THE LANDINGS AT SALERNO
United States merchant ships faced heavy and continued air opposition in the Bay of Salerno from their first arrival on September 11, 1943 until September 17. Many of these ships had been under air attack on September 6 at Bizerte. At least one ship which went to Salerno with the first sixteen United States merchantmen had been under heavy attack at Bone, Algeria on June 14 and 15 and at Valetta, Malta on July 20. This ship was the Lewis Morris, which brought down a plane at Bone on June 15 and had a bomb fall close on the same day. Later, she was narrowly missed by two bombs at Malta. The Charles Piez had also been under attack at Bone. Another ship, the William Bradford, had been under attack at Algiers on June 4 and had her deck littered with shell fragments. But all of the Armed Guards agreed that there had never been a worse experience than the awful six and one half days of death and destruction off Salerno. The experiences of the Armed Guards of the sixteen ships are very similar, but their reports of what happened do not agree in all details. For example, there is no agreement on the number of air alerts or the actual number of attacks made. It must be remembered that ships were not all grouped closely together in the Bay of Salerno and that their experiences were somewhat different. But all Armed Guards remained at their battle stations for the entire period. There could be no relaxation. In this grim fight against sleep and complete physical exhaustion their
experiences were all the same. Only people who have been through the nervous strain of bombs falling around them for days could ever understand or appreciate what these men went through in that eventful period when our beachhead at Salerno seemed to hang in the balance.
The George Matthews described 21 attacks. This ship, already a veteran of Mediterranean warfare, sustained a near bomb miss by only 25 yards on September 14 and had bombs fall close on the next three days. Her big day came on September 15 when she knocked down one plane and assisted in the destruction of another. Perhaps no ship in Salerno Bay had more close calls than the William Bradford, and yet she came through with only minor damage. Several bombs landed close, but on the afternoon of September 13 a bomb fell within 30 feet of her bow and bent in a transverse frame in No. 1 hold. Next day bombs fell 30 and 75 yards fro the ship, but she shot down one of the bombers. Later in the afternoon she underwent a dive bombing and strafing attack, but the closest bomb was 100 yards away. At almost the same time on September 15 the ship was bombed and strafed. A life raft was riddled and a mattress was set afire. Bombs were still landing close, this time 30 and 50 yards away. Another plane fell before the guns of the gallant ship. The morning of September 16 found other bombs landing close, one within 30 yards. This was a big day for the Bradford. She accounted for one plane and for an assist in the destruction of another. On September 17 she probably
destroyed a plane and had one bomb fall 50 yards astern. Fortunately the bombs being used by the enemy were generally not more than 250 pounders, otherwise the story of destruction at Salerno would no doubt have been much worse.
While the Lewis Morris underwent 29 air raids at Salerno, the only damage came from shell fragments on September 14. On this date three Armed Guards were wounded and one of the wounded died. In 22 reported raids, the Charles Piez accounted for four German Planes and came through unscathed. The William Dean Howells reported 64 alerts, 38 attacks, and that she was straddled by bombs 16 times in those flaming six and one half days at Salerno. In addition there were many other near misses from bombs. Her Armed Guard officer thought that the Armed Guard saved the ship and that they helped bring down several planes. The Winfield Scott reported 27 air raids, and the destruction of two planes and an assist in bringing down another. The James Woodrow experienced over 30 attacks and on 22 of these planes flew over the ship and dropped bombs. Bombs landed less than 100 yards from the ship four times. The closest fell 25 feet away on September 17 and did some damage. Her Armed Guard officer estimated that 60 enemy planes were shot down from September 11 to 17. Of this number the Woodrow definitely shot down four.
Many bombs fell close to the John Howard Payne, which shot down two planes, assisted in the destruction of three others and claimed a hit on a sixth plane. The David Caldwell had bombs fall as close as
30 feet. Her master claimed that the Armed Guard shot down four planes, but the Armed Guard officer modestly claimed hits on a number of planes which went down from the barrage which his ship and other ships put into the sky. The Daniel Webster had five bombs fall within 200 yards and eight more within 800 yards. She destroyed two planes and probably got another.
The Bushrod Washington was the first United States merchant ship to sink in Salerno Bay. She was bombed on September 14. Her Armed Guard claimed the destruction of the plane which made the attack. Her Armed Guards continued to fight valiantly on other ships. All went aboard the damaged James W. Marshall on September 17. Prior to this move some of her Armed Guards aboard the James Woodrow helped destroy three enemy planes with their 20 mm guns. After going through eight dive bombing attacks, the James W. Marshall was finally hit by a personnel bomb on the afternoon of September 13. Four of her Armed Guards were wounded. More serious damage came when a 1,000 pound bomb struck early in the morning of September 15. The bomb hit the port boat deck and set the ship on fire. An LCT which was also hit spread a sheet of flame over the stern of the ship. The ship was abandoned a few minutes later. The Marshall was ultimately towed to Bizerte by a British freighter. She was manned by a volunteer merchant crew and by the gun crew from the Bushrod Washington.
