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Excerpt from The Boldest Plan is the Best – The Combat History of the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion during WWII

Chapter Four: Tunisian Task Force
Raid on 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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