Bill’s firefight at the pill box on the night of July 9 through the morning of July 10 in my last blog post is a typical account of the type of engagements reported in a document entitled “82nd Airborne Division in Sicily and Italy” which contains a section entitled “505th Parachute Infantry Reports”, dated August 14, 1943. Anyone researching the 505’s movements during the Sicilian and Italian campaigns will find this source very useful.
Source: 82nd Airborne Division in Sicily and Italy
After the mis-drop and as they made their way to their collection point, the report states on page 22, that small groups of Headquarters serial troopers attacked pill-boxes and enemy strong points throughout the night and morning on July 10. They were true to Colonel Gavin’s order regarding the enemy to “attack him wherever found”. One of these groups was led by Gavin himself, and it moved south in the direction of the beach to provide support to the 45th Infantry Division which had made its landing during the night. Gavin’s group joined with units of the 45th at 2:40am on July 10.
Another Headquarters serial group commanded by Lt. Swingler of Service Company held the high ground on the main road leading in from the beach that was to be used by the 45th Division coming in to relieve the paratroopers after establishing a beachhead. Swingler’s group destroyed an armored vehicle attempting to move to the beach. They also prevented the movement of enemy from the beach to the interior once the 45th Division had made their landing. They captured five officers and 96 men in this operation and large caches of material including enemy machine guns as well as taking out several pill boxes.
It is noted that after sunrise on July 10, Lt. Swingler’s group was located:
…..“at a crossroads pillbox, (by then abandoned) where Swingler conducted a brief service while we buried (temporarily) three Regimental Headquarters Company men KIA, probably during the night in front of that pillbox. Those three were [Private David J. Jr.] McKeown, [Private First Class Thomas D.] Adams, and [Private William J.] Kerrigan. This was south of Vittoria, probably in the vicinity of Santa Croce Camerina”. (Nordyke, “All American All the Way” 2005 p. 58)
On page 30 of the 505th Parachute Infantry Report, it states that:
“The Headquarters serial …. was dropped between St. Croce Camerina and Vittoria”
The position of this part of the Headquarters serial after jumping, their movements and objectives is consistent with a letter Bill wrote to his sister dated June 13, 1945 recollecting the events of July 9 – 12, 1943:
“We were about 4 miles inland, near the village of “Santa Crousa” [sic] a few miles from Gela our job was to attack the Italian and German coastal defenses from the rear which was far from a picnic” (William Clark, Letter to Doris Clark June 13, 1945 p. 3)
From these sources, it’s clear that Bill was among the men from the Headquarters serial attacking pill boxes in area of Vittoria and St. Croce Camerina during the night and morning of July 10. (See Map 1, repeated below from my last blog post). The map shows Bill’s actual Drop Zone (shaded area in bottom right), the planned Drop Zone and collection point for his company (shaded area in the top left corner), and the direction of his trek to the collection point (line connecting shaded areas).
As noted above, Pvt. David J. McKeown was one of the soldiers found dead by Lt. Swingler’s group in front of the cross roads pill box on the morning of July 10. Early in my research, I ran across an article containing interviews of some paratroopers before takeoff for the invasion. David McKeown of the 505 Regimental Headquarters Company was among those interviewed. Read the article below for what he had to say before the jump:
Source: Dayton Herald, July 12, 1943
“I’m rarin’ to go – I’m all on edge and my nickname is Dandy Dan.”
– David McKeown July 9, 1943.
A few hours later, David was to die in the pill box battle. His death was tragic given the almost playful exuberance he expressed on boarding his C-47. An exuberance which takes on a distinct grotesque quality when you realize that he had to will himself to think unimaginable and unmentionable thoughts in order to feel prepared, even eager, to plunge into a battle where the only outcome was one of either his life or his death. All the paratroopers who jumped that night would have to make similar mental gyrations to get right with what they were about to do and what might happen to them.
Friendly Fire from the Navy
After his own pill box battle, Bill eventually joined up with some fellow troopers headed toward the collection point in the top left of Map 1 above. By the evening of July 10, the group stopped to dig fox holes and rest before moving further. They had a frightening experience that night during an Allied naval bombardment of the Sicilian coast line. In 1999, Bill related the incident in an interview with his friend Herd Bennett:
“Bill states that the U.S. navy had shelled the island on his first night after the jump [night of July 10] and that the navy was shelling him and his fellow members of the 505th by mistake. The reason for this was that ‘The German Air Force went in just ahead of us and the Navy was trying to take out those planes and was, in the process, hitting us’. He indicates that a large U.S. naval shell hit the rocks 10 feet from where he was lying, but failed to explode. He states that if it had exploded, he would have never known what hit him. The next day, he found the shell lying several feet away from where it had initially hit. Bill states that he was in the process of trying to dig a fox hole when this shell landed. Bill also stated that after he found the shell, ‘The clowns who were with me began picking at it with sticks and I had to tell them that they were crazy and to just leave it where it was.’” Herd L. Bennett as told to him by William Clark, August 19, 1999.
He also made mention of the shelling in a letter to his sister:
“To make things worse the night before [ night of July 10] our own navy shelled us for a few hours…” (William Clark, Letter to Doris Clark June 13, 1945 p. 3)
Other accounts indicate that another reason for this was Allied ships were bombing pre-designated targets on the Island. The 505 were in the same areas where the shelling took place. It was unknown to the Navy that the paratroopers had been mis-dropped and were in fact in the zones assigned for bombardment.
The next morning, on July 11, Bill’s group set out again toward their destination, but they would never make it. As shown in map 2 below, while moving to the collection point they would have to pass through a region that would become infamously known as “Biazza Ridge” (indicated by the line intersecting the original route).
Neither Bill or his compatriots had any clue they were headed straight into hell and history.
© Copyright Jeffrey Clark 2011 All Rights Reserved.