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Remarks at Ponte Dirillo–75th Anniversary of Operation Husky

Ladies and Gentlemen:

I am honored to join you today for the third time.  I am proud to be joined by my wife, our three children, and all three of our grandsons.

I want to thank Senore Ventura and all of our Sicilian friends for the warm hospitality extended to my family and all who celebrate freedom.  In our 3 visits to this hallowed ground we have been warmly received and we appreciate the friendship that has not only been developed here but also that exists between our two nations.

I speak to you not only as a former warrior myself, but as the son of a true warrior:     LTC Arthur  F. Gorham.  My father gave his life while leading his paratroopers against a determined foe at the beginning of the effort to rid Italy and Europe of the scourge of Fascism’s two evil dictatorships. I am reminded of a saying I learned while a cadet at West Point that is attributed to General Douglas MacArthur: “There is no substitute for victory.” The brave men and women from many countries who valiantly fought here 75 years ago knew that victory, even in the face of long odds, was the only option.

The Allied invasion of Sicily, codenamed Operation Husky, was a major World War II campaign, in which the Allies liberated Sicily from the Axis. It was a coordinated large scale amphibious and airborne operation, followed by six weeks of intense land combat. Husky set the stage for freeing the rest of Italy and later Europe.

Husky began on the night of July 9,1943. The initial airborne landings took place in extremely strong winds, which made the landings difficult but also ensured the element of surprise. Later, beach landings were made on the southern and eastern coasts of the island, with British forces in the east and Americans towards the west.  Spearheading the sledgehammer blow to crack open Hitler’s Festung Europa, for the first time, would be paratroopers of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division and glidermen and parachutists of Britain’s 1st Airborne Division.  My father led the 1st Battalion of the 505th.  Despite the high winds which scattered the paratroopers into small groups all over the island, the airborne troops took the initiative wreaking havoc on the Axis lines of communications so that the landings could occur on the beaches near Gela uninterrupted by counter attacks. The seizure and holding of the bunkers and top of the hill to your rear was key to this effort.

Strategically, Husky achieved the goals set out for it by Allied planners. The Allies drove Axis air and naval forces from the island; the Mediterranean’s sea lanes were opened and dictator Benito Mussolini and his fascists were later toppled from power. The success of the Allied effort here in Sicily opened the way to the destroying Nazism in Europe.

They fought right here near this monument.  My friend, Senore Ventura, on whose farm we are at today, remembers observing as a young boy the fighting and dying that occurred at this place.

Today, we celebrate the feats of those brave warriors and their struggle for freedom. Warfare today is vastly different than what the soldiers who fought here 75 years ago knew. In the current climate, it is unclear what constitutes victory and worse, some refuse to even admit there are enemies whom we must defend against. In some cases, we fight against terrorists who know no rules of war and seek to deny us our freedoms. In other cases, old enemies appear eager to re-fight a war I thought was settled with the fall of the Berlin Wall nearly three decades ago.  In this climate, it seems like we need to be reminded of what Winston Churchill said in 1940 before the United States entered World War II: “Victory at all cost. Victory in spite of all terror. Victory no matter how long and how hard the road may be; for without victory there is no survival.”

As we contemplate the sacrifices made 75 years ago, let us insure that the warriors who died freeing the world from Facism and later communism will continue to be relevant in our search for freedom.  We must remain resilient to the forces who would seek to suppress our individual freedoms to their preferred political or religious views.

Let me close by reassuring those who gave their lives for freedom that we understand their sacrifice by reciting The Absent Legions by – Edgar A. Guest

Somewhere, far away, ‘they heard us
When the word of Victory stirred us.
Safe within God’s Holy keeping,
Heard us cheer and saw us weeping;
Shared in all we did or said-
Freedom’s glorious, youngest dead.

Never doubt it, there was gladness
Where the dead are done with madness,
Hate and hurt, and need for dying.

As they saw our banners flying

On our day of joyous pride,

” ‘Twas for this,” said they,

“We died!” What if tears our eyes had blinded.
As of them we were reminded?
Never doubt it. they were voicing
Somewhere. songs of great rejoicing;
Glad to look on earth and see

Safe our country. still. and free.

