As told to Matt Baker
The moment I heard Pearl Harbor had been attacked I was ready to enlist, at the age of nineteen, to serve my country and defend her against any foreign aggressors who threatened our way of life. When my mother caught wind of my intention, she asked me not to go until I was needed. So, reluctantly, I listened. Then one day I went to get the mail and found a letter from the U.S. Army. I had been drafted; I was needed.
I would be leaving behind my four sisters and a brother who was sixteen years older than me. I would also be leaving my job ship fitting at the shipyards in Oakland. We were just coming out of the Great Depression and I had been working since I was fifteen to help my mom at home and rarely found time for school. I remember my aunt and uncle sleeping behind our piano, and I had a bed in the garage on the dirt floor. We helped one another; we were a good family, but I had to leave that all behind to serve my country.
Off to Training
In what seemed no more than an instant, I was being loaded onto a bus bound for Camp Roberts in Paso Robles, California, where I was to receive basic training for the next two months. After I had finished basic training, I was given a number of choices for how I could be deployed. Among them I found something new, something never offered to any enlisted man prior to this war, the Army Air Corps. It paid fifty dollars a month more than any of my other alternatives, so when they asked for volunteers, I stepped forward to be a paratrooper. Paratroopers were badly needed, and on top of that I figured the more cash I could send home to help my mom, the better. So that’s what I chose, not yet knowing what was in store for me.
I was then sent to Fort Benning with the rest of the 82nd Airborne, 507th Regiment, Company A. Fort Benning was a massive base that took up parts of two counties in Georgia and one in Alabama. It was there that I met Michael W. Hanley from Chicago, my best friend throughout my service. He was my buddy; we had KP (kitchen patrol) together and frequently snuck off the base. One time we were late getting back, so we had to spend the night digging a five-cubic-foot hole, with the sergeant watching. Another time there was a party going on all night in town. The MPs showed up and were checking passes. I had a couple of blank passes that I’d filled out myself and gave one to Hanley, but I’d forgotten to put the date on them. When the MP saw this he told us to stand to the side while they checked other passes. Hanley and I quickly escaped out a second story window. There happened to be an Army truck passing by, and we jumped on it not knowing were it was going, but darned if it didn’t go back to the base. We thought we were in the clear, but the next morning at roll call the captain said, “Private MacDonald and Hanley step forward.” He wanted to know who had forged Captain Miller’s signature on our passes. I had a buddy I grew up with named Miller, so I put Captain Miller not knowing that the captain was really named Miller. We were put on KP for two weeks after that.
To learn how to jump from a plane, we trained in a hangar with a mockup of the door from a C-47. We would line up inside the fuselage and, when the man behind you would pat you on the rear, you would jump out to the floor a few feet below. Then you would run around and get back in line, time and time again. We did this exercise so many times that it became muscle memory to just jump when you felt the pat on the behind. By the time our training was over I had received commendations for marksmanship, not only with the M-1 carbine but also with the BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle). After this training, we had to pack our own parachute, hoping we’d packed it right. It took five live jumps from a plane to earn our airborne wings.
Leaving the U.S.
By now, it was the summer of 1942, and our training was over; we were all put on a boat bound for Europe. The ship seemed to plod along, taking what seemed like years to get to our destination. The men all talked about the upcoming battle we would soon drop into, with a strange mix of eagerness and anxiety. Finally our ship made port in England and we were stationed in Nottingham Forest, near an old British castle. We would not be staying there long.
On the night of Monday, June 5, 1944, a long enough break in the rainy weather finally came, and we commenced our invasion. General Eisenhower gave the 138 men in my company, the order to defend the bridge at Sainte Mere Eglise for at least three days. If we couldn’t do that, he said, the Normandy invasion would be a failure. (In the end, company A held that bridge for eleven days.)
Company A and the rest of the 82nd Airborne Division were then loaded into C-47s. Our packs and parachutes weighed so much that we all needed help climbing into the planes. Hanley and I were put on different planes, so I said goodbye to him. Of 138 men in the 507, only 36 would make it home.
Dropping into France
We then took off, bound for France. Around 2:15 a.m. we were told that we were over our drop zone. We rose to our feet and clipped our cords onto the hard line that ran the length of the fuselage. We were flying at an unusually low altitude because the pilots had to stay below the thick cloud cover but, despite that, one by one we all leaped from the plane. Our parachutes deployed a few seconds later, fiercely jerking each of us as they suddenly slowed our descent. We dropped from so low that I seemed to hit the ground as soon as I cleared the door.
