Wednesday, December 7, 2011

504th PIR Friendly Fire Tragedy in Sicily

On the night of July 11 after the Battle of Biazza Ridge, many men of the 505 bore witness to a horrifying incident involving the 504th PIR. Bill recorded what he saw in a letter to his sister:

“[On July 11 at night]…our own navy… shot down 27 transport planes killing 410 paratroopers, who were coming in to reinforce us.” Source: William Clark, letter dated June 13, 1945

Years later, in an interview after the War Bill told his  friend, Herd Bennett about the incident:

“He was lying in a fox hole watching the 504th make the jump. He states that he laid on the ground and saw many of the C-47 transport planes (they were bringing the paratroops in) blasted out of the air by American artillery that thought they were German airplanes.” Source: Herd L. Bennett as told to him by William Clark, August 19, 1999.

For Bill, the worst thing next to witnessing his friend’s death, was the shooting down of planes from 504 by the US navy. Bill had seen a lot of good men and close friends die that day, but the SNAFU by his own forces was overwhelming. It could have been avoided in his opinion, and now Bill was to watch as they needlessly died.

These were sentiments shared by other troopers who occupied his position on the ridge that night:

“Sergeant Raymond Hart, with Company H, and his men watching from Biazzo Ridge could see ‘troopers jumping out of burning planes. Needless to say, we felt like we had lost the war. More than one man cried that night.’” Source: “Four Stars of Valor: The Combat History of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment in World War II”, Nordyke, P.,  2006 p. 91

General Gavin was also on Biazza Ridge and remembered what he saw:

“It must have been ten o’clock at night when all hell broke loose in the direction of the beaches. Antiaircraft fire was exploding like fireworks on the Forth of July, tracers were whipping through the sky, and as we were observing the phenomena, the low, steady drone of airplanes could be heard. They seemed to be flying through the flak and coming in our direction. Everyone began to grasp their weapons to be ready to shoot at them. A few of us cautioned the troopers to take it easy until we understood what was going on. Suddenly at about 600 feet the silhouettes of American C-47s appeared against the sky – our own parachute troops! Some seemed to be burning, and they continued directly overhead in the direction of Gela. From the damaged planes some troopers jumped or fell, and at daylight we found some of them dead in front of our positions.” Source: “On to Berlin”, Gavin, J., 1978, p. 42

“Later we learned that it was the 504th Parachute Infantry that was being flown to a drop zone near Gela to reinforce the 1st Infantry Division. General Ridgway had been there to meet them. Unfortunately, the Germans had sent in parachute reinforcements on the British front to the east the same night. In addition, there had been German air attacks on our Navy, so when the parachute transports showed up, our ships fired at them, and twenty-three were shot down and many damaged.” Source: Ibid.

Major Mark Alexander commander of 505th PIR 2nd Battalion had been  misdropped along with his troops far too the southeast of Gela. On the night of July 11 was perfectly placed to see the shooting:

“After dark when we hit the coast road again, we could see the invasion armada in the water off Gela. From our strung-out position along the coast road, we saw two German bombers fly in, bomb the fleet and fly off. I’d say about two minutes behind them came 48 C-47s carrying the rest of the 504th paratroopers. They came in at roughly the same altitude and from the same direction as the German bombers.

“The navy opened fire. From where I was, I could see the planes were our own, but the navy got excited and just kept shooting. Finally they stopped, but they had knocked down 23 planes. Some of them were able to make a hard landing on Sicily, but a whole bunch of men were killed. Even the 45th Division got in on the shooting. They thought the Germans were attacking.” Source: “Jump Commander” Alexander, M. and Sparry J, 2010 pp. 86-87


504th PIR Paratroopers aboard their C-47 Sent to Reinforce the 505th PIR, July 11, 1943

Source: “United States Army in World War II Mediterranean Theater of Operations: Sicily and the Surrender of Italy” Garland 
A., etal., 1993, page 137 retrieved May 4, 2011 from

