage stamp

(Image Source Wikipedia)

Home Cooked Chicken Dinner

Despite the tensions reported in the last post “We Trained in a Fiery Furnace” not all encounters with the Moroccan locals were negative – at least not in the beginning.  Many were initiated by locals with the best of intentions. Often paratroopers on R&R would find themselves invited to home cooked dinner by local men grateful to the Americans for their part in the liberation of Morocco from Axis enslavement. 

One of these lucky troopers was Pvt. Howard Tiedemann who served with Bill in Service Company. While in Casablanca Howard and one of his buddies were approached by a well to do (by Casablanca standards) local businessman. The man, implored the two troopers to come to his house for a dinner of succulent roast chicken with all the trimmings.  Believing a home cooked meal would be far superior than the standard Army fare served by the 505 cooks, the troopers readily accepted the man’s kind offer. Howard envisaged a delicious chicken roasted to perfection, surrounded by tender vegetables infused with the bird’s natural juices and a side of rich gravy – a meal just like his mother made back in the States. Indeed, that’s all he could think about for the entire day leading up to the event. Back at base he told anyone would care to listen (and there were plenty of men who did care) all about their upcoming feast. Jealously hanging on Howard’s every word, each trooper schemed on how he could land a similar invite.

Howard and his buddy arrived right on time at their host’s residence with excited anticipation. They were treated like kings by the man’s wife and children who met them at the door and eagerly ushered the men through a humble well kempt dwelling to the kitchen table. Waiting for them in the kitchen doorway stood the man offering a warm appreciative welcome. After exchanging pleasantries, he turned the guest’s attention to the table where their eyes were accosted by a most unsightly, yet well presented meal. Dead center of the table surrounded by the expected tableware was a skinny bloated chicken, overly blackened by the hot flames which had roasted it. Howard’s lungs involuntarily pushed air out as his nose revolted against a putrid and unaccustomed stench.  The odor was so bad he had to cover his mouth and nose with his sleeve to keep from vomiting.  Before their hosts could begin to register something was amiss Howard saw the cause of the smell.  “Holy Moses!”, he exclaimed.  “The bird’s been cooked with its guts intact!”

Howard fought a natural urge to turn around and leave. Quickly conversing, he and his buddy decided to stay and avoid insulting their appreciative host who obviously had gone out of his way to treat them. During the meal, they avoided all offers to partake of the chicken; eating instead a few of the vegetables. Puzzled as to why they didn’t want the chicken, Howard told the man that the children needed it more than they did – which was true given their scrawny undernourished bodies. They left a couple of hours later with bellies hungrily looking forward to the usual tiresome breakfast of powdered eggs and Spam awaiting them at reveille.   Story courtesy of Mrs. Howard Tiedemann.

Hitching a Ride to Base (with Colonel James M. Gavin)

On the way back to base from one of his R&R trips to Oujda, Bill and his best friend saw a jeep coming along the road. It was a typical Moroccan day with the temperature soaring. In a half hearted effort, not expecting the vehicle to stop, they tried flagging it down. To their surprise and relief the jeep did stop. Sliding the gears into neutral the driver looked over to them and facetiously asked “How would you boys like a ride?”

“Hell, yes. I mean YES SIR!” Bill replied noticing the driver’s superior badge of rank and AA insignia of the 82nd Airborne on his left shoulder.

In the passenger’s seat on the other side of the driver another man sat quietly. Bill and his friend climbed into the back of the jeep and the passenger turned around and welcomed them aboard.

They both did double takes as their minds boggled in registration the passenger’s identity. It was none other than Colonel James Gavin himself. Bill and his friend were stunned into silence. Noticing their trepidation at riding with their commanding officer, the future General of the 82nd Airborne (in typical Gavin style) made the men feel at ease asking them where they were from and how they were finding the North African conditions and the training schedule.

Bill was most impressed with his encounter with Gavin and afterwards he always held him in very high regard. Bill was impressed because he never expected any commanding officer to stop and give an enlisted man like himself a ride. But this type of thing was typical of Gavin and his men loved him for it.


