Notes from several Books:
As I have journeyed thru the project of scanning all of these pictures and documents, a task not yet completed, one of the consistencies that has appeared time after time is the fact that in almost every picture Dad is smiling, evidence that he was one happy fellow loving life….. and now I think I have an inkling as to why that is.
While I was on Christmas vacation in New Mexico in 2015, I found myself in a book store, my favorite place to wander, and found a book titled “The 101st Airborne at Normandy”. I had spend many hours with Dad, who served the entire war with the 101st, talking about his wartime experiences, some of which he swore me to secrecy forever about, but I had gathered no real sense of the impact that had on him, or for that matter, on his fellow troopers. This book opened up a window to those times I had never seen and sent me down a path to research all that I could find related to the places, times and events that he was a part of. I only regret that this came too late to ask him about personally, at least in this life, definitely in the next.
For those not familiar with Dad’s time in the U.S. Army , a brief overview of his World War 2 experiences:
- Joined the U.S. Army sometime in late 1942
- Joined the fledgling paratrooper army group by late 1942 when he attended “Jump School” at Fort Benning, GA
- Shipped to England after months of training
- Parachuted into France, on the night of June 5, 1944 in advance of the D-Day landings the next day
- Returned to England after D-Day
- Parachuted into the Netherlands on September 17, 1944, as a part of Operation Market Garden and remained in the Netherlands for 2 months of fighting
- Short break for rest and recuperation in France
- Rushed into the town of Bastogne on December 19, 1944 in response to the German offense known as The Battle of the Bulge
- Evacuated from Bastogne as a result of injuries
- 3 Purple Hearts
- Combat Infantryman’s Badge
- 1 Bronze Star
Sitting here, at the top of the 21st Century, it is easy to think that the outcome of the Second World War was inevitable, that the United States and its Allies would triumph, that the Nazi’s would be destroyed and the Japanese would surrender, but that is not how the people in the US felt in 1942-1943. They were scared, very scared and they had every reason to be afraid. The Pacific Navy lay at the bottom of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese threatened to invade Hawaii and Australia, were running wild in the Pacific and Asia, had invaded Alaska and their submarines were shelling cities in California. The Germans had swept thru all of Europe, brought England to its knees and at the verge of collapse and starvation, were knocking down Russian armies like a stack of cards and threatening to connect with the Japanese as they moved toward Egypt and eventually India. There was hardly a day when the inhabitants of the Outer Banks of North Carolina did not see the remains of an American oil tanker burning on the horizon after being destroyed by a German U-Boat.
There was no way of knowing then what the future held: that there would be decisive wise decisions, the English choosing Winston Churchill as their Prime Minister and Franklin Roosevelt reaching past much senior officers to pick Dwight Eisenhower to lead the Allies, that there would be miraculous moments that seemed like divine intervention: the British at the evacuation of Dunkirk, the Americans in the Battle of Midway, that there would be disastrous decisions made by Adolph Hitler, abandoning the Desert Fox, Rommel, when he was poised to conquer Egypt and the oil fields of the near east or ignoring atomic research and deliberately delaying the development of advanced jet fighters, or that there would be critical victories won against enormous odds, the Marines at Guadalcanal and the 101st Airborne at Bastogne.
All of that lay in the distant and uncertain future.
Training and Preparation
So, in 1942, at the age of 19, one Bernard “Reds” Swann joined the United States Army and, along with 7,000 other men, volunteered for the new “Paratrooper Regiment” to be created from the toughest and strongest. I once asked Dad why he chose to join the Paratroopers and his answer spoke volumns: “Why not go with the Best” he said.
