Congressman Gibbons saw action on D-Day as part of the 501st Parachute Infantry. This is his story.
It was dark — slight ground fog — body arched forward, feet together — head tilted forward.
My parachute snapped open with a loud crack — reflecting the added weight of combat equipment — as I had been taught to do, I looked up to check the parachute canopy — it was functioning perfectly. I then looked around to make sure I was clear of other jumpers — couldn't see anyone.
Did see and hear rifle and machine gun fire coming up from below me about 75 yards to my right — guess about 15 weapons in action. Could see muzzle blast and occasional tracers — apparently aimed at the waves of planes flying on toward the southeast.
Got brief glimpses of small, blacked-out town six or seven hundred yards in front of me. Guessed it to be Ste. Mere-Eglise. Guess later proved to be correct. Prepared to land -focused eyes on ground — looking fifty yards ahead of me (looking straight down might cause a broken leg). Knees slightly bent and feet together so that bone and muscle in both legs would absorb the force of landing. Feet hit — knees give — roll forward — end lying flat on my back. Lie quietly, after a noisy landing, my camouflaged parachute settles to ground right above my head. Germans fifty to seventy yards to the southeast would have heard that landing had they not been so noisy shooting at low-flying planes.
Instantly I knew I was in the wrong place — at least six miles from my planned drop zone and far deeper in German territory than planned. The time was 1:26 a.m., June 6, 1944. D-DAY was to begin on the beaches at 6:30 a.m. The parachute jump from plane to ground in Normandy, France had taken 35-40 seconds, maybe less.
This is a good point to add some personal and "big picture" details.
I was 24 years old — a captain — in the 501st Parachute Infantry, a part of the 101st Airborne Division which, together with the 82nd Airborne Division, landed a total of 12,000 parachutists that night. We were the spearhead of the invasion of Europe. I realize that 12,000 sounds like a large force, but when you consider that we had been told there were 70,000 Germans there, you can see what the situation looked like to us. I jumped from plane #42 in a total of nearly 1,000 planes used in that assault. There were 17 of us who jumped from that plane, all from Regimental Headquarters 501st. The 501st jumped about 2,000 officers and men. All of us were volunteers and received extra hazard pay for our line of work.
For this performance our heads had been shaved — the surgeons insisted we'd be easier to sew up that way — our faces and hands blacked to be less visible. We wore a special jumper's combat uniform and boots. All of our clothing, including the long underwear and socks, had been impregnated with a chemical to protect us from poison gas. We smelled like inside men from the skunk works. Our unique uniforms were made of a heavy cotton cloth -big pockets and lots of them with snap fasteners for quick opening — the jacket collars were high and right below the neck we carried a switchblade knife in a pocket for emergencies like cutting yourself out of your parachute. My normal weight was 165 pounds. That night when I hit, the ground I was well over 200 pounds. All of this extra weight made for a strong opening shock of the parachute and hard landing. We expected it because we had been trained for and rehearsed it many times back during our stay in England.
My equipment was typical for the jump that night. Two parachutes — one main on my back and a reserve on my chest in case the main malfunctioned — both camouflaged green and brown and made of nylon (a brand new substance in those days). We had used some silk ones in our early training. We all wore a Mae West, inflatable-type, life jacket because we crossed 150 miles of ocean and jumped near a river. Many were used that night.
We also wore an equipment harness and ammunition belt with thirty rounds of .45 caliber pistol ammo and about one hundred rounds of .30 caliber rifle ammo, two hand grenades, a .45 caliber pistol, loaded and cocked, a .30 caliber folding stock rifle (carbine), loaded and cocked, a ten-inch blade knife strapped to the leg calf for hand-to-hand combat, a canteen with one quart of water, one spoon and canteen cup used as a cooking utensil, some water purification tablets, a combat first aid kit tied to the camouflage material that covered our steel helmets (special helmet liner required so helmet wouldn't be blown off in jump), special first aid kit containing two shots of morphine, sulfa drugs and compress bandages to stop bleeding. In leg pocket we carried a British-made anti-tank mine because there were plenty of tanks nearby, a gas mask (I stuck two cans of Schlitz beer in mine), an equipment bag containing a raincoat, a blanket, toothbrush, toilet paper and six meals of emergency K rations — a combination shovel and pick for digging in; maps, flashlight, compass; also an "escape kit" containing a very small compass, small hacksaw blade, a map of France printed on silk and $300 worth of well-used French currency. This kit was enclosed in a waterproof container measuring four inches by six inches by one-quarter inch — everyone was encouraged to hide it in a different place on the body — I carried mine inside my sock, just above boot top on my right leg.
We carried two other items in our equipment. We wore our identification (dog tags) on a light metal chain around our necks, taped together so they didn't click or rattle. And at noontime before the invasion we had received our last surprise: A "cricket. " This was a metal device made partially of brass and partially of steel. When you depressed the steel it made a snapping sound or a "crick. " And when you released the steel part, it would crick again. This was something we had not counted on and had never heard about, but it was to be our primary means of identification between friend and foe during the night assault. We cricked them a few times and rehearsed (we were to crick once and wait for a response of two cricks) — laughing all the time. Most of us hadn't seen anything like that since Crackerjack boxes or the Buster Brown shoe store giveaways of our youth. Also at lunch time we were given the passwords for the next two days. The challenge was to be "thunder" and the response was "welcome" for the first day, beginning from the time we hit the ground. And the second day, the password challenge was "hustle" and the response was "along." So with a cricket, "thunder-welcome" and " hustle-along, " we were at least partially prepared for the tough job of identification during the night hours.
So with all this gear on me (the same for about 12,000 others), I was the third man to step out of plane #42, and dropping 800 feet to start what some have called "The Longest Day. "
Of the 18 in plane #42, I can only tell you what happened to a very few of us. The rest is lost, and so were all of us for a time.
Shortly after 1:26 a.m. while still on my back, I wiggled my feet and legs to make sure they were okay. Then unfastened my reserve chute and chest straps came off. but I couldn't get the leg straps unbuckled because the harness was tight, so I cut those straps with my switchblade knife. Next off came the life preserver and my personal equipment bag that had been hanging below my reserve chute. I took my folding stock rifle out of the holster -checked the safety and finally rolled over on my stomach. All this probably took less than a minute, but it seemed like an hour. No one had seen me, and I had seen no one else, but there was plenty of shooting by those Germans about seventy yards from me. Their shooting was a blessing because it drowned out any noise I might make and because they were paying more attention to the sky than they were to the ground.
I was in a grassy field or pasture, which seemed to be about 200 yards long in a north-south direction, and 150 yards wide east to west. I couldn't tell if there was anyone else in the field except those Germans near the southeast comer and they seemed to be just outside that corner.
So I crawled or really slid on my stomach until I reached the boundary hedge row.
I got up on my knees looking and listening. Finally I moved to a crouched position. Nothing moved in the field. Then I crawled up to the side of the earthen hedge row and looked on the other side. Nothing moved. No sound except the shooting at the southeast comer of the field.
Now I could hear new firing behind me but because of its distance I knew it was no immediate danger. Occasionally another plane or two would come over. They seemed to be on an erratic course and their engines seemed to be wide open, apparently trying to dodge the fire coming up from the ground. They certainly were not at any flight altitude to be jumping parachutists.
On the other side of my hedge was a narrow, paved road. Then on farther south about ten yards, another hedge like the one I was leaning against, and on past that more fields and hedges.
Normandy is a farming and dairy country and the hedges have been built over the years — maybe from as long ago as the time of that great Norman, William the Conqueror, who defeated the English at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 A.D. As farmers over the centuries cleared the fields, they piled the stones and brush up along these hedges until they became more than fences. They are a solid tangle of rocks, earth, vines, brush, and even trees. Some hedges were six to eight feet wide at the base and many six feet high of solid material. Most of the hedges were topped with tall, ghostly-looking trees. This part of Normandy was a vast collection of these small, irregularly shaped fields, bounded by hedges on all sides, at some places with roads and highways between the hedges. All of this is cut up by rivers and marshes. The local farmers live in small clusters of homes, many centuries old.
There are a few small towns. Carentan, located six miles south of where I landed, was one of the largest towns with a population of about 5,000. Carentan lays south of the Douve River and is about three miles from the seacoast. Ste. Mere-Eglise, located a half mile north of my landing spot, with a population of about 2,500, was astride the main north-south road that stretched from the big port city of Cherbourg to Paris — 150 miles away. Cherbourg was our long-range objective.
Our immediate objective was to open up the assault beach about six miles east of my landing spot and secure the river line of the Douve so that the Germans could not bring in reinforcements while we captured Cherbourg. Cherbourg sits at the north end of the Cotentin Peninsula that juts out into the Atlantic like a thumb. The thumb-like peninsula was 35 miles long by 20 miles wide.
Getting oriented — finding out where you are — in the middle of the night with no lights — no stars or moon visible and no distinctive terrain features or landmarks — is not easy. Two things helped me. First, we had studied the area using maps, aerial photographs and models for hours and days until it was drilled into us. Second, I had been in the open door of the plane on the flight from England and had picked up such landmarks as the islands of Guernsey and Sark and the French coastline near Cap de Carteret, where the anti-aircraft fire got heavy and patches of ground fog blacked out small areas. I thought I recognized St. Sauveur-le-Vicomte and then the Douve River with its marshes. As we approached the Douve our plane had slowed down and elevated the tail to lessen the chances of hitting the tail assembly in case you made a bad door exit. So as we crossed the Douve, the green light signal to jump came on.
It seemed to me that we were too far north and too far west of our designated drop zone. But you can't hesitate and argue with the pilot because he couldn't hear you anyway and since we were flying in very tight formation, there was no chance of independent judgment. Then there was always that fear that the planes behind you might be below you and jumpers would run the risk of hitting another plane. Parachutes, propellers and wings don't mix too well and there were lots of planes behind us and none below us, so we jumped. It was either go then or risk the chance of something far worse. At least we were over land — some weren't so lucky that night.
We flew in tight formation so as to make assembly on the ground easier. Parachuting out of a plane under ideal conditions in the daylight made ground assembly difficult and time consuming. Practicing at night in England with no anti-aircraft fire and no one shooting at you on the ground was much more difficult, so we knew this night assembly was going to be rough.
But first we had to push the two equipment bundles out. These contained radios for Headquarters Command and control of the 501st. Next were two radio operators. I never found the operators or the radios. Next me, and then 13 or 14 others who probably had little or no idea where they were. I believe the last man out that door was Lt. Colonel Harry Kinnard, the Regimental Executive Officer and second in command of the 501st Parachute Infantry. Kinnard and I next met about thirty hours later and many miles from where we jumped.
I slid back down the hedgerow and turned again to examine the field in which I had just landed. There was just enough moonlight coming through the clouds to allow me to determine that no other Americans had landed or were landing in my field. I could not hear any American weapons being fired. The German weapons sounded distinctly different from ours; the principal difference being the rate of fire for their automatic weapons. Theirs fired much faster and did not seem to sound as deep in resonance as ours. This made it easier to determine who was friend or foe in the dark.
The Germans to my southeast — about seventy yards away — were manning a roadblock I figured and the new firing about 1,000 yards to the north appeared to be near Ste. Mere-Eglise.
I turned west and began crawling along the edge of the hedgerow rather slowly, trying to be as quiet as possible. The firing continued behind me at the crossroads. I must have crawled slowly for five or ten minutes. Then I halted and again crawled up on the hedgerow and looked across.
I could not see or hear anyone. I had other thoughts. I began to doubt that I knew exactly where I was.
Maybe I was closer to the beach than I thought and the planes had already dropped their parachutists. Then I began to wonder whether the whole mission had been aborted and I just hadn't gotten the signal. I resumed moving again, still trying to get away from that crossroads fire without being detected. This time I was crouched over and moving a little faster. I finally came to the southwest end of the field. To my left was a cattlegate and other things that cows leave around when they are in a field, but at least I knew the field probably wasn't mined if there were cows around. We had been told that there was a good possibility that our landing fields would be mined and booby-trapped.
I eased the gate open because, like most gates, it squeaked, and found myself in a narrow, paved road with hedges on each side. The tall trees in the hedges gave the place a spooky look, but still no signs of anyone except those people back at the crossroads. By this time I was sure that they didn't hear me and couldn't see me so I began walking in an upright position, my rifle in both hands ready for action and my cricket between my left thumb and forefinger. I must have walked along for about ten minutes keeping to the right side of the road near the edge where there was a shallow ditch. Then about 25 feet in front of me I thought I saw a helmet silhouetted against the sky. It looked like an American helmet. but in the dark I couldn't tell, so I kneeled down in the ditch and "cricked" my cricket one time. Instantly the response came back with two cricks. I felt a thousand years younger and both of us moved forward so we could touch each other. I whispered my name and he whispered his. To my surprise, he was not from my plane. In fact, he was not even from my Headquarters group. He was a sergeant and lost, too. He also had been heading away from the firing at the roadblock which was now about 200 to 300 yards behind us. This meeting happened about 45 minutes after my landing.
The firing toward Ste. Mere-Eglise was still going on, but it was fainter than ever, even though there seemed to be more of it. Planes were still passing over, and I guess it was then for the first time that I realized how cold the air was and it felt good to have on those long woolen underwear under that thin jumpsuit.
We kept going down the road for about 50 or 100 yards when we suddenly ran into some more cricks and picked up three more people, none of whom were from my plane. But they seemed to know each other and they were from the 501st. By that time we were beginning to feel pretty good and our confidence was coming back. We got out the maps, pulled out the flashlight, covered it as best we could and began to figure out exactly where we were. We concluded rapidly that it was impossible to get to our designated assembly area and that we had best try to accomplish the 501 mission of securing the Douve River line as that seemed to be the most practical thing to do because of distance and time.
We then decided that moving along the road, while it might be productive in finding other friends, also might be extremely dangerous. So we decided to take off across the field to our left and head for the Douve River line. As we entered the field, we found some more 501 parachutists. Still no one from my plane and no coherent pattern to the people we were finding. They were from different groups and it seemed that the scattering had included far more people than I had first imagined. I learned later that our scattered pattern had covered a distance of about 15 or 20 miles in a north - south direction and at least 15 miles in an east - west direction.
