THE INVASION OF SICILY
Sicily, stepping stone between Africa and Europe, dominates east-west shipping through the Mediterranean as well. In World War II as in many past wars it became a center of warfare. The plan of initial attack was simple. The United States was to make several assaults on the Gulf of Gela, while the British were to attack along the Gulf of Avola. Merchant ships fared fairly well in support of the United States or Western Task Force in the vicinity of the Gulf of Gela. They were under severe and costly attacks in the Avola theater in support of the Eastern Task Force. We shall first discuss the experiences of the Armed Guards in the Gela area.
Merchant ships began arriving at Gela on July 11, 1943, the day after the invasion. The heaviest attacks appear to have come on the day three merchant ships arrived. Five minutes after the Robert Rowan arrived a half mile off the beach at Gela at 0930 on July 11 an enemy shore battery began shelling the ship. All five shots were near misses which straddled the ship. A soldier was wounded. An enemy attack at 1440 did no damage, but the bombs which were dropped at 1545 must have had the ship's number on them. Three bombs were direct hits and a number were near misses. At 1614 the order came to abandon ship and eight minutes later Armed Guards were ordered to leave. All hands were clear of the ship six minutes later and at
1635 No. 2 hold exploded. Dive bombers came over a few minutes later and strafed ships and boats. Within 20 minutes of the first explosion the Robert Rowan was blown in half by a terrific explosion. The initial attack which hit the Rowan consisted of 32 bombers. Apparently their real target was the USS Boise which had silenced the shore battery and helped stop an enemy counter attack. During July 11 and 12 the ships at Gela were subject to 14 air attacks. The gun crew of the Robert Rowan left Gela on July 13 and arrived at Algiers on July 15. There they witnessed the disintegration of a Norwegian freighter which blew the roofs off many buildings in the dock area and killed many people. A Canadian ammunition ship broke into flames and her ammunition started to explode. She was towed out to sea and beached. The Armed Guard of the Rowan was on the Arizaba about 200 yards from the Canadian ship.
The Francis Parkman arrived at Gela on July 11. Bombs were dropped close to the ship on that date, but only one Armed Guard was wounded by the bomb fragments. She was at Palermo on August 1 when bombs again landed close; one bomb landed only 50 yards off her port quarter. Bombs were again near on August 4.
The Ezra Meeker was one of the first cargo ships to move in at Gela. She reported some 10 bombs dropped by 24 bombers on July 11; most of the bombs not over 30 to 50 feet from the ship. Her Armed Guard officer believed that his guns hit several bombers. He also reported that an enemy plane was damaged the next day by gunfire from
the ship. Perhaps no ship at Gela had more close calls than the Nicholas Gilman on July 11. Early in the morning she was shelled by tanks from the beach and one Armed Guard was wounded. In the afternoon attack in which the Robert Rowan was hit she received ten near misses. Later in the afternoon she received five more near misses and a hit in her No. 1 hatch. Fire broke out, but was brought under control. In two days of action, July 11-12 this ship was officially credited with two planes destroyed and one assist. One of these planes was shot down in a late attack, 2130-2330, on July 11. The assist and the destruction of the second plane took place on the afternoon of July 12 within a period of 15 minutes. From July 10 to July 18 the gun crew slept by their guns. Later the ship was at Gibraltar when enemy saboteurs damaged ships by attaching time bombs to the hulls.
The Joseph Pulitzer had two near misses from bombs on the afternoon of July 11 and later seven Armed Guards were wounded by shell fragments at the after 3" gun station. Dive bombers attacked incessantly after dark. The burning Rowan lit up the ships and made them good targets. The Pulitzer again received near misses at 2200 and 2300. She accounted for one plane late on July 11 and shot down another on the afternoon of July 12. She did not fire when bombers attacked the shore on July 16 and 18. On August 3, while passing through the Tunisian War Channel, the ship astern of the Joseph Pulitzer was torpedoed. The Pulitzer arrived at Palermo on August 4.
One bomb dropped near on this date.
The Lawton B. Evans experienced 17 direct attacks on July 11 while anchored off Gela. Of some 50 bombs dropped 7 landed close. A near bomb hit at 1140 did slight damage to her hull. She had near misses from shore batteries and was strafed. But she shot down one plane and assisted in shooting down another. Next day she was attacked three times and assisted in destroying another plane. She was in 24 more attacks during the next nine days. Her activity against the enemy continued after she returned to North Africa. At Bizerte on August 17 she hit a plane which crashed. Two of her Armed Guards were wounded. Earlier while enroute from Oran to Bone on August 7 she was in a torpedo attack in which a British ship was torpedoed. On August 18 she scored as assist against an enemy plane at Bizerte. One Armed Guard was wounded and an unexploded shell made a hole in No. 1 hatch. George J. Edel, seaman first class, won the Silver Star for his action on this date. Wounded by a shell fragment, he returned to his gun station with a piece of steel still in his arm and helped bring down a German plane. The ship was also under attack at Bizerte on September 6.
