Large arrow points to El Djem, through which Field Marshal Rommel sent troops to the front in southern Tunisia.
Colonel Edson D. Raff, leader of the U.S. 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion battling German forces in Tunisia, summoned Lieutenant Dan E. DeLeo, a twenty-four-year-old native of Chicago. He had yet to see hostile action, having landed in North Africa as a replacement after invasion forces were ashore.
Typically, Raff was terse. “I want you to lead a parachute raiding party to the El Djem bridge, blow it up, and make your way back to friendly lines,” the colonel explained.
DeLeo swallowed hard. It was a tall order. Even if the key bridge were destroyed, the Germans and Italians throughout Tunisia would be put on the alert for the saboteurs—and it would be ninety miles to safety through hostile territory. It was December 23, 1942.
Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the fabled Desert Fox, had pleaded with Adolf Hitler to pull out the remnants of the vaunted Afrika Korps before it was too late, but the führer accused Rommel of cowardice and ordered him to fight to the last man in Tunisia.
As promised, Hitler began pouring troops, weapons, and supplies into the Mediterranean ports of Tunis and Bizerte in northern Tunisia. At these points, the reinforcements and cargoes were loaded onto trains that ran along the north–south coastal track for some three hundred miles to Rommel’s heavily fortified Mareth Line at the base of the Tunisian Peninsula.
Seeking to halt this steady flow to Rommel, Allied bombers had tried to destroy a key railroad bridge near the coastal town of El Djem, but the span remained standing. Then a squadron of U.S. fighter planes shot scores of rockets into the bridge. When the smoke had cleared, the trestle remained standing and defiant.
Now Lieutenant DeLeo met with U.S. Air Corps officers who explained that the parachutists would be dropped at night a short distance north of the El Djem bridge, so the raiders would have no problem finding it. All they had to do was to march southward for five miles until they reached the span.
At 10:30 P.M. on Christmas Eve, DeLeo and his raiding party of thirty-three men lifted off in a pair of C-47 transport planes from an airport outside Algiers. Winging through the night in the dark cabins, the men sat in almost total silence, each immersed in his own thoughts.
Suddenly, a glowing red light in the cabin shook them from reveries, and the troopers got to their feet. Each man carried an escape kit containing a small saw blade, a few yards of tough fishing line, a waterproof plastic container holding ten wooden matches, and a tiny magnetic compass.
Moments later, a green light flashed on and the troopers, one at a time, bailed out into the dark unknown. At the same time, the pilots of the two C-47s flipped switches, and a pair of two hundred-pound bundles of explosives, one attached to the belly of each aircraft, were released and parachuted to the ground.
Soon a series of crump, crump, crump! could be heard as the parachutists crashed into the unyielding ground. Fortunately, none was injured, although the impact was identical to having jumped off the top of a freight car traveling at forty miles per hour. Lieutenant DeLeo quickly found the tracks and wigwagged a muted light to assemble his men. Within fifteen minutes, all had gathered. A search turned up the two bundles of explosives.
Because the drop zone was supposed to be north of the El Djem bridge, the group began trudging southward, their baggy pockets bulging with blocks of dynamite. What DeLeo and his men did not know was that they had been misdropped south of the target.
DeLeo was gripped by haunting worry. Soon after the raiders had assembled back at the landing site, they had come across two Arabs pushing a handcart. The Americans knew that it was not unusual for natives to pop up in unexpected places at any time of the day or night. Would the two Arabs betray the Americans? DeLeo would get an answer—and soon.
After a grueling five-hour march, DeLeo halted his men at daybreak and pulled a folded map from his pocket. Orienting himself by the contours of a group of hills off in the distance, he took a number of compass readings and said, “Men, we’re about twenty miles south of the El Djem bridge!”
Retracing their steps would require perhaps five hours and had to be done in broad daylight. Their discovery would almost be a cinch. Moreover, the troopers were almost near exhaustion from the long, arduous trek loaded with explosives and combat gear. So it was decided to inflict maximum carnage where they were.
The demolition men rapidly went to work planting explosives in a building beside the tracks that held electrical equipment for, a trooper indicated, controlling switching operations for many miles in each direction. At the same time, other raiders were planting dynamite blocks along one hundred yards of tracks. All of the explosives were then joined by a single detonation cord.
When the wiring job was nearly done, DeLeo looked up to see a sentry whom he had sent south of the site running toward him. Nearly out of breath, the trooper blurted, “Lieutenant, there’s a platoon of Krauts coming up the tracks toward us!”
Then a sentry posted to the north dashed up. An even larger German force, about a mile away, was marching toward the Americans.
It had been a profitable night for the two Arabs whom the raiders had encountered earlier, DeLeo realized. Not only had the natives collected many valuable parachutes, but no doubt the Germans had also paid them handsomely for squealing on the saboteurs.
