“Secret operations are essential in war; upon them the army relies to make its every move.”
Sun Tzu (544 BC – 496 BC), The Art of War
Jake Kilroy peeked through a small clear spot in the translucent glass side-pane of the Italian military ambulance. The heavily armed German guard on the other side of the glass was speaking to the ambulance driver. Lying on a stretcher, Jake could see the long trains parked at the sidings in the rail yard. What he observed in the rail yard and from the soldier’s collar insignia disturbed him even more than the proximity of the guard.
Johnny Kilroy lay on one of four stretchers secured to the interior sides of the ambulance, two on each side, stacked like bunk beds. Brigadier General Maxwell D. Taylor and Colonel William T. Gardiner occupied the last two stretchers. An Italian officer disguised as a medical orderly sat quietly on a small seat between them. Jake gently pressed the barrel of his M1911A1 .45-caliber sidearm to his lips in a gesture to silence the two officers on the other side of the vehicle. They nodded their understanding.
The German guard waved them through. This was the fourth and last checkpoint on their bumpy seventy-five mile trip to Rome along the historic Appian Way from the port city of Gaeta. Italian soldiers manned all the previous checkpoints and thus far no one had searched the ambulance. After a grueling nineteen-hour sea and land trip, the four soldiers were finally making their nocturnal entrance into the Eternal City.
Before the guns were silenced on Sicily, Allied strategic planners were already contemplating their next move. Against American objections, the British preference to invade the Italian boot prevailed.
On 23 July, while Allied forces were still fighting on Sicily, the Combined Chiefs of Staff ordered General Dwight D. Eisenhower to mount an invasion of Italy by 9 September. The ideal invasion objective would have been up the peninsula somewhere near Rome. Rome, however, was beyond the range of fighter cover. After their bloody experience in the waters off Sicily, Allied Commanders demanded continuous superior air cover for the invasion force. Thus, the choice was narrowed down to a wide bay just to the south of Naples called the Gulf of Salerno. The operation was codenamed Avalanche.
Just after Eisenhower received orders to plan Operation Avalanche, there was an astonishing political development. King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy arrested and deposed his Prime Minister of twenty-one years, Benito Mussolini, and exiled him. The king replaced Il Duce with the aging ex-military officer Marshall Pietro Badoglio. Hitler was furious. Although Badoglio publicly reaffirmed the “Pact of Steel” which bound Italy and Germany as partners, Hitler remained unconvinced and suspicious. He sent German troops to Italy under the guise of helping his ally defend their homeland.
King Victor Emmanuel, influenced by the first Allied bomber raid on Rome on 19 July, gave Badoglio secret orders to negotiate a separate peace with the Allies. Badoglio ordered Lieutenant General Guiseppe Castellano to make clandestine contact with the British and open direct negotiations.
Secret dispatches began flying immediately to Eisenhower’s headquarters in Algiers from London and Washington. He was prodded to make an aggressive move to capitalize on this remarkable development. In response, Eisenhower busied General Ridgway to plan various airborne missions to take advantage of the possibility that a carefully placed airborne drop might facilitate Italy’s surrender.
Eisenhower was then ordered to send representatives to the negotiations in neutral Lisbon, Portugal on 19 August. He sent American General Walter Bedell Smith, his Chief of Staff and British Brigadier General Kenneth D. Strong.
The Allied negotiators took a hard line with Castellano. They reiterated President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s demand for “unconditional surrender” announced at the Casablanca Conference in January. They told Castellano if Italy wanted out of the War, they would have to sign an unconditional surrender agreement. Castellano was shocked. He came to negotiate but instead he was given an ultimatum and a deadline to accept or reject the Allied conditions.
Castellano returned to Italy, conferred with the Prime Minister and the king and radioed his governments’ acceptance of the terms. However, when he showed up in Sicily on 31 August to sign the surrender documents, he had both reservations and conditions. After an angry exchange between he and General Smith, Castellano explained that the Germans were becoming stronger around Rome and that Castellano’s first priority was to protect his government and the King. However, if the Allies would parachute troops into Rome, Italy would surrender on the morning of the invasion. If the Allies refused, Italy would not surrender until the Allies were in Italy in adequate strength to protect the King and the new government.
