101st Airborne Division

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Command Patch

Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) Recipient
Sgt Edward Ford

Silver Star Recipients
1/Sgt Richard F Beasley
Sgt Clifford E Cullen
Sgt Andy Galayda
Pfc Arcadio Navarro Jr
Cpl Clifford E Nelson
Sgt Joseph F O'Toole
Cpl Rogie Roberts
Pvt Nathan Zax

Bronze Star Recipients
S/Sgt William G Clarke
Pvt Robert G Hilton

The 81st Airborne Anti-Aircraft Battalion


James' story: A tribute for a fallen soldier

Staff Writer The Gainsville Sun

Editor's note: Don Alfonso of Tampa, his wife and a genealogy team dug up whatever documents they could find to piece together the narrative of this young soldier’s life and death: A story that might have otherwise have remained unknown.

Pvt. James W. De Graff. US Army\101st Airborne. Aug 10, 1920-June 6,1944

James William De Graff was born Aug. 10, 1920 to Louis and Addie Bell De Graff in Gainesville.

Louis, a farmer and boilermaker, was a native of New York while Addie was originally from South Carolina. James was the seventh of eleven children, all Florida-born. According to the 1935 Florida census, James and three younger children attended grade school while his older brothers worked the farm.

By 1940, some of the older kids had left home. James, 19, remained on the farm with his 58-year-old father.

Pvt James W De GraffWe don't know why James De Graff decided to join the Army. He had registered for the draft when he turned 21 as required by law. By fall 1942, the United States was beginning to recover from the Great Depression. However, rural northern Florida continued to suffer economic stress. A steady job with a reliable income may have held much appeal. The adventure of warfare and the desire to fight against oppression are also possible reasons. He enlisted on Nov. 2, 1942, at Camp Blanding in Starke.

The fact that James volunteered to join the 401st Glider Infantry, part of the 101st Airborne Division, suggests he was a brave man. Potential recruits knew they would either be jumping out of airplanes or towed in gliders that would then be cut loose to land behind enemy lines. At this time, the Airborne was a brand-new concept and did not have the cache and reputation it has today. There was a very real chance that the Army would lose every single man assigned to the Airborne. James was assigned to Battery F of the 81st Antiaircraft Battalion.

Presumably before being sent to Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, James had his photograph made and a copy sent home to his family. Although his draft card indicated that James was short and a bit stocky for his height in February 1942 — 150 pounds and just 5 foot 2 inches — it appears he had lost his excess weight. We also know the young Floridian had a dark complexion with brown hair and eyes.

Once at Ft. Bragg, James began glider training, among other skills. The glider was little more than a plywood box which was towed behind a troop transport. Once the gliders were released, they were guided by their pilots in a controlled fall to the ground. The entire operation was fraught with danger, since the glider had no means of protecting itself, and crash landings were not uncommon.

By September 1943, the 81st was fully trained and ready for battle. They were shipped to England, ending up near Reading. Here they intensified their training, honed their physical fitness, improved accuracy with their weapons, and refined their ability to load, fly and land in their gliders.

However, in April 1944, James and the other men discovered that instead of a glider assault, they would go by sea and land on the beaches. This required a completely different set of skills than those required for the glider. The men faced the dangers of an ocean crossing, including the possibility of attacks from both air and sea.

For the next nine weeks, the men endured extremely intense training in their new location of Weston-super-Mare in Somerset, across the Severn River from Cardiff, Wales. Much of it was on the water and the climax came with the exercise known as “Tiger,” an amphibious-landing simulation. All of the men attained a high degree of marksmanship in the weeks leading up to D-Day.

A few days before the assault of D-Day, James learned some of the operation's details, including his duties. Batteries D, E and F were assigned to land with the initial assault wave of infantry at Utah Beach on D-Day alongside the men of the 8th Infantry Regiment, 4th Division, 7th Corps.

Their orders were these: “Batteries D, E, and F of the 81st AB AA/AT Bn, will land on UTAH beach, UNCLE (Red) and TARE (Green) beginning at H+15 and deploy along its longitudinal axis extending 300 yards beyond the north and south limits of beaches in order to furnish initial AA defenses.”