James_M._Gavin General James M. Gavin

Image Source: Wikipedia Commons

Next post I’ll talk more about General Gavin and tell another story Bill told about his favorite leader.

Friday, August 27, 2010

“We Trained in a Fiery Furnace”

82nd Airborne Training Base Near Oujda, French Morocco, North Africa May – July 1943

Bill often made comment that the time at Oujda was the worst he experienced during the entire war. Matthew Ridgway, Commanding General of the 82nd Airborne handpicked the area near Oujda in French Morocco as the Division’s training base. He believed the conditions there would harden the troopers for the extreme trials of combat they would soon face.

“We had picked, on purpose, land that was not in use for grazing or agricultural purposes. We trained in a fiery furnace, where the hot wind carried a fine dust that clogged the nostrils, burned the eyes, and cut into the throat like an abrasive. We trained at first by day, until the men became lean and gaunt from their hard work in the sun. Then we trained at night, when it was cooler, but the troopers found it impossible to sleep in the savage heat of the African day. The wind and the terrain were our worst enemies. Even on the rare calm days, jumping was a hazard, for the ground was hard, and covered with loose boulders, from the size of a man’s fist to the size of his head.”

Source: Matthew Ridgway and Harold Martin, “Soldier: The Memoirs of Mathew B. Ridgway” 1965, p. 65

Oujda was located about 30 miles (~ 48km) from the coast. The 505 set up camp a few miles outside of town on some open ground adjacent to a large French airfield which was to play a central part in their jump training.

“A C-47 with glider in tow training at Oujda, French Morocco, North Africa, on 17 June 1943.”

(Gives an idea of the terrain around the Oujda training base)

Source: Photo Courtesy of U.S. Army


It was unbearably hot. Temperatures in the shade of 115 - 120 degrees Fahrenheit (~ 46 – 49 degrees Celsius) regularly baked the place. Cases of heat exhaustion quickly mounted, but it wasn’t only the heat that made Oujda the hell it was. It was the flies and the sand and the diseases they carried.

“Making life even more miserable for the men were the African flies that attacked them ‘as one dark and horrible force’ without mercy, determined to destroy them ‘body and soul’.” Source: Barbara Gavin – Fauntleroy “The General & His Daughter” 2007, p. 15

A prevailing wind brought in the flies and sand contaminated with animal dung. These got into everything. Cases of Typhus and Malaria sprang up and were soon followed by waves of dysentery which quickly spread through the camp, making no distinctions across rank.

“…an entrenching tool became a standard part of everyone’s daily uniform. This malady was so universal and struck so suddenly it became commonplace to see someone break ranks and tear off to some unoccupied part of the desert, with no explanation needed or demanded. Toilet paper became more valuable than French franc notes.” Source: Allen Langdon “Ready: A World War II History of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment” 1986, p. 12

Colonel James M. Gavin commander of the 505th (later General of the 82nd Airborne) wrote home about the dysentery in a letter to his daughter.

“Soldiers call everything associated with the Army ‘G.I.’ To their delight, the medicos referred to this ailment as the ‘GIs’ meaning gastro-intestinal disorder.” Source: Barbara Gavin – Fauntleroy “The General & His Daughter”2007, p. 24

The 505 veterans denounced the food at Oujda as terrible, but with everyone suffering from the ‘GIs’ at one time or another, it was perhaps their least concern. Everything they were fed was the same canned or powdered stuff given to just about every World War Two US Army outfit. It was a monotony of things like salmon, eggs, Spam, chipped beef, bread, mashed potatoes, and beans mixed in with disease carrying flies and dung infested sand. They had no access to roughage in the form of vegetables and fruit, so their gums developed painful gingivitis. Water was a huge issue in the heat and its scarcity meant no showers were available. They were each given half a canteen of water a day to wash and shave. The hot, heavily chlorinated drinking water was barely consumable and it burned their throats.

