Editor’s note: Welcome to Chapter One of Kevin Wilson’s book, Sully’s Squad, a WWII epic and moving coming-of-age tale, told through the eyes of a 15-year-old Arty, who lies about his age to enlist. The story is poignant and sensitive while describing battlefield deaths and the emotions that surround them along with the impact on the families back home.
In the dark of midnight, massive guns fire simultaneously on the Sicilian shore. For a split second after each explosion, yellow and orange light reveals the deck of our boat, flashing glimpses of hundreds of soldiers as we wait in anticipation.
The next blast is closer, louder. It doesn’t just light up the deck. It flings me on my side like I’m one of the tin soldiers I used to play with as a kid. As I roll, I can see Coney on his knees, searching for his helmet.
Then the night goes black again.
My legs shake as I stagger upright. It’s 1:30 am on July 10, 1943. For the past several hours we’ve traveled through a gale, rough seas tossing our three-story vessel like a child with a ball. The wind blows the rain in sideways, straight at you, stinging the body. I’ve been soaked for hours, and I’m shaking uncontrollably now from the chill.
I press my palms against my ears, trying to block the sound as I stare out at the shells bursting on the distant shore. The tracks of the explosives tracing through the sky look like falling stars and meteors heading for earth. I’m in awe, but I’m also afraid.
As the deck bucks under me, I reach into my pocket and pull out a small velvet pouch. I untie the drawstring, open the top, and hold it under my nose to inhale the sweet scent of home. My mother. Lilacs from our backyard on a summer evening. Just over a year ago, as I boarded the bus for basic training, my mother had pressed the pouch into the palm of my hand. “Remember,” she’d said, wrapping her arms around me in a final hug. “Home will always be with you.” When I found my seat on the bus, I stretched open the pouch and immediately smelled lilacs. The little sac was packed with fresh petals; though they disintegrated with time, their scent had not. My mother knew I would need her words and the comforting smell of home.
“Keep in line!” yells one of the sergeants.
I glance around, looking for Coney. I’d given him the two packs of cigarettes they’d issued us a couple days ago because I don’t smoke unless I’m scared. But, right now, I’m desperate for a smoke.
I catch Coney’s eye and put two fingers up to my mouth. He nods and hands me a cigarette. I lean over for a light, then cough as I inhale.
Our line moves forward. The men in front drop over the ropes into the waiting assault craft. Every moment, I’m steps closer to climbing over the side myself. The sound becomes deafening. The boat pitches so I stumble from side to side, and now I can see my fingers shaking in the glow from the cigarette. The smell of gunpowder and the cigarette smoke scratch my throat. I spit, then cough. But the choking air up here is still better than the stench below deck, where vomit slicks the floors and the smell of shit from backed up toilets mingles with the body odor from hundreds of sweating soldiers.
“Gather around!” Sargent Spinelli yells, trying to keep our unit tight. “We’re moving closer to the ropes.”
All around us, other officers shout to keep the line from holding up. “Let’s go boys! Form two lines! Keep moving!”
Coney punches me on the shoulder, a signal to move. I nod and flick my cigarette towards the churning water below.
Fear and confidence war within me as I gaze toward the shore. How can the enemy survive these guns? I wonder. Suddenly, Lucky falls against me. I catch him before he tumbles to the deck.
“Lucky! Lucky!” I yell, slapping his face.
“Get some water!” Coney shouts.
Hank beats me to it, unscrewing his canteen and splashing Lucky’s face. Lucky’s eyes spring open and he stands up on his own two feet again. Our squad shuffles forward until Sargent Spinelli stands at the rope, looking down at the dark ocean. We’re up. I try to get Sargent’s attention to tell him that Lucky isn’t doing well. But the darkness and noise makes it impossible to communicate with anyone more than a foot away, and Sargent is a good twenty feet ahead.
But Doc is near enough to catch my meaning, and he comes over to investigate the situation. After a quick back and forth with Lucky, Doc nods to me, indicating that Lucky’s okay. Everyone on the boat is anxious, seasick and weak, I realize, just like Lucky. But this is Lucky’s first time seeing action, so his nerves are no doubt even more on edge than mine.
I pat him on the back as he looks me in the eye, letting me know he’s okay. I lift two fingers to my eyes and point towards the ropes, signaling him to focus on the task before us. He nods and turns to look straight ahead.