General Smith flew to Bizerte, North Africa with Castellano. Armed with the airborne idea, Castellano pleaded his case directly to Eisenhower. The opportunity to knock Italy out of the War with one stroke of the pen was too great to disregard. In addition to the forces on the Italian Peninsula, Italy fielded twenty-nine divisions in the Balkans and five in France. Eisenhower concurred and he and Castellano signed the surrender documents on 3 September. The Americans agreed to drop the 82nd Airborne to secure Rome in synchronization with Operation Avalanche.
When Ridgway received these orders from Eisenhower he was beside himself. The plan called for parachute and air landing operations at five airports in Rome’s northern suburbs. It was codenamed Giant Two but immediately took on the nickname, the “Rome Job”.
Ridgway tried to convince his superiors that the operation was flawed. He explained to the supreme ground commander, General Sir Harold Alexander, he didn’t have enough time to train for this operation. His division was scattered all over Sicily and North Africa, as were the planes of Troop Carrier Command. The mission required yet another long night flight over water for which no level of competence had yet been demonstrated and no training had been accomplished since Sicily. If that were not sufficient to cancel the operation, the flight was too far for fighter escort. That left the transports vulnerable to prowling Luftwaffe fighters. Even if these obstacles could be overcome, Ridgway had serious doubts the Italians could even hold the airfields for the drop and subsequent re-supply missions. If the Germans were around Rome in strength, and even Castellano admitted they were rushing in more troops, the division could get slaughtered. Ridgway desperately wanted Alexander to cancel the Rome Job.
The lure of knocking Italy completely out of the War was far too great. With Churchill and President Roosevelt solidly behind the endeavor, it would have taken a compelling reason to abort the mission. Besides, as Alexander pointed out, the Rome Job was already committed to the new Italian government and was a key component of the armistice they just signed.
Ridgway did manage to get an important concession. He was convinced the Italians could not deliver on their promises but he needed first hand evidence of his suspicions. General Alexander permitted Ridgway to smuggle two of his senior officers into Rome just before the planned drop to make a first hand assessment of the situation. If they suspected a trap or the inability of the Italians to guarantee their safety, they could call off the Rome Job.
General Taylor, Assistant Division Commander of the 82nd Airborne, volunteered to go. He was fluent in five languages and had Ridgway’s complete confidence. Taylor was also highly respected by Eisenhower who was becoming more skeptical of the Rome Job as additional problems came to light. Taylor would bring Colonel Gardiner, an intelligence officer from the 51st Troop Carrier Group. Together, they would collaborate on the feasibility of success.
The wheels began to turn at 82nd Airborne Division Headquarters. Working with the British and Italians, transportation was arranged. It was determined that bodyguards would be needed. The division’s Personnel Officer, the G-1, found three paratroopers with Italian and French language skills. One was an officer who had been wounded in Sicily and was in a hospital in Tunisia. Another was a sergeant killed in action in a place called Santa Croce Camerina. The third was a private in the 3rd Battalion of the 505th PIR that was currently bivouacked in the town of Castelvetrano. Immediate Priority AAA orders were cut for Private John P. Kilroy. The orders were sent over field telephone to 505th Regimental Headquarters (HQ).
High priority orders from Division HQ were not unusual but always a big deal. 505th HQ sent word down to 3rd Battalion HQ who bucked them over to Item Company. They were to detach and transport Private John Kilroy to Palermo for special assignment on the fastest available transport to be at the main warehouse on the wharf by 2330 hours, 6 September.
Staff Sergeant Gene Bancroft had only one question. Which John Kilroy did they want? When no one up the chain of command could answer that simple question quickly, Bancroft decided to cut orders for both. They could always send one back. Besides, this was the best way he could assure that his temporary lapse in courage would never be revealed. He had the company clerk type out the high priority orders and the officer of the day signed them for Colonel Gavin.
Both men were told to leave everything and were hustled onto a waiting C-47 that was officially “hijacked” from ferry duty between Sicily and North Africa. This bird had only one mission; fly two soldiers to Palermo.