In the midst of all this misery, the men were subjected to an intense training schedule. Due to the heat, Colonel Gavin  was forced to change the timing for infantry training exercises. Infantry training began at dusk and finished at dawn. They trained in infantry tactics designed specifically for Airborne troops. Individual training concentrated on refining hand-to-hand combat skills and bayonet fighting.

Initially an extensive program of jump training was scheduled, but it was soon discovered that an unforeseen strong wind blew across the area for days on end presenting a big problem for parachuting. The high winds and the rocky terrain around the drop zone (DZ) led to a large number of injuries. In the end Ridgway and Gavin were forced limit the practice jumps and focus on tactical ground training. Even with the truncated jump training program all troopers got in at least one practice jump in while at Oujda. Gavin and Ridgway worried that it wasn’t enough. Ridgway personally believed the 82nd was ill prepared and doomed to a disastrous failure in the upcoming Sicily invasion, but outwardly he projected an indomitable optimism and confidence in his men.

“Troops of the 82nd Airborne Division jump en mass, during a demonstration at Oujda, French Morocco, North Africa, on 3 June 1943” 

Source: Photo Courtesy of U.S. Army


For the 505, Gavin made sure that training went on. He knew that in combat they would have to jump behind enemy lines and fight as a lightly armed infantry force for extended periods of time without hope of resupply. When dropped at night they would need to find their way to their respective objectives individually and in small groups. Arriving at the objective they could well be disorganized with combat company troopers mixed in with men from the rear echelons.

Gavin believed that to be effective in these situations every man should be able to fight. His orders were that all 505 personnel would take a battle training program. Rear echelon troopers were taught the same fighting skills as combat troopers. Absolutely no personnel were omitted. Despite the Geneva Convention’s stipulations against medics carrying rifles, Gavin even had medics learn how to shoot M1 Garand rifles in the eventuality that they would need to do so in combat.

Bill talked about his training in Africa prior to the invasion of Sicily. He said it was done using models of buildings constructed to be identical to ones they would need to capture in Sicily. This is something documented in several of the histories of the 505 training in Oujda.

Gavin was told of the date of Operation HUSKY (the code name for the invasion of Sicily) a couple of days after arriving in Oujda. So he studied aerial photographs of the area around their planned jump zones and gave orders for the construction of full scale model pill boxes and other defensive structures such as trenches and barbed wire, for training purposes:

“The units maneuvered against the targets with live ammunition, the men moving forward while their own machine guns fired over their heads at the enemy. They learned that weapons sound one way to the firer, but sound completely different downrange. They learned to distinguish American from enemy weapons. They learned to keep their heads down and hug the earth, and they learned to move forward when told. And since the tendency for green soldiers is to fire all their ammunition rapidly, leaving none for the final assault, the men of the 505th were taught to use their ammo wisely.” Source: Ed Ruggero “Combat Jump: The Young Men Who Led the Assault into Fortress Europe, July 1943” 2003, p. 107

“Members of the 82nd Airborne Division load a 75mm howitzer into a Waco glider during training at Oujda, French Morocco, North Africa, on 11 June 1943”

(Notice the troopers are training in full battle dress in the 120 degree heat!)

Source: Photo Courtesy of U.S. Army


Off Duty Drama

On top of the grueling training and abysmal living conditions, the 505 was plagued by a local people left desperately poor by the War. This quote by a 504th PIR trooper gives a good idea how the men felt about their Moroccan neighbors:

“The Arabs swarmed all over us like roaches over food. They wanted to trade with us, or preferably, to steal. They were particularly interested in our sheets, mattress covers, cigarettes, and chocolate. For these things they offered trinkets and fresh food – dates, exotic bread, and meats of dubious origin. We were to post guards twenty-four hours a day in order to keep them from stealing everything we had. Theft was so common that we came to regard the Arabs with almost as much ill will as we did the Germans.” Source: Moffatt Burriss “Strike and Hold” 2000, pp. 29-30

The poverty among the local Arabs was so bad it drove them to take extremely brazen risks. Risks which often had lethal consequences. Bill told a story of when he was off duty at the base with a couple of friends on one typically hot day. There wasn’t much shade to be had in Oujda, but on that day a rare opportunity presented itself. A flat top railway car had been temporarily left on a nearby siding. The flat top offered a good vantage point for observing the comings and goings around the base so not surprisingly it was occupied by a 505 paratrooper on guard duty.

