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From Benning to Shanks

The period from our arrival to Fort Benning until our deployment to England was characterized by intense training designed to prepare Easy Company for movement to a combat theater of operations. The 1st Battalion of the 506th PIR preceded our battalion to Fort Benning since we spent three days “marching to Atlanta.” We were followed by 3rd Battalion, which conducted a forced march from Atlanta to Fort Benning. Arriving back at Benning, I recalled the weeks spent in OCS. Not much had changed except the number of soldiers on post and the hectic activity that enveloped the post. Like all companies in the regiment, Easy Company was scheduled to undergo four weeks of airborne training, culminating in jump week, where those soldiers who had not qualified at Toccoa would make the five jumps from a C-47 and earn their coveted jump wings. Supervision of the airborne training was under a highly skilled group of noncommissioned officers, so the men enjoyed a brief respite from Captain Sobel’s direct command. Officers were not so lucky since most of us had completed our five jumps at Toccoa.

The first week at Benning was dedicated to physical training, but the entire 506th PIR was in far better shape than the Regular Army cadre who conducted the physical conditioning. Within two days the cadre recommended the regiment move immediately into the next two phases of training, which in today’s army is known as “tower week.” Hours in the suspended harness apparatus gave way to additional training on the thirty-four-foot towers. Once qualified on these stations, each member of the company made practice jumps from Fort Benning’s 250-foot towers. Cadre carefully critiqued landing procedures and the ability of individual troopers to maneuver their parachutes during descent. While the men spent their days in the Frying Pan, the area that housed the billets and training areas, officers participated in classroom instruction and weapons familiarity. In between classes and the Frying Pan, officers learned the rudiments of riding a motorcycle, were taught how to swim, and became “acquainted” with horses.

The final two weeks in December found Easy Company on the drop zone. Weather permitting, the men made all five jumps and earned their wings. The fourth jump occurred on Christmas Eve and, following a rare day off for the holiday, the men made their last jump on December 26. Faced with the ultimate moment of truth, only two men in the entire company froze and refused to exit the aircraft. Each trooper now received a certificate declaring that he was a qualified “parachutist” and had earned the right to wear the silver wings of the parachute soldier. To celebrate the occasion, Colonel Sink granted each trooper a well-deserved furlough and told us to behave ourselves and to return on time following the holiday. I spent my ten-day leave at home in Pennsylvania, where I arrived on New Year’s Eve. Home was still a wonderful place, but given my experiences over the past several months, I felt a stranger among friends. At times it seemed that the people at home did not even realize there was a war going on.

As might be expected, a number of the newly minted paratroopers failed to report to duty on time, not unusual considering the rudimentary transportation network in January 1943. To emphasize his displeasure, Colonel Sink called a regimental parade to welcome back the returning troopers. Following his command of “At ease,” Lieutenant Matheson read aloud the names of a trooper from each company who had reported late from furlough. As his name was read, the unfortunate trooper was escorted to the front of the formation by two NCOs armed with semi-machine guns. As the regimental drummer beat a mournful tattoo, the officer ripped off the regimental crest from the soldier’s sleeve, tore off his wings, and removed the airborne patch from his hat. Then a jeep pulled up and deposited the disgraced soldier’s barracks bag at his feet. In front of the entire regiment, the condemned trooper was forced to unblouse his trousers, remove his airborne boots, and replace them with regular shoes. As the drum continued to beat, the noncommissioned officers escorted the dispirited trooper from the airborne area. This ostentatious display was not lost on those who witnessed the ceremony. To be embarrassed by condemnation to the regular infantry was bad enough, but to be relegated to that branch from the airborne regiment in front of friends and comrades with whom you had served for six months was humiliating as hell.

While some may question Colonel Sink’s methods, his message was crystal clear. Sink simply would not tolerate any breach of discipline in the 506th PIR. From my perspective the colonel’s punishment did not fit the crime, but he had established a standard that I would not soon forget. Several months later while Easy Company was in England, I served as the battalion athletic officer. When the regimental executive officer called a meeting eight miles from the company barracks, I left in what I considered plenty of time to attend. Since my ride failed to show, I was tardy for the meeting. When asked why I was late, I explained, but the executive officer inquired why I hadn’t run instead of waiting for the ride. Like Colonel Sink’s “drumming-out ceremony,” the message was clear—no excuses: “Don’t tell me it is someone else’s fault. Just get the job done!” Following that incident, I always wore a wristwatch until I was discharged from military service after the war.