James and three other men were assigned to a squad, each man carrying ammunition. Three added machine gun parts to their load and the fourth man carried a radio. Each carried about 40 pounds.

The battle plan was that the men would land on Utah Beach with the initial assault waves, set up their antiaircraft guns, and provide cover for the rest of the troops trying to land. The geographical features of the beach provided almost no cover to protect them from the German machine gun nests and artillery on the cliffs above.

D-Day arrived and James and the other men were loaded into two Liberty Ships which traveled around England's southern coast and headed for western France. Along the way, they narrowly escaped a German torpedo which took out a ship in their convoy. As they neared the French coast they were loaded into assault boats and taken closer to shore. Eventually, the men had to jump out over the side and wade or swim the final distance to shore.

Of the 556 men of the 81st Airborne Antiaircraft Battalion who landed by sea or by air on D-Day, six were killed, five more reported as missing in action, and 10 were wounded in the day’s action. The relatively low number of men who died is a testament to their intense and specialized training. The fact that James was among those killed is most likely a result of bad luck rather than any error on his part. James’ niece reported that the family story was that James stopped to help a wounded comrade back into the transport and was killed when he attempted to catch up to his mates.

The initial report listed James as missing in action (MIA) on June 6, 1944. This meant his body had not been recovered, even if the men of his squad knew what had happened to him. Secondhand accounts of his death were not sufficient to declare him killed in action (KIA).

James’ father was not notified of his son's demise until July, nearly a month after his death. Meanwhile, an officer had found and buried James in the first of several interments on June 9.

According to the Report of Burial, James was positively identified by his dog tags, which matched the pre-printed form provided to the officer in charge of burying soldiers. One of the tags listed his name, his serial number, the years of his enlistment, and his mother’s name and address. It was buried with him while a second tag was attached to his grave marker in a temporary cemetery nearby known as “Utah Red” Cemetery.

Two weeks later, James and the other soldiers were disinterred and reburied in Ste. Mere-Eglise, another temporary cemetery. James’ effects had been collected, amounting to 200 francs, or the 2017 equivalent of about $105.

A letter was sent on March 6, 1945, to James’ father, Louis, requesting information about James’ will and familial relations for the purpose of disposing of his personal effects — just the francs recovered with his body. There were no letters or photographs mentioned. The fact that there was no back pay to report suggests that James had either spent all of his money while in the Army, or had instructed that most of his earnings be sent to his family in Florida.

James has not been forgotten in his hometown. His name is included on a Veterans Memorial erected by the American Legion in High Springs. On the back of the marker is a list of the men from High Springs who were killed in World War I, World War II and the Vietnam War. James W. De Graff is included as one of the 14 men from the community who lost their lives in World War II.

James was a remarkable young man from modest circumstances, who, like millions of men and women, volunteered in the Army, presented himself for service to his country and died in the line of duty in one of the more horrific landing assaults in history. We know he performed heroically and with courage in the cauldron that was D-Day.

Our visit to this hallowed ground at Normandy in September 2013 had a profound effect on my wife and myself. It would be impossible to walk away from this resting place of over 10,000 US WWII soldiers without reflecting on the enormity of their sacrifice and their courage in undertaking the liberation of Europe. It is also impossible to walk away from Normandy without having an emotional realization of the sacrifice by young courageous Americans for us, or shedding tears for their valor.

During our visit to the American cemetery at Normandy, as part of a small ceremony honoring the fallen, we each placed a rose on a soldier’s marker. I found a marker from Florida and placed my rose at the cross of James W. De Graff. My wife Sandy placed hers at the marker of an unknown soldier.

Curiosity prompted me to later inquire as to who James was. When I learned he was from Alachua County, home to my University of Florida, I felt connected to him. Further inquiry to the American Cemetery at Normandy website, where there are many written memorials to the soldiers buried there, seemed to give those soldiers further identity. Sadly we found there was not a memorial for James.

We felt a need to provide a written memorial for James and we did so with LegacyTree’s genealogy team headed by Carolyn Tolman and the De Graff/Geiger family. We stitched together the few documents we could find together with historical information so that we could provide the story of the man who died at Utah Beach on June 6, 1944.