The Tabitha Brown was in the thick of the fighting at Gela on June 11. Bombs fell around her and she was strafed. Army gunners manning a 40 mm gun claimed an assist and the destruction of one plane. On July 12 another plane was hit and crashed. Bombs also fell close to this ship at Palermo on August 1 and 4. There were three casualties
when a shell fragment hit the No. 7 twenty millimeter magazine.
Action off the Gela beachhead quickly slackened. The Evangeline reported no action during her brief stay on July 13, nor did the Edward P. Costigan encounter the enemy in her longer visit from July 14 to 26. The Alexander Martin, the John Howard Payne and George Matthews visited both Gela and Scoglitti between July 14 and 26 and reported no action. The Winfield Scott and the James Woodrow reported no action at Scoglitti, July 14-26. The stay of the Hugh Williamson at Gela for this period was uneventful. The Shawnee had a quiet stay at Gela, following her arrival on July 13. But she went on to Palermo on July 31 and was under attack on August 1. The closest bomb was about 1,000 yards away. The deck of the ship was hit by shell fragments. Several of the ships which went on to Gela found North African ports much more dangerous than the anchorage off the American beachhead. The Marion McKinley Bovard had been under air attack at Algiers on June 4 and at Bone on June 14 and 15, but reported no action at Gela. She arrived on July 14. But when she went to Palermo at the end of July she experienced three raids, August 1, 4, and 6. Bombs fell close on august 1, and 18 holes were found in the starboard side of the ship, presumably caused in large part by the large volume of anti-aircraft fire at the port. The Samuel Adams, the William Bradford, the James Iredell, the William Few, and the Walter E. Ranger were other ships which arrived at Gela on July 14 and reported that their only contact with the enemy had been the earlier raid at Algiers on June 4. The Thomas W. Beckett indicated that the main enemy attack had been that in the Atlantic
on June 22 when a French tanker was torpedoed and that her trip to Gela and thence to Scoglitti was uneventful except for floating mines and enemy planes which never came within range of her guns. The Felipe de Neve, which had been in the air raid at Algiers on June 4, reported that her stay at Gela was uneventful except for a raid on the island, but not the ships, on July 19. The Mexico, which went to Licata on July 13 and later to Gela, reported that bombs were dropped when she was at Gela, but these were presumably dropped ashore. She was at Palermo during the August raid and reported hits on one of the seven planes which were shot down. In this attack an ammunition ship was set afire and a destroyer was hit. The David Caldwell reported that one bomb landed 1,500 yards away at Gela on July 22.
The Bushrod Washington and the Alexander Graham Bell arrived at Licata on July 18. The latter reported that none night air raids were visible but not directed at her. She was in a convoy on August 2 in which an escort sank an Italian submarine and captured 45 of the 46 men aboard. The William Dean Howells, Oliver Hazard Perry, and Daniel Webster went on to Empedocole on July 19. The Webster reported planes but no bombs on July 26, 27. The Howells also reported air attacks on nearby areas on July 27. The Jonathan Edwards arrived at Licata and reported that bombs shook the ship on July 27. The Timothy Dwight found all quiet at Licata when she arrived on July 23. However an aerial torpedo missed her by only 20 yards on August 16, five days after she left Sicily.
reports of the merchant ships Fitzhugh Lee, Archbishop Lamy, Isaac Sharpless, and Charles Brantley Aycock indicate the uneventful nature of the voyages to Licata and Empedocole in late July and early August. But the last mentioned ship experienced air raids in and near Bizerte from August 12 to 16. The planes were too high for her anti-aircraft fire. The Lewis Morris reported air raids at Licata on July 22, 25, 27, 28, but bombs were directed at shore installations and only on July 27 did a bomb fall close to the anchorage.
The worst air activity against ships at Palermo appears to have ended by August 6. But these early days of August were full of peril for merchant ships in that port. Two Samuel Huntington Armed Guards sustained wounds from shell fragments on August 1. Bombs fell around the ship on August 4, one only 25 feet away. Four Armed Guards on the William Mulholland were likewise wounded by shell fragments on August 1. Bombs fell fairly close to the Borinquen on August 1. The Ezra Meeker was narrowly missed by a fire bomb on August 1. On August 4 three bombs crashed just off her stern.
