recollections, bright as the moment itself, come flooding back after
June 3, 2004 (The Martha's Vineyard Times)
June 6, the 60th anniversary of D-Day, the beginning of the
endgame in the Allies campaign to free Europe from Hitlers
grasp, there will be formal ceremonies nationwide to remember
the brave effort of members of the Allied Expeditionary Force.
But the grand achievement that began on the beaches of Normandy
is a story made of hundreds of thousands of individual experiences
terrifying, brave, funny, sad, and heartwarming.
The account below is an example. Nelson Bryant, the outdoor
writer and West Tisbury resident, was one among many Islanders
who fought in World War II and joined or supported the D-Day
invasion. His story, although unique, echoes the experiences
of many of his American, British, and Canadian comrades in
Mr. Bryants outfit the 82nd Airborne has
a story also, and our coverage this morning includes some
of its history, of which Mr. Bryant and Fred Ted
Morgan, the longtime Edgartown selectman, were part.
of jumping into Normandy with the 508 Parachute Infantry Regiment
of the 82nd Airborne Division on D-Day 60 years ago are fragmented.
Recollections form, fade and reform, and as June 6 nears there is
a flood of them.
I do have a pre-D-Day memory that never fades. My unit was stationed
at Wollaton Park just below Nottingham Castle in England, and a
few weeks before June 6 a fellow resident of Marthas Vineyard,
Fred B. (Ted) Morgan, Jr., appeared in camp. He was there to wish
me well and to give me an idea of what lay ahead, something for
which he was eminently qualified, having already made combat jumps
with the 505 Parachute Infantry Regiment into Sicily and Salerno.
It is strangely pleasing to me that after many post-war years of
living elsewhere, we both returned to the Vineyard and our hometowns,
he to Edgartown, I to West Tisbury.
When at about 2:30 am on D-Day I lunged out the door of a jouncing
C-47 that was flying low over the Normandy countryside, I recall
that even before my chute snapped open and yanked me upright
lazy arcs of tracer bullets were curving up at me, then hurtling
past. And before I reached the ground I heard for the first time
the tearing snarl of sound made by fully-automatic German machine
Nelson Bryant posed for this photo in England
while a member of the 508 Parachute Infantry Regiment.
The headline which appeared in the 6 am extra
edition of The New York Times published on Tuesday, June 6,
Nelson Bryant tends his garden in West Tisbury
on a sunny day in May. Photo by JJ Gonson
Fred "Ted" Morgan takes part in Memorial
Day services. Photo by Sara Piazza
Fred "Ted" Morgan poses in front
of a Nazi flag during the campaign in Holland while a member
of the 505 Parachute Infantry Regiment.
A dairy barn
loomed beneath me and I worked my parachutes shroud lines
to slip away from it. I didnt want to land on the barns
roof then fall 40 feet to the ground, but in avoiding the barn I
had positioned myself over an orchard. I crashed down into a big
apple tree, hoping that I wouldnt wind up dangling, an easy
target, 20 feet above the earth. Branches gave way I weighed
about 220 pounds and was carrying another 100 pounds of gear
and I made a standup landing.
Two C-47s lumbered overhead and in the distance I heard the gliders
that they had been towing crash into trees with their cargo of men
and equipment, a bloody and disastrous entry into the fray. Moments
later, I came upon my commanding officer, Lt. Norman McVicar, hanging
from a tree, his boots about three feet off the ground. He ordered
me to cut him down, an order I thought unnecessary, because, knife
in hand, I was approaching him to do just that.
We moved on, gathering up members of our company and others as we
Because I was a company scout, I was always out in front of this
group. The problem was to quickly identify figures as friend or
foe when they materialized in the murk. We had been issued little
metal crickets. When you spied a shape in the dark, you were supposed
to click your cricket. An answering click meant friend.
I immediately lost my cricket, but we had a backup plan for that:
if out of the night someone uttered flash! you responded
with thunder, and if he came back with lightning!
all was well.
At one point that baptismal evening I had gone through an opening
in a hedgerow when a large form appeared at my right a few feet
away and barked flash!
I was so startled that I forgot the password ritual, but managed
to blurt out a request that identified me as an American: Dont
shoot! Dont shoot, you crazy bastard!
Okay! Okay! he responded, and joined our growing band.
And so it went until daylight and by the following evening our group,
about 60 strong, plus two other contingents, one led by Major Shields
Warren Jr., the other by Colonel Thomas J. B. Shanley, had joined
forces and established a defensive position on Hill 30, high ground
on the west side of the Merderet River opposite Chef-du-Pont.
Hill 30 and a small area around it were destined to be all of Normandy
that I trod upon. On our first night at Hill 30, I volunteered to
take out a small scouting patrol to visit area farmhouses
I had a rudimentary knowledge of French picked up in high school
and one semester at Dartmouth before the war to see what
could be learned from the locals about the strength and location
of enemy forces in the area.
