(Interviewed by Mr. Harry Branch of Harrison, Arkansas. July 5,2004)
I met Bob after conferring with him by mail for more than a year. He is a retired steelworker from Gary, Indiana. Bob has lived at Cherokee Village, Arkansas since the 70’s. John Henderson made the trip with me and we met bob at the Wal Mart at Ash Flat. We talked for four hours and have just scratched the surface of his WWII experiences.
Bob was wearing a hat with patches from both the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions. The hat had jump wings and three small Purple Hearts on it along with several other WWII related pins. Bob had a gold necklace with Jump Wings on it and a silver bracelet with jump wings that was studded with diamonds, four of them, each representing a combat jump in WWII. He also had jump wings tattooed on his left forearm.
Bob jumped in Sicily, Salerno, Normandy, and in Holland. He is one of few to do that and even fewer still with us in 2004. We met Bob on July 5, 2004 for the first time.
Bob told us that he joined the paratroopers because he heard that it was too tough for him and that he could not make it. “Nobody is going to tell me that and expect me not to try.” He said that the training was very tough but he took it seriously as he wanted all the skills he could get to help keep him alive in combat.
Bob was originally assigned to the Screaming Eagles of the 101st. He was with them for about a month. He said that he was “a lot wilder in those days” and had a run in with some MP’s and got put in jail. When he got out, the 101st had shipped out for more training and the army sent him to North Africa as a replacement in the 82nd.
In North Africa, he met a trooper named Santos. Santos was a Cuban-American. The army “told us not to go into that A-rab city because the A-rabs don’t like us, but old Santos, he did, he had got to liking this A-rab’s wife too much to stay away. Well, one time he does not come back. About three days later a camel comes walking in to camp with a burlap bag over its hump. Inside of it was old Santos. That A-rab had castrated him and put the parts in his mouth. That was a good message for us to stay away from that A-rab town.”
The first combat jump was in July of 1943. Bob said that he landed in his Drop Zone in Sicily without any problems and soon met up with some troopers and began to search the countryside. He landed a few feet from a small stone fence about a foot wide and 4 or 5 feet high. He said some of the troopers landed straddling the fences and it was “damn rough on the crotch.” He started seeing dead allies, Italians and Germans almost immediately.
It was in Sicily where Bob received the first of his three Purple Hearts.
“All hell broke loose in this little town and there is stuff flying everywhere. My buddy he gets hit hard and I am trying to help him. I feel something tug at my arm but don’t think too much of it. About this time my hand decides not to work. I am wearing gloves and I feel they are wet and heavy. Blood is running all down my arm.” (He showed us the wound in his upper left arm.) A machine gun bullet had cut about a 6 inch path across the bottom of his bicep. He did not say much more about Sicily.
The next jump was several months later in Italy.
“I am loaded in this C-47. There were 15 in my stick and the Red Light comes on and we all stand and ‘hook up.’ We are waiting for the green light and we will all go out the door as quickly as we can, so everyone is pushing forward. The plane is going 100 MPH and so are you. So, the quicker you get out the door the closer you land together on the ground. I look out the door and, GEE, we are still over the water. If that green light comes on we are going into the sea. We landed about one mile inland. That was cutting it pretty close.”
“I still got separated in Italy and fought with Canadians for a while and was with the 3rd Division for a while. I finally got hooked up with my company. A few weeks later, we were unloading supplies and got hot. There was a canal there and we were swimming back and forth across it, about the second trip, I see that I am not going to make it. I yell for help and my buddies pull me out. I am sick as a dog. I go to the hospital and I have jaundice. I turned yellow. I was in there for several weeks. I want to get back to my unit but they say, “no way”. I know they will send me to a Replacement Depot and I will be reassigned. Hell, I did not want to be a tanker or in the regular infantry, so I just left. It took me forever to find my company. When I found them, they were in an Olive Grove. The lieutenant said, “glad you are back, how long since you had something to eat?” I told him two or three days. He sent me over to the mess tent. The sergeant told me that I was too late and would have to wait till breakfast. So I thought, OK and walked back over to my outfit. When the lieutenant found out that the sergeant would not feed me, he took me over there and told that guy to ‘give that soldier whatever he wants. If he wants peaches, open a can.’ I always like that lieutenant. Some did not, but I did.”
Bob was in a lot of scraps in Italy and endured some heavy artillery attacks. The 505 had shipped out to England to participate in the D-Day invasions.
In June of 1944, it stayed light in England until 11:00 pm. They were on “Double Daylight Savings Time.” Bob said that he could remember “playing soccer outside till 11:00 pm at times".
He does not remember the airport from which he departed on D-Day, the planes (of the 82nd Airborne Division) actually left from 15 different fields. Bob’s Drop Zone was St. Mere Eglise. I asked Bob if he dropped close to his zone. “I dropped right in the middle of town, right in this Frenchman’s garden. I landed in a compost heap. It was about the size of a pool table. My foot got turned under and I broke a bone in my foot. A knot the size of a grapefruit popped up on my foot. I could hear voices almost as I hit the ground, it was troopers getting together. I saw this plane that had already dropped his stick, flying back over, real low. I could see German machine gunners shooting at him from the top of a house because his landing lights were on. He was drawing fire away from the planes carrying troopers. He made it as far as I could see.”