The William W. Gearhard, later to be sunk enroute to Salerno, shot down a plane in the attack on August 1 at Palermo. This ship was close to an ammunition train which blew up on the dock. Shells flew around the ship and many fell on the decks. The junior Armed Guard officer threw a shell overboard just before it exploded. Three Armed Guards were wounded by shell fragments. Some bombs dropped just aft of the Gearhard. On August 4 one bomb landed less than 100
yards from her stern. She did not fire at planes on August 6, although flares dropped close. Members of the Armed Guard crew helped unload cargo in order to hasten the departure of the ship from Palermo.
The Zachary Taylor arrived off Palermo on August 4, after a tanker in her convoy had been torpedoed on August 3. There was an air raid in progress as the convoy approached Palermo, so the ships stood out to sea. Enemy planes were over Palermo on several days in August but apparently did not drop bombs between August 4 and August 10. The voyage reports of the F. Marion Crawford, the James Gunn, the Thomas Nelson Page, the Tivives, the John Fiske, the Eleazer Wheelock, the William B. Travis, the John Sergeant, the Daniel Huger, and the Stephen C. Foster, all of which were at Palermo at some time between August 7 and September 22 indicate nothing more serious than air alerts. Only one ship, the F. Marion Crawford, indicated that she was even approached by enemy planes. However, the Peter J. McGuire, the Stephen C. Foster, and the Thomas Nelson Page reported a ship torpedoed between Algiers and Bizerte on August 7 and the Foster was present when two large explosions took place at Algiers and underwent several raids at Bizerte, two of them serious. She believed that she hit a plane over that port. The Foster, Page, and William H. Seward also witnessed the severe damage to the William B. Travis by an underwater explosion on September 12, as the ships were proceeding to Bizerte. The Travis had survived a torpedo attack on August 26 in which two ships had been
hit and faced nothing worse than air alerts at Palermo. But a mine tore open the port side of her No. 2 hold, causing casualties, including four Armed Guards wounded. These men concealed their injuries and manned their guns. The ship was taken safely into Bizerte. The John Fiske had no trouble at Palermo but was under attack at Bizerte on September 6 and her personnel saw the Richard Olney damaged off that port on September 22 and a ship bombed and set afire at Naples on October 23.
The Armed Guard officer on the Richard Olney thought that the ship was hit by a torpedo on September 22, but other evidence indicates that this may have been a mine. The ship was beached and the Armed Guard removed for transportation to the United States.
The enemy did make one serious attack on shipping at Palermo on August 23, but apparently without much luck. Three bombs missed the Lou Gehrig in this attack. Fragments fell on board after two sub chasers were hit. The William H. Seward claimed one enemy plane at Palermo on this date. One of her gunners was wounded. The John B. Hood was at Palermo in late September and early October and reported no contact with the enemy.
But if action almost ceased at Palermo, ships still faced numerous attacks in North African waters and in the battle for Italy which was ahead. For example, the William H. Seward had bombs fall around her at Bizerte on August 17. Bombs also fell near the Lou
Gehrig on the same day and she possibly assisted in the destruction of an enemy plane. The Daniel Huger was under attack at Bizerte on both August 17 and 18, and bomb fragments hit the ship on the former date. The Thomas Nelson Page fired at planes at Bizerte on both dates but reported no bombs falling close.
Action with the Eastern Task Force (Avola and Vicinity)
United States merchant ships had an easy time at Gela as compared with the awful days from July 10 to 14 off Avola. The total number of air raids in this theater for the four-day period numbered approximately 50. There were about 28 actual attacks. The account of the Colin P. Kelly Jr. well illustrates the experiences of all merchant ships which went through this awful period. Her shooting was somewhat better than most, for she shot down six enemy planes and scored contributory hits on four more. Like most Armed Guard officers, the officer on the Kelly never left the bridge during the four days. The Armed Guards ate and slept at their guns.
"Coffin Corner Kelly", as her crew called her, left Alexandria on July 3 with a large convoy for Sicily. One ship was sunk off Benghazi on July 6, after which depth charges brought up a large oil slick. Heavy seas slowed the convoy on July 9 and delayed zero hour on the 10th by an hour until 0345. Four hours later the Kelly was anchored about 200 yards from shore and about 700 yards from George beach. The first air attack came at 1015. There were 12 raids on July 10, 8 on July 11, 5 on July 12, and 3 on July 13. Low level, high level, dive bombing and strafing attacks made this period an unforgettable nightmare for all concerned. However, the bombing was none too accurate, probably because of the heavy anti-aircraft fire from merchant and naval ships. The favorite times for attack were at dawn and dusk. The Armed Guard officer
on the Kelly saw eight and possibly nine ships sink, including a hospital ship and a warship. He also saw about 30 enemy planes fall and six or seven allied planes destroyed. About 30 bombs fell in the vicinity of the Kelly; one landed very close aboard but did not explode. Spitfires from Malta did a fine job of furnishing air cover.
