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PARAGLIDE MAGAZINE FEATURE
1517 Atwick Dr.
Fayetteville, NC 28304

I am retired command Sergeant Major Kenneth J. Merritt, and I have been asked to relive the D Day invasion of Normandy, France June 6, 1944. But first, let me tell you why I happened to be in Nottingham, England, with the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment getting ready to jump into combat.

I was born the 10th of August, 1923, in a little town named Warner, Oklahoma, in the county of Muskogee. Our father was a farmer, and like most all others got caught in the big depression of 1929 1936. I don't know how but somehow we survived the big depression and the 5 year drought.

At the age of 17, I quit school and joined the CCC to help support our family. Now for some that might not know what the CCC was, it was a program set up by President Roosevelt for young men to help support their families, and the CCC stood for "Civilian Conservation Corps". I was a mess sergeant in the CCC at Grand Mesa, Colorado, when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. Five weeks later, I was discharged from the CCC and for the next 10 months, I helped build Camp Gruber, Oklahoma, Camp Hale, Colorado, and helped build ships at the Marie- Island Naval Shipyard at Vallejo, California.

Then in October 1942, I decided to join the marines, but while I was waiting to see the marine recruiting sergeant, I noticed an Army recruiting poster of a soldier floating to the ground in a parachute with a Thompson .45 sub machine gun across his reserve, and right there and then I forgot about the marines, and I knew that I wanted to go into the parachute troops. Plus the recruiting poster said something that kind of rubbed me the wrong way. It said, "Are you man enough to fill these shoes?"

So on the 15th of October, 1942, at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma, I was sworn into the Army as a parachute volunteer. There were about 12 of us who were parachute volunteers all from Oklahoma and Texas. We were shipped to Camp Blanding, Florida and signed to the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment for 12 weeks of basic training, starting the 20th of October, 1942.

I was assigned as a light machine gun, platoon headquarters company, 1st Battalion, 508. All of our NCO's and officers were already parachute qualified. So after 12 weeks of rigorous training, on the 3rd of February, 1943, my battalion, the 1st Battalion 508, shipped from Camp Blanding, Florida, to Ft. Benning, Georgia, to take our 4 weeks of parachute training, stages A, B, C, and D. A stage being the physical, B and C parachute techniques such as parachute landing falls, parachute packing, 350 foot towers, and so on. We were in such a good physical shape that we skipped A stage, so instead of 4 weeks, we graduated in 3 weeks, making our 5 qualifying parachute jumps.

From Ft. Benning, Georgia, we went to Camp McCall, North Carolina after our furloughs and started advanced training on April 1, 1943. After almost 9 months of training, we shipped out from Camp Shanks, New York, and on the 28th of December, we sailed for Belfast, Ireland, arriving on the 8th of January, 1944. We trained hard in Ireland for 8 weeks, and on the 11th of March '44, we arrived in Wallington Park, in Nottingham, England for more training plus practice parachute night jumps for the invasion of Normandy, which we had no knowledge at that time where and when we would be going into combat.

We had about l7 weeks of small unit training in Nottingham, England, to include 2 tactical night parachute jumps, and on the 28th of May, 1944, we moved to the airport to sweat out D Day. I can say one thing for sure. If any unit was ready and well trained for combat, the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment was. Keep in mind, we had been trained for 18 months under the same officers and NCO's.

From the 29th of May to the 5th of June, while at the airfield, we had briefings, one after the other, maps, overlays, sand tables, you name it. We were briefed. We rolled and inspected equipment for about most of the week, thought we were going to wear the equipment almost out. I was by now a corporal, that being a squad leader in the LMG, so I had a lot of ammo and LMG's to roll up, in. Equipment bundles. Some of the equipment bundles were put in racks under the bellies of the C 47 plane. I believe each plane had 6 racks. If you had more than 6, then they were inside of the planes and were labeled "door bundles".

We all wrote letters home, V mail, I believe it was called. Of course, we couldn't say a word about what was about to happen.

Even if we did, the officers had censored our letters, just cut it out. Plus, we would be called in the office for a good chewing out and maybe some extra duty.

