Prior to the jump into Normandy, my battalion was placed temporarily at Folkingham air strip in the Midlands of England. As I remember, we were there about 5 days preparing for the invasion, we did not know when or where we would be involved with any combat action.
At Folkingham, we studied sand tables that had been prepared by our intelligence crew, known as S-2 people. They had constructed the sand table to show where we were supposed to land. Buildings, fence rows, hedge rows, rivers, etc. were on the table to give us a good view of the area where we were supposed to land. We spent our time studying that scene, packing equipment bundles, cleaning our rifles, shooting dice, attending movies in the hangar building, church services and writing letters. The area was secured and no one was permitted to leave for any purpose. We were fully ready to take off from the airstrip on June 4, but, the weather forced a delay of one day. With blackened faces we loaded into the planes the evening of June 5.
Every man in every plane was fully loaded with everything that he thought he might need. We were taking food and ammunition for 3 days. There was ample ammunition there and many of us took over the allotted amount. This proved to be a worthwhile move, because, most of us landed far from the scheduled drop zone and we were behind the German lines for days before getting back to our unit. We also carried land mines, gammon grenades, hand grenades, maps, radios, smoke grenades and much more. Every man was fully loaded with every possible kind of equipment that might be needed.
At that time, I was the Bn Message Center Chief with the rank of Buck Sergeant. Normally I would have jumped behind my Company commander, Captain Gerard A. Ruddy. He and 1st Lt Charles J. McElligott, were very good friends and McElligott wanted to jump behind Ruddy. As a result, I traded places with McElligott and I was then the last man to leave our plane. This proved to be a break for me because Captain Ruddy was killed almost immediately after immediately after landing, McElligott was shot through the stomach and captured, and all but the last four of us in that plane were either killed or captured. McElligott died in 1996 and I always thanked him for trading places. He was a great platoon leader and Captain Ruddy was the finest man that I ever met. All of his men would have followed him through the fires of Hell if he wanted them along.
We left Folkingham, as I remember, at about 9: 30 P.M. on the night of June 5. The time is a pure guess, because to be honest, I was not wondering about the time at that moment. Many of us had great difficulty getting into the plane. We were carrying far too much equipment. Many of us left our reserve chute, the Mae West vest, the gas mask contents and the rifle case in England. We had to have help getting up the steps to the plane, Finally, we were all aboard and were on our way.
We flew around for about 4 hours getting the planes in formation for the invasion. We could see planes in all directions around us and finally we were on our way to Normandy.
Our formation crossed the channel and as we crossed the Guernsey Islands flak started exploding in the air around us. We were standing by this time and were all hooked and had checked the equipment. We were waiting for the green light, our signal to jump. When we hit the French coast much more flak started showing up all around us. The formation also hit some clouds at this time in addition to the flak. The combination of flak, clouds and the fact that our pilots were making their first combat fight was at least part of the reason for our biggest problem after jumping. The planes started veering right and left to be certain that they were not going to bump into each other. As the green light came on, we were out the door in a few seconds. We did not know that we were not over our drop zone at that time.
On the way down we were shot at with machine guns, rifles and it looked quite bad. We were not very high for the jump, but, it seemed lik4e forever before we reached the ground. My chute opened with a very hard jerk. The extra weight made the opening shock quite rough. I looked up to check my chute and saw numerous holes in it from the small arms fire. I looked down and saw tracers coming at me. Instinct caused me to raise my feet, but, I put them back down because I would need them down for landing.
I could see that 1 was going to land in water and I figured that this must be the Merderet River. That was the river closest to where we were supposed to land. Later I learned that it was the Douve and that I was a few miles from the proper drop zone. I left the gas mask in England, but, I had filled the case with cigarettes. It was a rubber case and I figured that if I should land in water, the case would keep my cigarettes dry. Some of the machine gun fire hit this mask case and ripped it open. This caused me to spin around a bit. I then figured that if I landed in the river I would not be able to get out of the equipment before I drowned. I then landed in the water and found that it was only waist deep. They were still shooting at me, so, I wert back down in the water with just enough sticking out so I could breathe. I remained in that position for some time after the shooting stopped. Once again I stood up and there was no more firing at me, so, I started walking toward the dry land. After organizing my all of my gear, checking my rifle and getting out of the chute harness, I started walking away from the water.
It was quite dark and I could hear lots of action all around me. Lots of firing into the air at planes and this seemed to be in all directions around me. I kept walking in what I assumed be the right direction. Our objective was to secure the area and prevent the Germans from reinforcing their beach troops. We also prevented many from retreating from the beaches. The 508 was also to destroy some bridges in the area.