Some people in the Division had actually landed in the ocean east of the beaches and some in the Douve River to our west and some even further west than that — almost to the west coast of the peninsula we were attempting to capture. But at this moment all I knew was that we had about 12 or 14 people, some of whom knew each other, most from different units, so we began to move out more rapidly. I don't mean we were walking at a normal pace. We crouched down low, we would move a while, stop, and listen; then continue to move and all the time keeping within visual distance of each other.
I took a position in the middle of the column of twos and prescribed its general direction. This certainly wasn't the way I had thought the invasion would go nor had we ever rehearsed it in this manner. We had always rehearsed with rapid assemblies in a drop area with quick, personal identification and would move out in organized units. Here I was, an officer who had been doing staff duty for a year and a half, leading a patrol of men, none of whom I knew personally and probably few of whom had ever heard of me, but we worked together surprisingly well.
The sergeants took command of the corporals and privates and quickly organized them into small units. I thought how unusual this patrol leader job was for me, but I learned later that this was the way it was on that early morning. Instead of a highly organized landing and assault that we had planned, most of the first day 12,000 invading parachutists fought as very small units and sometimes as individuals. The only thing that saved our plan was that we all knew the overall mission and most of us tried to perform it in the best way that we thought was available.
It was about three o'clock a.m. when we hit the next road. It was a paved road and generally ran east - west. It was a little larger than the first road I had been on, and we seemed to be getting closer to the river line because the land was flatter; the hedges not quite so high. In fact, as you looked ahead you didn't see so many of those spooky, eerie trees that had surrounded the field where I had first landed. We moved out vigorously on this road, with not quite a carefree manner, but our spirits were rising. We walked in a generally westerly direction when the lead man signaled a halt, and I went forward to see what the trouble was. He said he could see a small town ahead — or at least some buildings that he thought was a town — so we halted for a minute or so and listened. No sound came from the town.
About that time we heard noise toward the rear of the column and a couple of shots were fired by my patrol. There was a clatter of someone falling to the pavement. I ran back and found that they had shot at a German who had been riding a bicycle. He apparently was a messenger of some sort. He was more injured from the fall and the scare he had gotten than anything else. We disarmed and searched him, and tried to figure out what we would do with him. His bicycle was a wreck, and he was skinned up from his tumble. The men took off his belt and tied his hands behind him, and we decided then that with that noise if there were many more Germans in town they had heard us, so we moved in rapidly. It was a short dash into town.
It was a very small town, completely dark. At the head of the column there were a few more shots fired and the word came back that they had killed some Germans — probably two who were apparently trying to run from one of the houses in town when we ran in. By this time we were making so much noise that if there were anyone else there, they certainly would have heard us. The noise of the shooting seemed to raise our spirits even more. Still we didn't know where we were. Those little towns had no signs in them and there was nobody out there to greet us. I began to pound on doors and shout for people to come out, but, of course, none of the doors opened and no one moved. I was shouting in English and if there was anyone in that town that understood English, we never found them. Finally, after two or three minutes, one man about 50-55 years old came to the door of one of the houses. He was a short man, about 5'6", and had on farmer-type clothing — a light shirt and dark trousers. He had apparently been dressed for some time — most of the night — because his shoes were tied and he had on a sweater.
In English I began to ask him where we were, what was the name of his town, and he just stared back and began to speak in French. He was excited and eventually some other people in the house came forward — none of whom could speak English. Some of my men had gotten responses at doors and windows, and were running into the same trouble. Finally I went into the dark house, pulled out my map and flashlight, and began to make gestures, hoping he would point to where we were. But he was either afraid or was determined not to get involved — even though I recited with my best French accent the names of some towns that I thought he would know and would point to, I got no response. Finally one of the sergeants came up and said he had found out the name of the town was Carquebut. At last we knew where we were!
During all this exchange with my first Frenchman, I tried out some of my high school Spanish on him but he looked at me with even greater puzzlement when I tried Spanish. I'm afraid that even if he had known Spanish, he wouldn't have known what I was saying. But when I said "Ste. Mere-Eglise," he responded "eglise -eglise" and began to point down the street. I got my first French lesson. "Eglise" means church. He hadn't understood my "Ste. Mere," but he did know where the church was in town and he started to point to it.
On checking my map, I confirmed that we were in Carquebut, because there was a little church by the street where he had pointed and the pattern of the buildings in the town seemed to be the same as the pattern shown on my map of Carquebut. We continued our search of Carquebut and found no Germans. There was some more shooting at the end of town by some of my group, and the word came to me that the two Germans who had been seen running from the house were dead. We still had one prisoner with whom we didn't know what to do. We took off his shoes and threw them away, figuring that he couldn't run very far without shoes. We tried to turn our prisoner over to the small group of Frenchmen who were now appearing near the center of the town but they didn't want him. Most of this was through hand gestures and through some broken French and English that somehow spontaneously came out of the group of American soldiers and Frenchmen.
We tried to find out from the French people gathered there if there were any more Germans in the area. To that question they usually stared back with blank expressions on their faces. I believe they thought we were a raiding party and they were afraid to commit themselves, thinking that with the coming of light we would be gone and they would still be left there with the German occupation forces. No one wanted to cooperate.
I don't want anyone to think I am critical of the attitude of the French upon our arrival. They weren't hostile. They just weren't cooperative because the Germans had warned them against cooperation and had threatened them with retaliation, such as had been carried out against the French people after the Dieppe raid not too far from where we were. After the French cooperated with the British and Canadian forces during the Dieppe raid, and the raiders had returned to England, the Germans slaughtered those who were identified as cooperators.
The action in Carquebut had taken about 20-25 minutes. It was now approaching 3:30 a.m. We knew that Carquebut was outside of the sector of the 101st Airborne Division our parent unit — and was in the sector of the 82nd Division, who had a different responsibility than we did that first day. After a quick conference with some of the sergeants, I decided that we should move to the south toward St. Come-du-Mont, which was about five miles from where we were. St. Come-du-Mont had been a part of the 501st objective. It was on the Douve River line and it was not far from the bridges across the Douve that we had been assigned to seize and destroy.
We had three approaches to St. Come-du-Mont. We could attempt to go across country, but some marshes showed on the map and no one was anxious to tackle them. Or we could follow a railroad track slightly to our west that crossed some of the marshes and crossed the Douve River just west of St. Come-du-Mont — or we could follow the roads to St. Come-du-Mont. While the road route was slightly longer — perhaps adding a mile or so to our distance, we opted for the road because we figured the railroad track would be guarded at its bridges and trestles and that there would be some long open areas that we would have to cross that could be pretty dangerous. The route across the field we figured would be too slow and time-consuming, so the road was the best bet. When we left Carquebut we were heading east, dawn was just beginning; it was at least 45 minutes to sunrise but it was already lighter. The firing of our weapons had been heard by other parachuters who were in the area and when we hit the road to move east we found them coming out of the fields to join us.
We were still using a basic column of twos, with a single file on each side of the road and me giving commands from the forward center part of the column. We still were close enough together to maintain eye contact but we began to move more aggressively. We passed through a town that we figured was Eturville, hardly much of a town — one farmhouse on the left of the road and two or three on the right. The doors and windows were all closed and if there were any Germans there they didn't bother us.
