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NORTH AFRICA

"Afrika Korps POW:        Where do you Americans think you are going?
Paratrooper:                    We're going to Berlin.
Afrika Korps POW:          Well, that's fair enough. We're headed for New York."

"Ready" author Allen Langdon

The History of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division, World War II

On May 10, the convoy arrived in the harbor of Casablanca, French Morocco. After spending two days in a bivouac area, the regiment received orders to move to its first station overseas—Oujda. Most of the troopers had the uncomfortable experience of traveling by rail in old French "40 & 8" railroad cars (boxcars that could carry 40 men or eight horses). At one point the troop train stopped opposite one heading in the other direction carrying prisoners of war, members of Hitler’s Afrika Korps. After having already seen a French battleship lying on its side in the Casablanca harbor, the sight of the captured Germans was further evidence to the paratroopers that they were indeed in a combat theater.

Upon arriving at their station, the paratroopers soon realized that Oujda's only redeeming quality was its proximity to a large airfield that would be utilized in training for the upcoming airborne operation. Politely called the “Dust Bowl” by most, the paratroopers impolitely called it by a “euphemism” for the posterior end of creation. It was extremely hot, and the limited water available had to be so heavily chlorinated that it burned everyone’s throat. The mess tents were open to dirt and flies, causing unsanitary conditions that led to almost everyone coming down with a form of severe dysentery which was dubbed the GIs for "government issued"—toilet paper soon became a paratrooper's most valuable piece of equipment. Still, the hardships of Oujda must have added a benefit to the regiment's training, for Gavin wrote in his diary that “having withstood the rigors of the GIs we are ready for anything.”

Unfortunately, the nearby airfields were not ready to receive the troop carrier wing, and a combined training schedule with the paratroopers did not get underway until the beginning of June, with the intense heat of summer making training difficult. To complicate matters, the regiment also suffered high jump casualties because the already too-hard ground was covered with rocks, and the area was often lashed by high winds not favorable for parachute jumping. Fortunately, the division had brought with it a battalion of replacement troops, some of whom the regiment had to assimilate into its ranks.

Compounding the training complications were the numerous demonstrations the division was called upon to stage for visiting dignitaries and general officers, one of whom was General George S. "Blood and Guts" Patton who spoke to the paratroopers and ended his speech with:

Now I want you to remember that no sonuvabitch ever won a war
by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb
 sonuvabitch die for his country.

As the division was training, plans were being finalized for HUSKY. Landings would be made on the southeastern extremity of Sicily, with British and Canadian forces on the east coast and Americans on the south. The American assault forces would include the 3rd Infantry Division landing in the vicinity of Licata, the 1st Infantry Division landing at Gela (with parachute troops of the 82nd dropping inland to pave the way since this area was considered most vulnerable to immediate counterattack), and the 45th Infantry Division landing at Scoglitti.

Since about half of the American troop carriers available were needed to tow the British glider units to their sector, there were only enough transports to drop one American infantry regiment (reinforced) on the first night; the remainder of the division would have to be delivered on follow-up missions by surviving C-47s.

Colonel Gavin was informed that the 505 as a regimental combat team (comprised of the 456th Parachute Field Artillery Battalion commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Harrison B. Harden, Company B of the 307th Airborne Engineer Battalion commanded by Captain William H. Johnson, and elements of the 307th Airborne Medical Company) with detachments from the 82nd Airborne Signal Company and reinforced by the 3rd Battalion of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment (commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Charles W. Kouns) would go in on the first night. Gavin was given command of the reinforced combat team with the mission to capture and secure the high ground east of Gela in order to prevent enemy movement toward the landing beaches and then to assist the

1st Infantry Division in capturing and securing the landing field at Ponte Olivo airdrome.

Gavin diary entry:

It is exciting and stimulating to realize that the first regimental parachute operation in the history of our army is to be taken by the 505.

It is going to be very very tough to do well, but if we fail, it will not be from lack of effort. I know the regiment will fight to the last man, they will fight as American troops have never fought before.

Since the airborne assault phase of the invasion needed to be staged from bases as close to Sicily as possible, Army engineers had been constructing crude airstrips in the vicinity of Kairouan, Tunisia, while the paratroopers had been attempting to train at Oujda. Beginning on July 1, the units of the 505 RCT were airlifted to Kairouan. Though hot and dry like Oujda, the new bivouac area, located in a large olive orchard, at least offered partial shade with a cooling breeze that came in every afternoon off the nearby Mediterranean Sea.

Once the combat team was settled, detailed briefings—omitting the "where or when" to maintain mission secrecy—were begun on all phases of the coming operation. By the use of aerial photographs and sand tables, every member of the team learned exactly what his objective was and how he was going to achieve it.

On July 6, the paratroopers paused to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the 505’s activation with steak and even beer. Colonel Gavin used the opportunity to address the assembled men, reminding them they would be the first American paratroopers to tangle with Germans in an airborne operation but assuring them they were better than the enemy and he expected great things from them. As noted in the division history, following his talk:

There wasn’t a 505er who wouldn’t follow him through hell if he so ordered it and they would have the Colors flying over Satan’s command post hours ahead of schedule.

Gavin diary entry, July 6:

How does CO feel at this time, butterflies, yes…If I am
ever to appear confident, calm and deliberate, now is
the time. Every ship is to jump, even if on a second
pass. There will be no refusals. It is going to be some affair…

Gavin had to hide his “butterflies” and appear confident because his paratroopers, with insufficient night jump training, were to be delivered by pilots with the least experience in combat, night formation flying, and navigation. The British forces, similarly handicapped, were going in at night in gliders manned by insufficiently trained glider pilots and towed by inexperienced aircraft pilots. One of Gavin's diary entries was prophetic—it was indeed going to be "very, very tough…"

THE BEGINNING | NORTH AFRICA | SICILY | ITALY | NORTH IRELAND | ENGLAND | NORMANDY | HOLLAND | ARDENNES | CENTRAL EUROPE | BERLIN

 
 
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