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Combat. We were going back into combat. The realization hit us like an 88mm shell slamming into our midst. We had only recently been relieved from action in Holland. Now we were going back in again—no advance notice, no time to get ready, no marshaling areas, no sand tables, no map reconnaissance, no briefings, nothing. Just saddle up and go. We were ordered to grab our weapons and head out into the dark of night, straight back into combat.
Less than three weeks earlier, on 28 November 1944, we were pulled out of Holland after seventy-two days of bitter, behind the lines fighting. Then, on 17 December, we got the word we were going in again.
We needed more rest. We needed new weapons issued and old, worn-out weapons repaired. We needed troop replacements. We needed clothing, boots, and medical treatment. There wasn't a man among us who didn't have old and new wounds, old and new scars. Most men had trench foot, some had trench mouth, and some had scabies, lice, or whatever.
I had had trench mouth so bad that puss oozed from my gums. My teeth became so loose that I could move them freely with my tongue, and blood would run out of my mouth from the light pressure of the razor when I shaved. Penicillin had all but cured that malady, but my teeth were still not totally firm.
Most scabies cases cleared up with benzol benzoate treatments. Scabies are contagious little critters that take up residence under your skin—tunneling, feeding, and reproducing there. Their tunnelingcauses an insatiable itch until they are killed by medication. We sprinkled DDT powder liberally on our bare bodies and in our clothing to get rid of other unwanted vermin.
We were coming around, but what we needed more than anything else was plain and simple rest. We needed time away from killing and the smells of the battlefield: the smells of gunpowder, of the freshly killed, of raw iron in fresh blood, and of burnt human flesh. We needed to be free of the sweet, sickly smell of death and the sight of green flies laying maggots in the open mouths and gaping wounds of the rotting dead. We needed time to heal—but that was not to be.
On the night of 5-6 June 1944 we had flown through a fiery, tracer-laced, flak-torn sky as the spearhead of the Normandy invasion. Our plane was in the point of that spearhead and we were among the first Allied troops to land on D day. My stick parachuted from its C-47 at 1:14 in the morning to pave the way for the beach landings that began more than five hours later. We fought hellacious battles there, suffering a high casualty toll—both killed and wounded—among the hedgerows and in the villages, towns, and cities of coastal France. Paratroopers did not die quietly or easily. They died violently, bringing the war to the enemy on his own ground. The Germans learned about American paratroopers the hard way in that campaign. We killed them in great numbers, and they began to call us "the butchers with big pockets"—referring to our skill in combat and to our jumpsuits with oversized pockets.
We returned to England after the invasion, welcomed back our wounded who had recovered, and received replacements for those who would never return.
We had barely begun fitting replacements into the vacancies left by our casualties and training them to our way of fighting, when we again found ourselves in marshaling areas being briefed on a new mission. We were to spearhead another invasion, this time into the Netherlands.
Operation Market-Garden was the brainchild of British Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery. It was to be a carefully coordinated airborne/land attack designed to skirt around the end of the Siegfried Line, drive straight through Germany's industrial heart, the Ruhr Valley, and then on to Berlin. Field Marshal Montgomery was sure his plan would bring the war in Europe to an end in a matter of weeks.
Operation Market, the largest airborne assault in history, was to be executed by the First Allied Airborne Army, made up of the American 101st and 82d Airborne Divisions, the British 1st Parachute Division, and Poland's 1st Parachute Brigade. We were issued a shoulder patch identifying us as members of the First Allied Airborne Army with instructions to sew it on the right shoulder of our jumpsuits above the American flag we wore there. Many troopers refused to wear the new patch because of the strong loyalty they felt for the 101st Airborne Division and its "Screaming Eagle" patch. A few of them did sew the patch on, but they put it below the American flag.
The plan called for the newly formed First Allied Airborne Army to parachute into Holland and seize and hold bridges over the Wilhelmina and Willems Canals and the Dommel, Maas, Waal, and Rhine Rivers. The ground operation, code-named Garden, called for the British XXX Corps to break through the German line on the Dutch border and race forward to link up with the paratroopers holding the bridges, cross the Rhine, and then push straight on to Berlin.
It didn't work out that way.
Field Marshal Montgomery ordered the airborne divisions into action even though he knew in advance that they would be facing a formidable foe beyond their ability to subdue. Thanks to up-to-date intelligence reports and aerial reconnaissance photos, Montgomery was aware that the enemy had just pulled crack, battle-tested, elite SS panzer (armored) units outfitted with the newest, finest armor in the world into the Arnhem area. Operation Market-Garden, knowingly doomed to failure before it began, should have been aborted.
For seventy-two days and nights we fought constant battles pitting man against man and man against armor. The fighting raged all the way from our drop zone (DZ) in Zon to Eindhoven, up "Hell's Highway" through Veghel, Grave, and other towns to Nijmegen on the Waal River, where the 82d Airborne Division captured the bridge intact after a very bitter and costly battle. We fought our way from Nijmegen to Opheusden, located on a strip of land between the Waal and Lower Rhine Rivers known as "The Island," before finally moving into positions across from Arnhem. There, British paratroopers armed with little more than small arms and guts lost out to crack Nazi SS armor and SS panzer grenadiers.