In about thirty minutes we hit the main two-lane, north-south, road between Ste. Mere-Eglise and Carentan. At a little town called Les Forges, as soon as we got in sight of town we could see two or three American soldiers near the crossroads and we moved more rapidly to meet them. Here for the first time I ran into someone I knew. There was an American Lieutenant by the name of Charlie Poze, a member of the 501st. He had rounded up five or six men and they were controlling the. town. They had already searched the buildings and found no Germans. To our north was the town of Ste. Mere-Eglise, about one and a quarter miles away. To the south of us was St. Come-du-Mont, nearly three miles away, and the Douve River highway and railroad bridge crossing. Controlling these crossings was our objective. We were now in what seemed to be more familiar territory. Ste. Mere-Eglise had been originally assigned to our unit up until a few days before the invasion. But about the end of May, because of evidence of German buildup in the Cotentin peninsula and heavier German tank buildup south of Carentan, our initial objective of Ste. Mere-Eglise had been switched to the river line and to the capture of the bridges at St. Come-du-Mont. The capture of Ste. Mere-Eglise had been given to the 82nd Airborne Division.
As dawn came it was possible to see scattered parachutes lying around in the fields. Some hanging in trees; some lying partly in the road. It was obvious that we were coming closer to a place where more men had been dropped. Poze reported that the road to the north of him seemed to be clear — at least there was no firing from that direction so apparently the roadblock that I had spotted earlier had either been moved northward toward Ste. Mere-Eglise or else those German soldiers manning the roadblock were holding their fire. But our mission was to the south so we moved out as rapidly as possible along the highway.
Just a short distance along we ran into the town of Blosville. We encountered some fighting from our left but it did not appear to be well aimed and when we returned the fire the hostile firing would die out, so we chose to ignore it and to move more rapidly toward St. Come-du-Mont. I was now approaching 7:30 or 8:00 a.m. We had gathered strength as we had moved along and we now had approximately fifty men, including Lt. Poze and myself.
By the time we got to the end of Blosville, a Captain MacNeilly, also with the 501st, moved out on the road and we had a reunion! I had known and worked with MacNeilly. He was from San Francisco and a genial fellow and a good man. But his experience in leading a combat patrol was even more limited than mine so I remained in control and gave Poze control of the men on the right-hand or west side of the road and MacNeilly control of the men on the east side of the road. Since it was now daylight and we could see and be seen at greater distances, we changed our patrol formation to a diamond-shaped wedge with a point to the front and rear and a flanking point to the right and left of the center.
About 200 yards ahead of me on the road was our forward patrol point which was manned with two men. Flanking off is each direction from the road about 200 yards to my east and west, we established another two-man team and filled in the distance between the point and the east and west team with riflemen spaced about 25 yards apart. We did roughly the same thing behind us with a party of two men bringing up the rear about 200 yards behind me, and some riflemen coming down in a "V" formation filling in the gaps so that we could maintain eye and voice contact.
We still had our prisoner with us; nobody seemed to want him. There had been a small group of French people in Blosville, but they would have nothing to do with us and when we tried to get them to keep our prisoner they refused. Most of this was in sign language because we still had no one who could speak French and we still had found no one who could speak English. The two men in the rear, glider pilots whom we had picked up on the march from Carquebut, in addition to being the rear guard, were charged with controlling the prisoner.
Upon signal we moved out toward the south. Here again it struck me how peculiar this was. I had never envisioned myself leading a combat patrol. The skills I was using were ones I had first learned at Plant High School in junior ROTC in 1936, and were skills that I had taught during basic training instructions in 1941 and 1942.
While our confidence had returned, we all still felt very isolated. There was firing going on to the east of us, but it was so faint that it was hard to distinguish what we heard. There was one sound though that I will never forget. That is the sound of a gun that we learned to call the "burp gun. " It was a German weapon which could be fired either automatically or semi-automatically. I had never seen one before and had never heard one. Our prisoner had been equipped with an ordinary rifle, but I had heard the burp gun all night and had wondered what it was. It looked a lot like our Thompson submachine gun and was to be used in about the same manner — except it fired a smaller cartridge but it fired many more of them and much faster. In fact, it fired so fast you could hardly hear the space between the shots. And it seemed to spray bullets out. Just the sound of it was unnerving.
As morning came it was beautiful; a cloudless sky, cool, no more planes of any sort were in sight. There was scattered fire in about every direction except off to the west so we moved out to the south and headed to St. Come-du-Mont which seemed to be three and one-half miles away. In the diamond formation that we had assumed in our patrol the going was slow. The flankers to the east and west and all of the riflemen were walking in the fields and having to cross hedgerows and, as I said before, some of these hedgerows were six feet high and were a solid combination of stone, dirt and bushes, vines and trees. And, of course, before each hedgerow was crossed it was necessary to make sure no one was ready to surprise you on the other side. So while daylight had its advantages, one of them was not speed.
We continued to move. After about an hour, I called a halt, brought in Poze and MacNeilly and the one flanker from both the east and west and held a council. At the end of the council no one could suggest a better method of moving and because there was also occasional firing on both flanks with more to the east, some of which seemed to be aimed at us, we decided to continue in the diamond formation. At the end of this council I brought out my two cans of beer which we shared. I estimate we had moved about a mile and a half south from Blosville. When the cans were empty we decided to leave them in the middle of the road as a monument to the first cans of Schlitz consumed in France and moved on.
In about five minutes the point man signaled with his hand and beckoned me forward, and I discovered what he had found. In the west ditch was a wounded German soldier. I moved the patrol on up. the German had been hit in the stomach area and was in bad shape. He had already turned rather gray-looking and seemed to be rather incoherent. There were some parachutes lying in the fields nearby and I assumed the parachutists had gotten him. We searched the area but found no one. the German was moaning, his eyes closed. We disarmed him and then had to decide what to do with him. We finally decided just to leave him where he was. He was a pitiful sight, so all alone, so badly injured and so near death, with us standing over him. We didn't waste much time. We just went on. He was no danger to us. As I recall, one of the men did give him some water and someone propped his head up a little and he quit moaning. but his breathing was laborious. Down the road a point man spotted a sign post on a little concrete marker on the right-hand side of the road: Carentan - 6km, Paris - 250km. We joked about being in Paris that night or maybe it was just the fact that it was broad open daylight and that our luck seemed to be going well.
The road was now straight and well-paved with shallow ditches on each side; hedgerows out from the fields and occasionally a shallow stream. To our left were more parachutes and to our right were a few. We were now running into our equipment bundles, some of which had been opened but were still connected to their parachutes. We could tell from the markings what they had contained, but since we had no need for any of the materials we left them alone. If we could only have found a bundle with some radios or some machine guns in it, we would have been in great shape. Our rifles were fine but a few automatic weapons and some radios would have improved our capabilities.
We had moved a short distance when the flanker on the left to the east signaled for a halt and word came that he had found a dead American parachutist. No one knew what to do. We just went on and left him there. By this time we were picking up occasional hits to our patrol, usually from the left-hand, east, side of the road where the greatest concentration of parachutes could be seen.
