The following are Jerry Huths' recollections of his WW II experiences
as transcribed by his wife Jean Herron Huth.
Jerry V. Huths' Recollections and Photos © Jerry V. Huth 2013.
After war was declared, Jerry tried to enlist in the Air Corps but was turned down when they decided he had high blood pressure. He tried the Marine Corps with similar results. Finally he tried the Army, where almost everyone passed the physical, and he was accepted. On February 18th 1942 he left for the Army induction center. It was here he saw an ad for paratroopers, and signed up immediately before he even knew that paratroopers, who were all volunteers, received an extra $50 per month. He was sent to Camp Croft, North Carolina, for basic training and then to Fort Benning, Georgia, for paratrooper training.
Paratrooper training was very rigorous, and the paratroopers were isolated from all the other men at Fort Benning. Trainees jogged three miles before breakfast and then had physical training involving rope climbing, falling, rolling and tumbling. The training was designed to push men to their physical limits, and any who could not keep up were immediately washed out. Only about half the men who entered training got their jump wings. Jerry was lucky that he had already been training to enter the NYC fire department and was in very good condition.
Below: 1943 Comiso, Sicily., Pathfinder Tech/5 Jerry Huth of service company, displays a leg bag holding the Eureka homing device. It was used for the first time when the 505 made it's second combat jump into Paestrum, Italy. This same photo appears in the book that tells the combat history of the 505 Parachute Infantry Regiment "4 Stars of Valor" written by Phil Noryke.(The picture is used here courtesy of Jerry V. Huth)
In the next stage they kept up the physical activity but also began to learn how the parachute worked, how to exit the plane, how to control the chute in the air and how to hit the ground without getting hurt. They first practiced from 250-foot towers. They were harnessed into a chute, pulled to the top of the tower and released. As the chute opened, they were pushed by the wind and learned to roll and tumble. In a more difficult exercise they had to climb 34 feet to a mock-up of a C-47 airplane door and be helped into a parachute harness without a parachute. It was secured to 15-foot straps with a snap hook at the other end. They had to jump out at this low elevation in the proper exit position and ride a steel cable which ended 100 feet away over a pile of sawdust.
The men were taught to pack parachutes, and each had to pack his own parachute for the first five practice jumps. It took five jumps to qualify, and Jerry qualified on the fifth, but on that jump he suffered a bad ankle sprain and was sent to the “black hanger” where they treated injuries and did physical therapy to get men back in shape. It took four or five weeks for Jerry’s ankle to get strong again. Because of the delay he did not leave with the 504th Regiment, but joined the 505th instead, which he said was a lucky move because the 504th became known as a “hard luck” regiment.
The 505th Regiment was isolated in an area called “the Frying Pan” across the Chattahoochee River from the rest of Fort Benning. There was a tethered ferry which took them across the river. The river was not wide, but it took almost a half hour to cross. Only about two trucks and 50 men could cross at one time.
The men of the 505th were trained for all of the conditions they might face in combat. Each man was trained to operate every piece of equipment which the regiment would use. This meant spending hours on the various ranges to operate all of the weapons, including the M-1 rifle, the Thompson sub-machine gun, the light air-cooled machine gun, 45 automatic handgun, mortars and bazookas. According to their specialties, each became expert in demolition, communications (radio and wire) and S-2 (intelligence), etc. Jerry was put in communications.
In this training they did a number of combat jumps. The idea of any combat jump—practice or real-- was to get on the ground as quickly as possible. Men were formed in “sticks” of 18 and loaded onto C-47s, one stick per plane. They learned to jump in less than one second to get the whole stick off the plane as fast as possible so they would land close together and be able to group into a cohesive fighting force. They would jump carrying about 150 pounds each in arms, equipment, ammunition, explosives, rations and supplies. They began practice jumps at about 1500 feet to get the feeling of controlling the chute, but gradually jumped at lower elevations. In combat they always jumped as low as possible, usually at about 400 feet to allow less time to be seen or shot at.
The regiment practiced combat jumps together, flying great distances across the southeastern U. S., culminating in a simulated combat operation. Each squad, platoon and company became expert in all the methods of attacking fortified positions and combating tanks. Training was deliberate and constant day after day and into the nights of the hot southern summer.
The days at Fort Benning were not all taken with training. On weekends there were always gambling games like poker and craps. Jerry chose not to gamble because he figured he would lose, and he was saving his money for college. His friend Leo Girodo, who was older and a very good player, would win money every weekend. He would come and wake up Jerry in the middle of the night and say, “I’m staying in the game, and I want you to keep this money for me so I don’t lose it,” and he would stuff the cash under Jerry’s pillow for him to keep until Leo could mail it home.
When they were transferred out, they knew they were going overseas. They went by train to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where they continued training for several months, and then were sent by train to Camp Edwards, Massachusetts, near Boston. The stay in Fort Edwards was only two days and was designed to keep enemy intelligence from learning that they were being shipped out. They had to take off all their paratrooper insignia and were not allowed to wear jump boots. Then they were sent to the port of embarkation in Brooklyn, New York.
