We have won this war because our men are brave . . . not because destiny created us better than all other peoples. I hope that in victory we are more grateful than we are proud. I hope we can rejoice in victory—but humbly. The dead men would not want us to gloat.
ERNIE PYLE, Brave Men
May 8, 1945—Victory in Europe—a day for which we had been fighting for over three years. War’s end brought little inner emotion, only a tired sense of relief. We held no formal victory celebrations, but the men conducted their private celebrations, courtesy of Reich Marshal Goering. Photographs of 2d Battalion’s paratroopers at Berchtesgaden give a good idea how happy the men were to have survived the carnage of war. Ernie Pyle, who perished in the war’s final campaign in the Pacific, had penned a final column to cover the end of the Nazi regime before he departed France in 1944. Like many of us, Pyle had had enough of war and needed a respite. As usual he summed up our collective emotions when he wrote: “Somehow it would seem sacrilegious to sing and dance—there were so many who would never sing and dance again. Far too many American boys have come to join the thousands who already had slept in France for a quarter of a century.” Aboard a naval ship enroute to Okinawa in late March 1945, Pyle penned his final thoughts on the war in northwest Europe, when he freely admitted that his “heart is still in Europe, and that’s why I am writing this column. It is to the boys who were my friends for so long. My one regret of the war is that I was not with them when it ended.” He later added, “In the joyousness of high spirits it is easy for us to forget the dead. . . . But here are many of the living who have had burned into their brains forever the unnatural sight of cold dead men scattered over the hillsides and in the ditches along the high rows of hedge throughout the world.” I numbered a good many of my men, all good paratroopers, among them. I thanked God that the killing had come to an end.
Leave it to General Eisenhower to place the war in perspective. Ike distributed his “Victory Order of the Day” as soon as he announced the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany. As usual, he paid tribute to the American G.I., whose “route through hundreds of miles was marked by graves of former comrades. Each of the fallen died as a member of a team to which you belong, bound together by a common love of liberty and a refusal to submit to enslavement.” The Supreme Commander urged each member of the Allied Expeditionary Force to “revere each honored grave, and to send comfort to the loved ones of comrades who could not live to see this day.” Forty-eight members of Easy Company, 506th PIR, alone had paid the last full measure of their devotion so that others could live in a world without tyranny. The war indeed had been a great crusade against the forces of totalitarianism. A steep price had been paid to liberate Europe. I was merely one survivor of the greatest war in the twentieth century. I wasn’t sure how to feel other than to express my gratitude that somehow I had emerged from this great struggle. I found it difficult to summarize my emotions.
When I realized that the war was over, I felt like a retired fire horse. It’s over, I thought. I’m finished. I did not know what to do with myself, nor did I have much time to think about it. While Americans celebrated the end of the European war in Times Square, the war was sure as hell not over for me. Second Battalion was in the middle of thousands and thousands of German prisoners of war and recently liberated displaced persons, all waiting for someone to tell them what to do. After leaving Berchtesgaden, the 101st Airborne Division began the unenviable task of military occupation. The division’s area of responsibility was a fifty-mile square region just across the border in Austria. On May 8, Colonel Sink ordered 2d Battalion to move out that night at 2200 for Zell-am-See, some thirty miles south of Berchtesgaden. Our convoy consisted of all U.S. Army trucks available, plus any captured German trucks that remained in working order. Each company gave top priority to its truckload of booze from Goering’s officers’ club. Captured German limousines were left behind in Berchtesgaden, though few remained in working order. The convoy moved out with the headlights on full beam. There was no longer need for security. In the back of the trucks the men remained in a party mood. For the past year the normal practice for the troops in a night convoy had been to catch as much sleep as possible since they never knew what was expected of them when they reached their destination. The evening of VE-Day, however, was different. That night was a happy night: a night to celebrate, a night to remember.
Without realizing it, during the night we bypassed Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, the commander-in-chief of the German armies in Italy and his staff, who were four miles back toward Berchtesgaden as we drove through Saalfelden. He would later turn himself in to General Taylor on May 10. One by one the bigwigs of the Nazi Party were rounded up. Colonel Sink accepted the surrender of General Tolsdorf on May 7. The 101st Airborne also bagged Julius Streicher, the famous Jew-baiter, and Franz Xavier Schwarz, treasurer of the Nazi Party, along with Frau Goering. Streicher would later be condemned to death during the Nuremberg trials and executed on October 16, 1946.
