Land of the Cyclops
Few Sicilian towns claimed greater antiquity than Gela, where the center of the American assault was to fall. Founded on a limestone hillock by Greek colonists from Rhodes and Crete in 688 b.c., Gela had since endured the usual Mediterranean calamities, including betrayal, pillage, and, in 311 b.c., the butchery of five thousand citizens by a rival warlord. The ruins of sanctuaries and shrines dotted the modern town of 32,000, along with tombs ranging in vintage from Bronze Age to Hellenistic and Byzantine. The fecund “Geloan fields,” as Virgil called them in The Aeneid, grew oleanders, palms, and Saracen olives. Aeschylus, the father of Attic drama, had spent his last years in Gela writing about fate, revenge, and love gone bad in the Oresteia; legend held that the playwright had been killed here when an eagle dropped a tortoise on his bald skull.
Patton planned a different sort of airborne attack by his invasion vanguard. On the night of July 9–10, more than three thousand paratroopers in four battalions were to parachute onto several vital road junctions outside Gela to forestall Axis counterattacks against the 1st Division landing beaches. Leading this assault was the dashing Colonel James Maurice Gavin, who at thirty-six was on his way to becoming the Army’s youngest major general since the Civil War. Born in Brooklyn to Irish immigrants and orphaned as a child, Gavin had been raised hardscrabble by foster parents in the Pennsylvania coalfields. Leaving school after the eighth grade, he worked as a barber’s helper, shoe clerk, and filling station manager before joining the Army at seventeen. He wangled an appointment to West Point, where his cadetship was undistinguished. As a young officer he washed out of flight school; a superior’s evaluation as recently as 1941 concluded, “This officer does not seem peculiarly fitted to be a paratrooper.” Ascetic and fearless, with a “magnetism for attractive women,” Jim Gavin was in fact born to go to the sound of the guns. “He could jump higher, shout louder, spit farther, and fight harder than any man I ever saw,” one subordinate said.
His 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, part of the 82nd Airborne Division, had staged in central Tunisia. Gavin harbored private misgivings about the Sicilian mission—“many lives will be lost in a few hours,” he wrote—and with good reason. The 82nd had received only roughly a third as much training time as some other U.S. divisions. The amateurish Allied parachute operations in North Africa had been marred by misfortune and miscalculation. No large-scale night combat jump had ever been attempted, and so many injuries had plagued the division in Tunisia—including fifty-three broken legs and ankles during a single daylight jump in early June—that training was curtailed. Much of the husky planning had been done by officers who had no airborne expertise and whose notions were suffused with fantasy. Transport pilots had little experience at night navigation, but to avoid flying over trigger-happy gunners in the Allied fleets, the planes, staying low to evade Axis radar, would have to make three dogleg turns over open water in the dark. Airborne units had yet to figure out how to drop a load heavier than three hundred pounds, much less a howitzer or a jeep. An experimental “para-mule” broke three legs; after putting the creature out of its misery, paratroopers used the carcass for bayonet practice. Still, the ranks “generally agreed that training proficiency had reached the stage where the mission was ‘in the bag,’” wrote one AAF officer, who later acknowledged “possible overoptimism.”
At about the time that Hewitt’s fleet neared Malta, Gavin and his men had clambered aboard 226 C-47 Dakotas near Kairouan. Faces blackened with burnt cork, each soldier wore a U.S. flag on the right sleeve and a white cloth knotted on the left as a nighttime recognition signal. Days earlier an 82nd Airborne platoon had circulated through the 1st Division to familiarize ground soldiers with the baggy trousers and loose smock worn by paratroopers. Parachutes occupied the C-47s’ seats; the sixteen troopers in each stick sat on the fuselage floor, practicing the invasion challenge and password: george/marshall. Dysentery tormented the regiment, and men struggled with their gear and Mae Wests to squat over honeypots placed around the aircraft bays. Medics distributed Benzedrine to the officers, morphine syrettes to everyone.
As the first planes began to taxi—churning up dust clouds so thick that some pilots had to take off by instrument—a weatherman appeared at Gavin’s aircraft to affirm Commander Steere’s prediction of lingering high winds aloft. “Colonel Gavin, is Colonel Gavin here? I was told to tell you that the wind is going to be thirty-five miles an hour, west to east,” he said. “They thought you’d want to know.” Fifteen was considered the maximum velocity for safe jumping. Another messenger staggered up with an enormous barracks bag stuffed with prisoner-of-war tags. “You’re supposed to put one on every prisoner you capture,” he told Gavin. An hour after takeoff, a staff officer heaved the bag into the sea.
The slivered moon cast little light, and at five hundred feet salt spray on the cockpit windows further cut visibility. Men dozed in the blacked-out planes during the three-hour flight, unaware that the gale had quickly deranged the formations. Some pilots found the critical turn at Malta, where Eisenhower stood craning his neck. Most did not. Soon the central Mediterranean was swarming with lost aircraft as crews tried to dead reckon their way north.