On one such visit we reached a large dairy barn and commodious farmhouse
a few hours before dawn. Approaching the barn door, I heard cows
moving about inside and footsteps coming my way.
The door opened and a stocky middle-aged man emerged. I stepped
from the darkness into the light of his lantern, gently touched
the bayonet on my M-1 rifle against his stomach and told him in
my awkward French not to be afraid, that we were American parachutists
who had some questions to ask.
He greeted me calmly, then glanced down at the bayonet, which I
embarrassed lowered. He asked if it would be all right
if he went to his house to tell his family that the Americans had
I told him to go ahead, but, wondering if Germans might be using
his house, told the men with me to spread out and take cover while
awaiting his return.
He came back, gave us some good information and before we departed
offered us big mugs of creamy milk dipped from a pail. I told him
that when I was still living at home a milk cow had been part of
the family. We shook hands and I never saw him again, although I
later learned that other Hill 30 paratroopers had enjoyed his largesse
in the days that followed.
The following afternoon I took out another scouting patrol in a
different direction and temporarily fell in love with the magnificent
six-foot daughter of the household. After I had introduced myself
and the two men with me to her, she said she would be pleased to
tell us what she knew. Then she asked if it would be all right if
she and her family gathered up the silk parachutes scattered about
the countryside. (She planned to fashion dresses and scarves and
petticoats from them.) I told her to help herself, and within a
few minutes a table was carried out into the yard, a tablecloth
spread, and we were treated to a repast that included bread, cheeses,
wine and cognac. We were not finely tuned combat soldiers on our
lurching return to Hill 30.
The next day, out in front of a patrol from Hill 30 led by Major
Warren, my fellow scout and I were cut down by machine gun fire.
The other scout, who was riddled, moaned Help me. Help me,
Unit Citation of the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment for
its actions during the Normandy Campaign
508th Parachute Infantry is cited for outstanding performance
of duty in action against the enemy between 6 and 9 June 1944,
during the invasion of France. The Regiment landed by parachute
shortly after 0200 hours, 6 June 1944. Intense antiaircraft
and machine-gun fire was directed against the approaching
planes and parachutist drops. Enemy mobile antiairborne landing
groups immediately engaged assembled elements of the Regiment
and reinforced their opposition with heavily supported reserve
units. Elements of the Regiment seized Hill 30, in the wedge
between the Merderet and Douve Rivers, and fought vastly superior
enemy forces for three days. From this position, they continually
threatened German units moving in from the west, as well as
the enemy forces opposing the crossing of our troops over
the Merderet near La Fiere and Chef-du-Pont. They likewise
denied the enemy opportunity to throw reinforcements to the
east where they could oppose the beach landings. The troops
on Hill 30 finally broke through to join the airborne troops
at the bridgehead west of La Fiere on 9 June 1944. They had
repelled continuous attacks from infantry, tanks, mortars,
and artillery for more than 60 hours without resupply. Other
elements of the 508th Parachute Infantry fought courageously
in the bitter fighting west of the Merderet River and in winning
the bridgeheads across that river at La Fiere and Chef-du-Pont.
The Regiment secured its objectives through heroic determination
and initiative. Every member performed his duties with exemplary
aggressiveness and superior skill. The courage and devotion
to duty shown by members of the 508th Parachute Infantry are
worthy of emulation and reflect the highest traditions of
the Army of the United States.
I had taken
one bullet that entered my right chest, went through the lung and
exited below my right shoulder blade. I had been flung on my back
by the impact, but felt little pain. A medic gave me a shot of morphine.
The patrol continued on, and I lay there with my dead companion
in a greening meadow where cows were grazing and tried to embrace
what had happened.
Distant small arms fire moved closer. Our patrol had hit more resistance
than it could handle. Members of the patrol went past, headed back
to Hill 30. I was vaguely interested in the retreat, but not concerned.
I was trying to decide whether what I had hoped would be a combat
career worthy of Sergeant York was no longer possible. The morphine
had done its work.
At that point, Major Warren bent over me and said, Nelson,
if you dont want to be taken prisoner, youll have to
get off your ass and get the hell out of here.
It hadnt occurred to me that I could get up, let alone walk,
but with the help of a fellow trooper named Quinn, I managed a stumbling
half-trot back to Hill 30 where I was put beside a hedgerow with
other wounded condoms taped over the fore and aft holes in
my chest and covered with a parachute.
I never did thank Major Warren for not passing me by, and a month
ago I learned that he had died in 1994 in Raleigh, N.C. at the age
of 78. Having spent a lot of time in North Carolina in my job as
outdoors columnist for the New York Times, I could have easily visited
him, but for some reason that I dont fully comprehend, I have
never made a serious effort to look up old buddies, attend regimental
reunions, or to revisit battlefields.
