82nd Airborne Division Blog

In this section we talk about people and events of the 82nd in WWII - the known and hopefully lots of the previously unknown. If you have something to add, we would love to hear it. You can enter your comments at the bottom of each story.

General Maxwell D. Taylor saves the 82nd from annihilation

World War II: The Allies first victory against Hitler’s Fortress Europe came in July 1943 with the invasion and capture of Sicily. It was not a total success as most of the Axis soldiers on the island escaped to mainland Italy. However, the British and American armies were now in striking distance of the Italian mainland and fighter aircraft could assist in the effort from Sicilian airbases.

The 82nd Airborne Division proved a valuable asset and General Mark Clark’s V Army wanted them in the initial fighting in Italy, but was unsure where and how to use them to best advantage. Several ideas were floated and then scrapped, finally leading to Operation Giant II.

Italian dictator Benito Mussolini had recently been overthrown and the new government was in secret talks with the Allies regarding Italy’s surrender and immediate switching of sides in the war. Giant II would take advantage of this by dropping the 82nd Airborne Division on and around the airfields of Rome. Italian soldiers would attack and prevent German anti-aircraft guns from firing on the troop transports and help take and hold the capital city.

General Maxwell Taylor, executive officer (second in command) of the 82nd, volunteered to be smuggled into Italy, meet with the Italian high command and get a feel for their resolve and ability to follow through on their commitments.

The paratroopers and glidermen scrambled to absorb the new plan and were soon ready to go. The 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment was slated to be the first part of the division to drop on Rome. A battalion was already inside C-47′s waiting for takeoff when General Taylor got word through to Allied command.

Taylor believed the Italian soldiers would probably not be able to control the anti-aircraft batteries over which the 82nd would fly and would be of little help in and around Rome. Giant II was canceled.

Lt. Col. Mark Alexander, the commander of the 2nd Battalion 505, hadn’t liked the mission from the moment he learned of it. “I’d often thought afterward if we had gone in there, they would have wiped us out. We would have been cut to pieces before Allied reinforcements could get to us. I breathed a sigh of relief when they canceled that jump. It would have been a suicide operation.”

This was proved out when it was learned that the Germans had multiple divisions within twenty miles of Rome, several of which were armored. The light weapons of the paratroopers would not have matched up well. Severely outgunned and out-manned, it would have been a bloodbath.

After the war it became known that General Matthew B. Ridgway, commander of the 82nd, also hated the plan and believed it to be suicidal.

Fortunately, Taylor accomplished his secret mission and saved the 82nd in the process. He would later be given command of the 101st Airborne Division, successfully leading it for the rest of the war.

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Doc McIlvoy delivers baby near front lines

Shortly after the 82nd Airborne Division liberated the town of La Haye du Puits in Normandy, France, Major Daniel McIlvoy was called to deliver a baby very near the front lines. The chaplain’s assistant, Private Jack Ospital, was given the assignment to accompany Doc McIlvoy because he spoke French… barely.

They drove out to a farmhouse where the soon to be papa excitedly ushered them upstairs. The wife was in bed and other family members stood nearby. It was strange that they had not evacuated as the fighting approached, but perhaps they were set on having their baby in their own home. Either way, the time was close at hand.

Ospital did his best to translate between the French couple and McIlvoy. He quickly learned that “It was apparent to me now that when the Major said something to me to relay to them, as long as I said something to them and they said something back to me and I said something to the Major, all was well. The thing that bothered me was that the only part of this procedure that I was sure of was the bit that went on between the Major and me.”

Ospital did catch the meaning of the words the Frenchman used to comfort her wife as the labor pains increased. He told her “Do not think of the pain, just think of the fun we had making the baby.”

Regardless of communication problems the couple were in good hands. McIlvoy was the regimental surgeon for the 505 Parachute Infantry Regiment and knew what he was doing.  Soon a beautiful baby boy was laid in his mother’s arms. The next day when McIlvoy and Ospital returned to check on the family’s well being the proud father asked Ospital for the Major’s name. On learning it was Daniel McIlvoy, the father announced that Daniel would also be the baby’s name.

McIlvoy was very pleased by this and the Frenchman gave him a dozen fresh eggs before they left -  which under those conditions meant an awful lot.

To read Private Ospital’s full account, see The Way We Were: Doc McIlvoy and his Parachuting Medics by Michel De Trez

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Sainte-Mère-Église first town liberated on D-Day

Very early in the morning of June 6th, 1944 allied paratroopers began landing in the darkness all over Normandy, France.  Some fell right on target, but most were scattered.  Those that landed on the small French town of Sainte-Mère-Église were in trouble.

Earlier a building on the town square had caught fire and the German garrison was awake and monitoring the French civilians as they tried to douse the blaze. A planeload of troopers from the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division floated down into the chaos. Some landed in trees and were shot dead before they could free themselves from their chutes. At least one landed directly on the inferno and quickly burned to death. Many of the others were also quickly shot and killed.