In some 25 air attacks the Alexander Martin accounted for one enemy plane, probably got another, and assisted in the destruction of
a third. Bombs were close to the ship twice; one bomb splashed water on the 3" gun. The Hugh Williamson appears to have been in more action than most ships. Her Armed Guard officer reported 48 bombing attacks in which she destroyed nine planes. The ship was heavily strafed and eight men were wounded. Her gunners shot the fins off a glider bomb which missed the ship by five feet. Her Armed Guards helped rescue men from other ships which were hit and even unloaded cargo.
The Edward P. Costigan destroyed one plane and logged two more probables and a hit on a fourth plane in 17 air raids. A bomb came so close to this ship that it showered water on forward gunners. Another near miss alongside No. 4 hold disabled the ship and put the major caliber guns and one 20 mm gun out of commission. There were no casualties. Several other near misses were recorded. The George H. Thomas suffered two near misses in her stay at Salerno. In 23 attacks she shot down three planes. One of her signalmen was slightly wounded.
It is surprising that only one United States merchant ship was lost and two damaged in the early days at Salerno. Of course, warships and British merchant ships were also hit in this awful week in Salerno Bay. That damage was not heavier may be credited to the successful interception of enemy planes and to the fire power of ships and shore batteries. Once again the Armed Guard had proved that it could take the worst the enemy had to offer and come through victorious.
The next large group of merchant ships entered Salerno Bay on September 21. There were some 13 United States ships in this convoy. Disaster struck before they even anchored off the beach heads. Shortly after 0900 an explosion tool place alongside the Oliver Hazard Perry, which was commodore ship. A few minutes later the William W. Gearhard was hit by a mine or a torpedo. The Armed Guard officer abandoned ship, but went back aboard when he learned that wounded Armed Guards had been left aboard. Not until about 24 hours later did the forward part of the ship split off and sink. Two Armed Guards were killed and six were wounded. There were several alerts while this convoy was unloading, and planes were seen a few times. They did not attack the ships. But when the convoy was one day out of Bizerte a German submarine torpedoed the James Russell Lowell on October 15. The John Cropper, which arrived off Salerno on September 26 and left the region October 14, reported no contact with the enemy.
The enemy was still able to hit at ships in southern Italian waters, but his attacks became less severe as the fighting advanced to the northward in the Italian peninsula. The Elihu Yale was in the first convoy to reach Naples after the fall of that port. She arrived on October 3 when fighting was still only five miles from the city. On that evening shells from enemy guns landed in the dock area. On October 11 the enemy bombed the city but did not attack shipping. The Lou Gehrig arrived at Naples on October 8 after being
under attack at Bizerte on August 17 and September 6 and at Palermo on August 23. On October 23 bombs fell within 200 yards of the ship and on October 23 she was present when the Joseph T. Robinson and the James Iredell were hit by enemy bombers. Three bombs landed close to the Robinson and one bounced off the starboard bow rail and exploded in the water. Her gunners were probably responsible for the destruction of the plane. The latter, hit by three bombs, caught fire but was finally beached, and later reached New York. Earlier, on September 26, several Army personnel had been wounded by the explosion on the Christopher Michaelsen when that ship was torpedoed between Bone and Bizerte. Bombs landed within 100 feet of the Elihu Yale on October 23. The Josiah Bartlett, which had also arrived at Naples on October 8 after being in a submarine attack on October 21. Her Armed Guard officer reported that observation planes were over almost daily.
Not until October 11 did the Stephen A. Douglas anchor at Naples. She was hit by shell fragments on October 21, and had bombs drop around her on October 23. Again she was hit by shell fragments. Far worse had been her experience off Cape Tenes on October 4. In this air attack she got an enemy plane and was missed by a torpedo. Glider bombs sank one ship and left another on fire. The Henry Barnard arrived at Naples in time for the attack on October 23, but escaped damage. She was back at Naples when bombs dropped on November 26.
The Francis Marion reported air attacks on November 1, 5, and 10 after her arrival on November 1. The Haym Salomon was in the attacks on November 10 and 26. Far more serious was the submarine or mine explosion which hit a ship as the Salomon was coming out of Oran on December 16. The area around North African ports seems to have
been a favorite lurking ground for submarines. The Alexander Graham Bell likewise reported the attack on November 26, but her Armed Guard officer did not see any bombs dropped. He did learn that four planes were downed by the shore batteries. Merchant ships at Naples were not allowed to fire after dark as a general rule. There is much merit in fact to the argument that merchant ships invited bombing at night by firing tracer ammunition. Otherwise, they might escape detection by the enemy.
The story of merchant shipping at Salerno and later at Naples indicates the great importance of their voyages as the whole campaign for southern Italy was unfolding. Without their cargoes there could have been little or no success in the land fighting. Here, as elsewhere, the German air force was meeting many surprises in its encounters with merchant ships. They were no longer the sitting ducks. Their men could shoot and shoot accurately. Armed Guards became veterans very fast in the rough and ready school of warfare in the Mediterranean. German pilots did not have a very long life expectancy in this area.
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