Earlier in the day, Bill and his friends had moved over to take some shade in the flat top’s shadow. As they were whiling away the time, Bill said they saw a solitary figure rippling though a mirage a long distance away, but still within rifle shot. The figure had moved into a restricted area occupied by a supply dump. After a short time the figure started to move off in a direction away from base. To the paratrooper on guard it looked like the figure was in the process of stealing supplies. He jumped up on top of the railway car where he could see him better and taking good aim, he shot him dead. Bill said the figure slumped over on the ground. They all went over to investigate and found the body was an Arab boy of about 12 years. His hands were empty. They couldn’t tell if he had tried unsuccessfully to steal supplies, or whether he was reconnoitering the supply dump in order to make a report to others who were perhaps preparing for a raid.

On June 27th in a letter home Gavin wrote about these incidents:

“This afternoon we are, among other things, having a sniper contest. Fun. These youngsters are getting to be good shots. Regrettably, in the past few days they have practiced on some menacing looking parasitic Arabs. It makes them mad to get shot and we should stop it. It is difficult to sell international goodwill to a private soldier.Source: Barbara Gavin – Fauntleroy “The General & His Daughter” 2007, p. 33


Moroccan's  and Their Fezzes

Bill used to tell another story of how the men would get back at the Arab’s for stealing their belongings. He said the Moroccan men wore a traditional hat called a Fez . Perhaps it looked something like the one pictured below.


 North African Fez

Image Source: Wikipedia Commons

Their custom was to carry their valuables consisting of French Franc’s, jewels, watches and so on around in these hats. The paratroopers were trucked around from place to place for training exercises and other activities. Often they went through towns and places like railway stations where they encountered crowds of Arab men going about their business. Naturally the trucks had to slow down to negotiate a path through. That’s when the 505ers would get their revenge by reaching down and grabbing the fezzes right off the men’s heads. The 505ers would retrieve the valuables before throwing the empty fezzes to the ground to avoid the lice they carried. The Arab men would naturally go crazy, but there was little they could do against the well trained and armed soldiers. At times Bill said they actually recovered previously stolen watches and other personal items belonging to paratroopers.


Camels and Mortars

Besides these eye-for-an-eye reprisals, Bill said the troopers designed other ways to make the Moroccans atone for the thefts. Apparently during a day time training maneuver a man was inexplicably leading his camel through the area in which Bill’s unit was practicing mortar fire. They tried to scare the man off by firing rifle shots into the air. It worked and the guy began running trying to get out of the way. In his fright he and the camel became separated with the animal running haphazardly across the field of fire. The men kidded with one another that the randomly moving camel would make good target practice. Eventually, one trooper dared another trooper to take a mortar shot at the camel. He accepted the dare and in a testament to how good the training program was, they scored a direct hit on the camel instantly killing the animal. After the “fun” was over the men were reported and fined. They had to pay the man for killing his camel.

Bill didn’t say how much they were fined, but in another case $25.00 was paid to a local whose donkey had been similarly killed. Source: Phil Nordyke “All American All the Way: The Combat History of the 82nd Airborne Division in World War II” 2005, p. 31.

To be sure, the paratroopers and the Moroccan locals had a difficult relationship to say the least. For all of the pain both groups suffered while living virtually on top of each other there were upsides. Obviously, the Moroccan’s suffered through the process of liberation and foreign Allied occupation. However, it is important to stress with emphasis that they were indeed liberated from the tyranny of the Axis powers.

