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The Invasion of Sicily: War Is Hell
By Don Rodda
Don Rodda, in a photograph taken in wartime Sicily on October 9, 1943, and inscribed: "Mom Darling - Much love from your favorite Dogface."
Most people celebrate the 4th of July on the 4th of July. That's OK, but not for me because, ever since a cold, stormy morning in 1943, I've celebrated "the 4th" on July 10, the day I landed intact on an invasion beach in Sicily -- wet, but intact; no bullet holes.
As a raw replacement in the 45th Infantry Division, I had shipped out of Oran, North Africa, with some real soldiers. We were to take part in the Allies' first assault on Fortress Europa, most of which was under the yoke of Hitler and his Nazi hordes.
The Mediterranean was kicking up pretty good that 3 a.m. In fact, as the waves broke over the topmost rigging of the invasion fleet, Supreme Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower contemplated postponing the invasion.
That would have been dandy with me, because all I had going for me in the military were eight weeks of basic training -- and a lot of KP. But Ike finally decided it was a "go" situation, so in the windy dark and amidst towering waves, we headed for the hostile shore -- and Lord knew what kind of reception awaited us (and He wasn't telling).
When we arrived off "La Sicilia" my fellow GIs and myself had to struggle up from the guts of our ship, the hold, which was a sea of five-high bunks in which we had tried to catch a few winks of sleep. Each of us was loaded with the usual impediamenta: rifle, ammunition, field (back ) pack, canteen, gas mask, etc.
In this overloaded state, we next had to clamber down the side of the ship and into a pitching flat-bottomed craft (Higgins boat) on cargo nets serving as rope ladders. I hadn't done this before, so hung on for dear life.
On my way down, the rifle slung over my shoulder got caught in one of the rope squares, not exactly a help. Then a guy above me hit my iron helmet with his boot and it went crashing into the boat. If this had landed on anyone below it easily could have meant a fractured skull.
As I neared the flat-bottom that was to take us ashore, the Med still was rough, black and decidedly uninviting. And the roiling sea caused our mother ship and the landing craft to grind against each other. As I tried to time the rise and fall of both vessels, the lieutenant in command shouted, "For Christ's sake, Rodda, jump." I did, and fortunately landed in the boat -- and not between the grating vessels which could have turned me into hamburger.
There still was a potentially dangerous problem: with 10 guys already in the small boat, the Navy crew had to lower into our midst a 40mm Bofors gun and carriage, the combination approximating the size of a small truck. The dangling field piece banged ominously against the side of the rolling ship, but fortunately the rigging held and they somehow got the anti-aircraft weapon into our invasion craft.
A dozen or so boats from our ship, and others from the invasion fleet, now were maneuvered by Navy coxswains into moving circles. People in the small boats kept calling, "What wave? what wave?" trying to establish the order which each was to hit the beach. We were to have been the 6th wave, but the sailor steering our boat got us to shore in the 3rd...Needless to say, I wasn't looking for us to be No. l.
We had some fireworks too. From farther out to sea, Allied ships bombarded shore installations. As per standard procedure, mixed in with their shells were tracer rounds which glowed red as they floated through the dark sky to distant targets.
* * *
As dawn broke, wave after wave of our Higgins boats quit circling and headed for the Sicilian shore. They, too, were a pretty sight until I remembered -- and wondered what and who might be waiting for us. The sailor handling our boat got us near the beach where we became hung up on an underwater obstacle -- broadside to the biggest and ugliest concrete pillbox I had ever seen. Machine gun slits like eyes seemed focused on us from a few feet away. If the enemy soldiers who were supposed to be manning this fortification hadn't taken off, they could have made matchwood of our boat, ending our war right there.
I still hadn't a clue about what to do next, but it was obvious we weren't doing any good where we were, stuck and vulnerable. Another GI and myself happened to be in the bow of our boat, and when its ramp was dropped, we jumped into an expected few inches of water...Not so, my jump took me into a washout and I disappeared, equipment and all. Once again I was lucky in that I was able to keep my feet and scramble up and out of the hole. Meanwhile, forces under our boss, General George Patton, were meeting heavy German resistance at Gela. But there was no shooting a short distance down the coast where we landed near the small town of Scoglitti. Still, my buddy and I knew enough to keep down as we crawled toward some dunes.
We hadn't gotten very far when a Beachmaster came by and gave us the comforting word that our beach was secure...I was so glad to be on land and in one piece that I didn't feel embarrassed by my supposed imitation of a commando.
Ever since that D-Day, I've appreciated Sicily's climate because to a half-assed soldier, it was like invading Florida. I was positive that this was far better than freezing one's parts in the Aleutians or some other frigid shore.
As we advanced through Sicilian villages, it was for me, something like a homecoming to Long Island City. We were welcomed everywhere by a now-liberated people, and nearly everyone seemed to have relatives in America, especially New York.
Quite often an oldtimer would approach and say, "Ay, Joe (Any American soldier always was "Joe") -- "I'm-a stay three year in Philadelf." And sometimes this was met by the rude question, "So what the hell did you come back here for?".
Kids followed the troops everywhere. They wanted "chew gum" "caramelli" (candy) and "scoglet", which they'd mime with their hands to indicate our small cans of Field Ration C, not exactly a gourmet meal in most soldiers' estimation.
Two years, three months, and five days of overseas duty constituted the big adventure of my non-venturesome life. To a worrisome type, it was not always what DID happen, but what easily COULD have happened. I was one of the lucky ones who got out of the war -- whole -- thanks in part to those guys who had taken off from that pillbox.