Two men had their chutes catch on the corners of the church steeple as a Sergeant Ray landed in the square below. A German soldier shot Ray in the stomach before he could remove his chute and then turned to fire at the men dangling above him. However, Ray drew his 45 caliber pistol and shot the German soldier in the head. Ray died an agonizing death, but saved the lives of two fellow soldiers.

One of the men hanging from the church was able to free himself. The other, John Steele, played dead for hours. (This scene was portrayed in the movie The Longest Day and a paratrooper manikin hangs from the church steeple to this day.)

When help arrived, it was under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Ed Krause, the 3rd Battalion Commander of the 505. He had gathered roughly 100 men in the pre-dawn hours and attacked, quickly driving off enemy soldiers. The little town of Sainte-Mère-Église, the primary objective of the 82nd, was now in American hands and was the first town liberated on D-Day morning.

The 505 and stragglers from other regiments and the 101st Airborne Division would fight tenaciously to hold the town over the next few days in the face of withering attacks from both the north and south. But they would hold.

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Captain George Simonds, 508th PIR

Captain George Simonds - 508 PIR

Captain George Simonds - 508th PIR

Memorial Day – 2010

While at Oak Hill Cemetery in San Jose today, I visited Captain George Simonds grave (508th Parachute Infantry Regiment). He died in Normandy attacking Hill 95 in 1944. My grandfather, Mark Alexander, felt partially responsible for his death as he was supposed to lead that attack, but was badly wounded the night before when artillery hit the tree he was under. He had done a lot of reconnaissance and felt he had a better attack plan that would have been less costly in lives.

Alexander visited Simonds’s grave throughout the rest of his life.

Note: Captain Simonds’s parents were both named Gale. Simonds’s name is at the bottom of the stone.

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Sergeant Victor Schmidt, 505th PIR

Among the Normandy hedgerows in June, 1944:

“Sgt. Victor Schmidt, 2nd Platoon mortar sergeant, back with us again after being wounded in Italy, wanted to reconnoiter the new territory. Wondering about with one of the other troopers in the lower hedgerows, he spotted a scared German soldier hiding out. Schmidt asked him if he would like a cigarette in German. I can imaging the prisoner’s thoughts, thinking he may be killed and then to find out he was being treated kindly.

“Schmidt would yell over to the Germans and tell them he was some Barren Von something or other. Sometimes they would yell over to us. As one said, ‘They are holding me here and won’t let me go!’ I did love to hear them sing, ‘Lilt Marlene.’ This back and forth talk only happened a few times.”

The above is from Otis Sampson’s book Time Out for Combat.

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Colonel Krause goes hunting for Mac

Don McKeage didn’t realize that his last name would be a burden while he and the rest of the 82n Airborne Division were in England training for D-Day.

3rd Battalion commander Ed “Cannonball” Krause was a polarizing figure in the 505. The men seemed to either hate him or love him.

McKeage remembers, “Cannonball Krause came out of the officers club by the back door which opened into a cow pasture. One of our men hit him over the head with a piece of wood. The wood was rotten and it broke right over his head. So, he went down, but got up and chased this guy.

“There were woods to the west of our camp. Krause chased this guy into the woods and lost him. But he somehow knew the guys name was Mac. … Well, hell, everybody was Mac… The next day all the Macs in the regiment are once again lined up in Class A uniforms (including McKeage because of the “Mac” pronunciation in his last name). You know Krause. Boy he was just stomping up and down. His eyes were black and his face was all black and blue. ‘If I find the guy who did this I’m really going to get him.’”*

Apparently Krause didn’t find the perpetrator in the lineup. It’s unknown if he was ever caught. Unfortunately for McKeage, this wasn’t the only time his name was a hassle.

A few weeks earlier Colonel Mark Alexander had all the “Macs” lined up after one of them punched a prostitute.**

*John Sparry interviewed Don McKeage at Fort Bragg, NC in 1997.

** See the book Jump Commander for details.

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504 in Italy – Corporal Ross Carter

The 504 and 505 Regimental Combat Teams of the 82nd Airborne Division jumped onto the Salerno, Italy beachhead in mid September, 1943. The 504 landed first and did much to keep the allies from being thrown back into the sea by a tenacious German army. The division then fought their way up into Naples and the 505 fought onto the Volturno River.

The roll of the 82nd in Italy was to help Mark Clark’s V Army break out of the beachhead and get rolling. It had fulfilled it’s mission and now General Matthew B. Ridgway wanted to move his boys to Great Britain and prepare for the cross-channel invasion of France (D-Day).

The bad news was that General Clark, who outranked Ridgway, wanted to keep the aggressive paratroopers in Italy to help his attack north. Over Ridgway’s objections, the 504 stayed with Clark, who promised to get them to England with plenty of time to absorb replacement troops and train for Normandy.

