Combat Jump: The Young Men Who Led the Assault Into Fortress Europe, July 1943
9 July 1943
In the sky over the southern Mediterranean
Jim Gavin struggles against the hundred plus pounds of gear strapped to his body, scrambling to gain footing on the deck of the bucking aircraft. A few of the seventeen other men sitting hunched in the darkness look up. Others are sleeping or lost in their own thoughts. Gavin checks his watch yet again and looks out the starboard windows of the C47 Skytrain, hoping to see the dark mass of Sicily rising out of the Mediterranean, but there is nothing except the occasional flash of moonlight on water. No amount of wishing can make the enemy-held island appear, so Gavin is on his own to fight the rising feelings of panic.
Colonel James M. Gavin, thirty-six, has been a soldier for his entire adult life; his whole career has been in preparation for this night. In his first combat action, Gavin is leading a force of just over thirty-four hundred men, who will be the first American soldiers to set foot on what Adolf Hitler has called Festung Europa, or “Fortress Europe.” In the skies behind Gavin are another two hundred and twenty-five aircraft, all heading for the same action, all filled with men who are counting on him to lead them to victory, and Jim Gavin cannot entirely dismiss the notion that he is lost.
He climbs past the outstretched legs of his troopers to the cramped cockpit of the aircraft, where he and the pilots search for the landmarks that would tell them they are on the right course. But there is nothing below the plane save a dark sea.
As midnight approaches, the men in the aircraft spot the dark hulls of the invasion fleet, steaming for the beaches. Most of the troopers find the sight comforting, but it is one they aren’t meant to see. The frustrated Gavin knows the pilots are supposed to fly a course over the open water between the American and British convoys, which are on widely separated, parallel tracks for the southern coast of Sicily. Looking down on the blacked-out armada, Gavin can’t tell if he is looking at the British or the American force. Either way, it seems plain that the Navy is probably not in the wrong place, so he must be. And now he wonders if the ships’ nervous anti-aircraft gunners will fire on them.
Besides all the predictable worries of a commander going into battle for the first time–who will perform well? who poorly? Have I prepared my men for every contingency?–Gavin carries an additional burden. He is doing what no American commander has ever done before: taking a large body of men into combat by parachute drop, to spearhead a massive sea-borne invasion. It is a gamble at best, and an invitation to disaster at worst. If the paratroopers fail in their mission to block the German counterattacks that are certain to hit the beaches come daylight, the enemy might push the invading force back into the sea. This would leave the airborne units cut off behind enemy lines with a choice between capture or destruction. Besides the slaughter sure to ensue, such a debacle would throw off, for a year or more, the entire Allied effort against Hitler. Gavin would go down in history as the man whose failure doomed the newly formed US airborne.
Another worry: Gavin’s men have made only two night jumps since arriving in North Africa in April. The first caused so many broken legs, arms and backs that the second was stage-managed: only a token number of troopers made the jump, the rest began their training already on the ground. Now they were about to make a difficult night jump, and mistakes here would be measured not in lost training time, but in lost lives.
Gavin knew, all during the planning phase, that simply getting from the departure airfields in North Africa to the right drop zones in Sicily would be the first big challenge. There wasn’t time for all the pilots to get in enough night training. The flight path, which began at ten different departure airfields in Tunis, took the planes over 185 miles of featureless, open sea between Africa and Malta. Without sophisticated navigational aids, the inexperienced pilots had to rely on dead-reckoning, calculating airspeed and compass direction to get a rough idea of when and where they should make landfall. But the strong cross winds played havoc with that technique. Just before take-off, a young airman from the weather station had come running up to Gavin’s plane.
“Colonel Gavin? Is Colonel Gavin here?”
“Here I am,” Gavin answered.
“I was told to tell you the wind is going to be thirty-five miles an hour, west to east.”
Then, perhaps realizing what this news meant for the paratroopers, the man added, “They thought you’d want to know.”
Gavin had canceled training jumps when the wind exceeded fifteen miles an hour: there was too much risk of the paratroopers
being blown far from their drop zones, or of being dragged to their deaths across rugged ground by their chutes. This wasn’t a training jump, of course, and there was no calling it off. Gavin was left to imagine the cost, in broken limbs and broken bodies, for these men he had trained.
