In a previous post, I mentioned that I and my sister had a number of stories Dad wrote about his experiences as a paratrooper during WWII. He jumped over Normandy on D-Day, jumped during Operation Market Garden, and jumped during the Battle of the Bulge.
On the upcoming anniversary of D-Day, here is the story of Dad’s experience jumping over Normandy, in his own words.
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“We landed in Ireland, the month being February. The weather was terrible. That day we left New York, we sailed out of the harbor in a snow storm. I did, however, see the grand old Lady before we sailed into the deep sea. It wasn’t until that moment that I really realized I was leaving and perhaps would never see it again. Every man on board was looking and during the time, not a word was spoken. There was just that lump in your throat that made speech impossible.
During the trip, no enemy was encountered. We were escorted by destroyers, a battleship and two aircraft carriers. It was the largest convoy at that time to cross the water.
As soon as we sighted the shore of Ireland, I knew that it was all the songs implied. The first thing that entered my mind was ‘I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen’.
From Belfast, we traveled by train to Camp Clandy-boy (Northern Ireland). It was there that I took long walks on the Clandy-boy (Clandeboye) estate. I have often wished that I had enough money to buy an estate like that. To look at Ireland you could never have believed that a war was in progress. The countryside was so peaceful and the people went about their daily life as they always have and did, years ago.
From Ireland, we split up and went into different groups. My group went to Nottingham, England. There, we lived in a park. Every day, it was crowded with people and finally they had to erect barbed wire entanglements to keep the people from the tents. We stayed here until D-Day. We started preparing about two months ahead of time.
On the twenty-fifth of May, 1944, we left our base camp in Wollaton Park, Nottingham, England. We were boarded on English busses with full combat loads and taken to airports. We, of course, knew that this was the big one. It seems that we had trained all of our life for this jump.
The airfield perimeter was covered with tents. Until the night of June 5th, we spent our time getting equipment ready to kill Germans. The night of June 5th, we were called into the situation room, or ‘War Room’. We were shown on the map where we were supposed to land. This was early in the evening. We were told about what we could expect in the way of opposition. They pointed out the positions of certain units of the German Wehrmacht. Much of this was guess work on their part.
The “Old Man” of the Regiment made a speech to us before going to the airport. He told us that we were to take no prisoners and we remembered that. He just wanted us to kill, kill, and kill. We were ready. Our first taste of combat, our first taste of blood.
It’s funny all that I could think about was the news flashes back home: ‘Paratroopers Spearhead Invasion of Europe’. I could see the headlines; I could visualize the excitement back in the States.
After the briefing, we returned to our tents to wait. At 10:30PM, we loaded into the C-47s. The Co. Commander just looked us all over and said ‘Good luck and happy hunting, boys.’ We all knew that a lot of us wouldn’t be coming back. We carried full combat load: 306 cal. rifle ammunition in bandoliers. Our rifles were broken down in order to jump. We each had fragmentation grenades, one smoke, one gammon and a trench knife. The gammon grenade was filled with a pound of composition C2.
When we were in the plane and seated, I removed my reserve chute and put it under my seat. The trooper next to me asked what the hell I was doing. I laughed and told him that I considered myself to be a fatalist and figured if my main chute didn’t open, there was no need for the second. After all, we wanted to jump at only a thousand feet or less.
During the flight, some of the boys were able to sleep. I kept looking out of the window and watching the cloud formations, wondering about home and what everybody would be doing and saying when they got the news.
In only about 2 hours, the whole sky lit up. Remember, this was about 12:30AM on June 6th. German machine gun tracers were coming at us like mad. They had also sent up their flares to make sure they could see us and give us a ‘joyous welcome’.
Just previous to this, the Pilot Jump Master asked us how low we wanted to jump. Our reply was 800 feet. After we ran into all of that ground fire, we all started hollering and told them to let us jump before the plane was hit. We all rushed to hook up to the static line and jump. One man froze in the door. Needless to say, we pushed him to the front and out of our way.