Jerry’s father was working for the War Department at that time, in charge of fire protection for the Port of Embarkation, and he saw Jerry and his buddies off on the their ship which was part of a convoy. It was late afternoon and they mentioned that they hadn’t eaten since breakfast, so Otto Huth went out and got sandwiches for Jerry and his friends, spending perhaps a week’s salary. It was only later that Jerry realized how hard it must have been for his father to see him off. He could not tell Jerry’s mother that he had seen him. During the war he saw off every male member of the clan (five in all) as they went to battle.
The convoy headed for Casablanca, North Africa, and the men settled into cramped quarters where bunks five or six high allowed just enough room to squeeze in under the next bunk. At their two meals a day they stood facing one another with their mess kits on a long board about eight inches wide. At night they could hear the boom of depth charges dropped by escort ships.
During the 10 or 12 days’ crossing the only movie they had was “Casablanca,” which Jerry saw about five times. When they landed, Jerry was hoping for a day’s leave and a chance to see “Rick’s Place” and other settings from the movie, but they just walked up a hill and slept at the top under the stars. The next morning they walked down to the railroad yards and got aboard World War I “forty and eight” freight cars which had been used as cattle cars and were filled with several inches of dung. They took their trenching shovels and shoveled out as much dung as they could. Jerry had purloined a ship’s hammock from the crossing, and he hung it across the freight car, lording it over his friends who were sleeping in the dung.
Crossing the desert in the cattle car was an experience. During five days they passed through great stretches of semi-desert which produced only cactus fruit, but one valley was beautiful with orchards, vineyards and all kinds of plants because there were elevated concrete viaducts bringing in water. They took turns sitting in the doorways where they could look out. Finally they reached Oujda, Tunisia, where people produced one crop of wheat in the spring before the ground hardened like concrete. They marched to their bivouac area and pitched pup tents, one for each two men. Then they had to dig slit trenches beside them in case of strafing by German aircraft. Actually, no planes ever strafed them although some flew over and looked.
The 2200-man regiment lived in the pup tents for three or four months, and they tried to get as comfortable as possible. Jerry and his tent mate Leo Girodo got a mattress cover and stuffed it with straw. They erected a washstand next to their pup tent by planting a post in the ground and attaching a board on the top. There were many dung beetles and scorpions, so they put mosquito nets over their pup tent and weighted the edges down with as many rocks as they could find to keep the insects from crawling in. After some men had bad experiences with scorpions, they carefully shook out their boots every morning to make sure none were hiding inside.
They had no fresh food at all. All the food was either salt-packed or canned. As a substitute for bread they had something like hardtack. In addition to the salt-packed food, they had to take salt tablets because of the heat and atabrine to prevent malaria. Milk or milk substitute, fruit and sugar were unheard of, and Jerry dreamed of cold cottage cheese covered with fresh fruit. Cold water would have been a great treat.
Every day was hot, and at lunchtime there were always sandstorms. The dust and sand covered all the food, and there was no way to avoid it. All the men had dysentery, and not until many years later did they learn that the cause was the sandstorms which pulverized everything on the desert floor, including feces. The men had to walk about 50 yards to their latrine, a long wooden box with eight holes where they sat out in the open in plain sight. Men who were being punished were assigned to put lye in and around the latrine to prevent disease.
For the first two weeks each man had only one canteen of water per day until the supply was brought in. After that, tank trucks brought water each few days to fill Lister bags with warm water which tasted like rubber and chlorine. The men took “helmet baths” whenever they could. During the time they were there the men had only one shower, and they could count the pores on their bodies. The pores stayed black with dirt until much later, when they had been a month in Ireland. The one shower was on a day when they were taken to the source of their water, a big well about ten miles away. The well was about twelve feet across, and the rim was indented with narrow gouges six or eight inches deep where ropes had probably pulled up water for thousands of years. A British unit had put pipes down the well, and they pumped out water for the men to have this one shower. Along with the shower, they were able to wash the coveralls they always wore and also soak their towel. They rode home standing up in the back of the truck in their wet coveralls, which the hot wind had made completely dry by the time they arrived.
During this time, of course, the rigorous training continued. They began every day with reveille, running and physical training. Then they used their helmets to wash and shave before breakfast. After breakfast each unit, depending upon their specialties, went through practice sessions to develop their particular skills. When C-47s were available, the regiment did practice jumps with full battle gear. After lunch in the heat of the day they retired to their tents for a few hours to rest and sweat. Jerry and Girodo had managed to get a second pup tent which they raised several inches over the first to provide a layer of air for insulation.
Because of the heat, long marches were done at night. Jerry had great respect for their leader, Colonel (later General) James Gavin, who never asked the men to do anything he wouldn’t do himself. Gavin led the all-night marches through the hills, and even though he was older than his men, he kept up the pace. Sometimes Jerry marched with him as his communications non-com, and he could tell how tired the colonel was by how much he bent under his pack. When there was a ten-minute rest, the men would flop on the ground and be asleep immediately. They would return in the early morning barely able to navigate, and Jerry swears they could march in their sleep.