Jake and Johnny were flabbergasted. At first they believed they were in trouble but then soon realized they were involved in a hush-hush operation. The flight was short and a waiting jeep sped them through town to the wharf and dropped them at a dilapidated warehouse. The armed guards outside checked their orders. Nobody along the way could tell them where they were going or why they were there. But here they were, in the dead of night, standing in the fog outside the doors of an old warehouse on the docks of Palermo.
The dark spacious warehouse smelled strongly of fish. In one corner under a bright lamp were two men. One was a sergeant and the other an officer, a tall, stout-looking colonel. The colonel was removing his rank insignia from his uniform. The two soldiers stepped briskly into the light and right up to the officer and were about to salute when Colonel Gardiner stopped them with a raised hand. “No saluting. From now on, I’m just Bill.” He extended his hand.
“Jake.” They shook hands.
Gardiner didn’t question the order for two escorts but was a bit surprised neither of them were officers. He continued. “I’m from Troop Carrier Command. Tonight we’re taking a trip into Rome with General Taylor.” He ignored the stunned looks on their faces. “You won’t be saluting him either.” The two soldiers nodded, unable to speak through gaping jaws.
“That’s right Bill,” answered Johnny while he nudged Jake.
“Yup, that’d be us,” Jake offered.
“Thanks for volunteering,” Gardiner snickered.
Taylor was not at all keen on the idea of bodyguards but Gardiner convinced him otherwise, especially if they could find paratroopers who could speak the languages. The negotiations with the Italians were to be conducted in French. However, there would be collateral Italian spoken, hence the requirement for those two languages.
“Now empty your pockets of everything, especially personal items, tear off your unit and rank insignias and give everything to the sergeant here. Your belongings will be sent back to your units.” The two troopers complied.
“Boots also,” Gardiner pointed.
“Jeez, the boots too, Bill?” Jake complained.
“Boots too. You’ll wear standard issue boots and bare basic uniforms under plain wool navy pea coats. If we’re captured, hopefully that will prevent us from being shot as spies.”
Captured? Jake looked hard at Johnny through squinted eyes. Johnny cocked his head slightly and flicked his eyebrows in response. They would talk about that later. Gardiner continued, “The sergeant here will arm you with forty-fives. Just in case.”
Each trooper was given a .45-caliber semi-automatic pistol and an M36 belt with holster. The belt carried eight extra clips of ammunition. Both troopers worked the slides of their semi-automatic pistols, dry fired the weapons, eyed the sights, slapped in a clip and holstered the weapons. The pistols were nicely concealed once they donned their pea coats.
They waited patiently for an hour until Taylor entered the warehouse from a dockside entrance. “Bill, the PT boat will be here shortly. Everything is all set.”
He turned to the two paratroopers. “I’m Max.” He didn’t extend his hand. “Remember that. No slipups.”
“Johnny.” He didn’t extend his hand either.
“No problem, Max,” Jake answered sarcastically. “I’m Jake.”
Taylor came right back at Jake. “You’ve been told where we’re going. Do your jobs and don’t get in the way.” He turned away and then turned back. “Can you handle a wireless?”
“We’ve been trained on lots of different radios, Max,” Johnny answered.
“Yeah, Max, we’re paratroopers. We got skills and can do a lot of stuff.” Jake added. He was having difficulty with the General’s dismissive attitude but was enjoying the repartee and took pleasure in tweaking him.
“Good, then take care of this,” he slid a dark brown suitcase out from under a table. It looked like any other ordinary leather suitcase. Johnny took the handle from Taylor who walked outside and waited on the dock. It was rather heavy for its size. Johnny concluded it was a high-powered short-wave radio.
Gardiner broke the silence. “This trip has three legs. The first is a fast patrol boat. Then we transfer to an Italian corvette. That’s the long leg. We’ll slip into port disguised as rescued seamen. The ruse is that we’ll appear to be under arrest from the boat to the vehicle. Then it’s up to the Italians to drive us into Rome. That’s all you need to know for now.”
Both men nodded. Jake began pacing. Johnny and Gardiner sat in silence until they heard the deep-throated roar of high-powered gasoline engines outside. A Motor Torpedo Boat was nestling up to the pier. It was dark gray and flying the British Union Jack.