While the battle was in progress a signalman on board the Kelly kept a running account of his experiences and feelings. It is one of the great documents in the history of the Armed Guard, for it illustrates what must have been the experiences of all Armed Guards as they went into battle. Perhaps as annoying as anything was the large amount of shell fragments falling on the ship. There was one boy who had everyone convinced he was somewhat of a coward, but he stuck to his gun through every action. There was the Third mate always laughing, joking, and singing. There was the Armed Guard who stood 48 hours of anti-aircraft watch and fell asleep for 10 hours straight and through several raids. But perhaps the most terrifying of all the experiences of the tired Armed Guards was the report that 64 planes were coming in at a time when some of them had not slept for 70 hours. Fortunately this large attack did not take place.
The Leslie M. Shaw described 25 raids in 72 hours off Avola. She shot down two planes in a raid on the afternoon of July 10 in which four near misses from bombs were recorded. On July 12 seven bombs fell near her and three more landed close on July 13. E boats attempted an attack
on July 14 but were chased away by warships. The Big Foot Wallace had nine near misses but brought down one plane and assisted in shooting down two others. The Frank B. Kellogg was in the thick of the combat. She claimed four planes downed and that she aided in bringing down three others. On July 11 three bombs bracketed her stern and others threw water over the ship. Pipes in the engine room were broken. Other bombs fell close on this date and on July 12 and 13. Many accounts by Armed Guard officers describe the sinking of a British hospital ship on July 10, the destruction of a Dutch merchant ship Baarn, partly armed by the United States, after near misses caused fire to break out on July 11, the sinking of a British merchant ship on July 12, the sinking of a small tanker on July 13 and the awful explosion on the Timothy Pickering on July 13 which left few survivors from 192 persons on board and may have destroyed one of the dive bombers in the attack. The Benjamin Goodhue scored hits on several planes and in turn had bombs fall within 50 yards on July 10. The Jonathan Grant believed that 120 bombers dropped about 200 bombs, some close, between 1521 and 1620 on July 10. Again on July 11 several bombs hit near. The George Rogers Clark shot down one plane on the afternoon of July 10 while experiencing several near misses and bomb fragments which wounded three British soldiers on board. On July 11, 12, and 13 this ship was narrowly missed by bombs. The Joseph Alston claimed hits on two planes which crashed on July 12. She was at Marzamemi, Sicily and her report indicates that no ship in her area was damaged, although bombs came close. The George H. Dern claimed the
destruction of one enemy plane on each of the first three days off Avola. She reported 30 attacks in 96 hours and indicated that she received near misses on July 10, 11, 13, and 14.
In addition to the Timothy Pickering, which was sunk, another United States merchant ship received a direct hit. On July 11 a bomb hit the Joseph G. Cannon. No. 5 hold flooded as did the shaft alley, and the ship settled heavily by the stern. While off Sicily the Cannon fired on attacking planes 13 times and undoubtedly participated in shooting down several planes. She proceeded to Malta for temporary repairs on July 13.
Other Armed Guard voyage reports testify to the severity of the battle for the eastern beachhead on Sicily during the first few days. Practically every merchant ship off the beaches had one or more close calls. All fired continually at the enemy and thereby kept his bombing from being much more accurate and deadly. In truth, there was probably no action in the European theater in which merchant ships participated which was more dangerous and more bitterly fought than that for eastern Sicily. The Mayo Brothers claimed hits on three planes and that bombs landed within 75 feet more than once. The Pio Pico reported 30 air attacks to the early morning of July 14 but did not experience any near misses nor claim any planes destroyed. On the other hand the Pocahontas was officially credited with the destruction of four planes. Both shell and bomb fragments hit the ship. The explosion of a 500 pound bomb from 50 to 705 feet from the ship on July 10 wounded two
Armed Guards. Bombs were also close on July 11. The O'Henry, anchored about eight miles south of Syracuse, suffered seven casualties from bomb fragments in the attack on July 10 in which about 100 bombs were dropped. The explosion of an American ship, presumably the Timothy Pickering, on July 13 showered the O'Henry with debris and a flying truck wheel killed one soldier on board.
