Glider Infantryman: Behind Enemy Lines in World War IIby Donald J. Rich, Kevin William Brooks
A member of the famed Screaming Eagles of the 101st Airborne Division, Donald J. Rich went ashore on D-Day at Utah Beach, was wounded in the bloody conflict at Carentan, landed in a flimsy plywood-and-canvas glider on the battlefields of Holland, and survived the grim siege with the "Battling Bastards of Bastogne" during the Battle of the Bulge. Glider
A member of the famed Screaming Eagles of the 101st Airborne Division, Donald J. Rich went ashore on D-Day at Utah Beach, was wounded in the bloody conflict at Carentan, landed in a flimsy plywood-and-canvas glider on the battlefields of Holland, and survived the grim siege with the "Battling Bastards of Bastogne" during the Battle of the Bulge. Glider Infantryman is his eyewitness account of how he, along with thousands of other young men from farms, small towns, and cities across the United States, came together to answer the call of their nation. It is also a heartfelt tribute to the many thousands who gave their lives in this struggle.
Coauthored by Kevin Brooks, the son of Rich's best friend and World War II comrade, Glider Infantryman covers a span of nearly three years; his return home, five months after the war's end, as a toughened bazooka gunner and veteran of five campaigns. Rich's first-person narrative includes vivid coverage of the action, featuring an especially rare account of arriving on a combat landing zone by glider. Detailed, day-to-day depiction of some of the heaviest fighting in Holland follows, including the action at Opheusden, the center of the infamous "Island." Later highlights include the Battle of the Bulge, where Rich recounts his experiences in some of the hottest defensive fighting of the European Theater, including the epic tank battles at Marvie, Champs, and Foy.
"Glider Infantryman is a well researched, gripping account of military combat in the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe during World War II. Brooks doesn’t sugarcoat the story: The brutality and suffering are real – so is the heroism of ordinary men. Like so many veterans from that era, Don Rich found it hard to talk about his experiences, and some haunted him into old age. With a faith Don met through his chaplain, Gordon Cosby (my pastor), he was finally able to release his anger and bitterness in a life of service to others.
As a teenager when World War II ended in 1945, I often spoke to returning veterans and listened closely. I remember their faces, especially their eyes. The sheer brutality of the killing left them mostly silent and grateful to breathe in and out, moment by moment. Those men inspired in me a sense of duty and courage that I have never forgotten. This book is a fitting tribute to them all."--Jerry S. Parr, assistant director, US Secret Service (ret.)
"A gripping first person account . . . a well written and exceptional book."--American Airborne Association Journal
- Texas A&M University Press
- Publication date:
- Williams-Ford Texas A&M University Military History Series , #136
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- Product dimensions:
- 6.36(w) x 9.08(h) x 0.82(d)
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Behind Enemy Lines in World War II
By Don Rich, Kevin Brooks
Texas A&M University PressCopyright © 2012 Don Rich and Kevin Brooks
All rights reserved.
November 1945 (about six months after the end of the war in Europe)
My name is Donald J. Rich, private first class (PFC) of the US Army. I left my family and home two years and eight months ago. Maybe you've heard of the 101st Airborne Division, which I've been a part of. Most of the guys I left with on a ship bound for England didn't come back to the United States with me. Some left early to go back home, having suffered injuries during the war. Many others are still over there in Europe. Some eventually will make it home. Others are in military cemeteries near where they were killed.
When I left home, I was an ordinary young man, really a boy, a farm kid. Since leaving home I've seen and done a lot of things, some of which I'm quite proud of. Then there are other things that I'm not sure about. I guess I just need more time to figure everything out. I've been shot at, wounded, and blown out of a building. I've seen many young men my age killed and maimed. I've taken out a machine gun at the cost of a human life and lost a battle with a giant metal monster. My assistant bazooka man, with whom I'd spent many days, I never saw again. Now I'm almost back home.
"Hello, Mom?" I feel excited and nervous at the same time as my mom answers the phone.
"Donald? Is that you, Donald? Where are you?"
"I'm at Uncle Nick's. I got here about midnight last night."
"Why didn't you call? You should have called. We were so worried." Mom continues to chew me out for not calling.
"Sorry, Mom, I should have called," I tell her. Mom starts crying. Through the tears she says they'll be coming right away to pick me up.
Within the hour, Mom, Dad, and my brother, Albert, are at Uncle Nick's front door. I am excited to see them, but, as with the phone call to my mom, I also feel a little nervous. I greet them on the front porch and give my mom a big hug as I lift her off the ground.