Around La Croix-Pan we came to the low point between two shallow hills. There was a marsh of the Douve River on the west side and some low marshy land on the east. Here also was another road intersection but we continued straight ahead" We were picking up more dead and injured American parachutists. We were also picking up more fire from our left flank, most of which was not particularly serious — a single shot or so or perhaps a burst from a burp gun. And then after we returned the fire there would be no further exchange.
The hedges were so thick that it was impossible to tell whether you were firing in the right direction. You had to hope, and if there was no further enemy fire, you had to assume it was safe to proceed. This we did until about 10:30 or 11:00 in the morning. By that time we had crossed another crossroad which I vaguely remember — the road to the right let to Houesville, and on the east, the road let to Angoville-au-Plain. We kept moving straight south to St. Come-du-Mont. It was obvious that the flankers in our diamond formation were getting tired. They had covered about three miles in fields with rows of hedges to get over. All of us were tired because we hadn't had a chance to eat or sleep since leaving our airfield in England. We had been awake and moving for thirty hours. Our last meal had been 17 hours earlier. We halted for a minute and I called Poze to me and told him to go up and take the forward point position because we needed to make better time.
St. Come-du-Mont was near — perhaps 400 yards away.
According to Regimental plan, St. Come-du-Mont should already be in 501st hands. In fact, it should have been in the 501st hands for about six hours. Unfortunately, I was wrong.
Poze took over the point position on the right hand side of the road and one of the sergeants followed him on the left side of the road about 15 yards behind. The flankers were now about 100 yards out to the east and west with a rifleman filling in between and the bottom or rear part of the diamond was still covered by the two glider pilots and their prisoner.
I'd pulled the patrol into a tighter formation because the hedgerows seemed more ominous and our visibility was limited to about 100 yards in each direction from the road. In this formation we continued our advance toward St. Come-du-Mont.
Just as we moved out, we cleared a handsome looking farmhouse, set back from the right-hand side of the road. A hedgerow divided the house from the field to the south and at the comer of the hedgerow and the road we came upon an empty foxhole that we knew had been there from our intelligence briefing and aerial photographs. The foxhole was empty but appeared to have been recently used so we continued on. Now we were about 200 yards from St. Come-du-Mont. I was in the middle of the road controlling our diamond-shaped formation patrol with hand signals. MacNeilly was behind me on the left-hand side about 15 yards and Poze was about 30 yards to my right front.
As we got closer to St. Come-du-Mont nothing appeared to be unusual. The windows in the buildings were all closed with wooden shutters as we had seen in all the other small towns. The doors were not open. No one appeared to be moving around on the main street which was the highway that we were on. Cows were grazing in the nearby field. There was firing — both German and American — far off to the left. I could now see the first building very clearly on the right-hand side of the road, and I had great expectations that we would at last run into the main body of the 501st forces.
I moved over toward the edge of the road to the right. I was now at the bottom of a very small hill with St. Come-du-Mont sitting at the crest. We found the main body of forces, but it wasn't the 501st. In fact, it wasn't even a friendly force. Shortly after I had given the signal to Poze to continue forward I heard a gun bolt move just on the other side of the hedge on my right-hand side. I looked toward the sound and there was a gun muzzle pointed in my direction. As I dove for the ditch, all hell broke loose! We had been ambushed. I remember seeing Poze go down in front of me as if he, too, were diving in the ditch. The gunner was standing behind the hedge — the muzzle of his gun pointed through the bushes and he apparently had his weapon set on full automatic because when it started to fire it sprayed bullets all over the area.
Instantaneously shots started coming from the buildings in St. Come-du-Mont and from the hedges that stretched out to the east and west, just outside of the town perpendicular to the road that we were on. Fortunately, there did not appear to be more than one gunner who was right on top of me. He had a greater field of vision across the road than he did right under him because of the thickness of the hedge. So while he could see me as I was standing up, he couldn't see me lying down — nor do I believe he could see Poze. After the first shot my patrol began to fire back — slowly at first, but building up their volume as they got into firing position. I could hear MacNeilly some 50 to 60 yards behind me shouting orders, but I was pinned down and couldn't move. I knew that if I stood up the man on the other side of the hedge could see me. If I continued to lie there, the Germans in St. Come-du-Mont would finally pick me off. The grass was about a foot high in the ditch, but not very thick. It was still early summer and the weeds had not grown very high. They offered me some concealment, but not much.
The first thing I had to do was to get rid of that gunner right over my head. I knew I couldn't exist long with him there. He had probably seen me dive into the ditch, but he couldn't get a good shot at me until he climbed to the top of the hedge. I took a grenade out of my pocket, pulled the safety pin, and lobbed it over the hedge. I hoped that he didn't have time to throw it back. He didn't. After it went off, I heard no more firing from his position and assumed that that problem was out of the way for awhile.
I called to Poze and had no response. I lay there for a minute or so, but it seemed like a lifetime. I couldn't get my head up because every time I moved I drew fire. I yelled back to MacNeilly to tell him to cover me. He understood and so the fire from our patrol picked up. It was accurate enough to cause the German fire to slow down — and as soon as it slowed, I jumped up out of the ditch, took about six fast paces and took cover behind a concrete telephone pole. It wasn't very good protection, but it was better than I had had.
Of course, I was partially visible so I attracted a lot of fire toward me and the telephone pole. I couldn't stand there very long or they would have gotten me. I guess only luck saved me. It was clear then that the far side of the road offered better protection than my old or current position so I made a dash across the road and dove in the ditch again. How I escaped getting hit I will never know, but at least this ditch was deeper and no one could directly observe my movements as long as I stayed flat on my stomach. I slid down the ditch in the direction of MacNeilly. It was the easiest crawling I ever did. I had received such a shot of adrenaline I think I could have crawled a mile and I probably only crawled 50 yards when I slid under a low drainage culvert in the road and felt safe — or at least relatively safe. The firing continued, and I continued to crawl. After I had gone a short distance out of the culvert I had passed the crest of the low hill on which my patrol had taken up firing positions, and I was out of immediate danger. The first person I ran into was MacNeilly, and he was laughing a sort of nervous laugh. He said he had never seen me run so fast in my life and that I had looked like a jack rabbit going across that road with the Germans firing at me. I don't think he really thought it was funny, he was just uptight like the rest of us.
We began a visual search from our position for Poze. We could still see St. Come-du-Mont — we were now about 300 yards from the town. We continued firing and would occasionally call for Poze and for the sergeant. Neither of them responded. We guessed that they were either out of action or so close to the German positions that they didn't want to give away their own positions.
By that time our patrol had taken up some good firing positions. Everyone was in the firing line except for the two glider pilots and their prisoner. The glider pilots couldn't have done much good anyway because all they had were pistols, and I could see them huddled over by the side of the road about 100 yards north of me. We slowed down our firing to conserve ammunition. It was obvious that we were badly outnumbered. We had at least two missing and one man reported that he was slightly wounded. I sent men out to the right and left to try to determine the extent of the German positions, but every time they moved they drew a lot of fire. It was more and more obvious that the Germans were well emplaced and had planned to defend St. Come-du-Mont stubbornly.