Their introduction to training was a 13-week grueling period known as “Stage A”, and took place at Camp Toccoa, Georgia during which the initial 7,000 men were reduced to just 2,000 who made the final cut. Runs to the top of local Mt Currahee and back were part of the torturous training at Toccoa. This mountain became a symbol of the 506th, providing it’s motto and insignia. Also at Toccoa, a fiendish obstacle course was developed.There are two videos available on YouTube that show what part of that training was like. I captured the videos but they are too large to upload to my site. The first is titled “Camp Toccoa” and can be seen at the link:
A few still images from the video:
The second is titled “Mission Toccoa” and is really a promotion for a rehabilitation of part of the town but there are some interesting scenes from camp life at the start. The video link is:
A few still images from that follow:
After the “Stage A” training, the units were transferred to Fort Benning, Georgia for Jump School training. In the words of one of the official sites related to the 101st: “In December, the 3rd Battalion boarded trains for the trip from Camp Toccoa to Atlanta (Fort McPherson), from where they marched for the remainder of the trip to Benning, a distance of 136 miles, setting a new world’s record for an endurance march, previously held by the Japanese Army.”…that was their graduation ceremony. A newspaper picture taken of the men on the march:
Following their arrival at Fort Benning (as an aside – I took my own Basic Training there), they entered into Jump School. To graduate, each candidate had to make 5 successful jumps. While doing the research for this essay, I found the records of Dad’s graduation from Jump School and his permanent assignment to Company “I”, a portion of which follows:
ROSTER OF EM ATTENDING PRCHT CL #49, ASGD TO CO “I”, 3RD BN, 506TH PRCHT INF., CONT’D
SPERO, HORACE M., Pvt
STOLLINGS, MARVIN M., Pvt
SWANN, BERNARD M., Pvt
SWEET, HARRY A., Pvt
The full list can be seen at:
Fort Benning, GA
December 12, 1942
Note the date….. 1 year and 5 days after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
In the pictures that Dad kept in one of those boxes in his apartment, I found a few pictures from his time at Fort Benning. These first 2 have made it into a number of books and appear in numerous web sites and I would not guarantee that he is the soldier in the picture. But he kept the pictures and wrote a note on the back of the picture…
On the picture on the left he wrote: “Making ready for a soft landing” and on the right picture he wrote “Stand in the door”.
This picture shows a person in the training ropes and does not look like Dad, but given the grimace on his face and the tough conditions, it is possible.
However, these 2 pictures most certainly are him:
I’m pretty certain that the first one was taken at Fort Benning, judging from the barracks buildings, the fact that he is wearing a sweater and the emblem on his cap which predates his formal assignment into the 101st. The second is a treasure…he is hanging from a training rack used to get one ready for an actual parachute. In the pictures from the first video above, there is a picture just like this one.
In Dad’s records was a copy of a picture which was marked as being the members of Company “I”. The picture was torn, showing only the left section. I found the entire picture on the Internet much later and the full picture and a close-up follow.
The full company…can you find Dad?
After qualifying the troops as jumpers, the 506th moved to Camp Mackall, N.C. in June of 1943, substituting their GHQ Reserve shoulder patches for Airborne Command patches. These insignia were used by members of units not part of divisional organizations. Soon after, the 101st patch was substituted as the 506th became members by attachment of the Screaming Eagle division at Ft Bragg, N.C. In September, the 506th sailed to the U.K. aboard the SS Samaria.
506th PIR on the SS Samaria at the 42nd Street dock on the East River in New York City:
the Samaria was an old India mail liner and passenger ship which had been converted to a
troop carrier. The ship was originally built for 1,000 passengers, but carried 5,000 troops from both the 506th PIR and the 327th GIR. The ship departed New York City on September 5, 1943, and arrived in Liverpool, England on September 15.
A picture of the ship:
The troops were billeted in the Aldbourne-Ramsbury area, and reopened the jump school started by the 509 Battalion (before their drop in North Africa) at Chilton Foliat. Also at Chilton Foliat, parachute riggers from the various regiments set up their maintenance and repair shops. During the latter part of 1943 and the first half of 1944, a continuous flow of parachutist replacements arrived and were absorbed into the 506th and other regiments as last minute reinforcements for the Normandy Invasion.
Normandy – D-Day
All of this training and preparation were leading up to the main event – the invasion of Europe. The belief among the planners was that the use of paratroopers, dropping behind enemy lines and outnumbered was a necessary but near suicidal operation. They were not expected to survive. So it was no accident that General Eisenhower made a visit to the 101st on the evening before they launched. He knew all too well their odds of success. It was on that visit that the most famous picture from D-Day was taken, showing Ike with members of the 101st the evening before D-Day:
I asked Dad about Eisenhower and he told me that he actually spoke to Ike on 2 separate occasions and that when this picture was taken, he was off to the left and behind the closest soldiers. As the planes launched that night, Eisenhower was seen watching from the ground, saluting each plane as it took off with tears streaming down his face. He understood that they were not expected to return.
