Thursday, October 18, 2012

82nd Airborne Moves to Northern Ireland, Dec - Feb, 1943

Leaving Naples

On November 18, 1943, the 505 PIR boarded the USAT (US Attack Transport) Frederick Funston, an attack troop transport vessel which had already seen service in WWII during the Sicily and Salerno campaigns. The destination was unknown to Bill or anyone else at his rank. He said they sailed west  to the port of Oran, Algeria to pick up supplies. The men got some shore leave. They celebrated Thanksgiving with a turkey dinner.

Bill said they were in port for about a week before they got underway again. They were part of a convoy of protective destroyers and trooper transport ships carrying the rest of the 82nd Airborne Division deployed in the Mediterranean, except for the 504 PIR and other units including company of 307th Combat Engineers, which had been left behind in Italy at the request of General Mark Clark. 

USS_Frederick_Funston_APA-89 USAT Frederick Funston

(Date of photo unknown)

Source: Wikipedia

Bill said they headed west across the Mediterranean Sea, passing through the Straights of Gibraltar:

“The boat headed west out into the Atlantic, and we said ‘ look at that compass pointing dead west.’ We were sure we were headed home. But it turned out just to be a diversion to avoid Nazi submarines”. Suddenly on our western course we saw the compass turn to the northeast and we said , ‘Oh no!’. The ship was headed for Belfast, Ireland”. Source: Interview with William Clark by Herd Bennett, January 26, 2000

Conditions on board were much the same as the voyage to Casablanca on the George Washington, in April – May, 1943 with cramped, humid conditions, fetid air, movies, religious services, and gambling.

Arrival in Northern Ireland

On December 9, 1943, the USAT Frederick Funston made anchor in the port of Belfast.  The 325th Glider Infantry Regiment (GIR) came in on the same day aboard the USNS (US Naval Service) James O’Hara. Other vessels were with the convoy carrying various smaller units of the 82nd.  Bill said that as his boat entered the harbor, looking over the bow, he could see divers swimming ahead of the ship. They were making sure the ship’s path was cleared of mines possibly planted by Nazi U-boats.


MAP 1: View Naples to Northern Ireland Nov - Dec 1943 in a larger map

(Click on the lines and blue place markers for more information)

These newly trained 507th and 508th PIRs were to arrive from the US separately and later to join with the other two large airborne units – the seasoned 505 PIR and 325 GIR. The 508 arrived on December 5, 1943, aboard the HMS Strathnaver, while the 508 arrived on January 9, 1944 on the USAT James Parker.

Right from the start, when the men stepped off their ships onto the docks in Belfast harbor, they couldn’t believe their turn in fortune. The streets were clean; the buildings in good repair. There were no thieves or beggars to be wary of; no North African dust storms; no flies (and the dysentery that came with them); no malaria nor typhus, and no blazing heat. The people spoke English and the girls were beautiful. The locals were the first English speaking civilians they had seen since leaving New York harbor almost eight months previously. In many ways it must have seemed like being in army training in America, but with cultural and geographical curiosities which made it intriguing and exciting in the way a tourist feels about visiting a friendly foreign land.

They were trucked or trained to their new billets in a variety of places across the counties of Tyrone, Londonderry, and Antrim. For the 505 and the other 82nd Airborne units arriving from the Mediterranean such as the 325th GIR, the green of Ireland was a sharp contrast to the barren, diseased, and hellish conditions of their training in North Africa. They drank it all in with alacrity; reveling in this unexpected heavenly paradise. To a degree, they even liked their housing which consisted of British Nissen huts and American Quonset huts; another welcome change from the tents of North Africa.

British Nissen huts were originally designed by an American, who later became a British citizen and WWI soldier engineer, Major Peter Norman Nissen. Source: “Inventing the 20th Century: 100 Inventions That Shaped the World”. Dulken, S., 2002, p. 44.

They were allegedly inspired by the Native American Iroquois Longhouses. Quonset huts were the American variant built before and during WWII and named after their place of design, Quonset Point, at the Davisville Naval Construction Battalion stationed in Davisville, Rhode Island. Source: “Quonset Huts”  Retrieved from Author unknown.

They can be found all over the WWII Allied world and are instantly recognizable by semi circular “aircraft hanger” like appearance. The inside of the huts were an open space which, by intention, could be converted into hospital wards, headquarters office space, or troop barracks.

QuonsetWWII era Quonset huts

Source: Wikipedia Commons

82nd Airborne Unit Camp Locations

The 82nd Airborne Division Headquarters were located around Castledawson, County Londonderry. See MAP 2 below for where they were quartered.


(Click on the lines and blue place markers for more information)
The 505 including the 505 Service Company was stationed to the south in County Tyrone in and around the town of Cookstown. Regimental HQ Company was billeted in the south of the town near a west-south road junction in the map below. 1st Battalion’s digs were near the beautiful Killymoon Castle on the eastern outskirts of town. 2nd Battalion was stationed in an area known as Desertcreat farm off the Dungannon Road, south of Cookstown. Companies G and H of 3rd Battalion were quartered in Drum Manor Forest Park along Drum Road to the west of Cookstown, while the remainder of 3rd Battalion, namely Company I was to be found on the north side of town in MAP 3 below.

MAP 3: View 505th Quarters N. Ireland in a larger map

(Click on the lines and blue place markers for more information)

Bill’s Location in Northern Ireland

As with many episodes of Bill’s service with the 82nd Airborne, his stay in Northern Ireland is somewhat irregular with respect to the movements of his unit, his service record, and his own testimony during and after the war. The reasons for these discrepancies I believe have to do with his role as a parachute rigger in the 505 Service Company. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, unlike other members of the 505 service company, riggers were required to jump into combat on a rotation basis with combat companies as a demonstration of the quality of their parachute maintenance, repair and packing. Much about the parachute riggers of WWII is not well documented – at least in published sources.

I very recently found one source which helps elucidate the role, work and movements of the 82nd Airborne riggers. The work is entitled “82nd Airborne Division: 82nd Parachute Maintenance Company”. The author is unknown, but it is an officially written document obtained at the 82nd Airborne Museum, Fort Bragg, North Carolina.  Curiously, even with this source there are discrepancies between it, on the one hand, and Bill’s testimony after the war, letters he wrote home and his service record, on the other hand. I’ll write more about these in later posts. Suffice it to say that as per his service record and testimony, Bill was often to be found with the 505 PIR fighting in combat zones when the riggers of the 82nd Airborne (which would have included him) were in the rear echelons maintaining parachutes. These discrepancies continue to be a confounding mystery, which I hope one day to resolve.

Whatever the case, Bill must have been a good rigger. In one of his interviews in 2000 with his friend and lawyer, Herd L. Bennett, he said that while in Naples, he was promoted to the rank of Technical Sergeant 4th Grade (T/4). Source: Interview with William Clark by Herd Bennett, January 26, 2000

Part of his new T/4 duties entailed leading a squad of riggers in repairing and packing parachutes.

Despite the fact that the 505 PIR was stationed in Cookstown,  Bill stated that in Northern Ireland, he was stationed very near the town of Ballymoney in County Antrim. Source: Interview with William Clark by Herd Bennett, January 26, 2000

Ballymoney is 32 miles away from Cookstown, where the rest of the 505 PIR was camped. I have interviewed two other members of Bill’s unit, the Service Company 505; Privates John Snyder and Maurice Herron, and both of them confirmed that the Service Company riggers were always stationed away from them. However, if Bill was stationed near Ballymoney, 32 miles is extremely far away.

Parachute rigging and repair installations were built in Northern Ireland before the 82nd Airborne arrived. At least one such installation or “plant” has been described (see blue place marker at top of MAP 2 above).

