El Djem Bridge Mission

Date: 26 December 1942

Unit: HQ, 2nd Battalion, 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment and Two French paratroopers

Operation: Unknown

Troopers: 31

Country: Tunisia

Dropzone: El Djem Bridge - One mile southwest

20 Dec 1942 - 2100 hours. As originally planned 33 Paratroopers were to be dropped by 60th TCG with Lt. Col. Phil Cochran as a guide from three C-47s to destroy the El Djem Bridge in Tunisia.

FIELD ORDER 14 (this is only a summary of the order)

TASK ORGANIZATION: 1st Lt. John R. Martin and 21 men form the Assault/Security Team and 2nd Lt. Daniel DeLeo and 6 men form the Demolitions Team, one Radio Operator, one Medic, and two French NCOs to serve as guides and interpreters.

EQUIPMENT: Each equipment bundle (woven baskets) would contain one musette bag with canteen, 12 anti-tank mines, M1903 rifle with grenade launcher, 4 anti-tank rifle grenades. 20 bags at 25 lbs each of demo.

ENEMY SITUATION: 30 miles north of the objective were small detachments of poorly trained and equipped Italians.

FRIENDLY SITUATION: 60 miles west of objective (90 miles overland) was the nearest Allied forces.

ACTIONS ON THE OBJECTIVE: Plan A called for demo team "Two men to top - two at abutment and two at pier. Two men on bottom to take care of pier. The charges on top will be exploded simultaneously with the larger one at the bottom of the pier." Plan B in case only 15 minutes time was available the demo team would arrange demo "to twist the first span of the rests"

EXFILTRATION PLAN: Team would move to a pre designated location to be picked up by aircraft.

COMMUNICATIONS PLAN: Radioman would have radio communications to coordinate pick up. If no radio operable, white stars on red panels would be laid out in predetermined patterns to communicate messages. Four star panels in line - Mission Accomplished.

INTELLIGENCE PLAN: Only enemy officers will be captured, collect all documents, all telephone and telegraph lines are to be cut, conduct other guerrilla type operations of diversion and disruption.

MEDICAL PLAN: If wounded must be left behind ensure well identified to be found by friendly or enemy troops.

TRANSPORTATION PLAN: Three C-47s guided by Lt. Col. Phil Cochran

Plan changed. Drop was rescheduled for 24 Dec and the exfiltration plan by air was cancelled. The new plan would call for exfiltration by foot to a French outpost for transport by truck back.

24 Dec 1942 - Drop rescheduled for 26 Dec

26 Dec 1942 - The following personnel rose early, drew parachutes and equipment and recieved final briefing. They boarded trucks and moved 10 miles to the airport. Air Corps served breakfast. Then they boarded the aircraft for departure.

1. 2nd Lt. Dan DeLeo - Demolitions Team Leader - proficient in Italian - Escaped (became Mission Commander after removal of 1st Lt. Martin)

