In early September 1943, Easy Company began its transatlantic passage aboard the British steamer S.S. Samaria. As we departed New York Harbor and passed the Statue of Liberty, I wondered if I would ever be coming back. Had I seen my family for the last time? Would we reach England without encountering any German submarines? Knowing that I was in the paratroopers was some consolation even though each of us knew our mission required us to be dropped behind enemy lines and that we would have to fight outnumbered until we could be relieved. None of the men had any combat experience or had any idea what combat would be like. As New York faded on the horizon, I stood and searched my soul, saying a silent prayer that God would allow me to return home.
What I remember most was the filthy condition of the ship. The excessive dirt, the terrible food, and the fact that we washed our mess kits in a garbage pail nearly turned my stomach. Forrest Guth, a trooper from Allentown, Pennsylvania, who had joined the paratroopers with his two friends Roderick Strohl and Carl Fenstermacher recalled that the prevalent rumor on board was that the British crew consumed American food, while the paratroopers were forced to eat British food. What struck him most was the cooks serving fish chowder for breakfast. After ten days on the S.S. Samaria, I felt as though I had lost all my muscle tone, especially in my legs. The thought occurred to me that if we had to come off this ship and go directly into combat, it would have been mighty rough. Arriving in Liverpool on September 15, we were immediately transported to Aldbourne, in Wiltshire, approximately eighty miles west of London on the Salisbury Plain. Aldbourne was a typically quaint English town with houses constructed of brick and stone. Flowers were in bloom and most homes had well-kept yards with colorful gardens. As company executive officer, I commanded the company in Captain Sobel’s absence and I handled the administrative and logistical requirements as Easy Company settled into their new billets. Within days of our arrival in England, our troops occupied their new barracks, which were Nissan huts and tarpaper shacks, heated by two large pot-bellied stoves. Officers were crammed into a huge manor house until private housing could be obtained.
Aldbourne would be Easy Company’s home for the next nine months, until the unit moved to the departure airfield for the invasion of France. The initial week in the English countryside was dedicated to orientation to our new environment. To ensure American soldiers understood the intricacies of Allied cooperation, the United States War Department distributed a pamphlet to American servicemen who were going to Britain to prepare for the invasion of occupied Europe. This pamphlet’s avowed aim was to prepare these young American GIs for life in a very different country and to prevent any friction between them and the local populace. Printed in 1942, the Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain attracted a great deal of attention for its candid views of how Britons were viewed on our side of the Atlantic. The booklet cautioned the Americans on how to conduct themselves. Included were orders not “to fight old wars and to bring up old grievances” from the American Revolutionary period so as Hitler would be unable “to make his propaganda effective” and separate the Atlantic partners. If he could do that, his “chance of winning might return.” We were also told not to use phrases and colloquialisms that our allies might find offensive. Two unpardonable sins would be to comment on the British Government or politics or to criticize the King. The War Department assured us that the British would welcome us as friends and allies, but we ought to remember that crossing the ocean did not automatically make us heroes. There were “thousands of housewives in aprons and youngsters in knee pants in Britain who had lived through more high explosives in air raids than many soldiers saw in first class barrages in the last war.” In short, our government directed us to behave ourselves and neither be condescending, nor “a show off” because Americans were routinely more highly paid than the British Tommy. Accordingly, Easy Company conducted tours, visited local bars, met village officials, and generally became acquainted with English customs. We soon found that the English were similar to Americans in many aspects, but in other ways it was as if we were from different planets. Plumbing, electric light wiring, furniture, heating, and cooking seemed light-years behind what I was used to in the United States. Most Britons had never eaten popcorn, marshmallows, hot dogs, and other eatables that they characterized as strictly Yank chow. Nor did they possess the large and varied assortment of expressive adjectives that we did and often an expression of ours meant something entirely different to them.
Following our first week in England, officers were billeted in private homes. Looking for an opportunity to escape the crammed conditions of our not-so-spacious manor, I went to a local church where I was fortunate to meet a family named Barnes. The Barneses had recently lost a son in the Royal Air Force during the Battle of Britain. I first met this couple following services on my first Sunday in England. Walking to the adjacent cemetery, I sat on a bench and took time for personal reflection and simply to enjoy some solitude. As I looked over the cemetery, I noticed an elderly couple tending to one of the graves. They then sat on an adjacent bench and the three of us talked for nearly an hour. They told me their names were Mr. and Mrs. Francis Barnes and that they were paying respects to their son Robert. The Barneses invited me to join them for afternoon tea, and I graciously accepted their invitation. I saw them periodically over the course of the next several weeks, and when our unit requested billeting within the local community, the Barnes family volunteered to host two officers as long as I was one of them.
Along with Lieutenant Harry Welsh, I moved in and the Barneses soon adopted me as a full-fledged member of their family. The Barneses also had a child from London—Elaine Stevens, thirteen years old, a refugee from the London bombing—as a houseguest. Because my sister, Ann, was also thirteen years old, they became penpals. My personal quarters were with the family in a room over their grocery store. The room wasn’t big and we slept on army cots, but the comforts of home were a pleasant respite from the crowds and the barracks. While Harry Welsh spent his free time at a pub that was only a stone’s throw from our room, I spent my evenings with the Barnes family.