At dawn on May 9, our ragtag convoy arrived at Zell-am-See. This part of Austria was a popular resort region containing beautiful country, picturesque scenery, and clear mountain lakes. Around the lakes stood numerous mansions that Nazi officials had enjoyed since the Anschlussincorporated Austria into Hitler’s Third Reich in 1938. As we drove into town, Austrian civilians and the German soldiers stared in amazement and utter disbelief at the sight of our invading army. I can’t imagine what must have gone through their minds as we rolled into town. They certainly could not have been impressed with our military appearance. Unlike the highly immaculate German army in which equipment and appearance were maintained at a high state of readiness, Sink’s paratroopers arrived in nondescript trucks. We had no big tanks, no large artillery, and our uniforms were old, beat-up army fatigue pants and blouses. The German soldiers outnumbered us many times, and their dress and military appearance was far more impressive than ours. Had I been an Austrian or German soldier that morning, I would have asked myself, This is the army that beat us? Impossible!
Impossible or not, we were the victors. Military occupation was the spoils of war, the price of defeat for the loser, the payment for the victor. Second Battalion was ordered to continue across the valley and take over the villages of Kaprun and Bruck. Kaprun lay at the foot of the Austrian Alps, which had halted the German retreat south. The few passes available through the Alps to Italy were still closed by snow. I established my headquarters in the hotel located in the center of Kaprun. The companies were scattered throughout the villages, wherever the company commanders could find good housing.
Our first priority was to establish order and to maintain discipline. Consequently, the first thing I did was to contact the local German military commander. My instructions to him were threefold: first, I wanted all weapons in the valley and the villages around Kaprun-Bruck collected and deposited at the airport, the school, and the church; second, all officers could keep their personal sidearms and enough weapons for their military police; and third, I would inspect the enemy army’s camps, troops, and kitchens the following day. The German commander nodded his concurrence, saluted smartly, and left to execute my orders.
Let me point out that at this time, I was twenty-seven years old, only a few years out of college, and like all the troops, I was wearing a dirty, well-worn combat fatigue jacket and pants. I felt a little ridiculous giving orders to a professional Prussian-born German colonel, twenty years my senior, who, while I was attending college from 1939 to 1941, had been invading Poland, Holland, Belgium, France, and the Soviet Union, and who was dressed in a clean field uniform with an array of medals covering his chest. The picture was analogous to what Robert E. Lee experienced when dressed in his finest uniform, he surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Courthouse to Ulysses S. Grant, who wore a private’s tunic covered with mud.
On the first night in Kaprun, I established a curfew and passed the word through the local burgomaster (mayor) to the townspeople that everybody would be required to be off the streets and in their homes by 1800 hours until 0600 the following day. By 1800 the streets were empty. In the center of the village around the hotel where the battalion command post was located, all the townspeople and soldiers were standing in the doorways of their homes or leaning from the windows. Everybody was cooperating with this new army of occupation, when, suddenly, one old, bald-headed Austrian, in his leather Alpine-style short pants, marched to the middle of the square and very defiantly, with his hands on his hips, took a belligerent stand. Along with the rest of the battalion staff, I was taking all this in from an upstairs balcony overlooking the square. Lieutenant Ralph D. Richey, a gung-ho replacement officer, one of the very best replacement officers we received, came over to me and asked if I would like him to take some men and arrest the old man. I answered, “No, let him alone. Let’s just watch for a while.”
The old man stood there, chin out, challenging us. All the townfolk and troops in the area had nothing else to do or look at but him. After about five minutes it started to strike everyone as silly, and after an additional ten minutes, everybody was giggling and laughing so the old man went back to his house, embarrassed. We never had additional trouble with the people of Kaprun again, so I lifted the curfew after one week.
The next morning, accompanied by Captain Nixon, I took off in my jeep to inspect the sites where I had ordered the weapons to be deposited. I was shocked at the mountain of weapons that had been assembled at each site. Then I realized that I was looking at the result of the famous German reputation for efficiency. I had stipulated yesterday “all weapons,” meaning all military weapons. No one had questioned my order or sought clarification, so they gathered “all weapons.” Before us now lay stacks of hunting rifles, target rifles, hunting knives, antiques, and of course, military weapons.
