July 3, 1944 was quite a memorable day in my life even
though it happened more than a half century ago; I can still remember the
minor details of that day as if it were yesterday.
The night before the dawn of July 3, 1944, in Bois de
Limors1, was dark, cold and rainy and everything was damp or wet.
Somehow, the cooks did get hot coffee up to us but it was the only warmth
there. Our jumpsuits were gas impregnated, which helped keep the keep the
Rain out, but any and all rain that got in also stayed inside our clothes.
Being airborne, we had no transportation, so we had to
carry everything we needed for fighting our way up Hill 131. We all knew
the importance of capturing Hill 131 -- the highest hill in that part of
We could not see Hill 131 because of the low hanging rain
clouds. These clouds also meant that we would not have the promised air
support for our attack, but it also meant that if we could not see the
hill, neither could the Germans up there see us down below!
At dawn, our supporting artillery and mortars started
pounding the German line and rear areas. Since we had to start the advance
attack through the defence line of our 1st Battalion, there were not
enough foxholes for protection at the starting edge of Bois de Limors, and
the German counter-artillery and mortars started shelling us.
That day was not a good one for me or for Private Paul
Winger of “E” Company, who was from my little hometown, and his wife
worked with my father. The German counter barrage killed him that morning
(not far from me), so I was troubled about how I was going to address his
death, for she was a very nice girl.
I was up front with the attacking company commanders so
that if close support mortar fire was needed, we could radio to the mortar
positions to request it, then adjust it.
We, NCOs and Officers, each had a white sheet of paper map
showing the hedgerows, orchards, fields, roads, the few farms and houses
(obviously reproduced from aerial photographs) so that we could plan our
advance, but it did not contain any elevations. As we advanced, the paper
got wetter, dirtier, and more unreadable.
It was very important to have this map; however, because
our supporting artillery had a similar map and would tell us via radio the
number of shells that they would fire into the hedgerow in front of us.
We would then count the shells landing and immediately rush that hedgerow
before the Germans could recover, and the artillery would lift their fire
to the next hedgerow. It was the only way that an attack could be
successful in that "Bocage" country.
Shortly after the attack started out of the Bois de Limors,
off to my left, I saw our Battalion Commander, Lieutenant Colonel Tom
Shanley, who was up front with the Troopers, go thru a hedgerow opening,
hit a booby trap tripwire, and was wounded by the explosion.
Then, as we advanced thru the various fields and orchards,
I saw a movement to my left rear. I turned and saw two young Germans
running and jumping into a foxhole. I fired two shots in their
direction and called, in German, three times to “come out with your hands
up,” but there was no response from them.
So I took out one of my thermite grenades, which burns very
hot, and bowled it into their foxhole and continued my advance. I’m
certain that they could not have survived the thermite grenade.
We then came to a country road and crossed a small stream.
There the Germans had downed and mined several trees across
the road, as a roadblock. We radioed this information back so that an
armoured bulldozer could clear it for the follow-up armour to advance up
the hill behind us.
Both our 2nd and 3rd Battalions spearheaded the attack up
the hill, with the 1st Battalion mopping up behind us.
Sometime later, my good friend, Lieutenant Rex Combs of “A”
Company, 1st Battalion, came across a hedgerow, which he climbed up on and
discovered a field full of armed Germans hiding there. Single handily he
sprayed the field with two clips of his Thompson submachine gun, and then
took the remaining living Germans prisoners -- 42 of them Rex was
awarded the Silver Star medal for this action.
The rain lessened but it was very wet and muddy in the
fields, which seemed to be endless hedgerow. I do not recall seeing any
houses during our advance attack, though the map showed several. Such was
the hedgerow country.
In one field, I was flattened under intense German machine
gun fire which kept hitting some cow manure several inches from my face,
which I was pleased that the bullets were not hitting me. The cow
manure kept splattering all over me and there was nothing I could do to
move but just lay there and take it with hope against hope the gunner
would not adjust his fire.