Some crewmen helped the four men onto the craft. The officers went immediately to the small bridge. Jake could see on the side of the open bridge the faint designation MTB-102 peeking through dark paint. Someone tried to hide it. A crewman took Jake and Johnny below deck through a covered hatch to a crew space. Immediately, the lines were cast off and the small craft carefully picked its way out of Palermo Harbor. There would be no use for guards on this leg of the journey. However, they would have to be on their toes once they boarded the Italian vessel.
A Royal Navy crewman gave each of them a tin cup filled with rum and some hard biscuits. Johnny crunched down on the hard and tasteless biscuit. Jake soaked his in the rum before biting it. The rum warmed their insides. They sat in silence with the British crewman in the cramped area. The less said, the better.
The engines revved and suddenly there was a sensation of great speed. The front of the MTB lifted out of the water and a huge bow wave sprinkled seawater back onto the deck. The paratroopers finished their rum and biscuits and stepped up the stairs.
“You can sit on the top step, mates. No place to dally about on deck,” the crewman explained. He stepped between them and took his position in a .20-millimeter Oerlikon gun tub near the stern and began scanning the horizon.
Johnny felt a little queasy. He had a penchant for getting seasick. The fact that he couldn’t swim well contributed to his concern. The covered hatch offered some protection from the sea spray and he had a good view of the giant rooster tail wake being kicked up by the churning propellers. Johnny looked up at the starry night sky and found the Big Dipper and then the North Star. He estimated they were traveling over forty knots in a straight line directly north. They were in the Tyrrhenian Sea north of Sicily and he distracted himself with the notion he was riding the same waves that Roman triremes rode some 2,000 years before. The profoundness of that realization momentarily relieved him of any anxiety. He noted the location of the nearest lifejacket, held the suitcase tightly and decided to remain silent in deference to the growling roar of the three powerful engines.
They were only cruising at top speed for a little over an hour when they heard the engines gently cut back and felt the bow of the MTB glide smoothly back into the calm sea. They were approaching a landmass, a little island, and maneuvering into a small, protected bay. Another ship, a Gabbiano class corvette flying the Italian flag with the cross of Savoy, was waiting at anchor off the island of Ustica. The two ships exchanged recognition signals and the MTB pulled up alongside the larger craft’s illuminated deck.
The captain of the MTB shook hands with Taylor and Gardiner as they climbed the short ladder to the deck of the corvette. Johnny and Jake followed. The crews of both boats moved quickly and silently as the sunrise was beginning to lighten the eastern sky.
“Welcome aboard the Ibis,” the Italian captain said in reasonably good English. “Please follow my first officer to your quarters below.”
The MTB separated from the corvette, circled slowly and departed in the direction from which it came. Jake looked at the speedy boat forlornly and realized their job of guardians just became a lot more serious. He watched the MTB gun her engines and disappear swiftly into the western darkness.
The Italian first officer showed Taylor and Gardiner into a small stateroom and the two paratroopers to an adjacent cabin. Johnny stowed the radio in their room.
Once the transfer of personnel was completed, the anchor was quickly raised and the idling engines came to life. The sleek ship jerked into motion as the propeller shafts engaged. She moved slowly and deliberately at first and gradually picked up speed until she eventually cleared the sheltered bay and was out into the open sea.
At 200 feet, the Ibis was over three times longer than MTB-102. She mounted a 4-inch gun on her foredeck and two eighteen inch torpedo tubes on her sides. For anti-aircraft defense she had seven .20-millimeter cannons. Her twin-shafts, powered by two diesel-electric engines, pushed out 2,500 horsepower and propelled her to speeds upwards of nineteen knots. She was a new ship with sleek lines and kept exceptionally clean by her one hundred-man crew.
This would be the longest leg of their journey, even though the Italian captain had obviously pushed the throttles to the wall. The two paratroopers scouted a few yards up and down the corridor and then took up positions on either side of the stateroom housing their officers.
Jake spoke first. “I don’t know how we got into this but I still haven’t changed my mind about becoming a prisoner. I won’t be taken.”
“I know how I got into this,” Johnny answered. “Language skills. Had to be. I put down I’m fluent in Italian and French.”
