NOW, IN TIGHT FORMATIONS, the great procession of C-47’s carrying the 101st Airborne thundered across Allied-held Belgium. Some twenty-five miles beyond Brussels, the serials swung north heading for the Dutch border. Then, men in the planes looked down and, for the first time, saw their earthbound counterpart, the Garden forces whose ground attack was to be synchronized with the air assault. It was a spectacular, unforgettable sight. The vast panoply of General Horrocks’ XXX Corps spread out over every field, trail and road. Massed columns of tanks, half-tracks, armored cars and personnel carriers and line after line of guns stood poised for the breakout. On tank antennas pennants fluttered in the wind, and thousands of Britishers standing on vehicles and crowding the fields waved up to the men of the airborne. Orange smoke billowing into the air marked the British front line. Beyond was the enemy.
Skimming the ground, fighter-bombers led the way to the drop zones, attempting to clear everything ahead of the formations. Even though the intense bombing that preceded the airborne assault had leveled many antiaircraft batteries, camouflaged nettings suddenly swung back to reveal hidden enemy positions. Some men remember seeing the tops of haystacks open to disclose nests of 88 and 20 mm. guns. Despite the thoroughness of the fighter-plane attacks, it was impossible to silence all enemy opposition. Just seven minutes away from their drop zones north of Eindhoven, the men of the 101st ran into intense flak.
Pfc. John Cipolla was dozing when he was suddenly awakened by “the sharp crack of antiaircraft guns, and shrapnel ripped through our plane.” Like everyone else, Cipolla was so weighted down by equipment that he could hardly move. Besides his rifle, knapsack, raincoat and blanket, he had ammunition belts draping his shoulders, pockets full of hand grenades, rations and his main parachute plus reserve. In addition, in his plane, each man carried a land mine. As he recalls, “a C-47 on our left flank burst into flames, then another, and I thought ‘My God, we are next! How will I ever get out of this plane!’”
His C-47 was shuddering and everyone seemed to be yelling at the same time, “Let’s get out! We’ve been hit!” The jumpmaster gave the order to “Stand up and hook up.” Then he calmly began an equipment check. Cipolla could hear the men as they called out, “One O.K. Two O.K. Three O.K.” It seemed hours before Cipolla, the last man of the stick, was able to shout, “Twenty-one O.K.” Then the green light went on and, in a rush, the men were out and falling, parachutes blossoming above them. Looking up to check his canopy, Cipolla saw that the C-47 he had just left was blazing. As he watched, the plane went down in flames.
Despite the bursting shells that engulfed the planes, the formations did not waver. The pilots of the IX Troop Carrier Command held to their courses without deviating. Second Lieutenant Robert O’Connell remembers that his formation flew so tight, “I thought our pilot was going to stick his wing into the ear of the pilot flying on our left.” O’Connell’s plane was on fire. The red prejump warning light was on, and “so much smoke was fogging the aisle that I could not see back to the end of my stick.” Men were coughing and yelling to get out. O’Connell “braced himself against the door to keep them in.” The pilots flew on steadily, without taking evasive action, and O’Connell saw that the formation was gradually losing altitude and slowing down, preparatory to the jump. O’Connell hoped that “if the pilot thought the ship was going down, he would give us the green in time for the troops to get out.” Calmly, the pilot held his flaming plane on course until he was right over the drop zone. Then the green light went on and O’Connell and his men jumped safely. O’Connell learned later that the plane crash-landed but the crew survived.
In total disregard for their own safety, troop-carrier pilots brought their planes through the flak and over the drop zones. “Don’t worry about me,” Second Lieutenant Herbert E. Shulman, the pilot of one burning C-47, radioed his flight commander. “I’m going to drop these troops right on the DZ.” He did. Paratroopers left the plane safely. Moments later, it crashed in flames. Staff Sergeant Charles A. Mitchell watched in horror as the plane to his left streamed flame from its port engine. As the pilot held it steady on course, Mitchell saw the entire stick of paratroopers jump right through the fire.
Tragedies did not end there. Pfc. Paul Johnson was forward next to the pilot’s cabin when his plane was hit dead center and both fuel tanks caught fire. Of the sixteen paratroopers, pilot and copilot, only Johnson and two other troopers got out. They had to climb over the dead in the plane to make their jumps. Each survivor was badly burned and Johnson’s hair was completely seared away. The three came down in a German tank-bivouac area. For half an hour they fought off the enemy from a ditch. Then, all three injured, they were overwhelmed and taken prisoner.
Just as the green light went on in another plane, the lead paratrooper, standing in the door, was killed. He fell back on Corporal John Altomare. His body was quickly moved aside and the rest of the group jumped. And, as another stick of troopers floated to the ground, a C-47 out of control hit two of them, its propellers chopping them to pieces.