The cost of the friendly fire incident to the 504th was 81 killed, 16 missing, and 132 wounded. Source: “Four Stars of Valor: The Combat History of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment in World War II”, Nordyke, P.,  2006 p. 91

The 52nd Wing of the Army Air force was flying the 504th troopers. They suffered 7 men killed, 53 missing, 30 wounded and 23 C-47s lost. Source:Valor Without Arms: A History of the 316th Troop Carrier Group, 1942 – 1945”. Ingrisano, M. 1991 p. 23

In Bill’s 1945 letter he states that 27 planes were shot down and 410 paratroopers. He wasn’t far off on his estimation of the number of planes lost. Given the date of his letter and his ability to get accurate information, his estimate of the number of men killed wasn’t too bad either.

As Major Alexander noted, minutes before the C-47s appeared, the Navy’s ships were attacked by Luftwaffe bombers. Furthermore, the Navy had been under attack all day. Messerschmitt ME 109 fighters had strafed some ships, while others had been bombed by Junkers Ju 88 medium bombers and Heinkel He 111 heavy bombers. The navy fired on the C-47s because they thought they were under another attack.

“The persistent enemy air attacks had one unintended result, namely the predisposition of Navy gunners to fire at any aircraft, frequently before identifying them.” Source: Operation Husky:  The Allied Invasion of Sicily, 1943” Nutter, T. 2003



American Ships Under Air Attack off Gela During the Day of July 11

Source: “United States Army in World War II Mediterranean Theater of Operations: Sicily and the Surrender of Italy” Garland  A., etal., 1993, page 167 retrieved May 4, 2011 from

C-47 Crew Perspective

The paratrooper perspective on the ground was of harrowing disbelief. But what was experienced by the men in the C-47 aircraft was far worse.  Michael Ingrisano, a C-47 pilot quotes the 316th Troop Carrier Consolidated Mission Report of Husky 2 about their experience:

“All went well until the airplanes began to enter the designated corridor. There shore batteries opened fire on the airplanes and the entire corridor became alive with deadly machine gun fire and heavy flak. The fire became so intense that the formations broke up, each airplane seeking openings through the heavy curtain of fire. The situation became more acute as the planes approached the area of the DZ. By that time there was sufficient dispersion among the aircraft that some airplanes were able to drop their troops in comparatively calm territory, one airplane dropping 3 miles from the DZ; another 7 miles; another 10 miles from the DZ; others dropped the paratroopers as close to the DZ as possible despite the intense fire, some of them making two passes, others 3 passes over the field before being able to identify the drop points through the heavy bursts of fire.

Six of the planes failed to drop their paratroopers. They felt it suicide to drop them through such concentrated fire. One ship made 3 attempts to approach the drop zone but could not because of the impenetrability of the anti-aircraft fire. Another plane, trying to escape hostile fire, was going at such an excessive speed that it could not jump its troops.

All the airplanes that were able to survive the intense accurate fire dived through the barrage and headed out to sea, over the coast in the
vicinity of Gela and Licata. There another tragedy confronted them: Our own Navy.

As rapidly as they passed over one vessel, the next one took up the fire, and so it continued some 20 miles out to sea. In desperation, the pilots expended their pyrotechnics signals, but it only aided the massacre. For some it outlined the silhouette of the airplanes in the air; to others, the flare looked like another burst of flame hitting the target. Several of the C-47s were shot down in the sea. The survivors, in most instances, were saved and taken aboard naval vessels.

There they learned to some satisfaction that there were explanations for the tragedies seemingly unnecessarily committed. Just 10 minutes before the C-47s arrived at the DZ the Germans had been dropping bombs, the 14th raid of the day. The captain of one vessel told them that inter-boat communications system had just announced ‘All planes in the immediate vicinity are friendly,’ when suddenly a 500 pound bomb
burst within 200 yards of the destroyer. The reaction was in the form of active retaliation. Into this the C-47s flew. One pilot, 1st Lt. Ray E. Everhart, further reports ‘The crew on the destroyer seemed to know about as little about aircraft identification as I did about battleship identification.’ A very good example of this: The skipper called back at one time, ‘Gentlemen, you see a beautiful formation of B-17s going to
Sicily to bomb Italians.’ Actually they were British Halifaxes.