In his engrossing and well researched book, “Passing Through: The 82nd Airborne Division in Northern Ireland 1943-44”, John McCann wrote of these parachute maintenance plants:

“At Ballyscullion, a small 315-acre townland on the outskirts of the south Derry Village of Bellaghy, preparations were already underway to facilitate the needs of the 82nd. On 27 November ‘Charlie’ Company, 202nd Engineer Combat Battalion arrived to begin the construction of a parachute drying, servicing and repacking plant. Each plant consisted of seven semi-circular steel framework buildings set on a concrete floor and covered in corrugated iron. Internally, fitted wooden boards provided adequate insulation for the overhead hot water heating system”. Source: “Passing Through: The 82nd Airborne Division in Northern Ireland 1943-44”, 2005 p. 46

Notice McCann states that “each plant consisted…” implying that there was more than one of these plants in Northern Ireland. He briefly mentions on page 61 that another was at built at Monrush in Cookstown, ironically where the 505 PIR were stationed (see blue place marker on top of MAP 3 above).

According to the unpublished, manuscript on the history of the 82nd Parachute Maintenance Company obtained  from the 82nd Airborne Museum, there was another parachute maintenance installation. On page 8 the document states:

The 505 combat team maintenance section, after being on the high seas for nearly a month, during which they ate Thanksgiving dinner (once thinking they were close to the USA) docked at Belfast, Ireland on the 9th of December, 1943. Moving on the village called Ballymoney they set up a packing shed on Millickore Airdrone [sic]. They worked day and night opening boxes and drying chutes. The men really enjoyed being in an English speaking country again, brogue [Irish accent] not considered, and had a very good time there.

After things settled down they could indulge in good beer and some potent Irish whiskey, not to mention the company of many local Irish coleens [Irish women]. On the day they finally started packing parachutes, they received orders to box up again, before 50 chutes had been packed, and be ready to move.” Source: “82nd Airborne Division: 82nd Parachute Maintenance Company”. Author unknown. Date unknown., p. 8

Bill’s whereabouts  is difficult to ascertain for sure since the morning reports and muster calls for his unit and many others are missing from September 1943 onwards. They were destroyed in the 1973 fire at the National Personnel records center in St. Louis, Missouri.

However, given Bill’s testimony and this newly discovered information, it is certain that he was  assigned to work at the parachute packing and repair installation located at Millickore Airdrome near Ballymoney in County Antrim. It makes sense that Bill would have been quartered near to a parachute maintenance installation.

According to John McCann, despite plans for parachute training, there were few airfields and no C-47s. The absence of these meant no parachute drops. Soon the planners realized that the parachute maintenance installations weren’t needed. Source: “Passing Through: The 82nd Airborne Division in Northern Ireland 1943-44”, 2005 p. 61


(Click on the lines and shape for more information)

I have been unable to ascertain the exact area around Ballymoney where the Millickore Airdrome was located in WWII; where the 505 PIR riggers built their parachute maintenance shed and were likely billeted. It isn’t listed on well researched credible websites like:

“The Second World War in Northern Ireland” (

Airfields of Country Antrim” page  (

Abandoned & Little-Known Airfields: United Kingdom, Northern Ireland Antrim(

To demonstrate what the airdrome and sheds may have looked like from the air as well as the likely distance from the airdrome and Ballymoney, the modern day “Causeway Airfield” (even though it is in County Londonderry) is used as a placeholder while I chase down this latest mystery.

The Causeway Airfield is indicated by the blue shape in the left of MAP 4 above. The blue line is the route from the airfield (where they would likely have been billeted) to the nearby large town of Ballymoney, three miles away, a place where the men would go when off duty.

Without sufficient airfields for parachute drops, opportunities for training the 82nd paratroopers was further limited because most of the area was used for growing crops. The only training options available were: road marches, some weapons training on firing ranges, obstacle courses, guard duty, parades, and patrols. Reveille was at 6:00 AM and lights out at 10:00 PM. At least in the case of the 505 PIR stationed in Cookstown, except for passes, men were limited to staying at camp. They played cards, gambled, read, and wrote letters.

Despite having said this, it appears that once drying of the chutes was underway i.e. “after things settled down”, the 505 riggers stationed at their billets near Ballymoney had time to enjoy their new (and in comparison to North Africa and even Naples) vastly improved surroundings.

With the 82nd Division Headquarters at Castledawson some 20 miles away and the 505 Regimental Headquarters even further distant at 32 miles, all indications are that this must have been a relatively easy assignment (see MAP 5 below). In comparison to their 505 brethren, the 505 riggers seem to have had more spare time and more freedom.


Map 5: View 505 Riggers - 82nd HQ - 505 PIR in a larger map
(Click on the lines and blue place markers for more information)

When Bill spoke to me of Northern Ireland during a visit in 1996, he excitedly told me of how naturally beautiful Ireland was. He said that during the war he had been stationed near the coast. He said he especially loved the coast line and remarked on how green the grass was. He marveled at how it grew all the way to the edges of the cliffs and that the contrast between the green grass and the deep blue of the sea was dazzling. He asked me if I had ever been there. I informed him that I hadn’t. He insisted that I should go one day because, in his opinion, Ireland really was a beautiful place.

In a letter home he wrote:

“I saw a lot of the British Iles. Ireland, England and Scotland. My opinion is that Ireland is the best of all”. Source: Letter dated January 14, 1945. William A. Clark, p. 2.

Ballymoney is only about 10 miles from the coast which would have made it quite easy for Bill and the 505 riggers to ride bicycles (a common mode of transport), or even walk there (See MAP 6 below). The coast in this area, known as the “Causeway Coast”, is quite picturesque. His unit’s close proximity to it would explain his fond recollections of Ireland’s breathtaking seaside.


Map 6: View Distance from Ballymoney to Causeway Coast in a larger map
(Click on the lines and blue place markers for more information)

Most of the other enlisted men of the 505 didn’t get to see the coast much because they were too far inland. They just didn’t have transportation to go anywhere. When issued passes, some moved around using public transportation such as buses, or trains and the like. Others used bicycles or walked. Some only were issued passes to Cookstown. Those more fortunate usually took their leave in large towns such as Belfast or Londonderry. The Service Company of each regiment was charged with driving troops from one place to another, so they could use their Regiment’s vehicles to get out more often even if it was only to move supplies or pick up and drop off troops for training.

Men of other 82nd Airborne units, namely the 507 PIR and 508 PIR, did see a lot of the coast. They were stationed on the Causeway Coast at Portrush (507 PIR) and Portstewart (508 PIR). (See the blue place markers on MAP 6 above). The men of these regiments gave similar descriptions to those Bill recollected.

Leave and Friendships

Bill mentioned to me in 1996 that a lot of the men from his company had made close friends with families in Northern Ireland and whenever the opportunity arose, often in the evening, after their duties were finished, they would leave camp and call at the houses to visit for a fire side chat and some tea, or whiskey. These troopers would make bonds with the whole household. They would bring treats like chewing gum, or chocolates for the family’s children, whom they treated like they were their own brothers and sisters back in the States. The father and mother of a household treated them as one of their own sons. In many respects these men were adopted by the family. The people of Northern Ireland didn’t have much during the war, but whatever they had they readily shared with the troopers. The 82nd men did likewise. They were fully aware of the deep sacrifices the locals were making, and that made the men all the more grateful for their hospitality.

While some troopers made friends with local families, others would leave camp and go into town for drinks at a pub. In either case this was often done without passes:

“The men were given three day passes and furloughs while in Ireland and there was a problem in connection with men staying ‘absent without leave’. The AWOL rate took a sharp upward curve…” Source: “Put on your boots and parachutes!” Wills, D., 1992, p. 38.

