Operation Avalanche: U.S. Navy’s 4th Beach Battalion Assault on Salerno During World War II

6/12/2006 • Dwight Eisenhower, Thomas Jefferson, World War II

Come on in and give up. We have you covered,’ blared German loudspeakers as GIs waded ashore. The Americans replied with obscenities. But the enemy was ready for them–an inauspicious beginning for Operation Avalanche, the Allies’ September 9, 1943, amphibious landing at Italy’s Gulf of Salerno. Between Salerno and Agropoli–the American sector–the Germans had sown minefields and established strongpoints. Within 400 yards of the beach were many 88mm guns.

D-day would prove a stern test not only for the GIs but also for the men of the U.S. Navy’s 4th Beach Battalion who landed with them. The sailors had received an assignment critical to the success of Avalanche. Their battalion was to serve as the link between the troops ashore and the ships offshore. Operation Avalanche required them to mark and clear sites to land craft and control beach traffic; unload equipment, supplies and reinforcements; evacuate casualties; salvage and repair boats and equipment; and set up fire control and ship-to-shore communications.

The 4th Beach Battalion, known as the ‘Knee-deep’ sailors, had prepared well for this assignment. After advanced training in North Africa, the sailors had received their baptism of fire in July during the Sicily landings. At the end of operations there, they returned to North Africa for replacements and rest. Before long, however, training resumed. Their instructors were Army Rangers. ‘They were supposed to toughen us up for Salerno,’ recalled Seaman James Townley.

On September 1, the battalion boarded USS Thomas Jefferson at Oran. Joining a sizable Allied armada, Thomas Jefferson entered the Gulf of Salerno on September 8. That evening, D-minus-1, the men aboard the transport enjoyed showers and a hot meal. They also listened over the shipboard radio to Allied commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower announce Italy’s surrender to the Allies. Unfortunately, Eisenhower’s announcement dulled the combat edge of the assault troops. With Italy no longer a belligerent, the men relaxed, expecting an easy walk ashore. ‘They were telling us this was going to be a piece of cake,’ remembered Carpenter’s Mate Warren Baker.

Around midnight on September 8, the battalion began transferring to LCVPs (landing craft, vehicle, personnel). Swells of up to 10 feet made climbing down cargo nets into the smaller boats tricky business, and several men suffered broken limbs.

After a run of some 10 miles in favorable weather, the first attacking wave hit the beaches at 3:30 a.m. The Germans opened fire, guided by the light of chandelier flares. Signalman Fred Bingaman recalled: ‘It was pitch dark, and we started in. I remember…sticking my head up a little bit…and I saw all this stuff flying around: all different color tracers. The first thing I thought about was fireworks back home as a kid.’

Ahead of the landing craft a strip of white sand sloped gently upward to a series of dunes. These, in turn, gave way to a cultivated coastal plain dotted with a few villages. A pair of mountains loomed in the distance, Monte Soprano on the left and Monte Sottane on the right. Opposite the center of what would become a 2,400-yard-wide American beachhead stood the ancient temples of Paestum. Among them a 50-foot stone watchtower, the Torre di Paestum, dominated the surrounding area.

The 4th Beach Battalion landed with the 531st Shore Engineers and elements of the 36th Infantry Division, in the second through the sixth waves. It took until 9 a.m. for all the battalion’s nine platoons to reach their designated beaches. From north to south, these were Red, Green, Yellow and Blue. Battalion headquarters set up on Red Beach, though Lt. Cmdr. James E. Walsh, the commanding officer, remained aboard Vice Adm. Henry K. Hewitt’s flagship, USS Ancon.

About 3:45 a.m., Coxswain Harry Stephens landed with Platoon B-4 (B Company, 4th Platoon) on Red Beach. ‘It was still dark, and those 88s were trying to reach us, but luckily we landed safely,’ Stephens recollected. ‘We dug foxholes where we landed, and prepared for action.’ Platoon B-5 and A Company subsequently joined B-4 on Red Beach.

Ensign Robert H. Burch, Jr., and 26 men of B-4, along with 15 from the 531st Shore Engineers, landed on the northern half of Red Beach, designated Red Beach 1. Machine-gun fire here was nonexistent and artillery fire sporadic. Burch and an engineer sergeant uncovered an exit road and soon had their men laying out a steel-mat roadway so heavy equipment could cross the soft sand between the water’s edge and the road. DUKWs (‘Ducks’–amphibious trucks) brought ashore 105mm howitzers and tanks–artillery and armor that would eventually lend support to the hard-pressed beaches to the south.

