First Men In: U.S. Paratroopers and the Fight to Save D-Dayby Ed Ruggero
Of the nearly 15,000 Allied paratroopers dropped into France on D–14 (two weeks before D–Day), only one regiment––the 3,000 men of the 505 Parachute Infantry––had been tested in battle, and so they were given the toughest mission. For a few critical days, while the fate of occupied Europe hung in the balance, these troopers held… See more details below
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Of the nearly 15,000 Allied paratroopers dropped into France on D–14 (two weeks before D–Day), only one regiment––the 3,000 men of the 505 Parachute Infantry––had been tested in battle, and so they were given the toughest mission. For a few critical days, while the fate of occupied Europe hung in the balance, these troopers held their ground against savage assaults. In doing so, they changed the course of World War II.
Within hours of landing in Normandy, the paratroopers of the 505 Parachute Infantry Regiment had gathered in the darkened fields outside Ste. Mere Eglise and moved rapidly to the edge of town. A French civilian pointed out the German positions, and in a lightning attack the GI's liberated the first town in Europe, planting the United States flag on top of city hall.
Shortly after daylight, as reports streamed in, Allied commanders were shocked to learn that the 505 was the only one of six U.S. parachute regiments to hit its mark. Because Ste. Mere Eglise was the gateway to Utah Beach, the regiment––now fighting virtually alone––hastily dug in to await the German counterattacks that were sure to follow. Colonel Bill Ekman and his men held critical ground: half of the American invasion force was to pass through this area, and that would only happen if the 505 held Ste. Mere Eglise. It was an almost unimaginable challenge: at ten that morning the German attacks began, and by early afternoon enemy armored columns were slamming GI lines from three directions in an attempt to reach the vulnerable invasion beaches.
But despite heavy losses, the 505 was still in control of Ste. Mere Eglise on June 8, when they were relieved by units that came across the beach. When their unseasoned replacements faltered, U.S. commanders called on the exhausted paratroopers to stay in the fight and lead the series of ground assaults that would secure the invasion. A single unit, a relative handful of men, had helped turn the course of one of the most important battles of the war.
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The First Men InU.S. Paratroopers and the Fight to Save D-Day
By Ed Ruggero
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Ed Ruggero
All right reserved.
The Gathering Host
The soldiers crowded onto the late-night train watched their reflections in the windows as the ancient cars, smelling of tobacco and sweat, rocked through the night and the Northern Ireland countryside. Some of the young men headed for infantry companies looked out at the rain and thought about the field problems that would be coming up, all the nights they'd spend marching around in the dark and cold. On good nights, they'd get to come back to small, overcrowded tents, where they'd attempt to dry their wet clothes beside the finicky coal stoves. But there'd be lots of other nights they'd spend maneuvering around the damp countryside, practicing their soldier skills, digging foxholes, and manning machine gun positions and listening posts, all the thousand details that went into becoming competent infantry soldiers.
Some, like Fred Caravelli, a twenty-six-year-old from Philadelphia, were conscious that they had a long way to go to catch up with the veterans they would join at the end of the train ride. Caravelli was a replacement slated for the 82nd Airborne Division, which was already famous for its exploits in Sicily and Italy. In fact, it was thereputation of the airborne forces that had put Fred Caravelli on that train.
Before he received his draft notice, Caravelli was in a movie theater with his wife, Marie, when a newsreel showed British paratroopers and told of their tough training and their esprit. Caravelli leaned over in the dark and whispered to Marie, "That's what I'm going to do."
In early 1943 Fred's draft notice finally arrived. He had not enlisted before then because he felt an obligation to stay with Marie and his mother, who was living with them. But once the draft board decided for him, he felt a sense of relief: the waiting at last was over. When it came time for Marie to put him on the train headed west to basic training, Fred was in an upbeat mood. This son of an Italian immigrant thought of himself as thoroughly American, and he wanted to do something for his country. Now he would get the chance.
Caravelli wound up in the infantry, training at Camp Robinson, near Little Rock, Arkansas, one of the hundreds of military bases that grew like weeds around the country as America put millions of civilians into uniform to fight a global war.
His previous job, working in a uniform factory, had been demanding, but basic training toughened him up in new ways. Fred was never a big guy -- on entering the service he measured five foot six and 132 pounds -- but he was determined to stick with even the toughest field problems. In doing so he set an example for the other men. One GI even told him, "I look at you, and I figure if a little SOB like you can do it, I can too."
The long road marches, all the hours of running up and down the low hills, all the mucking around the countryside loaded down like a pack mule with the tools of a modern infantryman turned Fred into a tough physical specimen. When he showed up at Fort Benning, Georgia, for airborne school and its famously grueling physical training, the program turned out to be easier than he expected.
After his infantry training and four weeks of jump school, Fred was assigned to the 541st Parachute Infantry Regiment at Camp McCall, North Carolina. But he was tired of shuttling from one stateside post to another, and so when the call went out for volunteers to go overseas, Fred put his name in and soon received orders for the 82nd Airborne Division.
When his group of replacements went north to New York, the port of embarkation for all GIs headed to Europe, Fred got a short pass, and he and Marie arranged to meet at Jack Dempsey's nightclub in New York. Later, Fred noticed the hotel staff looking at them as if he was just another GI shacking up with a young woman, but it hardly mattered to him. What mattered was that Marie was close once again. He had no way of knowing when, or even if, that would happen again, but neither of them talked about the possibility that this hurried meeting might be their last.
Like a lot of young men in uniform who had never seen how terribly random war could be, Caravelli was convinced that he was one of those who would come back. Yet, in spite of his optimism, in spite of his sincere desire to do his part, when he took Marie to Penn Station and found the platform for the train to Philadelphia, it was almost more than he could bear. He would not see her again for two years.
The troop train finally pulled into a darkened Irish station, and the men could hear the sergeants calling them to get up, grab their gear, and move out onto the platform. It was pouring rain, and they were told to fall into ranks. Caravelli had stood in enough Army formations to know that this kind of waiting around was an open-ended deal: they could be outside in the downpour just long enough to do a quick roll call, or they could be standing around for the better part of an hour. All they could do was hope for a covered place to stand.
Caravelli took his place in the ranks -- out in the open -- and decided, after a few minutes of waiting with no idea what was going on, that this was just more Army chickenshit, the all-purpose term that described the vast inefficiencies to which they were subjected: the lines, the waiting, the march-there-and-back-again mistakes that ate up their time and made them uncomfortable. But chickenshit was most disturbing because it sent a message that the soldiers' time was not valuable, that no one cared if the private was inconvenienced or soaking wet, or hungry, or had gone . . .
Excerpted from The First Men In by Ed Ruggero Copyright © 2006 by Ed Ruggero. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Ed Ruggero is the author of Combat Jump: The Young Men Who Led the Assault into Fortress Europe, July 1943 and Duty First: A Year in the Life of West Point and the Making of American Leaders. He was an infantry officer in the United States Army for eleven years and is an experienced keynote speaker on leadership development. He lives in Wallingford, Pennsylvania.
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