One other story…a personal aside. My Mother helped train some of the pilots who flew the gliders that were a part of D-Day, my father served in the Philippines and Okinawa and my step-father was in Burma. Because of that heritage, as a child I read just about every book about World War 2 that was in the local library. In one of those books I read the story of a soldier who almost missed the invasion as he was in the Brig. His Company commander offered him the choice of staying there or rejoining his unit for the invasion…he accepted the offer and went to war. I mentioned before that Dad had sworn me to secrecy about some of his experiences…well, it is time to pass one of them along…doubt he would really mind.
About a week before the invasion, Dad got bored and went AWOL. He spent 3 days in London doing those things that a young American male would enjoy doing…details omitted here. After spending all his money, he returned to his unit and turned himself in and landed in the Brig. He was the soldier that I had read about as a child. Now, how’s that for coming full circle.
In the books I read, I kept an eye out for anything that related directly to Dad and Company “I”. Pictures were pretty scarce for obvious reasons, especially after D-Day…noone carried a camera. But in one of the books I found this picture:
It was common practice for men to sign one of these French bills as a souvenir and I found several other examples in other books. Now….look very carefully at the signature in the bottom right corner of the lower picture:
The Division strength on D-day was 14,400 men. Of these 6,600 were parachuted into France on D-day, the others came by glider plane. The 506th took off for their first combat jump at 0100hrs, 6 June 1944. In the predawn hours of D-Day a combination of low clouds, and enemy anti-aircraft fire caused the break-up of the troop carrier formations. The scattering of the air armada was such that only nine of the eighty-one planes scheduled to drop their men on the Drop Zone (DZ) found their mark. Consequently, the sporadic jump patterns caused most of the troopers to land far afield of their designated DZ. Some of the men landed as far away as 20 miles from the designated area. Only the 3rd Battalion (which includes Dad’s “I” Company) landed in close proximity to their designated DZ. However, that area had long been recognized by the Germans as a likely spot for a parachute assault. The Germans had set a strategic trap and in less than 10 minutes managed to kill the battalion commander, Lt Col Wolverton, his executive officer Maj George Grant and a large portion of the battalion including a large percentage of Dad’s company.
“Item Company had been reduced within 24 hours from 80 men and 5 offices to 21 men and 2 offices. ”
Most of the men jumped with an equipment load that rivaled their own weight…a typical paratrooper as he boarded the C-47 that he would jump from:
The only part of the battalion that survived were those who were dropped in the wrong DZ. These two planeloads of troopers under the leadership of Capt Charles Shettle managed to accomplish the battalion’s objective of capturing the two bridges over the Douve River. The men of the remaining battalions fought valiantly in small groups, and as others joined them, they moved towards their objectives. Just prior to the landing of seaborne forces, the high ground overlooking the beaches was seized and held by the men of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment. They had accomplished what few thought they could and their success guaranteed that the Germans would not be able to attack the landing soldiers from the high ground above the beaches.
There was only one story Dad told me of the first night, other than to say it was total chaos and confusion. His position in the Company was as a scout, or as we would later call it, “walking point”. That means you are the first to see the enemy and you are the first person that the enemy sees. It takes a special combination of skills to hold that position. He and several other men entered a small house for shelter where they heard sounds indicating there were others in the building. Suspecting Germans, their first instinct was to bust open the door to the room where the noise originated, toss in a few grenades and hope for the best. Dad objected and at great risk, took it upon himself to investigate. Behind that door he found a woman and her small boy child. Neither was harmed. No doubt that he saved their lives that night.
When Item (I) Company returned to England, less than 60 men were capable of bearing arms out of an original 200. Of the remaining 140 men, 79 were KIA (Killed in Action) and the others seriously wounded or captured. Only 117 of the 800 in the Battalion were ever able to reach their objective which was the bridges across the Douve river.
A fellow paratrooper in the same unit, recorded his memories much later:
“After the invasion of France, we returned to Ramsbury, England to regroup. We lost many men to death, and many more were wounded and captured. In our squad of 12 men, I was the only one to return. My friends had many tears shed for them.