Major General Maxwell D. Taylor and Brig. Gen. James M. Gavin, commanders of the 101st and 82d Airborne Divisions respectively, asked the British for permission to lead our two divisions across the river, kick German ass, and bring what was left of the British 1st Parachute Division back. Their requests were denied. The British paratroopers, who originally had been expected to hold the north end of their bridge for only two days, until their armor and ground troops could link up with and relieve them, were abandoned to their fate. The British armor and infantry finally arrived—eight days late—and set up static defensive positions on ground we Americans had liberated. Our British brother paratroopers were needlessly left to be slaughtered.
The Polish 1st Parachute Brigade, which jumped in at a later date, was ambushed while descending on its DZ. Germans waiting on the drop zone had a turkey shoot, killing and wounding nearly every Polish paratrooper. The Poles didn't stand a chance. Most of them were hit by small-arms fire before they reached the ground. Those not hit in the air were shot while trying to free themselves from their chutes on the DZ. The very few who made it off the DZ alive did so as prisoners of war. That ambush and slaughter was made possible because a map case containing detailed maps, charts, plans, schedules, and code names fell into German hands the day of the invasion when an English glider crashed, killing all of its occupants on impact.
It was a sad turn in the fortunes of war for the Allies. Why was such a detailed and complete package of the whole operation trusted to one map case and placed in a glider that was slated to land behind enemy lines? Airborne operations are risky enough without taking a chance on the entire operations plan falling into enemy hands. That mistake was paid for with Polish blood.
Operation Market-Garden was a dismal and costly failure, wasting many lives and much equipment and time. Airborne forces were originally designed to be used as a shock force, capturing and holding strategic targets for no more than a couple of days until they could be relieved by friendly ground troops. They were then to be pulled out, rested, refitted, rearmed, and made ready for another operation.
Because they were "bastard outfits" (the military term for a unit not permanently assigned or attached to a higher field headquarters), the airborne divisions could be assigned to any command that needed their expertise. So it was that the 101st and 82d Airborne Divisions became part of the First Allied Airborne Army and fell under Field Marshal Montgomery's operational control. "Monty" wore out both divisions in Holland before letting them go. The 82d was relieved from combat duty and sent to France two weeks before we were released from British control.
We had been used in the heaviest fighting as shock troops for Monty's XXX Corps. Boots stayed soggy on our feet and trench foot prevailed. Our jumpsuits were filthy, ragged, and torn. We didn't have a real bath in all the seventy-two days we were in action. The best we could do was take a very occasional "whore's bath"—washing our faces, armpits, and crotches with cold water from our helmets.
Our numbers were methodically decimated by battle. In the end, fewer than fifty of the two hundred-plus men who went into action with my unit—A Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR)—remained. Second Platoon could muster just seventeen men in three squads of five men each, including the squad leader. Near the end of that campaign, we were led by Lt. Pat Sweeny, our platoon leader, and Sgt. Ted Vetland, our platoon sergeant. Normally we had four twelve-man rifle squads, plus a mortar squad, a machinegun squad, some bazooka men, and the platoon headquarters. All together, 2d Platoon was barely more than a reinforced squad.
The First Allied Airborne Army's commander, Lt. Gen. Lewis H. Brereton, petitioned Field Marshal Montgomery for our release several times. However, his pleas fell on deaf ears. Finally, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, issued "Monty" a direct order to release us posthaste. We were finally relieved by bagpipe-playing Scots, who strode noisily down the roads to our positions on 27 November. The 101st Airborne Division was transported that same day by Canadian trucks to a large monastery in the rear, where we had our first shower in nearly two and a half months. The next day we climbed aboard English lorries for the thirty-six-hour trip to Mourmelon-le-Grand, France.
Mourmelon-le-Grand was an ancient French town with houses and buildings haphazardly gathered and jumbled together, interlaced with narrow, spiderweb streets in an area that had been a battleground since man first took up weapon against man. Julius Caesar campaigned and bivouacked his legions there in 54 B.C. Countless other armies followed, camping and fighting throughout the region over the centuries. The region's history was steeped in battles. Warriors from the various armies passing through the area had been breeding with the local femmes for centuries, creating a potpourri of humanity. Eroded trenches and shell holes still scarred the old battlegrounds of Château-Thierry, the Argonne Forest, Saint-Mihiel, and Belleau Wood, where World War I had raged in all its fury.
Our barracks, located outside of town, were of a style that one associates with the French Foreign Legion out on some lonely desert outpost. The battle-scared stucco walls were pocked with occasional shell holes, and the concrete floors were cold and damp. The French occupied the barracks during and after World War I. They gave way to the Germans, who thundered across France with their blitzkrieg (lightning war) in June 1940. German panzer units occupied them until Americans liberated the area after the Normandy breakout. American troops were then rotated through, all of them moving on as the war ground inexorably eastward. Now it was our turn. This was to be our home during our R and R (rest and relaxation). We used the time to integrate troop replacements into our platoons and squads and to exchange our clothing and equipment. The goal was to be back to full strength and fully equipped when called on again for another mission.