Now, in the air above the Mediterranean, Gavin can see that the wind is pushing the air armada off course. The bumpy ride is also making some of the troopers violently airsick. Weighted down with up to one hundred and twenty pounds of equipment, the men are all but trapped in their seats. The ones who get sick throw up in their own laps, and in the cramped interior of the planes, the tangy smell of vomit is mixed with the engine exhaust fumes.
The pilots of Gavin’s plane completely missed both landmarks on the flight from North Africa: the small island of Linosa and, incredibly, the three hundred square mile island of Malta. This allied-held island was supposed to be lit up as a navigational beacon to help guide the air armada, but neither Gavin nor his pilots see it. Instead, the young colonel sees the tiny wing-tip lights marking the aircraft, but even these are not reassuring. The inexperienced pilots, fearful of mid-air collisions, allow their planes to drift apart; the farther apart the planes, the more widely scattered the troopers will be on the ground.
The pilots check the time. It is past the point when they should have seen the big island, where they were supposed to turn left to a northerly heading. It doesn’t take an experienced navigator to figure out that the strong northwesterly winds have blown them off course. They cannot simply keep on this heading, so the plane begins its turn. Gavin and the pilots hope to run into the one hundred and seventy mile long coast of Sicily.
Sitting in the dark aluminum tube of the C47, Gavin has plenty of time to consider that perhaps the critics have been right. Even Eisenhower, the theater commander, had his doubts about an airborne spearhead. Maybe the idea of parachuting troops onto the battlefield is ludicrous.
But the time for questioning is past. Gavin is riding the crest of a huge wave of men, aircraft, ships and landing craft. Once set in motion, there is no calling it back. Every passing minute brings those ships closer to shore, and the men down there are counting on the paratroopers. He and the thirty-four hundred men under his command, all of them hurtling forward somewhere out in the moonlit night, must get to the battlefield.
Then, finally, Gavin can see land . . . but it is on the wrong side of the aircraft. Where have the pilots taken him? Is this Sicily? Or have they been blown so far off course by the strong northwesterly winds that they are looking down on the Italian mainland? Have they completely missed the nearly two hundred mile long southern coast and instead made landfall on the east side of the island? Is the entire air armada about to be dropped in the wrong place?
Walking in the peculiar waddle of a man strapped into a tight parachute harness, and loaded with the accoutrements of war–helmet, main and reserve parachutes, rifle, ammunition, trench knife, hand grenades, rations, canteen, entrenching tool, gas mask, flashlight, first aid kit–Gavin makes his way to the door, hooks his hands on the inside of the fuselage, and leans out into the hundred mile an hour slipstream to look for landmarks.
Sicily or not, he and his men are going. He gave specific orders that every man would jump; the only people staying on the aircraft will be the pilots. Squinting into the wind, Gavin can see searchlights and the strangely beautiful arcs of tracers reaching up. They have, at least, made it to some part of the war.
Gavin turns to the man behind him, a twenty-three year old sergeant named Nick Kastrantas who is a skilled map-maker and translator.
“Scared,” Gavin says over the roar.
Kastrantas, thinking it was a question, nods and yells back, “Yes!” Then the young sergeant realizes that perhaps Gavin is talking about his own feelings. The old man is giving him permission to be frightened.
The red light by the door comes on, indicating that the pilot, at least, thinks they are close to the right drop zone.
“Stand up!” Gavin shouts over the roar of the engines.
The troopers are happy to oblige. No one wants to be crammed inside the plane, helpless and immobile, when the anti aircraft starts tearing at the thin aluminum skin of the C47.
The seventeen men–each planeload is called a stick–behind Gavin hook their static lines to the overhead cable running the length of the plane. The static line, thus attached to the aircraft, will pull each man’s parachute from its pack before separating. The troopers struggle to keep their balance as the plane bucks in the strong wind. It will be very difficult for the heavily laden men to pull themselves upright should they fall.
Each man checks his own equipment–helmet, chinstrap, web lines, weapon–and then checks the parachute of the man in front of him.
“Sound off for equipment check!”
Now the men can hear the firing from below, although it is not yet close. There is no panic. They have practiced these same maneuvers hundreds of times, have made dozens of jumps together. There is comfort in the repetition of something so familiar. Besides, everyone wants out of the aircraft.
Starting with the last man in the stick, the men begin counting, each slapping the man in front of him.
When the count reaches Gavin in the doorway, he turns his face into the wind, the darkness, the war that waits below.