After I made arrangements to collect the weapons, I inspected the camps and kitchens. I found everything well organized and functioning. Some of the German troops were lined up for review. They were clean, well-dressed, and in good condition. The kitchens themselves were in good order and that day, the German troops served from a large kettle of potato soup cooking over the fire.
The inspection of a few camps and troops was nothing more than a means of establishing a line of communications and a relationship between our headquarters and their headquarters. We left them alone; they respected us; there was no trouble. After the initial inspection, each day the German commander sent a staff officer who spoke English to my headquarters in the morning. After we got to know each other, he recalled stories about the horrific conditions on the Eastern Front. He told us how in the winter the tanks became so cold that if your bare skin touched the metal of the tank, the skin’s surface literally stuck and tore as you pulled away. He also related his experiences fighting the 101st Airborne Division at Bastogne. Reflecting a common belief that circulated many Allied camps at the time, our new friend suggested that “our armies should join hands and wipe out the Russian army.” I can also remember my answer to that invitation: “No thanks, all I want to do is get out of the army and go home.”
Until we arrived at Kaprun, none of the officers, me included, fully comprehended the scope of occupational duties. I had graduated from OCS, fought in four major campaigns, and conducted two combat jumps, but no one had ever taken his time to tell me how to handle a surrender. My region of responsibility literally contained thousands of former Allied prisoners of war, thousands of displaced persons brought here to work from other countries, and now thousands of German soldiers. They all wanted something. They needed help, food, medical care, everything. I looked at these people and thought how lucky they were to be alive since so many had died and so many others were crippled. Here they were, all wishing to return home. Charming as the Austrian countryside was, occupation duty was one hell of a mess. Despite the fact that I had 25,000 Germans under my charge, there seemed like nothing to do, no reason to work.
There was little alternative but to address the problems, one issue at a time. We went to work. As soon as possible, in an orderly manner, German prisoners were moved out of the area via truck convoys and by train to stockades in Nuremberg and Munich. On May 10, Lieutenant Stapelfeld escorted a trainload of German soldiers, women, and horses to Nuremberg, before hitching a ride back to 2d Battalion two days later. There were certainly no shortages of prisoners. We had no idea how many German soldiers remained in those hillside forests. Some were in small groups, some were solo. Each day, we sent jeeps to patrol secondary roads and trails, trying to locate and direct these troops to our airport compound. Today, I still find it amazing that we did not suffer casualties from these patrols for we were sitting targets for any die-hard Germans who weren’t prepared to surrender. Apparently they wanted to return home as much as my men. I estimated that my battalion of 600 men had been surrounded by approximately 25,000 German soldiers and almost as many displaced persons when we moved into the area on May 9.
There was one German prisoner who caught my personal attention. He was a major from a German panzer unit—a true German and one hell of a good soldier. We talked over tactics, soldiering in general, and were pleased to discover that at Bastogne we had fought each other tooth and nail. Quite a coincidence! The major had been wounded six times during the war, but he had kept soldiering to the very end. The day following our revelations, he presented me his pistol as a token of friendship between us and as a formal surrender to his captor. He did so on his own volition rather than leaving his pistol on a desk in some office. When he handed me his sidearm, I noticed that the pistol had never been fired. There was no blood on it. It remains one of the few mementos I have kept from the war. The pistol still has not been fired—and it never will. This is the way wars ought to end. Let the generals and politicians participate in elaborate ceremonies. At the soldier level, a peaceful transfer of weapons, a smart salute or some other gesture of respect—that’s the way it should be for soldiers who had faced the bullets.
The growing number of displaced persons continued to present a special problem. I thought I had seen a lot of DPs before, but this area was jammed! Feeding these people was a problem. We were in no position to handle the feeding of so many people. As quickly as possible, we assembled them in groups according to their nationality: Hungarians, Poles, Czechs, and other eastern European nations. Once organized, we next shipped them by truck convoy to major holding areas throughout southern Germany.