One rainy day during a practice field problem I was digging a foxhole in one of the old abandoned trenches. My entrenching tool struck metal, and I dug up a rusty old French helmet with holes in the front and back through which a bullet had passed. I turned that rusted relic over and over, examining it inside and out. I thought of its previous owner. Was he a young man? Or was he an older man? Had he been drafted or did he volunteer? Had his body been transported back to a cemetery, or was he buried deeper in the trench? In those days it was customary to bury the dead under the floorboards and in the walls of the trenches. I wondered how many dead men might still be entombed in these abandoned trenches.
It was now December 1944. It was cold, damp, overcast, and foreboding. There was no cheery fire to warm us at night. There was only a single tiny, inadequate, coal-burning stove at one end of the barracks near the latrine. Our bunk beds were made of hastily nailed-together two-by-fours, which many times in the dead of night fell through or split apart, spilling startled troopers onto the cold concrete floor. Our mattresses were straw-filled cloth sacks. The straw, supplied by local French farmers, was amply laced with burdock and thistle. There was no comfort in this place, only misery. While we were there two 101st GIs, both veterans of Normandy and Holland, committed suicide, blowing out their brains with pistols. Our one ray of hope was in the knowledge that it was the holiday season. We had just celebrated the Thanksgiving dinner that we'd missed during the fighting in Holland, and Christmas was just around the corner. Every day, men went to mail call hoping for packages filled with goodies from home.
I usually received my share of mail, as did most of the other men, but there were a few troopers who received nothing at all. Time after time I would see these same men at mail call, standing at the outer fringes of the group, looking, listening, waiting, eyeing each letter as a name was called and the letter was passed back from hand to hand to the recipient. But these few troopers, good men all, never received a letter.
I knew one of those men pretty well and asked him one day if he ever received any mail. "Nope," he replied.
"Then why do you come to each mail call?" I asked.
"I don't know. It's just that someday, maybe ..." His voice trailed away and he walked off with his hands in his pockets.
We had seen hard combat in Holland and we were tired. We also suffered from many physical maladies. During our extended stay in the rain-soaked, sodden lowlands many men developed severe cases of trench foot and other diseases. Many had cuts, sprains, minor wounds, and other injuries that weren't sufficient to justify a stay in the hospital but still hurt and were endured quietly by the troopers now in garrison. Some of our wounded had returned to us from hospitals with shrapnel and bullet scars still fresh on their bodies. Many weapons had been lost or destroyed in battle, and the ones we had left on hand were in a sad state of disrepair. Some troopers were without a weapon of any kind. Now, in this condition, we were being called on to go into combat again.
"We're goin' amongst 'em!" was how we put it. Even while in combat, as we prepared to make an attack, troopers repeated these phrases like mantras: "Yep, we're goin' amongst 'em.... We're gonna stack bodies.... Every time you pull the trigger, there's gotta be meat on the table."
This time it began just after some of the "old men" returned from a forty-eight-hour pass to Paris. They weren't old men in a physical sense; they earned the title out of deference to their seniority. They were the men who had been with the outfit the longest and had seen combat in our two missions. At the age of nineteen, I was one of the old men who had survived both operations, and I was one of those who had just returned from two days of hell raising in that wonderful French city. We sat or lay on our bunks in a small, huddled group near the center of the barracks, talking. A single bare electric bulb burned overhead, casting long shadows outside our little sphere of light. Most of the men had gone to bed to sleep, but we were young men who had just tasted life's wildest revelry in a city known throughout the world for its wine, women, and totally unrestricted love. We had tales to tell. Tomorrow, with its work details, drills, and drudgery could wait. We would suffer through it. But tonight we were alive. We had survived two major campaigns and we were alive. We had blitzed the city of London and drunk and brawled our way through Reims and Paris, and we were alive.
In forty-eight hours we had tried to drink Paris dry and make every pretty girl we saw. And the more we drank, the prettier they got. After a time there were no ugly girls, just a whole city filled with rare and willing beauties. We'd all had at least three months' back pay when we hit Paris. That was how long we had been in the marshaling area and in combat, and they had paid us in full when we got back to France. It's surprising just how fast one can go through three months' back pay when you're nineteen years old, in Paris, and fresh from seventy-two days of combat behind enemy lines.
I was sitting next to Siber Speer, one of my best buddies, along with Harold Phillips, Leonard Benson, Don Liddle, and John Bielski. I first met Speer in England, just after our return from Normandy. Speer was one of the replacements sent to fill in for our wounded and dead D-day comrades. I didn't like him when I first saw him. He was too short, he was too friendly, and he was homely. In fact, I remember wondering how a guy like him ever made it into the paratroops in the first place.