So there we were —2 00-300 yards north of St. Come-du-Mont meeting superior fire from a major force. We had no automatic weapons, no radios — only our semi-automatic rifles and a few pistols. We hardly knew each other, but we were getting well acquainted, and we were working well together that day. Despite all the noise that we were making, we could not seem to attract the attention of any other Americans in the area. In fact, we had no idea that there were any more in the area. Before we decided to break off the fire fight, two of our men were killed. MacNeilly and I held a council. We called in a couple of the sergeants and decided that since the day was half over and since it appeared useless to try to attack the town, we just couldn't sit there for the rest of the day and wait for some miracle to happen. Also, I did not know what was building up behind us to the north because during our advance on St. Come-du-Mont there had been intermittent firing from our flanks. We knew that there were Germans behind us, but we did not know where they actually were nor how many they were.
I decided that the best thing to do was to split the patrol — leaving some with MacNeilly to continue firing into St. Come-du-Mont — and for me to go northward to try to find some friendly force. I designated two sergeants and about 15 men to stay with MacNeilly, I took the rest and returned north. I knew we had to move fast for it was then 1:30 - 2:00 o'clock in the afternoon, and we were not finding any more parachutists coming out of the fields to join us.
Instead of using our diamond formation to move north, we formed up into a column of twos, spread out on each side of the road so that we could move more rapidly.
We moved at a slow trot back toward Blosville. When we passes the spot where the wounded German had been, he was dead.
As we approached Blosville, the two empty beer cans that had been left on the road were gone. Someone had been there. Blosville was still quiet. Doors all closed; windows all shuttered; cows in the field — but no one stirred. No one bothered us so we didn't stop. There were some shots, but not many, as we continued north. The firing didn't seem to bother the cows. They just kept on eating. Occasionally one would lift its head and look at us. I guess even during a war cows have to be fed and milked. Some things just don't stop.
About an hour and a half after we departed the St. Come-du-Mont area we reached the outskirts of Ste. Mere-Eglise. We found a small unit of the 82nd had established a roadblock there near a crashed glider. The crashed glider was one of the bloodiest sights I saw on D-Day. It had been used by some units of the 82nd to attempt to bring in anti-tank guns and the pilot had overshot the field and crashed into a stone wall right off the highway. If there were any survivors, they weren't around. There were plenty of bodies. We turned over our prisoner and said goodbye to our two glider pilots who rejoined the 82nd. It was comforting to know that at least there were some American forces occupying the north and south ends of the stretch of road between Ste. Mere-Eglise and St. Come-du-Mont. And at least if we weren't right on the river line, we were close to it and our patrol actions up and down this highway prevented any German forces from using it. So, in retrospect, I guess we were the western outpost of the D-Day assault — perhaps the largest organized unit deepest into German-held territory. In fact, from the firing — most of which seemed to come from the east side of our highway — it appeared that we had a large portion of the German forces between us and the Utah beachhead.
We headed for the designated glider landing zone, hoping that those operations which had been planned for D-Day evening would come off as scheduled. I had been designated to receive one of the six jeeps the 501st was to get. Jeeps were quarter-ton open trucks.
Going south we again passed near the spot where I first landed. About a mile south of Ste. Mere-Eglise we hit a road leading eastward in the direction of Hiesville. We turned there and began to run into scattered German fire again. We returned the fire and went on.
This kind of fighting was always inconclusive. It was seldom even possible to see who was firing at you. You just had to hope that your return fire was hitting the target — or at least near it — and if the enemy fire dropped off, you felt you had been successful. You didn't go over to try to find any bodies. That was too time consuming and too dangerous. You just continued on toward your objective.
At Hiesville there were already gliders in the field — those that had come in about three hours after our initial parachute assault. General Pratt, Assistant Division commander, was killed in the landing of his glider. In fact, his body had not been removed when I reached the glider landing zone. There were other American soldiers from the 101st around. Not many — perhaps fifty. They were near a farmhouse, and I discovered it was the Division Command Post, hardly the kind you might expect for a Division. The farmhouse was large and substantial, surrounded by large trees that offered plenty of protection from overhead observation, but no Brass was around. (No high-ranking officials.) Just a few men who had only begun posting maps on walls and preparing to get the Command Post in operation. They de-briefed me in about ten minutes and entered the situation as I described it on their maps, and I headed immediately for the glider landing zone just south of Hiesville, I got there between 6:15 and 7:00 o'clock p.m.
Right on time the scheduled C47's, towing two gliders apiece, appeared coming in from a northerly direction. As soon as they were in sight of the drop zones the gliders cut loose and began to land. What a mess! The fields were small, and there were still some of those anti-glider, anti-parachute poles in the field. There was small arms fire from the Germans directed toward the planes and the gliders. The gliders began to dive for the fields. Some hit short; some hit long; all of them hit hard. Some sheared wings; others ran into each other, but somehow they got down. I had seen glider landings before and knew that glider riders and pilots really earned their pay in that branch of the service, as those fellows did coming in that evening. I am sure some were killed, but we couldn't stay around to count bodies.
I am sure there were a lot of miracles on D-Day, but my own second miracle occurred when that glider assigned to carry my jeep landed right on time and right at the designated spot. I wasn't more that 50 feet from the spot where the glider landed — certainly within shouting distance — the glider nose opened and my jeep rolled out. I called the driver's name; he recognized me and drove right over.
We had been isolated for about 18 hours that day. We had been shot at, taken some casualties, and inflicted a few ourselves but the arrival of this jeep was like a miracle. In this little landing zone twenty gliders had landed. Not one of them was in serviceable condition. Some were badly battered.
When I arrived back at the Division CP, I was asked to help provide local security for protection of the Command Post because by that time darkness was approaching fast and there was still an awful lot of German firing going on. We organized a guard detail with others who had been arriving at the CP, and I was assigned a sector to the north about 300 yards from the Command Post. I took my small patrol to our sector and we divided the responsibility for the night. We posted the first guards, then moved into a well-built cluster of farm buildings — a milking shed, tool shed, hay barn, all clustered around a stone-paved courtyard. But it was home. There was already a small first-aid station operating at one end of the building and there were quite a few injured and wounded Americans, as well as Germans, lying on the ground. Some were resting up against the buildings. Others were just lying in the courtyard. In the dim light I could see some of our aid personnel bustling around but I didn't need their services, so I stayed out of their way.
I sat down in the equipment barn beside an old two-wheeled hay rake and opened my first K-ration: Ham and eggs in a small tin can, a fruit bar, some biscuits that looked and tasted like I guess dog biscuits taste, a hard chocolate bar for dessert. The chocolate bar was so hard that if you had thrown it as a rock it would have been a dangerous weapon. Some kind of powdered coffee. I put the unopened powdered coffee back in my pocket, and I devoured my meal in record time.
I had the second shift of the guard detail that night so I went to sleep as soon as I finished eating. It was now dark, and there was still plenty of firing going on. And there was some moaning from the direction of the aid station, but I fell asleep so fast that by the time my turn came to pull my tour of guard duty it seemed like only ten minutes had passed. I pulled my two-hour shift, woke up my relief and then went to sleep again. Once more I must have slept about an hour rather fitfully, but it sure felt good.
When the word came to wake up again, we were in contact with some other members of the 501st who had also shown up in the Division Command Post area. I went over toward the direction of the CP, and found Colonel Kinnard. I knew at least two people from the plane had survived.