2. S/Sgt. Manuel Serrano - NCOIC - Captured

3. Sgt. John Betters - Security Sgt. - proficient in Arabic - Escaped

4. Sgt. James W. Collins - Demo Sgt. - Captured (Replaced Cpl. Lloyd Bjelland)

5. Pfc. Hartwell R. Harris - Captured

6. T-5 Kieth 'Doc' Argraves - Medic - Captured

7. Pvt. Roland Rondeau - proficient in French - Escaped

8. Pvt. Frank Romero - Escaped

9. Pvt. Michael P. Underhill - Captured and Escaped


11. Pvt. Clarence A. Howard - Captured

12. Pfc. Leonard S. Caruso - Captured

13. Pvt. James L. Rogers - Captured

14. Pvt. Warren H. Decker - Captured

15. Pvt. Alcus Stokes - Captured

16. Frank Stiburek

17. Pvt. Mahlon J. Black ASN: 13049014 - Captured 28 Dec 1942

18. Pvt. Robert D. Thompson ASN: 12054761 - Captured 28 Dec 1942 (KIA as POW)

19. Pvt. James V. Walston Jr. ASN: 14060322 - Captured 28 Dec 1942

20. Pvt. Walter W. Plumb ASN: 20603622 - Captured 28 Dec 1942

21. Pv.t Walter C. Ramsey ASN: 13048805 - Captured 28 Dec 1942

22. Pvt. Russel D. Ulrich ASN: 13067380 - Captured 28 Dec 1942

23. Pvt. Ralph N. Astin ASN: 14067569 - Captured 28 Dec 1942

24. Pvt. William C. Somers ASN: 11021205 - Captured 28 Dec 1942

25. UKN

26. UKN

27. UKN

28. UKN

29. UKN

30. 1st Sgt. Jean Guilhenjoven - Free French Paratrooper - Escaped

31. Cpl. Paul Vullierme - Free French Paratrooper - Escaped

1st Lt. John R. Martin - Removed from the mission by Maj. Yardley wanting to limt the number that might be lost

Cpl. Lloyd Bjelland - (removed by Maj. Yardley as not critical to the mission)

Ellis Bishop - Radio Operator (was removed from the mission by Maj. Yardley who determined that a radio would not be critial to the mission since there would be no exfiltration by air)

The first leg of the flight went to Tebessa for a brief stop. The next leg of the flight went to Thelepte where they met up with Col. Raff their former commander who provided tents and got briefed up on the mission. Once Col. Raff found that there was no plan to exfiltrate by air he attempted to delay the mission until coordination could be made but was unable to delay any further.

26 Dec 1942 - 2300 hrs. Three C-47s depart from Tebessa. Two aircraft carrying paratroopers and one carrying equipment bundles. Travelling at 50 to 100 feet. They ran into flak in the vicinity of Godsin. After passing between two German airfields they climbed to 400 feet which would be the jump altitude. The aircraft continued to El Djem, circled twice then proceded north parallel and just west of the railroad track. As they approached the DZ, Sgt. Collins looked out and saw convoys passing and attempting to shoot at the aircraft. Argraves seeing lights passing by the aircraft he asked, "Are those tracer bullets?" Sgt. Collins replied "Yes and I can reach right out and touch them."

26 Dec 1942 - Approx 2400 hrs. DeLeos Paratroopers bailed out on what they believed to be the DZ on the west side of the tracks and one mile north of the bridge. As they were burying their chutes, five Arabs arrived. Lt. DeLeo attempted to buy the Arabs silence by giving them the silk parachutes, they wandered off into the night. The paratroops finished assembling and discovered that one paratrooper was missing and one basket was missing. Two scouts Stiburek and Serrano were sent eastward to find the tracks, they returned in an hour and a half and led DeLeos Paratroopers east to the rail. They soon came across an Arab with a donkey and cart and put them to work transporting some of the equipment. After an hour and a half they observed a train. There was some debate between the two French guides as to whether to proceed north or south, DeLeo had to decide, if they had landed on the correct DZ the plan was to go one mile south to get to the bridge, DeLeo led them south. Decker and Stokes were now lead Scouts with half of the paratroopers on each side of the tracks. DeLeos Paratroopers approached an olive grove and took a break. There they let the Arab and donkey go. Decker and Stokes continued south to see if they could determine the location of the bridge. Decker and Stokes turned around and went back north to locate DeLeo but avoided the olive grove and missed finding him and continued north from the olive grove thinking that the DeLeo and the rest of the paratroopers had already set out to the north to find the bridge. DeLeo and the rest of the paratroopers actually set off to the south thinking that the scouts were still scouting to the south. DeLeo could not find either the scouts or the bridge to the south so he turned his paratroopers back to the north but left his five Demo team members to rest in place with their heavy loads until the bridge could be found. The sky began to lighten as they approached the olive grove. In the distance DeLeo could now see several Arabs along the road on the east side of the olive grove. He decided to head true north knowing that the tracks would curve back to him on the north side of the olive grove. Now about halfway back to where they first approched the tracks a one car train with about 50 Germans was heading south. DeLeos paratroopers opened fire without effect, the train continued on. Soon after a section car moved north on the track with Germans who began to fire on the paratroopers. DeLeos Paratroopers returned fire and drove the Germans off. They now approached a small building along the tracks and held up there. Soon the Demo team who had begun north and took another break in the olive grove, were again on the move when 400 approaching Arabs encouraged them to set out again to the north and join up with DeLeo at the small building. Germans began showing up in the distance by truck intent on encircling the paratroopers. DeLeos Paratroopers evaluated what they could destroy with the time they had left. They set out the TNT to destroy the small building, two sections of track, three telephone poles, and a rail switch. A smalll cut in which the rail passed through provided the cover they needed to work. When they blew the TNT a section of track almost hit DeLeo. DeLeos Paratroopers now set out heading west, Germans were closing in on their flanks and rear. In an irrigation ditch the paratroopers assessed the situation and decided to break up into smaller groups. The 5 man demo team struck out on their own. Collins and Caruso headed for a ravine. DeLeo, Betters, Rondeau, Romero, Guilhenjoven and Vullierme set out together. Rogers and Harris set out together. Underhill and two others set out together. Argraves and Stokes stayed together. The rest also boke up into small groups.