Landing on the southern half of Red Beach (Red Beach 2) was a tougher proposition. As the sky brightened, German fire intensified and machine-gunners inside the Torre di Paestum began spraying the beach. The sailors could only hunker down in their shallow foxholes as bullets clipped the beach grass above their heads. ‘The 88s began firing rapidly,’ recalled Stephens. ‘Soon they hit some of our LCVPs that were coming onto the beach. There was a sandbar about 20 to 25 feet from the beach that stopped all LCVPs. When the ramp was lowered, the men were hesitant about getting their feet wet, until 88s hit the water, one on each side of the boat. Needless to say the craft emptied in a hurry.’

Platoon B-6 splashed ashore at Green Beach. German fire, much of it from the Torre di Paestum area, swept the southern half of the beach all through D-day. A rocket-firing scout boat had silenced German guns sited on the northern half of the beach, and DUKWs as well as other craft landed unmolested.

Farther south, Platoon C-7 hit Yellow Beach about 3:45 a.m., followed by C-8. Seaman Al Benevelli remembered: ‘Going in with the landing craft, we hit a sandbar, and I was knocked forward. A bullet hit the ensign behind me right in the chest and killed him. If we hadn’t hit that sandbar, I wouldn’t be here today.’ Once ashore, according to Benevelli, ‘We went up the beach on our bellies, bullets going over our heads….All this time, our own ships were sending shells over our heads.’ Despite the enemy fire, sailors started blowing up sandbars and other obstacles, clearing and marking minefields, placing bangalore torpedoes under barbed wire and establishing communications centers and casualty stations.

Meanwhile, at 3:45 a.m., Platoon C-9 landed on Blue Beach, midway between Agropoli and Paestum. As they waded ashore they could see three German tanks moving up to the beach. Corpsman Elmer ‘John’ Johnstone recalled: ‘They were right behind the sand dunes….We could hear them yelling from one tank to the other.’ Once in position, the tanks soon began shelling approaching boats, sometimes scoring direct hits. The fire was so heavy that the fourth boat wave was the last to land on Blue Beach; the others diverted elsewhere. Top priority for the men who had made it ashore was digging in. As Lieutenant Jud Bentley, a beachmaster, put it, ‘Early on, we were all as far underground as our foxholes would permit.’

There was certainly no cover available on open water, however. Dozens of boats–LSTs (landing ships, tank), LCTs (landing craft, tank) and DUKWs–carrying desperately needed tanks and guns were unable to land because of heavy fire. Many that were able to make it to shore found too few men to unload their cargoes when they got there and simply dumped their loads on the beach. As a result, piles of supplies accumulated at the water’s edge, spilling into the surf, which kept other boats from reaching shore. All of the landing craft had to run the gantlet of 88 fire as they went back out to sea, and many were hit.

The Luftwaffe made an appearance over the beaches as well. Signalman Paul Deese recalled: ‘The German dive bombers began to drop bombs along the beach area, and one LST had a direct hit. Many lives were lost. Our medical personnel had to go aboard and bring out the bodies.’ Deese added: ‘German planes would come out of the sun and strafe the beaches….The German pilots [were] almost at eye level as they went up the beaches. If you were caught in the open, all you could do was to fall on your face and pray–there was no cover.’

On Red Beach, an Army major thought he had found a way to discourage the strafing attacks. Summoning one of his noncommissioned officers, he issued orders to organize a detail and raise a barrage balloon. Carpenter’s Mate Donald Palmer saw what happened next: ‘No sooner did the barrage balloon rise above the sand dunes than the Germans fired one 88 shell over, one short and then one dead center of the balloon. I was standing next to the major when the sergeant reported back to him. ‘Sir, I lost all nine of my men.”

As if this were not enough, the sailors had to dodge friendly fire. Excited gunners aboard landing craft, aiming at low-flying German planes, would shoot wildly toward the beach. Errant fire from ships in the bay hit a British Supermarine Spitfire, and the smoking plane passed over Red Beach before crashing. The pilot bailed out and waded ashore to everyone’s applause. In addition, shells fired from ships offshore occasionally fell short, producing casualties and caving in the sailors’ hastily dug foxholes.

Aware that there were likely to be casualties on the beach, a 4th Beach Battalion medical team had landed with the assault troops and immediately set up an aid station. After treating the wounded, the medical staff took them to LCTs for transport to ships in the bay. Medical units would remain on the beach for 12 days, supervising the evacuation of more than 1,400 wounded men. Due to a shortage of Army medical personnel, even after the beach was secured Navy medics went inland to treat Army casualties.

Corpsman Johnstone’s performance was typical. As the sky rained 88 shells, Johnstone placed a gut-shot shipmate, Seaman Robert Dorey, on a litter. With a reluctant boatswain’s mate helping, he carried Dorey more than a mile along an exposed beach to a waiting LST for evacuation. Sadly, Dorey died while undergoing surgery in the officers’ wardroom of USS Woolsey. One lieutenant recalled: ‘Very few officers showed up for dinner at the wardroom that night. The thought of the young seaman dying on the dining room table a few hours earlier was too much to endure.’

