by Dan Patterson
The Charles Cannon Memorial Hospital in Banner Elk was hosting its usual troop of visitors on a pretty late spring morning in 1974. A small hospital serving an Appalachian population largely older and wary of doctors, less prone to complain than the people of more affluent economies and flatter terrains further east. In those days the waiting rooms were sparse: molded plastic chairs in rows, a few out of date magazines neglected on a coffee table, ashtrays, and a pay phone on the entry wall. The doctors and staff were well acquainted with their patients and greeted them with, “How you gettin’ along?”, “I hear you got a new grandbaby!”, and the like, while the group chatted quietly among themselves, waiting their turn. You might hear a discussion of who “got saved” at church and concerns about their gardens or the weather, but nothing very personal and not above a quiet talk.
Except for this old boy sitting next to me. He was silent and rarely moved, but for an occasional adjustment to his stance in the chair every little bit. I made him for a long-time local given his leathery skin and tan; he was gaunt, missing some teeth, and a several day beard sprouted on his weathered face. White shirt and overalls, and if you were to get very close you’d smell Mail Pouch Chew on his breath and his remaining teeth bore that proof. He looked not a speck out of place for that small mountain town but that was about to change.
“Well,” he said to anyone listening, and that was me and an old lady to his left occupied with knitting something out of green yarn. “I know right whir I was right about now, thirty years ago.” I looked at him and he stared straight ahead, then checked his watch; it was just after 9 am. His arms were untouched by the sun above his rolled shirt cuff and starkly contrasted with his hands and face. My granddad was like that.
A few beats went by awkwardly, him not saying anything else and me looking at him with my poor manners.
“Since about suppertime yesterday I been feeling like I was supposed to be somewhir else; hit’uz like that all night an’ I just caint git shed of it,” he half-laughed, directing that at the old women knitting next to him. “Feels worse today, kindly creepy like,” he was prodding her and the knitting lady looked up briefly. “Well,” she said with feigned sympathy. Her mouth changed shape and she went back to her project like we weren’t there. He straightened back in his chair and fidgeted some, then some more and rubbed the back of his neck.
“Where were you, thirty years ago?” I asked after a short pause.
My seatmate turned toward me. “I’uz in a ditch in France with six or eight other men fightin’ the Germans and lookin’ for the rest of my outfit was whir I was.” He said it flatly and quietly, and with no small measure of righteous pride. Looking down at his lap he said, “Yessir. I don’t see how any a’them 82nd boys made it out of there at all,” and looked back up at me as he finished. And with that, he and I were now intimates, the space between us, and the age, bridged by his wanting to talk and my willingness to listen. Spinning the clock back in my head put the date in perspective, and explained this man’s unease in his chair: D-Day and the invasion of Fortress Europe had branded him and the mark had not healed from that day thirty years back.
There was nothing for me to do but listen, nothing I could say would make a difference anyway and I knew better than to try. The importance of the date had dawned on me just as he had turned toward me, and I suspected his role from the thin hint about the plight of the 82nd, but there was much more to learn: He had been a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne that jumped into occupied France just after midnight, hours before the seaborne invasion; the “Screaming Eagles” of the 101st and the 82nd “All American” divisions were the first to engage the enemy and their roles were vital to the mission. Born in 1922, he had enlisted in 1942 after travelling to South Carolina for work since finishing high school in Caldwell County three years before.