Upon our return to Georgia, Easy Company and the rest of the 506th marched ten miles across the Chattahoochee River to take up new quarters in the swamps on the Alabama side of Fort Benning. The troops now enjoyed more spacious accommodations in that they had fifteen men to the barracks instead of the twenty to twenty-four men in the barracks during the Fort Benning phase of training on the other side of the river. Here on the Alabama side, we conducted another parachute jump. The focus of this period was on platoon and squad level field exercises. About the same time, Major Strayer finally received his long-deserved promotion to lieutenant colonel.

Our next move was to Camp Mackall, North Carolina, where we arrived in late February 1943. The camp was formerly Camp Hoffman and encompassed 62,000 acres of wilderness in North and South Carolina. Camp Mackall was named for Private John “Tommy” Mackall, a twenty-two-year-old airborne trooper from Wellsville, Ohio. A member of the 82nd Airborne Division, Mackall was the first American paratrooper to be killed in combat in World War II. Following Mackall’s death during the invasion of North Africa, the War Department published General Order Number 6, dated February 8, 1943, which officially changed the name of Camp Hoffman to Camp Mackall. Fifty miles from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Camp Mackall now served as the headquarters and home to the Airborne Command.

At Mackall we conducted four more training jumps, including jumps with full field gear, and spent what seemed an excessive amount of time in the field in preparation for overseas deployment. For much of the time, the weather was considerably worse than it had been during our epic march to Atlanta. With so much time in the field, it was hardly surprising that the men complained about never sleeping in the one-story, heated barracks with mattresses. Now the training was more advanced than previous camps and it centered on platoon and company training, with two- to three-day field problems being the norm. We were drilled mercilessly in specialty arms, with each trooper cross-trained on the other weapons that were organic to a light infantry company. The current standard operating procedures called for the airborne infantry to jump with everything that they would need for three days of sustained combat. Parachute infantry was still in its infancy and developing tactical doctrine on the fly. Consequently, Easy Company experimented with various equipment loads, breaking down crew-served weapons to each member of the crew. Taking a brief respite from the confines of Mackall, we spent the period from May 23 through 28 around Camden, South Carolina, where we conducted a tactical training exercise.

On a personal note, I officially assumed the duties of company executive officer, a position that I had been holding for three months without title. I had been promoted to first lieutenant the preceding October, so my new position was more in line with my rank. As executive officer, my job was to command the company when Captain Sobel was not around and to take care of company administration. I now had six months’ seniority as a 1st lieutenant, so I was eligible for promotion, but that was out of the question since there were no vacancies. What I was anxious to see happen was for Easy Company to cross the ocean and to see some action. I was tired of training in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama. When this war was over, I wanted to be able to say more than how much I suffered down south.

Now that the men were qualified parachutists and no longer green recruits, Sobel’s attempts at intimidation began to recede. There was still an occasional blow-up, such as the time when our company commander was slightly injured during one of the jumps. Returning to the barracks area, Sobel and his first sergeant searched through all the footlockers, clothing, and personal possessions of the men in Easy Company. While the rest of the company remained in the field, Sobel seized all items that he considered contraband. Virtually every soldier had something confiscated. He then published a list identifying the contraband, the offender, and the punishment. When the men returned to the barracks, exhausted, footsore, and dirty after several days in the field, they found their individual possessions in disarray and some valuable personal items missing. For Private First Class Edward Tipper, this “unauthorized seizure” was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. He had always disliked Captain Sobel, but now that dislike evolved to outright hatred. Surprisingly, he found himself transferred to company headquarters as Sobel’s runner. With Tipper’s help, Sobel was able to mislay his maps or compass when he needed them most. It was evident that the men were hoping that their commander would screw up to the point that he would be replaced and would not be in command when Easy Company deployed to a combat theater.

The men’s concern about their commander’s ability to make rational decisions under pressure was certainly understandable. While at Mackall one night, the company conducted a field exercise in which Easy Company established a defensive perimeter in the woods. Our plan was to remain in position, stay very quiet, and let the enemy walk into our area so that we could ambush them. As we waited for the enemy, suddenly a breeze sprang up and the leaves on the trees started to rustle. Sobel sprang to his feet, shouting at the top of his voice, “Here they come! Here they come!” We all thought, “Ye Gods! I am going into combat with this man. He’ll get us all killed.”