The men would often get away with it, or their superior officer turned a blind eye. Sometimes though, they were caught. The resultant punishments could include a reduction in rank, additional training exercises, pay cuts, long hours of Kitchen Patrol (KP), guard duty, hard labor, or other unsavory assignments.

IrelandPrescott1 Trooper pulling guard duty outside a hut, Winter, 1943.

Sketch by William L. Prescott (AKA Linzee Prescott by the 505), 1943

Notice the All American (AA) 82nd Airborne unit insignia is sewn over with a plain cloth patch to hide the unit’s identity.

Source: “Saga of the All American” Dawson, Forrest W., 1946, unpaginated

Christmas 1943 in Northern Ireland

Part of the 82nd Division including the 508th PIR, 505th PIR, the 325th GIR and other smaller units (such as Divisional Headquarters Company, the 407th Airborne Quartermaster Co, 307th Airborne Medical Co, 82nd Airborne MPs, 82nd Airborne Signal Co, 782nd Airborne Ordnance Co, the 307th Airborne Engineers minus C Co), among others celebrated Christmas 1943  in Northern Ireland.


Christmas_1943 Christmas 1943 in Northern Ireland

Source: Author’s Collection

Click on the image for higher resolution.

You’ll notice Bill’s Christmas card is postmarked November 1, 1943. Bill must have sent the card while performing occupation duty in Naples, Italy. At 55 days before Christmas, the date gives an idea of the estimated time it might have  taken for the Christmas mail to arrive from the ETO to the US; which is surprising since this is Victory Mail (as indicated by the words  “V MAIL” at the bottom of the card). V MAIL was sent by aircraft. It arrived much more quickly than regular mail which was sent by ship. The space for writing a message using V MAIL was very small in comparison to a letter which could be any number of pages. Many people didn’t like using V MAIL for this reason, but I think it suited Bill, since as the war progressed he wrote home less often. Bill’s brother, Henry Clark Jr., explained why in a letter dated December 23, 1944:

“I can understand why he [meaning Bill] doesn’t write. If I had been over here as long as he has I probably wouldn’t be writing but semi annually either. In other words the longer and further you get away from home the less one writes. I’m going to drop him a line tonight and see if I can get him “on the ball”. In other words I am going to mildly inform him that he has a few obligations as far as his correspondence is concerned….” Source: “Letter written home from Somewhere in France” Henry Clark Jr. December 23, 1944 p. 2


AirborneStationary1Bill’s unused Army Issue Airborne Stationary

Source: Authors Collection


Bill’s unused Army Issue Airborne Stationary

Source: Authors Collection

Bill said he had memories of a special Christmas in 1943. In every town and village their was at least caroling. In the bigger towns, there were church services and even a dance at the American Red Cross Service Club in Portrush. Wherever the men of the 82nd were stationed in Northern Ireland, the people treated them with all the hospitality their war stricken rationing could muster. The soldiers were welcomed into the people’s homes by order of their own Prime Minister, but from reading some of the war memoirs of 82nd men and from what Bill told me, it is clear the locals would have done it anyway.

A significant number of 82nd men were of Irish descent and found they had distant and even near relatives living in the area. Other troopers had friends or associates from their home towns, whose family had immigrated to the US from Northern Ireland. In many cases, these people developed the foundations for what were to become life long relationships. Some men met Irish women, fell in love, and later married them. Other troopers would make the journey back to Northern Ireland  many times  in later years to stay connected with their war time friends. Such was the very special and lasting bond between the 82nd Airborne troopers and the people of Northern Ireland.

A Cold Winter

Bill never mentioned anything about how cold it was during his winter stay in Northern Ireland. But by all accounts it was absolutely frigid. For the 82nd men who fought in North Africa and Italy, the change in climate was dramatic. Not only was it cold, but it was damp. Most of the time it was overcast. For men stationed in the Quonset  and Nissen huts, there was no insulation. They slept on hard wooden bunks without mattresses. Their only source of heat was a single small stove which they stoked with a meager daily ration of coal or peat. These stoves gave out little heat because they were insulated to keep their tin metal casings from melting. Many a trooper never forgot how cold they were in Northern Ireland. The following two sketches are by William L. Prescott a famed WWII artist and paratrooper assigned to 505 PIR Regimental HQ Company.


Prescott2505 PIR troopers suffering the cold in a Nissen hut at their Cookstown camp, Winter, 1943.

Sketch by William L. Prescott. (AKA Linzee Prescott by the 505)

Source: “Saga of the All American” Dawson, Forrest W., 1946, unpaginated


Prescott3  Well bundled troopers in winter issue shivering beside cold stoves in Northern Ireland, Winter, 1943.

Sketch by William L. Prescott. (AKA Linzee Prescott by the 505)

Source:  “Saga of the All American” Dawson, Forrest W., 1946, unpaginated


The Republic of Northern Ireland

One other thing Bill talked about was the Republic of Ireland. He said:

“The troops were not allowed to go to Dublin because that was in a different country.” Source: Interview with William Clark by Herd Bennett, January 26, 2000

Without going into a discussion of politics, Northern Ireland is part of the UK with its own legislative government. It borders the Republic of Ireland of which Dublin is the capitol city. The Republic of Ireland was a neural country in WWII. While some 82nd soldiers stationed in Northern Ireland may have visited “free Ireland” as they called it, Bill never did. It would have meant a court marital; possibly with a sentence in a Stateside Federal prison.  During WWII, blackout conditions were in force all across Northern Ireland. Indeed Belfast had been the target of German bombing raids during the time known as the “Belfast Blitz”. The sun set early and rose late. Most of the time it was dark with overcast days. Some 82nd men were stationed close enough to the border with the Republic of Ireland to see some of its cities lights at night. In the blackout conditions which made the long nights seem interminable, the lights of “free Ireland” must have been a significant temptation for them.

Reluctantly Moving On

Despite the dark, cold, damp and cloudy conditions, Northern Ireland will always be a special place for the veteran men of the 505 PIR, the 325 GIR, and many smaller veteran attached or organic 82nd units. All these units combated not only the formidable Axis powers in the Mediterranean, but the harsh climate in North Africa,  and the depressing privations endured during their time there.

The 505 riggers left Ballymoney on February 14, 1944. Their hearts were heavy. In light of what they had experienced, Northern Ireland had been too good to be true – and as time went on – too good to last. In Bill’s mind, it was incomprehensible how any civilized country could function so well being that close to Nazi occupied Europe, with Luftwaffe bombing raids, and the U-boat threat to shipping. Bill was soon to discover that their new destination of England was to prove equally welcoming, and  its ability to function in spite of the long war, just as incomprehensible.

Unlike the 82nd’s time in Northern Ireland, their time in England would be accompanied by a most intensive training program. They were to be thrown into the thick of the invasion preparations. In a short time, a sense of foreboding was to grow among the men; with the outcome being very uncertain. As I’ll make more clear over the next few posts, it is becoming evident that Bill often had the choice of relatively safe missions or dangerous ones.  As often as he could, he was to choose danger. In his eyes the Normandy invasion presented an opportunity which he was unwilling to resist.

© Copyright Jeffrey Clark 2012 All Rights Reserved.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Capture and Liberation of Naples, Italy

Today is October 4, 2012. I wanted to post this blog entry in remembrance of Bill’s birthday, which was October 5, 1922. By a coincidence the events covered here occurred at the time of his 21st birthday. While he did get to see October 5 in relative safety, as  you will discover, Bill was extraordinarily lucky to have survived the events of  just two days later.