Life with the Barneses suited me perfectly. I greatly appreciated what Francis Barnes and his wife were doing for me. They provided me a home, a family, and a fireplace to come to at the end of a day’s training. They adopted me as a son. Francis Barnes was a lay preacher at one of Aldbourne’s three churches. On Sundays I always had a special invitation to come to their church. Mr. Barnes would preach the sermon, Mrs. Barnes played the organ, and I wore my best dress uniform and sat front and center. Most Sundays I was the only soldier in church, but I know that without a spoken word, everybody knew my lifestyle.
A typical evening began with Mrs. Barnes knocking on my door before 9:00 P.M. and saying, “Lieutenant Winters, would you like to come down and listen to the news and have a spot of tea?” Sitting around a smoldering chunk of peat in the fireplace, we listened to the BBC. Afterward, everybody would gather around the table and Mr. Barnes would read a passage from the Bible, then he would say a prayer, after which Mrs. Barnes would serve tea and biscuits or some fresh bread. Around 10:00 P.M., Mr. Barnes would then announce that it was time for bed.
My association with the Barnes family was one of the most enjoyable experiences in my life. They prepared me mentally for the tasks that lay ahead. I had observed their personal suffering at the loss of their son and experienced similar feelings when I lost some of my men in Normandy and the subsequent campaigns. By giving me time to reflect and to study my manuals for the nine months prior to the invasion, the Barneses helped me develop my own personality and hone my leadership skills. This formative period of my life was very important in continuing to build the fundamental characteristics my parents had initiated, and they helped shape my life. Today I realize what the Barnes family did was help me develop the most fundamental element in good leadership—lead by example, live by setting a good example. They lived for nearly ten years after the war, and I still treasure the mementoes that they gave me. Years later I returned to Aldbourne with Stephen Ambrose and excused myself for a few minutes to place flowers on their graves. I then took a minute to reflect on this wonderful couple and sat on the same bench where we had first met so many years earlier.
We were in England to prepare for war, not to tour the countryside, and the days were filled with intense training. Training monopolized six days of the week, with the average week consisting of prolonged marches, marksmanship, and simulated night attacks. Hikes of varying length, some up to twenty-five miles, were conducted, and there was special emphasis on physical conditioning. Map-reading remained an important component of every field exercise and every week Easy Company conducted a two- to three-day field training exercise. Captain Sobel continued to perform poorly in the field, further exasperating the platoon leaders and the men. He remained as tyrannical, inflexible, and paranoid as he had been at Toccoa. Tension was building within the company, particularly among the officers who bore the primary responsibility for preparing the men for combat.
Nowhere was the pressure more apparent than on Sobel himself. Whereas the punishment he administered in the States was often mean and degrading, in England the punishment passed the point of normalcy to outright cruelty. If a man was late getting back to camp, instead of extra kitchen police (K.P.) duty, he had to dig a six-foot-by-six-foot pit with his entrenching tools at night after the day’s training. When the soldier was finished, Sobel would tell him “to fill it up.” Our commander’s inability to make decisions, coupled with his tactical incompetence, continued to alienate both officers and men alike. While Sobel was partially effective in matters where he controlled everything, he would be utterly helpless in combat where adaptability and initiative were keys to survival. The noncommissioned officers soon began grumbling and dissension spread throughout Easy. While such talk is always detrimental to the discipline in any unit, Sobel was simply not cut out to be a combat leader. While the men could tolerate a tough taskmaster, they were simply afraid to have Sobel lead them into combat. Within two months of arriving in England, things boiled over and I found myself in the middle of it. The ensuing confrontation between Captain Sobel and me brought out the best and worst qualities of leadership within Easy Company.
On October 30, Lieutenant Colonel Strayer was scheduled to inspect Easy Company. Sobel issued me orders to inspect the latrine at 1000 hours, one hour before Strayer was due to arrive. At 0930 hours I also received orders from battalion headquarters to censor the enlisted men’s mail. I completed that chore and at 1000, I promptly entered the latrine. To my surprise Sobel was already there, making his own inspection. Without uttering a word, he exited the latrine, walked by me without acknowledging my presence. Behind him walked Private Joachim Melo, the latrine orderly, wet mop in hand. Melo was soaking wet, dirty, in need of a shave, hair uncombed. He looked (and I am sure felt) like a man who had just finished doing a dirty job. Sobel left without saying a word. I proceeded with my personal inspection and found that Melo had done a superb job. When I walked to company headquarters forty-five minutes later, 1st Sergeant Evans handed me a typed document that demanded my reply by endorsement whether I desired company punishment for failure to inspect the latrine at 0945 hours as instructed by the company commander or whether I requested a court-martial. I immediately proceeded to Sobel’s office to clear up the misunderstanding.
“Captain, my orders were to inspect the latrine at 1000 hours.”
“I changed that time to 0945,” he replied.
“I wasn’t informed of the change.”
“I telephoned and I sent a runner.”
