The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944 (The Liberation Trilogy)
Perhaps. But he also had depths beyond even Pyle’s plumbing. “Underneath the mask was a cold and ruthless mind,” Martin Blumenson concluded. He was “calculative”—the adjective appeared in his high school yearbook—and often intolerant. His distaste for the piratical Terry Allen, who considered Bradley “a phony Abraham Lincoln,” had grown so toxic that he was looking for a chance to sack the 1st Division commander. He also was increasingly disaffected with Patton’s flamboyance, his bullheaded tactics, and his penchant for issuing orders directly to the divisions, rather than through Bradley. “He’s impetuous,” Bradley later wrote. “I disliked the way he worked…. Thought him a rather shallow commander.”
Among the most pressing problems facing II Corps was the floodtide of Italian prisoners: on Sicily, more enemy soldiers were captured in a week than were bagged by the U.S. Army in all of World War I. They came in skipping pairs from the villages, or in stolen trucks, or in long, chattering columns out of the hills, nervously glancing over their shoulders for muzzle flashes from disapproving Hermann Göring grenadiers. Wearing long-billed caps and the coarse-cloth uniforms the Germans called asbestos, they surrendered “in a mood of fiesta…their personal possessions slung about them, filling the air with laughter and song,” as one soldier wrote. Some U.S. units were so overwhelmed that they posted signs in Italian—“No prisoners taken here”—or advised enemy troops to come back another day. “You can’t work up a good hate against soldiers who are surrendering to you so fast you have to take them by appointment,” Bill Mauldin observed.
Off they went in the LSTs, herded like livestock but singing as though caged in an aviary. An OSS officer who interrogated a captured Italian machine-gun crew reported that Axis officers had spread atrocity tales in a vain effort to halt the defections.
“When are you going to start?” one prisoner had asked.
The prisoner cringed. “Cutting off our balls.”
Told that they would not be harmed, the men sobbed in relief.
“A queer race these Italians,” a lieutenant wrote his mother. “You’d think we were their deliverers instead of their captors.”
Yet the dark world was not far removed. And now it intruded.
Operation HUSKY had exacted a particularly grievous toll from the 180th Infantry Regiment, the pride of Oklahoma and one of three National Guard infantry regiments in the 45th Division. During the 45th’s brief interlude in Oran, en route from Norfolk to Sicily, Patton had lavished his attention on the unit, urging officers to “kill devastatingly,” to be wary of white-flag ruses, and, if enemy soldiers surrendered only when nearly overrun, to “kill the sons of bitches.” The 45th should be known as the “Killer Division,” Patton told them, because “killers are immortal.”
Despite these admonitions, not much had gone right for the killers in the 180th. On D-day the regimental commander, Colonel Forrest E. Cookson, was dumped by a confused coxswain on a 1st Division beach and failed to rejoin his men for thirty hours. Evincing “anxiety and indecision”—he tended to shake his head and mutter, “Not good”—Cookson seemed so overmatched that Patton had offered his command to Bill Darby, who opted to stay with his Rangers. With no suitable replacement in sight, Cookson kept his job for the moment but soon lost his most aggressive battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel William H. Schaefer. A former West Point football player known as King Kong, Schaefer was “the ugliest looking man in the U.S. Army, maybe the Navy and Marines as well,” one lieutenant said. He had repeatedly lectured his 1st Battalion officers against risking capture because “a captive can’t fight.” Several hours into the landings, Schaefer had been cornered by German grenadiers, who took him prisoner in a vineyard. “Dear General,” he wrote the division commander, Troy Middleton, on a scrap of brown paper, “I’m sorry I got captured.”
The 180th’s chance for redemption came at remote, impoverished Biscari, which the regiment had attacked late Sunday afternoon, July 11. Hermann Göring troops fell back behind the high yellow walls of the town cemetery, sheltering among the cedars and marble tombs set into a hill. American mortar rounds rooted them out, brown smoke foaming over the mausoleums and machine-gun slugs chipping the seraphim. Again the Germans fell back, skulking north across the Acate River toward an airfield five miles north of Biscari town. In broken country the gunfight continued through Tuesday, July 13.
By early Wednesday morning, the airfield was at last in American hands. Bodies lay like bloody throw rugs on a runway gouged by more than two hundred bomb craters. The charred cruciforms of ruined warplanes smoldered near the hangars; enemy snipers had hidden in the cockpits, taking potshots until a platoon of Sherman tanks exterminated them, fuselage by fuselage. Flames crackled in the grain fields east and west of the airfield. Through the billowing smoke U.S. soldiers could be seen like wraiths in olive drab, dragging wounded comrades to safe ground or snatching first-aid kits and ammunition from abandoned packs.
Sniper fire still winked from the shadows along the packed-dirt Biscari road. Companies A and C of the 180th’s 1st Battalion had landed five days earlier with nearly 200 men each and now counted 150 between them; the battalion casualties included King Kong’s replacement, wounded, and the Company A commander, captured. “We had the killing spirit,” one sergeant later observed. Another rifleman wrote his father that the summer dust “tasted like powdered blood,” then added, “Now I know why soldiers get old quick.”