Advancing up toward the woods on the top of Hill 131, we
waited for the artillery to pound the next hedgerow with six rounds. Then
the five of us rushed it. It was then that the timing went wrong -- for
instead of raising the artillery fire to the next hedgerow, our artillery
repeated and pounded us.
One shell tore the front of the sole of my jump boot off
and blew me into the hedgerow. The second shell then wounded me in the
left arm and knocked me down again. All five of us were wounded in
this barrage and the calls for “medic” rang out. Thus my first wound of
World War II, but fortunately, not life threatening and in my arm.
My wound bled a great deal but did not hurt as much as it
was a numbing, aching feeling. It came as both a shock and surprise for I
never thought it would happen to me but rather to the others.
The medics finally got to me after the more seriously
wounded were cared for. I then had to find a radioman to get a forward
observer up to take my place in the advance.
I finally came to the roadway which ran up the side of the
Hill 131 near the border of the woods. There I found a row of trees that
had been very expertly prepared with explosive demolition charges to drop
them over the road but our advance had been too fast for the Germans to
blow them down.
By then, my arm was starting to ache and pain, so I made my
way down to the front of a house in a hamlet called “l'Auvrairie,” where
one of my mortar sections was moving forward and I gave my replacement my
binoculars, map, and other needed equipment.
While I sat there, someone took my picture with my wounded
arm and I a had morphine syringe between my lips heating it up for
injection in my arm for the pain.
I made my way back down the hill and found a cattle shed
near "la Bocagerie", being used as a Medical Aid Station. This was the
first Norman building that I entered during my stay there -- for we were
instructed to stay out of all buildings, thus knowing that soldiers in any
building would be German.
By this time, it was late afternoon and from the excitement
of the attack, the lack of sleep the prior night, the shock of having been
wounded, the loss of blood, the effect of the morphine, and the drain of
adrenaline, I felt indescribably weary.
Being “walking wounded,“ I helped load several seriously
wounded stretcher cases into an ambulance and then through the rain, rode
the ambulance back to Utah Beach.
I was overwhelmed by the number of ships, boats, vehicles
and supplies and activities back there on the beach.
There at a Field Evacuation Hospital they took all of my
armament, helmet and equipment leaving me only my clothes, boots, and
personal items, and fed me some hot “C” ration food.
That night, I walked out to a beached LST (landing ship
tank) which had been converted to a Hospital Ship to evacuate the wounded
My dirty, bloody, wet, stinky clothes and underwear which
I had worn since June 5, 1944 was cut off of me. I was then allowed to
take a hot shower. What incredible luxury!!!
I was shocked to see how white my body had become in these
twenty-eight days. When I saw myself in a mirror, I was again shocked. My
hair was long, I had grown much older than I was (19 years) and my eyes
had that hollow, hunted and haunted look that only front line combat
I was then operated on to clean out and close the wound
while the ship sailed on to England.
My one demand was that my jump boots, as beat up as they
were, had better be where I could see them when I came to after the
operation. They were!
After twenty-seven days in the Normandy hedgerows, pyjamas,
a bed with pillow, sheets and blanket, the great Navy food, juices, fresh
bread, and ice cream were almost unbelievable to me.
A truly different world!!! So ended July 3, 1944 for me.
I had to remain in the hospital while my arm wound healed.
I heard a rumour that another Airborne operation was in planning, so on
August 27, 1944, I talked my way out of the hospital -- mainly by
threatening to take off anyway and rejoined my Platoon for "Operation
Market Garden" in Holland on September 17, 1944, where I jumped with my
arm still bandaged.
Our 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment had jumped into
Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944, with 2,056 troopers. Only 918 returned to
our base camp in England on their return on July 13, 1944 -- the rest
being killed, wounded, or captured; however, many of the wounded, such as
I, did return at later times.