When I felt the opening shock, I knew that my chute had opened and that I would land unless I became entangled with another trooper. During the short descent, it seemed that every damned German tracer bullet was aimed only at me. The Germans were firing everything they had: machine guns, rifles, anti-aircraft guns. The whole world was an inferno. Dante should have been there; perhaps he was.
At a time like this, there is no time to think of anything except self-preservation. With the German tracers coming at you, your only thought is to land and to hope you don’t set down on a bunch of Germans, because this was a time of no prisoners on either side. This was understood before we jumped.
I landed knee-deep in a swamp with my chute draped halfway up a tree. I stood there and looked up at my chute and thought ‘My God, every German for miles can see the damned thing.’
Before I could defend myself, I had to put my rifle together. Until I did, all I had was my trench knife. While I was fumbling to get my rifle together, I heard someone sloshing through the water toward me. The figure coming toward me whispered the password we had all been given. Needless to say, I was damned well happy to see a fellow trooper – John Lensey – from my own company instead of a German. After I had reassembled my rifle, Lensey and I started wading across the swamp, waist-deep in water. I might mention here that the swamps were created by the Germans as anti-paratroop obstacles.
As Lensey and I crossed the swamp, we met two troopers of the 505 regiment. I should perhaps explain that the regiments and companies were scattered from hell to breakfast. No one had dropped where he was supposed to.
The four of us came to a road. Not being sure of anything, we were cautious and laid by the side of the roadbed to listen for a moment. A Jerry (German) on a bicycle came by, just as if nothing was taking place. My only reaction was to kill, so I stood up and shot him. I often wish that I hadn’t. I have never heard such a blood-curdling scream in my life; he must have been hit in the throat. After that, I started shaking like one with a bad chill; it wasn’t from the cold – I had killed a man.
All four of us were standing. About 10 seconds after the shooting, all hell broke loose. Across from us, a German machine gun opened up. We all hit the ground, but Lensey had been hit; they must have riddled him. ‘John, I’m hit’. I rolled him on his back and he informed me that he didn’t hurt but that he couldn’t move. He had been hit and was paralyzed. We could hear Germans in the darkness but we couldn’t locate them. Lensey told us to leave him a canteen of water and to get the hell out. We should have stayed with him and fought it out, but we didn’t. I knew when we left that the Germans would kill him and it was my fault. I know that in war, men are killed. But this one was on me and I’ve had to live with it; I should never have left him.
The three of us left the roadbed back into the swamp with only our heads above water. It seemed an eternity, but as daybreak finally came, we saw that we were approaching another road. As we were wading up the road, we saw some of our own troopers. There were five of them and they gave us a hearty greeting. It was a cloudy day and we were soaked and the first thing I asked one of the dry troopers was ‘Do you have a cigarette?’
I should mention that I had jumped with two bandoliers of ammunition across my shoulder, but I also had a bandolier of cigarettes on me. The swamp had taken care of that. To this day, 60 years later, I have never had a better cigarette than the one the trooper gave me.
There were eight of us now. We were from different outfits; we were, indeed, a mixture. As we went down the little road, we ran into more stragglers and an officer. It was morning and we could see the German and American fighter planes in dog fights.
As the day wore on, we ran into more troopers until we numbered about fifteen. We didn’t run into any Germans except one time we heard German tanks ahead of us. This was hedge row country. There were hedge rows on each side of the road and across all of the fields. We hit the hedge rows at the side of the road and waited for the tanks. Luckily for us, they didn’t come our way.
As we went on, we saw the bodies of our troops hanging from trees. The Germans just shot them hanging there, they didn’t bother to take them down.
That evening late, we left the road and went into a field for quite a way. The officer had a detailed map of the area. We did not dig in because we knew that we would be moving the next day.