Survivors who crash landed in Sicily were told that one officer was going to be relieved because he had announced over the radio and in the clear the fact that American paratroopers were expected in the vicinity between 2200 and 2400. Yet, 2nd Lt. George S.[John J.] Hoye [44th], one of the survivors states: ‘Ground troops reported that they had not been warned that friendly airplanes would be over our area and had assumed planes were hostile.’

The mission was costly to the 316th Group: F/O Anderson and co-pilot Lt. Harpster [45th] concluded: ‘Something should be done about
friendly naval craft firing on us. Also something should be done about flights constantly losing formations. On the whole the mission was extremely dangerous and costly whereas it had [no] reason to be. Evidently the safest place for us tonight while over Sicily would have been over enemy territory.”
Source: “Consolidated Mission Report, 316th Troop Carrier Group, A-2 Section, Husky No. 2”, Aug. 5, 1943. As quoted in:Valor Without Arms: A History of the 316th Troop Carrier Group, 1942 – 1945”. Ingrisano, M. 1991 p. 21

Wreakage of Douglas C-47 over Sicily cropped

Wreckage of a Douglas C-47 which crashed about 4 miles north of Palermo airfield, Sicily on October 24, 1943

(Gives an idea of what a C-47 crash looks like)

504th PIR Perspective

The paratroopers of the 504 had their own horrendous stories to tell about the disaster. Here’s one from Lt. A. C. Drew of Company F, 504:

“The pilot of my plane gave me the warning twenty minutes out from the DZ. After the red light came on, he had to give me the green light in about one minute, due to the plane being on fire.

“We jumped into a steady stream of antiaircraft fire, and not knowing that they were friendly troops. About seventy-five yards from where I landed , plane No. 915 was hit and burned. To my knowledge only the pilot and three men got out. The pilot was thrown through the window. Another plane was shot down on the beach and another plane was burning about one thousand yards to my front.

There were four men killed and four wounded from my platoon.Three of these men were hit coming down and one was killed on the ground because he had the wrong password. After landing, we found out this had been changed to ‘Think’ – ‘Quickly’. The antiaircraft fire we jumped into was the 180th Infantry of the 45th Division. They were not told we were coming.

“We tried to reorganize, but found we didn’t have but forty–four men, including three officers. We searched all night for the rest of the men. After accounting for them we took care of the dead and wounded and started toward our objective. We arrived at the 504th CP at 2:00, July 12, 1943.” Source: “All American All the Way: The Combat History of the 82nd Airborne Division in World War II” Nordyke, P., 2005 pp. 84 – 85. 

Post War Conspiracy Theory of Friendly Fire Cover-up

Article7.This newspaper clipping is from Bill’s sister’s scrapbook of the Sicilian invasion.

The article praises the ability of the Army, Navy, and Army Air force to work well together as an effective team. It’s an analysis of the post invasion success, and was published on July 12 or 13 1943.

To quote the article:

“Co-ordination of the three arms in the invasion appears to have been masterfully planned and executed” .

Interestingly none of the newspaper articles in her collection say anything about the friendly fire attack. Even if the press did know about it, it’s logical that they wouldn't report it.

For obvious reasons, the enemy didn’t need to know about a disaster of this magnitude. Not to mention the demoralizing effect it would have had on morale for the Allied forces fighting around the world, and the populations on the home fronts. This is especially true given that Operation HUSKY was at the time the largest sea and airborne invasion ever attempted and the first successful major joint US-British attack on Hitler’s “Fortress Europe”.

Articles like these one would be tantalizing fuel for proponents of the alleged cover up of the friendly fire disaster. Allegations of a cover up sprang up once the American public became aware of the incident, which wasn’t until sometime after the war was over.












Newspaper Article Analyzing the Successful Coordination Between the Army, Army Air force, and Navy .

Source: Dayton Herald, circa July 12-13, 1943

© Copyright Jeffrey Clark 2011 All Rights Reserved.