At the end of the battles for Salerno, German casualties were about 3,500 men. American losses were much the same. At approximately 5,500 it was the British with the highest number of soldiers lost. Source: “United States Army in World War II Mediterranean Theater of Operations: Salerno to Cassino”, Blumenson, M., 1993, p. 144

The majority of the fighting on the part of the American forces was done by the 36th and 45th Infantry Divisions. To be sure the 82nd Airborne was responsible for a key part of the victory with the 504’s sacrifices made at Altavilla and for helping to plug the gap in the line.  They also contributed by dropping the 2nd Battalion 509th PIR, which was attached to the 82nd Airborne, in rugged terrain in the region of Avellino about 20 miles north of the town of Salerno to block mountain passes. These men were badly misdroped, but managed to cause the enemy considerable confusion and havoc.

“The value of the [82nd Airborne] reinforcement stemmed less from the actual number of troops than from its psychological lift to the commanders and men in the beachhead who were beginning to feel uneasy; they had no way of knowing that the worst had passed”. Source: “United States Army in World War II Mediterranean Theater of Operations: Salerno to Cassino”, Blumenson, M., 1993, p. 145

When talking about Salerno, in acknowledgement of the men from the 36th Division he saw lying dead on Hill 424, Bill often mentioned that rightly or wrongly the 82nd Airborne got the credit for the breakthrough at Salerno which led to the advance on Naples.

Trooper Henry Covington in his excellent 1949 book “A Fighting Heart: An Unofficial Story of the 82nd Airborne Division” captures well the contributions made by the 82nd at Salerno from an airborne (particularly a 509th) perspective:

“How well the 509th troopers did their job is shown in the fact that the Germans became so jittery about airborne activity that they deployed more troops for preventive and corrective action then we had airborne troops in the entire Allied Airborne Army. These enemy troops naturally were unavailable for decisive and critical action at Salerno.

We saved the Salerno beachhead all right. We had it from none other than General Mark Clark, himself:

‘At a moment when the scales of defeat or victory hung in the balance the weight of airborne troops tipped them to the side of victory.’” Source: H. Covington “A Fighting Heart: An Unofficial Story of the 82nd Airborne Division” 1949 p. 41

Bill’s sentiment represents another dimension to the battle and to the war in general; and it’s one expressed by many airborne troopers I’ve interviewed. In his typically humble way, he perceived the victory in a larger context which reflected a deep love for his fellow American soldiers and hinted at his hatred of war as an insanity haunting the human condition. In a letter home in June 1945 he wrote:

“From what I can hear most people back in the States think that all of the fighting was done in France and Germany. People who are like that should see all of the graves at “Kasserine Pass” in Africa. Also at Bizerte, Sousse, and Cape Bon. Also hill 609 near Bizerte. I have more respect for men who have fought through Africa than all of the rest of us put together. Because from what I’ve seen it was a rough war there and the climate didn’t help matters any.” Source: William Clark, letter dated June 13, 1945

Bill said the 82nd Airborne fought with the 45th Division and the British to break through the German lines and capture Naples. Map 1, below shows the progress made and lines of attack by the Allies and defenses by the Germans.


Map 1: Advance to the Volturno River

(Click on this link to see the map in full size)

Source: “United States Army in World War II Mediterranean Theater of Operations Salerno to Cassino.” Blumenson M., 1993, page 133. Retrieved from



Here’s a 3 minute portion of news reel covering the battle for Salerno and the advance to Naples.



On September 28 the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the 505 PIR were loaded onto LCIs at Paestum in the south of Salerno Bay, moved across the bay and landed at the coastal town of Maiori in the north, just a few miles west of Salerno itself in Map 1 above.

Third Battalion 505 had departed the day before to meet up with the Rangers and Company H of the 504 PIR. The latter units had been fighting all through the Salerno battles to seize and defend the Chiunzi Pass. It was a key strategic mountain gateway which linked the invasion beaches to the south with the flat plain leading to Naples in the north (See Map 1 above).

With the 3rd Battalion in the lead, and the rest of the regiment following behind, the 505 fought the rear guard of the retreating Germans through the mountains and down onto the plains in front of Mt Vesuvius.

By October 1 they reached Naples.


Aerial reconnaissance  photo of smoldering Mt. Vesuvius with Naples on the right Oct. 1943

The 82nd advanced on Naples from the south crossing the plain between the coast and Mt. Vesuvius


The Germans had left Naples a crippled city. The electrical power and water supply were cut. The sewage system was destroyed. Stockpiles of coal and liquid fuel had been set on fire. Railways and the docks had been sabotaged. Railway junction boxes and critical line switches were blown.  Many ships birthed in the port had been holed and sunk. Not all the damage was done by the Germans. Allied bombing raids, conducted when the city was in German hands, left their own destruction mainly on  the port and its docks. These bombing raids were necessary to put pressure on the Germans, thereby providing an advantage to liberating Allied forces invading at Salerno and further south.


Pictures of the damage done by the Allied bombing campaign

(click on them to view in high resolution)

NaplesBombing1 Naples is bombed by 100 flying fortresses of the US Army Air Force on April 4 1943

This raid by 100 flying fortresses from the US army air force destroyed or damaged 23 ships including 3 submarines. Several smaller craft were hit and a floating dock was damaged. Three of the ships were ocean liners.


NaplesBombing2 The docks of Naples burning after a US Army Air Force raid


NaplesBombing3 Craters, scorch marks and fires after an Allied raid on Naples

(Click on the picture for a larger view)


NaplesBombing4 Ground level view of Naples destruction by Allied bombing


NaplesBombing5 Demolished cranes at the port of Naples probably by Allied Bombing raids


NaplesBombing7 Largest warehouse in the port of Naples bombed by US Army Air Force


NaplesBombing8 Ship on the left is ocean liner "Sicilia" a 480 foot hospital ship probably bombed by US Army Air Force

Ship with two smoke stacks is the 590 foot ocean liner "Lombardia". She was bombed in two then caught fire and burned during an Allied air raid


Pictures of demolitions made by the retreating Germans

(click on them to view in high resolution)

NaplesBombing6 Ship sunk in Naples by Retreating Germans

(Docks destroyed by Allied bombing)


GermanDamage2 Dry dock flooded by Germans



Same dry dock and ship. The dry dock emptied and repaired by US Army Engineers


General Ridgway later described with disgust the scene of Naples’ destruction:

“By this time we were beginning to realize what tremendous damage the retreating Germans had done to this old and beautiful city. The harbor area had been subjected to the most complete destruction I have ever seen in war. Every big crane was down, damaged beyond use. Ships of all sizes, from a twenty thousand-ton passenger vessel, which lay on its side, half submerged, down to little launches, clogged the harbor, holed and wreaked by explosives. Cruisers and destroyers had been sunk at their anchorage, with nothing but their top masts showing. The water had a thick scum of oil over it.” Source: Ridgway, M. Soldier: The Memoirs of Matthew B. Ridgway, 1956, p. 88

While some of the damage reported by General Ridgway, particularly the sinking of vessels, was done by the Germans, the destruction of Naples’ port facilities and ships was the mostly the result of Allied bombing. In any case, as we will see, the Germans weren't quite finished.

In the meantime, the 82nd Airborne Division was tasked with policing Naples, cleaning it up, and restoring some semblance of order. General Ridgway ordered the city divided into three sectors. Each sector was assigned an infantry regiment from the 82nd. With their German masters gone, the local Neapolitans set about reestablishing order in their own way. Family feuds were reignited. Nazi collaborators were hunted down. The Germans had opened the city’s prisons and criminals were being targeted and targeting their enemies in turn. It was a dangerous place especially at night.