This somewhat closes a responsibility to James, but never my memory of him. May he forever rest in peace in the arms of Christ.

Don Alfonso

Tampa, Florida

Memorial Day, 2017

Published:4:50 p.m. ET May 27,2017 | Updated 4:50 p.m. ET May 27,2017   Gainsville Sun

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
Ambrose, Stephen E Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler's Eagle's Nest. Simon & Schuster, (June 2001) 336 p. ISBN: 0-743-21638-5
Ambrose, Stephen E Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army from the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany, June 7, 1944-May 7, 1945. Simon & Schuster, (Nov 1997) 528 p. ISBN: 0-684-81525-7
Badsey, Stephen & Chandler, David G (Editor)  Arnhem 1944: Operation "Market Garden" (Campaign No.24) 1993 96p. ISBN: 1855323028
Bando, Mark A  Avenging Eagles: Forbidden tales of the 101st Airborne in World War 2. Bando Publishing, (2006) 183 p. ISBN: 0977911705
Bando, Mark A  101st Airborne: The Screaming Eagles at Normandy. Zenith Press, (Apr 2001) 156 p. ISBN: 0760308551
Bando, Mark A  Vanguard of the Crusade: The US 101st Airborne Division in WW II. The Aberjona Press, (June 2003) 320 p. ISBN: 0971765006
Black, Wallace B.& Blashfield, Jean F. Battle of the Bulge (World War II 50th Anniversary Series). Crestwood House, 48 pp May,1993 ISBN: 0896865681
Bowen, Robert Fighting With the Screaming Eagles: With the 101st Airborne from Normandy to Bastogne. Greenhill Books/Lionel Leventhal, (Sept 2001) 256 p. ISBN: 1853674656
Breuer, William B Geronimo! American Paratroopers in WWII. New York: St. Martin Press, (1989) 621 p.
ISBN: 0-312-03350-8

Breuer, William B Unexplained Mysteries of World War II. John Wiley & Sons, Sept 1998 256 p. ISBN:0471291072
Burgett, Donald R Currahee!. Presidio Press, (Sept 1999) 256 p. ISBN: 0-891-41681-1
D'Este, Carlo  Patton: A Genius for War 1024 pp ISBN: 0060927623
De Trez, Michel  American Warriors: Pictorial History of the American Paratroopers Prior to Normandy  July, 1998, D-Day Pub, 212 p. ISBN: 2960017609
De Trez, Michel  Cpl Forrest Guth: E Company 506 PIR 101st Airborne Division (WW II American Paratroopers Portrait Series)  March, 2002, D-Day Pub, 56 p. ISBN: 296001765X
De Trez, Michel  Orange is the Color of the Day: Pictorial History of the American Paratroopers in the Invasion of Holland April, 2004, D-Day Pub, 506 p. ISBN: 2960017633
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
Devlin, Gerard S  Paratrooper! St Martin's Press, (P) c1976 ISBN: 0312596529
Gavin, James M.  On to Berlin : Battles of an Airborne Commander, 1943-1946 ISBN: 0670525170
Golden, Lewis Echoes From Arnhem Penguin ISBN: 0718305213
Koskimaki, George E D-Day With The Screaming Eagles Casemate Publishers and Book Distributors, 356 pp September 11, 2002 ISBN: 1932033025
Koskimaki, George E Hell's Highway: Chronicle of the 101st Airborne Division in Holland, September-November 1944 Casemate Publishers and Book Distributors, 453 pp March 1, 2003 ISBN: 193203305X
Koskimaki, George E The Battered Bastards of Bastogne: A Chronicle of the Defense of Bastogne, December 19, 1944 - January 17, 1945 Casemate Publishers and Book Distributors, 484 pp December 1, 2002 ISBN: 1932033068
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
Ryan, Cornelius  A Bridge Too Far 670p. ISBN: 0684803305
Webster, David Kenyon Parachute Infantry: An American Paratrooper's Memoir of D- Day and the Fall of the Third Reich 352p. ISBN: 0385336497

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