After I put her down, Mom, remembering that I had been shot in the leg during the war, asks, "How's your leg?"
"My leg's fine, Mom."
"You should have called last night." Mom starts crying again.
"I saw that German car you captured in Germany at the state fair," Dad remarks rather proudly.
"Helped capture, Dad. I didn't do it all myself."
"I sold your car," Dad continues.
"A guy offered three hundred for that old '29 Chevy. I couldn't pass that up," Dad explains. I am upset, but three hundred is quite a bit for that old car, and I realize my parents probably needed the cash.
Albert comes up to me for a hug. He is really glad to see me. He's grown a lot in the two years, three months, and fifteen days since I've seen him last. We stay at Uncle Nick's for about another hour. On the way home we talk about our family. Looking out the car window, I scan the surroundings for signs of danger.
"Grandma and grandpa are doing fine," Mom adds, jolting me back into the present. A peculiar feeling comes over me. I am emotionally numb, not really wanting to talk about the war. I'm happy to be home, but I don't feel quite right. The car stops. As I get out, again I look around for signs of danger, then quickly move into the house.
Bruno, my dog, remembers me: jumping up onto me, he barks and wags his tail eagerly. Mom begins preparing Thanksgiving dinner. The war is over, and in November 1945 I am finally home.
* * *
Leaving home for the army wasn't my choice, although I had thought seriously about joining the army voluntarily. The official notice that I had been drafted into the US Army came courtesy of the US Post Office on what otherwise would have been an ordinary day in February 1943. Even before I opened the light brown envelope with the Great Seal of the United States printed in black, I knew exactly what the letter inside would say. I tore open the envelope and glanced for several seconds at the enclosed letter addressed to me, Donald Rich, of Wayland, Iowa. I wasn't horribly nervous, but my heart pounded a bit. I had known for a long time that this letter would one day find me. In a sense I was relieved finally to get the letter.
As I unfolded the letter, Mom was standing in the corner of the kitchen. Her facial expression could be read easily: she was quietly upset by the words she knew were in the message. Dad was still at work. Lots of thoughts raced through my nineteen-year-old mind. I thought I was ready to go, because I believed in the cause, but I didn't want to kill anyone. However, I knew I needed to defend my country.
Looking back, I realize that my thoughts were really quite naïve, although not at all unusual for a young man who had barely seen anything outside of Henry County, Iowa, a place that bore distinct similarities to rural Midwestern stereotypes of simple life in a small town. Now I would be going to a faraway land to help people in need, fighting the enemy thousands of miles away from my home. Not knowing what lay ahead of me for the next two years and eight months, I reflected quietly about the opportunity the US Army had put before me. I hoped that I would be able to prove that I was finally a man. If only I had known how much my life was about to change, quickly and dramatically, forever.
The war was on everyone's mind almost every day in eastern Iowa, with most of our news coming from the local movie theater. Before each show, newsreels, usually about the war in Europe and Asia, were shown. The theater seats were just hard, uncomfortable wooden benches. Vivid images of the Ethiopian army on horseback fighting massive Italian tanks were permanently etched into my mind. It saddened me that the Ethiopian people were getting their freedom stolen by the Italians under the leadership of dictator Benito Mussolini.
In 1940 Germany invaded France, and much of western Europe was soon under Nazi control. War news glued everyone to the movie screen: we all wanted to catch every word so that we could better understand the confusing situation. The newsreels brought the war into our daily lives.
Hollywood made political statements about the war. In 1940 the famous silent movie actor Charlie Chaplin made his sound screen debut in The Great Dictator, which helped us look at the horrors of a world at war and gone crazy in a funny yet very serious way. Following Pearl Harbor, everyone in town went to see the musical Yankee Doodle Dandy. This movie raised most viewers' feelings of pride in the United States because of its patriotic music. My buddies and I felt like marching out of the theater and into the US Army right then and there the night we saw that movie.
In Wayland, Iowa, which had a distinct German heritage, people discussed the war in detail. Some of the older people in town spoke English with a heavy German accent, and it was not uncommon for some families still to speak German at home. Many of these people thought the United States should stay completely out of the war. A few of them openly supported their German cousins, but not necessarily Hitler and his Nazi thugs.
Others in Wayland openly supported helping our British friends, stressing that Hitler's armies needed to be stopped. Local Mennonites, also of German descent, maintained that they were neutral. "War is not for believers," they would say. Despite their religious objections to war, some of their children would serve and even die in defense of the United States.