The men did achieve a degree of retaliation during one exercise, when the medics complained about the absence of realistic training. As a result several men, including Sobel and Lieutenant Jerre Grosse of Dog Company, were designated “casualties” so that the medics could practice bandaging wounds, improvising casts and splints, and evacuating the wounded to the regimental aid station. At night the medics shaved off Gross’s mustache and gave Sobel an anesthetic that rendered him unconscious. They then made a small incision simulating an “appendectomy.” When Sobel awoke he was livid, but the medics were nowhere to be found and no soldier in Easy Company would testify to what the medics had done. Consequently no investigation was mounted and the incident became yet another in a long list of Sobel stories that persist to this day.

To pass what little free time they had, Easy Company enjoyed a good joke or played poker whenever the opportunity arose. What baked goods that were received from home were routinely shared with the members of one’s squad or platoon. Privates “Popeye” Wynn and Darrell “Shifty” Powers, two Easy Company troopers from 3d Platoon had joined the army together straight from the shipyards at Portsmouth, Virginia. Both were somewhat quiet and withdrawn, but they enjoyed a good laugh as much as their “Yankee” platoon members. Powers recalled one incident when Walter Gordon gave his last cigarette to Floyd Talbert, but then charged him a dime for a match.

By this time, Easy Company had emerged as the strongest company in the regiment and the 506th PIR had become a source of pride to every soldier who wore its regimental patch. One of the popular songs on the radio was called “Geronimo,” and it was rapidly adopted as the paratroopers’ song. “Geronimo” became the password that paratroopers were supposed to holler when they jumped, but Sink would have none of it in the 506th. At the time the 506th PIR was the only qualified parachute regiment not assigned to an airborne division, so Sink wanted something to set his regiment apart from the rest of the airborne commands. Consequently, when we exited the aircraft, each trooper was to shout “Currahee” to distance himself from the other regiments with whom we had developed a spirited competition, if not a tolerant scorn. As for myself, I had hoped we would ship out as a separate command to avoid six more months of training as a unit of an airborne division, but that decision would be made at far higher pay grades than where I served. In the interim, Colonel Sink also published a regimental magazine to foster unit pride and cohesion.

Other changes in Easy Company occurred during our stay in Mackall. The initial cadre of noncoms who had supervised our training since Toccoa departed to train a new airborne unit that was being formed. To replace them, Sergeants James Diel, Salty Harris, and Mike Ranney were promoted to staff sergeants. Bill Guarnere, Carwood Lipton, John Martin, Bob Rader, Bob Smith, Buck Taylor, and Murray Roberts were promoted to sergeants. In addition, a number of Easy Company’s officers were transferred to battalion staff, including Lewis Nixon, Clarence Hester, and George Lavenson. As I had grown quite fond of Nixon, I was sad to see him leave Easy Company. Only later on did I discover that Lieutenant Colonel Strayer had learned that Nixon was seeking a transfer to get away from Captain Sobel. After discussing the situation with Major Oliver Horton, his executive officer, the battalion commander decided to bring Nixon to staff and made him intelligence officer even though there was no Table of Organization and Equipment (TO&E) slot for a Battalion S-2. It would prove to be one of Strayer’s more inspired decisions.

To fill the vacated platoon leader positions, several new officers arrived straight from OCS. One, a tough little Irishman named Harry Welsh, was assigned to the first platoon. Welsh had grown up in the coal regions of eastern Pennsylvania. Always a good athlete, he won state titles in swimming and diving. After Pearl Harbor he volunteered for the paratroopers. He was assigned to the 82d Division where he was broken from sergeant to private six times for fighting. After OCS Welsh joined Easy Company, 506th PIR, we rapidly became close friends and would later bunk together when we reached England.

