443rd Antiaircraft Artillery Battalion in World War II

PREPARATION FOR COMBAT

FORT SHERIDAN, ILLINOIS

None of the group of motley-dressed young civilians in their teens and early twenties had the faintest idea of what the next three years had in store for them. Coming from all walks of life they streamed off the troop train at Fort Sheridan, Illinois on 1 May 1942 and began the process of becoming one of the Army’s elite battalions — one which would compile an enviable record in combat in North African, Mediterranean and European Theaters of Operations during World War II.

The unit to which they were assigned was designated the 443rd Coast Artillery AntiAircraft Automatic Weapons Battalion (SM). It had been activated on 20 April 1942 by Lt. Col. John Smith and his Executive Officer, Major Werner Larson. Now, as additional enlisted men and officers continued to arrive to join the unit, a rigorous training program began. It seemed no time at all before the well-trained 443rd was functioning like a smoothly operating machine. Meanwhile, physical conditioning continued and included calisthenics, marching, obstacle course, amphibious net training and gun drills, climaxed by a 25 mile march. Latrine rumors and gossip ran rife about the unit’s future. Arctic and tropical destinations dominated the speculation which finally congealed into an expected assignment to protect the Panama Canal!

During the second week of August the 443rd was inspected by a team from Continental Army Command. Included were quarters, equipment and antiaircraft firing at towed targets over Lake Michigan. The 443rd, with its towed 37 mm. antiaircraft guns and their unwieldy central tracer control systems, was rated "Number One" in the nation and selected for a special, top secret assignment—which was not protecting the Panama Canal. And on the morning of 31 August 1942 the first of two trains, loaded with men and equipment, pulled out of Fort Sheridan on their way to Camp Pickett, Virginia.

 

CAMP PICKETT, VIRGINIA

During the week of its arrival at Camp Pickett the 443rd was equipped with seventy-eight new, untested, experimental gun-tracks. Each was a half-track with twin, water-cooled, .50 caliber guns mounted co-axially with an automatic 37mm gun on a revolving turret. And then as men cleaned cosmoline from the guns and became familiar with their new equipment while having no idea of where or when they would be using it, they began to develop a sense of pride in what was obviously a new weapons system and in the 443rd as a special unit. They didn’t know that General Patton had requested this multi-purpose weapon for antiaircraft and anti-tank defense during the North African Invasion and Campaign. Only eighty of these experimental weapons had been produced and all but two were issued to the 443rd — now the 443rd AAA AW Bn (SP)

As training and conditioning continued, men practiced using the T-28-E1 telescopic sights and miniaturized central tracer control systems. The weapon had not yet been field-tested so no one knew what its performance would be in combat. The telescopic aiming system was intriguing. Sights were controlled by a miniaturized central tracer control box through which the horizontal and vertical estimated leads were transmitted. Gunners, by aiming their telescopes at the target would presumably be firing with proper lead. (This system proved to be quite useless in combat as the telescopic sights became fogged easily, smoke from guns firing would obscure the narrow field of telescopic vision, and the wisdom of having men sitting unprotected, six feet above the ground, cranking estimated data into a system that wasn’t working became patently absurd). However, the firing carriage in a manual operation was capable of traversing a full 360 degrees horizontally and from 90 degrees vertically down to 15 degrees. Below this point the 37mm ammunition clip would eject against the lock frame, causing a jam. To remedy this serious fault, 443rd mechanics and machinists proceeded to modify the gun carriage to permit lowering the guns to -5 degrees — a must for the flat trajectory weapons that often would not even be on level ground when firing.

A civilian radio was provided each T-28-El for receiving early warning of approaching enemy aircraft. (The limited supply of Army radios, then available, had to be allocated to the amphibious units accompanying the North African invasion fleet).

The 443rd Battalion Commander had to develop a tentative Table of Organization and Equipment (T/O & E) for the four line (gun) Batteries, since none existed for the new unit. Each of the four Batteries was organized into five platoons, each platoon with four T-28-El gun-tracks. Battery D was assigned two, towed, 40mm AA guns to supplement its eighteen T-28-E1 gun-track allocation. The 443rd was organizing for action.

 

FORT FISHER, NORTH CAROLINA

On 15 September 1942, the 443rd moved in convoy through Blacksburg, Virginia to Fort Fisher, North Carolina. It was headed for a week’s practice firing of the new weapons at both air and ground targets. The T-28-E1s were lined up shoulder to shoulder along Fort Fisher’s Atlantic Coast Firing Range for firing at gas filled balloons. Men also had experience firing at moving ground targets, simulating armored vehicles and tanks.

By 25 September the 443rd had returned to Camp Pickett where all gun-tracks and ton trucks (Jeeps) were waterproofed by Ordnance and tested for leaks in a concrete bath. Battery Commanders and Platoon Leaders continued their frustrating tasks of trying to secure missing equipment parts and radios, before leaving Camp Pickett for staging areas. Since the T-28-E1 was an entirely new weapons system without an approved T/O & E, such work was not easy. However, on 28 September, all 443rd platoons were ordered to proceed to Forts Benning and Bragg for attachment to the units with which they were to invade North Africa. The Western Task Force, under command of General George S. Patton, was assembling for Operation Torch — the invasion of North Africa.

 

FORTS BENNING AND BRAGG

For three weeks the 443rd platoons, attached to the 2nd Armored, the 3rd Infantry and 9th Infantry Divisions ( 9th Armored Corps) engaged in obstacle course training, instruction in vehicle and personnel transport loading and anti-tank combat assignments. Practice amphibious landings were held on Solomon’s Island in Chesapeake Bay. Advance personnel were sent to Norfolk, Virginia to supervise combat loading of gun-tracks and equipment and the platoons finally moved by train from Forts Benning and Bragg to Norfolk where they immediately boarded transports. From 21 to 23 October the huge armada of transports, battleships, aircraft carriers, heavy and light cruisers, destroyers, mine layers, submarines and special craft, steamed out through Hampton Roads into the Atlantic Ocean heading for the west coast of Africa. Only a few of the men aboard knew their final destination.

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