As the morning wore on, there was no movement at all on Blue Beach–nor would there be for much of the day. The sailors there tried to get a boat from Yellow Beach to evacuate casualties, but mortar fire wrecked the craft as it approached. Under heavy small-arms fire, Seaman Andrew Alardi swam 100 yards out to sea with a life jacket to help wounded men in the boat. Two other craft also attempted to land but turned back due to enemy fire.

Meanwhile, increasingly heavy fire shut down Yellow Beach for hours. Mortar shells peppered the area. Artillery pounded landing craft along the shoreline and in the water. One or two tanks had arrived near the Torre di Paestum and added their firepower to the defenders.

The situation for the Americans was desperate. Ironically, it was only the Germans’ own minefields that stopped them from charging down on the pinned down attack force and pushing it into the sea. The word was passed down to the soldiers and sailors on the beach to fix bayonets in anticipation of a German infantry attack. The Germans, however, aware of the extent of their minefields, chose to simply keep pummeling their opponents with shellfire.

About 10 a.m., in an effort to reinforce the men ashore, a wave of nine landing craft approached Yellow Beach. German fire forced them to turn back, but not before a British LCM (landing craft, medium) received a direct hit from an 88. The disabled craft drifted toward the beach, running aground on a sandbar. Braving enemy fire, Seaman Robert Danke rushed to the shoreline and helped pull two badly injured survivors from the burning wreck.

With artillery and armor unable to get ashore, the men on the beaches were dependent upon naval gunfire support from the ships offshore. Unfortunately, a number of radios had been lost in the landings or malfunctioned. With fewer radios available, communicating with Allied ships was difficult. Further complicating the situation was the fact that fire-control parties were scattered and pinned down–some unable to get ashore at all.

Solutions to the communications problems could not come too quickly for the sailors on Blue Beach. Late in the morning, tanks came rumbling toward the beach. German engineers were in the process of clearing a path that would allow their tanks through the minefields.

The sailors’ nearest supporting infantry from the 36th Division, a mile away down the beach, could not be contacted by radio. The radio had not worked properly all day, having gotten wet during the landing. The radio operator did manage to warn off approaching landing craft, as German tanks were only 80 yards from the water. Before the radio went dead, the sailors continued sending signals for fire support and reinforcements. They also reported the position of the enemy armor.

The sailors on Blue Beach found themselves all alone for three hours. When their radio finally died, it was assumed that the beach had been overrun. Admiral Hewitt had the destroyers Bristol, Edison, Ludlow and Woolsey move parallel to the shore and begin shelling the beach to drive the tanks away. Their first two salvoes were short, however, falling at the water’s edge and killing and wounding a number of Americans. Some tried to escape the friendly fire, but Corpsman Johnstone, caring for six wounded men, refused to abandon his charges.

Caught between the Germans to their front and the American ships to their rear, the sailors were desperate. Signalman Bingaman made his way to the water’s edge, where he used a pair of handkerchiefs to semaphore word to the ships indicating the presence of sailors on the beach. Fortunately, the signal was seen and the destroyers transferred their fire to the German tanks that were still threatening the beach. The Navy gunners knocked out several of the tanks and drove the rest away. Bingaman’s action undoubtedly saved Blue Beach for the Americans. He was later awarded the Silver Star for his gallantry.

Brigadier General John Lange, commander of the 36th Infantry Division, which landed in the first wave of the attack, spoke for all the men on the beaches when he said, ‘Thank God for the fire from the blue belly Navy ships.’ Edison alone knocked out 11 tanks during the day, while the cruisers Savannah and Philadelphia, joining the fray, accounted for 10 between them.

Meanwhile, Yellow Beach was also opened up thanks to the efforts of the 4th Beach Battalion. Sailors there used the only operable radio in the area to call in naval gunfire from destroyers in the bay. As the ships dueled with German tanks, other members of the beach party were busy searching for a channel that was deep enough to allow LSTs laden with armor and artillery to reach the beach. Ensign Luther Kern of Platoon C-8, accompanied by two other seamen, boarded a British LCVP to conduct the reconnaissance. The boat was hit three times and sunk, with all British personnel on board lost. Kern was mortally wounded, but he did locate a channel.

Soon thereafter, a British vessel was able to come to the aid of Yellow Beach. Moving close inshore, she poured smoke shells into the Torre di Paestum area, enabling men of the 531st Shore Engineers, reinforced by beach party members, to storm the strongpoint. They neutralized the tanks and machine guns around the tower and cleared out snipers, taking six prisoners in the bargain.