One of the last letters Colonel Gavin wrote home while stationed in Oujda ended with this positive assessment of the Moroccans:

“I have frequently written to you of the poor quality of the native Arabs. They are certainly that, in addition they are most interesting. As a racial group they are like no other people in the world…The evaluation of a people is made in the last analysis in two ways: by the world at large and by the people themselves. To the world at large, the measure of worth of a racial group is evaluated in terms of their contributions, creative, to the arts, sciences, and welfare of the human race as a whole. To the people, their race is measured by their own happiness and contentment. For this they [the North Africans] do not need material things like cars, movies, etc…..

So despite all that I have said about these people, they are in their own way seeking ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ and not doing a bad job of it at that.” Source: Barbara Gavin – Fauntleroy “The General & His Daughter” 2007, p. 29

On Bill’s part he later became intrigued by North Africa. In 1961 and 1981 (perhaps surprisingly at first thought) he even returned as a tourist. Both times he visited Libya, Morocco, and Egypt. He must have had enough curiosity about the region to want to return. Perhaps he was drawn back by a combination of factors such as: North Africa’s beautiful mountainous landscape; the complexity of its people; and to witness their own notable contributions to civilization.


General Patton Addresses the 82nd Airborne in Oujda

While in Oujda the 505 was visited at various times by several dignitaries. One of these was General George Patton, the famous and controversial commander of the US 7th Army. Bill was present when Patton gave one of his colorful speeches to the troops.

“During the training period, George Patton visited the division at least twice……During these visits, Patton exhorted the paratroopers and gliderists with earthy pep talks. Gavin recalled that Patton began one such talk with an epigram that would become legendary” ‘Now I want you to remember that no sonuva**tch ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb sonuva***tch die for his country.’.....

….In a final meeting with all of his top Sicily commanders including Ridgway and Max Taylor, Patton was at his theatrical best. ‘In a grand peroration’ Taylor recalled, he turned on us with a roar and, waving a menacing swagger-stick under our noses, concluded: ‘Now we’ll break up, and I never want to see you bastards again unless it’s at your post on the shores of Sicily.” Source: Clay Blair “Ridgway’s Paratroopers” 1985, p. 80.


General George S. Patton

Image Source: Wikipedia Commons

In Bill’s opinion Patton was one of the very few generals the US had that was really good. Like other veterans, Bill made mention that even though his commands sustained high casualty rates, he thought the likelihood of survival under Patton was higher because the General’s philosophy was to always keep advancing and never to give ground.

After a visit by Patton and other dignitaries on June 3rd Gavin wrote of his troops:

“Everyone was very complementary about the appearance of our troops today. They are looking fine these days. We have been training and working very hard. I have always thought that these parachute soldiers were very good and of a special cut but I am more than ever convinced now as I see them reach their peak in training. During the past few weeks their training has been very realistic and there have been several casualties. Those we have left are the very best…I will always think that the parachute private is an unusual guy. The saying now is that the AA in the division insignia means ‘Awful Anxious’”  Source: Barbara Gavin – Fauntleroy “The General & His Daughter”, 2007 p. 20


82nd Airborne Insignia. Worn as a shoulder patch

Image Source: Wikipedia Commons


“Awful Anxious” is a phrase which seems to encapsulate the spirit of the men after their training in Oujda as this quote expresses:

“Finally it all came to an end and probably no regiment, before or since, was in a better frame of mind to go into combat. The men were lean and mean and at that time would have cheerfully jumped on top of Berlin itself if it meant leaving Africa. To a man they were convinced that combat would be a picnic compared to the incessant weeks of training they had undergone, and with an ‘esprit de corps’ second to none, they were more than confident that they could take on the best the Axis had to offer. History proves that their confidence was more than justified.” Source: Allen Langdon “Ready: A World War II History of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment” 1986, p. 14

The disease, jump injuries, intense training in the heat all took their toll on the 505. The men were naturally toughened from harsh childhoods of the Great Depression. They were further toughened from the brutal Airborne training at Fort Benning, Georgia. Those who survived the hellish trials of Oujda were molded into fearless hardened fighting men – undoubtedly some of the best the world has ever seen.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

C-47 Adventure in the Atlas Mountains of Algeria


Bill flies by C-47 Transport to the 82nd Airborne’s New Base in Kairouan, Tunisia

After his assignment to Service Company 505 , Bill said he trained for the next month at the 82nd Airborne’s base in Oujda, French Morocco. The conditions there were nearly unbearable with the heat, wind blown sand, bad food, swarms of flies, disease, impossible training schedules, and a thieving Arab population almost destitute from the ravages of war.

