The slender bridgehead that the Allies had established at Salerno remained under contention as the Germans prepared to counter-attack. Off shore the Allied Naval force continued to provide much needed firepower in support of the troops on land.
Overhead the Allied airforces, operating from Sicily and North Africa, were very far from establishing the virtually complete air superiority that would later be seen at Normandy. The Luftwaffe was able to break through often enough to cause significant problems.
New Germans technology, the remote control glider bomb, which had first been seen in mid August, proved to be a potent weapon against the invasion fleet. Frank Romano was on board the USS Savannah:
On September 11, 1943, we were cruising off shore preparing for a fire support mission when German bombers appeared overhead. They were at very high altitude, so we didn’t bother firing the smaller AA at them.
In the past, we’d watch them drop their bombs, and once they were falling, the captain would change course or increase speed, and they’d miss. We also had friendly fighters in the area so we figured that we were ok. So we’re all at our guns stations, sitting around.
We had one kid in the gun crew, his name was Douglas Centers, got real nervous when the bombs starting falling and the bigger AA guns starting going off. He lied about his age when joined up, and convinced his mother to sign the papers and he joined up at 16. Once the Navy found out, he had already turned 17 so they allowed him to stay in. Centers kept telling the Chief he was sick, he needed to go below, and we kept telling him, ’Just relax, you’ll be fine’. He persisted and the Chief finally got tired of his whining, so he went to the gun Captain, who gave him permission to go below to the forward sick bay. He left. About 5 minutes later, the bomb hit, and everyone in the forward sick bay, including Centers, was killed. If he’d only listened to us, he’d have survived.
We had another guy on board, Emmanuel Blankenship, who was aboard the USS Pennsylvania during the attack on Pearl Harbor. He was one of the ‘old salts’ at 21 because he’d been in the Navy since before the war. He was killed when the bomb hit.
The bomb impact was initially a huge crash, followed seconds later by a massive explosion that lifted the ship right out of the water, and knocked everyone to the deck. The bomb passed through the turret top, killed everyone inside, and exploded at the keel, blowing the bottom of the ship out and causing a huge geyser of water and debris to come out the port side a little forward of the bridge. It covered us with water, and almost immediately smoke started pouring from the hole in the turret. We all figured the magazine would explode at any second, but it didn’t. When the bomb exploded it blew out the keel directly under the magazine, and the water flooded the magazine before it had a chance to go off.
The explosion blew open both the #2 and #1 magazines forward, and killed most everyone in the bow forward of the #3 turret. There were a few exceptions, and there were some guys that were trapped in compartments that we couldn’t get to because they were surrounded by water on 3 or 4 sides. Once the #3 magazine exploded, the blast continued to travel towards the bow. Almost everyone forward of the boiler room that were below deck were killed. There were 4 sailors trapped in the Auxiliary Radio Room, 2 men that got out of the #2 turret, and 5 or or 6 guys that escaped the #1 turret. One of the men who got out of the #2 turret held the hatch open for his brother. They argued about who should go first and the one holding the hatch was killed. The men in the magazines were killed by blast and concussion. Most of those killed in the turrets died from lethal gas caused by the exploding powder.
Since I was one of the small guys, I was lowered into the hole on top of turret 3 to inspect the damage and look for survivors. Once we got the turret opened up, of course, no one was left, only some pieces and charred remains. I was part of the crew that went below, again, because I was little and could squeeze into places most couldn’t.
The ship had a 30 foot hole in the side of her hull, and we didn’t know what kind of damage the keel had received until after we’d put in to drydock at Malta. We found out that most of the keel in the bow was gone, and we had a 25 foot split in the side of the hull.
Read Frank Romano’s whole account at Model Warships.
Contemporary newsreel of men trapped below decks for 60 hours: