First Men In: U.S. Paratroopers and the Fight to Save D-Day


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...

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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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Editorial Reviews

Carlo D'Este
“ Superbly researched, elegantly written, and a lasting testament to the bravery and leadership of [the 82nd Airborne].”
Publishers Weekly
Ruggero retraces the course of the storied 82nd Airborne Division as it jumped into occupied France on the night before June 6, 1944, in this vivid and often intimate account. Focusing on "those crucial first three days in France," he portrays the chaotic, often frantic fight, led by Maj. Gen. Matt Ridgway and Brig. Gen. Jim Gavin, to secure the critical roads and bridges leading to Utah Beach in order to prevent a German counterattack. Supreme Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower knew the dangers inherent in putting lightly armed paratroopers behind enemy lines-casualties were projected at 70%-but approved the operation since he believed the paratroopers were crucial to the assault. Despite missed drop zones, scattered units, lost equipment and fierce German resistance, the 82nd pulled together ad hoc units and proceeded to accomplish its mission with skill and uncommon valor. Relying on memoirs, histories and especially interviews with campaign veterans, Ruggero, a former infantry officer, draws on his skills as a novelist (The Academy) and historian (Combat Jump) to deliver a moving portrait of the service and sacrifices of the U.S. Army's first airborne division. (June 1) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
The 82nd Airborne Division parachuted into Normandy the night before D-day in June 1944. Risky and technically difficult, the operation was deemed vital to the planned breakout from Utah Beach into Normandy. The airdrop, using parachutists and glider-borne troops, spread 14,000 soldiers in and around the drop zones, their units thoroughly intermingled and dispersed. The author uses the usual technique of describing a battle, setting the scene with strategic and situational analysis, and then focusing on individual soldiers as they embark. He dissects the actions at Ste. Mere Eglise and La Fiere bridge, in some cases correcting previous historians' errors (e.g., about the order of march at La Fiere), and effectively presents the experiences of individual soldiers (drawing on his own interviews with veterans of the action). He does not flinch from addressing the long-term psychological effects of close combat. The invasion is already so well documented that one might well ask why we need yet another book. The author does build to a degree on his previous book on the 82nd, Combat Jump. Still, this is a stirring story of bravery, death, and victory, told very well, making it an excellent choice for most libraries.-Edwin B. Burgess, U.S. Army Combined Arms Research Lib., Fort Leavenworth, KS Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060731298
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 5/29/2007
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 806,056
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.86 (d)

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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Read an Excerpt

The First Men In

U.S. Paratroopers and the Fight to Save D-Day
By Ed Ruggero

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2006 Ed Ruggero
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060731281

Chapter One

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.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1 The gathering host 17
2 Train thoroughly 45
3 Operation Neptune 67
4 Countdown 85
5 All that bravery and devotion to duty could do 103
6 A fire-lit sky 117
7 Our sons 143
8 Ste. Mere Eglise 171
9 La Fiere Bridge 183
10 Under fire 211
11 Counterattack 233
12 No better place to die 251
13 First assault 263
14 The gauntlet 277
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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 26, 2007

    Very Detailed

    This book is one of the most accurate, minute by minute account of the 82nd Ariborne's combat drop into Axis occupied Normandy, France. I use this book for reference when I need specifics on my articles. I write a column for my school newspaper. This book really helps when I have to write articles on Paratroopers in World War Two. I am currently writing a book on an engagement in The very beginning of the Normandy Invasion, and I will definitely keep this book close at hand.

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