Typically, the Americans found humor even in the terrifying approach to the drop zones. Just after Captain Cecil Lee stood to hook up, his plane was hit. Shrapnel ripped a hole through the seat he had just vacated. Nearby, a trooper shouted disgustedly,“Nowthey give us a latrine!” In another plane, Second Lieutenant Anthony Borrelli was sure he was paralyzed. The red light went on and everyone hooked up—except Borrelli, who couldn’t move. An officer for only two weeks and on his first combat mission, Borrelli, who was Number 1 in the stick, was conscious of all eyes on him. To his embarrassment, he discovered he had hooked his belt to the seat. Private Robert Boyce made the trip despite the good intentions of the division dentist, who had marked him “L.O.B.” (Left Out of Battle) because of his dental problems. With the intervention of his company commander, Boyce, a Normandy veteran, was permitted to go. Besides a bad tooth, he had other worries. Several new paratroop innovations-leg packs for machine guns, quick-release harness on some chutes and combat instead of jump boots—made him and many other men nervous. In particular, the troopers were concerned that their shroud lines might catch on the buckles of their new combat boots. As his plane flew low in its approach, Boyce saw Dutch civilians below holding up two fingers in the V-for-victory salute. That was all Boyce needed. “Hey, look,” he called to the others, “they’re giving us two to one we don’t make it.”
The odds against their ever reaching their drop zones seemed at least that high to many. Colonel Robert F. Sink, commander of the 506th Regiment, saw “a tremendous volume of flak coming up to greet us.” As he was looking out the door, the plane shuddered violently and Sink saw a part of the wing tear and dangle. He turned to the men in his stick and said, “Well, there goes the wing.” To Sink’s relief, “nobody seemed to think much about it. They figured by this time we were practically in.”
In plane Number 2, Sink’s executive officer, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Chase, saw that their left wing was afire. Captain Thomas Mulvey remembers that Chase stared at it for a minute and then remarked mildly, “I guess they’re catching up on us. We’d better go.” As the green light went on in both planes, the men jumped safely. The plane in which Chase was traveling burned on the ground. Sink’s plane, with its damaged wing, is thought to have made the journey back to England safely.
Similar intense flak engulfed the serials of the 502nd Regiment, and planes of two groups almost collided. One serial, slightly off course, strayed into the path of a second group, causing the latter to climb for altitude and its troopers to make a higher jump than had been planned. In the lead plane of one of the serials was the division commander, General Maxwell D. Taylor, and the 502nd’s 1st Battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Patrick Cassidy. Standing in the doorway, Cassidy saw one of the planes in the group burst into flames. He counted only seven parachutes. Then fire broke out in another C-47 just off to the left. All the paratroopers jumped from it. Mesmerized by the blazing plane, Cassidy failed to notice that the green light was on. General Taylor, standing behind him, said quietly, “Cassidy, the light’s on.” Automatically Cassidy answered, “Yes, sir. I know it,” and jumped. Taylor was right behind him.
To General Taylor, the 101st jump was “unusually successful; almost like an exercise.” In the initial planning, Taylor’s staff had anticipated casualties as high as 30 percent. Of the 6,695 paratroopers who enplaned in England, 6,669 actually jumped. Despite the intense flak, the bravery of the C-47 and fighter pilots gave the 101st an almost perfect jump. Although some units were dropped from one to three miles north of the drop zones, they landed so close together that assembly was quick. Only two planes failed to reach the drop zone, and the IX Troop Carrier Command took the brunt of all casualties by their heroic determination to get the troopers to their targets. Of the 424 C-47’s carrying the 101st, every fourth plane was damaged, and sixteen went down, killing their crews.
Glider losses were heavy, too. Later, as these serials began to come in, only 53 of the original 70 would arrive without mishap on the landing zone near Son. Still, despite abortions, enemy flak and crash-landings, the gliders would eventually deliver nearly 80 percent of the men and 75 percent of the jeeps and trailers they carried.* Now, Taylor’s Screaming Eagles began to move on their objectives—the bridges and crossings over the vital fifteen-mile stretch of corridor ahead of the British ground forces.
*Because Market-Garden was considered an all-British operation, few American correspondents were accredited to cover the attack. None was at Arnhem. One of the Americans attached to the 101st was a United Press reporter named Walter Cronkite, who landed by glider. Cronkite recalls that “I thought the wheels of the glider were for landing. Imagine my surprise when we skidded along the ground and the wheels came up through the floor. I got another shock. Our helmets, which we all swore were hooted, came flying off on impact and seemed more dangerous than the incoming shells. After landing I grabbed the first helmet I saw, my trusty musette bag with the Olivetti typewriter inside and began crawling toward the canal which was the rendezvous point. When I looked back, I found a half dozen guys crawling after me. It seems that I had grabbed the wrong helmet. The one I wore had two neat stripes down the back indicating that I was a lieutenant.”