Unmolested and apparently undetected, Kent Hewitt’s armada of 642 ships steamed north in a thousand-square-mile swatch of the Mediterranean, bound for HARPSICHORD, as the Gulf of Salerno was now code-named. If the sea remained calm, the sun was searing. Little ventilation penetrated the packed troop holds, and few were as lucky as those aboard the converted Polish liner Sobieski, which had a swimming pool. Food on most vessels during the three-day passage was dreadful. “Whenever I tore a bun open and found a worm, I would cover it with jam and butter and eat ahead,” a mortarman wrote his family in Indiana. “I couldn’t be watching out for those worms, as they had to look out for themselves.” Troops in the three assault divisions—two British and one American—packed and repacked their kit, stuffing a week’s supply of salt tablets and Atabrine pills in knotted condoms before scribbling just-in-case letters to be left with their battalion chaplains.
The usual muddles and nugacities followed the fleet. Four thousand combat soldiers had sailed without weapons, which were in short supply in North Africa (along with binoculars and wristwatches); they would disembark at Salerno as they had boarded: unarmed. Troops of the 36th Division wandered through the sweltering holds with cans of paint, heeding a recent War Department decree that the white-star insignia on all Army vehicles now be enclosed within a white circle. On one British ship, a loftman released his carrier pigeons for a bit of exercise only to see them wing toward Africa, never to return. The cargo manifest on a vessel loaded in Oran simply listed “400 cases military impedimenta.” Hewitt was so incensed by loading infractions—bombs had been dumped into troop holds, for instance, and crates of shoes marked “Signal Equipment”—that he ordered a broad search for contraband. No little befuddlement resulted because the British Army and Royal Navy used different numbering systems for their LSTs. “Both numbers are painted on the hull of the ship and cause considerable confusion,” the British X Corps noted. So many changes had disfigured the fleet’s sailing formations that a senior Navy operations officer confessed to keeping himself “informed by hearsay” because he was “not sure who was where.”
As always, soldiers found diversions to take their minds off the coming battle. British Commandos gambled away the hours with endless games of housey-housey, akin to bingo. Tommies in the 56th Division, concerned that their desert-bleached khaki would be too conspicuous on a mottled European battlefield, dyed the uniforms in cauldrons of boiling coffee; the treatment left them not only darker but also scented with espresso. Aboard the Duchess of Bedford, after listening to an intelligence officer lecture at length on Italian politics, one soldier told his diary, “We know nothing.” Others studied the government-issue “Italian Phrase Book,” which included not only the words for lobster, oysters, and butter, but five pages of handy medical language—Arrestate il sangue! “Stop the bleeding!”—as well as the hopeful Voglio passare la notte, “I want to spend the night,” and the eternal Il governo americano vi pagherà, “The U.S. government will pay you.”
Aboard Hewitt’s flagship, the voyage evoked the dreamy days when Ancon had catered to well-heeled travelers on Caribbean runs from Panama to New York. White-jacketed mess stewards served thick steaks with apple pie and ice cream; the leather chairs and perpetual card games in the officers’ lounge reminded one passenger of “the bridge room at the Yale Club.” Clark sat for a few rubbers but again seemed distracted. “General Clark is feeling the strain of this period of waiting,” his aide noted. “There is nothing that he himself can do now.” To pass the hours he napped, did situps, and paced the weather deck to work up “a good sweat.” Summoning reporters to his stateroom, Clark likened AVALANCHE to “spitting right into the lion’s mouth.”
Some 55,000 assault troops would invade Salerno, with a comparable number of reinforcements to follow. On Fifth Army’s left, the British X Corps was to land two infantry divisions and pivot toward Naples; on the right, the U.S. VI Corps would initially land only the 36th Division, with part of the 45th Division afloat in reserve. “It’s the most daring plan of the war,” Clark said as a steward poured coffee into paper cups. “You can’t play with fire without the risk of burning your fingers.”
The 36th, entering combat for the first time, derived from the Texas National Guard. Both the officer cadre and enlisted ranks were dominated by Texans, from Carrizo Springs and Raymondville, Harlingen and Laredo, Houston and San Antonio. In stateside bars, 36th troops had been known to insist that all patrons stand and remove their caps whenever “Deep in the Heart of Texas” was sung. Since leaving Oran hardly an hour had passed on the division flagship, the Samuel Chase, without a rollicking chorus of “The Eyes of Texas.” The division commander, Major General Fred L. Walker, was a Regular Army officer from Ohio, but he carried in his kit bag a Lone Star flag given him by Governor Coke Stevenson. When his men sang, Walker sang too.
How much did the Germans know? a reporter asked Clark. Would AVALANCHE catch them unawares? “We can’t expect to achieve strategical surprise,” Clark replied. “But we do hope to achieve a degree of tactical surprise.” The British planned a fifteen-minute naval cannonade to soften defenses before the landings began. The 36th Division, on the contrary, had elected to forgo naval fire. General Walker believed the Germans were too dispersed for shelling to be effective—“I see no point to killing a lot of peaceful Italians and destroying their homes,” he said. He also was wary of short rounds falling on his men, and he still hoped that “our landing may not be discovered until we are ashore.” Hewitt had bitterly disagreed, waving his ten-page list of 275 targets with precise grid locations for machine-gun nests, bridges, and enemy observation posts. The admiral considered it “fantastic to assume that we could surprise them,” but Clark had sided with Walker, in part on the assumption that only Italian troops would defend the beaches. The prodigious power of naval gunnery displayed in North Africa, Sicily, and the Pacific was spurned, foolishly.