As the new Assistant Division Commander and Commander of the 505, Colonel Gavin (very soon to be General Gavin) was chosen by General Ridgway to implement orders to restore civility lest the city descend into anarchy.

After the war Gavin wrote candidly of this unenviable assignment:

“As darkness neared, I did not see how I could get the city under control, and General Ridgway was emphatic in his orders to me as he outlined my responsibilities. Occasionally a carabinieri, or city policeman, came by the command post, and while these men shrugged their shoulders and said the Neapolitans were difficult to control, they offered no help. Apprehensive about what would happen during the night, I told the Chief of Police just before darkness set in that any Italian, regardless of his sympathies, who possessed a weapon in the vicinity of where a weapon had been fired would be shot at once. He seemed startled and gulped a bit as we explained exactly what we meant; then off he went. A few minutes later a weapon was fired in a side street. I took a platoon of troopers and went right out to get anyone with a weapon. The men had orders to shoot. No one with a weapon could be found. Almost at once quiet descended over the city. The next morning the situation was well under control, and we began to clear up the debris, clear the port, get the utilities back in operation, and provide food.” Source: Gavin, J. “On to Berlin: Battles of an Airborne Commander 1943 - 1946” 1978 p. 73

General Ridgway set up his Divisional Headquarters in the former Secret Police Headquarters or “Questura” at the city’s center square where all of the grand government buildings were located.

On October 4 the 505’s 2nd Battalion and part of 1st Battalion were attached to the British 23rd Armored Brigade. The force moved out to the north to fight the Germans retreating to the Volturno river which was the western part of the first of several subsequent and highly effective  German defensive lines spanning the Italian peninsula.

The 505 units returned to Naples on October 8 to find that while they were gone tragedy had struck. Unsatisfied with destroying the city’s infrastructure, the Germans had set time bombs throughout the city, with a preference for buildings which would be used as sleeping quarters, command posts, or congregation areas for the Allied liberators and civilians alike.

One massive device was planted behind a cleverly designed false wall in the basement of  the Naples post office, just 300 yards away from the 82nd Airborne’s Divisional Headquarters at the Questura across the city’s square. At around noon on October 7, (two days after Bill’s 21st birthday) it detonated. A huge explosion tore through the building and rocked the square.

“The post office building across the square from us was being used by some troops (not 82d men) when, suddenly, at mid-day when men were having chow, there was a tremendous explosion. At the time I happened to be leaning out of the Questura’s second floor window talking with someone on the street below, and felt a great sucking-in of air followed by an outward rush of air and noise coming from the bombed building. Heavy explosives had been left by the Germans, who assumed the building would be used by our troops, and they had set delayed timers. There were many deaths and everybody rushed over and pitched in to dig out the grisly remains.” Source: Lebenson L., “Surrounded by Heroes: Six Campaigns with Division Headquarters, 82nd Airborne Division, 1942 – 1945. p. 72 2007

“Back in Naples on the 7th, a huge time bomb left behind a false wall in the main post office building by the retreating Germans, exploded, killing or wounding upward of one hundred people, primarily civilians.” Source: Nordyke, P., “All American All the Way: The Combat History of the 82nd Airborne Division in World War II” 2005, p. 148

After the war, Bill told a story about this explosion which differs in some details from these accounts. He said that while in Naples his unit (the 505th PIR Service Company) was quartered in a post office. He said a German shell or some other unidentified explosive agent blew up the post office. Bill said he was inside the post office when the device detonated. Somehow he miraculously escaped the blast without injury. Source: Interview with William Clark by Herd Bennett, January 26, 2000


Naples Post Office Explosion

Source: Dawson “Saga of the All American” 1946

Other descriptions of the bombing support Bill’s recollections of an “unidentified explosive”, possibly a “German shell”. This one is particularly relevant because it was written by paratrooper Peter Turnbull, a combat engineer present during the liberation of Naples. Turnbull was assigned to the 307th Airborne Engineer Battalion attached to the 82nd Airborne Division.

“The building [Naples Post Office] had already been checked by 111th Engineers but they had not discovered the bomb, Lt Sinclair of the 43rd Bomb Disposal Section R.E. who inspected the site after the explosion stated that the charge must have been 1000-2000lbs and that they found a tail fin from a 250kg German aerial bomb amongst the debris and it would have taken three or four of these to cause the damage.” Source: Turnbull, P., “I Maintain the Right: The 307th Airborne Engineer Battalion in WWII” 2005, p. 37

Below are two news reel videos of  the post office bombing aftermath. The first video is a US news film. The second one is British.

US news report of the Naples post office time bomb


British news report of the Naples post office time bomb


With some success, British and American engineers had been frantically checking for time bombs and booby traps ever since they entered Naples. In one building they found a device attached to 1,700 pounds of TNT. They defused it just a few minutes before it detonated. Despite their herculean efforts, the post office explosion was followed on October 10 by another bomb blast in the former Italian Artillery Barracks where the 307th Airborne Engineer Battalion and a company of engineers from the 36th Division were quartered. This bomb exploded at 8:30 AM on the southern side of the barracks. Many of the troopers were still asleep. Twenty-three men were killed and 21 more were wounded.

General Ridgway was shocked by the bombing:

“On Sunday morning, I went with General Clark to services at the Cathedral, and while we were there we heard a tremendous dull explosion. We left at once, to find that the barracks where the engineer battalion had been quartered had blown up. I will never forget the tragic site. Arms and legs of American soldiers, killed in their sleep, were sticking pitifully out of the rubble of the second floor. Twenty men were killed, and many more were wounded. We were never able to establish definitely whether the explosion was the result of a time device left by the Germans, or whether some of the engineers’ own demolitions went off by accident. I still believe, though, that it was the result of a German booby trap.” Source: Ridgway, M. Soldier: The Memoirs of Matthew B. Ridgway, 1956, p. 90

Airborne Combat Engineer, Peter Turnbull elucidates on General Ridgway’s suspicions:

“Sgt Frank Miale had a theory that boxes of German TNT stored in the basement of the barracks were not thoroughly checked after their removal from other buildings, and that a time device in one of the crates set off the resultant explosion.” Source: Turnbull, P., “I Maintain the Right: The 307th Airborne Engineer Battalion in WWII” 2005, p. 40

In a spirit of frustration and with a desire for revenge, General Ridgway wrote:

 “We did everything we could to find and capture the German colonel who had been in command at Naples, but he had moved on by the time we entered the city. We later learned that he was killed in battle, which for the peace of his soul, is a good thing. If we had caught him, he would have been tried by court-martial for the useless, senseless, needless slaughter that he caused.” Source: Ridgway, M. “Soldier: The Memoirs of Matthew B. Ridgway”, 1956, p. 90

October 10 must have been a day of mixed feelings for Jim Gavin as it was also the date on which Colonel Gavin officially became Brigadier General Gavin in a formal ceremony held in the morning. Gavin was now formally the Assistant Commander of the 82nd Airborne Division.

He later remarked:

“I hated to leave the 505th, since I had been through so much combat with it, but it would still be in the division with me.”  Source: Gavin, J. “On to Berlin: Battles of an Airborne Commander 1943 - 1946” 1978 p. 73

This wasn’t be the last time the now General Gavin would express strong feelings for his 505 men, especially the veterans who had been with him from the first combat jump into Sicily.