“Well I ain’t,” Jake countered. “Max will sure be pissed when he finds out.”
“Jake, it’s not on you if the army fouled up and sent you here by mistake.” Johnny looked at him seriously. “I don’t know why the hell they picked you, but I’m glad you’re here.”
Jake noticed how sincere his buddy was. “I know. But I’m still not being taken prisoner.”
Jake reached into his pocket, took out a small Bible and began reading. Johnny noticed and said, “Jake, for as long as I know you, I never knew that you were a ‘Bible Thumper’.”
“You mean this?” Jake pointed to his Bible. “It belonged to my daddy. It was the only thing left to me from my folks. I figured I must have held on to it for a reason. So I started reading it in North Africa.”
“Does it help?”
Jake flashed his infectious smile. “Do you believe in God, Yank?”
Johnny pondered the question. “They say there are no atheists in foxholes. That everybody believes in God when they go to war. But I can’t honestly say that I do.”
“Well, maybe the War will change all that,” Jake replied.
“Change that? For Chrissake Jake, I’m doing everything not to change. I liked my life before the War and I want to go back and pick right up where I left off. I liked who I was, so I’m trying my damnedest not to let anything I see or do in this fucking War change me. When it’s over, I just want to be that guy I was before all this shit!”
“That’s gonna be hard, Johnny, even for you.” Jake reflected a moment on the ghastly things he had seen since he became a soldier. “I’m hoping this War changes me a lot and for the better. I’m trying to turn everything I see into a lesson to make me a better person. I want to speak better, learn more about the world around me, become smarter, like you.”
Johnny was unprepared for the compliment. It was the kind of thing one says to another when he expects not to see him again. “Thanks,” Johnny replied. “But you’ve always had a more realistic grip on this War than me. And I think because you want to improve yourself so badly…well…you’re probably the smarter one already.”
The Ibis plowed relentlessly through the seas all through the night and into the next day. They came within distant sight of the Island of Ponza on the starboard beam in the Gulf of Naples. No one on the Ibis knew that Ponza was the island where their former Il Duce, Benito Mussolini, was currently living in exile. The Americans were now deep into the belly of the beast and clearly at the mercy of their one-time enemies. It wouldn’t take much treachery for all of them to wind up in a Nazi prison camp or worse. Not that they could have done much on the ship outnumbered as they were. But they stayed alert.
During the voyage, the four Americans were fed and treated respectfully by the officers and crew. Late the following afternoon Johnny spotted land and a port city surrounded by ancient walls. A crewman told him it was the ancient port city of Gaeta. He remembered reading about the legend of the Trojan hero Aeneas, son of Aphrodite, who, according to the poet Virgil, named the city after his wet nurse, Caieta.
They put in motion the deception they agreed upon; that the Americans were a group of sailors rescued from the sea. Just before the Ibis pulled into the dock, crewmen splashed buckets of water over the Americans wetting their hair and coats. As soon as the Ibis tied up at the dock, the four Americans were hustled roughly down the gangplank by armed Italian sailors. They were shoved brusquely into a waiting Italian navy vehicle and drove off. No one in the militarized port seemed to pay much attention. Once they reached the outskirts of Gaeta, they transferred to a military ambulance for the long trip to Rome.
Once inside the city, the ambulance took them to the Italian Supreme Headquarters in the Palazzo Caprara on the Via Firenze. The American officers had hoped to meet with Lieutenant General Giacomo Carboni, commander of the Italian corps assigned to defend Rome, and Prime Minister Badoglio. Instead they were greeted warmly by other lesser-ranking generals and were told Carboni and Badoglio were unavailable.
Jake and Johnny checked out the rooms adjacent to the large dining room and all appeared normal. The Italian generals seemed to have no sense of urgency. They began serving the American officers a sumptuous dinner. The two American bodyguards took up positions immediately outside the kitchen. When it was time to eat, they were served figs, grapes, and chunks of cheese with Parma ham. They ate standing up. Johnny asked for Espresso coffee. It was served thick, black and strong and helped the boys stay awake. The two bodyguards whispered quietly among themselves while they remained heedful of their surroundings. As they vigilantly moved about the dining vicinity and adjoining areas, they never let the two American officers out of their sight.