As time went by I found myself on work details with Speer. He never complained about work details, something that is not only every GI's right but duty. He was all too willing to do every task assigned to him. And he did it well. He was surprisingly muscular, and he did more than his share on any detail or chore to which he was assigned.
I made it clear to Speer on several occasions that I didn't care for him and would rather he was someplace else. He was always too willing to work. His heavy-featured face was deeply lined and tanned, and he had a big nose. But after studying him for a while I could see that if his nose were any smaller his face would be out of balance.
Speer never snuck out of camp with us to go to the Blue Boar or the Crown and drink up all the rationed English beer instead of work. But as time went on he kind of grew on me. He wasn't as bad looking as I'd first thought. In fact, he wasn't bad looking at all. In time, thanks to his good nature and forgiving ways, we became the best of friends—almost like brothers.
Phillips, who had been my good friend since before the Normandy invasion, was a little older than I. We were nearly identical in weight and build. He was Pennsylvania Dutch—blond, blue-eyed, and more than just a little superstitious. He told of good luck symbols and such painted on the outer walls of homes and barns back in Pennsylvania, and related stories of how those symbols had actually warded off evil and illness and worked to bring good fortune and health to the home or farm owner.
Bielski, another close buddy who came to us as a replacement after Normandy, was the same height as Phillips and me but stocky, broad, and heavier, with strong Polish features and fingers the size of small bananas. He had a joking answer for nearly every statement or situation. At times he would screw up his face, droop one eyelid, and act like a person who didn't quite have full command of his faculties.
Benson shipped over from the states aboard the Empire Anvil with Phillips, Jack Bram, me, and many other troopers. The Empire Anvil was a U.S.-built Liberty ship on lend-lease to England making its maiden voyage. We docked in Belfast, Ireland, after our eleven-day Atlantic crossing via Newfoundland. After a short stay at the Clandibouy estate, we moved on to England by way of Scotland. Our small group joined the 101st Airborne Division in Auldbourne, England, in the last part of February 1944 to help beef up that division for the Normandy invasion. We were placed in squads and platoons in A Company, 506th PIR. I ended up in the 2d Squad of 2d Platoon with Phillips, Benson, and Connie Bridges. Others were shotgunned throughout the company and the division.
Connie Bridges was built about the same as Phillips and me. He was from South Carolina and lacked a formal education. I used to write letters to his family and read his incoming mail aloud for him. He was nervous most of the time, and made more of a fuss about jumping from planes than did the rest of us. Connie Bridges was injured badly enough during our fighting in Normandy that he never returned to the outfit.
Benson was a little shorter than I and a lot slimmer. I don't believe he weighed more than 130 pounds, and he probably weighed a little less. He was dark-complected and had dark-brown eyes and straight, black hair. He was always keenly watching others and what was going on around him. He was mentally sharp and an avid craps player who won most of the time.
Then there was Donald B. Liddle (pronounced Le Dell), a Mormon from Myton, Utah. Liddle was one of the very first paratroopers in the U.S. Army. Known as the "Originals," they formed the nucleus of the 101st and 82d Airborne Divisions when they were activated at Camp Claiborne, Louisiana, back in 1942. He was a rock, a man seemingly without a nerve in his body. In Normandy I saw Liddle caring for wounded in the open with artillery and mortar shells bursting all around while others crouched in their holes. We called to him to take cover but he wouldn't even look up. He just kept at his grim work and shouted, "I'll take care of myself. You just take care of yourself."
Liddle was also about my height but more powerfully built. He was quiet and more of a loner than the rest of us. He had a large, square jaw; a straight, sharp nose; icy blue eyes that seemed to see right through a man; and short, curly hair that was thinning on top. A large burn scar showed around his lower neck when he wore an open collar. I never asked him what caused it, and he never told me. When he smiled, he showed what seemed to be about a yard of straight, white teeth. I felt a special closeness with Don, and he accepted me as a friend—at times confiding in me some of his innermost thoughts. Liddle never allowed anyone else to become a buddy or to get too close.
I turned nineteen just before the Normandy campaign. I was five feet nine inches tall, weighed in at 140 pounds without clothes, and had dark-brown hair and blue eyes. I hailed from Detroit, Michigan—born near the foot of the Ambassador Bridge, which spans the Detroit River between Detroit and Windsor, Canada. I quit Mackenzie High School in the tenth grade to join the army paratroops. They wouldn't take me because I was too young, so I worked as a carpenter and signed up again the day I turned eighteen in April 1943. It was a tough ordeal, but I was determined to make it and did.
My parents were originally from Alabama. They escaped from the slave-like conditions of the coal-mining camps in that state shortly after World War I to make a new start in a more prosperous north. It was the brave act of a young couple, for which I am eternally grateful. My father, after working at Ford Motor Company and in the shipyards, joined the Detroit Police Department in 1924. He retired after serving twenty-five years in the city's "Black Bottoms," one of the roughest neighborhoods in America.