© Copyright Jeffrey Clark 2012 All Rights Reserved.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Salerno, Italy. 504 PIR Battles for Altavilla and Hill 424

“…there was plenty of artillery going both ways. But the Americans were gradually losing ground. I didn’t stay but few days but from what I saw Salerno made Normandy look like a picnic.” Source: William Clark, letter dated June 13, 1945

On the evening of September 16,1943 the Allies began to think the Germans might be retreating from the Salerno area. To obtain clues of their intentions and positions the 5th Army had sent out reconnaissance patrols across the Salerno beachhead. Of particular interest to the men in the 504 were the patrols to the strategic hills around Altavilla which returned with reports of intense German artillery, and ominously, 40 panzer tanks on the opposite side of one of the hills. Source: “The operations of the 1st Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry in the Capture of Altavilla, Italy 13 September – 19 September, 1943” Lekson, J., 1948, p. 11

As part of their preparation for the mission to retake Altavilla and hills, the 504 PIR planners were briefed on the terrain and German tactics used to defend the area. The men who briefed them were the survivors of the 36th Division, which lost so many lives in the battles to take, defend, and retake those hills:

“On the slopes of the hills were intermittent streams, dry now, that cut deep gullies into the slopes. Numerous additional erosion features such as dips and gullies marred the hillsides. Many of these had steep sides and narrow bottoms. Trails that went from Albanella to Altavilla followed north on noses jutting from the hill mass. These trails dipped through draws and gullies and often formed defiles as they did so. Lining the trails were tress and stone walls. In places, the trails moved along terraced levels with drops on one side and walls on the other. A profusion of minor footpaths and trails joined the main trail.

Cognizant of the terrain and affected by the heavy American artillery, the Germans had adopted as set of peculiar tactics to hold the hills. Occupying only certain features with outposts and observation parties, the enemy would be alerted as American troops entered the hill mass. From their covered positions would come the enemy main force, which after locating the American forces would maneuver through gullies and ditches to hit the American forces from all directions. Often they were not detected until they were on the positions. With these tactics the enemy had driven out the previous 36th Division attackers”. Source: “The operations of the 1st Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry in the Capture of Altavilla, Italy 13 September – 19 September, 1943” Lekson, J., 1948, p. 15

The peculiar terrain; the way it favored the defenders – and the way the enemy used it to massacre part of the 36th Division – would make taking Altavilla and the hills around it a  particularly dangerous – even a suicidal – mission. Several hundred lives on both sides had already been taken. The 504 officers planning the attack must have wondered how many of their own men would perish in this insane but absolutely vital assault.

The Germans still had a powerful incentive to hold the hills behind the Salerno plain. They had fought hard up to that point to destroy the invaders. Now, on the defensive, they would fight ferociously to hold on to the village of Altavilla and its strategic hills to prevent their own cutoff and capture by the Allied forces already beginning to advance from their positions on the Salerno plain below. Moreover, they needed time for their retreating forces to reach Rome and to reorganize while constructing the first of several defensive lines across the Italian peninsula before the British 8th Army could reach them.


The German view from Altavilla down to the invasion beaches.

Source: NARA

At 3:00 PM on September 16, 1st and 2nd Battalions of the 504 PIR formed a column and began their approximately 8 mile march toward Altavilla. 1st Battalion was assigned Hill 424 to the northeast behind Altavilla. Bill’s 2nd Battalion was to take Hill 344 to the southeast and an “unnumbered” hill between the two east of Altavilla.


Map 1: The approximate route of 1st and 2nd Battalions 504 PIR from Albanella to the foothills near Altavilla

The day was hot. The pace was necessarily fast. They were targeted by German artillery as they crossed the plain to the higher ground. The column was dispersed by the shelling. These were the best trained soldiers of the US Army; physically fit and conditioned from the harsh climate of North Africa. They were rested after the end of the Sicily campaign. In a testament to the severity of the conditions some men passed out from heat exhaustion while the men with heavy mortar equipment couldn’t keep up with the column.

Their route took them though Albanella, but the Germans had already retreated from there. The men doggedly continued their march climbing into the steep hills toward their objectives. Colonel Tucker had made Albanella his headquarters for the mission. But that was a short lived decision – at least for him. Having tried and failed to raise either battalion by radio, he took troopers from the 504 Regimental Headquarters Company and some stray 505 PIR troopers, and went looking for them. He left behind a contingent of personnel to run the 504 headquarters. At around 11:00 PM he made contact with some of Company C on the northwestern side of the unnumbered hill. He discovered they had become victims of the peculiar terrain the 36th Division had described.


The village of Altavilla from the perspective of the Allies on the Salerno Plain

Source: NARA

After nightfall on the march up into the hills the column broke into fragmented groups of companies and platoons and were unable to reestablish contact with each other. In some cases the cause was men falling asleep while the rest of the column moved on. In others they were attacked by enemy machine guns and became separated. Patrols were sent back and forth to try and reestablish contact. With a paucity of maps these groups became disorientated. Even when some semblance of order was restored, in the rough terrain typified by steep hills, gullies and thick brush, groups in both battalions became confused as to their relative positions. Their disorientation was compounded by an inability to establish radio contact with one another.

When Colonel Tucker eventually found elements of Company C he expected the rest of 1st Battalion to arrive soon. Relying on this expectation, Tucker decided to take Hill 424 with a small force from his Regimental Headquarters Company and the part of Company C he stumbled upon.

The remainder of 1st Battalion had serious problems reaching Hill 424. The illusive key was to find the correct trail, in the dark, which would lead the separated Companies A, B, and the remainder of Company C to Hill 424. The terrain features and lack of maps continued to work against them making reliable  progress all but impossible. By dawn Companies A and B managed to dig in on the slopes on the northwest of the unnumbered hill, while the remainder of Company C moved from their location on that hill to the slopes of their objective – Hill 424.

“…and there was plenty of artillery going both ways.” – William A. Clark , 1945

Bill’s 2nd Battalion movements are documented in the Unit Journal of the 2nd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry. In numerous places it talks about the extensive use of artillery during the battle at Altavilla. On page 22 it states:

“About 2100, [9:00 PM] we moved slowly to our high ground objective, which we reached about 0200 [2:00 AM], after numerous stops. Artillery fire was directed at our column throughout the night. The battalion dug in on the high ground assigned to us. The 1st Battalion was on the hill north of us. F Company and most of the 81 mm mortar platoon became detached from us in the dark and were somewhere to our rear”. Source: “Unit Journal of the 2nd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry”. Garrison, C. 1945 p.22.

Shelling in the form of mortar, tank, self propelled gun, and naval gun fire had been frequent and at times a constant presence during the upcoming battle and during the battles for the Hills fought by the 36th Division.

On the way up into the hills Company C trooper, Ross Carter, commented in his must read book, “Those Devils in Baggy Pants”, on the artillery exchanges Bill mentioned in his letter.

“Carey, Lt. Toland, the Arab, and I were lying in a little ditch in a vineyard waiting for the column to move out ahead of us when a shell followed by three others screamed over the hill, hit mere yards from us and exploded, each explosion covering us with dirt and rocks. I’d never known real terror until that moment. The column moved on up the hill under [German] shells moaning high overhead, heading for the beaches….”. Source: “Those Devils in Baggy Pants”, Carter, R., 1951, p. 46



504 paratroopers firing mortar shells on German positions, September 1943

Source: Wikipedia Commons

Dawn came as Tucker’s small force dug in on the hill. The devastating effect of German artillery on the 36th Division was shocking to see. The 504 troopers saw first hand this artillery induced carnage. Ross Carter of Company C was on Hill 424 at the time and later recalled the scene:

“Cadavers lay everywhere. Having seen only a few corpses in Sicily, it was a horrible experience for us to see dead men, purpled and blackened by the intense heat, lying scattered all over the hill. The body of a huge man, eyes bloated out of their sockets, who lay dead about twenty yards from me, had swollen and burst. First lieutenant’s bars were on his shoulders. His pistol belt with open compass case and empty binocular case bore witness to the quality of our equipment: the Krauts had looted them. A broken carbine lay by the body.” Source: “Those Devils in Baggy Pants”, Carter, R., 1951, p. 46

While the 504 were reaching or searching for their objectives, the Germans had become aware of their positions on Hill 424 and on the hillside of the unnumbered hill. In the morning they sent out infantry supported by tanks and mobile artillery pieces. They were seen by Company B from their positions in the heights on the unnumbered hill and by the mixed units from 1st battalion on Hill 424. At dawn Company C sent out two patrols from Hill 424 to reconnoiter to the west and to find the rest of 1st Battalion. Both patrols were repelled by German armor and infantry. After a concentrated mortar strike on Hill 424 the German infantry launched their first attack on the hill.