While in England, we prepared for the invasion of Holland. There were many replacements in the 506th. Of the original 750 men, 615 were killed, and only 135 survived. There were no non-coms left in the 3rd Platoon; all were new replacements. There were only about 10 left of the original 36 in the platoon. I went back to being a PFC rifleman and first scout. I really didn’t want it any other way. I made no new friends except Harold Stedman. None of my other good friends ever came back from France.”
The final climactic action that “I” company was involved with went down in history as “The Battle of Bloody Gulch” which was instrumental in preserving the lines protecting the troops on the beach. As one of the soldiers recalled, “I don’t think that there were more than 28 of us left in I Company after Bloody Gulch”.
Operation Market Garden
Operation Market Garden was an unsuccessful operation designed to shorten the war by attempting an end-run around the German defenses in the northern part of Holland, leading to a leap into the northern part of Germany. Depending upon the analyst, it is considered anything from a failure to a total disaster. The 101st had been reinforced with replacements in England and was mostly up to full strength at the start of the operation.
The operation can be visualized by thinking of an arrow…at the bottom feather end is the front line between the American forces and the German army. At the top arrowhead is a small Dutch town and in-between is a single 2-lane road that links the two. The road crosses 3 major rivers with bridges that are critical to the operation. The plan is to parachute a British group into the arrowhead and the American Airborne units into a variety of locations so that they can seize and control the key bridges. All these landings are behind the existing German lines. The idea is to capture the road and bridges and rush reinforcements up the road to the British at the tip of the arrow before they are overwhelmed by the more numerous Germans….that was the theory at least.
It starts out well…the British landed successfully and the Americans are delivered to the right places at the right time. They even manage to get control of 2 of the 3 key bridges; the Germans destroy the third one. The reinforcements start their dash up the road. The road, however, soon begins to live up to the name the troops will give it….”Hell’s Highway”. The 101st was destined to spend nearly 60 days trying to secure the road and keep it open.
What the planners had failed to take into account was that their assumptions about the state of the German Army was terribly out of touch with reality. Rather than being under-strength, demoralized and poorly lead, the German Army rose in a spirited, well-lead and near fanatical defense of what they saw as an attempted invasion of their homeland. They very nearly annihilated the British forces at the tip of the arrow, forcing them to beat a hasty retreat south. The reinforcements were unable to reach them and stalled. And time, after time, well executed attacks by the Germans ambushed American units holding sections of the road and retook control of the road, causing sustained and recurring problems of supply and communications.
The operation failed to achieve its goal and degenerated into a 2-month long attempt to hold onto the road and secure the areas on either side.
The following was taken from a history of the operation from a site devoted to the history of the 101st, with a few modifications to replace some military jargon with more understandable terms:
“On 17 September, the 506th parachuted into just NorthWest of Zon, Holland. The Zon bridge was destroyed by the Germans before the 1st battalion could seize it. Most of the 506th headed south to link up with British armor which was driving up along ‘Hell’s Highway’. Eindhoven was liberated on 18 September, and other 506 elements defended the 101st Command Post from armored probes back at Son. Later, the 506th leapfrogged north, to Veghel, then Uden. They helped hold Veghel against numerous German attacks and went back south to Koevering, above St Oedenrode, to reopen Hell’s Highway when a British column was decimated there.
Passing up through the 82nd Airborne’s sector, they crossed the Nijmegen bridge in early October, staged at Zetten, then went into a west-facing line at Opheusden. While 1st and 3rd Battalions units fought off attacks from the west, 2nd Battalion secured the dike facing north across the Neder Rhine, from Randwijk to Ophesuden. Relieved on the Opheusden line, the 506th held static positions and participated in the rescue of Arnhem survivors one night in late October. Over 120 starved and exhausted British paratroopers were successfully brought across the river. Later, 1st battalion was physically separated from the regiment and held the ‘Coffin Corner’ area, east of Driel. There they stayed until the Germans blew the dike just east of the railroad bridge,flooding the entire area.”
The majority of the operation is nowhere as well documented as the Normandy invasion so detailed information about the conduct of individual units, including Dad’s “I” Company are hard to come by, but, some details are available.