Regimental headquarters now directed me to consolidate the mounds of captured German equipment and the excess U.S. Army equipment that we no longer needed for combat. Convoys of trucks were organized and all excess equipment was shipped to depots in France. Supply officers made ridiculous demands on subordinate headquarters, which culminated in the height of absurdity when senior headquarters directed all officers who had received a silk escape map before the jump into Normandy to turn them in or be fined $75. I had kept my escape map sewn in the belt lining of my pants all through the war. After four campaigns, that map had sentimental value. There are times that the army comes up with some rules and orders that defy common sense and are meant to be disobeyed. This time I took a firm stand and I borrowed a punch line from General McAuliffe at Bastogne. Writing a short note to Captain Sobel, still serving as regimental S-4, I wrote, “Nuts!” To add salt into Sobel’s wound, I signed the message, “Richard D. Winters, Major, Commanding.” That ended it. I kept my map and it currently occupies a place of honor in my private office. Nor did I pay the $75 fine. Memories of this type of military inefficiency made it easy to decide not to make the army a career.
Sobel suffered one additional mishap before returning to the States. In late May Charles Lindbergh and the chief of staff of the Strategic Bomber Survey visited the 506th Regiment in Zell-am-See. Close to Colonel Sink’s headquarters was a senior officer from the Luftwaffe with the unusual name of Martini. Lindbergh wanted to interview Martini’s chief signal officer concerning German attempts to improve their communications and radar facilities. No one could find Martini until Sobel sounded off after hearing his name. According to Major Salve Matheson, Sink’s operations officer, Sobel said, “Oh, I threw him in the pokey a couple hours ago for violating curfew.” Matheson retrieved the German officer in time for Lindbergh to complete his interview.
Now that the prisoners and displaced persons had been cleared from the area, it seemed to me that I had relaxed a bit during the past week. Keeping the troops occupied now became my biggest challenge, so I let the men concentrate chiefly on resting. In fact, I took a few afternoons off myself for mountain climbing and sunning. How lovely it was just to look at those snow-capped peaks, and watch a cloud or two bump into an Alp. I had nothing more than my own men to worry about. They were such nice, quiet lads that they were really no trouble at all.
As troop duty changed from combat to occupation, we reorganized from our former way of life as frontline soldiers and returned to a garrison style of life and training. We could not ignore training, however, particularly since replacements now comprised the vast majority of 2d Battalion. Since rumors abounded that the 101st might deploy to the Pacific, I constructed rifle ranges to sharpen the men’s marksmanship. Close order drills and troop reviews once again appeared on the weekly training schedule. The largest review occurred on July 4, complete with a parade and the release of hundreds of pigeons.
The next thing we organized was a highly competitive organized athletic and calisthenics program. During the ballgames when the men were stripped to their waists, or wearing only shorts, the sight of all those battle scars made me conscious of the fact that other than a handful of men in the battalion who had survived all four campaigns, only a few were lucky enough to be without at least one scar. Some men had two, three, even four scars on their chests, backs, arms, or legs. Keep in mind that at Kaprun, I was looking only at the men who were not seriously wounded. This type of atmosphere created an unspoken bond of mutual respect between the men and a fierce pride in their unit.
The story of Private First Class Joe Hogan spoke for all of us on the subject of pride in Company E. During an argument with a soldier from another company about whose company was better, Hogan proclaimed, “My Company E will lick your company in fifteen minutes, and if you wait until the guys who are AWOL come back, we’ll do it in five minutes.”
My staff and I devised other means to occupy the troops as they awaited their discharges or next assignment. High in the Alps behind Kaprun was a beautiful ski lodge that overlooked the valley. The lift to the lodge was not in working order, but it could be reached by climbing the mountain trail. I established a program where we rotated one platoon every seventy-two hours to the ski lodge to learn how to ski and to hunt. These men were on their own—no officers, nobody but a cook, a few servants, and two instructors. They could really relax since they were so far away, nobody would think of bothering them. This alpine retreat allowed the men to escape the monotony of a daily military routine. Snow was present the year round so the men could ski, hunt mountain goats, or if they were so inclined, they could climb the adjacent mountains in search of edelweiss. To carry edelweiss in your cap was the mark of a true alpine climber. As with most of the troops, I climbed high in the mountains and found my edelweiss. I treasure that alpine flower to this day. After four campaigns and the loss of so many comrades, it reminded me that beauty and peace could once again settle over a troubled land.