This was too much for me—just another example of the chickenshit that characterized Sobel’s tenure as Easy Company’s commanding officer. Captain Sobel was now questioning my integrity and my sense of duty. I could not care less that my punishment was the denial of a forty-eight-hour pass until mid-December. Preferring to stay home with the Barneses where I studied my manuals, I very seldom left Aldbourne anyway. Principle was now at stake. Immediately following Strayer’s inspection, which Easy Company incidentally passed with flying colors, I returned to Sobel’s office and demanded trial by court-martial. Aldbourne being a small village, within minutes the story spread around the company. Within days Lieutenant Colonel Strayer directed his executive officer to conduct a preliminary investigation and in the interim, he transferred me to headquarters company and appointed me battalion mess officer until the court-martial was resolved. I was heartbroken by the transfer because I was no longer a troop leader, and the general practice was to assign mess duties to those officers who were not up to standard. On reflection, I understood Strayer had little alternative as it would have been detrimental to keep me in Easy Company when the company commander was court-martialing his second-in-command. The transfer in no way eased my pain of leaving the men with whom I had trained for over a year. This was the first time since I had been in the army that I wasn’t with field troops or in troop command.
My abrupt transfer to battalion headquarters and headquarters company soon provoked widespread anger among the noncommissioned officers in the company. With Sobel still in command, the NCOs decided to push the issue. I had heard rumblings of a mutiny as soon as my court-martial was officially announced. Sergeants Mike Ranney and “Salty” Harris were the instigators. They called all the NCOs together in the company dayroom to discuss what they were going to do. Only a few of the noncommissioned officers were absent because Ranney and Harris did not want the word to reach Sobel until they had decided on what course of action to take. They invited me to the meeting. I went and told them not to do anything—any mutiny was in itself a court-martial offense. As I was in the middle of my plea asking them not to go through with this mutiny, Sobel walked in the door. Everyone just froze in place; there was not a sound. Ranney was the first to recover his voice and started off with something like, “Now how can we improve our athletic program?” This didn’t fool Sobel, I am sure, but without a word, he picked up a book and left. I then excused myself and returned to battalion. After careful deliberation, the NCOs decided to bypass battalion and present a formal protest directly to Colonel Sink, our regimental commander. Each wrote a formal protest against Sobel and turned in his stripes.
Confronted with an insurrection within the ranks of Easy Company and a crisis in command that permeated the entire regiment, Sink summoned the noncoms and really gave them hell. In no uncertain terms, he informed the sergeants that under the articles of war, he could have them shot. Then he transferred Harris from the regiment and busted Ranney to private. Prior to D-Day Ranney returned to Easy Company, but Harris remained with the pathfinders and played an important role in the upcoming invasion. He would later be killed in action in Holland. The magnitude of the “sergeants’ revolt” probably prevented similar disciplinary action to the other noncommissioned officers. Within days Sink assigned Sobel to command the division’s new training center at Chilton Foliat and in February 1944, he assigned 1st Lieutenant Thomas Meehan of Baker Company to command Easy. Sobel’s stint in Easy Company had come to an inglorious end. 1st Lieutenant Patrick Sweeney of Able Company temporarily took over as company executive officer until I returned to that post on the eve of the invasion.
On November 11 Lieutenant Colonel Strayer set aside my punishment under the articles of war. Shortly thereafter, his executive officer, Major Horton, stopped me and said with a smile, “You gave me one hell of a problem trying to figure out how to squash that court-martial. We had the court-martial manual out and were doing a lot of reading for a couple of days.” When I rejoined Easy, it was not as executive officer, but as platoon leader of 1st Platoon. Needless to say I was elated as I regained my troop’s leading status. With Sobel’s departure, Easy Company once again returned to normalcy. I saw Sobel only once more during the entire war while the battalion was stationed at Mourmelon. I had already been promoted to major when Captain Sobel walked past me on a deserted company street. He completely ignored me and continued on his way. After he had passed me without recognition, I stopped, turned and said, “Captain, we recognize and honor the rank!” Sobel stopped, turned, came to attention, and said, “Yes, sir!” We exchanged salutes and he moved on. My revenge was sweet—Sobel’s debt to me had been paid in full!
Colonel Sink’s intercession in my court-martial proceedings was the second time that he had personally intervened to salvage my career. I maintained tremendous respect for Sink dating back to Toccoa, when he first observed me leading calisthenics. Then he promoted me to 1st lieutenant, which ensured that I would be assigned as company executive officer. Under ordinary conditions, there was no way that I would have been reassigned to Easy Company based on my recent confrontation with Sobel. I later discovered that the NCOs had personally requested my return. Sink made it happen and for the remainder of the war, he closely monitored my career. I am not sure why he had such a personal interest in me, but he remained the officer instrumental in always advancing me to the next job.
We passed the second anniversary of December 7, 1941 almost without noticing. The Japanese attack had occurred two years earlier, but in some ways it seemed longer. I certainly felt more mature and harder than I was when I entered the service. This airborne outfit left a man with many aches, pains, and bruises. On the plus side, being affiliated with a crack outfit also left each soldier with an equal number of memories: some good, some not so good. In any event, with Lieutenant Meehan in command, a far more conducive command climate permeated Easy Company as we entered the most intense period of training since our days at Toccoa.