 

Thank you for the warm hospitality extended to my family and all who celebrate freedom.

 

Colonel Gavin, Commander 505th PIR’s summary of battles near Ponte Dirillo

“Elements of the 1st Battalion of the Regiment landed exactly where they were supposed to: on and off the high ground overlooking the airfield about 5 kilometers northeast of the city of Gela. The 1st Battalion, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Arthur F. Gorham, accompanied by elements of the 3rd Battalion of the 504th, engaged a Kampfgruppe[i] of the Hermann Goering Panzer Division at once. There were supposed to be no Germans (except a few technicians) on the island, and I could not believe the first reports that were coming in; the German Panzers were everywhere in large numbers. The troopers went to work and in a short while learned that the Panzer Infantry was quite manageable and our Infantry could stop them. The Tiger Tanks, though, were something else. Equipped with 4-112 inches of armor that on a slant amounted to 6 inches, and 88 MM. guns that the Germans used against the Infantry, and which was probably the most formidable antitank weapon in the world at that time; with an overall weight of 60 tons the Tiger Tank was something that one would never forget after the first encounter. The Germans launched their counterattack in two columns: the western column from the vicinity of Niscemi, and the eastern column from the vicinity of Biscari. This column contained a company of Tigers. It was this battalion that I became engaged with on the morning of July 11th. It was about 10 kilometers east of its planned objective and, from the outset, the German Panzer battle group was astride the road that we needed to get to our objective area where the 1st Battalion had landed. At the end of the day’s hard fighting we made a last counterattack, and the German Infantry broke and ran from the battlefield, and, thus, we were able to join with the 1st Battalion near Gela.”

 

[i] 1. The Kampfgruppe was an ad hoc combined arms formation, usually employing combination of tanksinfantry, and artillery (including anti-tank) elements, generally organiz1ed for a particular task or operation.

Kampfgruppe could range in size from a corps to a company, but the most common was an Abteilung (battalion)-sized formation. Kampfgruppen were generally referred to by either their commanding officer’s name or the parent division.

75th Anniversary of Operation Husky (Allied invasion of Sicily during WW II)

On July 9, Allied convoys came together near the British-held island of Malta, and from there they made for the southern coast of Sicily. The landing craft were slightly delayed in reaching the island because of a storm, but in fact this also helped the Allies: the Italian defense forces had been placed on a lower than usual state of alert because it was thought that the poor weather would have made an attack unlikely.  Simultaneously airborne troops of the US 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR) and the British 1st Airlanding Brigade.

Operation Husky

The location of the planned paratrooper landings was the vicinity of the U in the above map of the landing bases.

The first landings were made by the British, using more than 130 gliders of the Airlanding Brigade. Their task was to take control of a bridge, the Ponte Grande, some distance to the south of Syracuse. However, the landings were fraught with problems: 200 men were drowned when their gliders crashed into the sea, many more landed in areas away from their target, and only 12 landed in the right place. Even so, the British were successful in taking and holding the bridge.

Meanwhile, the American paratroopers were attempting a landing in the south west part of Sicily (just east of the port of Gela.  This operation, too, went far from smoothly. Many of the pilots used had little experience of combat and a combination of this inexperience, dust being thrown up from the dry ground, and fire from anti-aircraft guns meant that the American paratroopers ended up quite widely spread, some landing as much as 50 miles away from their targets.

Drop zonesThe planned and actual landing zones for the US paratroopers. (From Ready thde history for the 505th PIR in WW II.)

On Tuesday July 10, 2018 there will be several ceremonies celebrating the American assault on Sicily.  The first will be at Ponte Dirillo where some of the paratroopers commanded by LTC Arthur F Gorham fought off 2 German counterattacks over the following several days near there.  LTC Gorham was killed during those battles.  (Ponte Dirlllo is located just south of where elements of 1-505 actually landed.) There will also be ceremonies in Gela and a reenactment of the naval invasion on the evening of 10 July.  We will report from the scene.

