Part 7: Battle at the Biscari Airport in Sicily
By: Sergeant Marvin A. Palecek
From: Glen Palecek
This is one story I wish I didn’t have to include, but I must because it is essential to what Dad fought for and why he sacrificed so much. My children and grandchildren need to know this story so that they know just how brave Dad was in and out of combat. In the story below, Dad is talking about his 180th regiment, which was made up of three battalions of about a thousand soldiers each. In this battle, the first and second battalions attacked from the front up a steep cliff road while Dad’s third battalion snuck through enemy lines to attack from the rear. Here is that story, in Dad’s own words:
Our next major objective was the Biscari Airport. The Major looked at the plans and thought that a frontal attack up the cliff road would result in horrible casualties. The airport was on a high plateau. We got permission to do a flanking movement around the west end of the airport. It would take all night because the sky was covered with broken clouds. Whenever the moon came out, we squatted as tightly to the ground as we could. When the moon went under, we hurried ahead in two columns five yards apart. We crawled down a gully and right up through the German lines. We attacked at dawn into the rear of the defenders, but were a half hour too late to prevent horrible casualties in the first and second battalions.
Charts at the German guns had all the distances marked to all the curves on the cliff road. Axis soldiers made the mistake of surrendering to the first and second battalions, who took all the Axis soldiers out into a draw and shot all but one of them. They let the captain live for information. He went berserk.
You often hear of the Malmedy massacre of American troops, but when have you heard of the massacre by American troops and the dozens of prisoners shot by American M.P. Sgt. _____? (I left his name out for the sake of his family.)
Both Col. Cruikshank, our regimental commander, and General Patton gave us fiery speeches before we left Africa to shoot soldiers who tried to surrender after they shot our buddies all the way up the hill. When our Christian division commander found out about it, he ordered it stopped. As soon as the Italians found out, they tried to surrender whenever the Germans weren’t tight behind or among them.
Dad wrote the above words, as he did most of the long quotes prior in this series, when he was 80-81 years old to help Jim Burns with his book. That is why I often add to the stories what I remember Dad told me when he was much younger. To make the above story a little clearer, let me add that Patton ordered three regiments to advance north and Dad’s regiment, the 180th, was the one farthest west and the one ordered to engage the Germans and Italians at the Biscari Airport. Two other regiments, the 179th and the 157th, advanced farther east and encountered only slight resistance. Dad blames Patton for getting impatient and not allowing the third battalion to attack from the rear before there was any advancement from the front by the other two battalions. Dad thought that if the enemy realized they had been cut off from behind, they would have probably surrendered. Dad said that attacking from the front first was pure suicide. When the German commander realized he was surrounded, he did indeed surrender. He no doubt was also in radio contact with other Germans and relayed that two more American regiments had cut off his escape route. The other German and Italian units certainly knew that their fellow troops at Biscari had surrendered and were slaughtered.
Some of you who are reading this will say I am making this up and that it could not have happened because it would have been a violation of the Geneva Convention. Others will point out that, in Africa, Patton had ordered the shooting of prisoners and his speeches made it clear this was justified because they first killed Americans. This was certainly true here as a large number of Americans were killed as they charged into the pre-marked spots for the Axis’ artillery. Some of you will also point out that this was nothing compared with the atrocities committed at the German death camps. The 45th Division would experience the full scope of Nazi horrors when they would liberate the Dachau Nazi death camp in Germany on April 29, 1945. But that story is still a long way off in this series. The argument that those involved were “following orders” is certainly true. This is the same argument that German officers would use when they were prosecuted at the Nuremberg trials after the war. I guess your opinion depends on what direction your moral compass points.
Dad and his best friend, Aubrey Elam, were horrified at what had happened. Both were devout Christians and had strong Christian values of right and wrong. Also, Dad was part of a Christian youth group back in Wisconsin. Dad and Aubrey went to radio school together in Fort Benning, Georgia, and served in the same regiment, the 180th. Dad became radio chief of the 3rd battalion, and Aubrey became radio chief of the 1st battalion.
After Dad died, I contacted the 45th Division Museum in Oklahoma City to find out what I could about the battle at the Biscari Airport. I bought some notes in a binder about this battle and others in which Dad fought. This version of what happened at Biscari was somewhat different than Dad’s. There was no mention of the massacre, and no mention of the man who shot so many prisoners. This bothered me for some time, but I came to realize that the Army was not about to let this story out or for it to be in their records, although I’ll bet it’s in the German records!
In his book, Jim Burns tells another story from another soldier where captured Germans were forced to dig their own graves. Both Jim and Dad told me stories of how captured Germans were searched for any American items. Dad said that the most common thing they found on the prisoners were American cigarettes. Often, this was considered proof enough that these particular Germans had killed Americans and justification under Patton’s orders to shoot them.
At some point, Dad and Aubrey complained to an Army chaplain. Dad wrote to his representatives back in his home state of Wisconsin, but was very limited on what he could write. Other soldiers knew how he felt and what he did. I do not have copies of Dad’s letters or any dates when they were written. I do, however, have some small accounts of some things that happened because of his efforts. There will be more on this later in this series.
Next time, I will include how Dad was the only survivor in a group of seven, including Col. Patterson. Another man killed that day was Private Mecklenberg. The most heart-wrenching story I have ever read anywhere is the poem Dad wrote about how Dad cradled this mortally wounded soldier in his arms until he died. It makes me cry to read it. If you are an emotional person, it just might make you cry, too!
If you missed any parts of this series, or would like to read it from the start, go to the Winona Post website at winonapost.com. In the search box in the archives type in “silver star.”