I grew up during the Depression, when nearly everyone was poor. My father would regale us with the stories of John Dillinger, "Pretty Boy" Floyd, "Machine Gun" Kelly, Ma Barker, the Purple Gang, and other notorious gangsters. He also told us all about bootlegging during the era of Prohibition. Dad did not try to stop me from joining up. He was a firm believer in the idea that each man should do what he felt he had to do.
I was wounded twice on 13 June in Normandy during a bayonet attack in what we came to call "The Battle of Bloody Gulch." The 4th Infantry Division, which landed on Utah Beach on D day, had passed through our lines and relieved us so that we could return to England and get ready for another mission. The 4th Division then tried to break through a well-entrenched enemy just outside Carentan, a major city that we had just liberated. After the 4th Division's fourth unsuccessful try, we were ordered to take that ground.
We were successful but we paid a heavy, bloody price for that victory. A lot of our comrades were killed or wounded taking that small valley from the enemy. We had crawled on hands and knees to the edge of the hedgerow that the enemy was entrenched behind. We fixed bayonets and then, on command, charged headlong over the hedgerow into heavy enemy fire to do hand-to-hand battle with the Germans. We pushed forward into fierce enemy fire across grazed-over pastureland toward the next hedgerow—where the bulk of the enemy had withdrawn, leaving their dead behind. They cut us to ribbons as we ran over the open ground, charging after them. At least six enemy machine guns had us in a cross fire, and a mix of 81mm mortar, flat-trajectory 88mm cannon, high-angle 75mm howitzer fire exploded in our midst, filling the air with searing shards of shrapnel that tore through flesh and bone.
I made it over about seven hedgerows and fields, seeing a large number of my comrades wounded, maimed, and killed around me. Still we charged forward into the small-arms and artillery fire. I was slightly ahead of my squad when a German suddenly appeared out of a hedge a few feet away on my left front. He flipped a long-handled potato-masher grenade at me in a nonchalant manner before I could bring my rifle to bear, and then he disappeared back into the hedge.
The explosion knocked me out. My comrades left me where I lay, thinking I was dead, and continued on with the attack. It was the right thing to do. You should never stop an attack to look out for the wounded or the dead—if you do, you most likely will become one of them. You've got to keep pressing forward or you'll lose. After coming to, I discovered I was deaf but had no other apparent wounds. I tried to catch up with my attacking squad and was struck down by a shell fragment that tore through my right arm, cut through eight rounds of ammo in my cartridge belt, and entered my right side. That was the end of my fighting in Normandy. My buddies, meanwhile, had continued the attack, gained the enemy positions, and won our battle.
I was sent to recover in the American 216th General Hospital in Coventry, England. I made it out in time to make the Holland jump after undergoing artery and vein transplant surgery in my arm and receiving the best of care. The doctors gave me the piece of shrapnel they took out of my side and I kept it with me wherever I went as a lucky charm. I needed one. I was soon back in combat with my division, my scars still fresh and tender.
Now, three months later, we sat talking far into the night, each man telling of his Paris experiences. Our stories inspired laughter, awe, and envy in the replacements and a few of the older men. The new men in our outfit, all fresh from the States, were eager listeners and asked more questions about the wild life in Paris than they did about the combat skills that we, the older men, were supposed to be teaching them. Most of them asked if we thought they might get a chance to go to Paris while we were still in France.
"Sure," we assured them. "After all the old men have had their turn they'll let you guys go. You know, a few at a time until you all have a turn."
"Paris. God, I can't wait. The world's gonna know I've been there!" one of the new men burst out. Everyone laughed.
"Shut up you guys and go to sleep, for Christ's sake," said a voice from one of the bunks near the latrine end of the barracks.
"Yeah, we gotta keep it down. But I want to hear more," one of the new men said.
"Y'all just want to go to love city and get yer bean snapped," drawled a southerner.
"What the hell did you think I've been talking about?" asked the replacement. "Man, I hear they've even got rooms with mirrors all over the walls and ceiling. You can see yourself in every which way."
"Yeah, but did ya ever think of who might be sittin' on the other side o' them mirrors watchin' you?"
"I don't care. I just want to go."
The talk continued in a similar vein until about 1:30 A.M., when everyone, with unspoken agreement, turned in. We were all exhausted and knew reveille would come early.
Speer had the top bunk and I had the bottom. I waited until after he climbed up and settled into his before crawling into mine. A couple of nights before, his bunk—with him in it—had fallen through on top of me after we had gone to sleep. Now I lay there shivering. The blanket was cold and damp, and the straw mattress was getting thin. I could feel the board slats underneath. I made a mental note to get some fresh straw in the morning and refill the mattress cover. It was like trying to sleep on a picket fence lying flat on the ground. Nevertheless, I quickly drifted off into a deep, dark slumber.
The door flew open with a loud bang that made me sit bolt upright in my bunk. Other combat-wary men came immediately awake. Sergeant Vetland came blustering and shouting into the room, not bothering to shut the door behind him. A cold, damp December wind blasted into our already miserable room, adding to the chill and discomfort. A chorus of angry voices demanded that someone "Close that goddamned door!"