Prior to leaving Camp Mackall, our battalion conducted another in a long series of physical training tests. Second Battalion scored around 97 percent, which was the highest ever recorded for a battalion. Disbelievers at headquarters thought Lieutenant Colonel Strayer fixed the results, so they ordered us back to the area, where we retested under the supervision of a Colonel Jablonski of the War Department. This time outside observers insisted that all the cooks and service personnel take the test with the infantry companies. Determined to uphold the battalion’s honor, the men improved their collective score to a 98 percent passing rate. The Washington observer who verified the test results informed Strayer that his unit had scored higher than any battalion in the entire U.S. Army. Needless to say, Colonel Sink and Captain Sobel were extremely pleased with the results.

At the end of May, our company packed its gear and headed to Sturgis, Kentucky, for a series of field exercises, which took place over three states from June 5 to July 15, 1943. Five days into the exercises, the 506th PIR officially joined the 101st Airborne Division commanded by Major General William C. Lee, one of the airborne pioneers. Brigadier General Don F. Pratt, who would later be killed in Normandy, became Lee’s assistant division commander. Brigadier General Anthony C. McAuliffe was assigned as the division artillery commander. In forming the 101st Airborne Division, Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall and 82d Airborne Division commander Major General Matthew Ridgway divided the officer complement of the 82d Division to form the initial core of officers for the 101st Airborne Division, now known as the “Screaming Eagles.” We were honored to join the U.S. Army’s second airborne division, but I would be less than honest if I did not say that we prided ourselves on having been a member of an independent parachute regiment.

The training we received at Camp Sturgis was the most realistic to date as controllers from the War Department supervised the largest combined paratroopers and glider-borne exercises. In spite of Captain Sobel’s lack of confidence in the field, Easy Company performed well as part of the Red Forces, which were opposed by the Blue Forces. While senior headquarters digested the lessons of the airborne drop in Sicily and the controversy surrounding the fratricide involving the U.S. Navy’s shooting down of twenty-three parachute transports of the 504th Parachute Infantry in the skies over Gela, Sicily, we concentrated on platoon and company tactics. Extended field marches, maneuvering against opposing forces at night, and wading through streams and rivers provided a realism that we had not experienced at Fort Benning or Camp Mackall. Easy Company conducted two training jumps during the exercise, one made with C-47s towing gliders to a release point, before dropping the paratroopers into another drop zone. From this drop zone, we marched several miles, crossed the Cumberland River in boats, and finished the field exercise just outside Camp Breckinridge, Kentucky. At the conclusion of our field maneuvers, 2d Battalion, of which Easy formed one of the three organic rifle companies, received a special commendation from our new division commander, in which Lee extended his “congratulations on the splendid performance of Colonel Strayer’s battalion” in the recent operations. Citing “a high standard of training and competent leadership on the part of the officers and enlisted men” and the “splendid aggressive action, sound tactical doctrine, and obviously well-trained individuals,” General Lee stated that he “expected all personnel in the battalion to continue to live up to the fine reputation established by the battalion for soldierly bearing and behavior.”

In mid-July, the company moved within the confines of Camp Breckinridge, where barracks and hot showers provided a pleasant break from the dirt and grime in the field. The camp itself was a paradise in comparison to any place where we had been. Camp Breckinridge was in close proximity to a number of large towns and contained its share of large post exchanges (PX), theaters, and service clubs, which provided an outlet for the soldiers who had so recently spent an inordinate amount of time in a field environment. Roughly a third of the men received ten-day furloughs in rotation before moving to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in late July to prepare for overseas deployment. Upon their return from furlough, the entire 101st Airborne Division boarded trains en route to North Carolina. Fort Bragg was the staging area for deployment to a combat theater. Easy Company was brought up to full strength and each soldier was outfitted with new gear. The company spent a lot of time on the firing ranges, ensuring that their individual weapons were properly zeroed. I busied myself with my normal administrative duties but my anxiety mounted as the departure date neared. As company executive officer, one of my responsibilities was serving as postal officer, a laborious task that consumed much of my time. Still, I was caught up with the impending deployment, though no one knew with any certainty whether we were heading to the Pacific or to Europe.

Reflecting on the previous year’s training in Easy Company, I was surprised at just how much I enjoyed the men with whom I served. You would think that after two months of not sleeping on a bed, dirty clothes, and trudging up and down the Tennessee hills, one would relish the peaceful surroundings of Fort Bragg. My only complaint was the emergency rations that they claimed had been especially designed for the paratroopers, K-rations and D-rations, both of which could turn a soldier’s stomach in short order. If you read the list of what the rations contained, they sounded great, but to eat the rations over a period of time was more than a normal fellow could take. The meals were just too concentrated.