They moved up from Oujda to Karouan, where they had a better place to stay under a grove of olive trees. Jerry tried to eat an olive and found they were inedible, but it was wonderful to have shade. After they were there several days Colonel Gavin brought them together for a beer and wine party and then the next day explained plans for their upcoming mission in Sicily, which would begin in two days. They had just enough time to draw supplies, pack parachute supply bundles, go to the airport, load up C-47s and take off in the twilight for a night jump into Sicily.
Sicily was their first combat jump, and they were all more apprehensive. The flight seemed normal enough, but the pilots had trouble with navigation, and when they jumped they were scattered all over the southeastern end of the island. Luckily, two companies were close to the drop zone. One landed directly on it, and the other landed nearby. Those two companies took the road network which was the objective planned for the whole regiment.
It was pitch black when they landed, each man carrying about 150 pounds of equipment. Jerry landed alone and didn’t find anyone else for a couple of hours. He finally found Dick Symonds, but they couldn’t find any others. They didn’t know where they were and wandered around in the dark for more hours until they ended up on top of a hill in the morning light and looked down on a valley where they saw some small Italian tanks going down the road. After the tanks had passed, they made their way down to the road and followed it carefully.
Soon they met some other troopers who had already attacked some of the small enemy pillboxes successfully. Little by little they gathered more troops together until they became a group from almost all parts of the regiment. Finally they established communications, found out where they were and were ordered up to a place called Biazzo Ridge where a number of their fellow paratroopers had met up with the Herman Goering Panzer Division. Even Col. Gavin had not known before they left North Africa that there were German tanks in Sicily, but they had met what was probably the best Panzer division in the German army coming up a road which cut through Biazzo Ridge. They were equipped with the famous Tiger tanks, and they had caused many casualties to troops that had met them west of the ridge.
Col. Gavin organized his men into a line along the ridge. A friend of Jerry’s, Lt. Robert Fielder, had been with Gavin for several hours before the group with Jerry arrived at about three in the afternoon. The men had never seen such large tanks, and they were beginning to realize how poorly-equipped they were to combat them. The tanks had tremendously thick armor, and bazookas had no effect on them, though a bazooka could possibly take out one of the bogeys that turned the treads if it was fired within twenty yards of the side of a tank. The troops stayed there for a few more hours as evening approached and more reinforcements were arriving. Tanks fired on them from time to time, and appeared to be reorganizing about a hundred yards in front of the ridge.
At this point the battle can best be described by quoting from Phil Nordyke’s book, All American All the Way: The Combat History of the 82nd Division in World War II. He first quotes Col. Gavin: “By now no more wounded were coming back. A heavy pall of dust and acrid smoke covered the battlefield. I decided it was time to counterattack. I wanted to destroy the German force in front of us and to recover our dead and wounded. I felt that if I could do this and at the same time secure the ridge, I would be in good shape for whatever came next—probably a German attack against our forces at daylight, with us having the advantage of holding the ridge. Our attack jumped off on schedule; regimental clerks, cooks, truck drivers, everyone who could carry a rifle or carbine was in on the attack.”
Just before the scheduled attack at 8:30 p.m., T/5 Jerry Huth, a member of the 505 Regimental Communications section, could see a Mark VI Tiger I tank down the hill in front of him. “The tank had come up the road through a little cut. He had a command of the whole field. We were ordered to make an attack down the hill just before sunset. We made a line across the top of the hill. I remember we all hesitated a moment.” Sergeant Frank M. Miale, with Company B, 307th Engineer Battalion, who had somehow survived the initial assault, the German counterattacks, the constant shelling, and the terrifying Tiger tanks, now rose up with the other surviving troopers and began to “walk into a blazing hell of mortar, artillery, and small arms fire. We could hardly see each other for the dust and smoke.”
Huth also jumped to his feet and started forward. “Ospital and I went down the hill together. Two radio guys, George Banta and Dick Symonds, got a hold of a bazooka. They were on the left side and I was on the right side. They crept up to within 20 yards (of the Tiger tank) and they fired the bazooka and took out a track so the tank couldn’t move. They were both awarded the Bronze Star.”
After Banta and Symonds disabled the tank, the German crew remained in the tank, hosing down anything that moved. Huth and the other troopers nearby could only stay low and hope that the tank didn’t spot them. “I was under a grapevine. There was concealment, but no cover. The Tiger kept spraying machine gun bullets over our heads. He either didn’t know we were there or couldn’t depress his gun enough because of the position of the tank. “ (Nordyke, p. 81)
Jerry still remembers “little pieces of leaf falling on us” as they hid under the grapevines. He says, “At first I was firing at the tank, but Jack Ospital said to me, ‘What are you doing, Jerry?’ I said, ‘I’m firing for effect, Ossie.’ He said, ‘Stop! You can’t do anything against those tanks. All you’re doing is drawing fire on us.’ “
With the tanks stopped on the road, one of the Americans got near them and radioed their position to the American ships standing offshore. The navy used heavy artillery on that position and destroyed the tanks, also killing the man who gave the information. He must have realized the danger and consciously decided to make the sacrifice. After the battle Jerry joined those looking for wounded to be rescued, but the only trooper they found was dead. They made a stretcher with two rifles and carried him back to their position. Jerry was not yet used to this closeness to death, and he felt shattered. He could never explain why, but afterward he sat down and ate his K-rations. In the early light of the next morning the dead troopers were lying there waiting for burial, and Jerry heard later that a New York Times reporter had taken a picture of them which appeared on the front page, the first picture of American losses in Europe. Germans that had been captured were put to work burying the American and German dead.