I’ll write more about Bill’s time in Oujda in future posts. Right now I’d like to share another story I recently finished researching.

On June 24, 1943 General Ridgeway ordered the Division to move 680 miles (~ 1090 km) east to Kairouan, Tunisia. A top secret base was to be built there for staging operation HUSKY, the invasion of Sicily scheduled for July 9, 1943.

It was more than a relief to Bill when he and 10 other men from Service Company received orders to transport a kitchen by C-47 transport aircraft to the new base in Tunisia. After a month of the searing heat combined with the poor conditions any change was eagerly welcomed. Some men even joked rather seriously that they actually yearned for combat as an escape from the hell of Oujda.

Bill didn’t say if he knew his mission was part of the preparation of the new base for an invasion. He probably could have guessed as much in light of the Division’s current state of readiness and with all the rumors circulating about an imminent invasion of perhaps Greece, Sicily, Sardinia, or even the Italian mainland.

The 505 left for Kairouan over the period of July 1 – 2. A few men flew by C-47, but most travelled by the 40 & 8 trains or by truck. Bill’s C-47 left during this time, along with other air transports carrying the men and materiale needed to construct the basic amenities at the camp ahead of those travelling in the slower trains and trucks.

Since Bill was a Rigger he  needed to arrive early to help construct the rigging sheds and prepare them for packing and maintaining parachutes. The other 10 men aboard with Bill were likely a mixed group of Service Company troopers including cooks, riggers, carpenters, medics, and so on. 


View Oujda - Kairouan Flight Path in a larger map
C-47 Flight Path from Oudja, Morocco to Kairouan, Tunisia


Map 1 shows the flight path Bill’s plane took. Flying time was only going to be six hours instead of the 72 hour train or truck ride for the rest of the 505. Bill and his comrades couldn’t believe their luck at hitting a jackpot like this. After the unpleasant train journey from Casablanca to Oujda a plane ride to the new base was in high demand and they knew there were other equally skilled men who could have easily filled their privileged seats.

I don’t know how many C-47 aircraft were used in the operation. Bill’s was just one of many planes tasked with transporting a plethora of materiale to Kairouan.  However, the real essence of this story is what happened to Bill during the trip.


Emergency in the Altas Mountains

Bill said his plane was loaded with kitchen equipment including stoves and so on. He said that when the plane got to the Atlas Mountains it didn’t have enough power to get over them. Bill didn’t say why the plane was low on power. His description of a lack of power indicates that it probably developed engine trouble and couldn’t gain or maintain its altitude. 

There was an officer on board the plane and he ordered the men to jettison the kitchen equipment to lighten the plane. The troopers dutifully followed the orders, but the plane was still unable to gain sufficient altitude to clear the range. The situation was getting dire with the plane in danger of crashing into the mountainside so the officer ordered the men to put on their parachutes and bail out.

Bill didn’t mention what happened to the plane, but he and his party parachuted out and landed safely in the mountains at around 6,000 feet (~1828 m). There was some snow present and he said it was very cold.

He and the other men from the plane climbed down the mountains to a railway. He didn’t say how long the journey lasted, nor whether they flagged down a train or walked to a station and caught one . In either case they later were aboard a French train bound for the port city of Tunis in Tunisia.

Bill said the French “as was their custom” had stocked the train with plenty of wine. Consequently he and his companions had a very happy journey. He recalled that the trip was made difficult by the train’s rudimentary ventilation system. When they passed through tunnels smoke and soot from the engine stack billowed into the railway cars and he frequently had to put a wet handkerchief over his face to get air.

