By Sgt. Walter Bernstein

WITH THE 45TH DIVISION IN SICILY–They were given the Gun in Texas. It was delivered right to C Battery of this 45th Division Field Artillery battalion with the compliments of the Erie Ordnance Depot. With the Gun came a field manual and a log book. The manual said it was a caliber 105-mm howitzer, Model M2A1, Serial No. 1008; the log book for recording the number of rounds fired was empty.

45th infantry division engineers

Insignia of the 45th Infantry Division.

Today that log book is full. They took the Gun from Texas to a tomato patch in a alley on the north coast of Sicily, firing as they went. They fired for record in the dust of Camp Barkeley in Texas and in the snow of Pine Camp, N.Y., and now they are firing for keeps. For three weeks the Gun was not silent for more than six hours at a time. the crew is proud of the Gun. The enemy is afraid of it.

The history of the Gun is not like the story of a Flying Fortress or a British destroyer that battles overwhelming odds, staggers through action after harrowing action and finally goes down in a literal blaze of glory. The Gun has been under fire, but only for a short time, and never dangerously. This does not mean that it was not up there; it means simply that the battery commander knew his stuff. The better the Gun does its work the more chance it has of coming through the war without ever being under any more fire. Its crew has never seen the enemy in action and probably never will. No one immediately connected with the Gun has ever seen the effect of its fire.

The Gun, just a typical Field Artillery piece, is completely unheroic and absolutely necessary. So is the crew.

There are nine in the crew, headed by Sgt. Elden W. Yoder of Chandler, Okla. The Gunner is Cpl. Virgil Irwin of Aline, Okla. The cannoneers are Pvt. Emmett Osborn of Davenport, Okla.; Pfc. Paul J. Hemmelgarn of St. Cloud, Minn.; Pvt. Leonard Jacona of Philadelphia, Pa., Pvt. Sigmond Biernacki of Baltimore, Md.; Pfc. Rudolph Bistany of Yonkers, N.Y.; Pfc. Walter Flanagan of Williamsport, Pa., and Pvt. Forest Saunders of Ringos Mills, Ky.

105mm howitzer field artillery gun

105mm Howitzers fire at enemy positions

There is also a truck driver, T-5 Olen Beasley of Chandler, Okla., who operates the six-by-six that hauls the Gun from position to position.

The crew has been together for more than a year now, operating as a team, and each one knows the other guy’s job. They are completely unsentimental about the Gun; they have never given it a name other than the Gun, and if it should be destroyed they would not week over it but simply cuss out the days they would have to wait for another. But they like it. They think it’s a hell of a piece, easy to work and terrible in its effect. They wouldn’t trade it for any gun in the Artillery, even if they could get another.

The crew is Section 4 of the battery. Its members were first introduced to the Gun at Camp Barkeley. They spent the next three days trying to separate it from several coatings of cosmoline. This did not exactly endear them to the piece, and it was probably fortunate that they did get a lecture immediately afterward on how the artilleryman’s best friend is his howitzer.

They spent the next three months making dry runs and maneuvers and night problems and amphibious problems, and just enough real firing to make the men think maybe they would get to use the Gun some day. The outfit traveled from camp to camp. then all of a sudden they found themselves on a transport, with the Gun in the hold.

The Gun was unloaded in Sicily on a morning that the crew will never forget. Before the landing Pvt. Osborn tied a horseshoe on the Gun for luck, and two bombs missed it by 20 feet.  The crew preceded the Gun ashore, leaving Cpl. Irwin on the landing boat. The boat couldn’t land where the crew landed, so it went about 10 miles farther down the coast and put Irwin and the Gun off there.

By that time all hell was breaking loose. The initial enemy resistance had been pushed back by the combined naval, air and ground forces, but there was still plenty of counteraction. The air was full of whizzing objects, and no one had a very clear idea of what was going on.

45th division sicily gun

Soldiers of the 45th Infantry Division in Sicily

In the midst of all this bloody confusion Irwin found himself with one gun, no ammunition and no means of transportation. Beasley and the truck were with the battery, 10 miles up the beach. Irwin finally managed to borrow a jeep that was standing around, hitched the Gun to that and with the aid of some sailors and a couple of stray infantrymen, and started up the beach.