Military activity reached a fever pitch as we entered 1944. Everyone anticipated the invasion would take place in the spring. Christmas was a rare day off, and in late February, I took a week’s furlough and visited Scotland. After six months in the European theater of operations, I was anxious to see something that reminded me of home. Glasgow and Edinburgh fit the bill nicely. Later I visited Plymouth, Oxford, and London. There were plenty of things to occupy my time: ice-skating, stage shows, nice theaters, and plenty of restaurants. Still it was not much fun traveling or going out over England. The blackout left me stumbling about, getting lost in strange cities, and wishing to God I could get out and do some real fighting. However, I did a bit of shopping for the family, buying my sister a Scottish cap, a lovely silver necklace and locket for my mother, and a pearl-handled knife for my father. In addition, I purchased a “dirk,” or stiletto knife, to wear inside my boot. All in all, the leave provided a welcome interlude before the next round of training.
After a long English winter filled with long, dark, and foggy nights, spring finally arrived. Forgotten were the months on end of no sun and the ever-present rain and mud that marked the English countryside. From March through May, Easy Company remained constantly in the field. We conducted night operations, including night airdrops and night attacks. Over the course of the spring, we made five training jumps in England before D-Day. Only one of these exercises, the airborne drop conducted on March 12, was a night jump. To acquaint myself with every weapon, I experimented jumping with a different weapon each time. Normally, when you dropped your weapon in an equipment bundle, you had trouble finding the equipment and assembling the men on the bundle. This was especially true on a night jump. Although we had not received official orders for the invasion, it was fairly easy to determine what was expected. On most of our field exercises, we conducted attacks against gun positions, causeways, bridges, and other potential strong points. Dress rehearsals for the impending invasion included massive airdrops of the entire division, such as Operation Eagle at Newberry on May 12. That jump included 1,050 airplanes and over 15,000 paratroopers. En route to the drop zone, we flew two and a half hours before we exited the aircraft. Fortunately, the company responded well and the men were anxious to get into combat.
Over the course of the spring, most of the brass visited the 101st Airborne Division. First up was General Bernard Law Montgomery, the commander of 21st Army Group, who made it a point to address every division in England—to “binge up” the troops, as he called it. Monty had a knack of addressing the troops in a language that they clearly understood, never speaking down to them or attempting to impress upon them his rank and position. He was a soldier’s soldier in every sense of the word. What impressed me most about Montgomery was that he lived a lifestyle that was beyond reproach and easy for his staff to follow. Monty gathered us around his jeep and told us to take off our helmets so he could see our faces. He then said how much he pitied the Germans when they came up against us. Montgomery was quickly followed by the Supreme Commander, General Eisenhower, and U.S. First Army commanding general Lieutenant General Omar Bradley. Prime Minister Churchill joined Ike and Brad to observe the combined Anglo-American jump in late March. Also on the stand was our new commanding general, Maxwell Taylor, who had assumed command of the division when General Bill Lee suffered a mild heart attack and was sent home to the States.
Taylor was an interesting commander but never enjoyed the respect and admiration of his predecessor, the “father of the American airborne.” At the company level, I had little contact with the new commanding general until two months prior to the invasion. That encounter was not pleasant and it was reminiscent of how the company fared under Captain Sobel’s tenure. On this occasion, it was my job as first platoon leader to secure the division command post and of course I was trying to be on the ball and keep every soldier on the ball, too. General Taylor’s standing orders were that every soldier must wear his helmet at all times. One morning I was out checking my outposts when General Taylor exited his tent. Surprised by his sudden appearance, one of my troopers sat up from sleeping and as he did so, his helmet fell off his head. As Taylor drove by, he stopped his jeep, took the man’s name, and asked who his platoon leader was. Within hours, I was told to report to division headquarters where I was administered punishment under the articles of war for failure during a recent condition of simulated combat to require a man under my command to wear a helmet. According to the division commander, my actions in failing to strictly enforce the provisions of a training memorandum demonstrated “a lack of full appreciation of the importance this directive bears to safeguarding my command in actual combat.” Punishment for my indiscretion was a $25 fine. Twenty-five dollars at that time was a great deal of money and it hurt. I felt that the so-called infraction was unjust, unfair, and unreasonable on Taylor’s part. In my opinion the accidental dropping of the helmet hardly required disciplinary action, but I reluctantly accepted the punishment.
The spring of 1944 also had a profound impact on me, both in the personal and professional sense. In April I had sent enough money home to help my parents pay off the mortgage of their home. I was so proud that I could have burst. I had once expressed an interest in finding a farm after I returned from Europe, and Dad said he would keep looking for one. After what I had experienced since I had joined the army, now I was not so sure that I could be satisfied with remaining in a small town for the rest of my life. I knew this idea of thinking that you could go home and adjust yourself to civilian life by just changing your uniform for a business suit was wrong. I no longer thought I wanted to stay around home while I adjusted to civilian life after this cruel war ended. I joked that I might get a job on a tramp steamer as a deckhand or on a liner in some capacity and just sail around until I had seen the world or until I was tired of traveling. Sooner or later I knew that I would have to start looking for a way to earn a living, but the old style of life no longer held any charms for me. Wartime provided few amusements and my stress level increased as the invasion neared.
