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.
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.
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 making ready to board for Sicily
Photo Source: HyperWar: A Hypertext History of the Second World War http://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/index.html#usa
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.
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.