This week marks the 75th anniversary of one of the great turning points in WWII—the invasion of Normandy. Some of the first Allied troops to touch ground in Normandy were paratroopers.
Beginning nearly 30 years ago, I started interviewing and gathering the stories of thousands of these remarkable WWII veterans. They were my close friends and family. My daughter called most of them uncle. Sadly, very few of them remain. In a full circle moment, I’m here today in Normandy at their D-Day drop zones including one of their most epic battles at La Fière Bridge.
This bridge spanning several hundred yards had to be secured to prevent the Germans from sending reinforcements to Utah Beach to crush the Allied beachhead. On June 6, 1944, elements of the 82nd secured the western portion of the bridge, a causeway over fields the Germans deliberately flooded to hamper an invading force. Small bands of lightly armed paratroopers battled against the German tanks as they spearheaded an attack on the fragile American beachhead. Legendary battlefield WWII combat historian S.L.A. Marshall described the operation as “the one attended by the greatest difficulty and hardships of the individual assemblies … these conditions so frequently brought forth the finest characteristics of the American soldier.”
Eventually, the 82nd launched a daring assault into the heart of German defenses to seize the entire bridge. But first the 82nd had to hold the western edge of Le Fière at all costs.
Paratrooper Marcus Heim of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment stared down several German panzers that rolled across the causeway in an attempt to reach the beachhead.
“All that afternoon the Germans kept shelling our position. Around 5:00 in the afternoon the Germans started the attack. Two tanks with infantry on each side, and in the rear following them was a third tank with more infantry following it. As the lead tank started around the curve in the road, the tank commander stood up in the turret to take a look. From the left our machine gun let loose a burst and killed the commander. At the same time the bazookas, 57 millimeter and everything else we had were firing at the Germans. They in turn were shooting at us with cannons, mortars, machine guns, and rifle fire.
“Lenold Peterson and I (the loader), in the forward position got out of our foxhole and stood behind the telephone pole, so we could get a better shot at the tanks. We had to hold our fire until the last minute because some of the tree branches along the causeway were blocking our view. The first tank was hit and started to turn sideways and at the same time was swinging the turret around and firing at us. We had just moved forward around the cement telephone pole when a German shell hit it. We had to jump out of the way to avoid being hit as it was falling.
“I was hoping that Bolderson and Pryne were also firing at the tanks. For with all that was happening in front of us, there was not time to look around to see what others were doing. We kept firing at the first tank until it was put out of action and on fire. The second tank came up and pushed the first tank out of the way. We moved forward toward the second tank and fired at it as fast as I could load the rockets in the bazooka. We kept firing at the second tank, and we hit it in the turret where it is connected to the body, also in the track, and with another hit it also went up in flames.
“Peterson and I were almost out of rockets, and the third tank was still moving. Peterson asked me to go back across the road and see if Bolderson had any extra rockets. I ran across the road, and with all the crossfire I still find it hard to believe I made it to the other side in one piece. When I got to the other side, I found one dead soldier, and Bolderson and Pryne were gone. Their bazooka was lying on the ground, and it was damaged by what I thought were bullet holes. Not finding Bolderson or Pryne, I presumed that either one or both were injured. I found the rockets they left and then had to return across the road to where I left Peterson.
“The Germans were still firing at us, and I was lucky again. I returned without being hit. Peterson and I put the new found rockets to use on the third tank. After that one was put out of action, the Germans pulled back to Cauquigny and continued shelling us for the rest of the night. They also tried two other counter attacks on our position, which also failed.”
The German attacks continued on the 82nd’s defenses on the western side of the bridge. Heim’s company held until relieved by reinforcements.
Some of those reinforcements came via glider. Made out of wood and canvas, glider pilots guided these flimsy contraptions into the often-flooded fields of Normandy.
Clinton Riddle of the 325th Glider Infantry Regiment crossed the Merderet River not far from La Fière Bridge, but the Germans had set up a deadly ambush.
“We kept trying to find a place to cross the Merderet River on a plank; a burning building provided light. After my company crossed the river, we ran into a trap set by the Germans. I was with the battalion, following the line companies in the attack. They had to cross an open meadow and walk into this apple orchard. Most of the men were lined up in a skirmish line to sweep the orchard of Germans. But the Germans were waiting and set up a deadly crossfire. So many of the men were killed.