Then the paratroopers had a clear road to move west on the one coastal road. Because they did not have vehicles, they had the problem of finding transport for all their equipment. Someone got the idea of commandeering some of the picturesque Sicilian donkey carts. Local people were always paid for supplies and services, but Jerry didn’t know how the drivers were paid, because the musette bag of local invasion currency had been lost in the jump. At any rate, the paratroopers marched beside old men driving colorful donkey carts most of the way to Trapani at the western tip of the island.
There was only sporadic fighting along the way. When they reached the airfield just before Trapani, they saw three or four very large six-engine gliders, apparently designed for invasion use by enemy troops. As they approached, there was a short firefight, and a mortar shell landed near Jerry, but he was lucky to be standing on the other side of a concrete marker at the airfield’s entrance which protected him from the shrapnel.
When they arrived in Trapani, they were quartered in a new Italian military facility which was built in a quadrangle with a large water cistern at the center. They were given time for rest and relaxation and a chance to take baths and swim in the Mediterranean. Vendors came around selling “melone dolce,” the best melons Jerry had ever eaten.
After their rest in Trapani the men were flown back to their old camp in Oujda, Tunisia, under the olive trees. After only a couple of days there, Jerry was one of six men from the radio section who were chosen to go back to Sicily with Lt. Konar for training on a new electronic homing device for guiding planes in to a chosen site which also could be used for dropping paratroopers. After the troubles in the Sicily landings, the army was reluctant to use paratroopers again unless they could be placed more accurately.
The British had developed this secret system called Rebecca-Eureka. A transmitter device called a Rebecca was mounted in 16 special C-47s, and a responder homing beacon, called a Eureka, was used by pathfinders on the ground. The Americans had only a short time to learn the system from a British major and sergeant who had delivered the system to the 505th regiment. The system weighed 51 pounds and was carried by one man in a leg pack. After a few trials of the system, they were told they were leaving for an operation in Italy.
The American beachhead at Salerno was being pushed back by German forces, and the fear was they were going to lose the beachhead. The 505th was ordered to jump at Paestum to reinforce the beachhead south of Salerno. Three C-47s would carry the Pathfinder team jumping a half hour ahead of the main force. Col. Gavin was jumpmaster on the first plane, and Lt. Konar carried the Eureka set. This was the lead team, and their Eureka set would be used unless there was a problem. On the second plane Jerry was the Eureka operator carrying the backup set, and Leo Girodo was his assistant. The three planes also carried as part of the team support infantry to protect the pathfinder operation while they awaited the arrival of the main forces. The jump was made without difficulty, and in three minutes Lt. Konar’s set was working, so Jerry was on standby.
During the night 117 planes, following the beam of the Eureka set, dropped three battalions and a headquarters company, and all assembled in a remarkably short time. The leaders said the work of the pathfinder teams had paid huge dividends. The Germans were driven from their hilltop positions, but Jerry was not involved with the fighting because he was assigned to stay with the secret Eureka set until it was returned to the British.
Then the paratroopers were put on landing ships and sent about 40 miles up the coast for a night landing near Castellammare to drive out any Germans and secure that town south of Naples. It was a terrible night for the landing, with thunderstorms, heavy rain and high seas. When they got off the LSI, Jerry was up to his shoulders in the high water with his rifle and pack and equipment. They made it to shore, unopposed and totally soaked, and went into a large cave by the beach.
The morning was sunny and beautiful, and they entered the town, finding no Germans at all. Some of the troops even got haircuts from a street-side barber. Then they made their way north past Vesuvius (which was erupting) to the outskirts of Naples. They were held back from entering the city until a formal surrender by the Italians was ready to take place. As they entered the city there was no resistance except occasional sniper fire, and Jerry rode in a jeep with Col. Gavin as his communications non-com. They drove to the train terminal, where they were bivouacked for the night.
The Germans had never been well accepted in Naples, and they had left in disgust, but not before cutting off all supplies to the city. They had sunk barges in the harbor entrance, mined the roads, poisoned the water supply and left booby traps in the city.
The food and water supplies were running out, and the Italians were desperate. The Americans brought in water trucks and had people line up for water. Each person could get one quart and then had to go to the end of the line. The lack of food was such a problem that an armed guard had to be stationed at the garbage cans to keep the people from fighting over the garbage. As soon as the Allied frogmen were able to blow up the ships that the Germans had scuttled in the harbor channel, food and water was brought into the city.
