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82nd veteran may have been ‘1st dog face in Germany’

Woody Wodowski says he might have been the first American paratrooper to land in Germany during World War II.

   And he may have been the first to leave.

   Wodowski arrived on Sept. 17, 1944 — 50 years ago Saturday. He was among 7,250 men of the 82nd Airborne Division who flew over Holland that day during Operation Market-Garden, the largest airborne force ever assembled.

   On Saturday, a group of local members of the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment gathered at the NCO Club on Fort Bragg to share their memories of that day. The plan was for the paratroopers to seize a series of bridges to allow a ground force of British armor and infantry to drive across the Rhine River and into Germany.   But Wodowski entered Germany days ahead of time — and alone —   seconds before his C-47 transport plane crashed. When he jumped the left motor was burning and smoke filled the plane. He landed   in a stream on the German side   and quickly scampered across it.   "I don't know if this is true or not, but I may have been the first dogface that landed in Germany," Wodowski said.

   Wodowski later joined 10 other U.S. soldiers. Together, Wodowski said, they entered a factory and killed eight German officers and captured about 50 laborers.

   By midnight, the group entered the Dutch city of Nijmegen where Allied forces were battling to seize bridges crossing the Waal River into Germany. That night in the town square, Wodowski was wounded in the arm by a grenade.

   The day went smoother for most other troopers of the 508th.

   Francis L Mahan, then a second lieutenant commanding I Company, remembers flying over the coastline and seeing Dutch people waving bed sheets and towels.

   Thirty minutes after the jump, all his men had assembled and were moving out.

   "That was pretty darn good" said Mahan, who was shot in the chest six days later during a battle in the small town of Beek.

   "That finished up the war for me," Mahan said. But the injury did not finish his Army career. He retired as a lieutenant colonel.

   Jim Blue, a squad leader in Company A, said the flight over was tougher than the landing. Flak put a dent in one soldier’s helmet and knocked him out.  A bullet cut through the plane's belly and struck another soldier in the foot.  “We assembled as fast as any company ever assembled,” said Blue, 75.

   When four German planes flew past he and his soldiers waved to make them think they were Germans.

  The pilots tipped their wings and went on.

   The men say the significance of this part of their lives is not diminished by the failure of British forces to push into Germany.  They are proud they did their part and know they did it well

   Bud Warnecke, 73, was a fresh lieutenant commanding Company E, having won a battlefield commission in Normandy.

   "As a platoon leader, as a company commander, or as men who are fighting, you've got a worm's eye view of what is going on, "Warnecke said, "We took all our objectives. You don't know until years later how the strategists might have screwed up."


   The paratroopers stayed until relieved by British forces in November. The British remained in a stalemate with German forces until after the Battle of the Bulge began in December. Since 1974, members of the 508th have gathered at cities throughout the country to share in their bond.

   Jim Smith, who helped form the group, said the association drew 133 people to its first convention 20 years ago in Chicago. This year, 1400 men are members.

   Smith sees the 508th as “the bastard unit of the 82nd Airborne “because the regiment was assigned to it.  The 508th always got the tough jobs, he believes, and seldom received much credit afterward.

   Wodowski, Smith Mahan and Warnecke live in Fayetteville.  Blue lives in Dunn and helps run the General Lee Museum there.

   Members of the 508th feel they are closer than other regiments because they trained and fought together. Warnecke said the 2,300 paratroopers who graduated from jump school at Camp Blanding, Fla., in the fall of 1942 fought beside each other throughout the war.    And sometimes, the remembrance of war can establish bonds between former enemies. 

 Ten years ago, during the 40th anniversary of the battle, Wodowski and Blue returned to the spot along the small stream in Germany where Wodowski had made his ill-fated landing.

   Led by a Dutch guide, the men began talking to a group of Germans. The guide asked one of the German men, who was about Wodowski's age, if he had been there during the invasion.

   He was there that day, the man answered, while on leave from the German army. He said he was on his way home from church when he saw the troops dotting the sky.

  Then be pointed at Wodowski, "I saw that guy by the bridge."

   Stunned, Wodowski asked the German why he didn't kill him.

   "He said he was too scared," Wodowski said. "Paratroopers have a bad reputation. If I would have saw him, I would have blown him away." To this day, Wodowski said, "that guy writes me and sends me Christmas cards,"  

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