This story leaves us with a mystery as to the location of the emergency bailout and the fate of the C-47 and her crew of two pilots.

A Summary of the Facts

The only indication Bill gave of the location of the bailout was:

  1. The mountain range was between Algiers and Tunisia;
  2. They jumped landing at an altitude of about 6,000 feet (~1828 m) in some snow; and
  3. They managed to climb down the mountains to a railway and caught a train to Tunis.


Location: Tell Atlas Versus Aures Mountains

Looking at the maps of Algeria and Tunisia, there are only two mountain ranges that reach a height of 6,000 feet (~1828 m) or above.

The Djurdjura National Park, Algeria in the Tell Atlas Range fits the height description well with a top range consistently 5905 – 6820 feet (~1800 - 2080 m) and a high point of Mount Djurdjura 7572 feet (2308 m).

The other range is the Aures Mountains of Algeria – the most eastern of the Altas range. Its highest point is Djebel Chelia 7,638 feet (2,328 m). The average of its high plain area is roughly 5,250 – 6560 feet (~1,600 – 2000 m) with higher peaks and plateaus above this.

As is shown in Map 2 below, all of the Tell Atlas Range including the Djurdjura region (the shaded square in the middle of the map) is too far to the north of the Division’s flight plan to be a candidate location of reasonable likelihood. If Bill’s plane had a good reason it might have first flown to say Algiers or another destination on the coast and then onto Kairouan. In this case it could have flown over the Tell Atlas Range. However, transporting a kitchen wouldn’t be reason enough for such a significant deviation from the standard course set for the 82nd Division’s transports.


Cities of Algiers and Bejaia appear above the Djurdjura National Park  (highlighted square)
Oujda – Kairouan Flightpath (blue line)

One remote possibility is that the plane got into trouble mid way through the flight and had to divert to an airfield on the northern side of the Tell Atlas Mountains – in the vicinity of Algiers or Bejaia (See Map 2 above). When it reached the Tell Atlas in the Djurdjura region (see shaded square in map 2) it would have then encountered the 6,000 foot mountains that Bill described with the possibility of snow even in the Summer. Unable to clear the range, the men would have bailed out on the south side of the mountains. Since there was no railway line to the south, to catch a train in this area they would have had to climb north over the mountains to reach the nearest tracks between Algiers and Bejaia. It would have involved an arduous trek lasting several days if not weeks. With little to no food and water they would have faced the very real possibility of death in the rugged terrain.

Luckily, there is a much stronger candidate location for the incident. If you look at the planned flight path, Bill’s plane flies straight through the Aures Mountain range in eastern Algeria (See Map 3 below and Map 4 for an enlarged view).  The height of these mountains fits Bill's description of what happened perfectly. 


View Aures Mountains in a larger map
The flight path from Oujda, French Morocco to Kairouan, Tunisia cuts precisely through the heart of the Aures Mountain range.

View Aures Mountains Flight Path in a larger map


Aures Mountains, Closeup

A Little Matter of Snow

Bill talked about landing in some snow. There is snow in the Aures mountains in winter time. I can’t find any reports of snow there in the summer at the time of Bill’s flight. It is possible in the higher elevations as it does snow in Summer in the Tell Atlas Range which are of the same height.


CheliaAures Mountains

Snow on the Aures Mountains

Source: Wikipedia Commons

A Train to Tunis

Bill said he and the other men climbed down the mountain and found a railway. His plane was coming into the Aures range from the west. If his plane could not climb over the mountains they would have bailed out somewhere on a western or northwestern facing slope. Using a 1935 French Algerian railway map (see Map 5 below), if one climbs down from the western or northwestern side of the range and walks towards the west, the first thing you will run into is a railway running north-south. 