(The invasion of Europe had been planned for years, and meticulously so, with divisions of soldiers dedicated to the inevitable task. As is always the case with battle plans, this version, overseen by the politician/bureaucrat Eisenhower rather than by a combat-experienced leader, was on track to fail from the time of its birth. Notable pieces of the plan were successful, the Mulberry Harbor comes to mind, but survival and eventual success in those early days of the invasion was solely due to the bravery, ingenuity, and resourcefulness of small-unit riflemen and had nothing whatever to do with the supercilious oversight and planning from the upper echelon. None of the intricately-timed maneuvering, none of the layered interdependent actions expected by Eisenhower’s war-gaming chess-board whiz kids was effective; the men were hindered by the plan and its failings from the outset and the assault quickly morphed into a disorganized and gory bloodbath. The first to encounter the enemy on his own territory were the parachute troops from the 101st and the 82nd Airborne Divisions, both elements were flown behind enemy lines hours before the landing craft made their way to the beaches with orders and training to disrupt, eliminate, and occupy. Planners expected to surprise the enemy with both the timing of the invasion and its location, but the enemy had put strong defensive works in place long before, and likely drops zones were defended by German troops expecting their arrival. Some men of the 82nd landed generally close to their intended drop zones near the strategically important town of St. Mere-Eglise — the first to land were killed or captured quickly — while the 101st were meant to be dropped a little further east and south, nearer Utah Beach, but both were scattered across the Contenin peninsula, and few were placed where planned. Both divisions faced intense enemy opposition; the unintended dispersal greatly burdened the men and truncated the missions’ success. But the confusion also gave an unintentional assist to the invading troops, the initial chaos offering no massed troops and no unified direction for the enemy to counter-attack.)
“We was moved over to England an’ stayed there for a while training; hit’uz all secret an’ we didn’t know what was going on except that we was gettin’ ready for some big to-do over there,” he continued, now less urgently and more conversational. “We’d got to England in the fall, after travellin’ on a ship all that way and all we wasn’t in as good a shape as we was when we left, so they put us through our paces for quite a while,” he smiled as he talked, a little more relaxed now. I just nodded and made a few noises, and listened.
“Some parts of England reminded me of back home, you know, but we spent all our time in tents out in the wet and rain, on exercises, and on them Gooney Birds.”
(Originally configured as a sleeper coach, the civilian Douglas DC-3 was in use since the mid-30s as an improvement over the earlier, smaller DC-2. At the war’s onset, remaining production transferred to government use, where the twin-engined machines were designated “C-47 Skytrain,” but known to all of that era as the “Gooney Bird.” Among its many uses was troop transport; 15–18 Airborne soldiers, depending on what they had to carry, were on each ship and were referred to as a “stick” of paratroops.)
“We’d gather around the airplanes after orders, sometimes in the morning and sometimes of a’evenin’, checking our gear and getting ready to take a ride and do our jump. We’d joke around some and talk, you know, but we didn’t see no danger in it, it’uz more like a job or a game than anything to us at the time. Well, that didn’t last, let me tell you.”
“No, I guess it didn’t,” I offered. “Had you ever been on an airplane before you went into the Army?”
“Why no. Up in these hills you didn’t see nothin’ like that, ever. Didn’t hardly ever see a car even. Aw they might’a been one pass overhead once in a while, but that’uz about all. I got into the Airborne ’cause I heard hit’uz a tough outfit and I wasn’t about to go around with no bunch that wasn’t as tough as I was.”
(That reputation was well advertised but yet untested on the 101st, but by spring of 1944 all the pieces were moving around to secure that unit’s place in history. After delays for logistics, delays for indecision, delays for equipment, and delays for weather, the finely tuned and exquisitely timed war room plans were given the go-ahead and Operation Neptune, the code name for the 101st’s part in Overlord or the invasion of Europe, was confirmed with D-Day set as June 6th, 1944. The 101st was to be dropped in three landing zones; A, C, and D. Aircraft from multiple airbases in England would coordinate flights known as “serials” of between 24 and 54 transport aircraft flying in groups of three — 821 ships flew paratroopers from both divisions. Serials of aircraft were planned to arrive at six-minute intervals, the ships slowing to 110 mph over the jump zone to allow safe exit by the paratroopers. In practice jumps the aircraft flew at 90 mph during parachuting operations, but the heavily loaded Gooney Birds required a higher airspeed or they would stall and crash. From 700 feet there is no recovery possible from a stalled C-47 and the 20 mph difference was another very significant hurdle for the troops as they exited the airplane.)
“We got the word to assemble and went out to our airplane around 10 o’clock, 16 of us. They was a big moon in the sky peekin’ through the clouds and it was a cool night. We wasn’t in the same spirits as when we was training ’cause we knowed this here was the real McCoy. We sat there a little bit while the engines was runnin’. Just waitin’, you know. Before long the engines was run up and off we went, and at first it was like sittin’ on your porch, quiet and easy as it was,” he was using his hands as he re-lived the time and talking to me like a neighbor. Or son of a neighbor, and I said as little as possible while he talked.
