by Glenn N. Holliman
My Father, Bishop Holliman, a young sailor from Irondale, Alabama, wrote a long document in August 1943 detailing his experiences in the Allied invasion of Sicily the previous month. So fresh were his memories that he moves his writing back and forth from present to past tense.
Moving to the Front
June 1943, the USS Butler, a one year old destroyer crewed by freshmen sailors, joined a convoy of transports and warships in Hampton Roads, Virginia and crossed the Atlantic on a course to the Mediterranean. The objective was to invade Italy's island of Sicily, a stepping stone to Adolph Hitler's Fortress Europe. Under dictator Bineto Mussolini, Italy had allied itself with Nazi Germany, part of the famed Pact of Steel, the Axis of Germany, Italy and Japan.
Upper right, the port of Oran in 1943. U.S. and British troops on November 8, 1942 invaded North Africa to engage Vichy French, Italian and German forces. In May 1943 in Tunisia the last Axis forces surrendered to the British, USA and Free French. North Africa, cleared of German power, became the staging point for the attack on Italy and additional German divisions. Just like the USS Butler, the US Army and Navy were 'new', filled largely with troops and sailors who were serving in combat for the first time and commanders who were learning how to command massive numbers of men, war assets and supplies.
Fresh from radio code school in Maine, Bishop Holliman's first war cruise was also his first trip across the Atlantic. And it was a voyage into combat. Below are his words from a letter he wrote in August 1943 after arriving back in the States.
"On June 22, we entered the Med. and saw land for the first time in two weeks. My greatest desire was to get a view of the Rock of Gibraltar, but unfortunately I was asleep or on watch when we went by. However, we could get a view of the Spanish and African coasts. We arrived in Oran (Algeria)...our stopover...for the purpose of refueling. There was plenty of evidence of the USA there - army jeeps, guns, ships, etc."
Below, a map of the western Mediterranean Sea during Operation Torch. On November 8, 1942, USA and British forces invaded Morocco and Algeria, at that time French colonies. Oran was taken by the American First Infantry Division which took casualties before subduing French forces who believed they were defending against hostile invaders. Oran became an important port for the clearing of North Africa in the winter and spring 1943 and the invasion of Sicily in July 1943.
"We proceeded on to Algiers, 24 hours away. Upon arrival...we did not go into port immediately but spent another 24 hours on maneuvers with landing barges and other craft. We knew then the time and place were drawing near.
The harbor was filled with Allied ships of all kinds. It seems impossible that the Italians or Germans did not expect an invasion of some kind. There was no reason whey they could not find out about the equipment and ships at these Med. ports.
The first to do at Algiers was to get the mail off-and that we did-my first card had been mailed back at Oran. We also had church services in the mess hall-on the way over too-conducted by one of the officers.
A couple of days after arriving, liberty was granted. I went ashore on Sunday afternoon- the Sunday before the Fourth. There were many modern buildings in the city but most of the places were filthy and unattractive. There was no place to buy any refreshments or food. The place was filled with army trucks, jeeps, cars and there were thousands of soldiers and sailors from every allied country including native Africans and Free French.
The only place Americans could go was to the Red Cross building where they were able to get ice cream at certain hours, and which wasn't any good. and something they called sandwiches. They also have movies there, but the place is so crowded we can hardly move about. It is the only place for the boys to go. It is pitiful to see the boys walking around with nothing to do.
I talked to one soldier from Iowa, who had been over there since November. He said the mail was about the only thing they had to look forward to. However, he seemed to be pretty well satisfied and not going hungry. Probably getting better food than we were on the ship. I told one fellow I had not tasted a Coca Cola in over a month. He said he had not had one in a year. So it isn't the service men who are getting all the drinks.
Up until about the 7th of July we did patrol work around the Algiers' area. Each day we hoped that would be the day to get started to wherever we were to go. During our stay here there were rumors to the effect that there had been air raids, but were not concerned. All this time weather was very hot in the day and cool at night. In the crew quarters though it was always too hot to sleep."
Right, Algiers during a 1943 air raid.
"On Sunday afternoon, we left Algiers to move 'closer' to the front so the captain said...to Bizerte"...to be continued.