The enemy had surrendered, but our men were still dying. A ticket to the States required eighty-five points. Soldiers accumulated points based on length of service, the number of campaigns in which they had fought, medals earned, wounds incurred, and whether or not a trooper was married. Those with eighty-five points were eligible for immediate transfer home and discharge. Most of the men had not accrued that total. What they did have was too much booze and too much time on their hands. Soldiers not involved in strenuous activity inevitably get into trouble. In a letter to Sergeant Forrest Guth, who was in England recuperating from a wound, Captain Speirs summarized the misfortunes that befell Easy Company in the first month of occupational duty. George Luz had fallen off a motorcycle and injured his arm. Sergeant Jim Alley was busted because of repeated drunkenness. Sergeant Darrell “Shifty” Powers was en route home to the States when the truck in which he was riding overturned. Powers, who had won a lottery ticket home, was hospitalized for the next year. Sergeant “Chuck” Grant caught a bullet in the head from a drunken American soldier and would have died had he not received immediate medical attention from an Austrian surgeon. To replace Grant as platoon sergeant, Speirs assigned Staff Sergeant Floyd Talbert, who had asked to be relieved from his duties as 1st Sergeant due to a personality conflict with Speirs. Staff Sergeant John C. Lynch from 2d Platoon replaced Talbert as company first sergeant.
Despite the amenities of occupational duty, there were two things that 2d Battalion didn’t have: the first was enough food. The 506th PIR was at the far end of the pipeline in terms of distribution. Everybody from the ports of Cherbourg and Antwerp right on down the pipeline had a crack at the food for themselves, their civilian girlfriends, and the black market before we were taken care of. The battalion particularly suffered during the first three weeks following the German capitulation. It did no good to complain to regimental headquarters. Dried potatoes and dried tomatoes simply did not maintain body mass for young men, so we all lost a considerable amount of weight. To compensate for our lack of rations, we shot a few cattle and once in a while, a mountain elk, but this hardly provided sufficient meat to feed all the troops.
I decided to do my part, so one day I went to the ski lodge and talked a local Austrian guide into taking me up the mountain to hunt mountain goat. We climbed high above the clouds, above the tree line, above the grass line. We finally discovered a family of four goats resting on a ledge below us to our right, just out of range of my 1903 Springfield rifle. We stalked the goats, getting closer, but just about the time that I was within range, I slipped in the snow and tumbled over a ledge. I slid farther down the mountain and tumbled over a second ledge. I thought I was a goner, but after the second tumble, I was on my back and able to stop my slide by jamming my rifle butt into the snow and ice. After surviving so many battles, I couldn’t help but think that this would have been a hell of a way to die.
I turned around, looked back up the mountain, and there was that mountain goat that had been below me before I fell. Now, he was looking down at me. I opened the bolt of the rifle, blew the snow from the rifle barrel, closed the bolt, and shot the goat. The goat tumbled down the mountain, stopping about 100 yards past me in another snowbank. I sat down, my knees shaking. I was weak from shock. When I had fallen over that first ledge, my field glasses had bounced up, hit me in the mouth, and broken my front tooth at the gum line, leaving the nerve of the tooth hanging free. My guide came down to check me out. I told him, “I’m okay. If you want that goat, you can have him. All I want are the horns.” He was delighted with the deal. Very carefully, I climbed back up the mountain and made my way back to the ski lodge. On the way I promised God and myself that never, ever, was I going to go mountain climbing again. And I still have the horns of that mountain goat.
The hunting incident brought to my immediate attention the second major thing we were lacking—a good dentist. I was in desperate need of one, and I sure as hell was not going to see “Shifty” Feiler again. We had troops quartered in the home of a civilian dentist, so I went to see him with my problem. He, too, had a problem—American soldiers living in his nice home. We soon arranged a deal. He would take care of my front tooth and my cavities if I would find another home for the troops. This would take care of my problem, but what about the men? We were all in need of dental care and attention. We soon agreed that each day he would take care of twelve men. From that day forward, he had a steady stream of customers, including Colonel Robert Strayer from regimental headquarters.
In mid-June, Sergeant Al Krochka, the photographer from division headquarters, visited me at Kaprun. Al had a very sad story. He claimed that he had never been in a position where he could obtain a good German Luger pistol. Could I help him out? If I did, he would provide me a series of photographs that he had taken from Normandy to Berchtesgaden, many of them taken while he visited the 2d Battalion along the way. Having never owned a camera, I had never taken a single picture, and I sure wanted a set of those photographs to take home. We made a trade—Al got his Luger and I received the photographs. Later, I discovered the truth behind his “sad” story. Al had made quite a few sets of photographs and he was negotiating for pistols to sell in Paris to finance a good furlough.