German planes would come to bomb the city every night, and the Americans put up smoke machines to cast a pall over the city so the Germans couldn’t see their targets.
During the month and a half that the regiment was in Naples, Jerry was in a group sent north to the Volturno River. They met little resistance because the Germans had decided to make their stand north of the river. Jerry was on a patrol which went into the mosquito-infested Volturno swamps, and even though the men had netting over their heads, they were terribly bitten by the mosquitoes. When they returned after about a week, the doctor could do nothing for their itching. Jerry had also contracted hepatitis. Captain Franco, the medical officer, said he would be better off staying with the company than going to the Naples hospital. He was to get as much rest as possible and eat fruit and sugar. His friends gave him candy from their C-rations, but the only fruit was some tiny shriveled apples which he had along with cabbage soup. After a week or so he was better.
Soon the paratroopers were taken from the policing of Naples and put on military transports which took them to Oran, Algeria, where they spent Thanksgiving, and then through the Straits of Gibraltar and north to Belfast, North Ireland. From Belfast they were trucked down to Loughboro, where they spent two months in the cold, wet Irish winter. Sixteen men lived in each unheated metal Quonset hut where they could touch the ceiling. Their beds were three boards on sawhorses with a straw mattress. The huts were arranged in a quadrangle, but one could not cut across the quadrangle to the latrine without sinking in the mud. Their days were spent marching on muddy roads and returning to ice cold outdoor showers.
At the end of May they packed up all their equipment and were trucked to the airport at Leicester. Before June 6 they laid out all their equipment, including gas masks, rations, and all armaments and supplies. Col. Gavin allowed each man to choose what he would carry, and none chose gas masks. They chose munitions over rations, taking only coffee and nutritional “D-Bars,” hoping to live off the land.
The paratroopers were quartered in a hangar behind barbed wire. About June 3, they were briefed on their objective with maps and sand tables, but they didn’t know exactly where this objective was. Because they had been briefed on their mission, the infantry troops outside guarding them were forbidden to talk to them. As stormy weather continued, the operation was delayed for two days, but they had loaded all the bundles on the C-47s, putting some in the aircraft and some beneath. These would all be released at the time of the jump.
Hundreds of planes were parked on the airfield, and Jerry was assigned to guard the three planes that would carry his group. While he was sitting in the door of one of the planes, American money began to fly past him. Some nearby planes had revved up their engines, and as the money flew around him, Jerry looked for anyone in sight. He picked up as much money as he could around the planes. He had picked up about two thousand dollars but didn’t dare get out of the vicinity because he was on guard duty and thought it might be a ruse to get him out of the area.
When he was relieved from duty he had all this money in his pocket as he went back to the hangar. He asked around if anyone had lost any money, and a crew chief said yes, he had won four or five thousand in a crap game and most of it had blown away. Jerry gave him the money he had found, but the man insisted on returning half of it as a reward. Jerry put the money in his pocket even though they were supposed to carry only invasion currency, and that night they took off for France.
It took about three hours for all the planes to get in the air, and as they circled, the roar was overpowering all over southern England. They flew around in layers stacked four or five deep.
Jerry’s plane was one of the first to cross the channel, and they could look down and see all the ships below them. As they neared the French coast, the anti-aircraft guns opened up, and a number of planes were shot down, but Jerry’s was lucky. As they approached their drop zone they noted the compass direction of the flight, because they would hunt in that flight line for their buddies and supplies.
At about 12:15 they dropped very near their objective, St. Mere Eglise. Some dropped right in the town center, and some were caught on the church roof, with one hanging suspended from the steeple. In the dark Jerry was banged up as he came through an apple tree, but he managed to assemble with some of the other men, and by morning he was operating one of the radios. By radio they directed artillery from American battleships that had come as close to the shore as possible. Jerry was always amazed that one could actually see the 14- or 16-inch shells in the air, and the sound was like a freight car as they passed overhead toward the German positions. Although Jerry had back pain from the rough landing, he did not report to the medics because they were overwhelmed with all the casualties. It was probably good for his back that he was sleeping on the ground, but he was much too busy to worry about it because all the other communications men were missing.
The paratroopers also had a backup means of communication. The master sergeant in charge of communications had carried four carrier pigeons on his jump, and after they had taken the town and road junction, Jerry helped him attach a message to a pigeon every half hour to tell the high command back in England that they had taken their objective. The people of St. Mere Eglise were very cooperative and became friends of the regiment. Members of the French underground had been in touch with S-2 intelligence before the invasion, and the son of the town’s mayor attended many regimental gatherings in the U.S. in later years. Some men of the 505th also returned later to St. Mere Eglise for special commemorative events.
Jerry was assigned to join General Gavin as his communications non-com, and as they were walking along a road late the following day an artillery shell landed between them. Luckily it landed in a ditch, but Jerry says both of them could feel “the hot breath of death” and smell the cordite. The shell took a piece of leather off Jerry’s boot, but neither man was injured. They were moving to attack a nearby town, but dusk came before they could assemble enough troops.