After December 1941 brought the Japanese attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor, life certainly didn't seem secure anymore. I wondered how this could be happening and what it would mean for me and my family. My folks didn't say much about the war after the Pearl Harbor attack. The US government had been drafting young men for the military since 1940.
By early 1942 the war efforts weren't going particularly well for the Allies. In my own personal world, my last high school baseball game and then my high school graduation came and went. I had started the year pitching and had won five games before my elbow got sore. I was one of the few pitchers who used a curve ball, and other teams couldn't hit it. At a game against Olds, the umpire was Mr. Pritchard, our school's music teacher. As an umpire, he wouldn't call anything a strike that didn't cross the plate from the front. Mine crossed from the side, meaning that all of my pitches were called balls. Part of his reasoning was that my coach, Mr. Gingerich, who was also a science teacher, had explained to him that a curveball was only an illusion, so if the ball didn't cross the plate from the front, then it wasn't a strike. At this game I offered to put some poles out on the diamond to prove that the ball would curve around them, but they wouldn't listen. I then brazenly told the coach to take me out of the game because Mr. Pritchard wouldn't call strikes. I wasn't afraid to confront people in leadership, a trait I would continue in the army. The coach took me out, somewhat to my surprise.
Later in 1942, the tide of war began to look more positive for the Allies. In April, Col. James Doolittle led sixteen B-25 bombers in a surprise air raid on Japanese industrial cities. The attack caused very little damage in Japan but raised U.S. morale. British leader Churchill rallied his troops at El Alamein in North Africa, where the British army finally had its first major victory over the enemy. Shortly after El Alamein, the United States launched an invasion against the Nazi-controlled North African countries of Morocco and Algeria.
In the battles of the Coral Sea and Midway Island the US Navy slowed the Imperial Japanese Navy's advances in the Pacific. Newsreels at the theater showing dead US soldiers at Guadalcanal brought the war closer to home. We had never before seen such sights involving US soldiers. We were shocked.
Mom and Dad still didn't say much about the war. Maybe my high school graduation in May made them nervous about what could happen to me if I were drafted or joined the army. Still, almost everyone, including Mom and Dad, knew the cause itself was important and the consequences of letting dictator thugs go unchecked would not be good for the United States and the rest of the world.
For national security reasons the US government began a forced evacuation of 110,000 Americans of Japanese heritage into camps that were like prisons. These camps made for interesting discussions on race in the country. There was talk in the news of black Americans not being allowed into combat alongside white soldiers in the US Army. In rural Iowa we didn't think about that too much. I rarely saw a nonwhite person at all, except when my family traveled to Saint Louis. Racial segregation didn't seem right to me, but for the most part I didn't pay attention to it because it didn't seem to affect my life.
Hungering to make sense of a world at war, I asked a lot of questions, probably driving many adults crazy. The truth was that adults didn't have the answers. If adults didn't have the answers, who could help me figure things out? I thought often about why God allowed these things to happen, or whether He even exists.
As high school graduation neared, my questions were becoming more personal as I began to think about my responsibility in the world.
"Should I join the army?"
"What can I do to help?"
Boys who graduated from Wayland High School in the grades ahead of me were drafted or joined as volunteers. One young Mennonite volunteer, Orlon Wyse, joined the US Army Air Corps despite the objections of his family. On a summer day in 1942 he made the war a bit more real for us when he buzzed Wayland several times with a B-17 bomber he was piloting. On his way to the Pacific war theater, the young officer had received permission to break off his flight group to fly over his hometown. Barely above the treetops, Wyse made several passes over unsuspecting residents. Houses shook and cupboards rattled as people ran outside to see what was going on. The roar of the engines startled all. Several months later we heard that Wyse was missing in action in the Pacific. He was never heard from again. A plaque honoring his name is in Wayland's Central Park. A memorial service was never held for him because of his family's objection to his military service.
News reports began to talk of Hitler's efforts to wipe out the Jewish people. These reports seemed quite hard to believe, and there wasn't much information about it.
As for me, Donald J. Rich, the US Army finally answered some of my questions in February of 1943. Soon, with my draft notice in hand, I would be on my way to report for duty at Camp Dodge, near Des Moines, Iowa. I packed the few things I thought I'd need in a bag the night before I left. Little did I know that the army would soon be making just about every decision for me.
