On the afternoon of June 21, 1943, the convoy that carried the 45th Division overseas passed quietly through the Strait of Gibraltar. We lined the rails of our transport, the U.S.S. Thomas Jefferson, to view the big rock, and wondered jokingly what had happened to the Prudential Insurance sign. It was our first sight of land since leaving the Virginia coast thirteen days before. The trip across had been a smooth and uneventful one. On only two occasions had there been submarine alerts, and the destroyer escorts had sped by dutifully to drop their depth charges; if any actual danger existed it had never materialized. Although the amateur astronomers and navigators aboard had predicted a course toward North Africa, it was not until we saw Gibraltar that we knew for certain our destination laid in the Mediterranean.
Our 2nd Battalion of the 157th Infantry along with its attached supporting units constituted a complete combat team that occupied the entire transport. We were tightly packed aboard, literally in layers, with all of our ammunition, supplies, weapons and vehicles, ready to be unloaded over the sides into the landing craft that would assault an enemy beach. The repetitious training had continued throughout the voyage over. By day there were lectures, training films and calisthenics; at night, under blackout, we practiced the boat team assembly drills. Medical duties on board were minimal, and most of the time apart from the scheduled training was spent in our bunks or in the wardrooms playing gin rummy. The ordered, clean Navy life in "officer country" was an unfamiliar experience to us of the earthy infantry, and the Navy mess with its white tablecloths, gleaming silver, and colored mess-boys, was a world that recalled a pleasant life of pre-Army days.
Morale, which had reached its lowest point prior to sailing, had returned with the anticipation of imminent combat. But it slumped anew when, after being confined to the transports for four days in the harbor at Oran, we moved eastward only a few miles along the coast to Mostagenem to make still another practice landing. Once more it was down the landing nets into the landing craft and onto the benches. The "enemy" opposing us was our old buddies from Cape Cod, troops of the 36th Division. On hand also to greet us as we stumbled dispiritedly across the sand was the flamboyant General Patton. Resplendent in polished helmet, gleaming cavalry boots, and ivory handled pistols, he strode up and down the water's edge, urging us to "Charge!" with flicks of his riding crop. We were hardly inspired.
The morale was even lower by the end of eleven days on land and more training. The dry, alkaline barrenness of French North Africa was unpleasantly hot, water was at a premium, flies, mosquitoes and fleas surrounded us, and small, grisly scorpions invaded our clothes, shoes and bedding. At higher headquarters final plans and preparations were being made for "Operation Husky", but it was not until we had loaded back on the transports, and the convoy was under way again, that we learned we were to invade that ancient island battleground, Sicily.
The three-cornered island located strategically in the Mediterranean off the toe of Italy, had endured invasions and occupations with monotonous regularity for more than three thousand years. The Sicels and Sicilians, original inhabitants (and probably foreigners themselves) from the Stone and Bronze Ages, were first invaded in recorded history by the Phoenicians prior to 1500 B.C. Then, in succession, came the Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Vandals, Ostrogoths and the Byzantine Turks. In the eighth century A.D. the Arabs took over for 300 years until displaced by the Normans, who, in turn, lost out to Spain and the House of Aragon in 1300. The Bourbon Dynasty and the Kingdom of Naples displaced the Spaniards in the early 1700s, and for the next hundred and fifty years the island was handed back and forth among the royal houses of Austria, France and Italy. The British came as allies to the Bourbons in the fight against Napoleon in the 1800s; and after Garibaldi, the unifier of Italy, invaded in 1854 to end the Bourbon rule, Sicily became part of the Italian kingdom in 1861. Now the Germans in their role of Axis partner had occupied the island since 1941, and the Sicilians were looking forward once again to liberation, this time by the Americans and British.
Shortly after midnight, on July 10th, the Thomas Jefferson lay a few miles off the southern coast of Sicily wallowing drunkenly in the heavy seas. The invasion fleet by now numbered over 2000 vessels. Invasion hour had been put off until 2:45 AM because of an unexpected Mediterranean storm which whipped wind and waves in uncooperative fury. We had been assembled and waiting in the night blackness at our boat team stations along the rails of the upper decks since midnight. Ordinarily most of us would have been seasick, but the excitement of the moment had our stomachs knotted in controlled spasm, and the anticipation and uncertainty of what lay ahead gripped us all.
The landing hour was again delayed, and then just before four o'clock the PA system droned out its call to the boat teams. We had been due to disembark and go in with the 5th wave, to land one hour after the initial assault, but the storm had thrown all into confusion. Climbing down the wet chain-link nets we were slapped unmercifully against the side of the transport as it rolled with the heavy swells, but all fifteen of us who made up the boat team managed the final hazardous drop into the tossing LCVP safely.
Getting the medical jeep and trailer into the landing craft with us was almost disastrous. The booms would lower the vehicle to a point above us in the boat, where it swung like a demolition ball gone crazy. We would pull and strain at the hanging guide line that dangled from the jeep, and then with the jeep just over our heads and almost in the boat, the sea would fall away and the line be ripped from our grasp amid curses and shouts of "Turn it loose!" while the transport rolled one way, the jeep swung up in another, and our little boat plunged in still another. The next roll of the transport would carry us up and send the jeep crashing down against our sides or bow as we scrambled to avoid being crushed. After six or seven attempts, the impossible was finally accomplished, and with a sputtering roar of the Diesel motor, we cast loose and headed in the direction of shore.
In all of our practice landings on Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard, Chesapeake Bay, and North Africa we had hit the right beach only once in eight attempts. We didn't improve our average this time when it was for real. Fortunately, however, as we approached shore the darkness began to lighten enough that we could see surf pounding against a rocky coast and offshore rocks. It was not at all like the sloping sand beach of the scale-relief model we had studied so carefully on board the transport. The fearful bombardment put on by the naval artillery and air support that had raked the beaches an hour before had subsided into an occasional salvo that whistled high above us on its way inland. Since there seemed to be not much activity or small arms fire on the beach itself, we were eventually able to persuade our frightened and obstinate Navy coxswain to swing the boat to port and run parallel to land about a half-mile off shore until we spotted a sandy coastline that seemed more recognizable. Some of the boats in the waves ahead of us had not been so lucky, and in the darkness had piled head on into the offshore rocks. The Battalion lost forty-five men by drowning.
In his haste to get us ashore and get back to the safety of the transport area, our uncooperative Navy coxswain rolled down the landing ramp at the first grate of keel on sand. We piled over the sides as the jeep and trailer shot down the ramp into more than three feet of water. We waded along beside the jeep, and all went well until the waterproofing gave up in the heavy surf. Our initial surge had covered about 30 yards only; there was still more than 100 yards ahead to the water's edge. Hip deep in water and with the surf breaking on our backs, we held a brief strategy meeting and decided in view of the enemy artillery bursts sporadically peppering the shore and shallows, the jeep and trailer would have to make it on their own.
Once on the beach we left Corporal Morrow and Red Meier, the jeep driver, to dig in and keep an eye on the vehicles, while the rest of us sought out the access road inland that would lead us to the Battalion assembly point. Actually, by our maneuvering off shore, we were within a couple hundred yards of where we should have been. Kenny Prather, the Staff Sergeant in charge of our medical section, scouting on ahead, returned in a few minutes with six happy Sicilian prisoners. They had been manning machine guns in a pillbox nearby, and were overjoyed that they had a choice of surrendering to a first-aid kit and a Red Cross armband, rather than to a trigger-happy Gl. They had been afraid that they might have had to shoot at someone in self-defense. We turned them over to Morrow and Meier and hiked off to find the Battalion.
By noon the Battalion had secured its first objectives. Apart from the men lost on landing there had been few casualties, and we treated these in our first aid station set up under an olive tree near the battalion headquarters. With Sgt. Prather, we walked back to the beach and found that Morrow and Meier, with the aid of the prisoners, had manhandled the jeep and trailer onto the sandy shore. The motor had dried out and was running again, but when they tried to reach the access road, both jeep and trailer had bogged down hopelessly up to the tire tops in the soft sand. We all pitched in to dig it out, cleared a path in front of it, and sought out the engineer boys, who had landed by this time. We borrowed two long rolls of chicken wire, jammed some under the dugout front and back wheels, and laid out the rest in a path in front of the jeep. When all was set, we lined up on each side of the jeep and trailer. Meier gunned the engine, and with a mighty heave and spinning of wheels we launched the jeep onto the wire netting, It advanced three yards, but used up all thirty feet of chicken wire, which ended up tightly wound around both front and rear axles.
For the next two hours, while the war swirled around us and the boats kept landing and the shells kept dropping. We took turns under the jeep with wire clippers, snipping each strand of chicken wire individually, and cursing the engineer geniuses. Some time later when the half-tracks rolled ashore we were pulled out onto firmer ground. Motorized again, we roared off to catch up with the rest of the Battalion.
Although we were ignorant of it at the time we were landing on, fighting on and marching over a site of great antiquity that had seen destruction and sea borne invasion many times before. On the rocky promontory to our right, and on the fertile dunes in front of us, the town of Camerina, founded 600 years before the birth of Christ, had been destroyed and rebuilt five times before it was eventually abandoned. In 405 BC, at the time when Syracuse, some eighty miles away on Sicily's eastern coast was the center of Greek civilization and the most powerful city in all Europe, Camerina had been wiped out by an expeditionary landing force of Carthaginians led by the first Hannibal, grandson of Hamilcar. It was rebuilt by Timoleon, destroyed and rebuilt twice in the interval, and finally destroyed again by the Romans in 258 BC. It lingered on as a shell until, during 1st century BC, it gradually disappeared forever.
The rocks that form the promontories and line the shores today are not really rocks but fragments of composition building stone, remains of the shattered walls and temples of five Camerinas. Our own modern bombs and explosives had done little damage; the rubble, merely disturbed and rearranged by our shelling, returned again to the centuries of nature once we had passed. Today all that remains of a great Greek civilization is a small patch of archeological excavation recently uncovered. All that remain from the brief German occupation are the empty concrete pillboxes overlooking the vulnerable beaches. With the Russian Navy now well established in the Mediterranean, these will probably be put to use again before the century is out.
(c) The Bulletin of the Muscogee County (Georgia) Medical Society, "The Doctor's Lounge", Jul 1968, Vol. XV No.7, p.9