Sergeant Vetland was dressed in his jumpsuit and jump boots, but it was hard to tell if he had just gotten out of bed or not. He looked tired, and his loose hair hung down over one eye, as though he had just combed it with his fingers. But that was the way it always looked. Come to think of it, I don't think I ever saw him comb his hair with anything but his fingers.
"Awright you guys, let's hit it!" he bellowed. "Come on, off and on, let's hit it. Let's go, hubba-hubba one time. Off your ass and on your feet, start packing your seaborne rolls, we're moving out—now!"
Seaborne rolls? That could mean only one thing: combat. Up and down the barracks creaks and groans came from the double-tiered bunks as troopers began stirring from their sleep.
"Seaborne rolls?" a sleepy voice asked in disbelief.
"Yeah, seaborne rolls," Sergeant Vetland repeated. "Pack your seaborne rolls, we're moving out."
"When?" a man asked.
"Now. Just as soon as you men get ready and the old man gives the order. And you will be ready when he gives the order."
I checked my watch; it was 2:30 in the morning. I couldn't believe this was happening.
"Hell, you must be kidding, Sarge," someone else said from one end of the long barracks. "I just got to sleep."
"I don't know any more than you men do, but I'm not kidding," replied Sergeant Vetland. "The Germans have broken through our lines someplace and are running all over everybody—infantry, armored, everybody. Now it's up to us to stop them before they go all the way to the Channel."
"Jeezus Kee-rist," said another voice. "Why can't the infantry take care of themselves? We spearhead the invasion and liberate Holland for them, and the minute we turn our backs and try to have some fun, they go and foul up."
Most of us felt the same way. We were angry with the infantry for letting the Germans walk all over them. We were angry at the rear-echelon, noncombat commandos sitting on their fat asses back in 12th Army Group headquarters and at Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF), drinking wine and playing soldier with the local ladies while ordering us to do their fighting. I felt anger well within me. I was ready to explode but didn't know who to direct it at. We felt that a whole lot of people weren't pulling their weight and that we were carrying the load for them. How many times did we have to pull their irons out of the fire? We were tired and angry. Our seventy-two days in Holland under Monty had just about drained us.
All three of the overhead electric lights had been turned on, lighting up the entire room. Men cursed as they slid from under their covers and bare feet hit the cold concrete floor. Someone had closed the door but the frigid air hastened the men into getting fully dressed. We could see steam coming from our mouths as we breathed. Damn, that floor was so cold I thought my bare feet would freeze to it.
A few troopers—already dressed and wearing overcoats, wool caps, and gloves—gathered around the one small coal stove in the rear corner of the barracks. One of them poked an iron rod into the handful of feeble dying embers, trying to stir them to life and get a little heat out of them. His efforts were fruitless, but they stood around the damned thing anyway, staring wistfully at it like a bunch of kids staring at an empty candy box.
What was going through their minds? I wondered. Memories of home and loved ones? Grim thoughts about what lay ahead? What is really behind the vacant stare in the eyes of young men preparing to go into combat, knowing that many of them will die or be maimed?
The thought of death did not really bother me too much. Death is just the other end of being born. It is natural. We come into the world out of a dark, unknowing void and we return to it. What really bothered me was the thought of having my arms and legs torn from my body. Of lying there with my blood spurting out on a shell-ravaged field. Of seeing the jagged ends of splintered bone protruding from the torn, ragged stumps of flesh where my limbs used to be. Of smelling burnt powder and raw iron mixed with fresh human blood. I had experienced this with others in battle too many times. I didn't want it to happen to me. I would rather be killed. But I didn't have time to dwell on such things. I had a lot to do in order to be ready when we got the order to move out.
A flash of anger sparked somewhere deep inside my midsection. "Those goddamned Krauts," I muttered under my breath. "Those dirty, rotten, goddamned Krauts. They've lost the damned war and they know it. Why don't they give it up so we can all go home? The hardheaded bastards. We're going to have an ass-kicking party when we get up there, and they are going to supply the ass."
Listening to the talk going around among the troopers, each having his say, it was clear just why we were chosen for the job. If this breakthrough was as big as everyone hinted at, we would stand a good chance of being encircled by the flood of oncoming Germans and we would be fighting behind enemy lines again. That would not be anything new or alarming. Jumping into and fighting behind enemy lines was natural for us. It was what we had volunteered for, trained for, and what we were experienced at doing. But the limited supplies we were able to carry in with us were gone within seventy-two hours. It would be imperative that our infantry and armor break through to us within that time and resupply us with the needed ammunition and food, or that the Air Corps' Troop Carrier Command get the vital supplies to us by parachute. If they failed, we would have to make do and hold out using captured enemy weapons and whatever food we could scrounge until we were properly relieved.