“We was all pretty nervous, thinkin’ about our orders and what we’uz about to get into, if we’d ever make it back home and all, you know,” he got quiet again, looking at his hands. I tried to imagine sitting in a loud, cramped transport plane in the 1940s preparing to parachute with fifteen other men into the waiting, aimed rifles and cannons of the enemy, but my imagination was not equal to the task.
(The C-47s were assembled in formations near the runway as they would be deployed, doors opened, stepladders against the entry. The troopers would march to the ships in loose discipline and gather around their assigned plane, its number by hand in chalk on the side, and wait to board. Laden with as much as 150 lbs. of equipment, the men required help to board the plane; each man took as much additional ammunition as he deemed necessary, anti-tank mines and mortar rounds were shared among all troops, to be distributed to the crew-served weapons once on the ground. Additional stores were housed in packets beneath the wings to be dropped along with the troops, glider-borne reinforcements and supplies were to follow some hours later. 2,400 horsepower pulled each C-47 to flying speed — 432 “Skytrains” were assembled to move the Screaming Eagles (Mission Albany) and the sound and smell of those radial engines is a stirring iconic symbol of the era. The aircraft departure, routes, and altitudes were carefully scripted, and to avoid German radar, all aircraft descended to 500 feet when over the channel; aircraft were planned to ascend to 700 feet for the drop, then return along a carefully prescribed path to base. Navigation for the trip was dependent on rudimentary radio beacons placed along the English side of the path, blue marking lights fixed to the aircraft to allow following ships to see them, the deductive reasoning (dead reckoning) visual navigation method, and radio and light systems heroically placed by the Pathfinder elements of both battalions who jumped some minutes before.)
“We flew along like that for a pretty good while, the planes was circling around, you know, gathering in formation like a bunch of geese. Some boys wrote notes back home or tried to talk a little, but hit was so noisy in them ol’ things you ‘bout had to shout. But they wasn’t much to do except sit and think, so that’s what we did.” I had a thousand questions but was not primed to ask, so I sat quietly and so did he for a while. The outside doors opened with people coming and going, and the advancing morning was marked by singing birds and a bright warming.
“We was always a’goin’, and in a hurry too, brother, ever whir we went,” he added speaking slowly and carefully. “Hit’uz like they was a fire and we had to get right on to it, you see. Sittin’ on that dadblamed ship goin’ across the ocean, then sittin’ around waitin’ for some somebody to tell you to do something or other. Waitin’ for this and waitin’ for that. Shoot. Sittin’ just makes a man a better target’s what I always told my buddies. Yessir. And they found that out too, just like I said. They’s a lot of ’em still over there in France because of it.” He squeezed his mouth with the palm of his hand and sighed. I looked away.
(After assembling into diamond formations of three-on-three the aircraft flew in close formation along their prescribed paths, separation between following aircraft was maintained at 1000 feet. Maximum Takeoff Weight (MTO) for a C-47 is 27,900 lbs. but on D-Day the Gooney Birds were 3 tons over that limit approaching 34,000 lbs. and were flying with dangerously amended stall and stability characteristics which further altered the drop-zone performance. 56 miles from the coast of England, at navigation point “Hoboken,” the flights made an abrupt turn southeastward between the Channel Islands of Alderney and Jersey. Anti-aircraft batteries on the Islands, alerted by the Pathfinders several minutes earlier, responded with strong defensive fire. At almost the same time the serials encountered a thick fog bank along the coast of France, creating additional disruption to the formation; flight crews were blind and could no longer rely on visual cues for separation and navigation, and the flight paths and timing of the drops were badly distorted. After emerging from the fog, the aircraft were about 4 minutes from their planned drop zones, but often badly off course and with little time to correct and nearly nothing to navigate to. Multiple unexpected factors were at work against the men, it was as if the fates were conspiring against them; the careful plans of the D-Day invasion were beginning to unravel.)