Algerian Railways 1935


French Algerian Railways Circa 1935

Source: United States Army in World War II Mediterranean Theater of Operations Northwest Africa: Seizing the Initiative In the West by George F. Howe, OFFICE OF THE CHIEF OF MILITARY HISTORY DEPARTMENT OF THE ARMYWASHINGTON, D.C., 1957

This railway runs directly through the town of Biskra which is to the south and west of Bill’s flight path through the Aures. (See Map 6 below and Map 5 above). It was the only railway line in the area during the War.



View Biskra, Algeria in a larger map


Biskra, Algeria site of 1935 Railway line running North-South


Biskra is a place name on the 1935 French railroad map so it must have had a railroad station. If the men came out of this range from the northwest or west they would have run into the railroad to the north of Biskra. It is quite likely they saw the railroad and the town of Biskra from the air before they jumped.

From their mountain top vantage point they might have been able to see them again periodically and adjust their decent to intercept the rail line using the most direct route. Food and water would have been serious concerns in this survival situation.  Available time to reach help would have been limited to no more than a few days without aid in the harsh Aures terrain and climate. With the knowledge that the railway headed north out of the town they could have followed the tracks south to Biskra (which was a distance of perhaps 15 miles or 25 km from their bailout point) and caught a train there or flagged one down on the way.


Train Journey Back to the New Base at Kairouan

The 1935 French railway map shows how they could have travelled from Biskra to Tunis via Constantine. At Tunis they could have reported to an American unit to make arrangements for their return to base. It would have been easy to reach Kairouan by taking trains from Tunis along the coast to Sousse, before making their way inland to Kairouan by truck. Map 7 below shows a similar modern day route between the cities. 


Biskra – Constantine – Tunis – Sousse – Kairouan

What Happened to the C-47 Plane?

Bill did not say what happened to the C-47. However, a crash must have been imminent because all 10 paratroopers were ordered to bail out after failing to clear the mountains by jettisoning the cargo. It’s logical that the pilots would have bailed out too and that the plane crashed into the high Aures Mountains.

Sooner or later it would have been discovered by the poor Berber inhabitants of the region and picked clean of artifacts.

However, the airframe of a C-47 is heavy and difficult to disassemble. So perhaps there is something left of Bill’s crashed plane with fragments of WWII era stuff on board. There’s probably some Berber shepherd who knows where it is. It’s likely to be somewhere along the 505 flight path on the  high Aures plateau around 6,000 feet (~1,830 m) as highlighted on Map 8 below. It’s an area 15x18 miles wide (25 x 30 km) and about 15 miles (25 km) north east of the railway line and the town of Biskra.


View Emergency Bailout/Crash Zone in a larger map


Showing Possible Bailout and Crash Area above 6,000 feet


C-47 aircraft flying over Southern France, 1944

C-47 "Skytrains"

Image Source: Wikipedia Commons

C-47 General Characteristics

  • Crew: 3
  • Capacity: 28 troops
  • Payload: 6,000 lb (2,700 kg)
  • Length: 63 ft 9 in (19.43 m)
  • Wingspan: 95 ft 6 in (29.41 m)
  • Height: 17 ft 0 in (5.18 m)
  • Wing area: 987 ft² (91.70 m²)
  • Empty weight: 18,135 lb (8,226 kg)
  • Loaded weight: 26,000 lb (11,793 kg)
  • Max takeoff weight: 31,000 lb (14,061 kg)
  • Powerplant: 2× Pratt & Whitney R-1830-90C Twin Wasp 14-cylinder radial engines, 1,200 hp (895 kW) each

C-47 Performance

  • Maximum speed: 224 mph (195 kn, 360 km/h) at 10,000 ft (3,050 m)
  • Cruise speed: 160 mph (139 kn, 257 km/h)
  • Range: 1,600 mi (1,391 nmi, 2,575 km)
  • Ferry range: 3,600 mi (3,130 nmi, 5,795 km)
  • Service ceiling: 26,400 ft (8,045 m)
  • Climb to 10,000 ft (3,050 m): 9.5 min

Source: Wikipedia

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