Tuesday, January 3, 2017

An Alabama Family in World War II, Part 34

by Glenn N. Holliman

Invasion Day at Gela Beach, Sicily - 10 July 1943

It was the greatest invasion fleet in world history - greater even than D-Day 1944.  More than 3,000 allied ships and boat of all sizes carried or escorted seven divisions of British and American troops.  These men stormed the beaches of Sicily and seized the first bit of European territory from Italian and German fascism.  

One of those ships, the USS Butler, a 1942 destroyer carrying submarine depth charges, torpedoes, 5 inch guns, and over 200 young sailors, one being my father, Bishop Holliman, provided anti-submarine and anti-aircraft protection for this massive fleet. The deck guns would be called upon to shell Herman Goring's crack German Division at Gela Beach. 

The Butler to the right.

For my father, and hundreds of thousands of others, it was a baptism of fire and fear. Here are more of his words written in August 1943 and mailed surreptitiously to avoid censorship to his niece, Mary Daly (Herrin) in Irondale, Alabama.  Caught up in describing those days in July 1943, he moves back and forth from past to present tense.  I have done some minor editing for clarification.

For historical background, I am using Rick Atkinson's excellent work, The Day of Battle, the War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944.  When appropriate, I add notes from this work in red amplifying my father's narrative.

H. Bishop Holliman, b 1919, writes:

"Arriving there (Bizerte), there seemed to be hundreds of ships - all kinds-transports, landing barges, British, American, etc. There were several sunken ships at the harbor entrance. There was hardly a building in the city that had not been damaged or totally destroyed. The city looked like a cyclone had swept through. Moreover there were many farm houses which seemed to escaped the bombs.  It was terribly hot (t)here."

Bizerte had been evacuated by the Germans in May 1943, but not before scuttling a dozen ships at the narrow neck of the Bizerti bay.  Navy divers had worked feverishly to clear the channel. What my father saw was 'a solid forest of masts, and many species of amphibious vessels ready to transport the 1st and 3rd Infantry Divisions to Sicily.

"On Monday night (5 July 1943) we fueled up from a tanker in the harbor and tied up there for the rest of the night.  All of us remarked how dangerous it would be to have an air raid while we were tied up there.  I went on watch at 2 a.m. the next morning (6 July 1943) and as fate would have it at 3:30 a.m. the Germans came over.  The shore batteries and guns of other ships started firing before we did. Simply because the officer on watch thought 'It was target practice', my job, during battle is the same as the other work I do, copying code. So I have to sit there at the  typewriter typing away as if nothing were happening.  There are about six others so we are able to relived each other from time to time.  The raid lasted about an hour.  But no bombs fell close to me.  There were hits on other ships.  Two fellows were killed on one, and a destroyer was hit. We not able to tell how many of the planes were shot down."

Atkinson writes "Luftwaffe raiders sometimes sneaked across the Sicilian Strait before dawn...alarms wailed, smoke generators churned out a thick gray blanket to hide the ships, and searchlight batteries impaled the planes on their beams as hundreds of antiaircraft guns threw up fountains of fire...."

"On Thursday morning (8 July 1943) we left for Sicily where the captain had told us the afternoon before we were to take. On Friday he gave out all the information - how many ships, time and place of the attack, who the leaders were, etc.

He also said he expected to fight the ship to the very last.  There would be no giving up or thoughts of abandoning ship!

Friday noon and night (9 July 1943) we were fed as much as we could eat, such as it was. There was very little concern or unnecessary excitement.  There were many ships in view, arranged in convoy units.

Early Friday afternoon the sea began to get rough, and I was off watch so I lay down part of the time. But the sea got rougher.  There were no clouds for rain, but the wind blew strong. Believe it or not this was the only rough weather we had encountered up to that time.  By supper time the ship was rolling and almost impossible to eat.  I went on watch at 5 pm and I got sick, and I mean sick.  There were many others in the same fix.  It was not a comforting thought to be going into battle so sick you could not raise a finger to protect yourself and furthermore you don't care."