One of these amusements was an active sports program designed to lessen the apprehension that gripped the company. I served as coach of the basketball team, while Lieutenant Lynn “Buck” Compton, who had joined us in England, served as my assistant coach. Compton had joined the army in February 1943. Standing six feet tall and weighing two hundred fifteen pounds, Compton was every inch an athlete. Prior to entering service, he attended UCLA, where he had played in the Rose Bowl. After graduating OCS at Fort Benning, Compton had been assigned to a demonstration unit on the main post, a common practice since senior officers wanted him to play football and baseball in the athletic leagues that they had established on post. Rather than lead a comfortable life while others were overseas fighting, he volunteered for the paratroopers because assignment to a high-priority unit could not be denied. Compton was an energetic officer, whom I later chastised about gambling with the men. An officer should never put himself in a position where he takes anything from the men. Never abuse them by act or omission. As a commander, a leader must be prepared to give everything, including himself, to the people he leads. You give your time and you strive to be consistently fair, never demonstrating favoritism. In my opinion Compton had jeopardized his position as a leader by establishing an improper relationship with some of his troopers. Compton did not take the counseling seriously, but I felt it my duty to ensure that he understood my feelings on maintaining a professional relationship with the soldiers in his platoon.
In any event, the basketball team was an interesting experience. We had no basketball court, so we could not practice, nor did we have uniforms. When we played a game with one of the Air Corps commands, we traveled to their court. Our fellows played in their long johns if it was cold, or in any shorts that they might have. The Air Corps boys always had beautiful suits and sweat suits to match. Obviously, these had been brought over from the States. Most of the Air Corps teams were usually comprised of ex–college players who enjoyed the soft, cushy jobs of pilot training schools, and who later became pilots. Naturally the men of Easy Company had the edge on making the 506th Regimental team since I was coach. These games were an interesting experience to say the least—the cool-looking, well-coached Air Corps team against those little, raunchy paratroopers running around in their underwear. As I mentioned, we had no practice court, so we had no offensive plays, no defensive plans. We just got out there and ran, and then we would bump and run, and bump again and run some more. By the end of the second half, we had run the Air Corps team into the ground.
One game with our sister regiment, the 501st PIR, in an Air Corps hanger sticks in my memory. It was payday and Colonel Sink stopped by to remind me that it was the 506th’s payroll against the 501st’s payroll. We had to win. The ensuing game was rough and tough, and with just a few seconds to go, the score was tied. I noticed Sergeant Barlow’s [from A Company] legs were shot. He had played a terrific game. He was our playmaker, the leader of the team. I pulled him out and sent in Corporal “Gordy” Carson. Gordy called for the ball, took a long shot, and made it. He not only won the game for the 506th, but he also saved our payroll. Carson has been a hero to me ever since that night.
Organized athletics were only one means to pass the time as we awaited news of the impending invasion. Together with his friend Paul C. Rogers, Walter Gordon seized upon the idea of composing a simple poem when any member of their platoon became the object of company punishment. Sometimes nonjudicial punishment wasn’t required to have a poem dedicated in one’s honor. The ridiculous poem was recited as soon as the platoon was assembled. The hapless victim would cringe with embarrassment and more often than not, would explode in anger—much to Gordon’s and Rogers’s delight. The more embarrassed a trooper would become, the more satisfaction the poem’s composers would gain. Sergeant Floyd Talbert proved to be a particularly easy target. Shortly before Christmas 1943, it was decided that the noncommissioned officers would serve Christmas dinner to their men. Mess kits were set aside for the day and plates, tumblers, and flatware were issued. Talbert brought in heaping plates of food. When all were served, he took his seat and was ready to join in the feast. It was only then that he discovered that his knife and fork had been mysteriously removed. The obvious remedy would have been for him to fetch another set of utensils, but that was not Talbert’s style. He quickly turned a bright shade of red and shouted a challenge for the culprit to admit to the misdeed. The men continued eating and snickering. Of course the men offered a few choice suggestions as to what Talbert might do with the turkey drumstick that rested on his plate of untouched food. Talbert gave us a great performance and a climax was reached by his storming out of the mess hall without one bite of food. Rogers’s eyes met Gordon’s because they knew instantly that a poem would be forthcoming. Gordon later met Talbert in the barracks and chided him by suggesting that he had probably forfeited the last Christmas dinner he would ever have on earth. Fortunately Talbert, whom I considered the best soldier in the company, survived the war by many years.
With the invasion now only weeks away, I refocused my efforts for the task at hand. Whether or not I wanted to admit it, the past few months had been a battle of nerves and nobody was any the worse for wear than I. I found refuge in church, having only missed services three times in over eight months. Life with the Barneses also provided a pleasant respite from military duties. I was happy to be an officer, but I wrote one friend back home that it was not all that it was cracked up to be. The social life, for one thing, seemed my principal roadblock to future advancement. I had no desire and I absolutely refused to join in the parties and social gatherings in which most officers participated. Despite the fact that I had been an executive officer for fifteen months, and that I was the only officer left in the company who had started with the unit at Toccoa, I still wore the rank of a 1st lieutenant. But that was okay because I knew my job, my company, the men, and I felt confident that under fire, I had the right answers. Which gets me to the point: I was a “half-breed.” An officer yes, but at heart an enlisted man. I worked hard and did my duty as I should, but when it came to play, I was in a bad position and only in athletics with the men did I truly enjoy myself. The happiest days of my army career had been at Camp Croft: good barracks, pretty warm temperatures, and the washroom in the same building. Of course I was only making $21 a month, yet I always had a little money at the end of the month for personal pleasures. Even though I had traveled more and had done more in the past two years, never had I had more fun than during those first few months in the army. Those days seemed as if they had happend in another lifetime.