Aside from the natural beauty of Kaprun and its surroundings, perhaps the most rewarding activity was taking the opportunity for personal reflection after eleven months of sustained combat. My initial thoughts encompassed the pride I felt in being a paratrooper and being associated with so many fine young soldiers. The significance of the role paratroopers played in the war can never be fully explained. They had proven beyond all doubt to be practicable. Even the ever-present threat of our employment was of major importance in the general picture. And when we dropped, it was proven that the enemy often just took off, plain scared. That was not the case in Normandy, of course, because we encountered German paratroopers in our approach to Carentan. You could always determine the discipline of your enemy by how ferociously and tenaciously they fought. German paratroopers had always proved our most dangerous adversaries.
Occupation duty was about as exciting as my first months on battalion staff. After commanding Easy Company in Normandy and Holland, sedentary duty on the battalion staff had been a huge letdown. The same was true now that the actual fighting was over. A typical day followed a schedule something like this: Up around 0700, breakfast, paperwork, inspect guards, quarters, and kitchens the remainder of the morning. After a little lunch, fool around for a while, and then take a sunbath for a few hours while I read or just lay and think. That’s what I really enjoyed, just drifting around and thinking of nothing in particular. In the evenings we played volleyball, after which I took a run, did some exercises, and then a group of us would shoot the bull, maybe try and write a letter or read, but it was really just a lot of foolish talk. Life wasn’t really that bad.
Late evenings usually consisted of sitting around the table and shooting the bull with Lewis Nixon and Harry Welsh. The conversation usually centered on old battles, transferring to another outfit in the South Pacific, talking about snafu (a military acronym depicting complete chaos) officers we knew and had known. It’s a funny thing: The first thing soldiers talk about is old battle experiences. It doesn’t matter what topics you plan to discuss, it isn’t long until the conversation turns to combat. You would think the conversations would become boring, but not to us. We talked about the same battles over and over, about how we destroyed the battery at Brecourt and how we survived the cold at Bastogne.
Next, we talked about putting on some flashy review for the top brass, with pigeons being released as the colors passed the reviewing stand, and buglers blasting from the top of the Alps and letting the music reverberate around the valleys. Of course, we laughed about the loot that we had confiscated at Berchtesgaden and about lesser, more mundane matters. I recalled how one officer had discovered a large supply of silver coins, which he duly reported to me. I took the matter directly to Colonel Sink, who contacted a silversmith in neighboring Innsbruck. The silversmith melted the coins and then made individual silver cups for each officer in the 506th. Across the base of the cup was inscribed the name of the four campaigns in which Sink’s commissioned officers had participated as officers. Most bull sessions ended with Nixon and me saying to hell with going home, we were volunteering for the China-Burma-India (C.B.I.) Theater. We tried to convince Harry Welsh into going along, but he had an Irish lass named Kitty Grogan back home who was waiting for him.
In mid-May SHAEF lifted its restrictions and its censorship of military mail. Most of us took the opportunity to write home in a futile attempt to put into words what we had gone through since D-Day. Writing to DeEtta Almon, I summarized the war from my personal perspective, but I found it impossible to convey my innermost thoughts to someone who had not experienced combat. I had grown frigid mentally and couldn’t think of anything to write. Instead I outlined my plan to volunteer for combat duty against the Japanese. Now that the war in Europe was over, I had been wondering what was the use of sitting around here for six months or so of occupational duty when I could utilize my talents in the Pacific Theater. Call it professional pride or simply a desire for additional action, but I decided to volunteer for duty with some parachute unit or infantry unit in the C.B.I. Theater. My desire for additional combat had nothing to do with earning medals. I had never cared about public recognition—my reward had always been the look of respect in the eyes of my men. After eleven months of war, I understood fire and maneuver, planning, and leading soldiers in combat. In garrison, I enjoyed the soldiering part, but as far as social activities were concerned, I was a class-A flop. Volunteering for Japan would relieve me of the monotony of occupation. I reckoned that I had to die sometime, so what was the use of sitting in Kaprun? I discussed my options with Colonel Sink, who asked me point-blank, “Why are you leaving me?” He reluctantly agreed to arrange an interview with Major General Elbridge G. “Gerry” Chapman, commanding general of the 13th Airborne Division. Selected for the invasion of Japan, the 13th Airborne Division was scheduled to sail from France on August 15 to participate in the assault on Kyushu scheduled for November.