“The Krautheads began counterattacking. Since only a few of our machine guns and automatic rifles had reached us, it was up to the riflemen and tommy gunners to hold off the assault. The boys lay in their foxholes around the top of the hill and calmly squeezed off their shots. A Kraut machine gun would cackle and then a heavy, deliberate trooper’s rifle shot would lay the egg! The machine gun would remain silent. American riflemen were the best in the world, and our legion riflemen [the men of the 504 PIR] were the best in the army. In about thirty minutes the attack was broken up”. Source: “Those Devils in Baggy Pants”, Carter, R., 1951, p. 50

The Germans also began attacking Company B’s position. After dawn Company B saw Germans coming from Altavilla to their positions on the hillside of the unnumbered hill. They let loose mortar fire on them. The German attack slowed and then retaliated with concentrated artillery fire. After that Germans tanks came from Altavilla and started firing on foxholes occupied by men of Companies A and B located on the slopes of the unnumbered hill. The fire was accurate and killed several men even though they were inside their protective holes. A German infantry attack followed but was defeated. At this time, with their ammunition running low, radio contact was reestablished with artillery units on the Salerno plain. They opened fire on the village of Altavilla. The German’s retreated under the Allied bombardment and launched an artillery barrage of their own on the American positions. Source: “The operations of the 1st Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry in the Capture of Altavilla, Italy 13 September – 19 September, 1943” Lekson, J., 1948, pp. 27 – 29

At 9:30 AM the small force under Colonel Tucker on Hill 424 saw what looked like friendlies on the unnumbered hill itself. All of them abandoned Hill424 to make contact with the men down there. Upon meeting up with them, Tucker ordered Company A to retake Hill 424 with Company C in support. He gave orders for Company B to occupy the unnumbered hill. Company A advanced on Hill 424 and found the Germans moving up the hill to take it. They fought aggressively, driving the Germans down the hill. Source: “Beyond Courage: The Combat History of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment in World War II” Nordyke, P., 2008 p. 94

“…from what I saw Salerno made Normandy look like a picnic” – William A. Clark , 1945

After taking the hill while organizing its defense Company A took stock of the situation. Sergeant Otto Huebner wrote a report on the scene. It mirrors what Ross Carter saw and is perhaps why Bill thought at least in his eyes that Salerno made Normandy look like a picnic.

“The sight on the hill was an unpleasant one. This was the same place that the 1st Battalion of the 142d Infantry, 36th Division, four days previously was finally forced to withdraw after great losses were inflicted on both sides. The hill was infested with scattered dead German and American soldiers, supplies and ammunition. There were machine guns still in their original emplacements, rifles, packs, clothing, ammunition belts, machine gun boxes and stacks of 60 mm mortar shells scattered all over the hill. One machine gun was still manned by two men of the 142d Infantry. The ammunition was gathered up and distributed through the company as soon as possible. Without this ammunition the hill could not have been held. The platoons began digging positions in their sectors. Fox holes dug by the 142d Infantry were improved and used in many cases. Slit trenches were also used in many instances instead of fox holes, because the hard ground made digging difficult.” Source: Huebner, O., “The Operations of Company A, 504th Parachute Infantry in the Defense of Hill 424 Near Altavilla, Italy, 17 – 19 September 1943” 1949 p. 17.

After entrenching themselves Company A came under fire from a lengthy, continuous and extremely accurate tank and artillery attack. Then German infantry tried to take the hill. Company A radioed Company B on the unnumbered hill which managed to call in an artillery strike on the advancing German troops. It stopped the attack, but after a few minutes the Germans resumed the infantry assault. Source: Huebner, O., “The Operations of Company A, 504th Parachute Infantry in the Defense of Hill 424 Near Altavilla, Italy, 17 – 19 September 1943” 1949 p. 18.

“A second counterattack was launched and again the boys picked the Krautheads off like squirrels. Kearny, lying by a thicket, saw some bushes quivering. Covering it with his rifle, he waited. A head stuck up into sight and Kearny shot the left eye out. Schneider, a German-American whose twin brother had been killed in the 9th Division in Africa, had the obsession that if he met enough Krautheads in battle he would at last find the man who killed his brother. He was watching a stretch of ground with another trooper when he saw an enemy machine gun squad advancing to attack. Schneider killed the sergeant and yelled orders in German to the remaining Krautheads. ‘You dumb ********, move to the right, or you’ll all get it.’ They obeyed the orders because they thought one of their own men was giving them. Moreover, in the strain of battle men obey anyone who appears to know what he is doing. Their right now being on the other trooper’s left, he killed three more of them. Schneider then raged out at them again. ‘You dumb sons of *******! I said go to the left. You’re all going to get it if you don’t listen to me.’ They moved to the left in front of Schneider, who killed two more.” Source: “Those Devils in Baggy Pants”, Carter, R., 1951, pp. 51 – 53

The German attack kept coming on despite these efforts. The range was close enough for both sides to use grenades in addition to rifle and small arms fire. Then an unexpected heavy barrage of artillery landed on the German positions and they began to retreat. The Germans lost about 50 men in the fight while the paratroopers lost about 25.

Late in the morning Bill’s 2nd Battalion received orders to move from Hill 344 to the unnumbered hill. According to the 2nd Battalion unit journal:

“At 13:00 the battalion began to move forward to the hill originally assigned to them, but which had been held by the 1st Battalion. We moved out with E Company in the lead, F Company, Battalion CP, Headquarters Company, and D Company. Another climb; it took at least three hours to get everybody there”. Source: “Unit Journal of the 2nd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry”. Garrison, C., 1945  p.22.

In an interview with his friend Herd Bennett, Bill said the Germans had loud speakers in the trees and from these speakers, in an effort to undermine American morale, the Germans played music such as “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny”. Bill said that “the Germans thought they had us beat,…but the music just made us more determined”. Source: Interview with William Clark by Herd Bennett, January 26, 2000.

Company C came up Hill 424 to reinforce Company A. Small firefights broke out on the hill and there were periods of shelling as the Germans probed the Americans for weak points and to keep them penned down. Then at 3:00 PM they launched a massive counterattack beginning with a heavy artillery barrage for around an hour. After that they used machine gun nests to cover the advance of an estimated force of two infantry companies against the positions occupied by Companies A and C. Source: “The operations of the 1st Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry in the Capture of Altavilla, Italy 13 September – 19 September, 1943” Lekson, J., 1948, p. 34 – 35.

The Germans were making good progress up the hill. They broke through the perimeter in places and were close enough to use grenades. The paratroopers responded killing many of them.

The attack went on for two hours. Losses were mounting on both sides. It appeared that the Germans might overrun the hill unless Allied artillery fire could halt the enemy advance. The paratroopers radioed for artillery support, but were only able to receive it from the navy. Due to the close proximity of the Germans to the troopers, the huge naval shells could easily kill men on both sides. The 504 were so desperate, they decided to chance it.

