Excerpt from The Boldest Plan is the Best The Combat
History of the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion during WWII
Chapter Four: Tunisian Task Force
El Djem, pp 133-136.
Dan DeLeo was new to the Geronimos, but he was not
an inexperienced soldier. DeLeo had joined the Illinois National Guard in 1937
and rose to the rank of sergeant. He obtained his commission in 1942 just
before entering active duty. After jump school, he came to England with the
replacements for the 2/509th PIR. DeLeo had been placed in charge of the rear
detachment of replacements in England. He and the other replacements had come
to North Africa by ship a couple of weeks after Operation Torch. They were
reunited with the rest of the battalion at Maison Carrée.
The changes to the mission were made before Yardley
briefed DeLeo. The Lieutenant did not know that he or any of the men on his
roster were considered to be "easily replaced." On the bright side, foreign
languages would not be a problem on this mission. DeLeo spoke Italian. One of
his men, Sergeant John Betters, could speak Arabic. Another, Private Roland
Rondeau, also spoke fluent French. Added to the raiding force were two French
paratroopers, First Sergeant Jean Guilhenjouan and Corporal Paul Vullierme, to
act as guides. Both had served in the area for several years and both spoke
Arabic. The mission was postponed until Christmas Eve, and then rescheduled
again. DeLeo's group, now numbered at 32 men, left Maison Blanche the morning
of December 26 in three C-47s. After a brief stopover at Tebessa, they
continued on to the airstrip at Thelepte where they spent the remainder of the
day. The jump was scheduled for 2200 hours that night.
Colonel Raff says that he did not "know that much"
about the mission until the three C-47s landed at Thelepte. He tried to stall
the mission for a day in order to arrange an aircraft pickup. Unfortunately
higher headquarters overruled him and the mission still had to go that night.
Knowing how much trouble transport pilots had in finding drop zones in the
dark, Raff asked Lieutenant Colonel Phil Cochran to go along as a copilot.
Cochran was the commander of the P-40 fighter squadron and had personally
attacked the bridge in daylight. Raff figured that if any pilot could find the
bridge at night, Cochran could. Raff also advised some of the men going on the
mission to kill any Arabs that they encountered, as they could not be trusted
and would probably alert the enemy to their presence. Oddly, and for reasons
unknown, Raff did not have this discussion with Lieutenant DeLeo.
The flight to the drop zone took about an hour. As
the aircraft crossed the "lines" near Godsin there was some flak, but none of
the aircraft were hit. Even with Cochran on the flight, they were unsure of the
exact location of the bridge. They circled a small town, decided it was El
Djem, and then flew to where they thought the drop zone was. No injuries were
sustained on the jump, but one man was missing and the troopers were unable to
locate one of their equipment bundles. This was a common occurrence on a night
jump, and they decided that there was probably enough TNT in the one bundle to
drop at least the center span of the bridge.
Before the raiding party set out for the bridge, a
group of five Arabs appeared at the drop zone. Some of the men insisted that
they follow Raff's advice and kill them, but the lieutenant would not allow it.
DeLeo offered them some of their parachutes, prized by the Arabs, for their
silence. The platoon headed east toward the rail line under the heavy burden of
their equipment plus an extra 500 pounds of explosives.
An hour and a half later, they reached the railroad
tracks. Here they turned south, assuming they had been dropped at the right
location. In the dark of night they could only see a few yards, so it was
difficult to fix their location in the desert. They had to trust their plan.
The paratroopers encountered another Arab, this one with a donkey cart. The
Americans pressed the Arab into service to help carry the burden of the large
amount of TNT. But an extra 500 pounds was too much for the donkey and after a
time DeLeo let that Arab go free as well. We do not know why the lieutenant did
not confirm his position with Arabs, unless perhaps at this point he was
confident that they had been dropped at the right location and all was going to
plan. Regardless, after hours of marching in the dark, DeLeo realized that they
should have come to the bridge by now.
The men took cover in an olive grove to rest. In
the morning twilight the lieutenant was able to take a compass reading on some
nearby hills and, with the help of his French guides, fix his location. He now
knew for sure that the pilots had dropped them south of the bridge instead of
north of it. They had spent the night walking away from the bridge. He told the
men that they were nearly twenty-two miles south of their objective.
All of the paratroopers knew that there was no way
they could march twenty-two miles back to their objective in broad daylight.
The best that DeLeo could do was to cause some damage and then get his men out.
Their chosen target was a small building next to the tracks that they spotted
another hundred yards down the tracks, near a cut through a small hill. It had
electrical wires leading to it and they thought that the building was for
controlling switches on the line. The demolition men set their charges to the
building and roughly 100 yards of track, all set to blow at the same time.
By now the enemy was closing in on them. DeLeo had
posted security men up and down the tracks. Within minutes of each other,
paratroopers came running up to report enemy soldiers in at least platoon
strength were approaching on foot from both the north and the south. While they
were setting their charges, a switching car came down the tracks and German
soldiers onboard traded shots with the paratroopers. The Germans decided to
wait for their reinforcements to arrive and withdrew back up the line. DeLeo
shouted for everyone to move west and take cover. The demo men lit a
three-minute fuse. They could see more enemy soldiers arriving in trucks
farther down the tracks.
The ground shook under their feet as 500 pounds of
explosives went off all at once. Dirt, ties, rails, and other debris flew
hundreds of feet in the air. While the explosion must have shocked the
approaching enemy into momentary inactivity, the paratroopers immediately
started double-timing to the west. The Americans quickly split up into groups
of two to six each and headed for home as best they could with enemy soldiers
closing in on them from three directions.
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