On the evening of the 5th of June, we had a nice steak dinner. We were watching a movie in the airfield hangar when we were told to fall out and blacken out face. This was a tip off that this must be it. By the way, the movie was Bob Hope and "You've Got Me Covered". I never did get to see the end of that movie.

We didn't have camouflage kits like today's army has, so we got our black soot off the cook's stoves and blackened our face and hands. We had one more sand table briefing, said "goodbye" to other buddies, and put on our gear and marched to our designated planes.

What did we wear and what kind of equipment did we have. Let me start with what we wore. We wore a jump suit that consisted of pants and jacket, with many many pockets to each especially designed for the airborne paratrooper. The jump suit was impregnated to protect us from a possible gas attack. Our boots were Cochran boots, brown in color. On our right shoulder, we wore the American flag. On our left shoulder, the 82nd patch. Our headgear, we had the wool knit cap, a steel helmet with a camouflage net over it. The officer's steel helmet had a 3x1 inch vertical white stripe in the back to indicate an officer, and the noncommissioned officers had the same markings except it was horizontal.

Our equipment consisted of rifles, rifle belt, musette bag with suspenders. We carried 4 grenades, 2 fragmentation grenades, 1 smoke grenade, and 1 gammon grenade, a 10 pound land mine, over 200 rounds of rifle ammunition, 3 meals of K rations, 3 D chocolate bars, a change of socks and underclothes, a canteen of water, first aid kit with morphine, gas mask, entrenching tool, trench knife strapped to one of our boots, a bayonet, switchblade knife, compass, and a Mae West life preserver for the flight over the English Channel which was to be left in the seat of the C 47 that we were to exit from.

We all had to have help getting into the plane. Each trooper had over a hundred pounds of equipment. My plane had 6 equipment bundles attached under the belly of the plane plus 2 door bundles. All the door bundles were LMG's, and LMG ammunition, except one, and that being a folding bicycle belonging to the regimental executive officer, Lieutenant Colonel Harrison. Can you believe that?

I can't recall exactly, but I believe we took off around 2200 hours, and if my memory if correct, I think that it took approximately 108 C 47's to carry a regiment into combat.

I forgot to mention, just when did we know we were jumping into Normandy? I can't speak for the officer's or the NCO's, but remember, I was only a corporal, and just prior to boarding the plane, we were told that our destination was Normandy, France. At that time, the NCO's were issued a silk map of France and everyone was issued 5 10 dollars worth of francs and escape kit. And so there could be no mistakes about our aircraft, all of them were marked with 3 large white stripes around each wing and the fuselage.

At 0100 hours on the 6th of June, I was flying over the English Channel. I could see the Channel full of ships. I didn't know that there were that many ships in the world, but they sure looked good.

We were going to jump at about 700 feet, which is a low altitude since we normally jumped at approximately 1200 feet. The purpose of the low jump was to cut down on our exposure time after we had jumped. As soon as we turned inland to France, all hell broke loose. Remember the folding bicycle I mentioned? Well, I was the #2 man in my stick, and just before we hit the French coastline, I saw my platoon leader kick the bicycle into the English Channel. I said, "Lieutenant, what did you do that for?" And his reply was, "Corporal, it got shot out." And I said, "Yes, sir."

As I said, as soon as we hit the French soil, all hell broke loose. It was somewhere around 12:45 1:00 A.M. in the morning and there were so many C 47's on fire and flares and tracers that it looked like daylight.

When I jumped, I could feel the bullets zinging by me, and when daylight came, I counted 13 bullet in my chute. As I hit the ground, I landed in a briar patch, and I was receiving machine gun fire on my position, and I was having trouble getting out of my parachute with all the equipment. We had the old harness type fasteners on our parachute harness, where the British had the quick release. We adopted the quick release after the Normandy drop. You had to get out of your chute before you could get to your rifle, since it was over your shoulder, muzzle down, and secured by your parachute belly band. After Normandy, in addition to your rifle, you were issued an Army .45 pistol for protection prior to getting out of your parachute.

As I was laying on my back trying to get out of my chute, I saw a C 47 on fire coming directly at me, I thought. Anyway, it was about 50 100 feet above me, and I could see that the jumpers had already jumped because I could see the backpacks of the parachute attached to the plane. The plane crashed and burned 1000 yards from my position.