I take a deep breath and look back towards the shore. Our training was thorough, but there’s still no real way to prepare yourself for an actual descent with wind, rain, and sea spray slicking the ropes. Sargent Spinelli, known by the squad as Sully, turns toward us, his face illuminated by flashes from the shells exploding on shore. He touches his helmet, backpack and weapon, signaling us to check that our gear is strapped and secured.
We’re in two lines, ready to climb down in pairs. I’m going to be in the third pair with Lucky, and since I’m the senior soldier of the two of us, I feel responsible for taking him into action. “You can do this!” I yell, punching him in the arm, gesturing for him to look ahead. He nods, his gaze fixed forward. Another shell explosion lights up the night. I see that his eyes are filled with fear. I know that look. I’ve seen it in other soldiers. And I’ve felt it myself.
I look down at the landing craft, rocking forcefully below. I can hear the faint sound of its engine below the naval gunfire. Our own ship continues to rock. My stomach starts to churn like the angry sea below.
How the hell are we going to land in this weather? I hope the Germans will think no one’s stupid enough to invade tonight. But I’m afraid they may know better.
Then, suddenly, there are no more men between Lucky and me and the sea. It’s our turn to board the assault vessel.
I prepare to climb down the ropes by grabbing the top of the deck.
“Lucky, you with me?”
“Let me hear you say it!” I yell.
“I’m with you!”
I place my left leg over the rail and the straps from my eighty-pound pack cut into my shoulders like knives. The pain is a surprise. Dammit.
I look down at the landing craft while holding onto the ropes with my hands and feet. Then I turn to my left to check on Lucky. Good. He’s moving in sequence with me.
Below, Willy and Hank are ready to release into the craft. I’m relieved for them; between them, they’re carrying a bazooka and dozens of pounds of ammunition. I descend the ropes slow and steady, one step at a time, cautiously alternating a leg and the opposite arm in sequence down the cold, slippery ropes.
We’re now about half way down. The destroyers on either side of us choose this moment to fire in unison, and the rope responds by swinging violently.
I’m smashed into the side of our boat. My body spins, but I hold tight to the wet ropes. Below, I still see the craft bouncing. But when I look to my left, Lucky’s gone.
Where the hell did he go?
There’s no more time to look. The rope steadies, and I continue my downward climb. Above me, Romeo and Marty climb over the ship’s side loaded with a machine gun and ammunition.
I’m close enough to the assault craft to release my grip and drop. But when I do, a large wave slams the assault craft so hard that the hull rises to smack my nose. A gush of warm blood fills my nostrils and I cry out in pain.
Unbelievable! I fought in the North Africa campaign without a scratch. In all my years as a baseball catcher, I never hurt my nose. But now I’m not even back in combat yet and my nose is bleeding. Still, it’s not the kind of injury that’s important at a moment like this. I need to keep it to myself.
And I need to find Lucky. Each time a shell explodes on shore, I scan the boat, but I don’t see him.
“Move to the back, mates,” yells the coxswain, struggling to keep the craft steady.
A searchlight from the ship shines into the grey-green sea near the craft. Beyond is so much darkness. And then even the searchlight goes off.
As I look around for the squad, a wave of sea water rushes into the landing craft and pelts my face. The rocking of the craft forces me to sink to my knees, clinging to the side. When I turn my head to get my bearings, I see Sully next to me.
“Where’s Lucky?” I shout. Seawater splashes into my open mouth. “He was next to me and now he’s gone!”
A flash from a naval gun illuminates Sully’s face. His expression tells me not to question him. “Arty, sit and focus on our mission! He’ll show up.” Then Sully turns toward the rest of the squad, who I now see are gathered all around us. “Keep your focus, everyone!”
I’ve seen death before. I spent six months in the campaign in North Africa, which left a path of death and destruction. I still remember the first German I killed. I never saw his face, but he dropped from my rifle shot and didn’t move. I remember the first camel I ever saw lying dead in the desert, with vultures devouring his flesh. But what I remember most are the smells. Decaying and burning flesh creates a ghastly stench that attaches to your hair, clothes and memory. But even if you’ve seen combat before, it’s not something you get used to.
“Keep your position. No quick moves! We don’t want to rock the vessel anymore,” the coxswain yells.
Sully goes on giving us our orders. “Keep your weapons and ammo dry. Throw up on your boots.”
