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508th PIR Regimental Pocket Patch

508th PIR WW II
Medal of Honor Recipient

1st Sgt Leonard Funk



The 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment
Memories


D-Day recollections, bright as the moment itself, come flooding back after 60 years
June 3, 2004
  (The Martha's Vineyard Times)

By Nelson Bryant

On June 6, the 60th anniversary of D-Day, the beginning of the endgame in the Allies’ campaign to free Europe from Hitler’s 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 arms.

Mr. Bryant’s 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.

D.A.C.

My memories 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 Martha’s 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 pistols.


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, 1944.

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 parachute’s shroud lines to slip away from it. I didn’t want to land on the barn’s 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 wouldn’t 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 went.

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: “Don’t shoot! Don’t 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 arrived.

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,” then died.


Distinguished Unit Citation of the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment for its actions during the Normandy Campaign
“The 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 don’t want to be taken prisoner, you’ll have to get off your ass and get the hell out of here.”

It hadn’t 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 don’t 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. I’m sorry I’m so late, and while I’m at it, there is another apology due.”

“What’s 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 weren’t 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 couldn’t 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 couldn’t 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 it fastened.

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 didn’t, 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 wasn’t 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 your canteen!”

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 shouldn’t 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 didn’t drink what she was offering me I would have to be fed intravenously.

My combat days were over, although I didn’t 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.)



Paratroops landing in Holland. Courtesy National Archives
Defense of Hill 30 was pivotal

The 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 Division’s 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 82nd’s 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 Wehrmarcht’s 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 L’Abbe.

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 Action.


( Reprinted with Permission. Appeared as a feature article in  The Martha's Vineyard Times  weekly publication on June 3, 2004.)


books
R E L A T E D   B O O K S

Ambrose, Stephen E D-DAY June 6,1944: The Climatic Battle of WW II. 6/93, Simon & Shuster ISBN: 0671673343
Badsey , Stephen & Chandler, David G (Editor)  Arnhem 1944: Operation "Market Garden" (Campaign No.24) 1993 96p. ISBN: 1855323028
Black, Wallace B.& Blashfield, Jean F. Battle of the Bulge (World War II 50th Anniversary Series). Crestwood House, 48 pp May,1993 ISBN: 0896865681
Blair, Jr, Clay Ridgeway's Paratroopers: The American Airborne in WW II. New York: Doubleday, 1985 588 p. ISBN: 0385278888
Breuer, William B Geronimo! American Paratroopers in WWII. New York: St. Martin Press, 1989 621 p. ISBN: 0-312-03350-8
Breuer, William B Drop Zone Sicily: Allied Airborne Strike,July 1943. Novato, CA: Presidio, c1983. 212 p. ISBN: 089 141 1968
Burns, Dwayne T & Leland Burns Jump Into the Valley of the Shadow: The War Memories of Dwayne Burns Communications Sergeant - 508th PIR. Casemate, (Sept 2006) 256 p. ISBN: 1932033491
D'Este, Carlo  Decision in Normandy William S Konnecky Assc(P), 560 p. ISBN: 1568522606
D'Este, Carlo  Patton: A Genius for War 1024 pp ISBN: 0060927623
De Trez, Michel  At the Point of No Return : Pictorial History of the American Paratroopers in the Invasion of Normandy 7/98, D-Day Pub, 200 p. ISBN: 2960017617
Falerios, Kenton J.  Give Me Something I Can't Do: The History of the 82nd Military Police Company, WW 1 to Iraq Nov 2007, Authorhouse, 192 p ISBN: 1434337197
Francois, Dominique 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment: Red Devils Heimdal (Aug 2003), 120 p. ISBN: 2840481723
Gavin, James M.  On to Berlin : Battles of an Airborne Commander, 1943-1946 ISBN: 0670525170
Giard, Régis & Frédéric Blais Helmets of the ETO: A Historical & Technical Guide Histoire & Collections (Jan 2008), 216 p. ISBN: 2352500621
Golden, Lewis Echoes From Arnhem Penguin ISBN: 0718305213
MacDonald, Charles B  A Time For Trumpets: The Untold Story of the Battle of the Bulge Wm Morrow & Co (P), 720 p. ISBN: 068151574
McKenzie, John  On Time, On Target Novato, CA: Presidio, May 15,2000. 304 p. ISBN: 089 141 714 1
Nigl, Dr Alfred J & Charles A Nigl  Silent Wings - Savage Death Santa Ana, CA: Graphic Publishing, Dec 3,2007. 288 p. ISBN: 1882824318
Nordyke , Phil All American All the Way: Combat History of the 82nd Airborne Division in World War II Zenith Press, April 2005. 880 pgs ISBN: 0760322015
Ospital, John  We Wore Jump Boots and Baggy Pants Willow House, 1977. 118 p. ISBN: 0912450150
Ruggero, Ed  Combat Jump: The Young Men who Led the Assault into Fortress Europe, July, 1943  HarperCollins, 10/21/2003. 388 p. ISBN: 0060088753
Ryan, Cornelius The Longest Day  Touchstone Books (P), 350 p. ISBN: 0671890913
Ryan, Cornelius  A Bridge Too Far 670p. ISBN: 0684803305
Tucker, William H.  Parachute Soldier: From the Diary of William H. Tucker, 1942-1945  ISBN:1884540015
Tucker, William H.  "Rendez-vous at Rochelinval" Battle of the Bulge  International Airborne Books,Harwichport, MS, ISBN:0-9647683-2-1
Wildman, John B All Americans 82nd Airborne. Meadowlands Militaria, 6/83 ISBN:091 208 1007
The Center of Military History The War in the Mediterranean: A WWII Pictorial History Brasseys, Inc., 465 p. ISBN:1574881302
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