Secrets and my Recollections of World War II - Sicily

Secrets and my Recollections of World War II

Gardner L. Friedlander 1990, 2000

Next Invasion

"Husky" (Sicily)

My stay at Allied headquarters was brief, possibly 48 hours, much of which was spent finding who I was to see. Eventually one of the invasion of Sicily planners briefed me, gave me a brief-case full of secret code books, orders, and instructions, and said I would be Air Corps Signal Officer on the headquarters ship USS Ancon for the landing at Gela. That ship had never before been in action, and they felt a seasoned filter officer might help. I lost my first command, the troops and radars: they were to be combat-loaded on LST's (Landing Ship Tanks) at Algiers. I hitchhiked by airplane to Oran to board. I was one of possibly a dozen ARMY on board the Ancon; most of the other army were all of much higher rank, including  General Bradley, but we were all treated like kings..

Almost as soon as I boarded, the ship sailed. Docking and anchorage space were in very short supply, so we cruised in great circles on the Mediterranean for about ten days while the rest of the invasion fleet was loaded and assembled. Luxury! Although living conditions on the Cap Bon peninsula were much better than before the Afrika Korps surrender, this was A+. I shared a stateroom with the naval signal officer in charge of the code room. Food was superb, with many delights I had not had since leaving the U.S. 18 months previously, like steak, milk, eggs, fruit, fresh vegetables, and especially ice cream. I could have taken three months of that life.

Orders 30-Jun-1943
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The Ancon was to be the headquarters ship for the whole invasion in Normandy a year from then, but this was her initial action. Ancon was in charge of just three beachheads, Licata and two at Gela, targets for the U.S. Seventh Army. The "Husky" operation was first directed from Algiers; then Malta; then, some time after Palermo was secured, from that Sicilian city.

Ancon was designed for the job. It had excellent quarters for the "brass" and supporting staff. It had radio communications to everywhere including the Pentagon, Gibraltar, England, Malta, and Algiers headquarters; to aircraft; to other naval ships (as you will hear later, unfortunately not to merchant cargo ships); and to shore installations on the beachheads. A vast area of the inside of the ship was the operations room, "headquarters" for the landings. This was not greatly different from the ops room in Oran which I described earlier, excepting that it was much larger. Communications facilities were much superior, and there were "repeater" radar screens in front of decision making people. The large plotting table map this time was filled with hundreds of model ships showing their types, positions and directions, as well as the standard plaques and arrows showing aircraft movements. The ship's radar was much better than I had seen before, for spotting planes, ships, and painting shorelines.

Quite a bit of training took place on the cruise, all simulated. As the only air corps signal officer I had no regular shift. At "battle stations" I had a prime operations room position in front of a repeater radar screen and all the communications needed to the other players. The duty naval signal officers (all of whom were of higher rank than I) seemed happy to have me there, and I made most of the "identification, friend or foe" decisions. I did regret the absence of Peeper, but made no goofs.

The fleet pulled into position off Gela about midnight, July 9-10, 1943. Ancon was in the middle of hundreds of boats, a few miles off shore. Sometime later, shore searchlights came on, sweeping sky and sea, but spotting nothing. A few minutes before first light I put an "H" designation on fast moving targets coming from the east. They were about a dozen German dive bombers that banged at the armada. I don't remember any ships being hit. Several minutes later I identified a large group of planes coming from the south; this was obviously our C 47's with the paratroops and towed gliders containing assault troops. I could hear our ops naval personnel using their radios to warn other navy ships of their approach. I heard gunfire; there was no communication with the large number of merchant (civilian) cargo and transport ships, all of which carried antiaircraft guns. The C 47's lowered their landing gear, turned on their identification and landing lights, shot flare signals of the day, to no avail. About two dozen were shot down, and half a dozen of the survivors were rescued by Ancon sailors, and many others were rescued by other boats. Needless to say, the ones we rescued were not very happy about their unscheduled swim. I don't know how many perished, but we all felt guilty. I don't know how this tragedy could have been prevented from our spot. It should have been foreseen, and prevented with suitable communications with the merchant ships.

Story in the Air
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By midmorning D Day my mission on Ancon was finished. I was put on a landing craft with several army "brass". On the way to shore we were strafed. I remember as I tried to claw into the iron deck that I thought I'd rather be on shore where I could dig in, but we were not hit. Luck. One of my brother ops officers was not as lucky. He was killed in a beach minefield just after reaching shore. Others had a wet landing. Their landing craft stopped on a sand bar some distance from shore. When the bow ramp was lowered, one of our officers hollered "Let's go", and promptly went to the bottom in perhaps six feet of water, followed by half a dozen of our enlisted men. Fortunately, no loss, only a bath.

Invasion Picture - Life Magazine
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We waded ashore possibly half a mile from Gela, and as prescribed, found our forward gang had set up ops in a building next door to General Patton's headquarters. The ops room was familiar, except this time we had a naval "plotter" receiving radar and movement information from Ancon, and a British navy forward spotter was using our window overlooking the plain to the north. By radio he was directing naval gunfire to targets of opportunity he could see or as our forward observers with army units requested. At one time, the target was quite a tank battle going on within a mile of us.
Gela is on a ridge, with the sea to the south, the plain 50 or 100 feet below to the north. A British "monitor" ship (I believe it was HMS Reliable) with 16 inch howitzers (short range, high trajectory projectiles that made a terrible roar going overhead) was the big help, and little was left of a house or tank it hit. One of my letters home reminded me that another different facet of this ops room was that there was an engineer on our roof who was heaving fused dynamite sticks at enemy tanks on our street.

Letter Home
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Invasion Excerpt - Life Magazine
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This was front line war. We had been in it at the Oran landing, and had been shot at and bombed numerous times in Africa. I had seen the underside of a German tank going over me, but this was tougher. We had infantry and rangers in slit trenches in our back yard, and there was continuous small arms fire to make it hard to concentrate that first afternoon. Towards evening the Germans pulled back.

I remember no enemy artillery fire, but we did have some casualties among our gang from small arms and machine gun fire. Both the ops room and General George Patton's headquarters next door would have been easy targets for German 88's if they had known which buildings to shoot at. The operations room bomb hit in England and the artillery hit on our Salerno ops room later in Italy were both much bloodier.

A message came from next door, asking for an officer with anti-tank experience. I met Patton, having been (a private) in an anti-tank outfit in Louisiana, but had never observed an anti-tank gun being fired. Patton told me that I was to be anti-tank officer for Gela's perimeter that night, as he wanted all his officers prepared for a big day tomorrow. Luckily nothing happened, and I even got some sleep.

I got a "bug" in Gela, and I was so sick I thought I was going to die. For days nothing would stay down that I ate, and I had the "trots" like never before or since. By this time our battalion surgeon had caught up with us, and he introduced me to sulfa drugs, pills the size of quarters. They did the trick, although I can remember little more of Sicily until we started north to the north shore hamlet of Patti. I did see the north-south road over the mountains in central Sicily several times. All of our commandeered vehicles had been left in North Africa, and we started getting U.S. trucks and jeeps, many in terrible condition. It took half a dozen round trips with all the vehicles to get the battalion from Gela to the staging area. On one trip I was in the lead truck heading south empty when a temporary dirt bridge shoulder gave way, and we landed upside down half way down the creek bank. Neither my driver nor I was hurt. A passing army tank tow truck pulled the vehicle from its perch against a luckily placed tree back to the road in short order.

Seventh Army Congratulations
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Gardner L. Friedlander 1990, 2000
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