“The word was passed along for the men to get deep down in their holes as the navy began firing. The shell bursts, landing on the northwest slope, seemed to rock the entire hill. The fox holes cracked like class, and the topsoil around sprinkled into the fox holes with every burst. One could hear terror stricken screams coming from the Germans along the slope of the hill, which made one’s backbone quiver.” Source: Huebner, O., “The Operations of Company A, 504th Parachute Infantry in the Defense of Hill 424 Near Altavilla, Italy, 17 – 19 September 1943” 1949 p. 25.

Then massive artillery barrage decimated the Germans and they withdrew.

On the unnumbered hill, Bill’s 2nd Battalion unit journal recalls the bombardment:

“The Artillery became particularly stiff at about 1700 [5:00 PM]. One barrage was constant for 2 minutes. Colonel Tucker set up in our Battalion CP area…many of the regimental staff were casualties. About 1730 [5:30 PM] a messenger came through with information that we were to return to Albanella. This was much to our disgust, as we had the hill and not suffering undue casualties.” Source: “Unit Journal of the 2nd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry”. Garrison, C., 1945 p.22.

Click on Altavilla & Hills: 16 - 18 September 1943 to view it in a larger map

(Click on the shapes, lines and blue markers for more information)

Map 2: The positions of Companies A, B & C and 2nd Battalion from 16 – 18 September, 1943.

“But the Americans were gradually losing ground.”

The situation was bleak for the paratroopers. The Germans had encircled both battalions cutting them off from any retreat. They had sufficient ammunition from the supplies left by the decimated 36th Division soldiers. There was a water source, but food was almost all consumed and they had no way of evacuating the wounded. The Germans continued to shell 1st Battalion on Hill 424 and 2nd Battalion on the unnumbered hill throughout the night. Source: Huebner, O., “The Operations of Company A, 504th Parachute Infantry in the Defense of Hill 424 Near Altavilla, Italy, 17 – 19 September 1943” 1949 p. 25.

Bill mentioned in his letter that the Americans were slowly losing ground. They had been for days before the 504 PIR arrived and even when they reinforced the beachhead the situation was still unpredictable – at least from his perspective as an army private. When he would have learned that the 504 was cut-off and surrounded it probably still appeared that the Americans were losing ground again and that another German counteroffensive was perhaps underway. General Dawley, under General Clark may have thought this was true too:

“General Mike Dawley, commander of the U.S. VI Corps, had received no information regarding Tucker’s two battalions all day. Fearing the worst, and correctly believing that Tucker and his men were now surrounded, Dawley had sent a runner to Tucker with a message instructing him to try to break out while he could still do so. Colonel Tucker ignored the order to retreat to Albanella; his troopers had captured two hills and they were going to keep them. That night, Headquarters Company wiremen ran a sound – powered phone line to Tucker’s command post and General Dawley was patched through. Tucker explained the situation, and Dawley suggested that his two battalions retreat because they were cut off from other friendly forces. Colonel Tucker replied ‘Retreat hell!’ Send me my 3rd Battalion!” Source: “Beyond Courage: The Combat History of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment in World War II” Nordyke, P., 2008 p. 100

Just after mid-night on September 18, Colonel Tucker’s 3rd Battalion (minus Company H which had landed up the coast at Maiori) was assigned to break through to 1st and 2nd Battalions on Hill 424, and the unnumbered Hill. Under very heavy artillery fire from the Germans, Companies G and I traversed the valley from their position of initial attack to the 504 occupied hills. They broke into a run toward the German lines in an effort to get out of range of the artillery.

“After catching our breath and taking count of the men we had left, we moved on Hill 344….Everyone distinguished themselves, knocking out position after position.” Source: “Beyond Courage: The Combat History of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment in World War II” Nordyke, P., 2008 p. 102

At around 3:00 AM 3rd Battalion broke through the German lines and seized Hill 344 below the unnumbered hill. They then made contact with 2nd Battalion on the unnumbered hill. Combat patrols in the morning and then again in the afternoon were made by Company A from their position on Hill 424 to Altavilla and the surrounding area to the north. No Germans were encountered. They had in fact retreated. Food arrived via mule train for the beleaguered men of Companies A and C. Security was set up and the men slept the first time in 72 hours. Colonel Tucker was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his leadership and heroism during the battle for Hill 424. Source: “Beyond Courage: The Combat History of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment in World War II” Nordyke, P., 2008 pp. 101 – 102


American troops patrol the ruins of Altavilla, September 1943

Source: “SALERNO: American Operations From the Beaches to the Volturno 9 September - 6 October 1943”. p. 79 1990. Center of Military History, United States Army, Washington, D.C.,

On the morning of September 19 the 504 was relieved by the 36th Infantry Division. Perhaps at this juncture Bill returned to his Service Company unit in the 505. On Sept 29 the 505th was attached to the British 23rd Armored brigade and moved towards Naples.

“The area in the region of Altavilla for several years had been a firing range for a German artillery school; consequently there was no problem with range, deflection, or prepared concentrations that the enemy had not solved long before the advent of the Americans. Needless to say, hostile artillery and mortar fire were extremely accurate and capable of pinpointing with lethal concentrations such vital features as wells, trails, and draws. During the three days that the 82nd occupied the hills behind Altavilla, approximately 30 paratroopers died, 150 were wounded, and one man was missing in action.

The majority of these casualties were cased by the enemy’s artillery fire. Enemy casualties were, judging from the number of dead left on the field of battle and from information divulged by prisoners, several times those of the troopers. Four separate and distinct attacks by the enemy, launched from the North , east and west of 504 positions were driven back with heavy casualties resulting for the Germans. Capture of Altavilla and Albanella allowed for the Fifth Army to move northward toward Salerno and Naples.” Source: “The Saga of the All American” Dawson, F., 1945 Italy section

“The drop zone at Salerno had already been the scene of action the night before, September 13, when the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the 504th had jumped into Italy, their 3rd Battalion arriving on LCIs. The 504 had fought like hell and turned the tide of the battle in favor of the Fifth Army. The beachhead was saved and the Americans were not thrown back into the sea.” Source: “Jump Commander” Alexander M. and Sparry J., 2010 pp. 111 – 112.

“There was still plenty of work to do, however. First they needed to push the Germans back and break out of the beachhead. ‘We organized right away and they marched us up into the mountains to relieve the 504 at Castel San Lorenzo, a little village on the mountainside east of the bay. It looked like they had a hell of a fight. There were dead Germans lying all over the place.’” Source: Jump Commander” Alexander M. and Sparry J., 2010 p. 112.

Below is the Payroll for Service Company 505 September 1 – 30, 1943. Bill’s name appears on line 17. From this it would seem that he was with the 505 during the Salerno battles. To the contrary, and in addition to the evidence in the previous posts, Bill told his friend Herd Bennett that he could have volunteered for Anzio with the 504th, but had decided not to:

“Bill indicates that the 504th Regiment of the 82nd Airborne was still in Italy “at the hell hole known as the ‘Anzio Beachhead’. Bill stated that he could have volunteered to jump at Anzio as he had done at Salerno, but he had not. Bill advises that when the 504th finally joined the 505th Regiment in England, he did not ‘know half a dozen men, because they had all been killed and replaced at Anzio’.” Source: Interview with William Clark by Herd Bennett, January 26, 2000.

In 1996 during my time with Bill he said that he had a lot of good friends in the 504 and it was sad to not see them when they joined the 82nd in England.



Payroll for Service Company 505 September 1 – 30, 1943.


© Copyright Jeffrey Clark 2012 All Rights Reserved.