“I fought on that foot for two weeks and could not take it anymore. I turned myself in to the medic and he cut my boot off. They sent me to a hospital. They told me that they could not put it into a cast because of where it was broken. They said it would take time to heal. It did. Sometimes it still hurts today.”
What do you remember about the flight across the channel?
“It is not like the movies where you see the guys talking to one another. It was so loud in that plane that you had to yell in the ear of the man in the bucket seat next to you. The plane was un-insulated and the motors where really loud. The propellers chopped up the air and it was continually hitting the plane and making all sorts of noise. You could not hear the ack-ack unless it was damn close to the plane. Also, it is pitch black in France at 1:00 in the morning in 44. You could see nothing on the ground unless it was on fire.”
Bob saw the fires in St. Mere Eglise that sucked some troopers into them to their death.
In the Hedgerow country Bob told the story of the wounded draft horse.
“We hear this wheezing sound on the other side of a Hedgerow. What the hell is that? I tell the men that this is the type of thing the Germans would do to trap us. So, I took a look. Here stands this horse with blood bubbles coming out his nose. He has a big hole in his side that is sucking air. He was a beautiful horse. I knew he was dying so I told a man to shoot him.”
“I can’t shoot him, he says.”
“None of them could shoot the horse. ‘Damn’, I said, ‘You can shoot Italians and Germans but you can’t shoot a horse!’ I shot him in the head to help him along.”
After two weeks in Normandy, it was back to England to (let my foot) recuperate and get ready for another mission. The mission came on September 17, 1944. The 82nd would drop into Holland and secure the bridges at Nijmegen and then hook up with the 101 and the Brits in Operation Market Garden. Bob said that it was a beautiful day for flying. They could see the Dutch below waving at them. He saw a German shoot at the planes with a rifle. He landed in a big open field and the 505 was engaged within hours.
The night before he was packing his parachute. He said they would always open if packed correctly. He had his chute just about packed and a grasshopper jumped in the silk. “I looked everywhere for that damn grasshopper! I could not find him. I closed it up. I did not sleep much that night for thinking, how much silk can one grasshopper eat in one night!”
Incident in Holland: Bob and one German speaking paratrooper were walking down a road. They see a German coming on a two-seat motorcycle. Bob’s friend yells at him in German to stop and talk. He stopped about 50 yards away from Bob and his buddy. The German and the trooper are talking. The German told them that he did not recognize their uniforms and wanted to know what unit they were in.
“Watch the look on his face. I am going to tell him that we are U.S. Paratroopers.”
The German started shaking and turned pale but still talked to the trooper.
“We have him so damn confused now that he thinks we are just kidding with him.”
Bob said to tell him that they needed his bike. The German turned to flee so Bob “had to kill him.” A half mile down the road a German machine gunner shot at them and broke the chain on the bike. “We had to leave it in the road. We were not hit.”
Another time they shot up a German supply truck. It caught fire and burned up. “The driver was like bacon. We then found out that it was full of bread and jam – all ruined. We could have used that food if we had known what he was carrying!”
The Battle of the Bulge:
This is where Bob got his third and final Purple Heart. Bob was shot in the face by a sniper on January 16, 1945 somewhere in Belgium. He has told me this story twice, once on the phone and once in person.
Bob was near a snow-covered field that contained Holstein cattle. The sniper was hidden among the cattle with a white sheet over his white uniform for camouflage.
“I am sitting here looking at my two dead buddies. Hell, I say buddies. I did not even know their names. They were replacements, maybe 18 years old. Both were shot in the head. I think that I know where he is and that I am OK and BAM, I am hit in the head, too. I am hit in the lower jaw and it cuts that big vein in my neck. I fell face down and blood was everywhere. My buddy yells at me to, “crawl for the road.” I did, I crawled about half of a mile. I started getting sleepy, but knew that I could not go to sleep. I would never wake up. I get to this fence and I have to crawl under it and – damn – right into a ditch full of cold water. I get through the water and crawled up on the road and passed out as I hear a motor coming. I wake up on the hood of a jeep with these two guys tying me down. The took me back to the aide station and from there I went back to England to a real hospital. They had me in a room with some guys that were really bad off. Some guys outside are making noise and a nurse tells them to “quiet down, don’t you know there are men dying in there?” They then sent me back to the states for more surgery. They took some of my hip and replaced that missing bone. I got out of the army in 47.”
Bob said that Troopers in his outfit were not bad with their language. “We said Hell and Damn, but that was about it. I guess all outfits were different.” He said he watched most of Band of Brothers, but was disappointed at the scene where Easy was relaxing on the top floor of a German house. “Gee, how stupid would that be? They weren't in the basement? Where is the mortar going to hit? I just turned it off.”
“It was not all bad. There were some good times. One night we were in Belgium. It was cold, but not too cold. There was a little snow on the ground and it was raining a little. We had some warm food. Someone found an old coffee pot with some grounds. There were no Germans around to shoot at us. We got to rest. That was a pretty good night.”