The main assault on the Sicilian coast was a joint effort between British and U.S. forces, with American divisions attacking the western coasts and the British the east. Warships were based off the coasts in order to provide covering fire. The British forces had the easier time of the two groups, with relatively little fight being put up by the Italian defenders. This allowed the Allied guns and tanks to be landed quickly, and Panchino was in British hands by nightfall.

Meanwhile, the U.S. divisions on the other coast of the island had a much harder time of things, with both Italian and German airplanes offering strong resistance to the invasion. Later in the afternoon, a Panzer division of heavy Tiger tanks joined the defense, but the Americans managed to land 16th Regimental Combat Team and the 2nd Armored Division by evening. The U.S. forces succeeded in holding their ground until covering fire from the Navy drove off the tanks.  The beach head was also protected by the brave paratrooper lead by LTC Gorham near Ponte Dirillo.  Subsequently LTC Gorham’s small paratroop element was place under the command of the 16th Regiment of the 1st Infantry Division.

The Axis were misled by the widely scattered Allied paratroopers into thinking that the invasion was on a massive scale, and requested reinforcements. However, these did not make a difference to the eventual outcome. On July 12, Augusta had come under British control, and General Bernard Montgomery ordered his men to mount an attack on Messina to the north. Lt. General George S. Patton, who commanded the American 7th Army, did not agree with this change in emphasis and told his troops to head west instead.

The U.S. soldiers advanced steadily toward Palermo, a strategically important seaport. They met relatively little serious resistance and, by the time they had occupied the port on July 22, more than 50,000 prisoners had been taken. Control of Palermo allowed the 9th Division of the U.S. Army to make a landing there, rather than having to repeat a riskier southern assault; it also opened up a useful supply line for the Allies. Once this had been achieved, Patton was ordered by Alexander to go forward to Messina.

Many analysts have credited the planning and operational approach to operation Husky as making Normandy a success.  Normandy was an invasion on a much larger scale and with many more troops but the approach was the same.  The paratroopers’ mission in both operations was to isolate and protect the beach heads from enemy attacks so that there was time for the beach heads to be consolidated and the landing forces assuming the brunt of the battle.

The activities around Gela will be reported right after they happen.

Battle Finally Won and the War Was Lost

On the 1st of April 1968 the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) launched Operation Pegasus. Many newly interested authors focus on the battle for the old French fort.  What they don’t realize that just as the operation was beginning the war was being officially lost.

As the senior advisor in Khe Sanh before the beginning of the “agony of Khe Sanh” on 21 January 1968 I was seconded to the 1st Cavalry Division to assist in the planning for Operation Pegasus.   (For a complete discussion of the siege of Khe Sanh see: www. Expendablewarriors.com or my recent postings here.)

It was strange to fly over what had once been the area along route 9 and see rice paddies where there had never been paddies before.   In actuality what I was seeing was bomb craters that were filled with rain water.  (I flew into Khe Sanh with Major General John Tolson (commander of the 1st Cavalry Division) several times,

QuangTri Map

Route 9–the Road to Khe Sanh

Lz Stud was at the turn of the Route from North South to East-West

During the planning process units from the 1st Cav, the 101st Airborne Division and the 3rd Marines were conducting operations along the DMZ as a diversion to the relief operation.  The engineers were busy building a short runway and underground bunkers for the command and control of Operation Pegasus near Calu.  The new facility was to be named LZ Stud.

Map Edition

LZ Stud–right before Route 9 turned west

It was located under the range fan of USMC artillery units north and east of here

For Operation Pegasus the 1st Cav had an extensive set of capabilities

  • The 1st Cavalry Division with its 400+ helicopters
  • A Marine BDE with augmenting engineers and artillery
  • An Army of Vietnam (ARVN) airborne brigade
  • 26th Marine Regiment +–the whole force defending the Combat Base (5000 strong)
  • Massive air support

This was the equivalent of a small Corps.