While at Fort Bragg, Colonel Sink decided that all officers should have a new trench coat–style overcoat. He also wanted the officers’ club to stock up on bourbon whiskey. Each officer was assessed for a coat and whiskey. I didn’t drink, never did drink, so I’ll never know why they picked me for the detail of going to Philadelphia to pick up the coats and whiskey. Buying the coats was no problem. I had a list of the sizes and number of coats that I wanted and the name of the supplier to contact. The bourbon was another matter.

This was wartime, everything was rationed, and I was supposed to buy a truckload of Southern Comfort. I rode around Philadelphia in a taxicab, looked in directories, asked for advice, and got nowhere. I then went back home to Lancaster and called regimental headquarters for advice. The next day Lieutenant Colonel Chase, the regimental executive officer, called and gave me an address in New York City for a distributor for Schenley’s whiskey. I took a train to New York, found the distributor, and was introduced to a pudgy man sitting in a chair with his foot on a stool. My initial impression was that this man had gout. He was surrounded by more beautiful, well-groomed secretaries than I’d ever seen in my life. To say that at this point I was ill at ease hardly describes my feelings, but I had a mission—to get that bourbon or face a firing squad. I was in a totally foreign atmosphere: a kid from a Mennonite family background facing a bloated executive with all the beautiful secretaries, and he the only man who could help me. I told him my mission and what I wanted. He smiled and said, “Yes, I could take care of that order.” In my view, right then and there, that man did his part in helping to win World War II. I spent the next hour endorsing money orders. I had been so naive that I had converted my money to small denominations of $20 and $50 money orders.

On August 22, 1943, the entire division boarded trains and headed north to Camp Shanks, thirty miles north of New York City on the Hudson River. The weather was crisp and cool, with the Hudson River Valley arrayed in beautiful autumn colors that reminded me of the hills in southern Pennsylvania. Camp Shanks, built on 2,000 acres in Orangeburg, New York, was the largest World War II army embarkation camp in the United States. Named after Major General David C. Shanks, commanding general of the New York port during World War I, Camp Shanks opened in January 1943. Over the course of the war, 1.3 million soldiers processed for overseas deployment through the camp, nicknamed “Last Stop USA.” Fully three-fourths of the soldiers who participated in D-Day and a total of seventeen divisions destined for Europe passed through its walls. En route to Camp Shanks, I sat in a car with Lewis Nixon and Harry Welsh as we discussed our ultimate destination. As we continued north, we knew for certain that we were European-bound. The 506th PIR closed in on Camp Shanks on September 1. As we detrained, the men formed columns of fours and marched to their assigned barracks. Each barracks was twenty by one hundred feet and contained two rows of bunks and three coal-burning pot-bellied stoves that provided minimal heating. The movement to the barracks was a long haul, with each trooper loaded to the gills with equipment. All hoped for a brief furlough to New York City, but the NOCs kept us busy with endless rounds of inoculations. Burt Christenson remarked that he had been given so many shots that his “arms hung from his body like limp rope.” When the men were given passes to New York, they were forced to remove their jump boots and their airborne patches from their uniforms for security reasons. Higher headquarters feared that German spies would identify the 101st Airborne Division and ascertain its eventual destination.

Within days Easy Company moved to the port of embarkation. It was a short train ride to the New Jersey docks at Weehawken, where a harbor boat ferried troops to Pier 88. At the pier, troop ships were tied up for boarding. Loading the ship that would take the 506th PIR to England took nearly a full day. In our minds was a letter that Captain Sobel had sent to our parents, in which he extolled the training and dedication of their respective sons and in which he encouraged loved ones to write frequent letters to “arm him with a fighting heart.”

One of our officers, Lieutenant Fred “Moose” Heyliger, received notice as we boarded the S.S. Samaria that his wife had just given birth to a boy, “Little Moose.” The receipt of this news forced the rest of the company to listen to Moose sing songs all night as he celebrated the birth of his son. The rest of us were filled with trepidation, but each trooper took consolation in the fact that he was part of the best damned unit in the entire U.S. Army. As we walked up the gangplank of the Samaria, everyone knew that there was no turning back. Easy Company was off to war.

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