The second battalion had ended up short of communications, so Jerry was moved to that battalion. He was their only radioman, so he had to be on duty 24 hours a day for five days. He would occasionally fall asleep but would be waked up by signals. He got so tired that he would have a fever every morning. About two days after their landing they had been joined by forces which had landed at Omaha Beach. There were numerous firefights between the hedgerows which enclosed the fields on every farm. Often they could hear Germans on the other side of a hedgerow which was so thick with trees, vines and bushes that it was impenetrable even by a tank. The Americans solved the hedgerow problem by using the German landing craft barriers that had covered the beaches. They welded them to the front of the tanks to make a wedge-shaped “nose” that would allow the tanks to plow right through the hedgerows and continue their advance.
After about five weeks of fighting in Normandy the Americans had secured a large area, and the paratroopers moved down to Omaha Beach, where they could see the destruction and debris from the landing. By this time temporary harbors had been set up, and they were loaded onto ships to go back to their tent city outside Quorndon, England, where they would be re-equipped and prepared for their next operation. Because they had lost a number of men in Normandy, they also had to integrate new troops, but they couldn’t do any practice jumps because all the C-47s were busy supplying the invasion forces.
It was a nice time in England. The weather was sunny but not hot, so their tents were comfortable and the rations were better. Because a proposed jump into Belgium was called off due to weather, the paratroopers ended up spending two months in England. During that time they were given leave, and Jerry enjoyed a four-day pass in London. He stayed at a special hotel for military personnel and for the first time since leaving the U.S. he enjoyed a real bed with white sheets and a decent place to take a shower. He had a chance to go to movies and shows and do a lot of sightseeing. One evening he went to Rainbow Corner, a U.S.O. facility just off Picadilly Circus. Glenn Miller and his band were entertaining the troops. As part of the show, soldiers from the audience were interviewed. Jerry was selected to be interviewed, probably because he had just returned from Normandy and was wearing the 82nd Airborne patch on his shoulder. A recording of the show and his interview along with a letter was mailed to his mother in New York, and it is still in the family.
On September 15 they moved to the airport for a jump into Holland. They were surprised to learn that this would be a daytime jump, the first daytime combat jump they had ever made. As they entered Europe the anti-aircraft fire opened up, but no enemy fighter planes met them. They could see that much of the lowland area was flooded because the Germans had opened dikes to make invasion difficult. The planes came in at the usual drop altitude, 400 to 600 feet, and the troops found the landing easy, since they could see where they were going. Jerry made a soft landing in a plowed field southeast of Groesbeek, and his buddies all found their bundles and assembled easily.
The 82nd Airborne had been assigned to land 53 miles behind German lines and seize four major river bridges and five canal bridges. To protect the route of the British Second Army, they would also need to hold high ground southeast of Nijmegen and northeast of Groesbeek for glider landings. The 505th was to take two bridges over the Waal River at Nijmegen: a major highway bridge and a railway bridge about a quarter mile away.
To reach their assigned position, Jerry’s unit marched north through the town of Groesbeek, encountering another unit marching south to their position. Some German officers in a staff car surrendered to the troops and were turned over to G-2. Members of the underground had helped plan the operation and had advised on which people could be contacted for assistance. The people of Groesbeek came out to greet them, bringing flowers and gifts. Many were dressed in their national color, orange. Jerry felt sad for the happy people because he knew the Germans would be launching a counter-attack by the next day, and the town would be under bombardment.
There were railroad tracks on the edge of the town, and the troops barricaded them to stop any trains. A train arrived a few minutes later and the paratroopers surrounded it. The train carried many uniformed Germans, and the troopers thought they had captured some German high command, but they turned out to be just some soldiers and railway conductors headed back to Germany.
The 505th established a command post between Moek and Groesbeek where the Germans had made a fortified headquarters. Evidently the Germans expected they would use that place, because every day they were under bombardment by artillery and “screaming meemies,” a type of high-trajectory rockets which took about three minutes to reach their target. During that time the troops could hear their high-pitched scream, and all they could do was get in foxholes and wait for them to land. When they finally did land, the percussion would bounce the men out of their foxholes. They actually didn’t cause many casualties, but Jerry called them a tremendous psychological weapon.
While waiting for the British Second Army to arrive, the Americans did not have heavy equipment, but at night they would attach chains and pieces of metal behind a jeep and drag them along a road where the Germans could hear them and might think they had tanks. They also put pie plates on the roads to look like mines so that the Germans would slow up, thinking a road was mined.
One day after the British arrived, Jerry was assigned to take a message to British forces bivouacked about a quarter-mile away. When he got there, he asked to speak to the officer in charge and was directed to that officer. Jerry gave him the request for artillery support for the American position and the coordinates they wanted him to fire into. The officer said, “Okay, Yank, we’re just brewing up a bit of tea, and we’ll get to it in a while.” Jerry said, “Sir, our guys are out there, and we need that support immediately.” The officer said, “Oh, you Yanks are always in a hurry about everything. We’ve been at this thing for six years now, and if it takes us another six, we’ll get it done.” Jerry said, “I’m sorry, sir, but our men are under fire, and I want that artillery right now.” The officer said, “Okay, Yank, you’ll get all the artillery you need immediately.” Jerry said he was so mad he could have pulled his pistol and demanded the Brit supply artillery immediately when he was insisting on brewing tea.