The attack began the morning of the April 1st with the Marine Brigade attacking along route 9.  Its mission was to open Route 9 from LZ Stud to the combat base.  This required the repair of numerous road by passes that had been destroyed by the NVA and neglect over more than a year.  The air assault was delayed until 1 PM due to fog in the Khe Sanh area.  The initial air assault was into areas where the vegetation had been flattened by use a bomb called a Daisy Cutter (a 20,000 pound bomb that was dropped from a C130 aircraft and detonated when the long pipe that was its detonator struck the ground—thus creating standoff and blowing things down without creating a crater).  The Infantry and engineers followed to secure the area and move the blow down so that howitzers, crews and ammunition could be lifted in.  As a result a firebase was created.

With fire support for support of the infantry and to support the next hop forward closer to Khe Sanh the next unit could be inserted and the leap frog towards the combat base and the enemy could continue.

It was on this day 1 April 1968 when the war was lost.  Major Paul Schwartz and I had to brief General Tolson on the proposed concept for the Division’s next mission—clearing the NVA out of the A Shau Valley (about 40-50 kilometers south of Khe Sanh.  There were 4 people present at the briefing—General Tolson, his Chief of Staff, Major Schwartz and myself.  We proposed attacking through Khe Sanh to the Vietnam-Laos border.  Going into Laos, cleaning up the Ho Chi Minh Trail and then turning south to enter the A Shau Valley for the west—not the traditional route which was from the east.  There were 90 days of supplies at Khe Sanh to draw upon and thus not have to back haul.  Most importantly such an approach would have caught the NVA by surprise and had war winning effects.

After about 4 minutes of briefing General Tolson said” “Obviously you didn’t hear the President last night!  What you are proposing is politically impossible.”  Lyndon Johnson had just announced a partial bombing halt in an effort to enter negotiations with North Vietnam.

3 years later the US was to support ARVN in Lam Son 719A which was an attack into Laos where the ARVN got clobbered.  The NVA had used the 3 years to recover.  A year or so later President Nixon was to start the B-52 bombing missions over Hanoi and Haiphong.  These would result in a peace agreement.

President Johnson’s bombing halt decision was when the US decided to not try and win the war on the battlefield—just as the NVA were on the throes of collapse.  There war was winnable after the eventual Khe Sanh and Tet victories, but the political climate in the US had so turned against the war there was no political will to try and win on the battlefield.

In coming articles we will talk about the bigger lessons learned from Khe Sanh and other conflicts.  It is my hope that someday some wanna be strategists will read these articles and learn something from them.

Air Support for Khe Sanh Village

In the last several articles we have discussed the bravery of the defenders on the ground in Khe Sanh village.  In this article we shall discuss the use of air support to provide a critical ingredient in the successful defense of the District Headquarters and the rendering combat ineffective a North Vietnamese Army (NVA) regiment.

The dense fog finally burned off in late morning.  A Marine Forward Air Controller (FAC) put in a flight of 2 F-4s to attack targets to the south of the District Headquarters.  One of the F-4s was shot down.  Following this the FAC advised that: “That’s all I can do!”

F-42

F-4 Phantom

Fortunately, part of the preparations of the defense was to establish an alternate form of communication with the Province Advisory Team in Quang Tri.  Radio contact with Quang Tri was always spotty at best, in spite of numerous efforts at antennae construction and acquisition of more powerful radios.  The Special Forces had established a radio relay site on a high hill north (hill 950) of the Khe Sanh Combat Base.  The Special Forces were able to talk to Quang Tri and thus relay messages.  CPT Clarke kept Quang Tri informed as to the status of the defense and when the Marine FAC could not provide additional air support he requested it form Quang Tri.

CPT Ward Britt (one of the advisory team’s FACs) flew his light observation aircraft through the valleys to reach Khe Sanh and to coordinate for air support.  He requested air support from air craft attacking targets along the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos.  The pilots flew below the clouds to the village.  Every time he coordinated for bombs on a target and he blew away the trees to the south he found more targets.

FAC AC2

Forward Air Controller Aircraft

CPT Nhi was listening to one of the NVA tactical radio nets and heard a request foradditional stretchers to carry off wounded soldiers.  This was passed to CPT Britt who found the force of about 100 enemy and after another air strike he could not see any movement.  This became the norm as CPT Nhi provided target locations to CPT Clarke who then vectored CPT Britt to the target.