December 24, 1944, Christmas Eve, came clear and freezing
over the forested ridges of the Belgian Ardennes, the site of the “Battle
of the Bulge.” There were thousands of Christmas trees and heavy snow,
but the parallel of Christmas ended there.
The only sounds were the crunching of the icy snow under
the paratrooper boots and the putt-putt of the German V-1 buzz bombs
overhead on their pilot-less flights to Liege or Antwerp far to the rear.
The scene was in total black and white -- the whiteness of
the snowy fields in stark contrast to the darkness of the forests and the
line column of troopers struggling under the weight of their total
We had been the tip of an eight-mile long thumb extended
into the throat of the German onslaught. We had pushed into the area to
provide an escape route for the weary and beleaguered American troops who
had delayed and denied the German Army the use of the important road
junction of St. Vith for five long days. The paratroopers had now been
ordered to withdraw.
We were unhappy with the order for we had paid in blood to
hold open the escape corridor and would surely again pay in blood to
eventually regain this ridge. This thought, combined with the
airborne doctrine of “never relinquish ground gained” made it difficult
for us to think of withdrawal.
To a man, we were certain that by the next day, Christmas
Day, there would come an assault from any of the four German divisions
identified, to our front. With these thoughts, we struggled on our
route march to a ridgeline seven miles to our rear, where our “not one
step further” line should be established.
Precisely at midnight on Christmas Eve, came the
unmistakable distant sound of artillery batteries. Each trooper
immediately became elated with the thought that American artillery was
providing cover for this withdrawal.
It was only when the shells descended and burst among us
that the reality of incoming German artillery fire became evident.
Again, to a man, the silent columns quickened their pace to a running gait
despite their heavy equipment loads.
As the march continued, sounds of distant diesel engines
could be heard, indicating the movement of enemy armoured vehicles
following our path. Thus again prodded, the rapid pace continued to the
On December 25, 1944, Christmas Day, dawn came grey and
with low-hanging clouds over the trees at our new positions and the task
of “digging in” was well under way. The rocky, frozen root-bound soil was
feverishly grubbed, Weary and worn, alternately
Sweating and freezing, we continued to dig and camouflage
our holes, set up our weapons, stash backup supplies of ammunition and
place antitank mines, before the anticipated attack which would surely
Snow began to fall masking our line, and our canteens of
water froze solid. Each of us, when finished, sought the shelter of our
foxholes for the warmth and protection afforded. There had been
little time until now to think of past Christmases, of families or loved
ones, of gifts or mail, for there had been none since we had been in
Darkness came early that Christmas Day in the Ardennes and
the outposts reported in that a large concentration of German Panzer
Grenadiers, supported by halftracks, was approaching our line.
Thus alerted, each trooper silently readied for the
onslaught. Out of the night, through the falling snow, came the German
columns trudging in their heavy coats, rifles slung over their shoulders,
some talking, some smoking, all completely oblivious to the paratroopers
dug in mere yards away.
The wait for the signal to open fire seemed endless. When
it came, the fire fight was both intense and devastating. The falling snow
mercifully covered the remains of the two German battalions that, in that
short time, ceased to exist.
As we retrieved the usable enemy weapons, ammunition and
equipment from the fallen ambushed column, we discovered a large wicker
basket which bad been carried on a pole between two German soldiers. To
our amazement, we found that it contained butter.
Then, as if on cue, an American supply patrol from the rear
found us and dropped off two food containers -- one full of ice-cold
coffee, the other full of roast turkey, solidly frozen. Our
Christmas feast had arrived! Using the captured butter to heat the
turkey and with the coffee over small fires at the bottom of our foxholes,
we savoured that feast. No finer Christmas dinner has ever been
relished more than that simple meal, for then we knew that we bad not been
forgotten there on a snowbound ridge in the Belgian forests.
Each Christmas Day since that day so long ago in 1944, I
silently pause to reflect and remember that tragic Christmas Day in the
cold and lonely forest of the Ardennes and to give thanks for the joy and
peace of each succeeding Christmas.