I got out of my chute and set out to find my machine gun and ammo bundles that we had released during the jump. The procedure we used was the door bundles were kicked out first, and then the #1 man followed him out. The bundles in the racks underneath the plane were released in the middle of the stick by the middle man in the stick throwing the throttle switches in the plane. The last man in the stick would check just before he jumped to be sure that all of the throttle switches had been thrown. All of the equipment bundles were color coded with lights, like green for light machine guns, red for ammunition, and so on and so forth. This didn't do us any good, since the whole sky was full of tracers, flames, burning planes, and what have you. The plane that had crashed 1000 yards from my position lit up the whole drop area and within 10 minutes, I found my 2 equipment bundles. I couldn't carry all the ammo, so I took the light machine gun and what ammo I could carry and moved out. I had no idea as to where I was.

Within 5 minutes, I was challenged. I think the password and countersign was "flash" "welcome". Plus each paratrooper had been issued a toy cricket, the one like you get out of crackerjacks. You would give 3 clicks and your challenger would click you back. My challenger was one of our chaplains. He said, "Corporal, what are we going to do?" And I said, "First, you can help me carry some of this light machine gun ammo, and then we're moving out." I had figured since I was the #2 man in the stick, our direction had to be in the direction that the plane had crashed and lit up the sky.

Within 10 minutes, I heard something on the opposite side of the hedgerow. I challenged with my cricket and password and it was Lieutenant Abbot, the platoon leader of the 81 mortar platoon of headquarters company, 1st Battalion, 508. He had with him 17 men. By daybreak, we had assembled 35 men, and at 1300 hours, on our way to join our battalion commander, Major Shields Warren, we ran into a Captain Adams, company commander of A Company. He had with him 10 men. We now had 45 men including 1 captain, 2 lieutenants. Captain Adams took command and was directed to proceed to Hill 30. Prior to moving out towards Hill 30, I received my first combat order. We were receiving fire from one machine gun to our right flank, and Lieutenant Abbot turned to me and said, "Corporal, take 2 men with you and go knock out that machine gun." I guess it was a calm way that Lieutenant Abbot ordered me to knock out the machine gun nest, like, "Take 2 men and go fill up the water cans." Anyway, I picked a man by the name of Private James and a former sergeant reduced to private by the name of Fairbanks to go with me. Private James knocked out the machine gun, and me and Fairbanks keeping the jerries pinned down. This is the first time we learned the little trick that the jerries had by firing tracers 3 feet above the ground and then firing regular ammunition 18 inches off the ground.

We moved out with 45 men toward Hill 30, and within an hour, all hell broke loose. We were pinned down from the front, the right, and and the left flank. Our lead scouts were killed. We tried to counter attack but got repulsed. Keep in mind that we had no artillery support and only 2 machine guns. We pulled back to the line of the departure area, and dug in and set up a road block to our rear. We finally re established radio contact with Lieutenant Colonel Shanley on Hill 30. We tried several times to break out of our 20 acres of real estate that we were holding, but each time we got pushed back. The decision was made to hold our position and the road block. Our location was in the vicinity of Montessy area.

For the next 4 days, we fought off attack after attack, night and day. We even came under an American artillery attack, and on D+2 or 3, we received a call from Lieutenant Colonel Shanley on Hill 30 that they needed blood plasma real bad. We had plenty of it. It just happened to land in the area our equipment bundles did. Captain Adams asked for volunteers. 3 men volunteered: a first lieutenant, a corporal, and a PFC. The strapped blood plasma to their bodies and when night fell, they took off. By this time, our position was completely surrounded.

The blood plasma patrol did not get through. Lieutenant Murray got killed, Corporal Green was found in a hedgerow one week later completely dazed due to a concussion hand grenade. PFC Circelli made it back to our position, his lip and chin almost shot off. He was also shot in the neck and several shots in his right arm. PFC Circelli was from headquarters company, 1st Battalion.

