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Serving Uncle Sam: A Military Life in WWll

Gerald Schwartz USAAC 1940 - 1945

   

Chapter 20: Rough Passage to Sicily. Montgomery's Praise. Pickled by Strega in Pachino!

July 25,1943: Today we left Causeway Landing Ground destined for the staging area near Tripoli,Libya and arrived late in the evening. We were fed a hot meal and spent the evening there. The next morning we left for the Dock area in Tripoli Harbor, and there we loaded on the deck of a 3000 Ton LST Vessel.

We actually departed around 5 PM. As soon as we left the harbor and entered deep water, the vessel began to roll. When we asked the crew why, they said that below deck they were carrying a full load of Tanks and armored cars, and in addition we were on deck with our vehicles all loaded down with our possessions and equipment. But the main reasons were the flat bottom of the ship, and the strong offshore current running around this coast of Africa.

Many of our men became seasick, however I did not succumb to it due to the many years that I rode the Brighton Beach Express Train from Brooklyn to New York City. It was quite a wild ride and it prepared me for the Ocean voyage to Africa and this one to Sicily.

We are told that we will disembark tomorrow at the Sicilian port of Siracusa. On hearing this many of us became pensive, thinking back of the events of the previous year. It is now one year since we boarded the HMS Pasteur in New York Harbor to begin this odyssey, from which we the ground crews have emerged. with little damage to life and limb.

True, we have had men injured from having their vehicle strike a mine. Also one man lost a leg when he kicked a cluster bomb the morning after an air raid. That we were so lucky to have had so little casualties, we attribute to our having been indoctrinated immediately upon our arrival by the RAF.

And to their gift to us of the 5 experienced Canadian RAF Pilots that they transferred to our fighter group when we arrived and started operations with the RAF of the Desert Air Force. Had we known then what General Montgomery wrote in his diary about the Desert Air Force at the end of the African Campaign, we would have understood the importance of the role we played to bring it all about.

He wrote "It was the amazing ability of the of the Desert Air Force to move with the forward units of the 8th Army which had made it so difficult to countenance counter-attack or even gather clear photographic intelligence. Often the needs of the Desert Air Force as well as the Strategic Air Force behind it , had determined the scale and even the direction of 8th Army's effort. For instance in the pursuit directly after Alamein, when the need for advanced landing grounds had been given priority over the possible outflanking of enemy rearguards" High praise indeed, from a master of war technique, who was the previous commander of the British War College at Sandhurst, England !

July 28th, we docked at Siracusa, Sicily. The LST extended it's front ramp towards the dock and our trucks began to roll off the ship. The harbor is small, but it is in good condition, with stores and warehouses dockside. The harbor and nearby coastal area is full of ships of all sizes and shapes, from Battleships to motor launches.

As we started toward our airfield at Pachino and were traveling on the "Catania " Road, the harbor area was attacked by a flight of German Bombers. We reached our airfield at Pachino late afternoon, and were surprised to find that it was situated in the grape country, on top of rocky hills. We passed many groves of Almond, Figs, oranges and fruits/vegetables as well as wheat fields enroute.


Pachino surrounded by wine country

Upon arrival we found the other half of our squadron (which had been at Malta handling the squadron's operations during the invasion of Sicily). They had set up the tents even though they represented only one half the occupants of the tents (we being the other half).

When I arrived at my tent and debarked from the truck with my barracks bag, I found the other three residents of it, sitting around in a small circle with l/3rd of a bottle of what appeared to be wine. The three were all "plastered" ! (stewed to the gills).

They drunkenly asked us to sit down and have a drink! When we asked them how much had they drunk to get into this situation they replied "Only 2/3rds". Of course we did not believe them, nevertheless we started to drink what was left and the three of us soon became inebriated !

So, we asked them "What is it we are drinking", they replied that there was a Cinzano winery next to the airfield, and that is where that company blends the wines that they bottle. What we were drinking was the "lees" (the bottom of the huge 500 Gallon hogsheads of wine) that are the base of the blended wine. In other words, the collection at the bottom of the huge hogsheads is not really wine, but a strong liquor, known as "Strega". (In Italian it means Witch). And that is the reason we were able to get drunk on just a small amount of that "strega"! Eventually we all sobered up and once again the 66th squadron was one complete outfit.

July 29th,1943 we are now on the road to our next airfield, at Scordia, Sicily. The trip took a day and was notable for only one event. When we left Pachino, we filled our canteens with the "strega" liquor, and from time to time we imbibed generously.

Around lunchtime the cooks passed out cans of "C" Rations, (these consist of a small can with 5 crackers, sugar and lemon extract packets, and a small can of a meat preparation-either meat and beans, meat and vegetable hash, or meat and vegetable stew) .

Thus it came to pass that some of us were 'feeling no pain', and when the squadron adjutant pulled up alongside our truck for some reason and asked a question, someone told him to "bug off". (a very un-military remark). We never heard a word about it afterwards, no doubt due to the fact that it was widely known that half of us were "potted" !

We arrived at Scordia in late afternoon and were told to put up our tents in the center of a vegetable garden. Once in the tents and sitting on our folding cots we were able to reach down and pluck up ripe tomatoes, peppers, lettuce and all forms of garden vegetables.

Our camp area was actually a farm, and next to us was a large concrete water pool, which was the source of the water used in irrigation of the fields. The adjoining airfield was just manufactured by the British 8th Army Engineers using bulldozers, by simply sweeping away an entire wheat field and leveled it off. The result was that due to the wind generated by the propellers of our airplanes, at days- end we were entirely covered with dust from the black wheat- field earth ! We were able to dive into the cold water of the pool to wash off.

So ends part 20 of my wartime memoirs.

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