Yes, I know: it should be a 48-star flag... The 115th A.A.A. Gun Battalion, 1943 to 1945

Excerpts from
"American Ack-Ack", by Ernie Pyle (Part 1)

THE job of protecting the beaches at night was given over to the antiaircraft artillery, or ack-ack. I heard that we had there on the beachhead the greatest concentration of antiaircraft guns ever assembled in an equivalent space. After three solid weeks of being kept awake all night long by the guns, and having to snatch a little sleep at odd moments during the daytime, that was not hard for me to believe. The falling flak became a real menace -- one of the few times I've known that to happen in this war. Every night for weeks, pieces of exploded shells came whizzing to earth within fifty yards of my tent. Once an unexploded ack-ack shell buried itself half a stone's throw from my tent. A good portion of our army on the beachhead slept all night in foxholes and some of the troops swung over to the Anzio beachhead custom of building dugouts in order to be safe from falling flak.

The Germans couldn't seem to make up their minds exactly what they were trying to do in the air. They wandered around all night long, usually in singles though sometimes in numbers, but they didn't do a great deal of bombing. Most of them turned away at the first near burst from one of our 90 millimeter guns. Our ack-ack men said they thought the German pilots were yellow, but I had seen the quality of German fighting for nearly two years and I could hardly believe that. Often the enemy dropped flares that lighted up the whole beach area, and then they would fail to follow through and bomb by the light of their flares. The ack-ack men said that not more than two out of ten planes that approached the beachhead ever made their bomb runs over our shipping. But we were liable to get a bomb anywhere along the coastal area, for many of the Germans apparently just jettisoned their bombs and hightailed home.

It was a spectacle to watch the antiaircraft fire when the Germans actually got over the beach area. All the machine guns on the ships lying off the beaches cut loose with their red tracer bullets, and those on shore did too. Their bullets arched in all directions and fused into a skyfilling pattern. The lines of tracers bent and waved and seemed like streams of red water from hoses. The whole thing became a gigantic, animated fountain of red in the black sky. And above all this were the split-second golden flashes of big-gun shells as they exploded high up toward the stars. The noise was terrific. Sometimes low clouds caught the crack of those many guns and scrambled them all into one gigantic roar which rolled and thundered like the blood-curdling approach of a hurricane. Our tent walls puffed from the concussion of the guns and bombs, and the earth trembled and shook. If we were sleeping in a foxhole, little clouds of dirt came rolling down on us. When the planes were really close and the guns were pounding out a mania of sound, we put on our steel helmets in bed and sometimes we would drop off to sleep and wake up with them on in the morning and feel very foolish.

* * *

The big gun, and the elite, of our ack-ack is the 90-millimeter. This is for high-altitude shooting. It is the gun that keeps most of the planes away, and has such a high score of planes shot down.

I spent two days and nights with one of these 90-millimeter gun crews on the Normandy beachhead. They were having their first taste of war, but already after three weeks or so of it they felt they were the best gun crew in the best battery of the best ack-ack battalion. It was close to impossible for a German bomber to pick out their position at night, yet the crew felt that the Germans had singled them out because they were so good. As far as I could learn, practically all the other gun crews felt the same way. That's what is known in military terms as good morale.

My crew consisted of thirteen men. Some of them operated the dials on the gun, others loaded and fired it, others lugged the big shells from a storage pit a few feet away. The big guns usually operate in batteries, and a battery consists of four guns and the family of technicians necessary to operate the many scientific devices that control the guns. The four guns of this particular battery were dug into the ground in a small open field, about fifty yards apart. The gunners slept in pup tents or under halftracks hidden under trees and camouflage nets. The boys worked all night and slept in the daytime. They hadn't dug foxholes, for the only danger was at night and they were up all night firing.

The guns required a great deal of daytime work to keep them in shape so half of the boys slept in the forenoon and half in the afternoon while the other half worked.

* * *

The boys were very proud of their first night on the soil of France. They began firing immediately from a field not far from the beach. The snipers were still thick in the surrounding hedges, and bullets were singing around them all night. The boys liked to tell over and over how the infantry all around them were crouching and crawling along while they had to stand straight up and dig their guns in. It takes about twelve hours of good hard work to dig in the guns when they move to a new position. They dug in one gun at a time while the three others were firing. My gun was dug into a circular pit about four feet deep and twenty feet across. This had been rimmed with a parapet of sandbags and dirt, so that when a man stood on the floor of the pit he could just see over the top. The boys were safe down there from anything but a direct hit.

Who Was It?

[Pyle does not identify the ack-ack unit he's with, and when one reads this it's easy to imagine being with any gun crew in any outfit that served under similar conditions, such as the 115th. But I was always curious who it was until I received the following note. - Ed.]

Ernie Pyle ... spent two nights with Gun #1, Battery D, 110th AAA, as evidenced by his memoirs and further proved by the names of the men he mentions in the Ack-Ack chapter of his book. My Uncle was on Gun #3 of that unit and I have since talked with three of the guys mentioned in Pyle's book.
-- Lonnie Speer
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... prints excerpts from Ernie Pyle's story, "American Ack-Ack". This appears as the preface to "The Story of the 115th A.A.A. Gun Battalion". Pyle's story offers a remarkably intense and intimate description of a 90mm AA gun crew's life and work.
 
Updated Tuesday June 07, 2005 09:11:21 PDT
The original text of The Story of the 115th A.A.A. Gun Battalion, published by the unit in 1945, is in the public domain. So how, you may ask, can I claim that the contents of these web pages are protected by copyright?

The answer is that it is my own transcription of the text and images into electronic format, and compilation into these web pages that is copyrighted. In addition, the web design, art, and annotations, plus all material from my father's personal albums are copyrighted original works. I reserve all rights to how all these materials are used. You may not copy them or store them in any retrieval system without permission.