The North African sun had just broken the horizon, casting its golden light on Stanley as he sat in the mess tent, scribbling out the letter to Mary Lou before the men filed in. His fingers moved with a certain grace, peeling an orange, acquired two for a nickel the day before when the convoy rumbled in Beja, Tunisia. Those oranges, plump and dripping with juice, would etch themselves into his memory, a tale he’d recount to me years later.
A week had come and gone since the 67th embarked on its relentless journey across North Africa’s unforgiving terrain. Each night a new city: Orleansville, L’arba, Setif, Guelma. Ancient cities, remnants of the Roman province Mauretania Caesariensis over two millennia past. The farm boy from Indiana marveled as the trucks passed remnants of the Roman empire: collapsed aqueducts, amphitheaters, limestone columns rising from the rocky soil – sights like the ones he saw of ancient Rome in his school textbooks that he never thought he’d see. In another life, Stanley thought… maybe he’d be back there. This daily routine in the trucks however, was an echo of days spent in the CCCs, stirring memories of backbreaking labor beneath the scorching Arizona sun in ’37. Digging fence poles, clearing scrub pine, forging roads, and carving irrigation ditches, yet now Stanley longed for the certainty of it, instead of venturing into the unknown at the end of an uncertain road.
Among the Allied brass, debate raged like a desert storm. Churchill, with his bulldog resolve, championed a thrust into Sicily and Italy, aiming to tie down Hitler and Mussolini’s forces and relieve pressure on the eastern front. The Yanks, in their typical direct manner, argued for a direct assault on Fortress Europe, dismissing Italy as a wasteful detour through treacherous terrain, absent of a clear path to victory. At the Trident conference, a fragile compromise took root. Sicily and Italy would be the stage, but the grand cross-channel invasion, they resolved, would be set in the summer of ’44, a decision swayed by the fact that American troops would make up the lion’s share of ground forces. As part of this grand design, Operation Husky loomed—a massive amphibious and airborne assault poised for Sicily within weeks. The 67th, once guardians of Oran’s vital supply lifeline, saw their mission abruptly change. After five months in Mostaganem, just outside of Oran, swift new orders arrived: fortify a Tunisian airfield, protect the planes that would breathe life into Husky. To Stanley and his unit, all this was to mean was many nights on the move as their convoy weaved its way through the African countryside.
At 0515, men filed into the mess, exchanging weary glances over oatmeal and coffee and at 0600, the convoy embarked on a six-hour trek to Soliman airfield. As the wheels churned eastward, the air filled with the fragrance of lavender and juniper, locals emerging to line the road. Some offered their wares of eggs and small gas stoves; others extended arms in supplication, as remnants of a region were still convalescing from the turmoil that had swept their farms and towns just a few months before. Along the Route Nationale 1, relics of battle littered the landscape: tanks and half-tracks, half-buried in the earth, casualties of the soggy winter fighting that had gripped the Tunisian plain last season. Stanley cast a glance at his comrades in the rear of the truck, their faces etched with the uncertainty of what lay further down the road.
I’ve often wondered why Pop clung to the belief that the war’s end was coming so soon. In the summer of ’43, we now know that the war in Europe would rage on for almost two more years. Yet, for Pop, his sights had mostly fallen on the echoes of battles long past, their unit trailing behind the Allies’ triumphant advance through North Africa. In Algeria, he’d faced Axis attacks on their rear supply lines, but he’d always seen it as a desperate move, a mere sideshow to the main front where the Axis, by all reports, crumbled before the advancing Allies.
As the convoy finally rolled into Soliman airfield, the sun rode high and the temperature soared past 90 degrees. A squadron of A-20 Havocs from the 47th bombardment group came in for landing. It was the 47th, along with the 325th fighter group of P-47 Thunderbolts, that Pop’s AA battalion would safeguard from Luftwaffe onslaughts at Soliman. Though given the bulk of the 47th had relocated to Malta for swifter sorties over Sicily, Soliman seemed an improbable target, yet it brought the 67th closer to the front than ever before.
Pop and the 67th would be in Soliman for seventeen days, as the Allies ground down the Axis defense in Sicily, a force of over 230,000 men. Late in July, as the 67th settled in Tunisia, news reached them that Mussolini had been arrested, and the Italian government favored a separate peace with the Allies. Pop’s belief that the war’s end was near seemed confirmed again. On the night of July 27th, 1943, Pop lay in his bunk, contemplating that he might never see Europe and that Mary Lou’s embrace was a matter of weeks away. He closed his eyes, thoughts of that girl with the Kentucky drawl and her bobbed, brunette hair warming his heart. Pop was giddy, convinced that his overseas journey may be soon over. He fiddled with the ring crafted from the downed German fighter plane back in Algeria, the trinket he’d gift to Mary Lou—a token of their time apart.
The hauntingly beautiful call to prayer could be heard from the town of Soliman as evening set in and the bells from the sheep and goats clanked as they came back into their pens for the night. As he slept, Stanley kept his M1 carbine close at hand… what he was worried about he really didn’t know: a disgruntled villager, angry at the destruction the war was wreaking on his homeland? A German soldier who had hidden behind after the rest of his unit had evacuated? None he knew was very plausible but all the same the weapon brought him a small degree of comfort that he was safe in this foreign land. In the morning the men would once again load into trucks and begin making their way to Bizerte, the sprawling port in northern Tunisia who had been the embarkation point for the LST’s and supply ships which had invaded Sicily. Although they did not know it now, Stanley and the 67th would soon be aboard LST 416, sailing to Italy to join the 5th Army in what would become a bloody slog northward in the snow and rain through the rugged peaks of the Apennine mountains.
- Grimes, Stanley. Interview. 2009.
- Grimes, Stanley. Letters to Mary Lou Grimes. 1943.
- U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. “US Army Morning Reports. 67th CA. 1943.”
- Atkinson, Rick. An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa (1942-1943): The Liberation Trilogy, Volume 1. 2013. Simon and Schuster.
- Maurer, Maurer. Combat Squadrons of the Air Force, World War II. 1982. Washington, DC: Office of Air Force History.
- Header Photo: Dreamstudio AI. Convoy in Africa. 2023.