A mini-reunion was set up for me about 20 years ago when a relative
of Roger Kitchen, one of my D Company fellow paratroopers, arranged
for Roger and me to fish for shad on the Delaware River. We had
been in a skiff on the river for an hour or so when Roger pulled
out his wallet and handed me $100.
This is late, he said, and I apologize.
He continued: On that Liberty ship we were on returning from
Marseilles to the States after the war, I lost all my money in a
crap game and you staked me to $100 so I could try to win it back.
Im sorry Im so late, and while Im at it, there
is another apology due.
Whats that? I asked.
I apologize for reporting you dead. On that patrol from Hill
30 when you got hit, we got the machine gunner who got you, then
ran into too much resistance. On our withdrawal, I stopped and looked
down at you. You werent moving and ants were crawling in and
out of a pool of blood that was coming from your mouth. It seemed
clear that you were dead and I told them so a short while later
when we were trying to get reorganized back at Hill 30.
A day or two or three after I was wounded, land forces from Utah
Beach linked up with us and I was taken to a field hospital on the
French shore of the English Channel and then to a hospital in Wales.
Soon, in an effort to get back in shape, I was hiking and jogging
along the River Towey, once in a while stopping to chat with an
elderly salmon or sea trout angler, or trysting with a Welsh girl
named Ceridwin Irewin, whose voice when she got excited or
angry, she used her native tongue was music to my alien ears.
In August, when I heard through the grapevine that my regiment,
which was back in Nottingham, was shortly going to jump into Holland,
I couldnt bear to think of not being with those of my companions
who had survived the Normandy campaign. I walked out of the hospital
and hitched rides back to my unit in time to make the drop.
When we were boarding our C-47s at the aerodrome for the Holland
jump, I discovered that the harness on the parachute that I was
handed was so small that I couldnt fit into it. Envisioning
the entire regiment roaring off without me and wild with anxiety,
I rushed to another plane and asked if there was anyone who had
a loosely-fitting chute. I found someone so equipped and we made
a swap. That second chute harness was too small also, but with two
buddies helping and me letting all the air out of my lungs we got
I made a soft landing in a broad meadow near Nijmegen and was so
concerned with the time it took to cut my way out of my constricting
harness that I hardly noticed the superficial wound in my right
thigh made by a small piece of shrapnel.
Three images dominate my memories of Holland: a two-story brick
house with one side sheared off by artillery fire, enabling us,
as we marched past on a warm September morning, to see a woman making
beds. She was singing as she worked, and I marveled at the resilience
of the human spirit. And then there was the time when we ran out
of food and I killed two pet white rabbits in the backyard of a
farmhouse. As I was carrying them away, I glanced toward the house
and saw the faces of two children pressed against a window. And,
lastly, there was the afternoon when a German attack temporarily
dislodged us from our line of defense and three of us were taking
a breather against a roadway embankment. The one in the middle,
Wally Drelik, a close friend, had taken off his helmet. I told him
that he should put it back on. He didnt, and a moment later
there was the crack of a high velocity bullet passing close by and
a small, black hole appeared in the middle of his forehead. A sniper
had moved into position 300 yards away, spotted the three of us
and chosen the most inviting target.
In retrospect, I wasnt really up to snuff in Holland and would
not have been displeased to miss the Battle of the Bulge a few months
later, but such was not to be.
One of my vivid memories of the Bulge is of a young German soldier
lying on his back in a snow-filled spruce forest. His patrol had
blundered into our rest area. Several of his companions had been
killed, others had escaped, and he was dying. I knelt over him.
I could speak no German, but he weakly motioned for me to reach
into his pocket where there was a wallet with a photograph of a
young woman standing, smiling, in a summer dress. Her name and address
were on the back of the photo. I realized that he wanted me to take
the picture and write her of where and how he had died.
I nodded affirmatively, put the photograph in my pocket and he died.
I lost the photo in the miserable days that followed.
Another recurring memory of the Bulge is of an afternoon when my
platoon leader, Lt. Joe Hall, asked what I thought was the best
way for us to capture a German-occupied hamlet in Belgium that was
at the bottom of a snow-packed road down a steep hill. The snow
in the open fields around the town was almost thigh-deep and I knew
we could easily be picked off if we tried to slog through it. I
told him that our only choice was to go right down the road, shooting
as we ran.
When we got into the town, we saw white flags waving in the snow
just beyond. The entire group of Germans, I seem to recall that
there were 20 or 30 of them, had surrendered. We disarmed them and
sent them back up the hill. It had been a highly successful endeavor,
and I was rejoicing until bullets began snapping and cracking about
us. Fingers of lead were plucking at my overcoat and my gear. The
lad beside me, a recent replacement, said with horror, Jesus,
sarge (I was an acting platoon sergeant at the moment), look at
I looked. A bullet had exploded it. When I turned to speak to the
fellow, another round hit the magazine of my M-1 rifle and it blew
apart in my hands.