With the reflection of sixty years, I can say that I was not too concerned about the invasion. I truthfully never wavered as to whether or not I would succeed in combat. I was far more concerned for the safety of the men entrusted to my command. Any success I had as a battlefield commander was based on character, detailed study, and taking care of those troopers. In one letter I painted a beautiful, pathetic, and touching portrait of what leadership consists of. Picture if you will, a small unit exercise in the English countryside on the eve of the invasion. Along a roadside on a cold damp morning sits a private with his machine gun. He has been on the march and fighting for just about twenty-four hours without stopping and sleeping. He is tired, dead tired, so tired his mind is almost a blank. He is wet, hungry, and miserable. As his buddies sleep, he keeps watch, a difficult job when he is so exhausted and knows that when the sun comes up in another half hour, he will once again be on the move. What does he do? He pulls out a snapshot of his girl, who is over 3,000 miles away, and studies her picture. In a state of inner tranquillity, he dreams of days when he can once again enjoy the kind of life she stands for. Down the road comes an officer—it’s me. Nobody else would think of being up at a pre-dawn hour. “How’s it going, Shep [Howell]? What are you doing?” Then together, we study and discuss his girl’s good features and virtues. He asks me to promise that I will ensure he survives the upcoming battle—a promise I cannot make in good faith since I don’t know what the final outcome of the battle will be. I can only tell Shep that I will do my best to ensure he comes home safely—a promise that I kept.
When you think about kids like that, and you realize the weight of your responsibility and do something about it, you soon become old beyond your years. In three years, I had aged a great deal. Still only twenty-six years old, I felt that the simpler times of my college experience and the days of civilian life when I did as I pleased, were long past. It must have been a dream, a small and short but beautiful part of my life. Now all I did was work—work to improve myself as an officer, work to improve my soldiers as fighters, and work to develop them as men. The result was that I was old before my time; not old physically, but hardened to the point where I could make the rest of them look like undeveloped high school boys; old to the extent where I could keep going after my men fell over and slept from exhaustion, and I could keep going as a mother who works on after her sick and exhausted child has fallen asleep; old to the extent where if it was a decision or advice needed, my decisions were taken as if the wisdom behind them was infallible. Yes, I felt old and tired from training these men to the point where they were now efficient fighters. I hoped that the effort would mean that more of them would return to those girls in the States than otherwise would have made it back to the comfort of their families and friends.
Now that the invasion was near, higher headquarters suddenly became concerned that our airfields were very vulnerable to German parachute commando-type raids on our lanes and equipment. Steps were taken to organize teams of paratroopers to visit these Air Corps bases and give the pilots basic infantry training. Several Easy Company troopers participated in these visits. Their reports were not always encouraging. On the visit to the 9th Parachute Battalion (British), the evaluator noted that although the individual British Tommie was highly proficient on his assigned weapon, “the general reaction of the British toward us at first was generally expressed in an indifferent attitude.” It was not until the American paratroopers took over a major component of the training program, which gave them the opportunity to demonstrate to the British that the American soldiers “knew their stuff,” that the British accepted us as their equal. One battalion officer noted that although the British were quite methodical in their training, they were too much on “spit and polish and not quite enough on scouting and patrolling.” My job was to teach unarmed combat. My impression of the Air Corps personnel with whom I worked was very poor. If I was going into combat, I was thankful that I was in the 101st Airborne Division. I felt far safer in the company of my paratroopers than with any of the pilots and support personnel.
May 16 was Mother’s Day and I made it a special point to order Mom a dozen roses. I also bought a handbag for Mrs. Barnes. She had been like a mother to me for over eight months and she seemed almost like my own mother. I was flat broke for the remainder of the month after these purchases—just like old school days and those days at Camp Croft. While I attended church services the following week, the congregation celebrated what the British called Witsun, or Children’s Day. It sure was enjoyable to watch those kids get up and recite, then recall how I used to be in the same shoes not so many years ago. One little girl about four years old, with a pretty little pink dress and white bonnet-shaped hat, stole the show. She was up and down, yawning, stretching, singing with her music upside down, waving to friends in the audience, and then fussing with her new dress, hat, and shoes. Quite a show! When it was over, I couldn’t help but wonder whether or not I would live to share another Mother’s Day or Witsun with loved ones. Would I see flowers bloom again the following spring?
On the verge of a major deployment, it was important to hold on to something from home. In my free moments, I often reminisced about life in the States prior to our deployment overseas. That past seemed so distant now. Still, I would not trade anybody back home or anyone in England for tickets for the “big show” [D-Day]. I had worked long and hard for these tickets and now, I was not going to part with them. We were ready.
