On the morning of 10 July, 1943, LST 344, soon to be named the USS Blanco County, waited amidst the American invasion fleet laying off the coast of Sicily. Earlier that morning paratroopers were dropped inland and the first wave of landing craft had headed towards the shore near Gela. The plan was for the Americans to land at Gela at the same time that a British and Canadian force was landing further up the coast to the east. LST 344’s mission was to run in a load of tanks, trucks and troops to quickly build up the American invasion force.
Most of the crew of the 344 had been on board since she was commissioned in December of 1942. After several training runs along the East Coast they sailed in convoy across the Atlantic with LCT-445, a smaller assault landing craft, strapped to the top deck. Shortly after landing in North Africa and offloading the 445, they received their introduction to war in the European Theater of Operations. German bombers struck their anchorage at night under the eerie glow of flares. While the 344 wasn’t hit, the raid brought home the reality of the deadly game that they were now in. This mission to Sicily would be their first amphibious landing on a hostile shore and would ratchet it all up to a deadlier level.
Sicily was the beginning of the Allied campaign to knock Italy out of the war. The Italians were still in the fray at that point, but their enthusiasm for the business was fading with each passing day. Putting Sicily in the Allied column would provide a close support base for an eventual invasion of Italy itself, and would remove the enemy air bases there that threatened the Mediterranean.
The Sicilian campaign would be noted for the many lessons learned. Communication and cooperation left much to be desired. LST 344 made her run into the beach at midmorning after being attacked by German ME-109 fighters and was straddled on the way in by shore batteries that wounded two soldiers on board. She completed her mission and returned to position about two miles off shore. There she was to remain until receiving orders on the 12th to return to North Africa. All the while German and Italian aircraft launched regular raids on the fleet. Poor communication between the different branches had tragic consequences. On the night of July 11th reinforcement paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne approached the Sicilian coast. Edgy gunners in the fleet unleashed a furious barrage that shot down 23 of the 144 planes carrying the airborne. It was the worst friendly fire incident of the war to date.
Ultimately the battle for Sicily proved to be a preview of the upcoming Italian campaign. After a brief show of resistance most of the Italian soldiers were more than happy to toss in the towel. The Germans were not so inclined and managed a skillful defense that cost the Allies dearly on both fronts. In a pattern that would soon be repeated on the Italian peninsula, they employed a lethal strategy of mines and demolitions while taking advantage of the rugged terrain to delay the Allies. LST-344 went back and forth five times between North Africa and Sicily over the next six weeks reinforcing the American 7th Army as it slowly worked its way across the island. She was attacked on several occasions by aircraft but didn’t sustain any major damage.
Realizing that they could not hope to retain control of the island the Germans conducted a fighting withdrawal. They were able to transfer virtually all of their men and equipment across the straits of Messina to the Italian mainland in what still serves as the textbook example of that sort of tactical operation. As Patton’s army rolled into Messina they were greeted only by mines, booby traps and the occasional timed demolitions left behind by the retreating Germans. The Allies would meet those same Germans soldiers again soon enough. LST-344 finished her last run to Sicily and returned to Tunisia where she readied for the next big operation, the invasion of Italy. She had earned her first battle star, and there would be more to come.
More on the LST-344, the USS Blanco County can be found by visiting the WW2 Museum in the Buggy Barn Museum Complex off N 281 or on line at http://ww2blancomuseum.com/lst_344_-_uss_blanco_county.