Johnny noticed General Taylor was becoming agitated. While the Italian generals were making a great show of enjoying their leisurely meal, the Americans were pressing them for details. Taylor kept telling them he needed to see the general in charge as well as the Prime Minister. Finally, at around ten in the evening, Generale di Corpo d’Armata Giacomo Carboni made an appearance in his highly polished cavalry boots and beribboned dress uniform.
Taylor pressed Carboni for answers. Carboni was immediately pessimistic about the ability of the three divisions of his corps to support the airborne landings. In addition, he seriously doubted the Prime Minister would announce the surrender on the evening of the eighth as previously committed. Carboni treated the entire issue with a casual disregard, further frustrating and infuriating Taylor. Johnny could tell by the snippets of conversation he picked up the discussion was not going well. Taylor did not seem the least bit impressed with General Carboni. With so much on the line and getting nowhere fast, Taylor insisted on seeing the Prime Minister immediately. Carboni was reluctant to disturb the Prime Minister at such a late hour. Pressed by Taylor and after some frantic phone calls, Prime Minister Pietro Badoglio agreed to see the Americans.
Carboni drove the Americans in his own car through a hot and humid blacked out city. The three golden stars on the car’s flag guaranteed they would not be stopped at checkpoints or by roving patrols. Taylor observed that Italian soldiers, not Germans, manned the patrols and checkpoints. Could it be that General Carboni was exaggerating the difficulty of supporting the American airborne forces?
Prime Minister Badoglio received the Americans in his luxurious villa on the outskirts of the city, a gift from Il Duce for leading the invasion of Abyssinia. He was in his pajamas, looking particularly old and tired. They sat on facing couches. The discussion took place in French as Johnny Kilroy eavesdropped from his position inside the window overlooking the garden. Taylor didn’t particularly like Badoglio and didn’t enjoy having to negotiate with him. The rumors of atrocities committed under his command in East Africa were rampant. Nevertheless, Taylor apologized for inconveniencing the Prime Minister at such a late hour.
Badoglio essentially repeated what Carboni told the Americans. He embellished the details with accounts of German forces already disarming some Italian units, cutting off gasoline and ammunition supplies and moving reinforcements and armor into Rome. Badoglio rattled off some of the German units involved including the 3rd Panzer Grenadier Division and the 2nd Parachute Division. Taylor and Gardiner had seen no evidence of this. Badoglio did not want to antagonize the Germans. He would wait for the Allies to invade in sufficient force to be able to protect Rome before he announced an Italian surrender.
The discussion dragged on fruitlessly into the early morning hours of 8 September. Eisenhower planned to announce the surrender of Italy late that day just ahead of the invasion and expected the Italian government would make the same announcement to its own people. American paratroopers were at that precise moment gearing up in Sicily to depart at 1830 hours for the flight to Rome. The Italians were not privy to the exact time of the invasion and thus were not behaving with any sense of urgency. All of Taylor’s efforts to move them to action were in vain. The Italians stubbornly stuck to their position. They could not support the airborne drop and would not announce their government’s surrender to their people later that night.
Taylor reminded Badoglio the Allies already had the signed surrender agreement and General Eisenhower would not take kindly to this duplicity. All Badoglio could do was cite the changes in circumstances. Taylor offered to use his clandestine radio link to transmit any message Badoglio might want to send. While Badoglio went off into another room to compose his message, Taylor paced the floor. He was furious. The Allies had been suckered into signing an armistice agreement with the new Italian government at that government’s initiative. The Allies then based their operational plans and timetables on the agreed-to surrender. Now the Italians were backing out and leaving the Anglo-American forces high and dry. This was unacceptable to Taylor and infuriated him.
He spoke to Gardiner in English. “What do you think, Bill?”
“The Italians don’t seem to want to piss off the Germans…but Ike will really be pissed.” Gardiner reflected a moment. “Seems like they’re more afraid of the Krauts than of us.”
“Wouldn’t you be?”
“Thing is,” Taylor continued, “Ike may go ahead and announce the surrender anyway even if Badoglio doesn’t. After all, he has the signed agreement. The real question is can we make Giant Two work without Italian support?”