In the middle of this CPT Britt landed at KSCB and refueled under fire.  He remained on station until the approach of dusk.  At that point he had to return to Quang Tri.  For his bravery he was awarded the Silver Star.

CPT Clarke and CPT Nhi tried to guess where the enemy would go to regroup.  Based upon their analysis a B-52 strike was requested.  The provided a rectangle 3kilometers long and 1 kilometer wide that was centered on the hilly area about 6-7 kilometers south of the District Headquarters.  The Province Advisory team coordinated with the Air Force and the mission was flown.  Several days later a NVA soldier deserted and was picked up by the Special Forces at Lang Vei.  He told them that his unit had been hit by the B-52 strike.

 

B-52

B-52

Before the B-52 strike a gun ship (Spooky—a C-47 plane that carried flares and several mini-guns) patrolled the area and engaged every target that it saw.  It was a quiet night except for some snipers.

The combination of artillery, air support and the bravery of the Bru, Vietnamese, Marine and army soldiers inside the headquarters combined to render a regiment combat ineffective

The village fight 2

khe Sanh Village

Khe Sanh Village with the District Headquarters in the bottom center

 t 0500 the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) attacked the Khe Sanh Combat Base (KSCB) rockets and artillery.  The sound of the barrage woke up the District Advisory Team and the defenders of the District Headquarters (a mixture of Bru Montagnards, Vietnamese Regional Forces, Marines from Combined Action Company O (CAC-O) and the small 4 man advisory team.

At 0530 the ground attack against the District Headquarters began.  NVA after action reports suggest that the attack was 30 minutes late in being launched.  The attacking force from the 66th NVA Regiment had been slowed down by the B-52 strike of the previous day—all of the downed trees etc. that it caused.

The weather on the morning of 21 January 1968 was extremely foggy with visibility down to no more than 5-10 yards.  Fortunately some of the improvements made due to the observed activity at the KSCB included the emplacement of trip flares along the entire outer perimeter.

Another improvement that CPT Nhi had made was to place a 3 man element on the roof of the warehouse.  These brave montagnards were equipped with a case of grenades to drop on any one trying to conceal themselves behind the warehouse.  Both of these improvements were to prove critical to the defense of the District Headquarters.

District HQs

The District Headquarters to include the Regional Force Compound

to the south bordering the Landing Zone

The attack with artillery and mortar rounds impacting throughout the area.  One bunker was directly hit and collapsed on the occupants.  SFC Perry dug the survivors out and treated them in a makeshift aid station.   The enemy sought to penetrate the compound in the seam between the Regional Force Compound and the District Headquarters which was defended by Bru montagnards and Marines under the command of SGT Balanco.

The initial ground assault was announced by trip flares being set off.   The Bru knew where to shoot when certain trip flares were set off.  Thus they could engage the enemy that they could not see.  The same was true for Regional Force (RFs) in their old French fort made of pierced steel planning with about 12-18 inches of Khe Sanh red clay filling the space in between.  It stood up well to the enemy attack.

CPT Nhi and CPT Clarke were in the command bunker in the center of the compound.  CPT Clarke was to request and adjust over 1100 rounds during the next 30 hours.  The advisory team had 4 preplanned concentrations that were shaped like an L and located basically at each corner of the compound.  By moving those concentrations East and West and North and South one could cover the whole compound with steel.  The only rounds fired were fuse variable time (VT) a round that detonates in the air and throw shrapnel down to hit everyone who was not in a bunker with over- head cover.

The Marines in the compound became the fire brigade. SGT Balanco moved Marines around to meet the largest threats.  The presence Of Marines bolstered the morale of the RFs who had born the brunt of the attack.  The ground attacks came in several waves, each of which was stopped.  The key spot was the two bunkers on each side of the seam between the two parts of the headquarters.  The NVA seemed to be on something as an example when I shot an NVA sapper who was trying to take the north western bunker in the RF compound the two parts of his body, though separated continued to move towards the bunker with his pole charge.  (A charge on the end of a pole to place the charge into an aperture of the bunker and detonate it so as to create a gap in the defense.)  SFC Perry also thought that the NVA was on something.