The day I was to leave for the army arrived much too quickly. The night before, I was a little nervous and lost a bit of sleep, but not too much. The morning was cold and gray, the kind of day that makes you want to stay in your warm bed. I woke early, and Mom fixed a nice breakfast. My parents were very quiet. Picking up my belongings, our small family headed out the back door, shuffled down the steps, and got into the car. Dad drove while Mom rode in the front passenger seat. My eleven-year-old brother, Albert, was in the back seat with me.
My cousin Marvin Rich and a cousin by marriage, Jay Hill, were also drafted and leaving. Uncle Nick and Aunt Oleta of Mount Pleasant met us at the bus station along with Marvin. Jay and his parents arrived a little later. For a while the three families stayed together and chatted, and then we broke off into our own family groups as the time for leaving drew closer. We had time for a bit of small talk. Nothing big was discussed in our conversations. Everything seemed unreal to me, and I thought to myself, "Could I really be leaving?"
Standing inside the station, I could hear a couple of buses drive up. I was surprised at the number of drafted young men there. The large group inside headed for the door and mixed with the crowd already outside. I was separated from Marvin and Jay. Tears were flowing among the women, and Mom's eyes were getting moist, but there were no tears falling. Just before I boarded the bus, my dad began to cry. This surprised me; saying goodbye was hard on me, but seeing Dad this way really choked me up. I tried hard to fight back my tears but was not successful. My dad had never shed a tear in front of me before. I expected Mom to cry, and she did, eventually, but I didn't expect to see this from my dad. None of us said much more after that—some quiet goodbyes, a few hugs, and that was about it. I felt nauseated as I turned and walked toward the bus. My arms and legs felt a little weak. Marvin and Jay were on another bus.
Boarding, I noticed the aisle was narrow. I stumbled down it as my bags banged against the seats. As I walked, I looked at the faces of the people who would be joining me on the ride. Most were expressionless. I wondered if others on the bus were heading to Camp Dodge as well. Looking around for a place to sit, I continued to stumble toward a worn-out seat in the back, hoping that I could find enough privacy to sort out my feelings. The bus lurched forward, dumping me awkwardly into the seat as my bags whirled out from under me. This was kind of embarrassing and not a good way to impress the men around me. My head swirled with emotions. Now was the time for me to grow up. Mom and Dad couldn't help me with that now.
The gears of the bus ground into action, and through the window I saw my mom's outline as the bus pulled away. Wiping condensation off the window, I felt nausea grow more intense. I stared back at Mom and Dad, wondering when I would see them again, and the images of my teary parents shrank and disappeared. My concerns were more for their well-being and safety than my own. I had never been far from home and family before and would now be training to fight in a foreign land. The army doesn't care much about homesickness. I would learn this soon enough.
The bus bounced along, heading west on US Highway 34 toward Fair-field and the next stop. The old fifty-passenger bus wasn't very comfortable as it jerked and jumped down the road. US 34 was not paved all the way to Ottumwa, and the state roads weren't very good, either. There wasn't a lot of traffic, but getting through the bigger towns seemed to take forever. Seeing new sights and people helped break the monotony. Gradually we made our way northwest toward the big city of Des Moines.
* * *
My emotionally exhausted mind is numb. "Boy, am I tired," I think. I doze off from time to time. Just as I am about to get a wink of sleep, I am jostled awake, either from the bumps in the road or the jerking caused whenever the driver shifts gears. I don't feel much like talking to anyone.
I decide to take a closer look at the other guys on the bus. They all seem to have the same blank expression. These guys are all new to me, and I can't tell what they are thinking, but if their thoughts are anything close to mine, they are trying to act confident and tough. This is how I want to look, hiding any feelings of being scared.
Late in the afternoon the bus finally rolls into the station in Des Moines. I get off just as I got on, slowly and awkwardly, banging my way up the aisle. When I finally step off, I head toward where the schedules are, although some of the guys apparently know where we are supposed to go. After a quick trip to the restroom, I find the bus that is heading to Camp Dodge. The other draftees are slowly heading out the door to the loading area where the bus is parked. Some of us engage in small talk.
"Where you from?" I quickly find out that there are boys from all over the state: Bettendorf, Iowa City, Mount Vernon, and some places I haven't even heard of.
Excerpted from Glider Infantryman by Don Rich, Kevin Brooks. Copyright © 2012 Don Rich and Kevin Brooks. Excerpted by permission of Texas A&M University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
DONALD J. RICH served in 1943 and 1944 with 1st Squad, 2nd Platoon, G Company, 327th Glider Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. He lives in Wayland, Iowa. KEVIN BROOKS, a former resident of Wayland, is a freelance writer based in Mahomet, Illinois.
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