It was decided that the two bridges could be taken only if they were taken simultaneously from both sides, so one battalion of the 504th was assigned to cross the river in canvas boats that the British were bringing. They had planned to cross before dawn, but the boats were late in arriving, and they had to cross in midday exposed to German artillery. Their only protection was smoke barrages that were fired into the opposite shore. They lost many men but still managed to take their side of the bridge while the 505th took the other. Jerry was involved in one attack in which the men were ordered to attach their bayonets to their rifles, and they charged across a field yelling. They Germans quickly gave up their position, so there wasn’t any real fighting.
After the bridges were taken, Jerry’s unit was bivouacked for the night along the Waal river between the two bridges. Jerry had some kind of duty the next morning and was standing in the doorway when a great explosion knocked him back into the house but didn’t injure him. The railway bridge had blown up, making it unusable and destroying all the communication lines they had placed on the bridge the day before. They found that the Germans had secreted demolitions on the bridge, and German frogmen had come during the night and set them off.
The vehicular bridge was strafed almost every day by German fighter planes that dropped shells on them. One of the shells hit and put a hole in it, but metal plates were immediately put over the hole so motor traffic could still cross. Jerry also learned something about anti-aircraft fire. He was standing outside watching anti-aircraft fire at German planes, and he was suddenly in the middle of a shower of shrapnel from the exploding anti-aircraft shells. Luckily, he was not hit, but he learned that being exposed in the open could be lethal.
After the British tank units had come up and helped them fortify many of the positions in Nijmegen and the surrounding towns, the paratroopers had moments when they could relax somewhat. They were always hungry, and Jerry remembers a night when they went out into the fields looking for a good cow to feed the company. After warning their outposts not to shoot at them, six men took a jeep out into the fields for the hunt. He remembers his friend Albert Papa down on his knees in the dark aiming his carbine at a cow. He hit the cow between the eyes, but they learned how difficult it was to kill a cow, especially when trying to be quiet. The cow didn’t fall, and they tried to get another shot without having the bullet go astray and hit someone else. They did get the cow on the second shot, but then they had to get the cow into their trailer. It took all of them to get the cow into the trailer even with the jeep’s ability to pull it in, but the next day the cooks had done their part and the whole company had excellent steaks. No one questioned where the meat had come from, but the men were all prepared to say the cow must have been hit by a stray artillery round during the night.
The Dutch people were anxious to help the Americans in any way they could. They gave information and even got involved in skirmishes with German troops that were holed up in the towns. However, they did not always know where Germans were hiding.
Jerry remembers going into Moek with Col. Eckmann (who had replaced Gavin after his promotion) when Americans in the town had been under attack for several days. The colonel wanted to see how his troops were doing, and he and Jerry entered with guns ready, making their way under cover as much as possible. As they approached a convent, a surprising thing happened. A battle had been raging for control of this main street, but when six or eight nuns came out of the convent, the firing stopped. Two by two, the nuns walked calmly down the street in great dignity and complete silence as both sides held their fire. When they were out of town, the battle continued. Jerry thought it was the most remarkable thing he had ever seen.
British tanks had just arrived to support the Americans, and two tanks under the railway bridge were firing into the town. Jerry says one picture from this town remains solidly in his mind to this day. They came upon a young paratrooper who looked no more than 19 years old who had been defending an area of the town. He and two buddies had chosen a place to set up their machine gun next to a house where they had concealment but no cover. Unfortunately Germans were still hiding in the house and fired down on them, killing the young paratrooper and wounding his two buddies. The young soldier’s arms were spread across the gun with his 82nd Airborne patch on one shoulder and American flag on the other. His helmet had fallen off, and blood was still dripping from a tremendous wound on the side of his head. Jerry by this time was a tired old veteran of 22 who had been through four invasions, and he felt guilty seeing this young soldier lying so grotesquely and gloriously. He saw him in his dreams long after and always wished he could paint the scene to show the horror, sacrifice and glory. He says the picture in his mind still brings tears to his eyes.
The 82nd Division was in Holland until almost the middle of November, the weather was getting cold and Jerry’s group had built a dugout in the side of a hill, placing logs over the top and dirt on top of the logs. Besides keeping them warm, they felt this would protect them from anything but a direct hit by German artillery which was still shelling the area.
During that winter the weather was brutally cold with snow almost every night. The snow reached their knees, and since they had no overshoes they had no way of keeping their boots dry. There were many cases of “trench foot” which could only be prevented by taking off the boots and massaging the feet every night, something that was almost impossible in the cold. Jerry and two buddies huddled together at night with one blanket, taking turns being in the middle where one could be warmer.