The Americans had been caught in a trap. German patrols were scouring the countryside; guards were placed on roads to thwart the intruders’ escape. DeLeo quickly decided that they would split into small groups and set out cross-country for the American lines—ninety miles to the west.
A three-minute fuse was lighted; then the troopers raced off to avoid the explosion. Suddenly, an enormous blast rocked the region. Debris from Rommel’s railroad track and the building full of electrical equipment spiraled into the sky.
DeLeo, Sergeant John Betters, Private Roland Rondeau, and Private Frank Romero, along with two French soldiers acting as guides, traveled together. They hid out that day, marched all the next night; then holed up at dawn in a thick woods near a well-traveled road. They noticed that numerous vehicles were randomly heading westward, so DeLeo decided to hijack one of them and drive the raiders hell-bent toward friendly lines.
The men hid at the edge of the woods and waited for just the right vehicle to come along. By fate, the first one was a truck with a canvas over the back—perfect for concealing the escapers.
Without his helmet, DeLeo strolled out into the road holding a pistol behind him. He flagged down the vehicle and when the driver, an Italian soldier, poked his head out through the open window, he found himself staring into the business end of a .45 Colt.
Scrambling from the bushes, the raiders leaped into the covered back of the truck, and DeLeo climbed in beside the petrified driver. In Italian, he told the enemy soldier, “Start driving. And no monkey business or I’ll blow your head off!”
DeLeo picked up a white scarf lying on the seat and wrapped it around his head, Arab style. A short time later, he saw a chilling sight: Two long columns of German infantrymen, one on each side of the road, were marching toward the truck. “Krauts!” DeLeo called softly to the hidden troopers. “Keep still and have your weapons ready!”
The vehicle chugged onward and reached the approaching Germans. The Americans felt their hearts beat faster; nerves were taut. Now the truck was moving along slowly between the two columns. DeLeo tried to look casual. He could have reached out and touched the passing enemy soldiers. Few of the Germans even glanced at the “Arab.”
After going a considerable distance, the coughing, wheezing old truck broke down along a muddy trail. What to do with the Italian? If he were turned loose, the alarm would be spread. Some of the raiders suggested shooting the quaking man, but he was taken along. It was still more than fifty miles to American lines.
The raiders and their hostage pushed ahead on foot. They halted only when exhausted; then resumed marching. Most of their food was gone, so they haggled with Arabs for something to eat. DeLeo told the natives that he and his men were Germans, and when Arabs balked over giving them food, the lieutenant menacingly fingered his pistol.
Three weeks after their jump at the El Djem bridge, the hungry and nearly exhausted paratroopers came upon a friendly French farmer who told them how to reach a French army outpost. The farmer supplied the Americans with food and coffee; they handed out chewing gum to the children.
After trudging over a mountain range, the Americans felt a surge of elation. Off in the distance was the French outpost. Walking onward, Roland Rondeau noticed that several French soldiers had come out and were waving their arms frantically.
“What in the hell are those crazy Frogs supposed to be doing?” Rondeau asked DeLeo. The lieutenant shrugged. When the Americans reached the Frenchmen, they learned the reason for the wild gesticulating: The raiders had been walking across a minefield. A week later, DeLeo and his five men were back with their outfit.
Meanwhile, two others in the raiding party, teenage Private Charles Doyle and Private Michael Underhill, had jogged from the explosion site for about two hours, then burrowed into a haystack to sleep and await nightfall. A few hours later, they decided to resume their trek before darkness and soon were walking along a path in a thick woods. Minutes later, they bumped into three Italian soldiers who surprised the Americans and took them captive.
After being disarmed and searched, Doyle and Underhill were ordered to climb into the back of an Italian army truck which moved out of the woods and drove through a series of small Arab villages. After traveling for perhaps twenty miles, the truck halted and the two Americans were motioned to climb down and enter a flimsy POW cage. It was merely some barbed wire fastened to tall poles driven into the ground. Now it was quite dark.
About three hours later, another Italian truck drove up and discharged four more Americans involved in the El Djem caper. No sooner were the newcomers in the cage than all of the captives began plotting to escape. Slipping under the loose strands of barbed wire would be simple, they agreed, but the lone Italian soldier on guard would give the alarm—or shoot them.
The six paratroopers laid down and pretended to be sound asleep. In about a half hour, the Italian guard, who had been circling around the cage almost constantly, sat down in a shack at the entrance. When he used a series of matches to light his pipe, thereby diminishing his night vision, the Americans slithered to the fence and sneaked under the barbed wire strand. Outside the enclosure in the darkness, they shook hands solemnly and, splitting into pairs, headed westward toward friendly lines, still some sixty miles away through hostile territory.
Of the thirty-three men who had jumped with Lieutenant DeLeo on the El Djem bridge raid, only eight reached American forces in Tunisia: Doyle and Underhill and the five men with DeLeo.
Sixteen other raiders eventually made it back to Allied forces. Either they had made bold escapes from POW camps or had been liberated by advancing Allied forces.