The enemy machine gunners who had held off while we were dealing
with the prisoners were working on us from the opposite hillside
about 500 yards away.
Aided by other members of our company, we extricated ourselves,
and I got another rifle from one of our wounded.
That night we marched to a new location where we joined up with
other paratroopers. At the end of that march, during which it began
to snow, I was stumbling along and disoriented. An aid station had
been set up. I leaned my M-1 against the outer wall of the building
in the falling snow, thinking, as I went inside, that a good rifle
shouldnt be left to fill up with snow. I knew one of the aid
station doctors from earlier campaigns and told him of my symptoms.
He pointed to an empty cot in another room and told me to go in
there and lie down. I did so and passed out.
When I came to I know not how many days later, an Army nurse was
bending over me in a hospital, saying that if I didnt drink
what she was offering me I would have to be fed intravenously.
My combat days were over, although I didnt know it. The war
in Europe ended in May of 1945. A month or so later I was given
a week of rest and relaxation in a spa on the French shore of Lake
Geneva where I swiftly became fascinated by a charming and friendly
French girl, Jacqueline Dangar, who was vacationing there with her
family. I persuaded the concierge of the hotel to assist me in writing
her a love letter in French that was also a proposal of marriage,
but got orders to depart before she could respond.
Returning home in November of that year, I found a letter from her
awaiting me. She loved another, she said, and was engaged to him,
but hoped that we, old France and new America, would
remain friends always.
In the 60 years since D-Day, memories of the war, often painful,
have surged to the fore, most often in the long watches of the night,
but I have always been sustained by the knowledge that I and the
citizens of my country and those of much of the world believed in
our commitment. u
(Ten years ago, I wrote a personal experience D-Day piece for
the New York Times and, of necessity, some of the incidents reported
in this account were described in the other. And occasionally there
may even be fragments of phrases repeated. Such are the dangers
of asking an octogenarian to retell a story. N.B.)
of Hill 30 was pivotal
Paratroops landing in Holland. Courtesy National
average soldier on the ground is often not aware of the larger events
of which he is a part. According to a history of the 508th Parachute
Infantry Regiment by Dominic T. Biello, the defense of Hill 30 played
a pivotal role during the Normandy invasion.
The 82nd Airborne Divisions mission was to destroy vital German
supply bridges and capture causeways leading inland across the flooded
areas behind the Normandy beaches where seaborne forces would land
to gain control of roads and communications. More than 10,000 All-Americans
landed by parachute and glider on June 6, 1944 D-Day
as part of the greatest airborne assault in history.
Known as the Red Devils, the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment was
responsible for the southwest portion of the 82nds sector in
Normandy. Their primary targets were bridges over the Douve River,
located at Brienville and Beuzeville-la-Bastille. Clouds and heavy
anti-aircraft fire caused the formations to break up and many of the
planes to stray off course. The confusion was also compounded by the
Wehrmarchts presence in the scheduled drop zones. This prevented
the pathfinders from marking them and consequently delayed many pilots
from flashing the jump lights until they had overshot the drop zones
as they frantically searched for the markers. Consequently, both the
507th and 508th troopers were widely scattered over the Normandy countryside.
Landing in the swamplands along the river, the heavily laden troopers
hurriedly scrambled to assemble into fighting units. Because of the
confusion, they were unable to muster their forces into enough strength
to occupy the west bank of the Douve River in force. Instead, the
troopers assembled along the embankment of the main railroad from
Cherbourg to Carentan, both because it was high ground and because
it was a recognizable terrain feature. After regrouping into small
units, the 508th began executing their daunting task to seize the
bridge over the Douve River, at Pont LAbbe.
However, one unit under the command of Lt. Col. Thomas J. B. Shanley,
commanding officer of the 2d Battalion, encountered a large contingent
of German infantry before reaching the town. The Germans were pushing
eastward in this area most of the day under orders to counterattack
and wipe out the American insertion west of the Merderet. Lt. Col.
Shanley immediately realized that they were vastly outnumbered, and
withdrew to Hill 30. He ordered his unit to dig in.
For two days, he and his men fought off repeated German attempts to
overrun the main paratrooper landings and contributed substantially
to establishing the Merderet bridgehead. This action has been considered
decisive in helping the airborne meet its objectives at Normandy.
The 508th continued their ferocious fight as infantrymen for 33 days
after landing at Normandy. They had choked off reinforcements for
the Axis forces defending the French coast. On 13 July 1944, the Red
Devils returned to England after suffering 1,061
casualties out of 2,056 paratroopers, of which 307 were Killed In