We’re standing side by side, bouncing into each other and the boat. My boots are soaking in a mixture of seawater and vomit. Blood drips from my nose.
“Arty, look me in the eye,” Sully yells. “Are you with me?”
“Say it!” Sully orders. His sharp tone snaps me into focus. This is a matter of life and death.
“Yes, Sargent, I’m ready!” Responding out loud increases my confidence. Sully has a gift for knowing how and when to take a soldier aside. I’d seen him do it in North Africa, with Hank.
Hank’s full name was Henrik Klausen, and he’d been born in Germany to Jewish parents. But as his homeland slid into fascism, they’d been forced to flee for America. When we rounded up German prisoners in North Africa, Hank glared at each one as they walked past him. Then he started yelling.
“Who’s from Munich? Anyone from Munich?”
He was searching for anyone who might give him information about his German family and the friends who had been ripped out of his life when his family fled into exile. But he was also freaking out.
“Hank,” Sully had said, firmly. “Over here.” He motioned to a patch of shade under a palm tree. Since several of us had already crowded into the welcome shade, I was close enough to hear their conversation.
“Hank, you’re an excellent soldier. You work well with Willy and your instincts are some of the best in the squad,” Sully began. “I don’t know what you’re feeling. I wasn’t born German. I wasn’t forced away from my home. But I need you to be there for the squad. For yourself, too. If you’re distracted by the dead and by the captured, then you’ll soon be among the dead and captured yourself. You understand?”
“I’m sure eventually we’ll be in Italy,” Sully told him. “That’s where my parents came from.”
I knew from talking with Sully that he’d been born Salvatore Spinelli. His parents had immigrated to the U.S., where his name was changed to Sullivan. They ended up in Granville, New York, the colored slate capital of the world, an hour from where I grew up. His father had worked a slate quarry and served in the army in the Great War, just like Sully was serving now. We’d discovered that both our mothers grew large vegetable gardens. And, like me, Sully was the oldest child in his family.
“In Italy,” Sully had gone on, still talking with Hank, “I’ll need to keep my focus. Maybe you can remind me, ok?”
Hank nodded. “Yes,” he said. “I can do that.”
But we’re far from the heat of the North African desert now, bobbing in the black water off this new coast. And for the first time, enemy searchlights on the coastal defenses start to shine onto the beach landing zones. As those searchlights paint the targets, enemy cruisers and destroyers turn their attention to them. German anti-aircraft guns are strafing American paratroopers as they attempt to land. I feel bad for those guys. Trying to land in this wind and rain is bad enough without taking enemy fire. But I’m also relieved to know we’ll have them on our side when we land ourselves. That is, if we all make it to the beach alive.
As we circle the ship, keeping in line with other craft getting in position to make the beach landing, waves hit the craft’s side, muffling the sound of the engine. Most heads are down. I hear someone puke, but I can’t tell who. I worry the boat might flip and we’ll all drown before we get to take a shot. Right now, our enemy is the angry green sea, doing its best to keep us from even making it to land.
Sully turns back to us. “When you jump, stay low. If you fall, get up and keep moving onto the beach. We’re a team. Danny Boy, Marty, Kelly, Wolcott — follow the experienced guys. Willy, Coney, Hank, Romeo, Doc, Arty — guide the new guys. Work together.”
I notice Sully doesn’t mention Lucky’s name, but there’s no time to dwell on the omission.
The coxswain interrupts. “Okay mates, we’re heading towards shore. Prepare for an even bumpier ride. And may God be with you.”
My stomach’s in knots and at times my nerves overcome rational thoughts. I can’t stop wondering about Lucky. But the sights and smells of death in North Africa also flash in my mind, without my permission.
Large shells are being fired over our heads onto the shore. Please don’t misfire, I plead silently as I watch them trace through the sky towards the beach. Kaboom! Kaboom! More shells, their sound blunted somewhat by the pounding waves.
I spit towards my boots, blood and saliva. The bleeding from my nose seems to have slowed. As I look back towards the shore, my gut churning with each explosion, I realize that my present discomfort may be the best I’ll feel for a while. When our boots hit that sand, we’ll be fighting for our lives as well as for our country.
I glance over at Coney and we make eye contact. Hard to believe that just yesterday, he and I were playing baseball on the ship’s deck off the North African coast. I pretend to pitch him a ball. He plays along, pretending to catch it.