Mostagenem, Algeria. February 1943.
The recently promoted Sergeant of Dog Battery, Stanley Grimes knew it his duty to stay back and man the 50 calibre while his young recruits enjoyed their first days overseas at the bars in downtown Mostagenem, an area where a soldier with a few whiskeys in him could find his night going sideways in quick fashion with the local girls who seemed like goddesses after those weeks on the boat and even more back in training in Virginia and New Jersey. Despite it being February it already felt like summer in Algeria and the sandy beaches and commotion in town of all the freshly arrived troops made for an excitement that even though a war was going on inevitably led to a feeling among the men that this was some form of extended vacation in the exotic tropics of Africa. Just months earlier, Casablanca had enthralled the country and now Stanley and his men were walking those same shores as Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in the film. But Stanley had a young bride at home and a sense of duty which kept him at that gun while his friends went down the hill and had their fun. As the gunner on the 50 cal, he maneuvered the barrel down towards the harbor of Mostagenem and saw the ships anchored quietly; their lights dark under the blackout orders but could vaguely be made out against the moon which caused the Mediterranean to glimmer and the moorings of the ships to occasionally flash as the inevitable one or two lights from the city reflected on their metallic surface. The night was silent apart from the faint sound of the surf against the rocks down the cliff side at the shore.
The crew and mission of a 50 calibre in an anti-aircraft battery was a special one. This was a gun not meant for heaving flack shells randomly into the sky during a raid, their large bullets were meant to make calculated volleys at enemy aircraft that would slice into the fuselage and bring the target down as they came in too close for the 90 mm Bofors AA gun to hit. Tracer rounds let the gunner of the weapon know he was close or off target. These guns had a crew of four: a gunner, an assistant gunner, an ammo man and a water man. This night Stanley sat in the gunner’s chair and looked into the night sky and down at the harbor. He thought of his training in Ft Bragg, where he learned the basics of combat; how to handle a side arm and his M1 Carbine. He remembered the drills in which blank rounds were fired over his head to simulate the stress of combat. But even more-so now: his classroom training back in New Jersey in which he learned what an ME–109, Ju-87, Ju-88 and FW-190 sounded like in the sky, what they looked like, how they maneuvered and attacked. As the Sergeant and gunner it would be his call when to engage even though there were C-47s and friendly aircraft overhead at seemingly all times. He kept an eye on those ships. The glimmer of the sea under the waxing moon which he wished would hide its face beneath the clouds.
From the battery Radio Man:
“Red Alert! Red Alert! Red Alert! Able Battery Sector 547 reporting 15 miles northeast of Mostagenem. Enemy aircraft. 15-20 Ju–88s incoming at a heading of 195 at 4000 feet. Repeat: Enemy aircraft incoming! This is not a drill! Over.”
Stanleys fingers tensed on the trigger and his adrenaline began pulsing. This was it. What all those years away from home and in training had been leading toward. As if an actor repeating his memorized lines, he called out:
“Examining Gun!” as he checked the sights of the 50 cal and that a clear view was established, “In order!” He called to his 3 man crew.
Stanley’s assistant gunner, remembering his until now unused training after nervously fidgeting with the weapon called out in succession: “Bore and Cables in order!” Indicating the weapon was ready to fire and could maneuver in any direction necessary to shoot.
The number three or ammo man now checked that the ammunition chests were in order and the 50 cal bullets were loaded in the weapon and more was on hand to feed if necessary. “Ammunition in order!” he shouted. And now on to the next man.
The number four man was in charge of the water chest. This man ensured that the weapon would stay cool when in action and in checking turned the crank to be sure that water was circulating properly in the machine.
“Water chest in order!” he yelled to Stanley.
This quick drill; this one which they had practiced so many times in Virgina over the past several months, was now a reminder that they were now in Africa; that German aircraft would soon be overhead; that this was not a game or training. As Stanley felt the cool steel of the trigger on his fingers, he remembered Mary Lou. Of how they got caught on that country road in that storm last summer when Dewey’s car had broken down in Indiana and how beautiful she looked in her dress soaked in the rain; of how he hated Indiana but now how much he wished he was back there. He looked up at the sky and pretended he was back there for a moment.
Stanley leaned into the silence of the night. The hum he heard he was not sure was in his imagination or the enemy he’d been training to see all these years. And then it began. Able Battery positioned to the northeast up the coastline began reporting with their 90mm’s. At first Stanley heard the shots and could see the muzzle-flashes lighting up like fireworks in the night. Then in the air he saw the explosions. One after another they went off and the night became day. As the flack lit up the sky he could see even at several hundred yards three tight V formations of Ju-88s bearing down on the port of Mostagenem. His adrenaline rushed at the thought of them getting nearby and his training raced through his mind of how many bombs they held, the speed at which they traveled, and when and how they attacked their target. These were the infamous ‘Schnellbombers‘ (fast bombers) that were versatile enough to serve as bombers, dive bombers, fighters and night fighters (and towards the end of the war, human torpedos). They were among the most menacing craft in the Luftwaffe and after all these months seeing them in the sky brought him almost to tears of fearfulness. In some way he was glad that most of his buddies were down in Mostagenem at the bars. They were safe. This was a job for the Sergeant of the battery.
As the formation passed Able Battery the sickening feeling approached him: he was next. Whether they were after his position or moving on to the harbor he could not have been sure. Dog Battery, positioned 5 miles to the southwest on the coast would be the last line of defense before the bombers were over the port of Mostagenem. He and a few 50 cals and the big guns of the 90mm AA. It was his time.
The night, now brilliantly alight with red tracers, blue incendiary rounds and blanketed with the bright yellow and orange flickers of the flack explosions made Stanley wonder how any sane pilot would keep coming at them; how these planes had pilots whose mothers cared about them and that their mission seemed all but suicidal. A few hundred yards from shore a round from Able Battery had made its mark: he could see the wing of one of the planes catch fire and he watched in wonder as it banked right and dropped towards the sea, out of sight. He felt sorry that they had made the choice to fly into this storm of steel. But now he began to finally understand why he was here: in this life and death conflict neither side was heading back.
Stanley’s mind raced back to the trainings he had on the distance and angle to fire on a Ju 88 traveling at a given speed. His finger squeezed the trigger and the weapon issued its ordinance deafeningly into the sky and he watched as the bright red tracers every 5 shots flew upwards where he had aimed. He could see his Battery mates reporting with their 90mms as the V formations began bearing down on the ships moored in Mostagenem. As he saw the 88s dive and the ships catch fire in the harbor he no longer felt sympathy for those German pilot’s mothers. He squeezed the trigger of the 50 cal and hoped he’d find a target in the sky if only to save one of his American brothers on those ships in Mostagenem. His ammo man exchanged the box and the water man kept cranking while the barrel began to glow red.
What was only 12 minutes seemed like hours and the rounds Stanley fired into the sky he was never sure made their mark. But the might of what he and all of the batteries of the 67th CA put in the sky made him feel like America could not lose. The news articles he’d read of the German advance being turned back in Russia. Stalingrad. Kursk. It was soon to be over he thought. America had a foot planted in Africa and after a few more months he would be home. As the barrel cooled on the 50 cal and his heart rate came down, Stanley thought of Mary Lou. That little house in Kentucky. How funny it was that a boy like him was in North Africa shooting at German planes. But it would all be over soon.
|Postcard From SSGT Stanley Grimes to Mary Lou Grimes c. March 1943|