At 6:30 P.M. on Wednesday, September 8, barely eight hours before the landings were to commence, Clark joined Hewitt in the admiral’s cabin, where they heard Eisenhower’s armistice announcement on Radio Algiers and Badoglio’s subsequent affirmation. Many ships piped the broadcasts over their public address systems; officers with megaphones quickly spread the word to smaller craft.
Jubilation erupted across the fleet. On Duchess of Bedford, Eisenhower’s final words were drowned out by the “dancing, kissing, backslapping and roaring of the troops.” Aboard H.M.S. Hilary, they flung helmets in the air or banged them on the steel deck, yelling, “The Eyeties have jagged it in!” Those on the destroyer U.S.S. Mayo brayed, “The war is over!” The commotion “sounded like a ladies’ pink tea,” one Navy officer complained. “Yap, yap, yap.” Chaplains offered prayers of deliverance, Grenadier Guards hoisted toasts to “the downfall of Italy,” and a battalion piper was ordered to compose “The Scots Guards March Through Naples.” British tars on a warship near Messina watched Italians light fireworks and dance in a floodlit church piazza. “Seldom in history,” a Royal Navy officer observed, “can a people have celebrated so hilariously the complete defeat of their country.”
Soldiers jettisoned bandoliers and grenades, stuffing their ammo pouches with extra cigarettes. A British officer regretted leaving his dinner jacket in Africa. “I never again expect to witness such scenes of sheer joy,” Clark’s aide wrote. “We would dock in Naples harbor unopposed, with an olive branch in one hand and an opera ticket in the other.” Some lamented the lost opportunity for glory. A 36th Division artilleryman wrote his father, “Our chance to prove ourselves had vanished.”
Hewitt noted with alarm that Fifth Army’s “keen fighting edge” had been dulled. Officers prowled the decks, trying to talk sense to men now convinced that Salerno’s beaches would be undefended. “Stop it, you bloody fools,” a British captain bellowed, while on H.M.S. Princess Astrid a large sign advised, “Take your ammunition with you. You’ll need it.” Major General Ernest J. Dawley, commander of the U.S. VI Corps, warned soldiers on the U.S.S. Funston that they would “have to fight like horned Comanches if we mean to get ashore and stay there.” The troops raised a cheer, then resumed their poker games on the fantail. “Expect a hostile shore,” a 36th Division officer told his men. “Go in shooting.”
The call to general quarters sixty miles from Salerno restored a modicum of sobriety. “The ship’s company will man their stations,” naval officers intoned. “Gunners, man your guns.” Landlubbers aboard Ancon tried to parse the “plan of the day” for September 9: “The ship will be hove to for a while and then anchored, with the anchor at short stay ready to slip at a moment’s notice, with a full steaming watch on and full steam at the throttles.” Any residual hilarity dissolved at 8:15 P.M., when Luftwaffe planes attacked the fleet with flares, bombs, and torpedoes, though to little effect. As men blackened their hands and faces with burnt cork, a sergeant in the 143rd Infantry observed, “Imagination makes cowards of us all.” John Steinbeck studied the pearly mists rising from the Mediterranean. “Each man, in this last night in the moonlight, looks strangely at the others and sees death there,” he wrote.
Just before ten P.M., on the approach to HARPSICHORD, lookouts spied blue signal lights from the beacon submarine H.M.S. Shakespeare and the destroyer Cole. “Do you think we’ve been spotted by the enemy?” someone asked Hewitt on Ancon’s flag bridge. “If they haven’t,” replied the admiral, “they’re blind.” Off the port bow, a faint ruby glow radiated from Vesuvius. Capri appeared, as the official U.S. Navy history later reported, “swimming in a silver sea.” The loamy scent of land drifted from the Sorrento Peninsula.
Twelve miles offshore, at the hundred-fathom line, captains ordered all engines stopped just before midnight. Water hissed along the hulls as the vessels lost weigh. Chains rattled. Anchors splashed. A bosun’s whistle trilled. Each ship swung gently on its moorings. The night was bright and balmy, with barely a whisper of wind. “In peacetime,” said an officer on Hilary, “honeymoon couples would pay hundreds of pounds for this.” An eruption of tracer fire on the distant shore reminded Sergeant Newton H. Fulbright of “a red, beaded curtain rising in a theater.” Someone murmured, “I think they know we’re here.”
Clark stood beside Hewitt, laved in soft red light on the flag bridge. Sailors tied manila lanyards to ten-gallon coffee urns and lowered them to the boat crews. “You’ll be in total command by tonight,” Hewitt said. Clark nodded. “I can’t help thinking that casualties may be high. Pray God they won’t.”
Gold and crimson flares blossomed inshore, followed by the rumble of demolitions in Salerno harbor. Winches creaked: more boats eased into the water. An overburdened 36th Division soldier likened the creeping descent on the cargo nets to “crawling down a ten-story building on a mesh ladder with a file cabinet on your back.” From below came the cough of landing craft. Brightened by moonset, their dim lights danced on the sea as the boat flotillas at last turned eastward and beat for the distant beaches, tugged by destiny.
A reporter scribbling in a notebook wrote of Clark: “tall, smiling, appearing unconcerned.” The army commander composed a short dispatch for Alexander at two A.M.: “Arrived at transport area on schedule. Boats have been lowered and are in position. Sea is calm. Indications are that beaches will be reached on time.”
In his diary he later jotted, “Hewitt and I on bridge. Helpless feeling. All out of my hands.”