Through the efforts of the 4th Beach Battalion, the situation on the landing beaches was slowly beginning to improve. By midafternoon, most of the German guns and tanks along the shore were silent and air attacks on the beaches had diminished. Finally, boats circling offshore were able to come in. Reserve infantry splashed ashore, and efforts were made to clear beaches jammed with supplies.

The Americans exploited the retreat of the surviving German armor. Lieutenant Bentley remembered: ‘That big Tiger tank, waving its cannon around looking for a target on the beach, finally left, leaving its tracks behind! It did us a real favor. All the 531st Engineers had to do was follow these tank tracks to put in a road off the beach. With our guys laying the metal roadway through the mine fields, the area beyond the beach was open.’

As the infantry made its way inland, the beach parties carried on, transmitting target coordinates, laying miles of telephone wire, unloading ammunition and high-octane gasoline, refloating beached landing craft and repairing disabled boats.

With the dawn of D-plus-1, Lt. Gen. Mark Clark, commanding the Allied Fifth Army, could report that his forces had established a beachhead. Radioman Krumpolz recalled: ‘Things calmed down somewhat by the second day. Some of us dumb beach boys found ourselves in front of the infantry, looking for souvenirs.’ The beach was still a dangerous place, though. That morning, Ensign Glenn Adams was on Red Beach trying to find out why vehicles were coming ashore so slowly when a Messerschmitt Me-109 suddenly swept over the beach and dropped a bomb that scored a direct hit on his jeep. The ensign and two other officers were killed instantly.

By 10 p.m. on September 10, all the troops and vehicles waiting aboard assault craft had been unloaded. Even with the beachhead firmly established, however, the 4th Beach Battalion’s work was not finished. With no port facility available to the Allies, all of the equipment, supplies and reinforcements had to continue coming ashore via the beach. The sailors there were critical to the unloading operations.

Over the next few days, Clark’s GIs moved forward, bypassing some German strongpoints, eliminating others. Caught up in the ground advance, a handful of sailors converted themselves into infantrymen and, contrary to orders, headed inland with the advancing GIs. Perhaps the most daring were Seamen Clifford Christian, Clyde Daugherty and Gilbert Carter. Dodging large German units, they waged their own private guerrilla war. In one instance, the sailors surprised a half dozen German soldiers sitting down to breakfast, captured five and killed one who tried to escape. The trio even liberated a couple of small villages. ‘We haven’t got any particular name–except ‘beach party,” one of the group later told a Stars and Stripes reporter, ‘but the Army started calling us ‘Navy Commandos.’ Reckon that moniker’s about as good as any.’

On September 13, the Germans launched a full-scale counterattack that pushed the Americans back. Late in the day, Clark issued orders to prepare for a possible evacuation of the beachhead. When word of this reached the beach party, the sailors learned they would act as a rear guard. ‘We were expendable,’ radioman William Sprague later surmised. The Germans renewed their offensive the following day, but its momentum was soon spent-much to the sailors’ relief. The Allied toehold on the Italian mainland was now assured.

Most of the 4th Beach Battalion was withdrawn from Salerno on September 23. A skeleton force of six officers and 70 men remained to maintain naval control of the four beaches. Five days later, a severe storm beached scores of landing craft, damaging many. The sailors pitched in to help with the cleanup and salvage work. Finally, on October 16, with the ports of Naples and Salerno open, the sailors were relieved.

On October 21, the final group of sailors to leave the beaches endured one more trial on their way back to Oran on board LST-41 S. Coxswain Stephens remembered that he and some of his buddies were’standingon the starboard side of the LST, enjoying the sun,’ when the situation turned deadly. ‘All of a sudden there were two enemy planes corning at us out of the sun!’ said Stephens. ‘Even before we could react, a torpedo hit the LST’s bow right below us. The concussion threw us back into the ship, but luckily we were able to grab the side of the ship to keep from falling into the chasm caused by the explosion.’ The men on the port side were knocked into the water and could not be located. Meanwhile, damage control parties worked to keep the LST afloat. ‘The next day,’ Stephens recalled, ‘a Canadian subchaser hailed our ship to ask if we had lost anybody overboard. It was our shipmates, the ones who were lost overboard the night before. We sure were happy to see them.’

Admiral Henry K. Hewitt, commanding the Western Naval Task Force, later acknowledged the sailors’ contribution at Salerno: ‘The Fourth Beach Battalion performed its assigned tasks in an outstanding manner under enemy fire.’ Without naval gunfire support, the American beachhead could have been lost; without the sailors operating their radios, this support would have been less effective if not impossible. Yet one beach party member, years later, offered his own modest evaluation of the part his unit played during the Salerno landing: ‘It seemed like the most unorganized thing that ever was, but we won.’

This article was written by Barry Popchock for World War II magazine February 2002. For more great articles subscribe to World War II magazine today!

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