Collins and Caruso continued in the ravine only to spot Germans approaching. Both ducked into a small crevice, unfortunately one of the 15 Germans happened to look back and spot Collins. The German fired once and grazed Collins cheek. Both came out of their hiding, Collins with white scarf in one hand and his carbine in the other. Collins asked Caruso "What are they jabbering about?" The Germans fired again into the hole and Collins realizing he still had his carbine in hand dropped it.

Rogers and Harris head for a draw to hide out until night. Harris describes what happened, "Down in that draw it sounded like a thousand men shouting all around us. I sneaked up over the draw to look around. All of a sudden, I heard a burst of machine gun fire at my back. How they kept from hitting me I'll never know. I looked over my shoulder and there stood three big Germans with machine pistols pointed right at my back. They had already captured Rogers. I couldn't let loose of my gun. I just stood there frozen and never did drop my gun. The Germans moved in on me with a good 50 Arabs with them. They turned loose about 20 of the Arabs on me at one time. There were at least 10 on my back trying to bing me down, and I never went off my feet. They stripped me of all of my weapons, but I still had not given up. A German sergeant started shooting his machine pistol at the Arabs feet, trying to break them up and back them off away from me. They by now had everything my gun, pistol, hand grenades, trench knife, escape kit, canteen. It was the most helpless feeling experienced in my life. The few of us who were captured at that particular place were taken to the German commander. He stamped his foot and asked, "Vat you vant in Afrika?" We told him we were there for the same reason he was - to fight a war"

Argraves and Stokes set out together from the olive grove. Argraves was already wounded by shrapnel. They made it all the way to the highway when a shot rang out and hit Stokes in the hand, dropping his weapon. With nothing else to do they stood up and raised their hands. Several Germans searched them taking Argraves watch, medical kit, $150 US dollars and 9,000 Francs and then took them over to the German officer who spoke very good English. The German Officer said, "You are very good Soldiers. You are hard fighting men. We caught you and we earned it. You are not a disgrace to your country. But you have no chance. America has no chance in this war, and will soon find out." Addressing Stokes, he asked "What are you in Afrika for?" Stokes replied, "What are you here for?" German Officer replied, "We are here to drive you Americans out." Stoke responded, "Well, we are here to drive you Germans out and we are doing it." They were then marched about two miles to a truck, there were now a total of 17 captured paratroopers. The truck took them to Sousse where they were put under guard in a storage building on the dock. During the day American aircraft bombed the dock and the ships in the harbor. Seven enemy ships were sunk and the large doors were blown off the hinges but no one was hurt. The next day they went by truck to Tunis and were kept in a shoolhouse for four days. There they were questioned. The Germans also brought in a radio and asked "You boys would like to talk to your folks in America wouldn't you?" "We will send your message by radio and your folks will get it." One of the paratroopers requested, "Let us look at your machine." They were taken out to the yard to examine it. They took a quick look and walked away. The Germans asked, "Don't you want to talk?" The paratroopers replied, "No, we know about that machine and we don't want any part of it." The paratroopers recognized it as a recorder and had been briefed that Germans would record your words and change them around to create propoganda messages to use against the Americans. Later they were put to work with other American, British and Australian prisoners at the Tunis airport. Eventually they were put aboard three Italian destroyers (two of which were sunk by the British) bound for Sicily where they would be moved from POW Camp to POW Camp for the rest of the war.

