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
"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
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