“I also remember this particular boy who was from New York. His folks sent him a pair of black leather gloves. He had these gloves on the day they walked into the trap. The next morning, I went back up there, and you could almost step from one to the other because they were lined up side by side. Nineteen of my men I knew and became friends with were dead. The soldier who had the black gloves on had his hand up in the air like he was reaching for someone. For a long time after that, I wouldn’t wear gloves in combat or after the war—even during the Bulge, when it was so cold. I kept picturing the black gloves and the soldier reaching for someone in my mind.”
Clinton Riddle’s story and many of the accounts in this article are captured in my bestselling book, Beyond Valor: World War II’s Ranger and Airborne Veterans Reveal the Heart of Combat.
A few days after D-Day, the paratroopers went on the attack to capture La Fière. Several hundred Allied paratroopers were trapped on the German side of the bridge, and the 325th Glider Infantry Regiment spearheaded an assault that reached the other side but quickly bogged down. Finally, a single company of paratroopers fought its way across the bridge and broke through the German defenses on the other side. My close friend Ed Jeziorski of the 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment was in a small company of men who led the attack.
“We had been told that we were to be ready. We were the reserve for the 325th. If something happened to them, we were going to do it. The exact words I don’t recall, but I do know that there was not even a thought of anybody having some apprehension or second thoughts of going [across the open causeway].
“The 325th were in columns. They were spaced correctly. They were doing things the way they were supposed to. They kept as low as they could so not to make too good targets, but as they were moving, they were just being knocked down left and right. There was no place to hide on the open causeway. A lot of men were getting killed. Their attack got bogged down.
“At that point … a little second lieutenant, and he was a recent addition to our company, he yelled, ‘Come on, you paratroopers, let’s go!’ That’s when we went! There was a file of us on one side of the road and a file of us on the other side of the road. We were probably five yards apart, maybe even closer or wider. We started going, and it was just an unbroken line. It was just pouring in that much, that heavy [German artillery, mortar shells, machine gun fire].
“This was the hottest day that I had ever been in. As I crossed the bridge, I had the machine gun on my right shoulder. After running several yards, the whole side of the road came up. It came up in a heck of a mass of dirt right on top of me and knocked me down. I had to scramble to really get out from under the thing, but when I came out from under it, I looked, and it looked like everybody was going the wrong way. I said, ‘This way, guys.’ They said, ‘No, Jez, this way.’ It could have been a heck of a round of artillery, but I don’t know, it could have been a land mine. I didn’t hear any noise, just the entire side of the road came up and came down on top of me. Captain [Robert] Rae kept telling us to ‘Keep moving, keep moving, keep moving!’ I was the only machine gunner of the ninety or so in the company of us. The fire was very, very severe.”
Ed told me something that is still seared in my mind. Bullets “snap” when they nearly miss your head and buzz when they stream by you in combat–a sensation I personally felt several times during the Battle of Fallujah.
“It was a continuous hum, a buzz of the rounds going by you. As we crossed the bridge, and it was narrow at that point, the little lieutenant was dropped, and I never saw him again. I’m pretty sure he was nailed real well. Guys were dropping, sure. How many of us got through, I don’t know. Stuff was coming in, and things were really hot. Finally, we made it to the other side. The stone wall at Le Manoir [a house and barn on the German side of the bridge] had holes knocked out and punched in it. Automatic weapons were in those holes, and they had them sandbagged and tied down so they never had to expose themselves. All they did was pull the trigger, and they had everything covered. You tried to work through that as best as you could.
“Once on the other side of the bridge, Boys [an assistant machine gunner] put the tripod down, and I put the gun in the pod. We were working in the open, I was firing in the open. That’s when Boys got hit. I had another guy come up. You had an ammo bearer always that was carrying a box of ammo. His name was Hine, and he was killed on D plus six. Hine was working the gun with me. There was a 42 [MG-42 German machine gun], and he was throwing a lot of lead, just like they can do! As it was going over my head. I just held [the trigger] down on him until there was no more noise.”
This week we honor those who sacrificed so much. Let’s take a moment to pause and remember a generation that’s fading away who saved the world.
Patrick K. O’Donnell is a bestselling, critically acclaimed military historian and an expert on elite units. He is the author of 12 books including The Unknowns: The Untold Story of America’s Unknown Soldier and WWI’s Most Decorated Heroes Who Brought Him Home, Beyond Valor, and Washington’s Immortals. The historian has interviewed thousands of WWII veterans and captured their stories in their own words. O’Donnell served as a combat historian in a Marine rifle platoon during the Battle of Fallujah and speaks often on espionage, special operations, and counterinsurgency. He has provided historical consulting for DreamWorks’ award-winning miniseries Band of Brothers and for documentaries produced by the BBC, the History Channel, and Discovery. PatrickkODonnell.com @combathistorian