By midmorning on Wednesday, the 1st Battalion had pushed through the smoke and dancing flames, flushing German and Italian laggards from caves along the thready Ficuzza River. Soon Company A had rounded up forty-six prisoners, among them three Germans. Frightened and exhausted, the captives sat naked but for their trousers on a parched slope above the Ficuzza, all shirts and shoes having been confiscated to discourage escape. A major separated nine prisoners for interrogation—the youngsters were considered most likely to talk—then turned both them and the other captives over to Sergeant Horace T. West with a small security detachment for removal to the rear.
West proved a poor choice. Born in Barron Fork, Oklahoma, he had joined the Army in 1929, then switched to the National Guard, training on weekends and working as a cook in his antebellum civilian life. Now thirty-three, he had two young children, earned $101 a month, and had gained a reputation, one superior said, as the “most thorough non-com I ever saw in the Army.” But the past few days had badly frayed Sergeant West. “It was something sitting on me,” he later said, “just to kill and destroy and watch them bleed to death.”
In two shuffling columns, the prisoners marched four hundred yards down the road toward a stand of olive trees above the creek. West halted his charges—without being told, they executed a ragged left-face—and separated out the smaller group designated for interrogation. Turning to the company first sergeant, Haskell Brown, he asked to borrow his Thompson submachine gun “to shoot the sons of bitches.” Brown handed him the weapon with an extra clip. “Turn around if you don’t want to see,” West advised, and opened fire.
They fell, writhing and jerking in the dust, then lurched to their knees, begging, only to be shot down again. Cries filled the morning—“No! No!”—amid the roar of the gun and the acrid smell of cordite. Three prisoners broke for the trees; two of them escaped. West stopped to reload, then walked among the men in their pooling blood and fired a single round into the hearts of those still moving. When he was done, he handed the weapon back to Brown. “This is orders,” he said, then rousted the nine chosen for interrogation to their feet, wide-eyed and trembling, and marched them off to find the division G-2. Thirty-seven dead men lay beside the road, and their shadows shrank beneath the climbing sun as though something were being drawn up and out of them.
Five hours later, it happened again. As Sergeant West herded his surviving charges to the rear, German tanks and half-tracks counterattacked, recaptured the Biscari airfield, and drove the 180th across a ravine south of the runway. The brawling
In command of Company C was Captain John Travers Compton. Now twenty-five, he had joined the Oklahoma Guard in 1934. Compton was married, had one child, earned $230 a month—minus a $6.60 deduction for government insurance—and had been consistently rated “excellent” or “superior” on performance evaluations. Standing on the hillside, bleary with fatigue, he ordered a lieutenant to assemble a firing squad and “have these snipers shot.” The squad soon formed—several men volunteered—and Compton barked the commands even as the Italians pleaded for his mercy: “Ready. Aim. Fire.” Tommy-gun and Browning Automatic Rifle fire swept down the gulch, and another thirty-six men fell dead.
The next day, at 10:30 A.M., Lieutenant Colonel William E. King drove his jeep up the Biscari road toward the now secure airfield. It was said that King had been temporarily blinded during World War I, and that the ordeal had propelled him into the ministry as a Baptist preacher. He now served God and country as the 45th Division chaplain, admired for his generosity and the brevity of his sermons. A dark mound near an olive grove caught his eye, and he stopped the jeep, mouth agape, to investigate.
“Most were lying face down, a few face up,” King later recalled. “Everybody face up had one bullet hole just to the left of the spine in the region of the heart.” A majority also had head wounds; singed hair and powder burns implied the fatal shots had come at close range. A few soldiers loitering nearby joined the chaplain, protesting that “they had come into the war to fight against that sort of thing,” King said. “They felt ashamed of their countrymen.” The chaplain hurried back to the division command post to report the fell vision.
Omar Bradley had already got wind of the massacre, and he drove to Gela to tell Patton that fifty to seventy prisoners had been murdered “in cold blood and also in ranks.” Patton recorded his reaction in his diary:
I told Bradley that it was probably an exaggeration, but in any case to tell the officer to certify that the dead men were snipers or had attempted to escape or something, as it would make a stink in the press and also would make the civilians mad. Anyhow, they are dead, so nothing can be done about it.
Two war correspondents who had seen the bodies also appeared at Patton’s headquarters to protest these and other prisoner killings. Patton pledged to halt the atrocities, and the reporters apparently never printed a word. To George Marshall on July 18, Patton wrote that enemy troops had booby-trapped their dead and “have also resorted to sniping behind the lines”; such “nefarious actions” had caused “the death of quite a few additional Italians, but in my opinion these killings have been thoroughly justified.”