He said that we were moving out in a few minutes to join a force of the 506th. He asked me how many men I had and I told him about 35. 1 told him about MacNeilly being back at St. Come-du-Mont with 15 others.
Kinnard had about 150, I believe, I asked him about the rest of the Regiment, and he said he knew where Colonel Ewell was with his Battalion, but he did not know where the rest of them were.
A parachute battalion at full strength consisted of three rifle companies and a headquarters weapons company with a total of about 600 officers and men. Ewell's battalion at that hour was hardly what you would call an organized, full-strength unit. He probably had 150-200 men, roughly organized along company lines. They had been very effective in the early morning hours of D-Day when they had been acting as Division Reserve — at that time he had no more than 50 men. But they had cleared out one of the four exits to the mainland from the invasion beach. The clearing out of these exits was essential to the successful passage of the seaborne assault forces from the beach to the mainland. Utah Beach was about four miles long. It had been designated as the landing beach for the seaborne elements of the Seventh Corps. The Seventh Corps was under the command of General J. Lawton Collins, who was later to become known as "Lightning Joe."
Ewell's mission that night was to act as division reserve and be under the direction of General Taylor for whatever purpose that Taylor wanted to use him. Because the drop had been so scattered, Taylor directed Ewell to use his small force to open up the nearest causeway and Ewell had proceeded to do so.
At about 4:30 a.m. on the first day after D-Day — or D + 1 — Ewell's battalion was again in division reserve. Kinnard was acting as Regimental Commander for our part of the Regiment, which, excluding Ewell, was not more than 200 men. The situation of Colonel Johnson, our Regimental Commander, and the exact location of the rest of the 501st Regiment was not clear to me. I learned later that the lst Battalion had been badly mauled when landing near its drop zone — that the drop zone had been well and vigorously defended by the Germans and that the Battalion Commander, Colonel Carroll, had been killed before he could get out of his parachute harness. Colonel Johnson had landed safely, had assembled a small force and had moved directly to one of the Regiments' objectives which was to secure a dam and locks across the Douve River about one mile down stream from the main highway that connected Carentan and Ste. Mere-Eglise. Johnson and his command, which was probably not more than 100 men during the early hours of D-Day, captured the locks and crossed the Douve River so as to secure the locks. The locks were essential to the control of the depth of the water of the Douve and it was essential that the Douve be kept flooded so as to act as an anti-tank barrier to the German forces to the south. So one part of the Regimental objective had been accomplished with dispatch and with great success.
Colonel Robert Ballard, from Jacksonville, Florida, commanded our 2nd Battalion 501st. He later commanded the Regiment after Johnson was killed in Holland and after Ewell was wounded at Bastogne. He later became the commanding General of the Florida National Guard. Bob and his wife now live south of Miami at Goulds, Florida. He had landed near his drop zone somewhere between Vierville and Angoville on one of the roads leading to St. Come-du-Mont. His Battalion had encountered stiff opposition but it had organized and was in position contesting the road to St. Come-du-Mont. At this hour on D + 1 I knew little about Johnson or Ballard or about the fate of the lst Battalion. We moved out from the Division Command Post near Hiesville in the direction of Vierville with a mission of seizing the bridges across the Douve between St. Come-du-Mont and Carentan. The advance from Hiesville to Vierville was relatively uneventful. There was some firing but it didn't stop us.
It was not until I had reached Angoville that the first serious action of that day began for me. When we reached Angoville there were already some other American forces there -apparently remnants of our lst Battalion. We quickly exchanged information and no sooner than that had happened we came under heavy fire. I jumped into a barn adjacent to a farmhouse on the east side of the little road that we were on. It must have been about 9:30 or 10:00 o'clock in the morning. I felt safe in the barn — heavy, sturdy stone walls and a tile roof. As first we received rifle fire and machine gun fire, which we returned. Then mortar shells began to fall. This was the first time I had been under fire by mortar since the beginning of the invasion. After the third or fourth round hit in Angoville, one hit the roof of the barn. The roof was sturdy and covered with tiles about a half inch thick, but when that shell went off, those nice, red clay tiles turned into lethal weapons. I learned then and there to stay away from barns with tile roofs — even if they do have good walls. I also learned later that same day that the first thing you do when you go into a house is to break out the glass windows. I had been in some houses on D-Day but there was no artillery fire directed at me and no mortar fire, and I felt safe with the glass windows but that day at Angoville I learned how dangerous glass windows and tile roofs could be.
We took some casualties. I don't remember how many. After an hour the firing stopped. It seemed that German troops who had been positioned on or near the beaches and who had been driven back by the landing forces were now moving toward us. With the 4th Division and some elements of our 101st pushing from the east with the only way across the Douve River and into Carentan being blocked by us, we were picking up one German unit after another as they were trying to move to a better position. Our road to the southwest to St. Come-du-Mont was still blocked and so we spent the rest of that day in the Angoville-Vierville area. There was too much resistance at St. Come-du-Mont for us to move south. There was too much resistance to the northeast for us to move in that direction. So we settled down after nightfall for some rest.
In the meantime I had almost started to like K-rations. I hadn't had a chance to try any of the powdered drinks, but the eggs and cheese were good. I couldn't get very enthusiastic about the rest. I was still nibbling on my first chocolate bar, and despite the fact that I had put it in my inside pants pocket, it hadn't melted! I think it must have been mixed with concrete.
Well, that takes you through two days of the invasion. The first day didn't seem like it would ever end and the second day went so fast I hardly remember it. Eventually we would take St. Come-du-Mont. Instead of taking it with one company of the 501st, as had been our original plan of operation before the invasion — or with my small combat patrol as I had tried to do on D-Day, it took the whole Division plus the fire support from the cruiser Quincy plus eight or ten tanks that were assigned to us from the 5th Corps. It took plenty of lives, both German and American. But within three days we held St. Come-du-Mont and control of the bridges, the line of the Douve River was secure and our first mission completed.
Near the end of the third day the 501st was ordered into Division Reserve near Vierville. We assembled there. Colonel Johnson, our Regimental Commander, and his group showed up with about 150 German prisoners. Ewell and his Battalion rejoined us. Ballard and his Battalion rejoined us, and while I can't say we were a happy lot, we were a relieved lot. I remember we counted heads that evening at Vierville on the third day and from our group of about 2,000 that came in by parachute, we now numbered no more than 600 to 700.
Fortunately, in the next few days more and more of our 501st men showed up and by the fourth day it seemed to me that we had about 800 to 900 officers and men. We reorganized as quickly as possible — reassigning duties, redistributing weapons, going out into the fields and finding the equipment bundles, getting what few radios we could find in action, and on the night of the third day I dug my first foxhole in France. It wasn't a very good one. The ground was hard and I was tired.
But I scooped out a little place, covered myself with a parachute, and before I could count ten I was dead asleep. Well, that night and the next day the war went on. we had more missions to accomplish —which we did.
Carentan was captured. The Cotentin peninsula was cut off so as to assure the capture of Cherbourg, which had been one of the prime missions of the D-Day landing and follow-up forces. It was necessary to capture Charbourg because it was the only deep-water port available in that part of France which could be used to land the heavy equipment and the supplies that were needed to sustain the breakout of the beachhead and the dash across France of the American and British Armies.