Underhill armed with a damaged M-1 (missing front sight) sixty rounds and four grenades and two others armed only with .45s made their way out of the German encirclement. Later while on a slight hill, a platoon of Italians approached their position. Underhill held them off as the other two made their escape. Two hours later Underhill still holding off the Italians made his own escape under cover of darkness and eventually caught up with the other two. At dawn, the three paratroopers taked it over and the other two decided they would surrender rather than risk starving to death or being killed by the Arabs. Underhill chose to continue west alone. The next afternoon, as he was crossing an open area another Italian patrol of 10 men approached his position by truck. Hoping to avoid detection, he dropped flat on the ground. Unfortunately the truck stopped about several hundred yards away. When the Italians got about 75 yards away he jumped up and threw a grenade killing two and wounding others. The Italians quickly withdrew firing sporatically loaded the truck and left in the same direction it came. Underhill hiked for another four to five days passing in vicinity of Fondouk eventually arriving in Haadjeb el Aioun. There French troops notified the American officer, Capt. Roworth of his arrival and he took him by jeep to Ferianna.

DeLeo, Betters, Rondeau, Romero, Guilhenjoven and Vullierme moved out from the ditch to an olive grove where they parted company with the last few paratroopers who wanted to set out on their own. DeLeos group quickly headed southwest and escaped the German encirclement. They approached a road and began to parallel it when a lone truck approached. They jumped onto the road and the lone truck driver came to a halt. Deleo and Vullierme hopped into the cab and the rest climbed in the back. Deleo placed a .45 to the drivers head and in Italian told him that if he did as he was told he would not be hurt. To further disguise themselves, they used white parachute cloth wrap there heads like an Arab. Along the way, they passed several German Troops without detection. Hoping to avoid further groups of Germans, DeLeo finally had the Italian driver take a side road which finally ended with the truck stuck in a ditch. Faced with setting out on foot again, Betters recommended killing the Italian rather than having him give away their position to the Germans. DeLeo over rode the decision and instead gave the Italian 500 francs as hush money and to cover the damage to the truck. The Italian driver thought the amount was too generous and finally agreed to 300 francs. As they proceded west, they could not avoid contact with the Arabs. They would tell the Arabs that they were Germans who got seperated from their unit. In one instance the cover story did not work. As they were passing out cigarettes, one Arab asked for a light in German. Since none of them knew German they did not respond to the request. The Arabs shouted "they are not Germans they are Americans" DeLeo and his men quickly drew their guns and took the Shiek hostage and took off into the night. Later they released the Shiek to return home. At another point they travelled by cart into the mountains of Pichon. The next morning a P-38 appeared overhead and was about to strafe them when they pulled out a star panel to signal that they were friendly. The P-38 pilot pulled out and headed east looking for other targets of opportunity. They finally came across a French wheat farmer who told them of a French outpost and offered to take them there by cart. As they approached the outpost, sentries called out from the hills that they were in a minefield. With hand signals they were directed to safety. From the French outpost the French took them to Fondouk and a message was sent forward to Col. Raff at Feriana. Col. Raff sent a truck for them. After getting a good meal and briefing Col. Raff they were sent to Thelepte Airfield to join up with other 509ers who were stationed there. Finally they were flown back to Maison Blanche and trucked to Maison Carree. In all, DeLeos group had traveled an estimated 120 miles in two weeks, 50 miles by truck.

The following is an article from Look Magazine dated 09 March 1943 written by Don Wharton generally describing the event.



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