We had been in combat for 4 days, and keep in mind we only jumped with 3 meals. Remember the D bar of candy that I previously mentioned? Well, a D chocolate bar was a hard, bitter chocolate. You could nibble on it and keep going for 3 or 4 days, so on D+3 or 4, I can't recall which, I was giving PFC Circelli water through a blood plasma tube. Remember, he was one of the blood plasma patrol members who got back to our position all shot up. He asked me when did I think the seaborne troops would arrive. According to the big plan, they were supposed to reach us in the first 24 hours of operation, and here it is, 4 days later, also they haven't reached us yet. Which, I was thinking how to answer PFC Circelli. I looked up and saw a 2 1/2 ton truck, American truck, coming towards us. At that moment, I knew that the seaborne troops had arrived inland, because the largest vehicle we had in Normandy was a jeep that came in by our G 4 gliders. The 2 1/2 ton truck had the troops and the equipment that followed it was the Oklahoma/Texas division. I could be wrong but I believe it was the 90th Division. I know that the shoulder patch were an "O" with a "T" across it.

They picked up all of our wounded and med evaced them to the rear. Captain Adams moved up to Hill 30 where the 508 Regiment was now being assembled. We got our first hot meal in 5 days. The next 3 days were spent regrouping the units, issuing new weapons, and getting ready for our next mission. I was promoted to sergeant since my section chief, Sergeant John Pavlick, got killed on the first day. As I said before, my platoon was a light machine gun platoon, 30 caliber A 4. Well guess what. During our 2 to 3 day break, we were issued, in new, 1917 A 1 water cooled heavy machine guns. I had never seen one in my entire life, and we were going on the attack the next day. The first lieutenant by the name of George I. Stuckard {Stoeckert] was an old heavy machine gunner and he taught me how to pack and assemble heavy machine guns. I might mention that 3 weeks later, I would be firing overhead machine gun fire over our friendly troops with these same machine guns.

I would like to go back to the night of 5th of June, 1944, as I look down at the English Channel and see a wall of ships, did I realized how big this operation was. I felt great. I had confidence and I wasn't scared until we started taking flak as we hit the France coast.

While I was coming down after I jumped, I was scared. It seemed as though I could have walked down on the flak. I figured I was going to get killed before I hit the ground, and I prayed just to live until daylight. My gunner, PFC Kenneth Stevens, never got out of his chute. When daylight came, I found him badly wounded. We had no aid station, so I took him to a Frenchman's house. The Frenchman didn't want to take him, but he did. You can understand why. They had to be on the winning side. I think most of my fear left me after daylight on the 6th of June. My only regret was that we could not break the siege of the 20 acres of real estate, but I do not fault Captain Adams. He probably saved our lives.

From the 11th of June to 9th of July, we were one hell of a fighting force. We took causeways, rivers, hills, Hills 130, 195, 95, you name it, we took them and many many more. And keep in mind we got no replacements in the 33 days we were in Normandy. We got one bath and one change of clothes. We arrived back in England the middle of July, and all had a 7 day leave, and again started training for our next combat job which was Market Garden in Holland.

I went on to make the jump at _____, Holland, the Battle of the Bulge, and I stated in the beginning, I am a retired command Sergeant Major. I stayed 35 years, 2 months, and 15 days, retiring December 1, 1977. I have fought in 2 wars, or police action, whatever they are called since World War II, and in my 35 years, I stayed on jump status 32 years.

It is possible that in this tape I could be a day or a date or a location off, just a little, because it's hard to recall exact dates, passwords, and so on and so on after 44 years. But I will assure you that I'm pretty close to being in the ballpark.

I have served in some of the outstanding units in my 35 of service, but none of them, in my opinion, can stand up to the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment. The 508 is organized into an association today in which we meet annually. It's only for men who served during the period 1942 1945. Of these, we have over 1000 members, and there is as much respect and loyalty today as it was in 1944.

Well, you've just heard my story of Normandy, France, as I recall it. In closing, I would like to mention my immediate family. I was married in August 1943 while stationed in Camp Mackall, North Carolina, to Miss Sally G. Hatley, of Stilwell, Oklahoma. We have 3 children, Kitty Merritt of Fayetteville, North Carolina, employed by the Fayetteville Observer Newspaper; Jerry Merritt, a lieutenant colonel stationed in San Antonio, Texas; Diana Lynn Merritt of Tulsa, Oklahoma. My wife Sally and I live here in Fayetteville, North Carolina.

Today's date is the 2nd of May, 1988. end of tape: th corrections EM 3/17/93

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