At this time Col. Eckmann had a weasel, not the animal but a jeep-like vehicle mounted on treads which he loved to ride across the snow. The weasel’s only problem was that it was army green and visible at great distances. Sometimes Jerry would be assigned as his communications non-com, and sitting in the unarmored open vehicle high above the snow he felt like a sitting duck, but by luck they survived.
During about a two-week period the paratroopers had moved forward into the German area, but Gen. Montgomery issued orders that they pull back straighten the line. The men were angry they had never retreated in all their history. They were retreating on Christmas in the midst of a snowstorm and bitter cold. They were walking along a road with a high slope to their right and a small, freezing-cold river in a gully on the left of the road. They were passing a large barn and farmhouse and were ordered to take quarters for the night in the barn, which was filled with cows and horses, and it was warm with the heat of the animals. Jerry was enchanted and mystified with the thought of spending Christmas Eve in a stable. Their respite from the storm was short, as they were commanded to continue their march in the snow at three a.m. Jerry has always remembered this event, perhaps because of the mystical experience and its relationship events of two thousand years ago.
Jerry remembers a time when he and three other men were out on patrol, going down the edge of a firebreak which went down into a valley and up the next hill. The well-tended forest had no undergrowth, and the trees had been trimmed up so they provided no concealment. The men stayed about 15 yards apart as they proceeded down the firebreak. Suddenly a German in white coveralls stood up on the other side of the firebreak with his hands up. They had not seen him in the snow, but they motioned for him to come so they could take his weapons, and he did so. Once they had taken his weapons with no struggle, they were surrounded by 30 or 40 white-clad Germans who also wanted to surrender. The Americans realized that although they had not seen the Germans lying concealed in the snow, they themselves were very visible in their khaki uniforms, and if they had made any aggressive moves at the lone German soldier, the others could easily have killed them. They escorted the whole docile group back to the American lines.
It was when his unit was brought back from the front line that Jerry was injured. The men were staying in a house that had a big room with a stove in the center. Beside the hot stove they had placed a metal five-gallon army water can to heat water for coffee. Someone had latched the lid of the can, and Jerry unlatched the lid to make coffee. It popped open, releasing boiling water and steam which burned his face, arm and shoulder. The others tried to get his shirt off quickly, but the hot wool added to his burn.He was sent to Paris on an army train to get treatment and was put in the hospital next to Sacre Coeur Basilica on top of Montmartre. He was there for about two weeks being treated with lots of penicillin, and some kind of ointment on his burns.
Jerry felt there was one lucky part of this experience. He was given a ticket to get himself back to his unit, but he had some extra time before his train would go, so he was able to spend a couple of days in Paris, which he enjoyed greatly.
When he got back, the Battle of the Bulge was still going on, and after a week his company commander, Captain Boyd, called him in one night and said, “Jerry, you’re going home. You have the necessary high points in the regiment.” Jerry said, “I don’t want to go. My guys are still here, and I can’t leave them.” Captain Boyd said, “Your papers are all made out and you’re going. Let me tell you, I’ve seen it before, and if you don’t go, you’ll probably get killed in the morning.”
So within two days Jerry was on a luxury ship (either the Queen or the Queen Elizabeth) headed home. After months of eating whatever was available, he had wonderful meals served on clean tablecloths. On the whole ship there were only about 200 men going home on furlough about 200 wounded. They had no duties except helping the wounded at lifeboat drill, so they could just relax. The ship was so fast it could avoid submarines, and they arrived in the U. S. in five or six days, and Jerry was home in seven.
He was supposed to have a 30-day furlough, but each time he went back to report for duty, his furlough was extended another 30 days until he had a total of 90 days before returning to Europe. He says the time home was wonderful. He was in uniform and could go to Broadway shows free, and when he went to his old office, everyone treated him as a hero, inviting him out for dinner and buying him drinks. Even so, Jerry felt out of place and wanted to get back to his buddies who were still fighting.
The day he arrived back in Europe turned out to be “V-E Day,” the day of German Surrender and Allied Victory. Jerry was sent to one of the camps named for cigarettes, Lucky Strike. He joined his old unit in Germany and learned they were scheduled to be shipped to the Pacific in preparation for the invasion of Japan, which none of them looked forward to. That was when President Truman gave orders for the atomic bombs to be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the war soon ended, to the great relief of the soldiers.
The army then had a problem of what to do with the millions of troops in Europe waiting for transportation home. It would take years to get them all shipped home, so the troops were offered various opportunities in Europe. By this time the G. I. Bill had been passed, and Jerry had decided he wanted to be an engineer, so he volunteered to study mathematics at Shrivenham University in England. He had forgotten much of the math he had learned and knew he would need it to continue his education. He was at that university several months and enjoyed the free evenings and weekends and the chance to go to plays at nearby Stratford-on-Avon or spend time in London.
Finally Jerry was assigned to a returning ship, arriving home the day before Thanksgiving, 1945.
War Department Press Release describing Groesbeek Holland Combat Jump
For a larger image click here.