I reported to General Chapman on May 26 and informed him of my desire to transfer to his outfit. I figured that since the 13th Airborne Division had been alerted for duty in the South Pacific, combat duty beat the heck out of occupational duty. I repeated much of the rationale that I had expressed to my mother when she first heard that I intended to transfer to fight in the Pacific. I felt that God had been good enough to let me live through the European war. As a result, I was combat-wise and in a position to do some good to help a lot of men. I knew that I could do the job, better than, or as well as, any of the rest. How could I sit back and see others take men out and get them killed because they didn’t understand? These new officers just didn’t have “it.” Maybe I would get hurt or killed for my trouble, but so what, if it meant I could make it possible for many others to go home. Their mothers wanted them alive, too, the same as me. So what else could I do and still hold my own self-respect as an officer and as a man?
General Chapman listened graciously and told me that he would welcome me to his outfit, but—just as my mother had expressed—that I had done enough. Let the other fellows have a chance. Well, I had given it the old college try. I thanked him for his time, saluted, and departed. On returning to my headquarters, I couldn’t help but think that Colonel Sink had greased the skids for my interview, but he had also asked General Chapman to disapprove my request. The 13th Airborne Division had its own officers and they didn’t need me.
So, I was staying put, but apparently not for long. In mid-June General Maxwell Taylor announced that the 101st Airborne Division was earmarked to go to the Pacific at some unspecified time and that the Screaming Eagles should plan and train accordingly. The announcement did not sit well with the troops, particularly the remaining Toccoa men. My best estimate was that I would remain awhile in Europe and would see the States in January. Following a month’s leave, I expected to be training around Fort Bragg or Mackall until we deployed overseas. After such a long rest, going into combat again would be tough. I found myself changing as the weeks went by. As the frustration of occupation duty increased, I was really bitter and put out with everybody and everything. Becoming more or less resigned to the fact of returning to combat with inexperienced troops, I yearned to return home. I figured I had been lucky, mighty lucky, from the very first day, but I’d seen so many get it and go out feetfirst. I just knew if I stuck around long enough, I’d have my turn sometime because I had taken too many chances. I had to lead from the front, with my position, prestige, and job on the line. Consequently I was no longer too keen on going to the Pacific after being rejected by General Chapman, but orders were orders.
On June 28, all “eighty-five-point” men departed Kaprun. To my great satisfaction, most of the Toccoa men stopped by to say goodbye before returning home. As I told my Stateside friend DeEtta Almon, “It was a good thing you weren’t around to see that one. You’d think we were a bunch of schoolgirls. If you’d heard some of the things they had to tell me, you’d understand why I want to stick around and see the end of this war out on the front line. They sure appreciate . . . everything.”
I had accrued 100 points as of May 12 and should have been en route to the United States under ordinary conditions, but my services were “needed” in Austria by Colonel Sink. Regrettably many of our men remained longer in Europe than they should have because General Taylor had been notoriously stingy in awarding combat medals to the frontline soldiers. Over the course of the war, only two troopers from the 101st Airborne Division received the Medal of Honor. One was Lieutenant Colonel Robert G. Cole, a battalion commander, who was killed on September 18, 1944, by a sniper at Best, Holland, near the bridges over the Wilhelmina Canal as we were attacking Eindhoven. Just a few days earlier, Cole had been notified that he would receive the Medal of Honor for leading a bayonet charge in Normandy. The second recipient was Private First Class Joe E. Mann, who hurled himself on a grenade to save the lives of his squad near the Wilhelmina Canal outside Eindhoven on September 19, 1944. Officers from West Point received an unusually high number of awards, including General Taylor, who received the Distinguished Service Cross in Normandy, but for those at the grunt level, higher headquarters downgraded far too many recommendations.
And so, many of the Toccoa veterans returned home, yet all would be forever connected by their shared experiences in combat. Over the course of the war, Easy Company alone lost forty-eight men killed and over 100 wounded, incurring 150 percent casualties. This percentage was not uncommon among similar units who had fought in the campaign of northwest Europe. “At the peak of its effectiveness, in Holland in October 1944 and in the Ardennes in January 1945, it was as good a rifle company as there was in the world,” according to author Stephen E. Ambrose. How so many men survived the campaigns in Normandy, Holland, Bastogne, and Germany was a true testament to their courage, their training, and their discipline under fire.