Meanwhile the rest of the crew had landed under heavy enemy fire and made their way inland about two miles, until they found high enough ground for artillery operations. They dug in and Irwin finally found them there.

The rest of C Battery had already assembled and was firing, and Sgt. Yoder soon had the Gun in action. It was their first real action. They were too excited to be nervous. The battery had put an observer up with the infantry, and he was calling shots at 1,600 yards with a charge five, and the Gun was really popping them out. The observer kept yelling, “More! More!” and no one in the crew actually remembers what went on that day more than five yards from the Gun.

The men didn’t sleep that night, and the next night they began t move forward. They worked like a good body puncher, moving in all the time, throwing short, hard punches; and the infantry was the final right hand. For three nights, the crew didn’t sleep and the Gun didn’t stop firing. There wasn’t even a chance to clean it during that time.

After the third night, progress was routine. The men kept moving forward behind the infantry, but they were no longer fired upon. They kept the Gun camouflaged and in defilade. Several times enemy guns sought it out; many times there were Stukas overhead. When the planes came the Gun shut up, so as not to give away its position. After they left, the Gun started again. Hour after hour, day after day, the Gun kept throwing its 33-pound projectiles.

And nothing went wrong with it. On that first landing the battery’s gun mechanic was killed, and from then on the crew had to look after the Gun’s care. Once it fired 236 rounds in 12 hours, getting so hot the paint burned off the tube. That was the time Yoder had to get a jeep driver to take his place at the earphones. He couldn’t hear anything because of the constant explosion, and had to go back hauling ammunition. He couldn’t hear anything for two days afterward. That was also the time everyone pithed into haul ammunition, from the mess sergeant to the first sergeant.

Once the recoil mechanism had to be filled with oil because the barrel wouldn’t go far enough forward into battery. Once the Gun threw Pvt. Flanagan while he was standing on one of the trails, digging it into the ground with the recoil. Once while the Gun was being pulled to another position, it broke loose from the truck, and Yoder and Bistany chased it half a mile. But the Gun fired every time they wanted to fire, and that was practically all the time. And it fired rapidly; hundreds of German prisoners here in Sicily keep asking to see those “automatic” howitzers the Americans have.

The push from the south to the north coast of Sicily was interesting for the crew but not highly exciting. Most of the time they were too busy doing their routine job to realize they were making history. They worked hard and steadily, with a minimum of snafu, and while they were rarely in positions of great danger they were never entirely out of danger. In the little spare time they had, riding to a new position or sitting by the Gun, they looked at this strange country and collected souvenirs and tried to talk to the people. Pvt. Jacona spoke Italian, and that helped to get fruit and an occasional spaghetti dinner.

And all the time they were doing a job. The Gun and its crew made infantry advances possible and beat back counterattacks. Their observers crept forward ahead of the infantry and spotted targets for them. If there was anything at all romantic about the operation of Model M2A1, it was in the work of the three-man observation crew, who ducked rifle and machine-gun fire to spot enemy positions and spent long nights in caves and foxholes. The observers were Lt. Neil McPhail, a former salesman for Firestone in Cincinnati, Ohio; Pfc. Frank Baker, who used to drive busses in Elida, Ohio, and Pfc. Jesse Ferrell, fresh out of business college in Bristow, Okla.

The Gun itself does essentially uninteresting work, and it is dependent on a number of equally prosaic little jobs; the men who string wire from section to battery, the men who run the supply trucks with the ammunition, the officers who do the thankless mathematics that makes the Gun hit where it’s supposed to hit, the instrument corporal with his aiming circle, the cook with the chow. All those serve the Gun; and the Gun serves them.

Now that the Sicily campaign is over, Section 4 is waiting to push into the continent and keep on terrorizing the enemy. The Gun is still working and will continue to work until it is put out of action or retired after the war in front of an armory in in a public square.

For More Reading Check Out:

The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944 (The Liberation Trilogy)

The Rock Of Anzio: From Sicily To Dachau, A History Of The U.S. 45th Infantry Division

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