As I was making my way in what I felt was the right direction, I heard a noise coming my left side. I was then walking and I did not know if they were enemy or friendly. I stopped and laid flat on the ground. I then realized that I was at the edge of a ditch that was about 4 or 5 feet deep. The men were in my direction in this ditch I remained very quiet as they passed me. There was about 25 of them and at the end of the column, one of the men spoke to another and 1 knew that they were German. I could have reached out and touched their helmets as they passed me. I was sure that they could hear my heart pounding, but, they did not.
When they passed, I jumped the ditch and continued on until I heard some say “FLASH”. My reply was not the proper codeword, I said “Oh Shit”. I had completely forgotten the proper password for the moment. I was lucky, because, the person challenging me was one of my Corporals, William P. Brown, from Detroit. We compared notes and decided we must be going in the right direction and continued on the path that was there.
Along the way, we picked up more jumpers and soon discovered that we were not the only troopers who were dropped in the wrong place. We found men from the 505, the 507 and even two from the 101st Division. They were many miles from their drop zone which was near Carentan. At our first crossroad, we met our first resistance and we engaged in a fierce firefight. My guess is that this lasted about 20 minutes. We eliminated this problem and continued on in the chosen direction. We were challenged again before we reached one of the main roads. This time we were seriously outnumbered and the only explanation for our coming out ahead, is that we were determined and perhaps better trained. We had lost some men along the way. This was our first experience and it was not a good one. We had been trained for this, but, nothing can prepare you for seeing friends and comrades falling around you, The memory of that experience will stay with me forever. We had some wounded men also, but they were able to keep up. We had no medics, so, each of us took turns treating the wounds. Each man had a first aid kit.
It is a guess, but, at about 10:00 A.M. we arrived at a village which we later learned was Beuzeville . Across the river from Beuzeville, was the village of Beuzeville la Bastille. We were on one side of the road and we found S/Sgt Ray Hummel on the other side of the road. There were some houses on his side an of the road and on our side there were two buildings. Both of these buildings had troops in them and we went to the one on our right to secure it. There was only a few Germans in it and we now thought that the other building was occupied with our troops. I made an attempt to cross the bridge and immediately was met with artillery fire from the other side of the river. The explosion blew me off the road and into the ditch. It also discouraged me from making another attempt. I returned to the group and we crossed the road to join forces with S/Sgt. Hummel. At this point, Melvin Beets said that he would go over and get the rest of the troops from the other building. It resulted in Mel being captured because the building was filled with Germans. Mel later escaped and got back with the Company. At this writing, Mel is still alive and doing quite well. He has been to many of our reunions and he made the trip back to Europe for the 50th anniversary of D-Day.
S/Sgt Hummel and I compared notes and decided that together, we had about 52 men and that we had lost about 25 of them up to this point. Here our best guess is that we had 26 still able to fight. We had secured ammunition from all of the men that we had lost and at this time, we were in fair condition. We had no heavy weapons, no officers, no medics, no radio and we were not sure where we were. We could see where the two rivers came together and decided that this village must be Beuzeville. We were surrounded on two sides by flood waters from the two rivers. We knew that there were numerous Germans at the crossroad just ahead of where we were. In order to make a better decision on what we should do, we decided that we should get to a higher spot and try to see what is around us.
I knocked on the door of the house that we were behind and got no response. I then shot the lock off the door and found that people were in the house. The mother was just about to open the door when I shot the lock off. These people were badly scared, but, they did not interfere and they seemed to be glad to see us.
Hummel and I went to the stairs and we were followed by Jim McMahon who waited at the top of the stairs to notify us of any action from below. Hummel and I went to two large windows at the front of the house and we were looking in all directions to see if there were any signs or other items that might help us along. At this point we heard tanks approaching from the bridge that I had tried to cross when the 88 had knocked me into the ditch. Our only hope at this time was to move in an Easterly direction across the hedgerows.
We had a 101st man that had been shot through the stomach at this time and we did not think he could do any hedgerow jumping. We gave him a supply of morphine and some sulfa power promised that if it were possible we would send help for him. We placed him in one of the outbuildings and started making our way across the fields and crossroads.
We were plainly visible from the road as we were jumping across the hedgerows. He had to cross. We crossed two men at a time and the others kept watch, for resistance at each field. Everything went fairly well and we made it to the next road which we found was the causeway going to Chef du Pont. That was one of the objectives, and, we were now sure that we had been going in the right direction after landing in the water. There was firing in all directions around us. It seemed as if the battles were quite fierce. At the present moment it was quiet in our area and we were thankful for this. We quickly learned the difference in the sound of German guns when compared with ours.
