45th (Thunderbird) Division during the invasion of Sicily

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gabriel pagliarani
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Post by gabriel pagliarani » 12 Jun 2003 14:41

SICILY
Many massacres of prisoners of war were committed by the American 45th (Thunderbird) Division during the invasion of Sicily in 1943. At Comise airfield, a truck load of German prisoners were machine-gunned as they climbed down on to the tarmac, prior to be air-lifted out.
Later the same day, 60 Italian prisoners were cut down the same way. On July 14, thirty six prisoners were gunned down near Gela by their guard, US Sergeant Barry West. At Buttera airfield, US Captain Jerry Compton, lined up his 43 prisoners against a wall and machine-gunned them to death. West and Compton were both arrested and convicted of murder. They were sent to the front where both were later killed in action.
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Watching previous posts I found this (supposed) crime. I am sure that in Comiso (not Comise) there was no airport before Italy joined NATO in 1954. Half rumors, half LOLs.

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Post by Caldric » 13 Jun 2003 22:49

I am looking into it, many things are said about the 45th ID because of their killing of Waffen-SS at Dachau. However many rumors have also popped up over them because of Dachau. I just want to look into it further.

Rarely were POW's transported by plane, mostly only officers of importance would be, otherwise they would go to transport ships heading to the US or Canada in most cases. Putting couple dozen POW's on transport planes is pretty stupid.

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45th ID & war crimes during invasion of Sicily

Post by Rob - wssob2 » 16 Jun 2003 02:30

Here's what author Flint Whitlock says about the incidents in his book about the US 45th ID, "The Rock of Anzio" (Westview Press, 1998). I've added a couple comments in brackets:

On 14 July [1943], the fourth day of the 45th Division's introduction to savage combat, two unfortunate incidents occured that reflected negatively on the Thunderbirds. Near the Biscari airfield, which was being assaulted by Captain John T. Compton's C Company, 180th, a fierce firefight erupted and a dozen of Compton's men were wounded. A group of thirty-six Italian snipers, some dressed in civilian clothing, surrendered. Remembering Patton's 27 June speech [fyi: prior to the invasion of Sicily, Patton warned his troops to watch out for Axis dirty tricks and to show no mercy if any were encountered] and apparently acting on an order from the general that enemy troops who had fired upon medics and wounded soldiers or were diressed in civilian clothes were to be executed, Compton had the entire group shot.

On the same day near the same airfield, Sergeant Horace T. West of A Company, 180th, was directed to escort a group of prisoners of war to the rear for interrogation. After marching the group a short way, West inexplicably halted the prisoners and shot forty-five Italians with a machine gun. Compton and West were court-martialed for killing 73 POWs. Compton was cleared of the charges, but West was judged guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment. West served a year of his sentence, was reduced to private, and returned to duty. Captain Compton was reassigned to the 179th Regiment, distinguished himself with a number of heroic acts, and subsequently died in action in Italy in November 1943."

The above passages contain 2 footnotes which refer to Carlo D'Este's book "Bitter Victory"

Hopes this helps - Rob

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Post by DrG » 05 Apr 2004 22:25

In the Italian newsgroup it.cultura.storia.militare they are discussing this topic now. A member has discovered an article about it: Massacre at Biscari: Patton and an American war crime, by J. J. Weingartner, The Historian, 52, 1 (1989), pp. 24-39.
But that history review isn't easily avaible in Italy, has anybody of this forum read that article?

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Post by BKG » 20 May 2007 12:00

there is a little of confusion in this thread, not fantasy.

In Butera on July 13,1943 , Darby's Rangers (it is not sure though, because in the area there was also the 83rd chemical mortar bn) surprised 5 italian soldiers from 34th Regt, Livorno Division busy to load an artillery piece on a truck. The soldiers surrendered but the US soldiers machine gunned them Only one survived, Mr Bruno Vagnetti, now 82 years old and recently interviewed by Gianluca di Feo on Corriere della Sera.
In the same area, 2 german and 2 italian soldiers were killed after they surrendered. It is reported in the memories of Edward Barbarino from Darby's Rangers and confirmed also in the book "We led the way" from Col Darby (chapter VI - Landing in Sicily). They captured 4 soldiers, they searched them and then Barbarino and other 3 Us soldiers (Shumstrom,Buie and Passera) shot them.