“Hell, if they got no gas…” Gardiner began. The drop zones were over twenty miles north and west of Rome. The paratroopers were counting on Italian motor transport to get to the city.
“That’s just it,” Taylor interrupted. “We both agree these guys don’t want to fight and are scared shit of the Germans. They want to sit tight and let us do all the dirty work until it’s safe for them to surrender. Like, after we conquer the entire country.” Taylor’s words were dripping with sarcasm. “What if they’re making up all this crap about reinforcements and armor to justify postponing the surrender? What if they’re making it all up just to discourage us? Hell, I haven’t seen a German soldier in Rome since that last checkpoint. I haven’t seen any evidence to support what they’re saying. And that’s exactly why we’re here. Not just to listen but to see first hand.”
“Why would they make all that up?” Gardiner sounded exasperated.
“Because they don’t want to fight, that’s why. Because they’re afraid of what will happen to them and their villas and their privileges if they get caught on the wrong side of the fight.” Taylor paused to let his words sink in. “Because they got in over their heads in the first place and are trying to squirm out of it now. So they make shit up so we have to cancel the airborne drop.”
Gardiner reflected for a moment. “You know Ike really wants Giant Two to go. He’s under enormous pressure to get Italy out of the War. We could save a lot of lives if we can pull this off. But if the Italians are correct and are not just playing cutesy, it could be a slaughter.”
Jake and Johnny had been listening carefully. They moved closer to the couch where the officers were speaking.
“I know,” Taylor sighed heavily. “And my boss has been skeptical from the beginning,” referring to General Ridgway. “But we need to have good reason to cancel it and all I have right now is the shaky word of a bunch of scared Italians.”
Johnny edged a little closer. Taylor looked up at him, annoyed at the intrusion. “Yes, trooper?”
Johnny looked at Jake. “For Chrissake, tell him what you’ve been telling me, Jake.”
Taylor looked at Jake. “Well, spit it out soldier.”
“It may be nothing, sir, but when we went through that rail yard just outside the city, I saw some things looking out the window.”
Taylor sat up. Jake had been the only one who had a clear view outside. “What did you see? Did you see any tanks?”
“C’mon, soldier what did you see?”
“Flatcars, sir. They were empty but there were only flatcars on all three trains.”
“So, you saw flatcars? So what?” Taylor sounded abrupt.
Gardiner leaned forward, suddenly interested. “Wait a second. Flatcars move vehicles, right?” He aimed his question at Jake.
“In this case, heavy vehicles.”
“How can you tell that?” Taylor asked, now also interested.
“Each train had three locomotives.” Jake looked directly at Taylor, no longer hesitant. “I know railroads. You only chain that many together when you’re pulling a very heavy train.”
“Like one with tanks and heavy artillery,” Taylor sighed.
“That’s not all, sir,” Johnny chimed in. He looked at Jake. “Tell him.”
“What else did you see, son?” Taylor was not only now interested but also more receptive.
“That guard at the checkpoint was Fallschrimjager, a German paratrooper.”
“And you know that, how?” Gardiner challenged.
“I was just inches away from him, sir. He was wearing a paratrooper badge on his collar.”
“You sure, son?” Gardiner asked.
“Absolutely positive, sir. We captured a few in Sicily. Tough bastards,” Jake added.
Taylor took a deep breath. He believed the Italians may have lost their nerve and their will to fight but they weren’t lying about the Germans moving strong forces into Rome. “God help me, but I’m pulling the plug on Giant Two.” He looked at Gardiner. “You agree, Bill?”
Taylor had the utmost respect for Gardiner. He had once been the governor of the state of Maine. He was intelligent and level headed. Taylor could not have hoped for a more competent officer to accompany him. “I agree, wholeheartedly.”
“Begging the General’s pardon, sir, but we had our fill of fighting Tigers on Sicily,” Johnny recalled. “I know the boys would appreciate not having to fight tanks with their bare hands here in Rome.”
Taylor didn’t respond. In his heart he knew he was preventing a slaughter. He also knew that by passing on this opportunity, he would subject himself to merciless second-guessing from the highest levels of government and maybe Ike too. However great the risk to his own career, he had made up his mind. Now, to stop Giant Two before the planes got in the air.