Several newly arrived merchant ships anchored off Avola about July 13. Among these were the Will Rogers, the John Hart, the Samuel Parker, the William Patterson, the William T. Coleman, the Charles Gordon Curtis, the Abraham Lincoln, the Ralph Izard, the Zane Grey and the Daniel Chester French. Their reports indicate that the enemy still continued to attack fiercely even after the first wave of merchant ships unloaded and departed for North Africa. The John Hart had one bomb drop 50 yards away on July 13, but four bombs on July 15 missed by about 300 yards. The Samuel Parker received credit for one plane destroyed and five assists during her stay off Sicily. On July 17 one bomb went through the port bulwark at the forward chock and another landed within twenty feet. More serious was the attack on July 22 in which a heavy bomb landed within twenty feet and another within twenty-five feet. The ship was strafed and 115 holes were counted in her hull. Two Armed Guards were killed and five were wounded. Four merchant seamen were also wounded. The ship caught
fire, but was able to leave the same day. The Samuel Parker was accustomed to close calls. The men on board no doubt remembered that awful day off Benghazi, May 1, 1943, when five torpedoes passed within 50 feet of the ship and bombs landed within 300 feet. They saw two ships hit in this attack. Bombs fell close to the William Patterson on July 17 and 19. Later at Gibraltar she was present when several ships were damaged by time bombs.
The William T. Coleman underwent 20 attacks off Sicily between July 13 and 23. Only on July 17 did she sustain a near miss which put her 4"/50 out of action and did other damage. This ship had been under attack 32 times since December 18, 1942 and had claimed one plane shot down and 13 assists. Somewhat luckier was the Charles Gordon Curtis, for the closest bomb to this ship in three days off Sicily was about 500 yards away. The Abraham Lincoln Armed Guard believed they got an enemy plane on July 13. The ship sustained near misses on this date and one on July 14. The Ralph Izard claimed a hit on the plane which bombed the Timothy Pickering on July 13 and had bombs fall close on the following day. She was at Gibraltar when three ships were damaged on August 4 by time bombs, as was the Zane Grey. The latter ship claimed hits on three planes in eight attacks off Sicily. The Daniel Chester French claimed numerous near misses from July 13 to 22. After being off Avola for five days, the Abner Nash went on to
Augusta on July 18. Prior to leaving on July 26 this ship underwent forty air raids, mostly at night, with a few sneak raids during the day. She was present when a British ship was hit on July 19 and when two were hit on July 21. Her fire damaged a plane which was brought down by the shore batteries on July 22. On July 25 bombs fell 30 and 50 yards from the ship. She hit a plane which was last seen smoking. One plane dropped a spare gas tank which missed the ship by thirty yards.
The Harry Lane and the John M. Schofield both went to Syracuse on July 20 and left July 23. Prior to this trip the Lane had been at Licata. These ships were welcomed to Syracuse by torpedo wakes and had bombs drop close during their brief stay.
The Francis Drake reported 61 alerts and 8 actual air raids at Syracuse between July 24 and August 7, while the James Duncan indicated that there were 52 alerts and six actual attacks in the same period. The principal vessels to suffer damage were landing craft, but one British ship was reported hit on July 25. One Armed Guard aboard the James Duncan was wounded by shell fragments. This ship claimed a plane on July 27, while the Francis Drake claimed hits on a plane in the same attack. Bombs fell close to the Francis Drake on July 25; one landed within 50 feet but did not explode.
The David Stone was off Augusta from July 24 to August 6. During this period she was in 20 air raids and had at least 17 bombs dropped so near that they were classed as near misses. On July 25 she
was the first ship to open fire and hit a plane. Her Armed Guard officer believed that one plane was brought down on July 27.
The Charles Goodyear was under attack at Bizerte, Syracuse and Catania. She accounted for two enemy planes on August 17 and 18 at Bizerte and in turn was straddled by bombs on August 17. Little happened at Syracuse, but bombs fell fairly close while she was at Catania on August 29. On September 1 she claimed an assist against an enemy plane. Her Armed Guard officer reported that two ships were torpedoed on September 30 while the Goodyear was in a west bound convoy for Oran.
The action on the east coast of Sicily had been severe, but the losses in ships and Armed Guards had been low in view of the heavy attacks. In the Sicily invasion as in other actions, the Armed Guard proved its ability to defend merchant ships. The Mediterranean theater was one of the great proving grounds for the Armed Guard service. If Armed Guards could bring their ships through Mediterranean waters safely, they could defend them anywhere.
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