Sgt West went to court martial, also thanks to US chapelan King, and found guilty for the Biscari massacre and got a life sentence for killing 37 prisoners. He never went to jail in the US. He was imprisoned in North Africa and 6 months later sent to the front in Bretagne where he allegedly died (but there is no record of that).

Image

The list of crimes in Sicily continues ...

For the italian readers i suggest 2 excellent texts :

Le Altre Stragi - Giovanni Bartolone
Le stragi dimenticate - Gianfranco Ciriacono

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Re: 45th (Thunderbird) Division during the invasion of Sicily

Post by Rob - wssob2 » 28 Mar 2008 16:49

Here’s an excerpt on 45th Division murder of POWs from
The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944
By Rick Atkinson (an absolutely fantastic book)


“…By early Wednesday morning, the airfield was at last in American hands. Bodies lay like bloody throw rugs on a runway gouged by more than two hundred bomb craters. The charred cruciforms of ruined airplanes smoldered near the hangars; enemy snipers had hidden in the cockpits, taking potshots until a platoon of Sherman tanks exterminated them, fuselage by fuselage. Flames crackled in the grain fields east and west of the airfield. Through the billowing smoke U.S. soldiers could be seen like wraiths in olive drab, dragging wounded comrades to safe ground or snatching first-aid kits and ammunition from abandoned packs.

Sniper fire still winked from the shadows along the packed-dirt Biscari road. Companies A and C of the 180th’s 1st Battalion had landed five days earlier with nearly 200 men each and now counted 150 between them... ‘We had the killing spirit,’ one sergeant later observed. Another rifleman wrote his father that the summer dust ‘tasted like powdered blood,’ then added ‘Now I know why soldiers get old quick.’

By midmorning on Wednesday, the 1st Battalion had pushed through the smoke and dancing flames, flushing German and Italian laggards from caves along the thready Ficuzza River. Soon Company A had rounded up forty-six prisoners, among them three Germans. Frightened and exhausted, the captives sat naked but for their trousers on a parched slope above the Ficuzza, all shirts and shoes having been confiscated to discourage escape. A major separated nine prisoners for interrogation – the youngsters were considered most likely to talk – then turned both them and the other captives over to Sergeant Horace T. West with a small security detachment for removal to the rear.

West proved a poor choice. Born in Barron Fork, Oklahoma, he had joined the army in 1929, then switched to the National Guard, training on weekends and working as a cook in his antebellum civilian life. Now thirty-three, he had two young children, earned$101 a month and had gained a reputation, one superior said, as the ‘most through non-com I ever saw in the Army.’ But the past few days had badly frayed Sergeant West. ‘It was something sitting on me,’ he later said, ‘just to kill and destroy and watch them bleed to death.’

In two shuffling columns, the prisoners marched four hundred yards down the road toward a stand of olive trees above the creek. West halted his charges – with being told, they executed a ragged left face – and separated out the smaller group designated for interrogation. Turning to the company first sergeant, Haskell Brown, he asked to borrow his Thompson submachine gun to ‘shoot the sons of bitches.’ Brown handed him the weapon with an extra clip. ‘Turn around if you don’t want to see,’ West advised, and opened fire.

They fell, writhing and jerking in the dust, then lurched to their knees, begging, only to be shot down again. Cries filled the morning – ‘No!No!’ – amid the roar of the gun and the acrid smell of codite. Three prisoners broke for the trees; two of them escaped. West stopped to reload, then walked among the men in their pooling blood and fired a single round into the hearts of those still moving. When he was done, he handed the weapon back to Brown. “This is orders,” he said, then rousted the nine chosen for interrogation to their feet, wide-eyed and trembling, and marched them to find the division G-2. Thirty-seven dead men lay beside the road, and their shadows shrank beneath the climbing sun as though something were being drawn up and out of them.

Five hours later, it happened again. As Sergeant West herded his surviving charges to the rear, German tanks and half-tracks counterattacked, recaptured the Biscari airfield, and drove the 180th across a ravine south of the runway. The brawling would continue throughout Wednesday afternoon until the enemy was again routed, this time for good. During the fight, Company C of the 1st Battalion swept down a deep gulch, taking a dozen casualties from machine gun fire before white flags waved from an expansive bunker carved into the slope. At one p.m., three dozen Italians emerged, hands up, five of them wearing civilian clothes. Ammunition boxes, filthy bedding, and suitcases lay strewn about the bunker.