In the dead of night, Carboni drove back to the Palazzo Caprara where the Americans and Italians quickly coded and sent two messages to Eisenhower’s headquarters. The first, from Badoglio, simply stated it was no longer possible for the Italian government to accept an armistice and the Italians could no longer guarantee the airfields. The second message from Taylor stated Giant Two was impossible based on the increased German presence around Rome.
Taylor waited for an acknowledgement. He received one for Badoglio’s message and could only imagine the fury it caused at Ike’s headquarters. Late that afternoon, coded instructions were sent to Taylor to return to Algiers immediately. The Americans took General Francesco Rossi of the Italian Supreme General Staff to explain the Italian position to Eisenhower. The small group was driven in the same military ambulance through enemy infested Rome to Centocelli Airfield on the outskirts of the Eternal City. Once there they boarded a Savoia-Marchetti tri-motor bomber for the two-hour flight.
Meanwhile, Eisenhower replied to Badoglio and advised the Prime Minister he had in his possession the surrender documents signed by Italy’s duly authorized representative and planned to announce the surrender at 1830 hours that same evening. If Badoglio failed to also make his planned radio announcement to the Italian people and military, Eisenhower would expose Italy’s duplicity to the whole world and Italy would “suffer the most serious consequences including the dissolution of the Italian government and nation.” Ike was playing hardball with Badoglio.
In the meantime Ridgway’s Pathfinders took off while the rest of the 504th PIR boarded their C-47s. When the cancellation orders finally arrived, Ridgway was delighted to recall the sixty planes that were already in the air heading for the Cerveteri and Fubara airfields north of Rome. He knew Taylor had made the right call and his division had avoided a massacre.
At 1830 hours Eisenhower made his announcement over Radio Algiers. He stated the Italian forces had surrendered unconditionally and were granted a military armistice. An hour later Prime Minister Badoglio came on the air and shocked the world by stating the same thing. Italy was officially out of the War. Ike had forced Badoglio’s hand.
Meanwhile, the Italian plane ferrying the American group delivered its human cargo safely to an airfield near Eisenhower’s Headquarters. Two waiting jeeps with armed escorts drove the men to the immense white building that served as Allied Headquarters.
Taylor, Gardiner and Rossi were ushered in to see General Eisenhower. Jake and Johnny waited outside. After a few minutes, Gardiner came back out. He put his arms around Jake and Johnny and walked them to the side of the building out of earshot.
“You boys did a great job. I’d get you a medal if this wasn’t so hush-hush.”
“Thank you, sir,” Jake smiled. “I guess we can’t call you Bill, anymore.”
“Did our guys get the word in time?” Johnny asked.
“They did. The drop was cancelled.”
Both boys let out audible sighs of relief. Gardiner continued. “And Ike made the announcement anyway. Bullied Badoglio to do the same. Italy is out of the War.”
“Wow, that’s swell news, sir,” Johnny smiled.
Gardiner looked at Jake. “Some in high places are not happy having to cancel the drop. General Taylor is in for some heat on this. But he’s convinced he did the right thing and the critical observations you made convinced him the drop would be a slaughter.”
Jake put his head down, speechless. Johnny put his hand on Jake’s shoulder and shook it in a sign of congratulations.
“We’ll be flying back to Sicily. You’ll be back with your unit pretty soon. Needless to say, where you were and what you did the past two days is top secret. Nobody knows except General Taylor and me. You’re to tell no one, ever.” Gardiner was calm and matter of fact. What he said next shocked the boys. “If you do, you could be shot. So, please don’t ever say a word about this mission to anyone.”
The two paratroopers nodded solemnly.
“Your country owes you a great debt,” Gardiner continued. “I’m sorry that my ‘thank you’ is all you’re ever going to get.” Gardiner shook their hands one at a time. “One more thing,” he looked at Jake. “You can call me Bill, anytime.”
At 0330 hours the next morning, 9 September 1943, 450 ships disembarked the Allied invasion force at Salerno. The troops stormed ashore buoyed by the knowledge that Italy was out of the fight.
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