Atkinson writes that a polar cold front briefly collided with a secondary cold wave over the Mediterranean hemmed in by a low mass of air over Yugoslavia.  The results were 37 knot winds and very heavy seas for over 12 hours.  The troops and sailors suffered mightily from the storm.  US Naval Vice Admiral Henry K. Hewitt on the flagship Monrovia even considered calling off the invasion during the height of the storm, but trusting his meteorologist continued on.  The storm abated around 2 a.m. on 10 July 1943, Invasion Day.

"My watch was over at 9:30 pm and we were scheduled to take our battle stations at 11 p.m. zero hour being 2:45 a.m. (Saturday, (10 July 1943) so I lay down on the deck in the radio shack where my station is and tried to sleep until then.  I blew up my life jacket and used it for a pillow.

I woke up a little before 11 and the captain was talking over the loud speaker.  We were approaching our place of rendezvous (that's the place where all the ships were to assemble, Vena). The captain was telling us of what he expected and the usual line of talk, also he read a few verses from the Bible, some religious poems and prayed the Lord's Prayer.  He had wanted to have a religious service that night, he said, but was impossible due to the rough sea."

Vena was Bishop's oldest sister, married to Robert W. Daly, Sr. and mother of Mary Daly Herrin and Robert W. Daly, Jr.  The rendezvous of hundreds of ships, sixty miles long and a mile wide,  took place just east of Malta before turning toward Sicily during the night.

The captain was Lt. Commander Michell Dudley Matthews (1903-1985) who retired in 1957 as a Rear Admiral.  It was a young man's war with many ships and too few trained officers.

"The rest of the night some of us would lie down on the deck and snooze while others would copy and then exchange.  The sea had become much smoother around 2 a.m. but I think the invasion was held up about an hour. There was very little action until 3 or 4 a.m. An officer from the deck describes what is going (on) through the loud speaker.  Otherwise the men below deck would not have any idea what is going on.

After the troop ships unloaded and landed, there was considerable firing on the beach. Many fires but no opposition to speak of. This is at Gela, Sicily where the American troops landed." 

Below, the US 7th Army landings under General George Patton at Gela Beaches.  The 1st Infantry landed on the middle beach on 10 July 1943 and overcame some Italian resistance. The next day and the arrival of German tanks would be another story.

Unloading the ships began at 3:30 a.m. at Gela with confusion and courage.  There was more opposition at Gela than my father, with his limited view at the time, knew. Mines were the major danger and some shore guns. The 1st Infantry secured the beach but with casualties. The Italian defenders soon were overcome.  The real test was on 11 July 1943 when German tanks moved on the beach head.

"No one was frightened and it seemed just like a drill. Our ship's job was to act as part of anti-submarine patrol. However, we got word we could expect an attack at dawn. Over thirty planes were supposed to be coming. At dawn everyone was tired and worn out.  Until the tension slacks off you do not realize the strain you have been under.  All we had for breakfast was orange juice and two boiled eggs.

All day Saturday I was at watch or at General Quarters (Battle Stations). There was firing from the beach and firing from some of the ships.  There was so much going on I was never able to remember just what all was taking place.  The only thing I remember doing that day was eating breakfast.

Early Saturday morning the captain announced the (censored)  had been sunk with only 69 survivors.  He seemed pretty shaken up about it and it made us all realize there had been more danger than we had suspected.  At that time no one knew what had sunk her."


The unfortunate ship was the USS Maddox, serving as a destroyer screen as was the USS Butler for German U-boats.  One German airplane dropped two bombs and within a few minutes the ship sank dragging down 212 men. A tug rescued only 74 survivors.

There were personal reasons for the young captain Matthews of the Butler to be upset.  Above left, the photograph taken from the USS Thorn (647) shows in the background the Butler  (636) right moored in Brooklyn harbor next to the USS Maddox (622), left in the fall of 1942.  The two captains would have known each other.  The Maddox captain went down with the ship. Above right, the USS Maddox on sea trials.

The Battle for Sicily against 300,000 Italians and a very determined two German divisions would continue until late August, and the USS Butler would face more enemy fire....to be continued.

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