Most of the 82nd sailed away for Ireland.  Corporal Ross Carter of the 504 assumed they were going as well.  “Since we hadn’t been re-equipped we thought, and rumor confirmed it, that our mission in Italy was completed and that we were going to England to rejoin the 82nd. Rumor was wrong as usual. Although we didn’t all have entrenching tools, and our shelter halves were worn out, and some of our guns were in bad shape, we got into some trucks and went driving through the rain. It always rained when we went anywhere. If the Legion would drive through the Sahara in the driest season, I bet a cloudburst would fall on it. We got off the trucks under the rocky slopes of the biggest mountain we ever saw in Italy and set up a bivouac in some olive trees. Dozens of 105[mm] howitzers and 155[mm] long toms (both types of cannons) and other breeds of howitzers were all around us. They fired day and night. A man had to be stone deaf to get any sleep. Plenty of tanks were all around. It looked like something big was going on, something bigger than anything we’d seen so far.” (Carter’s quote is taken from All American, All the Way by Phil Nordyke.)

The 504 fought most of December for two hotly contested hills near the Gustav line. Multiple attacks and counter attacks and countless artillery shells took a huge toll. German soldiers got the worst of the fight, but both sides had very high casualties.

After recouping for a few weeks back in Naples, the 504 then joined in an amphibious landing at Anzio in attempt to flank the German Gustav Line.  Another month of brutal fighting ensued before the 504 was relieved and sent to join the rest of the 82nd. At this point, however, they were too chewed up and time was too short. They would not recover in time to join the division in the D-Day invasion of the Normandy peninsula.

The 505 would miss their sister regiment and jumped into Normandy as the only regiment with combat experience out of all three airborne divisions (82nd, 101st, and British 6th) participating in the operation.

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Sergeant Alvin C. York

The most decorated American soldier from World War I was in the 82nd Airborne Division – only it wasn’t airborne in those days. He was Alvin C. York, a former pacifist who really didn’t want to kill anyone. He received the Congressional Medal Of Honor for leading an attack on a German machine gun nest, killing 28 German soldiers and capturing 132 others. York and the seven men in his command brought the 132 captured soldiers back through American lines for processing.

Of course, there were no paratroopers in World War I days so they were called the 82nd Infantry Division. After the war, it was deactivated and would remain that way until the United States was involved in World War II.

The 82nd was reactivated in 1942 and became the first United States airborne division. The only regiment remaining from the previous war was the 325th, which was now designated as glider troops. The 504 and 505 Parachute Infantry Regiments were also added to the division along with multiple smaller supporting units, such as engineers, artillery and medics.

Sergeant York was one of the first famous All Americans, but he certainly wasn’t the last.

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Slit vs. Straddle Trench

On our Facebook page we asked the question: would you be better off sleeping in a slit trench or a straddle trench?

One is clearly not built for napping, and that’s the straddle trench. Out in the field or in camp, straddle trenches are are dug and used as latrines.

The slit trench, on the other hand, is described in MSN’s Encarta dictionary as “a narrow trench dug as protection against shelling during a battle.” So it was definitely designed for a soldier to lie down in it. However, there are also slit trench latrines.  Luckily, they are too small and shallow for a man or woman to take cover in and it would, therefore, be difficult to confuse the two. They are usually less than six inches deep and one shovel width wide. Just enough to do one’s business and still easily cover with dirt.

It’s more likely that a straddle trench might be mistaken for a foxhole. The later comes in various shapes and sizes. Although a straddle trench is often dug 1 foot wide, 4 feet long and fairly deep, sizes will also vary widely. In North Africa during WWII for example, the ground was so hard the airborne engineers had to blast them out with dynamite. Perfectly rectangular they were not.

Despite precautions, in war confusion reigns. The book Jump Commander describes a situation where in the dark on night, a trooper mistakenly dove for cover in an enemy straddle trench.

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Brutal North African conditions

If you’re up for a picnic, the northern border between Morocco and Algeria sounds awesome. The 82nd Airborne Division was stationed there, near the town of Oujda, Morocco, for a few months in 1943. Here’s a description of camp by Len Lebenson of division HQ from his book “Surrounded by Heroes”.

“Africa was hot and dusty, full of tiny scorpions that stung, persistent flies that appeared in clouds whenever food was exposed, and generally miserable conditions. … We heard about the Sirocco (not the Volkswagen from the 1980′s), then found out what it was. The day would start off cool, then relentlessly begin to heat up about 9 AM. By noon, the heat and sun were brutal and by two in the afternoon the temperature would be hovering about 110 degrees. At 3 PM, almost without fail, came the Sirocco, a fierce wind blowing clouds of blinding sand from the desert toward the Mediterranean in the north. The sand got into everything, including one’s mouth, nose, eyes and ears.”

Major Mark Alexander called it “the worst picked bivouac area I ever saw” and even General Matthew B. Ridgeway, who selected the area was shocked by how tough the conditions were.

Later, most of the division moved to Kairouan, Tunisia to be close to the airfields that would fly them into the upcoming Sicily invasion. Remarkably, it was even hotter here, although there were orchard trees that provided some shade.

Animals were sometimes able to get to bodies in a nearby Muslim cemetery. Dried bits of flesh made their way into the afternoon wind and spread. A good many men had dysentery while in Oujda and that hadn’t improved in Kairouan.

Quite a few of the men were looking forward to combat because they figured it couldn’t be any worse than North Africa.

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