We had learned from past missions, especially the last one, that thanks to our status as a bastard outfit we would be used and abused by whomever had control of us. Our prophecies proved all too true. Within the next two months we would earn the distinction of becoming the only division in American history to fight in three separate armies, in three separate army group sectors, under three different commanders. In Holland we were under Field Marshal Montgomery, Gen. Omar N. Bradley controlled our operations in Belguim, and Gen. Jacob L. Devers commanded us in Alsace—all within the space of sixty days!
We saw hard combat on many other European battlefields as part of several different armies and corps before the war ended. We had proven we were the elite of all combat troops and it seemed like everyone had need of our special talents whenever their part of the war got too hot for them to handle.
Now we, the experienced older men, began packing the small rolls that would normally follow us into combat after we had established static lines. This was normal procedure with us. When going into combat, a paratrooper can carry and jump with just so much, so each and every article he carries into combat must be of vital importance to fighting and survival. Weapons, ammo, explosives, first-aid gear, water, food, a mess kit, a blanket, a raincoat folded through the back of the cartridge belt, and a few luxury items such as socks, underwear, cigarettes, and chocolate all went with us. We always carried our weapons and ammo where they would be handy when needed. We stored food (K rations and D bars), different types of grenades, TNT, composition C (a plastic explosive), and other such items in the large pockets on the outer legs of our jump pants and tied them down on our upper thighs with strings attached to our pants legs. Other goods were distributed throughout the many other large pockets in the jumpsuit and jacket. Items ranging from mess kits to writing paper and toiletries were usually stowed in a musette bag that we fastened on the back of our shoulder harness. The balance of our gear went into the seaborne rolls we were making up now.
For shipping and handling purposes these rolls were not to be more than thirty inches long and not more than twelve inches in diameter. Into this small package we had to pack toilet articles, extra clothing, a second blanket, and everything else we might need in the following weeks of fighting.
The new men watched as each of us laid a shelter half on the floor and then spread a blanket on top of it. We then put whatever items we thought we'd need later on this mat, folded the long edges in toward the center, and rolled it up as tightly as possible. We then wrapped a piece of tent rope around it, leaving a long, loose loop that ran the full length of the roll and tied it to each end to serve as a shoulder strap.
We were required to stencil our last name and the last four digits of our army serial number on every article of clothing and belongings—including our socks, underwear, and handkerchiefs. If a foot or other body part was the only thing recovered of a man after a battle, a sock, or other piece of clothing with his name and last four numbers stenciled on it might be the only way to identify him.
We made sure our name and number showed clearly on the outside portion of the shelter half when the roll was completed. It made owner identification easy, even when it was in a pile with many other rolls.
Usually within a week after our lines became static, rear-echelon troops would bring our seaborne rolls up to an area near the front line. We would then go back a few at a time, pick our rolls out of the piles that had been dumped hastily on the ground, and return with them to our foxholes.
In wars and battles before paratroopers came into being, most troops went to war on ships or landing barges and fought their way inland. Their personal gear, wrapped and tied in blanket rolls, would be brought in by other ships at a much later date, thus the name seaborne rolls. We still called them that, even though troops now went into combat by sea, air, rail, truck, and on foot, and the rolls were, for the most part, delivered by truck.
Chow. The call so near and dear to all soldiers' hearts and stomachs was relayed from GI to GI throughout the camp as men echoed the cry loud and clear. Chow! In a matter of moments everyone in camp, no matter where, knew it was time to eat. We had been busy reevaluating the weight of our gear, weighing our packs and rolls by hefting them. If they felt too heavy, we would undo them, weed out the least important items, and repack the roll.
It's strange how some things may mean so much in garrison, but when you're getting ready to go into combat—where every ounce is carried on your back—many of these items suddenly lose value and are discarded. Some didn't even make it into the barracks bags that would be stored in some warehouse until our return. For the most part, when a man didn't want something and didn't want to put it back in his barracks bag, he would hold it aloft and call to all within hearing, offering it to whoever would take it. If there were no takers, the item was usually pitched into the center aisle that ran the full length of the barracks. There it would remain, walked over and kicked around, until the clean-up crews came in after we left. Members of the cleaning crews inherited some choice souvenirs, war trophies, and other articles in this manner.
What the hell? I wondered. Why should we bother putting anything back in our barracks bags? We couldn't carry everything we owned into battle with us, and every time we went in, the bags we left behind were invariably ripped open and looted by the rear-echelon troops. Almost everything we owned of any value would be stolen. War souvenirs, personal things, and desirable GI-issue items usually wound up in the hands of thieves. Photos of loved ones were ripped from their frames and the frames stolen. Nothing was sacred. The next time we saw our barracks bags it seemed like the only thing they contained was our dirty laundry—and sometimes not even that. All some guys got back was an empty bag with their name and serial number stenciled on the side.