Bradley disagreed and, Patton told his diary, “feels that we should try the two men responsible for the shooting of the prisoners.” An investigation by the 45th Division inspector general found “no provocation on the part of the prisoners…. They had been slaughtered.” Patton relented: “Try the bastards.”
Captain Compton contracted malaria soon after the Biscari killings, and not until he had recuperated in late October would he be secretly court-martialed. The defense argued that Patton’s pep talk in Oran had been tantamount to “an order to annihilate these snipers.” “I ordered them shot because I thought it came directly under the general’s instructions,”
Compton testified. “I took him at his word.” The military prosecutor asked not a single question on cross-examination. Compton was acquited and returned to the 45th Division.
Killers are immortal, Patton had declared, but that too was wrong: Compton would be killed in action in Italy on November 8, 1943. A fellow officer in the 45th provided his epitaph: “Good riddance.”
Sergeant West’s case proved more convoluted. Like Compton, he was examined by psychiatrists and declared sane. He, too, claimed that Patton’s rhetoric had incited him to mayhem, while conceding that he “may have used bad judgment.” His conduct, he told the court-martial, “is something beyond my conception of human decency. Or something.” The tribunal concurred and ruled that he had “with malice aforethought, willfully, deliberately, feloniously, unlawfully and with premeditation, killed 37 prisoners of war, none of whose names are known, each of them a human being.”
West was sentenced to life in a New York penitentary. Yet he never left the Mediterranean during the war, nor was he dishonorably discharged, and he continued to draw his $101 a month, plus various family allowances. Colonel Cookson, the 180th regimental commander, later said, “The whole tendency in the thing was to keep it as quiet as possible.” A few weeks after West’s conviction, Eisenhower reviewed the case. If West were sent to a federal prison in the United States, the Biscari story likely would become public; if he were kept confined in North Africa, perhaps the enemy would remain ignorant of the massacre. Eisenhower “feared reprisal to Allied prisoners and decided to give the man a chance,” Harry Butcher wrote in his diary. “[West] will be kept in military confinement…for a period sufficient to determine whether he may be returned to duty.”
That period amounted to a bit more than a year. West’s family and a sympathetic congressman began pestering the War Department for news of “the most thorough non-com” in the U.S. Army. On November 23, 1944, he was granted clemency on grounds of temporary insanity and restored to active duty, though shorn of his sergeant’s stripes. Classified top secret, the records of the courts-martial would remain locked in the secretary of the Army’s safe for years after the war lest they “arouse a segment of our citizens who are so distant from combat that they do not understand the savagery that is war.”
Those who knew of the killings tried to parse them in their own fashion. Brigadier General Raymond S. McLain, the 45th Division artillery commander, concluded that in Sicily “evil spirits seemed to come out and challenge us.” Patton wrote Beatrice, “Some fair-haired boys are trying to say that I killed too many prisoners. The more I killed, the fewer men I lost, but they don’t think of that.” And a staff officer in the 45th wrote, “It was not easy to determine what forces turned normal men into thoughtless killers. But a world war is something different from our druthers.”
Nobody really knows what he’s doing, Bill Mauldin had written of his first week in combat with the 180th Infantry. Yet other primal lessons also could be gleaned, from Licata to Augusta. For war was not just a military campaign but also a parable. There were lessons of camaraderie and duty and inscrutable fate. There were lessons of honor and courage, of compassion and sacrifice. And then there was the saddest lesson, to be learned again and again in the coming weeks as they fought across Sicily, and in the coming months as they fought their way back toward a world at peace: that war is corrupting, that it corrodes the soul and tarnishes the spirit, that even the excellent and the superior can be defiled, and that no heart would remain unstained.
3. AN ISLAND REDOUBT
“Into Battle with Stout Hearts”
THE command car purred through the thronging soldiers, the big open car with three compasses salvaged from crashed Messerschmitts. Heedless of the raised dust, the troops pressed close, not just to snatch at the cigarette packs tossed from the backseat by their commanding general, but for a glimpse of the great man himself. At 147 pounds and just five foot seven even in his chukka boots, General Bernard Law Montgomery offered little to see: a black beret hid his thinning hair, and the khaki shirt—sleeves rolled to the elbows, tail tucked into his baggy shorts—was unadorned but for the Eighth Army flashes stitched to both shoulders. The Sicilian sun accented every cusp and serif in his narrow face, and made the luminous blue eyes even icier. Perhaps aware that he resembled “a rather unsucce
If the campaign against the Axis was going well enough, a new front had opened between the British and the Americans; this battle had already hindered the struggle for Sicily and would impinge on Allied amity for the rest of the war. Montgomery was in the middle of the brouhaha, of course: on Tuesday, July 13, the Eighth Army commander had unilaterally ordered his troops to cut across Patton’s front and into the American sector on Highway 124, a vital route that ran westward from Syracuse through Vizzini toward the central Sicilian crossroads town of Enna. Axis resistance had begun to clot south of Catania, so Montgomery chose to divide his army, with one corps butting north along the coast, and another looping west around Mount Etna via Highway 124.