Working at The National WWII Museum has always had a special meaning for me. It has been rewarding to know that I play a part in educating guests about World War II and ensuring that the stories of Americans who served in the military during the war, like my father, Alphonse Czekanski, are told and remembered.
My father often spoke of his experiences in the war. He had a very interesting career in the Army. He enlisted in 1940 and was stationed at Schofield Barracks, Territory of Hawaii when Pearl Harbor was attacked. He went to Officer Candidate School at Fort Sill Oklahoma and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in August 1942. He volunteered for airborne training and was assigned to the 376th Parachute Field Artillery Battalion. The 376th formed the artillery component of the 504th Regimental Combat Team, part of the 82nd Airborne Division.
One of the stories my father often told was of the parachute jump into Sicily. The invasion began with airborne landing on the night of July 9, 1943. There weren’t enough aircraft to drop the airborne forces all at once. The 376th Parachute Field Artillery Battalion was scheduled to jump on the night of July 11. Alphonse said they had boarded the C-47s in North Africa and were flying to Sicily when nervous gunners began firing at the 144 planes overhead as they passed over the Allied fleet. As the stick leader, Alphonse was sitting by the door. The trooper next to him tapped him on the arm and said, “Hey,Lieutenant look,” pointing at the window. The plane’s wing was on fire.
The next thing he knew the whole aircrew, pilot, co-pilot, radio operator, and crew chief came running down the aisle and bailed out the door. Alphonse told his stick, or the group of men assigned to jump from a plane, to hook up and jump, and they were all able to exit the aircraft before it crashed. They then tried to figure out where they had landed. They found a house with a friendly Sicilian and showed him the maps they had of the area around the drop zone. He shook his head no and opened a cabinet, taking out a Michelin road map of Sicily. He pointed out where they were—a considerable distance from where they were supposed to be.
The next day as they were making their way back to Allied lines, they ambushed two trucks full of Germans. Not only did they kill the passengers, but they destroyed the trucks. On their next opportunity they were careful not to shoot up the truck and acquired transport. Three days after they were shot down they managed to rejoin their unit.
The friendly fire incident at Sicily was the worst for American forces in World War II. Of 144 transport planes, 23 were destroyed and 37 heavily damaged; 88 Americans were killed in action, 162 wounded, and 69 missing in action. The incident would lead to better coordination between units and the black and white recognition stripes used on aircraft at Normandy.