Part six: The chaos of the D-day invasion of Sicily
By: Sergeant Marvin A. Palecek
From: Glen Palecek
Here are Dad’s words on the continuing story of the chaos at the beachhead invasion of Sicily. I decided to begin with a paragraph about it that Dad said were his “personal recollections of the pre-dawn invasion of Sicily on July 10, 1943.” He called the shock of his initiation into true combat as “more nightmare than reality.”
Here is the paragraph he titled, SICILIAN HORROR:
An eerie nightmare was unfolding in catastrophic splendor. Death laughed hysterically as it raced overhead on white-hot cruiser shells, to crunch gleefully into gun emplacements manned by living beings. Huge metal birds roared hilariously as they dipped and dove, unloading their crushing eggs to the static accompaniment of the machine guns in their weird, ever motionless wings, only to wheel, dip, and dive again. And everywhere machine gun tracers probed skyward like jet-propelled fireflies, pacing hordes of leaden raindrops, which defied the laws of gravitation and of God. Out in the wildly lashing bay, tiny boats bounced like cockleshells on the mighty billows, caught on the sand bars between them, and belched their hordes of giddy-stomached ants shoreward. On the beautiful sandy beach, land mines erupted into miniature volcanoes, spewing their bits of human lava over the still living brethren.
The above paragraph was Dad’s attempt to tell this story in a literary style. I prefer it when he just tells it straight out as he continues below:
We secured the beach by nightfall. Just as it got dark, we saw our second huge fireworks of the invasion. German bombers swept over the ships behind us in waves. They hit two munitions ships, which sent tremendous red explosions in all directions. Just as the last wave of bombers disappeared, the first wave of planes loaded with American paratroopers came. Ship gunners mistook them for Germans and started shooting them down.
Since the ships were shooting at them, all of the soldiers on the beach shot them too. Our battalion communications officer, Lt. Forsberg, was good at naming planes and finally recognized them as ours. He started yelling, “Stop shooting! They’re American planes and paratroopers!”
The pilots were supposed to drop their paratroopers behind German lines. But, they panicked and dropped most of them from a half-mile out to sea to across our lines. We heard an estimate that the ships and we got 500 paratroopers, shot down 23 of our own planes, and damaged 40 of our planes so severely that they barely made it back to North Africa.
Note: The numbers Jim Burns found in doing research for his book were 60 planes shot down or damaged and 229 American paratroopers killed. Jim also wrote about how another soldier, Al Bacon, saw the white star on our planes and wondered why they were shooting at them.
Continuing with Dad’s story:
The first time I saw even a short paragraph about this fiasco in a U.S. history book was my last year teaching at Winona State in 1985. We picked up a few missing paratroopers hiding out from the Germans for the next few days. When the shooting stopped, a paratrooper strode up to me and asked where our commanding officer was. Then, he planted his feet right in front of the Colonel and demanded, “Colonel, did you know we were jumping tonight?”
Both the paratrooper and I were utterly astounded when the Colonel said, “Yes.” The paratrooper glared at him a couple minutes and then stomped off.
That night, while the rest of his little command group was digging in, the Colonel chickened out, sneaked back to the beach, and dug in. We never saw him again. When they found him, they sent Major Patterson up to take his place, but on our second day in Sicily, our little command group would fall in behind the first rifle company, ahead of the other rifle companies and the heavy weapons company, and march off without a commander.
Major Patterson would soon catch up with us. A week or 10 days later, it was my turn to carry a radio again with Major Patterson the day he got killed, and, ironically, got promoted to Lt. Colonel. But that’s another story.
Next time, I will pick up the story with the fierce battle at the Biscari Airport, which happened only two or three days after the landing.
I would like to thank all of you who told me you are enjoying this series. A special thanks to Bill Stahl who lives in Minnesota City. Bill gave me permission to tell you that he served under General Patton in France. Bill was in the 101st Regiment of the 26th Division. He told me that all Patton wanted to do was “Attack! Attack! Attack!” He also said each battle was different, but he thought that, in France, Patton’s methods were the right ways to fight even though casualties were very high. Over my lifetime, I have talked to others who served in World War II. Many of you who are firefighters in the Winona area will remember Al Albright. Al also fought under Patton in France and Germany.