On May 29, the company marched to the trucks lined up in the village center. Half of Aldbourne turned out to bid us farewell. We were appreciative of our English hosts and had formed a strong attachment to them over the course of the preceding eight months. Due to security, I couldn’t say anything to anyone about where we were going, but the residents of Aldbourne knew we were pushing off. The Barneses bade me farewell, knowing without being told that this was the real thing. My own parting with the Barnes family was tearful, but it was time to move toward the departure airfield. As we went down the road in trucks, I can still see my British “sister,” Elaine, walking ahead of us and turning to wave goodbye as we drove by. Rumors naturally abounded as to the time and place of the invasion. Lieutenant Meehan and I had actually determined the approximate location of our projected drop zone. While sitting around in our tent one evening, we used our imagination and discussed our previous flight times and course changes. Taking a map and placing a string on Uppottery, we then extended the string and discovered that the pencil crossed the Cotentin Peninsula in Normandy. If we could figure this out, we wondered if the Germans could do the same thing.
A column in Stars and Stripes stated that theaters, ball games, and nonessential business establishments in the United States would close and people would be asked to attend church and pray for us on D-Day. That announcement, coupled with the size and the magnitude of a united feeling like that we experienced when we left Aldbourne, sent chills up and down our collective spines. At home a soldier does not usually think beyond his local acquaintances. Go to another part of the country and it is one’s home state, and anyone from your hometown is a buddy. Once overseas, the situation changes dramatically and anybody from the United States is your buddy. So when we felt that way and thought that all those people were sending their best wishes and prayers, you could not help but feel good. As for myself, I wrote my final letter home and told my friend that every night at taps I would meet her at the North Star. The old North Star is a soldier’s guiding light when he is lost, alone, and feeling mighty funny in the pit of the stomach. What makes him feel good is when he can look up and know that there is somebody else looking up at the same star.
Easy Company closed on our marshalling area near Exeter, in Devonshire in the mid-afternoon of May 29. Our camp lay in an open field beside the airstrip at Uppottery in southwestern England, approximately ten miles from the coast. Easy Company was billeted in pyramidal-shaped tents. The next day Sink briefed the regimental officers, and the troops spent the day caring for and cleaning their equipment. Ammunition was issued and weapons were checked by ordnance. A band played in each battalion area during the evening.
During our first evening in the marshalling area, the company officers received our initial briefings on our D-Day mission from my friend Nixon, who was now serving as 2d Battalion S-2 (intelligence officer) and Captain Hester, a former Easy Company officer, who was the battalion operations officer. We examined sand tables, routes of advance and egress to the objective areas, and received briefings on the enemy situation and pending weather conditions. I listened closely, but concentrated on the general concept of the operation rather than all the specifics because it was more important to be able to think on my feet than it was to memorize every excruciating detail, most of which would never withstand the initial clash with the enemy. Personally I did very little briefing. I just couldn’t seem to get enthusiastic, but I had the situation well in hand.
The 101st Airborne Division’s mission on D-Day was to drop in the vicinity of Ste. Marie du Mont and to seize four causeways behind Utah Beach on the Cotentin Peninsula. In all, there were four causeways that connected Utah Beach with the solid ground of Normandy. The concept of operation called for the 502d Regiment to secure the two northernmost exits to facilitate the passage inland of the amphibious forces, principally from the 4th Infantry Division, while Colonel Sink’s 506th PIR secured the two southernmost exits. Sink, in turn, planned for 1st and 2d Battalions to land on a drop zone just to the west of Ste. Marie du Mont, which put it about as close to the western approaches of the two lower causeways as was tactically possible. As rapidly as it could complete its assembly, 2d Battalion was to move toward causeway No. 2. Exit No. 2 led from the beach through Houdienville to Ste. Marie du Mont. Securing that causeway was the responsibility of Easy Company with an attached demolition team. This specific causeway was built to a height of an average six feet above the marsh, which was an initial barrier to the westward advance of the forces landing on Utah Beach. The regimental intelligence report noted that over most of the adjoining area, the marsh could be waded, but the entire region was crisscrossed at many points by drainage canals, which though narrow, ran to a depth of eight feet or more. The presence of these streams presented a very real danger. If the force coming by sea was denied the use of the causeways, many hours would pass before the amphibious forces could link up with the airborne forces. The time thus lost might determine the fate of the invading forces at Utah Beach.
On June 1, General Taylor arrived in our area in early afternoon and delivered an inspirational speech to the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment. Taylor told us to adjust give me three days and nights of hard continuous fighting and by then we will have done our part.” The following day we assembled the men in the briefing tent and instructed them on the precise details of the impending night jump. On June 3, the officers received Eisenhower’s D-Day message and Colonel Sink’s order of the day. General Eisenhower reminded us that we were about to embark upon “a Great Crusade to which we have striven these many months.” Colonel Sink referred to our impending departure as “the night of nights” and urged us to “strike hard. When the going is tough, let us go harder. Imbued with faith in the rightness of our cause . . . let us annihilate the enemy where found.” Both messages were stenciled and packed in bundles of eighteen and were to be delivered to the men at take-off time. We also received $4 worth of “invasion money” and all our British currency was exchanged for French francs. We would not need British pounds where we were heading. Each of the men was also given a dime store cricket—one click-clack to be answered by two in the Norman darkness—and the challenge, Flash, to be answered by the password, Thunder.