A few days after the Fourth of July, 1944, the 501st returned to England. I had flown back a couple of days early in order to make the necessary arrangements for the re-opening of our camp at Hampstead Marshall near Newbury and meet the Regiment at the docks in South Hampton with the necessary transportation to get them the 50 to 60 miles back to what we now called "home. " I had enough vehicles for 800 men, and we filled them up with a little room to spare.
So from a total strength of about 2200 that went to France by parachute and by sea from the 501st, we brought back about 800. Some of the men were arriving back at Hampstead Marshall from hospitals but most of the rest were just gone. The 501st jumped into Holland for that invasion on September 17, in what had been called "A Bridge Too Far." Then back to a reorganization area in France in time for Thanksgiving and then to Bastogne for Christmas. And eventually to Hitler's capital in south Germany — Berchtesgaden — for the May 8, 1945 German final surrender.
From there we made contact with the Russian forces in Austria, south of Vienna, and were being redeployed to "God-knows-where" in Bar le Duc, France, when the atom bomb was dropped at Hiroshima. A few weeks later we dissolved the Regiment, turned in all of its equipment, transferred out its remaining personnel, and some of us came home.
As I recall there were 12 or 15 of us left from the original cadre that had formed the 501st in Toccoa, Georgia in 1942. The personnel officer told me at our last, rather wild party in Auxerre, France, that we had had about 12,000 people on our personnel records to make up our assigned strength of about 2200 people. War uses up a lot of people — not all are killed. Some just fall out on the way. Others are injured and wounded but such is the nature of war. The 501st had plenty of tough and exciting times, but, for me, I don't think any day will ever be like D-Day — June 6th, 1944.
I think some personal footnotes are appropriate here. I don't want anybody to ever think that I was either brave or a hero. I was just there and did what had to be done and could be done. There were many heroes. Some of them are dead, but some are still very much alive.
Julian Ewell became a Lieutenant General and retired after Vietnam. Harry Kinnard became a Lieutenant General and retired after Vietnam. Elvie Roberts became a Lieutenant General and retired after Vietnam. Robert Ballard became a major General and commanded the Florida National Guard and now lives in the Miami area. Richard Allen became a General and retired after Vietnam. Joe Jenkins became a Colonel, having risen through the ranks and receiving a battlefield commission, and retired some years ago. Captain Hugo Simms served one term in the Congress from South Carolina, and also served in Korea. Lieutenant Charles Poze who was my point man — and whom I never saw after that morning just outside of St. Come-du-Mont — apparently died in the 1960's of a heart attack. Unfortunately, I've never been able to find out what happened to Charlie. I have the VA looking into that.
Maxwell Taylor became a four-star General and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. General J. Lawton Collins led his 7th Corps to victory in Europe and earned the nickname of "Lightening Joe" because of the speed with which his troops advanced through France and into Germany.
On May 14, 1984 I was privileged to sit on the reviewing platform with Generals Taylor and Collins and Secretary of the Army, John Marsh, as an honored guest for the special parade honoring Taylor and Collins. Ewell and Kinnard were there also.
You might classify D-Day as my "first junket" and because I'm the only member of Congress who was there on D-Day, I will be allowed to take another one, with Martha this time, to participate in the ceremony in Normandy with President Reagan, Queen Elizabeth of England, and the President Mitterrand of France on June 6, 1984. the 40th anniversary of my "Longest Day."
I am sure by now there must be some question in your mind about why these memories are so vivid to me. I find as I talk to others who were there at that time that they have the same sort of vivid recollection. For most of us that rest of the war seems to be a blur with a few high spots that we can remember — but D-Day and the day following seemed to be burned into our memories. Perhaps it is because we had studied the maps and rehearsed the format so many times. Perhaps it was because it was our first brush with the enemy and with death. And perhaps it was because we were required to write about it in an after-action report while we were still in Normandy. Somewhere in the vast files of the Defense Department are thousands of reports written by hand by those who participated and survived.
In addition, my parents kept all of my letters. My father would take them to the office, have them typed up and distribute them to the family. He kept a copy of these letters until just before he died when he turned them over to me. I hadn't realized what he'd done.
A few months ago I read over the letters, and I've got to say they are the longest weather reports ever written. Because of censorship I was careful not to give away much information, but I did write in order to try to relieve my mother's and father's tension. After all, they had not only me to worry about, but my brother Myron who made his crossing of the invasion beaches about a month later and fighting with Patton's army began the breakout of the beachhead. In the breakout, he was wounded on three different occasions, received three Purple Hearts, and spent about a year in the hospital. Later he retired as sixty percent disabled. Despite his disability, he successfully practiced law until very recently — he is now 100 percent disabled and living quietly with his family in Tampa.
These days had a tremendous impact upon me. I'd been in ROTC almost continuously since 1936 at Plant High School. In mid-1941 I was called to active duty and had spent years preparing for what I was called upon to do on D-Day.
I had lots of opportunity to reflect before and after at the University of Florida while studying world history and political science. In the late 1930's and 1940's the world had disintegrated. Hitler had begun to march.
First, Austria had fallen; then Czechoslovakia; next Poland, Derunark, and Norway; then Hitler's lightning stab through France and France had fallen.
England had been under siege. The oceans were no longer safe for travel.
World commerce had been destroyed by an act of Congress in the Smoot-Hawley Tariff, which I believe had been one of the major contributors to the disintegration of the international community. World commerce was at its lowest ebb. A feeling of despair swept Europe and Japan. Unemployment was high in the United States, but higher in Europe. Fortifications were built and destroyed. Then in December 1941 — Pearl Harbor.
These events and my own experiences long ago gave me a mission. That mission is to help create an environment in which people can work and live together — not just in the United States, but worldwide. The opportunity to create a peaceful environment with our political differences is not very good, but in our commercial contacts we can build confidence, understanding, and a spirit of cooperation. So my mission is to do that.
We've made progress. There is a general agreement on tariffs and trade matters. World barriers in the commercial sense have been vastly reduced. The expansion of international commerce has made much progress and, I hope, brought about better understanding and working relationships between those trading partners.
As an example, in the United States our international commerce has grown from only a few billion dollars a year back in the early 1950's to five hundred billion dollars a year in the 1980's. My role as chairman of the Subcommittee on Trade places me in a key position to advance my mission. The determination that drives me is based upon those vivid experiences of D-Day and the rest of the war.
World War II was perhaps not the last major war — and if another one occurs, D-Day and that whole war will have been like a Sunday School picnic in comparison.
I am determined to do all I can to make sure that something like that will never occur.
We Americans are only a small part, (less that six percent) of the earth's population -but we have a responsibility to lead. A good, successful leader leads by example. We must reduce barriers, ours and theirs. We must remain strong, but not be provocative. And we must negotiate, not because of fear but because we are strong. And if we use that strength sparingly and wisely, we will not have to face another time like that between World War I and II. We must inspire confidence in our actions and try to understand and accept the vast differences in beliefs and cultures that surround us.
[Editor's Note: Military.com wishes thank Congressman Gibbons and the University of South Florida for use of this personal narrative. This narrative is part of the Special Collection of the University of South Florida Library.]