“I waited for that red light to come on and boy I loved to hear that Jumpmaster start his orders ’cause that meant we was about to get movin’,” and with that his eyes brightened. His voice got noticeably stronger, louder than our quiet conversation, and his Appalachian accent and cadence dropped away. Some of the others waiting looked our way. “‘Stand Up!’ he’d say. ‘Hook Up! Equipment Check! Sound Off!’ and then brother out the door we went and in a hurry too, let me tell you.” The remembered orders were spoken sharply, as single words with a pause between, and with each command he mimicked the hand signals made by the Jumpmaster; he tensed, his legs and feet moving as he talked, still in a disembodied voice. “Stand Up!, Hook Up!, Equipment Check! Sound Off! Boy I can still hear it, too. I hear him in my sleep sometimes.” The excitement of those days was evident and he was reliving his D-Day jump directly in front of me.
(Two lights at the exit door were red to indicate 5 minutes to jump, and green to show the aircraft was over the designated jump area. The time between lights was used to prepare for the jump; the troops in practice jumps waited for the Jumpmaster to order “Go!” but in combat that formality might have been omitted. Because of the now-tangled formations the speed, altitude, and position of the aircraft had varied, meaning the men were often far out of the expected landing zones, some by 20 miles or more. Some flight crews made multiple passes under fire and with other aircraft maneuvering in the same space at night to locate the drop area. Although several training drops had been made at night, none were in poor weather, none accounted for the dangerous overloading, navigation was unhampered, and the effects of defensive fire were not anticipated by the planners.)
“It was the middle of the night when we got there, but it was so bright you could of read your Bible. All them tracer bullets and shells going off and all, why they ever one looked like they was coming right at me, right between my legs,” he laughed and made a move with both hands between his knees. “I’uz so glad to get on the ground, but they didn’t none of us know where we was, the maps we’d studied weren’t nothin’ like where we landed and when you’uz on the ground you couldn’t tell if the man next to you was a German or not. It’uz ever man for hisself ’til we found one another and got gathered to make a team and all, you know.”
(The men studied carefully scaled papier mache models of the landing zones and surrounding areas. Detailed maps could be referenced, but only after an initial base could be established and a location defined, so the first matter at hand was finding friendly troops and assembling into a small unit, then moving toward an objective. Many units fought the enemy as they discovered them, often by accident, and frequently did so without gunfire to avoid revealing their positions — hand-to-hand combat in the dark against a force of unknown strength.)
A few people passed by on their way to or from the doctor, with one ancient palsied fellow being helped by two others younger by only maybe a handful of years. His head was bowed and he was bent at the waist, thin as a scarecrow with a full head of bright white hair. Each man beside him holding his belt with one hand, with the other on an elbow; we both watched him struggle along and just as the older fellow was alongside, I could hear him, hardly above a whisper, “Oh Lord, oh Lord.” He strained as best he could against his helpers, trying to free himself, and one man of them spoke quietly, “Easy there Robert, let’s get you on in to the doctor, ok? Come on now.”
I stood and told the man nearest me, “Sit him down here and I’ll go get him a chair,” and took a step to find one. “No, now that’s all right young man we got one at home and he won’t use it; we’ll get along alright, but thank you a bushel. Let’s go on now Robert,” and they went along slowly toward the office. I sat back down, feeling empty, useless, and every second of my 18 easy years on this earth.
The knitting lady beside us put her work away as her name was called by a nurse. “Miz Baird, why don’t you come on back and see us honey?” She rose quickly, but then moved with short, shuffling steps, swaying side to side, speaking to the nurse as she approached, “I just caint hardly get along good no more.” She was wearing a pair of thick green knitted socks and bedroom slippers, and was breathing heavily when she made it to the office door.
We both sat in silence for a bit. “Well now,” he said pleasantly, “I believe they’s people here need to see the doctor a whole lot worser’n I do.” And he sprang to his feet and took a long stride toward the hospital entrance, then turned and stuck out his hand. I took it and it felt like the bottom of an old boot.
“Hart’s my name. It’uz good talkin’ to you young man,” he waved quickly and went off in a hurry.
Airborne All The Way.
Dan Patterson is a Southern gentleman with a good sense of humor and a bad temper. A doer of good deeds, rescuer of dogs, decent cook, and occassional writer. He appreciates old bourbon and young women, and lives in the Piedmont region of NC with his wife and eight dogs.