One platoon of the company was involved with the unsuccessful attempt to coax the German defenders of the town of Best to surrender. The entire Company was heavily invested in the attack on the town and securing the road leading into it. Their casualties were severe in this part of the fighting. As time wore on, the weather conditions deteriorated into rain, then sleet and then snow. With a constant lack of supplies and decent clothing, conditions were awful. Most of the men went for up to 60 days without a shower or a change of uniforms.
One of the men who wrote of his experiences recorded that at the time the Division was withdrawn at the end of the operation, there were less than 20 men remaining in Company I. Dad was one of these few survivors.
There are literally hundreds of books written about the Siege of Bastogne which was the turning point in what is known as “The Battle of the Bulge”. The battle itself was the final attempt of the Nazis to turn the tide of the war in their favor in the West and was their hope of getting some kind of negotiated end to the war before the Allies actually invaded Germany. It was the brainchild of Adolph Hitler himself and, except perhaps for the extraordinary performance of the 101st Division, might well have succeeded. In the annals of the Army of the United States, it is easily on a par with the Army of George Washington at Valley Forge and will forever stand as one of the most significant battles in the history of all nations, for all time.
To set the stage, in the waning days of 1944, confidence on the part of the Allies was running at excessive levels. There was talk that the war would be over by Christmas, that the Germans were beaten and just needed a little more punishment before they caved and surrendered. At the same time, supply lines were severely stretched, leading all the way back to the beaches of Normandy as none of the nearby port city facilities were undamaged and usable. The forces themselves were widely stretched and a portion of the lines in the Ardennes region was particularly poorly defended by troops that had never seen combat. The area was considered “safe” even tho it had twice been the path thru which German forces had invaded in the past.
The Nazis assembled the bulk of what remained of their experienced soldiers and the majority of their tanks and armor, all in secret and in December 16, 1944 they struck. Their general plan was to force their way thru the lightly defended region all the way to the port of Antwerp and in the process encircle and capture an entire American and British Army. The key city that stood in their way was the town of Bastogne with its network of roads and rail lines which were absolutely essential to their advance. As the Germans poured thru the retreating American lines a “Bulge” was created in the front lines, from which the battle derives its name.
With the majority of the Allied leadership in confusion, disarray and despair, General Eisenhower saw the operation as a potential for destroying what remained of the German Army, leading to a rapid ending to the war. To that end, he made the decision to rush the 101st Division and several other units to Bastogne with orders to “Hold at all costs”. That’s an order not lightly or often given. The troops were piled into trucks, with little ammunition and clothes not fit for fighting in the snow and rushed to Bastogne.
They rode all day, making the usual rest stops and into the next night in total blackout. As they crossed into Belgium, they stopped at the town of Bouillon. The weather was growing colder. When the convoy stopped they could see the silhouettes of exhausted men. They were retreating from whatever the 101st was headed. As they moved on, every time the truck stopped, they would hop off. More retreating soldiers were willing to give up their ammunition and weapons to the paratroopers, all of which were in short supply. Eventually they approached Bastogne that was at a crossroads that the Germans need to control if they were to continue their advance toward Antwerp. The 101st Airborne had arrived just in time. There had been pitched engagements all around Bastogne the previous day, but the 101st Airborne kept the Germans out of Bastogne.
They had arrived just as the German army was closing on the town and fought a series of delaying battles as the enemy gradually encircled the town and slowly closed in. In the many books written of the fight, it is considered one of the most extraordinary cases where an inadequately equipped and vastly outnumbered force was able to gain success against an enemy determined to defeat them. The general consensus has always been that this result was a direct result of the superior fighting ability of the soldiers of the 101st. Reading the first hand accounts of the individuals who took part one is struck by the cold resolve and skill with which these men faced their fate. Many of the officers remarked that it was not necessary to direct the men…they knew exactly what to do, when to do it and how to execute with precision.
It was at the height of the battle that the German commander demanded the surrender of the American forces “or they would face annihilation”. The commander of the 101st gained eternal fame with his one-word response…..”NUTS”. Keep in mind that the weather was terrible: cold and snow that kept the superior Allied Air Forces grounded and unable to assist or resupply.
One survivor wrote: “We all must have smelled badly, but no one took a bath during the Bulge, not even a whore’s bath in a helmet. Except for an occasional change of socks, we never removed our clothes in six weeks.”