In command of Company C was Captain John Travers Compton. Now twenty-five, he had joined the Oklahoma National Guard in 1934. Compton was married, had one child, earned $230 a month – minus a $6.60 deduction for government insurance – and had consistently rated ‘excellent’ or ‘superior’ on performance evaluations. Standing on the hillside, bleary with fatigue, he ordered an lieutenant to assemble a firing squad and ‘have these snipers shot.’ The squad soon formed – several men volunteered – and Compton barked the commands even as the Italians pleaded for his mercy: ‘Ready, aim, Fire.’ Tommy-gun and Browning Automatic Rifle fire swept down the gulch, and another thirty-six men fell dead.

The next day at 10:30 a.m., Lieutenant Colonel William E. King drove his jeep up the Biscari road toward the now secure airfield. It was said that King had been temporarily blinded during World War I, and the ordeal had propelled him into the ministry as a Baptist preacher. He now served God and country as the 45th Division chaplain, admired for his generosity and the brevity of his sermons. A dark mound near and olive grove caught his eye, and he stopped the jeep, mouth agape, to investigate. ‘Most were lying face down, a few face up,’ King later recalled. ‘Everybody face up has one bullet hole just to the left of the spine in the region of the heart.’ A majority also had head wounds; singed hair and powder burns implied the fatal shots had come at close range. A few soldiers loitering nearby joined the chaplain, protesting that ‘they has come into the war to fight against that sort of thing,’ King said. ‘They felt ashamed of their countrymen.’ The chaplain hurried back to the division command post to report the fell vision.

Omar Bradley had already got wind of the massacre, and he drove to Gela to tell Patton that fifty to seventy prisoners had been murdered ‘in cold blood and also in ranks.’ Patton recorded his reaction in his diary:

‘I told Bradley that it was probably an exaggeration, but in any case to tell the officer to certify that the dead men were snipers or had attempted to escape or something, as it would make a stink in the press and also would make the civilians mad. Anyhow, they are dead, so nothing can be done about it.’

Two war correspondents who had seen the bodies also appeared at Patton’s headquarters to protest these and other prisoner killings. Patton pledged to halt the atrocities, and the reporters apparently never printed a word. To George Marshall on July 18, Patton wrote that enemy troops had booby-trapped their dead and ‘have resorted to sniping behind the lines’; such ‘nefarious actions’ had caused ‘the death of quite a few additional Italians, but in my opinion these killings have been thoroughly justified.’

Bradley disagreed and, Patton told his diary, ‘feels that we should try the two men responsible for the shooting of the prisoners.’ An investigation by the 45th Division inspector general found ‘no provocation on the part of the part of the prisoners…They had been slaughtered.’ Patton relented: ‘Try the bastards.”

Captain Compton contracted malaria soon after the Biscari killings, and not until he had recuperated in late October would he be secretly court-martialed. The defense argued that Patton’s pep talk in Oran had been tatamount to ‘an order to annihilate these snipers.’ ‘I ordered them shot because I thought it came directly under the general’s instructions,’ Compton testified. ‘I took him at his word.’ The military prosecutor asked not a single question on cross-examination. Compton was acquitted and returned to the 45th Division.

Killers are Immortal, Patton had declared, but that too was wrong. Compton would be killed in action in Italy on November 8, 1943. A fellow officer in the 45th provided his epitaph: ‘Good riddance.’

Sergeant West’s case proved more convoluted. Like Compton, he was examined by psychiatrists and declared sane. He, too, claimed that Patton’s rhetoric had incited him to mayhem, while conceding that he ‘may have used bad judgment.’ His conduct, he told the courts-martial, ‘is something beyond my conception of human decency. Or something.’ The tribunal concurred and ruled that he had ‘with malice aforethought, willfully, deliberately, feloniously, unlawfully and with premeditation, killed 37 prisoners of war, one of whose names are known, each of them a human being.’

West was sentenced to life in a New York penitentiary. Yet he never left the Mediterranean during the war, nor was he dishonorably discharged, and he continued to draw his $101 a month, plus various family allowances. Colonel Cookson, the 180th regimental commander, later said ‘The whole tendency in the thing was to keep it as quiet as possible.’ A few weeks after West’s conviction, Eisenhower revied the case. If West were sent to a federal prison in the United States, the Biscari story would likely become public; if he were kept confined in North Africa, perhaps the enemy would remain ignorant of the massacre. Eisenhower ‘feared reprisal to Allied prisoners and decided to give the man a chance,’ Harry Butcher wrote in his diary. [West] will be kept in military confinement…for a period sufficient to determine whether he may be returned to duty.’