Nearly all found Sicily, or at least some corner of it. Pilot Willis Mitchell spied Malta and turned accordingly, only to approach the drop zone north of Gela without thirty of the thirty-nine planes that were supposed to be behind him. Leveling off at eight hundred feet, Mitchell flipped on the green jump light. More than a hundred paratroopers from the bobtailed formation landed within two miles of the DZ, but badly scattered and hobbled with jump injuries. Others—aware only that they were somewhere over land—jumped from fifteen hundred feet at two hundred miles per hour, rather than from the preferred six hundred feet at one hundred miles per hour. Smoke and dust from earlier bombing obscured key landmarks and further befuddled the navigators. Some mistook Syracuse for Gela, fifty miles to the west. Machine-gun and antiaircraft fire ripped through the formations and the descending paratroopers, killing some before they hit the ground. Plane number 42-32922 collided with its flight leader above the beach; with his right elevator gone, the pilot, George Mertz, wobbled back out to sea and ditched five hundred yards off Scoglitti. “I hit the master switch to cut off both engines, and we glided in,” Mertz recounted. “One paratrooper came crashing through to the cockpit. The airplane settled, slightly nose low.” Crewmen and soldiers lashed their life rafts together and paddled ashore to hide in the dunes.
Jim Gavin’s Dakota also tacked north after missing Malta, eventually crossing an unidentified coast on an unidentified landmass shortly after midnight. A red light flashed in the bay. “Stand up and hook up,” Gavin ordered. Braced in the open doorway, he recognized nothing in the dark terrain below. A pearly stream of machine-gun tracers drifted up. The green light flashed, and Gavin leaped into the slipstream. After landing hard and slipping off his harness, he managed to round up five comrades. For hours they stumbled through the darkness, whispering “George!” and straining for “Marshall,” until the distant grumble of naval gunfire just before dawn confirmed that they were at least on the proper island.
“No one knew where they were, including themselves,” the tart General Lucas noted aboard Monrovia. Gavin eventually discerned that he was south of Vittoria, thirty miles from Gela. Although Troop Carrier Command claimed that 80 percent of the paratroopers had jumped onto the proper drop zones, even the Army Air Forces disputed that as “a prodigious overestimate.” In fact, fewer than one in six had landed anywhere close to where they were supposed to land. Only one of Gavin’s four battalions was intact, and it was twenty-five miles east of the correct DZ. More than 3,400 paratroopers were scattered across southeastern Sicily, as much as sixty-five miles off target. Some had jumped into the British sector, where—because no one had thought to impose identical passwords on the entire invasion force—they were greeted with gunfire. Eight planes were lost, none apparently to enemy fire, and the regiment’s three-day casualty tally would reach 350, a literal decimation.
Certainly they wreaked havoc: slashing telephone wires, ambushing couriers, and causing the panicky Italians to inflate their numbers. They improvised, as paratroopers must. Captain Edwin M. Sayer, a company commander, mustered forty-five men to attack pillboxes near Niscemi with mortar, bazooka, and rifle-grenade fire; fifty enemy soldiers were captured, along with twenty machine guns and half a million rounds of ammunition. The operation, in Gavin’s assessment, was “self-adjusting,” a SAFU, as well as a TARFU and a JAAFU.
Still, only 425 paratroopers had landed in front of the 1st Division, and only 200 now occupied the vital high ground at Piano Lupo as a screen for the vulnerable units landing at Gela. The 82nd Airborne commander, Major General Matthew B. Ridgway, lamented the “miscarriage” that resulted from overweening ambition, deficient training, and bad luck. “At war’s end,” Ridgway later concluded, “we still could not have executed that first Sicily mission, as laid on, at night and under like conditions.
As paratroopers blundered hither and yon, the force they were intended to shield swept into the shallows off Gela. The 1st Division, bolstered by two Ranger battalions, closed on six beaches along a five-mile front shortly after three a.m. Their objective, beyond seizing the town, was the capture of Ponte Olivo airfield on Virgil’s Geloan plain. Calamity struck quickly. Hardly had the strains of “American Patrol” faded when a Ranger lieutenant and sixteen of his men vaulted from their landing craft as it ground with a gritty jolt onto a sandbar; unaware of the runnel and deadweighted with those 82.02 pounds of kit, they sank to the bottom of the Mediterranean. Other men from the 1st Division dropped their life preservers into the forward hold as instructed by an LCI skipper, who assured them the water was only hip deep; scurrying down the dropped ramp they, too, sank and drowned.
The first Americans waded onto the beaches at 3:35 a.m. on Saturday, July 10, fifty minutes behind Patton’s schedule. With a vicious pop, a mine tore open the chest of a Ranger company commander. “I could see his heart beating,” said his first sergeant, Randall Harris. “He turned to me and said, ‘I’ve had it, Harry,’ then collapsed and died.” Harris dashed forward only to have another mine shred his abdomen and legs; after flicking grenades into a line of pillboxes, he sprinkled sulfa powder on his protruding intestines, cinched his web belt to keep the innards in, and wandered down to the beach to find a medic. Harris would win a battlefield commission and the Distinguished Service Cross for gallantry.
If stunned by the Allied invasion, the defenders appeared unsurprised. With a great roar and a shower of masonry, Italian demolitionists blew up a long segment of the thousand-foot Gela pier. Italian gunners trained their fire on the 26th Infantry as the first wave closed to within a hundred yards of shore. “The water jumped and heaved” under the lashing bullets. Soldiers sheltered behind the LCT splinter plates and anchor winches, narrowing their shoulders and elbowing one another as rounds sang overhead or pinged off the hull. A barrage balloon torn free in the storm abruptly drifted overhead, weird and stately. “I’ve been wounded but there’s so much blood I can’t tell exactly where,” one soldier muttered. As another boat dropped its ramp, a 16th Infantry rifleman felt a weight slump against his leg. “Somebody left his pack,” he called out, then saw that the inert bundle was a sergeant who had been shot in the head.