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Normandy Thoughts (2 of 10)

So once again I returned to the Regiment to receive another downer. I was told to go to the supply room and get a set of gas impregnated O. D.'s (dress uniform), and the rest of the Company was being issued gas impregnated jump suits. Well, I smelled a rat and made some inquiries. I was informed that all the people who took part in the C. P. X. (Command Post Exercise), the aborted mock flight to Southern England, were to be used to bring the Division's equipment to France by boat. They reasoned that there would be a lot of injuries on the C. P. X., and they just wrote all the troopers off who were involved in the aborted drop. I was fit to be tied, after training for a year with all my buddies, having them jumping into combat, being exposed to all the hazards thereof, and my going in by boat safely days after the Invasion started. I had very mixed emotions. I felt through no fault of my own that I was letting my friends down, I went to the First Sergeant, and he said nothing could be changed, I tried to see our Battalion Commander, and he was having his afternoon nap. The following morning I was summoned to the Orderly Room and was told a situation had unexpectedly developed. One of the replacements was refusing to go into combat on the grounds that he had inadequate training. Our 1st Sgt., Richard Slagel, told me if I wanted I could jump in his stead, and he would go in seaborne or else he (the replacement) would get a General Court Marshal, I acquiesced, and Normandy awaited me.

It has been forty years since the Invasion, and total powers of recall are almost impossible to accomplish. However, certain scenes keep repeating themselves through the years over and over again until they are so indelibly etched in one’s mind, that there seems to be no time span at all between 1944 and 1984. I can unlock certain scenes from long ago that seemed to have happened yesterday.

I recall being at the airfield in England for a few days behind rolls of barbed wire, that served a dual purpose. It kept spys out and it kept us from sneaking off to some local pub and inadvertently letting the secret of the Invasion out. We slept on army cots that were set up in the hangars. The fluorescent lights overhead gave everyone a sickly deathlike look. If that wasn't bad enough the movie they showed the night before the Jump was the Song of Bernadette, which did nothing to take one's mind off the inevitable grave that awaited some of us within hours.

Before we put on our equipment and parachutes our Regimental Band played a bit of a concert, and we all had coffee and donuts. They were using 55 gallon drums with the tops cut off to hold the cooking fires. We rubbed our hands inside the top of the barrels getting soot on our fingers and then transferring it to our faces for camouflage. I remember at this time talking to my friend, Frank Tremblay from Milford, Connecticut, about our chances of coming through alive, he thought he'd get a slight wound and survive. I thought I was going to be killed. That was the last time I saw my friend, Frank. I did receive a picture of Tremblay's grave marker in the Normandy cemetery a few years ago from my old buddy, Jack Downes, which stated simply on a white stone cross –

Pvt. 508th Prcht. Inf. Regt.
Connecticut June 11 ‘44

I went into combat on a plane that carried our Company Executive Officer, Lt. John A. Quade [note the consistent misspelling of Quaid throughout this document], and a mixed bag of Communications people whom I didn't know too well, the reason being I took the replacement's place. The flight across the Channel was uneventful. The whole Channel glistened as a result of the full moon. I watched parts of the Invasion Fleet through the small windows that ran the length of the C-47s. It was comparable to watching a radar screen. You just saw the wakes mostly, and they didn't seem to be going in the same direction. They must have been still assembling into different formations.

Well, we got over land all of a sudden and the moment of truth was drawing near. The order was given - "Stand up and hook up!" - and it all happened fast. The ride was very bumpy with flak concussions bouncing the plane up and down, and our pilot must have had a heavy date back in England, because we didn't slow down for the jump. I had to climb up the plane's aisle to the door, fighting the Gs holding me back, and when I finally tumbled out of the door, I had the sensation of being on the end of a cracking bullwhip. The opening shock ripped my helmet off (I had one strap at the base of my skull and another with a cup supporting my chin). It spun down with such force it smashed my nose and then when whirling earthwood [earthward]. As I was descending with a face full of blood I heard it hit the ground, and in my mind I had Germans waiting by my helmet for me to come down. Tracer machinegun bullets were spewing from the surrounding shadows, and it looked like a fireworks display. The higher they went the slower they appeared, and went into an illuminated glow arc during their descent. I hit the ground hard and lay in the middle of a grassy field with hedgerows bordering it. The moon was very bright, so I tried to get out from my illuminated position quickly. The only weapon I had was disassembled in a carrying case under my reserve chute and my musette bag which was loaded down with an anti-tank spider mine, grenades, etc. I tried cutting through the harness with my trench knife that was strapped to my leg. Somehow I dropped it in the grass, and for the life of me (literally) I couldn't find it, so finished cutting myself out with my bayonet.

There was an American C-47 plane on fire .overhead, and it was going into a death bank towards the earth, and made the loudest, weirdest sound as it fell through the sky. I don't know if it was full of troopers or not but the shadowy, orange light it threw on the ground and the engine scream was quite eerie! I crawled toward the shadows with what felt like a mouth full of cotton. I assembled and loaded my M-1 and started to move out very slowly, I had a feeling that all the ground was planted with anti-personnel mines. I walked very warily, then saw a silhouette coining towards me in the shadows. I laid down and aimed my M-1 at him and gave the pass word, "Flash" and waited for the counter-word "Thunder" which didn't come. Once again I said, "Flash", and no reply. I was very close to pulling the trigger when I heard a faint, guarded "Thunder". It was a Sgt. [Desmond A.] Matthews from my Company. He was part of a group that included my Co. Exec. Lt. John Quade, who during the next few days would be responsible for my not being killed on more than one occasion, it was very dark in the wooded area and very bright in the fields. We were bordering a hedgerow in the dark when this trooper came up to me and said, "You've made me the happiest fellow in the world." I was the first contact he made. General Maxwell Taylor, Commanding General of the 101st Airborne Division, tells of the feeling of being alone after parachuting Into Normandy. In his writings he relates how after being by himself for a time, he came upon a Private in his Division. He was so overjoyed to find a friendly face, he hugged the Private upon first contact, so that was how lonely the trooper must have felt upon finding me. He was from l Company and was named Red Fately [Glenn A. Fateley]. A few days later he would be by my side dying of machinegun bullets in his stomach.


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