I distributed ammunition and grenades to Easy Company on June 3 and the men took hot showers and were given extra cigarettes and candy rations. The tension finally got to Lieutenant Raymond Schmitz, one of Easy Company’s platoon leaders. In civilian life Schmitz had been a boxer of some distinction. To break the tension Schmitz asked me to box him. I was no idiot and said, “No, thanks.” During the afternoon he kept up the same baiting challenge and I continued giving him the same reply. Finally Schmitz said, “Let’s wrestle.” Well, I had done a little wrestling in college, so I accepted the challenge. The match was very, very short and ended with Schmitz going to the hospital with two cracked vertebra. He, of course, was scratched from the manifest for the D-Day jump. The rest of that day and right up to the time we strapped on our parachutes, I had a constant line of requests from fellow soldiers asking me with a smile on their face, “Will you break my arm for five dollars?” On June 4 we were in the midst of loading our planes when the word came down that Eisenhower had postponed D-Day for twenty-four hours.
For anyone who participated in D-Day, it was a day like no other in history. Sweating out the $10,000 jump was something that never occurred to us, $10,000 being the standard insurance coverage every solider was required to carry by regulation. We simply relaxed and enjoyed the rest. The mental state of the men was best described in the regimental journal as a mood of “sober expectancy.” No one was jubilant, but no one wanted to be left out. Everyone wondered what the jump and the hours following would be like, but every trooper was confident of his own ability to meet the unknown situation. My personal preparation consisted of sewing my escape map into the seam of my jump pants and concealing a short knife inside my boot. A few men in Easy did sweat and they were easy to spot because they kept asking questions about the enemy, situation, and equipment. On the afternoon of June 5, we were told that tonight was definitely the night we would board the aircraft and fly to Normandy. I spent the afternoon getting ready and taking a two-hour nap. After supper, things remained in a great uproar, with everyone getting ready for our initial combat jump. A final check was made of all equipment: the rest was packed away. Next, we enjoyed a last-minute bathroom break, blackened our faces, and checked our weapons. A good number of the men shaved their heads like Mohawk Indians. On the departure airfield, news arrived that Rome had been captured, but we were too intent on the job at hand to be concerned about operations in the Mediterranean.
At 2030 hours, we assembled by planeload and marched off to the hangers. As we passed buddies, friends, and fellow officers, there was usually a stiff smile, nod of the head, or pat on the back, but very few men displayed any emotion at all. It seemed like just another jump, nothing to get excited about. On the way to the hangers we passed some British antiaircraft units stationed at the field, and that was the first time I’d ever seen any real emotion from a limey. They actually had tears in their eyes. You could see that they felt like hell standing there watching us go into battle even though they had been at war much longer than we. At the hangers, each jumpmaster was given two packs of papers containing the messages from General Eisenhower and Colonel Sink, our regimental commander. Each man then synchronized his watch, was assigned a truck, and was whisked off to his respective plane.
At the plane, the first thing I did was unload all the parachutes and equipment and see that each man had his proper equipment. Then, in a huddle, I passed out the poop sheets, gave them the schedule we would have to follow: 2215, in the plane ready to go; 2310, take off; 0120, jump. Good luck, God bless you, and see you in the assembly area. With that done, we went to work harnessing up, and it’s here that a good jumpmaster or officer can do the most for his men. For getting all that equipment on, tying it down, trying to make it comfortable and safe, then placing a parachute on top, calls for a lot of ingenuity and sales talk to satisfy the men that all’s well. By 2210, all were ready but me: it was no good first getting ready yourself and then helping the men. So, I whipped into my equipment fast and furiously, mounted up, and was ready to go. Thank goodness my main chute opened when I jumped the next morning because I had no place to hang the reserve chute on my harness.
As we climbed aboard the planes, one noteworthy incident ensued. One of the boys, Private Robert “Jeeter” Leonard, had a terrific load. In fact, like others in the stick, I had to push him up the steps into the plane because he carried such a heavy load. Well, “Jeeter” was in the plane ready to go and so was everybody else. I made a final check of all kit bags that held our equipment, and in Jeeter’s I found one basic load of M-1 ammunition. Poor Jeeter had everything but his ammunition. The sad part about it was that he just didn’t have any place to carry it. So I told him to see me at the assembly area and I would give it to him—which was okay, for there was to be no shooting on the jump field.
At this time I distributed the second round of motion sickness pills, the first having been given at 2200. We had never taken any pills before on any practice jumps, so I directed the men not to question higher headquarters. “Orders are orders. Take them.” Headquarters said the pills would eliminate airsickness and the butterflies in each soldier’s stomach when he was scared. All was relatively quiet on the departure airfield, just a little bitching about all the equipment we had to carry, but outside of that, there was little conversation. Most of us were just thinking good and hard about the mission at hand and how we would fare in our initial contact with the enemy. My only concern was whether or not I would let my men down once we entered combat. As a fighting company the men were primed and ready to go, and we fully intended that we were either going to win the ensuing battle or be killed.