In the late morning the fog burned off and the defenders were able to get some air support.  This will be the discussion in our next article.

 

 

 

 

A

1968 Advisory Team 4 Newsletter

The following is a newsletter that I wrote after the siege of the Khe Sanh Combat Base (KSCB) was ended.  the purpose of this article was to tell the rest of the Quang Tri Province (MACV Advisory Team 4) Advisory Team know what the Huong Hoa (Khe Sanh) District portion of the team had been involved in.

1968 Advisory Team 4 Newsletter

 

There was a battle fought in Khe Sanh on 21 and 22 January 1968 that very few people know about. Everyone knows of the artillery barrages and the trenches, but one of the big battles took place when at 05:00 hours 21 January 1968 the 66th Regiment, 304th NVA Division launched an attack against the Huong Hoa District Headquarters in Khe Sanh Village (about 4km south of the Khe Sanh Combat Base).  The District Headquarters was defended by an understrength Regional Force (RF) Company, elements of 2 (Popular Force) PF platoons and Combined Action Company O (CAC-O) Headquarters and one Combined Action Platoon (CAP) with 10 or more Marines.

The attack was from three directions with the main effort coming from the southwest against the RF Company.  The weather was extremely poor with very heavy fog.  The initial enemy assault was beaten off by the courageous efforts of the RF Company and by almost constant barrages of Variable Time fused artillery fire.. Alter the initial assault was broken, the enemy simply backed off and using the positions he had already prepared, attempted to destroy the key bunkers by recoilless rifle and B-40 fire.  Simultaneously they moved into Khe Sanh village and setup mortars with which they attempted to shell the compound. At this time the police station was still communicating with the District Headquarters and made it possible to put effective fire on the enemy moving into the village.   For the next four hours there were constant attacks or probes against the compound which were beaten off by the valiant efforts of Bru (Montagnard) PFs and the Vietnamese RFs working with the Marines who SGT John Balanco moved to critical areas of the fight, as needed.  These various types of soldiers fought as a coordinated team. The four advisors were constantly moving through the compound, reassuring, reorganizing and helping the compounds’ defenders.

At about 1130 the fog burned off. During the next five hours there were three attempts to resupply the beleaguered garrison, which was in dire straights for ammunition. The third attempt included a 46 man RF reaction force that was badly mauled. LTC Joe Seymoe, the Deputy Senior Province Advisor, lost his life in this effort. All during the afternoon CPT Ward Britt, an Air Force FAC, working out of Quang Tri put in numerous air strikes on the massed NVA who were trying to reorganize. On one of these airstrikes he put in two fighters on 100 NVA in the open and after it was over he could not see any movement, just bodies.

The night of 21 January the NVA were unable to make an attack and only sniped throughout the night.

 

The next morning the evacuation of District Headquarters was ordered after Colonel Lownds, CO, 26th Marine Regiment, ordered the evacuation or the Marines from the garrison. The marines and the wounded were evacuated by air. CPT Clarke and SFC King, two of the advisors, accompanied the District Forces who, using an unknown route, successfully escaped from the District Headquarters.

 

The article does not highlight the bravery of all of the participants.  CPT Nhi (District Chief), SFC Perry (Advisory Team Medic), SGT Balanco (CAP-1 leader) and CPT Britt (Province Forward Air Controller) each deserve special note for their bravery and actions that made it possible for the small garrison in Khe Sanh village to render an NVA regiment combat ineffective.

More to follow on this unique batle that has received little notice in the history books but what Bob Brewer the Quang Tri Province Senior Adviser called the biggest battle of the siege of KSCB. Brewer said:

“…actually the big attack, and the biggest ground action in the whole siege of Khe Sanh took place at Khe Sanh Village, not on the base. And none of that appears in any of the literature. That’s the first seat of government that ever fell to the NVA. That’s what was so hard.”