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Reconnaissance Patrol, 1943

The Invasion of Sicily
Following the expulsion of the Germans from North Africa, the Allies targeted the island of Sicily as their next objective. On July 10 an American and British invasion force of close to 500,000 landed at two points on the islandís southeastern shore. The allies initially met light resistance but the seasoned German troops were only waiting for the landing forces to reveal their invasion route before unleashing a deadly counter attack.

The American troops led by Lt. General George Patton headed north and west to the city of Palermo and then east towards the city of Messina. The British Eighth Army led by General Bernard Montgomery also targeted the city of Messina in an effort to stymie any attempt by the enemy to cross the straights separating Sicily and the Italian mainland. Unfortunately, the rough terrain combined with fierce enemy resistance slowed the Allied progress and Messina did not fall until August 17.

The news of Allied forces invading their homeland demolished what was left of Italian support for their leader and eventually knocked Hitler's ally out of the war. On July 25th Italy's King Victor Emmanuel III ousted Mussolini and el Duce was placed under arrest. Secret negotiations began between the Allies and the Italians to affect a cease fire. Suspicious; Hitler ordered that German reinforcements be sent to Italy. The Italians signed an armistice with the Allies on September 3 that was announced to the Italian people five days later. German troops immediately turned on the troops that were their former allies, stripped them of their weapons and sent them off to internment as prisoners of war.

"No!' the woman screamed. 'No! No!"

Walter Bernstein was a war correspondent for The New Yorker. The small, mountainous village of Ficarra lies in northeast Sicily near the coast. The village had to be taken before the American assault could move towards Messina. However, before it could be taken, the village had to be reconnoitered. Bernstein joined a specialized intelligence unit of 17 men lead by a Lieutenant from Texas named Riley.

We join Bernstein's story as Lt. Riley has split his force into two units - one led by Sergeant Billerbeck, the other by Sergeant Sheehan - that are approaching the village from two directions. Also in the unit is an interpreter by the name of Caruso who has received word from the locals that there are Germans in the town:

"We stood there and then we heard the quick burst of a tommy gun to our left. 'That's Billerbeck,' Sheehan said.

'You hope it's Billerbeck,' Riley said.

We listened, but there was no other sound. Riley bent over and rubbed his knee. 'Those stones are hard,' he said. He moved forward and we followed him. It was all quiet again, but my ears were still ringing from the shots. The air was different, though; it had the burnt smell of shooting. It was a faint smell but very noticeable, and it made the town seem suddenly familiar, linking it with all the other towns in Sicily which had had that smell. We followed Riley down the street, walking easier now, knowing finally what we had got ourselves in for. I looked across the street at Taylor and he smiled. 'Isnít this like the movies?' he said. 'Isnít this just like the movies?'

We came to an intersection and Riley stopped before crossing it. He peered around the corner and then pulled his head back in a hurry. He peered around again, took a good look up the cross street, and then stepped out into the intersection. 'It's Billerbeck,' he said. In a few seconds Billerbeck came walking down to join Riley. His men were strung out along their street the way we were on ours. 'Was that you firing?' Riley asked. Billerbeck nodded. 'They were running up the street and we only had time to turn the tommy gun on them,' he said. 'Don't think we hit anything.' Riley asked Billerbeck if his squad had been fired on and Billerbeck said no. He said that they had skirted the edge of the town and were cutting down to meet us when they saw five Germans running up the street. They were gone before Billerbeck could do more than fire a few rounds at them. 'I think they're still running,' he said.

'Well, I wish they'd make up their mind,' Riley said.

Riley told Billerbeck to have his men fall in behind us, and we all started down the street our squad had been on. The town was thinning out now. We could see the houses beginning to space out ahead of us and some trees at the far end of the street. The street curved and suddenly we were out in the sun again. There were houses only on our left; the other side was the mountainside, stretching down in a series of plowed terraces, the earth black and fertile. The road curved again and the houses thinned out still further. As we came around this curve, we saw two civilians running from a house that stood off by itself. They disappeared before we could do anything.

We all stopped and looked at the closed door of the house. The house was a two-story affair, with a large wooden door and no windows. Riley dropped to one knee, aiming his rifle at the door. Sheehan aimed his tommy gun. No one talked. I moved quietly up to the door and stood at one side of it, with my back against the house. Taylor moved over to take my place and covered the door. As soon as all the men were in position, I reached over and slowly tried the knob. The door was locked. I pressed against it very slowly, but it wouldn't give. I looked back at Riley, who nodded, and then I banged the door very hard with my gun. Almost immediately a woman began to cry inside. I banged again and she cried louder, and then she began to yell and shriek. I couldn't understand a word she said. She was yelling at the top of her lungs and all I could tell was that she was speaking Italian. 'Tedeschi?' I asked, giving the Italian name for the Germans.

'No!' the woman screamed. 'No! No!'

I looked over at Riley and he shrugged. He stood up and called for Caruso, who came running up. He motioned Caruso to the house and Caruso came over and stood at the other side of the door. The woman was still screaming and Caruso had to shout to make himself heard. Finally he yelled something in Italian, that sounded very fierce and the woman shut up. For a moment there was no sound. Then the knob turned and the door slowly opened. A thin, middle-aged woman with stringy black hair stuck her head out. She looked first at me, then at Caruso. "Americano?" she asked. We nodded and Caruso said something in Italian. The woman looked at us again and then at the other soldiers in the street. She began to cry. She held her hands to her face and cried, and then she went over to Caruso and threw her arms around him and kissed him on both cheeks. She came over and kissed me and went down the road and kissed the other men, everyone of them, even Lieutenant Riley. She was crying all the time. After she had finished kissing everyone, she came back to Caruso and kissed him again. I couldn't tell now whether she was laughing or crying. She went into the house and came out with a huge plate of grapes. She handed them around until Riley finally told Caruso to tell her that we had some work to do and would see her later. Caruso told her and the woman smiled and nodded happily. She went into the house, leaving the door open, and we moved on down the road."

References:
   Walter Bernstein's account was originally published in The New Yorker on October 2, 1943, republished in The New Yorker Book of War Pieces (1947); Wallace, Robert, The Italian Campaign (1978).

How To Cite This Article:
"Reconnaissance Patrol, 1943," EyeWitness to History, www.eyewitnesstohistory.com (2007).

Listen to a radio news announcement of the invasion of Sicly
Walter Bernstein, the author of this account, joined the Young Communist League while a student at Dartmouth before the war. After the war, Bernstein became a Hollywood screen writer but was blacklisted in the 1950's because of his Communist connections. The ban was lifted in 1959 and Bernstein went on to receive acclaim for such films as The Magnificent Seven (1960), Fail-Safe (1964), and The Molly Maguires (1970).