Part eight: The deaths of Col. Patterson and others in Sicily
By: Staff Sergeant and radio chief Marvin A. Palecek
From: Glen Palecek
I will pick up this story now with Dad’s account of the deaths of Colonel Patterson, Private Mecklenberg, and others who were with Dad about a week or so into the Sicilian invasion:
I was with Major (Colonel) Patterson the night we attacked the Biscari Airport and again the night we got caught in a minefield and I was the only one to walk away.
The major was recommended for Lieutenant Colonel. Perhaps a week after the battle for the Biscari Airport, the battalion was marching up a gravel road in two columns five yards apart. Our little command group of seven men (I was the radio operator) was almost 50 yards behind the first rifle company, with the other two rifle companies and the heavy weapons company behind us. We were told we would not meet any resistance that night.
Private Mecklenberg and I returned from a two-day patrol where it rained all the time just when the battalion was moving out of the bivouac. As luck would happen, I didn’t have time to assign any other radio operators to the command group, so I picked up a radio and went myself. So, the command group had only one radio operator that night, which was unusual. Col. Patterson had just learned of his promotion to Lt. Colonel that day.
We came to a blown-out bridge, and the Colonel sent soldiers up and down the gully to see if there was a better way to cross. There wasn’t. So, the first rifle company walked down single file under a blown-out bridge without incident. Mecklenberg and I were dead tired from the two-day patrol. Just as I turned to drop in behind him, he dragged out the tripwire that set off a whole row of mines up and down the bank of the ditch. He covered off for me at exactly the right moment that the mine went off. He was a new man, and no one had noticed that he had not notched the strap on his helmet so that it would break in case of mines or shelling. It would not have saved him. His head was mushed inside his helmet.
Three of the men were dead, including Col. Patterson. Three were carried off on stretchers. I never found out if those three lived. I was the only one who got up and walked away, but I couldn’t hear for two days. I still have no hearing in my right ear and 12-percent loss in my left.
When I applied for a hearing aid years later, they said I would have to get depositions from the men who were with me that night. How do you get depositions from dead men?! I went through the rest of the war with hearing in one ear. I still cannot tell the direction a sound is coming from.
Dad told me more about this story many years ago. In the Army, men call each other only by their last names, but I remember Dad told me Private Mecklenberg’s first name was Bill. He told me he was the only son of a well-off family and that he held Bill’s head in his lap until he died. Dad said he looked into Bill’s eyes until his life left him. Dad showed me a poem he had written about it. I think he could tell I was deeply moved by this story and poem. I was, and the poem stuck with me. When I came across Dad’s documents, I remembered the poem, and was overcome with emotion. Here is the saddest poem I have ever known:
In my lap, I held a soldier’s head.
He looked up at me until he was dead.
This soldier’s death had saved my life.
I think about this, day and night.
The bomb that killed him made me deaf.
I prayed to God – the Devil laughed.
I know Dad would want me to add this note: If you think war is glamorous, ask yourself which soldier you would rather be, Sergeant Palecek or Private Mecklenberg? Bill Mecklenberg died in battle. Surely, his mother cried. Like many soldiers who survived the war, Dad was tortured with nightmares for the rest of his life by what he saw and experienced. War is not glamorous – war is hell!
Next time, I’ll write about the 45th Division’s rapid advancement across Sicily and Dad’s version of what happened compared with the movie version.
If you missed any entry of this series, go to the Winona Post website at winonapost.com. In the archives type “Silver Star” in the search box. You will find all the segments there.