That period amounted to a bit more than a year. West’s family and a sympathetic congressman began pestering the War Department for news of ‘the most thorough non-com’ in the U.S. Army. On November 23, 1944, he was granted clemency on the grounds of temporary insanity and restored to active duty, though shorn of his sergeant’s stripes. Classified top-secret, the records of the courts martial would remain locked in the Secretary of the Army’s safe for years after the war lest they ‘arouse a segment of our citizens who are so distant from combat that they do not understand the savagery that is war.’

Those who knew of the killings tried to parse them in their own fashion. Brigadier General Raymond S. McLain, the 45th Division artillery commander, concluded that in Sicily ‘evil spirits seemed to come out and challenge us.’ Patton wrote Beatrice, ‘Some fair-haired boys are trying to say I killed too many prisoners. The more I killed, the fewer men I lost, but the don’t think of that.’ And a staff officer in the 45th wrote, ‘It was not easy to determine what forces turned normal men into thoughtless killers. But a world war is something different from our druthers.’

Nobody Really Knows What He Is Doing, Bill Mauldin had written of his first week in combat with the 180th Infantry. Yet other primal lessons also could be gleaned, from Licata to Augusta. For war was not just a military campaign but also a parable. There were lessons of camaraderie and duty and inscrutable fate. There were lessons of honor and courage, of compassion and sacrifice. And then there was the saddest lesson, to be learned again and again in the coming weeks as they fought across Sicily, and in the coming months as they fought their was back toward a world at peace; that war is corrupting, that it corrodes the soul and tarnishes the spirit, that even the excellent and the superior can be defiled, and that no heart would remain unstained.”

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Re: 45th (Thunderbird) Division during the invasion of Sicily

Post by Andreas » 28 Mar 2008 16:58

Thank you for taking the time to post this Rob.

I have also taken the time to clean out some chaff from the time before this forum benefited from proper moderation.

All the best

Andreas

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Re: 45th ID & war crimes during invasion of Sicily

Post by Penn44 » 28 Mar 2008 18:47

Rob - WSSOB wrote:Here's what author Flint Whitlock says about the incidents in his book about the US 45th ID, "The Rock of Anzio" (Westview Press, 1998).


I would use with great caution anything that Whitlock writes. He depends too heavily on oral history that is mostly GI heresay and little else.

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Re: 45th (Thunderbird) Division during the invasion of Sicily

Post by Rob - wssob2 » 28 Mar 2008 19:49

Hi Penn44 - point taken. I like Whitlock's history of the 45th Division and I haven't found any really glaring issues in comparing with other sources, but I wanted to post the Atkinson description of events because I thought it was really well-researched and well-written.

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Re: 45th (Thunderbird) Division during the invasion of Sicily

Post by Penn44 » 29 Mar 2008 00:39

Rob - wssob2 wrote:In two shuffling columns, the prisoners marched four hundred yards down the road toward a stand of olive trees above the creek. West halted his charges – with being told, they executed a ragged left face – and separated out the smaller group designated for interrogation. Turning to the company first sergeant, Haskell Brown, he asked to borrow his Thompson submachine gun to ‘shoot the sons of bitches.’ Brown handed him the weapon with an extra clip. ‘Turn around if you don’t want to see,’ West advised, and opened fire.

They fell, writhing and jerking in the dust, then lurched to their knees, begging, only to be shot down again. Cries filled the morning – ‘No!No!’ – amid the roar of the gun and the acrid smell of codite. Three prisoners broke for the trees; two of them escaped. West stopped to reload, then walked among the men in their pooling blood and fired a single round into the hearts of those still moving. When he was done, he handed the weapon back to Brown. “This is orders,” he said, then rousted the nine chosen for interrogation to their feet, wide-eyed and trembling, and marched them to find the division G-2. Thirty-seven dead men lay beside the road, and their shadows shrank beneath the climbing sun as though something were being drawn up and out of them.


The standard Thompson combat magazines contained 20 or 30 rounds. Even with a quick magazine change, I find it a little difficult to believe that West killed all 37 men by himself.

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Re: 45th (Thunderbird) Division during the invasion of Sicily

Post by tonyh » 31 Mar 2008 23:21

Aye. There were either more people involved in the killing or less POW's being killed.

But, by minimising the personnel doing the deed, perhaps the deed itself can be minimised.

I agree with Penn here. It's difficult to believe that one man could do what is claimed.