There was little in the way of details related to the individual company actions available in the records I was able to find as might be expected in such an event. What is apparent is that units were moved around rapidly and often to meet the attacks of the Germans and few stayed in one place very long.
When I asked Dad about Bastogne, all he spoke of was the last fight that put him out of the war and his memories of the sound of a German 88mm gun. The 88 was originally intended as an anti-aircraft weapon but found most of its use against American ground troops. It had a distinctive sound when it fired and was immediately recognized by any experienced soldier. It was perhaps the most feared weapon in the German arsenal, second only perhaps to the Tiger Tank. Dad spoke of being under the bombardment of these weapons and how awful it was. The injuries he suffered were the reason he was eventually evacuated from Bastogne and never returned to combat. Three Purple Hearts….enough was enough. As he recalled the words of the medics: “Reds, you’ve been with us since the beginning and its time to get you out of here.”
That bring me to the end of his wartime experiences as best I have been able to discover and remember.
Which now takes me back to what I said at the very beginning of this essay: “he was one happy fellow loving life….. and now I think I have an inkling as to why that is.” I want the reader to consider some numbers:
- 7,000 men tried out for the new Parachute Regiment and only 2,000 made the cut
- In the first day after D-Day, his company was reduced from 85 men and officers to 23
- Another report says that of the initial 200 men in his company only 60 returned to England after D-Day
- At the end of the Market-Garden operation, out of 140 men, only 20 remained.
- In the Battle of the Bulge and the siege of Bastogne, one report says that only 21 men remained in his company
If you do the math and calculate the probability of survival, I figure that the odds of a man coming out of this alive are less than 1 in 200. That means that 199 will perish and 1 alone will live. Think a bit on that…Noone could come thru such a series of events without being profoundly effected and all the men who came thru these times were, just as all soldiers are forever changed by their experiences. That has been true for as long as men have fought.
In Dad’s case, I figure this gave him a view on life that was perpetually positive, happy to be alive and living each day for all it could be worth.
I know that my feelings toward him cannot be as deep and strong as members of his family, as would be expected…..but he was the greatest example of a man that I have ever known and the closest to a father that I ever had. I hope that as he sits in Heaven that some day he looks down and approves of this small tribute.
Bibliography of sorts….some of the books I used in writing this essay, all of which I own in case anyone is interested in reading them.
Mark Bando – 101st Airborne: The Screaming Eagles in World War IIMark Bando – The 101st Airborne at Normandy, This was the book that got me started on this project.Donald Burgett – Currahee: A Screaming Eagle At Normandy. (This was the only book about the war that Dwight Eisenhower endorsed, extraordinarily riveting; read it completely in one day.)Michel de Trez – American Warriors: Pictorial History of the American Paratroopers Prior to Normandy, (This has the most extraordinary pictures of the day before the jump, including never before seen pictures of the visit by Eisenhower)Dominique Francois – 101st Airborne in Normandy, A History in Period Photographs (Probably the very best collection of quality photographs of the History of the Division, some quite remarkable)Ian Gardner – Tonight We Die As Men: The Untold Story of Third battalion 506 Parachute Infantry Regiment from Tocchoa to D-Day(My candidate for the best ever title of a book)Ian Gardner – Deliver Us From Darkness (Operation Market-Garden and Hell’s Highway)Ian Gardner – No Victory In Valhalla (Bastogne to the end of the war)George Koskimaki. – D-Day With the Screaming Eagles (easy to read,hard to use, lacks an index as all his books do)George Koskimaki – Hell’s Highway: A Chronicle of the 101st Airnorne in the Holland Campaign, September-November 1944George Koskimaki – The Battered Bastards of Bastogne: The 101st Airborne and the Battle of the BulgeCol. Ralph M. Mitchell – The 101st Airborne Division’s Defense of Bastogne (Summary only with some maps and charts)Matthew Pellett – Last Stop Before Destiny: The 101st Airborne Division in England 1943/44 (Interesting stories of the time spent in England)W.R van Horn – Currahee Scrapbook: (This is just what is says, an oversized scrapbook with pictures and cartoons and stories, created in Germany just after the war ended. Makes for fascinating reading)