The next morning, we had our meal: a cup of water and a D bar. As the day progressed, our troop strength increased. You have to remember that this was still a mixture of different companies, battalions and regiments. Over a period of several days, Company C – my company – had a total of one officer and eight men. Then there were other companies that gained men and officers and as they did, each officer took over what he had of his own troopers.
Later that day, we met with the remnants of our regiment, the 508th. We set up our defenses on the immortal (Hill 30). There, we held off for five days under constant German attack. On Hill 30 there were eight of us left from C Co. From then on, it was patrols and attacks.
About the 14th or 15th of June, we were advancing along a road into hill country. Our sergeant and two men were walking ahead of the column when two mortar rounds came in. The third round hit them. The two men were killed and the sergeant was wounded; it’s been too many years and I can’t remember his name. Anyway, they gave me a hedge row map and told me I was to take his place.
From there, we fought through small hamlets and over hedge rows. At one point, we ended up on the bank of the Merderet River, west of Ste Mere-Eglise. We couldn’t cross the river by way of the La Fiere Causeway because the Germans had the other side.
At this juncture, there was only one officer and seven of us from C Company. Mendoza and I went down towards the river, where we dug our fox holes. The others dug in at different locations. Periodically, the Germans on the other side would open up with their artillery. The Germans were good with their 88mm guns. They would shell our positions for 30 minutes or so, then quit; two or three hours later, they would shell us again. It was during one of the lulls in the bombardment that I decided to scout the vicinity.
There was a deserted house with barns in the back of us. Believe me, we were natural scavengers, always on the lookout for something worthwhile to pick up – especially a bottle of booze.
The house didn’t have much left inside that was worth salvaging. I then went into the barn; there was a pile of hay along with some miscellaneous equipment. I noticed something shiny in the hay. I started digging and found a stack of bottles of wine. Hey, that was like finding a million dollars. I grabbed four bottles, two under each arm, and started back to mine and Mendoza’s foxhole. Before I got there, the German artillery came in again. It seemed that every damned German gun was aimed at Mendoza and me. I had only one thought: I was not going to drop my wine. To hell with the Germans. I made it back to my foxhole and fell in, protecting my wine. Mendoza had been out and around also; just about the time I fell into my foxhole, Mendoza fell on top of me. We were both out of breath. But when Mendoza could talk, I will never forget it. He said with his Mexican accent ‘Johnnie, I think we should go take those son of a bitches out.’ I do believe if I would have said ‘Let’s go’, Mendoza would have gone with me, against the whole German army.
We waited there until the 8th Division came in to relieve us. We had about two days of waiting, which we didn’t mind. The 8th Division boys had never been in combat. They were as fresh as we were before we jumped. I should be ashamed of myself, but I had to do it. There were about six of the 8th Division troops sitting around in one of the small rooms of the farmhouse. I dressed in a German officer’s uniform, which I’d found. I put on the boots and the works. I had a German pistol which I had confiscated. I walked in on them and proceeded to use a few German words and words that sounded German; there are always some funny things to come out of a war. The look on their faces, I could see as if it was yesterday; they thought that their time had come. They froze, then stood with their hands up. I started laughing and told them I was an American paratrooper. I have never seen such relief. They were too relieved to get mad. Besides, my men were in the next room. I can look back now and see how foolish that was. I could have been shot, but I just had to do it.
Out of 144 men that jumped in our company, we came back with 17. Many of the boys were killed before getting out of their chutes. We were scattered all over the place and our fighting had to be done in small, individual groups. We can say, however, that we took our toll of Germans and didn’t take prisoners.
After we returned to England, it was never the same. Not one of the boys I ran around with came back. You walked down the street and a lot of the English girls would stop and ask where so-and-so was. Then you would have to tell them and of course, they would start crying and you would end up feeling like a damned heel.
Not long after getting back, we started preparing for a jump in Belgium in conjunction with a drive by Patton.”
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This ends Dad’s account of his part in D-Day. His next story is of Operation Market Garden.