Aware of our imminent arrival, the German Wehrmacht had flooded the fields in the area around Normandy. We landed in several feet of water. Sadly, many paratroopers landed in deeper water and, with all the added weight of their gear and weapons, were unable stand up and drowned as a result.
When we landed we could already hear the shooting, but we couldn’t tell what direction it was coming from. We removed our parachutes and harnesses, then inspected our gear, which for me included an M1 Garand, 139 rounds of .30-06 caliber ammunition, four grenades, a cricket clicker, and two days worth of K-rations.
The “cricket clicker” was a children’s toy that served as a rudimentary way of communicating. If you found yourself approaching a soldier and you didn’t know if they were friendly, you would simply click, and if they answered with a click you knew them to be friendly. The K-rations were designed to be a days worth of meals in one unit. They were divided into three packages labeled breakfast, dinner, and supper. With each meal you received toilet paper, a pack of mint gum to calm your stomach, a four pack of cigarettes, and matches. When I actually had a chance to eat, though, I didn’t want to. I just never felt hungry with so much going on around me.
Our platoon started toward the bridge at Sainte Mere Eglise with the rest of my platoon. We found it with bodies scattered everywhere, and I said, “If this isn’t Hell I never want to see it.” When I got to about the middle of the bridge, shooting from both sides stopped. The bridge was already covered with allied artillery to counter the German 88-millimeter anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns. One of the things that worried me the most was the sound the 88 made, but Captain Miller told us that, once we heard the sound of an 88 shell, it was already past us. The artillery that lined the bridge was called the French 75. These holdouts from World War I could fire 75-millimeter explosive shells up to 30 times a minute at up to five miles away, with an experienced crew. These tank-busters were the scourge of the fast-moving Nazi Blitzkrieg (lightning war) tactic, of which the Panzer tank was the heart and spirit.
As we entered the town with the artillery at our back, we began checking to see that all the buildings were clear of hostile forces. It was a fierce battle to dislodge the German defenses in this tattered, bombed-out village. All the civilians had already evacuated, so the only people left in the town were enemy soldiers. We would not enter a room that we had not thrown a grenade into first. As I entered an old, dimly-lit barbershop, out of the corner of my eye I saw a German soldier. I turned and sprayed him with my rifle. As I heard the sound of broken glass hitting the floor, I promptly discovered I was facing off with a mirror. The closest I would come to a Jerry (German soldier) was my own reflection in a barbershop mirror.
As night fell, I was stationed in the doorway of that barbershop to ensure that no Germans could reclaim it. As it became pitch black outside, I heard a voice from the darkness yell “German paratroopers.” I began straining my eyes to see anything falling from the skies, but I saw nothing. I thought to myself, come sunrise, we’re going to have a hard time clearing these buildings all over again. I later learned that this voice from the darkness was actually a German soldier trying to make sure none of us got any rest that night.
Sad News and a Dangerous Night
I had begun asking everyone I saw if they had seen my buddy Hanley. No one said that they had seen him since we got on the planes, but I persisted and kept asking every friendly soldier I came across. Finally, I happened upon someone who had an explanation for Hanley’s disappearance. He told me that Hanley was shot while taking the bridge and that he hadn’t made it. I was devastated, but I had to suck it up and push forward.
That night we all hunkered down to get some sleep in a bombed-out old barn and, wouldn’t you know it, I found myself trying to sleep next to a lieutenant who snored bad enough to drown out the sound of a grenade. I was worried the Jerries would find us just from the sound of this guy’s fog horn snoring. We had found several bottles of different kinds of alcohol. Many of the boys indulged in this, but I chose not to. I only had a few sips of champagne. If something was going to happen during the night, I wanted to make sure I was as sober and aware as I could possibly be.
During the next few days, I grew tired of lugging around so much weight in my pack, and I began to reevaluate the need of everything in it. I decided that I probably didn’t need my gas mask, so I promptly discarded it. I figured if I actually ever ended up needing it, I could just pick one up from a fallen solider. It wasn’t long after this that German bombers began flying overhead and the signal went out that an Axis gas attack had been initiated. I immediately began searching the ground for a replacement gas mask, but it seemed everyone else had had the same idea as me and there was not a single one to be found. I began to panic but I was greatly relieved to find out that we had been wrong. It had been a phosphorous, incendiary bomb dropped miles away. I have never seen anything light up the sky like that bomb did.