Tony

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Re: 45th (Thunderbird) Division during the invasion of Sicily

Post by Andy H » 02 Apr 2008 11:21

Penn44 wrote:
Rob - wssob2 wrote:In two shuffling columns, the prisoners marched four hundred yards down the road toward a stand of olive trees above the creek. West halted his charges – with being told, they executed a ragged left face – and separated out the smaller group designated for interrogation. Turning to the company first sergeant, Haskell Brown, he asked to borrow his Thompson submachine gun to ‘shoot the sons of bitches.’ Brown handed him the weapon with an extra clip. ‘Turn around if you don’t want to see,’ West advised, and opened fire.

They fell, writhing and jerking in the dust, then lurched to their knees, begging, only to be shot down again. Cries filled the morning – ‘No!No!’ – amid the roar of the gun and the acrid smell of codite. Three prisoners broke for the trees; two of them escaped. West stopped to reload, then walked among the men in their pooling blood and fired a single round into the hearts of those still moving. When he was done, he handed the weapon back to Brown. “This is orders,” he said, then rousted the nine chosen for interrogation to their feet, wide-eyed and trembling, and marched them to find the division G-2. Thirty-seven dead men lay beside the road, and their shadows shrank beneath the climbing sun as though something were being drawn up and out of them.


The standard Thompson combat magazines contained 20 or 30 rounds. Even with a quick magazine change, I find it a little difficult to believe that West killed all 37 men by himself.

Penn44

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Hi Penn44

One bullet doesn't always equate to just one death/wound, which is what your intimating at by stating the magazine capacity. Equally I recognize that not every bullet hits its mark.

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Re: 45th (Thunderbird) Division during the invasion of Sicily

Post by Penn44 » 05 Apr 2008 08:20

Andy H wrote:Hi Penn44

One bullet doesn't always equate to just one death/wound, which is what your intimating at by stating the magazine capacity. Equally I recognize that not every bullet hits its mark.

Regards

Andy H


Add to that, some of the POWs would have froze in place, making easy targets while the others would have panicked and ran away, perhaps, in many directions.

None were merely wounded?

Again, I doubt West killed 37 POWs all by himself. Either the number of dead was inflated or others participated in the killings.

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Re: 45th (Thunderbird) Division during the invasion of Sicily

Post by Andy H » 06 Apr 2008 17:13

Penn44 wrote:

None were merely wounded?


Robb stated earlier that:-

They fell, writhing and jerking in the dust, then lurched to their knees, begging, only to be shot down again.


I could well imagine that many were intially wounded rather than killed outright, and those that were wounded were then shot again by West (and potentially by others)

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Re: info for history channel italy

Post by marcocurti » 12 Feb 2010 14:18

Dear BKG,
I'm making a series about WWII for history channel Italy and I'm working as a researcher.
I'm looking for Edward Barbarino's memories, can you help me? Do you know where I can found his memories?
I'm also trying to call Bruno Vagnetti hoping to collect many stories as possible about american's bechhead in Sicily. Do you have any notice about him? i would like to call you by phone.
If you want you can call me at this number: 06 45553200
Marco Curti



BKG wrote:there is a little of confusion in this thread, not fantasy.

In Butera on July 13,1943 , Darby's Rangers (it is not sure though, because in the area there was also the 83rd chemical mortar bn) surprised 5 italian soldiers from 34th Regt, Livorno Division busy to load an artillery piece on a truck. The soldiers surrendered but the US soldiers machine gunned them Only one survived, Mr Bruno Vagnetti, now 82 years old and recently interviewed by Gianluca di Feo on Corriere della Sera.
In the same area, 2 german and 2 italian soldiers were killed after they surrendered. It is reported in the memories of Edward Barbarino from Darby's Rangers and confirmed also in the book "We led the way" from Col Darby (chapter VI - Landing in Sicily). They captured 4 soldiers, they searched them and then Barbarino and other 3 Us soldiers (Shumstrom,Buie and Passera) shot them.

Sgt West went to court martial, also thanks to US chapelan King, and found guilty for the Biscari massacre and got a life sentence for killing 37 prisoners. He never went to jail in the US. He was imprisoned in North Africa and 6 months later sent to the front in Bretagne where he allegedly died (but there is no record of that).

Image

The list of crimes in Sicily continues ...

For the italian readers i suggest 2 excellent texts :

Le Altre Stragi - Giovanni Bartolone
Le stragi dimenticate - Gianfranco Ciriacono

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