Chow call interrupted my reverie. Men were scrambling all around, grabbing their mess kits and running like hell to the mess hall. The slower men always wound up at the ends of very long lines, with little chance of making it through in time for seconds. It paid to be a very fast runner or billeted close to the mess hall.
|4. The Woods Fight||126|
|5. Sunshine and Friendly People||143|
|6. The Long Road Back||177|
Posted January 20, 2003
At 19 years old, Donald Burgett, as a member of the legendary 101st Airborne Dividion, has survived Normandy and Market Garden while being wounded twice. In garrison, retrofitting and replacing lost soldiers, the 101st Airborne hurriedly prepares to stop a breakthrough by the Nazis in Belgium. A desperate battle that will have an affect on the outcome in the European Theatre. Burgett describes: the needed, albeit too short, rest of garrison life and being on leave in Paris; the replacements, who are usually the first casualties in combat; the long cold ride in cattle cars to meet the adversary; limited supplies; the endless shelling; hand-to-hand fighting; the long hours freezing in his foxhole; and lost buddies. Often, I was shaking my head in amazement at what these soldiers endured. Being wounded again and one of the few in his platoon left standing, this "old man" of 19 is truly a survivor.
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Posted October 24, 2011
Posted April 3, 2008
I am generally not much of a reader, but I can't put Don Burgett's books down til I'm finished. Seven Roads to Hell tells the story of the amazing stand at Bastogne, from a trooper eye view. I have read both Curahee and Road to Arnhem, and each book is simply amazing. Burgett paints the entire picture, from the beauty of the countryside to the horror of battle. He shows both his best side and worst. Throughout reading you feel a myriad of emotions, joy, sorrow, excitement, fear, pride, disgust, and even humor. But through it all, you feel that this is the reality of a WWII paratrooper. For those of you that always are curious about what really happened or what it was really like, look no further. Mr. Burgett has it all right here in his series of books. He makes you feel a part of his times in Europe both the good and bad. I highly suggest this to anyone, and it has given me an even greater respect for what these brave men did.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 25, 2005
I have just begun reading military history books, over the past year I have read about 5, and I have to put this on the top of the list. Donald's vivid descriptions put you right in the action of the battle and his chapter 'The Woods Fight' is tense, gripping, exceptional writing. I would strongly recommend this book.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 10, 2003
This book was similar to Band of Brothers in writing style, and just as gripping too. To get a true picture of WWII read this and 'road to arnhem' by Burgett also, then read 'Band of Brothers' by ambrose, and then watch the movie 'Band of Brothers' by spielburg and hanks.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 13, 2003
I read this book, then delivered it to my grandfather to read. Given that he served with Team Desobry, the original defenders of Bastogne until the 101st showed up, he claims that Burgett captured in writing the essence of the battle. Indeed, this book gives a soldier's account, not a staff officer's. From the description of life living below the ground like an animal, to the terror of tree-burst artillery, no book that I've read yet can captivate the reader and bring clarity to what life as a dogface grunt is like, quite in the way Burgett does here. This is a wonderful book. The Army and Marines should require it on their reading lists.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 6, 2003
Posted November 20, 2001
Donald Burgett takes us through his time on the defensive very well. His descriptions of his time in the foxholes freezing made me find some blankets while I was reading. He has a gift to put the reader into the story.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 19, 2001
This is definately the best book I have ever read. I think it's amazing that he survived 3 campaigns heck I think it's amazing that he survived the whole war. Despite a lot of friends dying around him in the carnage of war he kept going on. It's amazing that he and all of the other men survived the battle in the position they were in with no food, water, ammunition, weapons, and the didn't any winter clothes with them. I'm only 13 years old and I haven't read that many war books but I thought this was the best book I've ever read. I usually read books about the Vietnam War. I'm definately going to bye the rest of them!!!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 27, 2000
All of Donald Burgett's books about the 101st Airborne Division's battles are pure gold. The first-person, soldier-level descriptions of the toughest combat U.S. soldiers have faced during WWII are painful to read, but something those of us who have not served in combat need to understand. These books describe a particular instant in time which will probably never happen again. Seven Roads ... depicts an incredible story of courage and suffering which the reader will never forget.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 14, 2000
I thought this book was vary toching even after I meet him in 6th grade he is a friend of Mrs. lucaus's! She had been reading one of his other books in class and that got me interested in his books! the way he's so discriptive is really cool! I think that he is a wounderful man in and out of the fources! I may be in seventh grade but still if any one is that srong to go through ANY of that I think thay desirve all the creadit they can get!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 10, 2000
Donald Burget's personal accounts of his experience of the defense of Bastogne are STUNNING!! I have read all of Stephen Ambrose's books, but they don't hit nearly as hard as this book. It is an outstanding book from the perspective of one of the GI's who actually fought, bled and won the battles. The first account of the battle for the small town of Noville a few miles outside of Bastogne in the beginning is riveting. Especially battling German tanks with grenades and bazookas. It will lift your heart in spots and bring you to tears in others. To the author and many others we see how much thanks we owe them.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 14, 2010
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Posted August 22, 2009
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Posted September 19, 2012
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Posted January 4, 2011
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Posted December 13, 2010
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