That night I drew guard duty with another guy, named Fowler. While he was standing guard, I was trying to keep warm under a blanket. As he grew colder I offered to trade him places so he could warm up while I stood guard. Only seconds after I stood up and he sat down in my place, an 88 shell landed right where Fowler had just sat down. In that instant his life had ended and mine would never be the same. I was rendered unconscious by the concussion the explosion produced, and didn’t come to until the next day.
By the time I awoke, I was alone. My platoon was gone, as were my weapons and dog tags. I picked up Fowler’s rifle and ammunition and started down the road, desperate to catch up to my platoon. When I finally managed to catch them, they were happy yet surprised to find that I was still alive and well. It turned out that I had already been reported dead by my platoon, and a telegram had already been sent home to my family. After setting the record straight, I swapped Fowler’s old rifle for a carbine, taken off another unfortunate soldier, and continued with my company on toward our next defensive position.
Wounded and Sent Home
At one point we began taking heavy fire in a cow pasture from an enemy machine gun nest, so we all scurried for whatever cover we could. The men who had no cover just had to keep shooting to keep the machinegun fire off them. I dove for cover behind a dead cow, not realizing that I had landed in a pile of cow manure. I carried a rather unpleasant odor after that.
Later we found ourselves yet again pinned down by enemy fire, so Sergeant Marx ordered me to take two other men and flank the enemy position. We could see the muzzle flash from the enemy’s MG-42 machine gun, which came to be known as “Hitler’s buzz saw.” Its high rate of fire left almost no space in between rounds. It sounded almost like paper being ripped. “Next time you see the gunner open up, unload your rifle into the nest,” I told the men with me. So they did, and the machine gun nest fell silent. Just then a shell went off overhead, then another went off directly in front of us. Shrapnel tore into my shoulder, and I again passed out from the concussion.
I woke only for a moment, and I remember feet next to my head. Then I passed out again. The next time I came to, I was on a naval vessel bound for London. When I woke there was a lot of commotion, so I asked the first doctor that happened by what was going on. He told me a Luftwaffe (German Air Force) dive-bomber was attacking the boat. The doctor gave me a sedative, and the next thing I remember is waking up in a British naval hospital in London, where I was operated on.
The doctors told me I lost my shoulder bone and half the socket in my shoulder from the blast. I was then shipped to Wales for another operation and remained there for about two and a half months before being shipped back home.
After the War
Back home I met Laverne (Lovey) who has been my wife for sixty-seven years now. She got me through six surgeries, three of them before our marriage. There were so many wounded men coming home that the Veteran’s Administration had to convert a hotel in Oakland into a makeshift hospital to deal with them. On June 7, 1945, I was discharged from Birmingham General Hospital in Van Nuys. Lovey and I were married on December 26, 1945. I began working as an electrical contractor and then drove a transfer rig at the Melones reservoir construction site before my retirement on October 10, 1978.
A Small Miracle
Fifty years later, in 1995, I was informed that a reenactment of the battle of Normandy was going to take place on its fiftieth anniversary. I was asked if I would like to take part in it. I declined but asked the men taking part in the reenactment if they could try to find Hanley’s grave while they were there. Strangely they could not find the spot in which he was laid to rest.
The next summer, the 82nd Airborne Reenactors of which my son, Kelly, was a member, hosted a big barbeque. All of my family was there as well as several of the men who had participated in the reenactment, but there was one man there who I did not recognize. My family told me that he was a member of the 82nd Airborne, so I asked him if he knew Hanley by any chance. I have never been so stunned in my life as when I heard the man reply “I am Hanley.” I took a second look at him and gave him a hug. He stayed three nights with us, and we still keep in touch to this day.
- French Cross
- Bronze Star
- Purple Heart
- Presidential Unit Citation
- American Campaign Medal
- European African Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with one bronze service star
- World War II Victory Medal
- Combat Infantry Badge First Award
- Honorable Service Lapel Medal of World War II
- Sharpshooter Badge with Machine Gun Bar
- Marksman Badge with Rifle Bar