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.