This latest entry will take a break from the war journal and will be the second of my grandfather's "sea stories." As stated previously, these are actual events my grandfather talked about, but was not actually present for them. This is one story he always told as if he was there; however, at the time the events took place he was still Stateside. It took me many years to confirm this incident even happened, but I recently was able to find a historical account that confirmed it. My grandfather's knowledge of the incident could only be secondhand as he did not join the crew until later in the year, but his account always seemed like he witnessed it firsthand.
The incident occurred on 28 January 1944 off the coast of Anzio during the Italian campaign. My grandfather's account is below. It is reproduced here from an interview he conducted sometime before his death.
"My most memorable moment was during the Italian Campaign. We [the USS Sway (AM-120) and sister ship Strive (AM-117)] were on patrol between the Isle of Capri and Naples Harbor. Three PT boats came at us from the west, and we challenged them by flashing light but they did not answer. A second challenge was sent out and the PT boats fanned out into attack formation. The captain ordered the gun crews to open fire on the PT boats. After a fast three rounds of three 3-inch shells had been fired at them, all three PTs turned and went into the shadow of the Isle of Capri, where they started flashing their signal lights letting us know they were friendly craft. Upon acknowledging them as friendly, they approached our ship (still under the gun crew's attention). As lead quartermaster (under general quarters), I was on the bridge and noticed as they tied up alongside they were flying a three-star flag.
Sure enough, the first person up the ladder to the gangway was a general. After a noisy conference with the captain in the wardroom, the general left the ship and proceeded to Naples Harbor. I noticed as the general came aboard and as he was leaving, his arm was slightly bloody from a splinter from the PT boat when she was hit by one of our shells. This was the first wound (which earned him a Purple Heart) for General Mark Clark."
General Clark was commander of the 5th Army, fighting to capture the Italian peninsula. He had been surveying the situation where a developing stalemate at Cassino was keeping forces there from linking up with the forces landing at Anzio and hoping to cut off the Germans. The Sway and Strive, two Auk-class minesweepers, were assigned to the area to clear the shipping channels of mines and keep approaches to the beaches open. The ships also were conducting anti-E-boat patrol. The German E-boat was a small fast-attack craft similar to the American PT boa,t so some confusion could be understood. (1 and 2) The PT boat in question was PT-201.
Clark had his own account of the incident.
The next morning, January 28, I went down to the mouth of the Volturno before dawn to embark by PT boat for Anzio. . . . the situation at Anzio was becoming critical. The enemy air-raids and shelling had caused heavy damage, and there were rumors that German torpedo-boats were roaming along the coast to attack our shipping.
. . . Everything went all right, however, until we were about seven miles south of Anzio, still traveling in semi-darkness. There the AM-120, a U.S. minesweeper, challenged us. Lieutenant Patterson, commander of our PT, ordered green and yellow flares to be fired, and we flashed the designated signal on the blinker to identify ourselves as friendly.
Until that moment I had managed to get out of the wind by sitting on a stool beside the skipper, where the bridge of the boat gave me some protection. However, just before the AM-120 challenged us I got up and moved slightly to one side. The captain of the minesweeper apparently misread our signal, or perhaps it was just that everybody along the coast that dark and windy morning was trigger-happy.
Anyhow, the minesweeper fired on us, cutting loose with 40-mm and 5-inch shells. Their marksmanship, unfortunately, was pretty good. A number of shells struck our PT boat, and the second one went right through the stool on which I had been sitting.
The skipper was wounded in both legs and fell to the deck. I heard a shell explode belowdecks. There was confusion throughout the boat, and several men were knocked from their feet, two of them fatally wounded.
I picked up a Very pistol [flare gun] which someone had dropped, and again fired the correct signal to identify ourselves as friendly, but the firing from the minesweeper continued. I fired it again, with no result. By that time I had had a chance to look round. I saw that all three naval officers on the boat and two naval ratings were casualties. There was no one at the wheel, but Ensign Benson got to his feet, despite leg wounds, and swung the boat round.
I knelt down by the skipper, who couldn’t get up from the deck, and said, “What do we do?” “I don’t know,” he answered. “Well, let’s run for it,” I said. Then I held him up so that he could see what was happening and direct the movements of the boat. We ran for it, with shells still spattering around. So did the other PT boat accompanying us, although it escaped damage.
By the time we were clear our deck seemed to be littered with casualties and running with blood. One of the figures that had been knocked to the deck turned out to be Gervasi [Frank Gervasi, a war correspondent], who was groggy and soaked with blood down the front of his uniform. I began helping him get his jacket unbuttoned; we had to dig clear down to his bare skin before either one of us realized that he wasn’t wounded, but merely covered with somebody else’s blood.
General Clark's aide, Lieutenant General William Yarborough, later gave the following account of the incident in an interview.
Nearly everyone on board had been knocked off his feet. In the confusion, a Very pistol was dropped to the deck. General Clark picked it up and fired the correct flare to once again identify the PT boat as friendly. This act brought another round of shelling from the minesweeper.
Then, a young ensign, painfully wounded in both legs and bleeding profusely, dragged himself to the wheel, swung the PT boat around and, with Mark Clark holding him upright, headed back toward the Volturno River. With the badly damaged craft was the other PT boat, which had not been hit. All the while, the gunners on the minesweeper kept firing shells at the fleeing PT boats.
About 30 minutes into their trek southward, the PT boat transferred the five dead and wounded Navy men to the British minesweeper Acute, which happened to have a doctor on board. Then General Clark told the remaining naval crew, “Okay, head back for Anzio.” At the wheel was the skipper of the undamaged PT boat.
Reaching the point seven miles south of the Anzio from which the PT boats had been shelled earlier, Clark and the others on board were concerned when they sighted the same American minesweeper—presumably with her itchy gunners ready to fire again. This time, the identification signals were recognized. All on board the PT boat exhaled collective sighs of relief.
Grabbing a megaphone, the PT-boat skipper hailed the captain of the minesweeper and shouted, “You goddamned sons of bitches fired on General Mark Clark and killed and wounded five of our boys!”
”Please accept our apologies,” the embarrassed minesweeper captain called back through his megaphone. “The rays of the early morning sun made it impossible for us to recognize your signals.”
Still boiling from the “friendly fire” encounter, the ensign responded, “It’s a wonder you ignorant bastards didn’t shoot at the sun!”
Thirty minutes later, Mark Clark climbed off the PT boat at Anzio, perhaps reflecting that he was alive because of an urgent impulse to move from his customary stool on deck.
Like with most historical firsthand accounts, the truth of the incident may lie somewhere in the middle. As to how my grandfather learned of the event, it was likely from one of his fellow crew members. My grandfather would not be rated a quartermaster until January 1945, so the rating he references here would not be accurate for the time. All records I can find of his service place him in Norfolk, Virginia, at the time of the incident.