We had only been at the last field a short time when we were once again pinned down by German fire. Hummel and I had the men spread out along the two hedgerows. One row facing each direction so we were protected regardless of where they hit us. During the periods of no firing, they dug fox holes along the edge of the hedgerows. Hummel and I were at the North side closest to the road. There was a barn and a bam lot in front of us and a 2 story house on the corner. It was occupied by the was occupied by the Germans and we started firing at it in force. We could not go further as long as they occupied that house. In the middle of the fire fight, we heard an American voice yelling for us to stop shooting or the Germans would kill them. Some of our men were being held prisoner in that house. We stopped firing at the house, but, we were being fired at from the road. August Labate was killed at this time by a burst from a machine pistol. Our ammunition supply was rapidly disappearing. If we had not taken an extra supply at the airfield and had not taken the ammunition from those who were killed, we would have been out. By now.
Hummel and I discussed this problem and wondered about the opinion of the men. We decided to ask each of them if they wanted to surrender or stay till the end. Every man said the same thing. “We have come this far and we do not intend to give up now.” There would be no surrender from this group.
Since the end of the war I have met the people who lived in that corner house where the Germans were holding our prisoners. It is the Coteil family and their son Pierre was 14 at that time. He and I have become close friends over the years. I also met his mother and had lunch with her one day. Through an interpreter, I discovered I had almost killed her accidentally. One day during a lull in the firing, a few Germans were in the barn lot and I threw a hand grenade up in the air hoping to get them about the time it hit the ground. While it was in the air they walked behind the barn and this lady appeared from the other end. None of them knew it coming. I was sure she would be killed. Fortunately, she was not injured. I asked her if she was scared when it went off and her reply was that she had to change her skivvies after that. She was as much of a joker as Pierre. I have enjoyed their friendship for several years now.
In the beginning of our ordeal on June 6 we had about 52 men. We lost half of them along the way and we had some wounded, We were pinned down in that field for 5 days and we were frequently challenged by the Germans. We proved to be a stubborn group because we held our ground against every attempt to get us out. Ray Hummel and I agree that we did quite well with what we had. Our crew was from a variety of units, we had little equipment, we had no medics, officers or heavy weapons, and we had no chance of being supplied with ammunition for our small arms weapons. We did, however, slow down the retreat of those coming from the beaches, we kept reinforcements from advancing past our corner and we certainly caused problems for those opposing us. In the book, “Night Drop”, by S. L. A. Marshall, we were referred to as, “A Pack of Strays” I suppose that is a good description of our group. In my opinion, our crew from various units, reacted in a manner that is a good example of Airborne Spirit.
During those five days behind the German lines many other things happened. The 101st man who had had been shot through the stomach and left behind came to our field. We continued to give him sulfa powder and morphine. C. P. [Charles P.] Reynolds was shot in the head and did not know he had been hit until he took off his helmet and wool knit cap. We treated him also. George DeCarvalho was hit in the ankle by a German rifle grenade. The grenade did not go off, but, it did severe damage to his ankle. Hummel buried Labate where he had been killed. We had been visited one night by a French gentleman who brought us some cheese, bread and wine. He also told us how many German were around us and where they were located. He risked his life doing this and he was nearly killed by us.
In the late afternoon of the 5® day, we were practically out of ammunition, We were hearing a lot of firing coming from the causeway which leads into Chef du Pont. It was getting close all the time that promised to be help for us. The firing got very close and we knew that someone from our Army was close to us. The first words that we heard were said by a Master Sergeant from the 90th Division who yelled, “Bring up that damned bazookah.” At this, all of us stood up and cheered. The Master Sergeant yelled for us to get back down and we did. Remarkably none of us were shot during that brief ordeal. The good part was that the Germans were now running from that corner and we had been found by friendly forces.
‘The Master Sergeant took our wounded and got them on their way back to an aid station. He took our one prisoner and sent him back to a P.O.W. compound. He then gave us a guide to get us through the mine fields and we were on our way back to the unit.
When we arrived back with the unit, we learned that our Bn. Commander, Lt. Col. Batchellor had been killed. My plane had been hit hard too. Captain Ruddy was killed, Lt. McElligott was shot through the stomach and captured, 1st Sgt Earl Smith was killed, 1st Lt. Abbott was killed and many others from my platoon. This was a severe shock to me and the others. We had seen many killed along the way, but, these men were very close friends. Captain Ruddy was the finest man that I had ever met. McElligott was a very good man and a good friend and the others from the platoon were top notch also. I felt very sorry for all of them and for their families.
Those of us who had been in that field still refer to it as “Hell’s Half Acre”. It most certainly did qualify as Hell. I still feel very close to those of us who survived those five days. I feel closer to them than I would if “I had brothers. They are a special breed. They were Airborne. They became full grown men in the first few minutes of our experience in that field. I will never forget all that went on during my first five days in Normandy.