The Harry Kennedy Story
(Or "Tunder" he Said, and
My Adrenaline Overflowed)
This is a true story of a naive, brave, young man. My favorite story of WWII.
Harry was born Hahns Kahn in Germany in 1924. His parents were Jewish. For reasons I do not know he was placed in an orphanage at a very young age. He was then adopted by German Jewish parents. Harry never knew his real parents. His adoptive father was a successful businessman owning some type of an importing business headquartered in Switzerland.
Harry's early childhood was normal and happy until Hitler started his hate campaign against Jews. Jumping forward to Nov. 9, 1938, the date of Kristallnacht (Crystal Night): so called because Germans went on a rampage of ransacking Jewish homes, businesses, synagogues, and other Jewish institutions, filling the streets with the broken fine Jewish crystal and glassware. Other valuable possessions including books, art works, fine furniture, etc. were smashed and burned.
Harry's father was astute enough to see the war on Judaism was increasing. He made plans to smuggle Harry out of Germany before it was too late. He had distance relatives in the United States who agreed to accept Harry. Through his contacts in the import business he arranged to smuggle Harry through Switzerland and Italy to a ship bound for New York. At this time Harry was about 15 years old. The father went to his headquarters in Switzerland and summoned his wife and Harry to join him. The father still had his papers to travel unrestricted. When Harry and his mother arrived at the Swiss border on the train, his mother was arrested by the German guards. Harry never saw her again. Presumably she was a victim of the holocaust. For some unknown reason Harry was allowed to continue. His father met him and had him transported to Italy, the ship and on to New York.
Harry was met in New York by his new family and immediately placed in school. He had an agile mind and very quickly picked up the English language. He did have a heavy German accent. He successfully completed high school and joined the army. He volunteered for the paratroopers and joined us at Camp McCall, North Carolina in August 1942. Because of his command of the German language he was put in the Regimental intelligence section to act as an interpreter. When Harry joined the army, his name was changed from Hans Kahn to Harry Kennedy in case he should be captured by the enemy. His dog tags bore the name Kennedy.
We were engrossed with Harry because of his background. He was shy and somewhat aloof. We tried very hard to make him feel accepted but were unsuccessful. He refused to go out with us to get drunk and chase girls like most GI's. We invited him many times but to no avail We thought that rather strange. Now that I have matured some, I see he wasn't all wrong.
Harry did have a girlfriend he had met in New York. He called her “Teddy Bear.” They corresponded frequently. He adored her. He had no problem showing his love and discussing her attributes with us. All was well until about two months before we left to go overseas. Harry received a “dear John” letter. Teddy Bear had met someone else and thought it best that she and Harry break it off. Harry was devastated. I thought he was going into shock. He cried a lot. I became very dubious that he was suitable for combat. I felt uncomfortable depending on him in a hostile situation. After all, mature males don't come apart when jilted by a girlfriend. Soldiers don't cry, particularly hardened Paratroopers. I could be wrong, and as it turned out I was.
In December, 1942, he seemed to accept the situation. You know the old adage: time heals all wounds. He still refused to go out with us in the big city for one last fling before we left the country.
After a short stopover in North Ireland for two months, we moved to Nottingham, England. By then Harry was becoming a real American GI. He started going to the English Pubs with us and enjoying the companionship of the English girls. Except for his accent you would think he was a natural born American soldier.
Moving forward to D-Day. The entire Regimental S-2 Section was in
the same plane. We took off about 10:00 PM, June 5, flew several hours
to rendezvous with other planes of the Regiment, and then headed to the
continent. As we crossed the shoreline of Normandy we met intense
anti-aircraft fire. Although we were flying low and slow, the Germans
could not see us because of the low cloud cover. They were firing at the
sound of the engines.
The pilots could see
the tracers coming up and had to fly around them to prevent being shot
down. In maneuvering to avoid the antiaircraft fire the planes wandered
off course and when we jumped, we missed the drop zone. Both the 101st
and 82nd Divisions were strewn all over the Normandy peninsular. When I
landed, about 2:30 AM, I was shaking so hard that I could not unbuckle
my parachute harness. I cut myself loose with the knife strapped to my
boot. It turned out that is the way most of the troopers freed
themselves. After freeing myself from the chute, I
rearranged my gear to carry it comfortably, and started looking for
other members in my plane. It was impossible to see or recognize anyone
because of the darkness. There was no light to reflect off the cloud
cover to allow any vision. I wandered around until I heard a noise. I
gave the password which was “lightning”. The countersign was “thunder”.
Thunder was selected because the Germans can't say “th”. The reply to my
challenge came back a resounding “Tunder”. If the adrenaline wasn't high
enough, it was now enough to take the top of my head off. After a short
pause that seemed like hours, I realized there was no way the Germans
could know our password and countersign, because they were given to us
as we boarded the plane. I meekly asked, “Is that you Harry?" The reply
was a beautiful German accented “Yah”. Harry and I joined up and started
searching for others in our plane. By daybreak fifteen of the eighteen
total in our plane had assembled. We then started our mission of winning
Since this is a story about
Harry, I am going to fast forward from the Normandy Campaign to Market
Garden, the jump into Holland. Suffice it to say Harry was an extremely
valuable asset to us in Normandy with his skills of interrogating
prisoners. I never went on a patrol with Harry in Normandy, so I still
had no indication of how he would react in a tight situation. In Holland
I finally got my chance to see what he was made of. After the initial
jump, the Market Garden operation soon turned into a static hold and
defend situation. This was the condition where our S-2 Section was most
active. We had many opportunities to infiltrate the German lines at
night to search out information on gun emplacements, troop numbers and
location, tanks, etc. Finally, on one cold, misty night Harry and I were
assigned to the same patrol. There was a third member whose name I don't
recall. We slipped through the lines undetected and spent several hours
but found nothing. On the way back, we were not so lucky. We ran into a
German outpost and were challenged with a stern ”HALT”. We immediately
fell to the ground to become less of a target. My first thought was now
what do we do. Harry immediately got up, walked right up to the sentry
and said something like this in his perfect German: ”Hey my name is
Hans. My companions and I have been out on patrol for several hours and
are returning to our headquarters to report what we found. My company
commander forgot to give me the password, so I don't know it. After
exchanging a few words, the sentry passed us through. Being a foggy
night with no light reflecting from the clouds the sentry could not see
our uniforms so had go on what he heard; a reasonable request in perfect
How wrong I had been about this naive, crybaby soldier. This was
a brave, quick thinking, young man of whom everyone would be proud to
know and have as a friend. To this day I am indebted to him for at most
saving my life or preventing my being captured; at least from being in a
fire fight from which who knows what the outcome would be.
we went to France to regroup and then to the Bulge. By now Harry was one
of us; a typical American GI getting into mischief and taking and
enjoying any opportunity that presented itself.
When the war ended, the
Regimental Commander, Col. Mendez, arranged for Harry to go to
Switzerland to visit his father. Needless to say Harry was a favorite of
After the war Harry was assigned to a secret project of the
U.S. Government. He was sworn to secrecy and would not tell what his
mission was. Those of us who served with him speculate it was with the
CIA in the search for war criminals. Harry joined the old Dept. of HEW (
Health, Education,& Welfare.) He rose to a relative high position before
The last time I saw Harry was at a 508th regimental reunion in
Florida in 2004. My wife and I ate dinner with him and his family at the
reunion banquet. I asked him if he could say thunder yet. He replied
resoundingly, ”Sure: Tunder”. We all had a great laugh.
Harry died in 2010 at the age of 85.
P.S. As I wrote this, remembering my earlier statement that hardened Paratroopers don't cry. Guess what: this one did.