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A Mile in Their Shoes

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A Mile in Their Shoes

The Online Version

2014, Aaron Elson

The Last Hurrah

Ed Boccafogli, 82nd Airborne Division

        Ed Boccafogli of Clifton, N.J., is a veteran of D-Day, Operation Market Garden and the Battle of the Bulge.

Clifton, N.J., Feb. 19, 1994

    Ed Boccafogli: I was what you’d call a dropout today. It was back in the Thirties, the Depression years. There was no work, so I volunteered for the CCC camps. I don’t know if you ever heard of them.

    Aaron Elson: Yes, the Civilian Conservation Corps.

    Ed Boccafogli: I worked in Pennsylvania for the Dutch Elm division. Then I went out West and spent a year and a half out there. It was rough in those days. I went to California, hopping freights, with a dollar and twenty cents, a bag with peanut butter and a loaf of bread. That’s how we lived, two of us. And fighting with hoboes who tried to take our shoes. In those days, they’d kill you for a dollar.

    Then the war broke out. I was inducted. In fact, I got called down at the draft board in Passaic, and I’d had an appendix operation. I went to the hospital, and they called up my sister and said, "Your brother is supposed to report today."

    She said, "He can’t report."

    They said, "What do you mean?"

    "He’s in the hospital."

    "Well, have him report Monday." Here I’d just had an operation. So I got a deferment for three weeks. Then I went down to Fort Dix, and from Fort Dix to Fort McClellan. And about a dozen of us were sent to New Orleans as military police.

    We were stationed out under the Huey Long Bridge, at Camp Harahan, which was a big port of embarkation. The troops would come in by the truckload to depart on boats for the Pacific.

    Also, we had a lot of bad elements there of rapists and murderers and whatnot. The Army was big in those days. We had a prison compound with a lot of men. There must have been three or four hundred at any one time. Most of them were being processed for shipment to Leavenworth. They were bad characters.

    Aaron Elson: Had these people been in combat?

    Ed Boccafogli: No. The war was just beginning. There were all kinds of elements. Guys who would get in a brawl in a city and end up killing or stabbing somebody. They were military personnel, so they went into the guardhouse and from there to Leavenworth.

    I had it made. I could have stayed there the whole war, lived high on the hog. I had a jeep. Go patrolling at night, 11 o’clock, pick up the drunks, bring them back. Then I’d be on the gate many times. And what really discouraged me about that branch of the military, as the people would be coming back from leave, they’d be bringing liquor for the guys inside. As they’d come in the guys were half-bombed. They’ve got a pint sticking out here, a pint sticking out there. You had to confiscate it. Give them a slip, put it in a box, and after each shift you had to take the box and bring it over to the Officers Club. So the officers were living high on the hog on this liquor from the poor bastards that were gonna go over and die. I didn’t take too good to that.

    There were a lot of muggings down there, what we call muggings today. What was happening, the guys would go to town, the ones who had money. They’d go out and have a good time, women, whatever. Then they’d get a taxi to come back. They wouldn’t come back with the regular trucks. The fellows had to meet at a place where the trucks would be and they’d all get in and come back to camp. But the fellows with money would hire a cab. They’d be bombed, and on the way back they’d pass out, and they’d be rolled. The cabdriver would pull over, go through their pockets, dump them in the ditch and go back.

    So my partner and I would lay on the side of the road and wait. Down in the bayous, it’s thick, thick cypress trees, and there’s just a channel where the light comes through because of the road. And as dark as it was, you could always figure where the road was. So we’d lay on the side and wait. We’d see a taxi coming; it would go by. Okay. Then another one comes. All of a sudden the lights would go out. Oh, man, we’d turn on the ignition and take off. No lights. Follow the road. You could just about make out the road in that dark bayou. We’d go sixty miles an hour, get to where the taxi was stopped, we’d put the lights on and we’d catch the guy rolling the guy that was drunk. We took a club and busted all the windows in the taxicab, beat the hell out of the guy, took the drunk and put him in our jeep and took him back to camp. And nothing was ever said. Because they knew damn well if they complained, they were in trouble.

    We did that twice. And then it stopped.

    But then I became disillusioned, because the fellows there, they’d turn on you. Everybody was vying for the next position. So I put in for the paratroops.

    Then I waited. Three weeks went by, and I knew they needed recruits, so I went in. The man’s name was Sergeant Flood. I said, "Nothing came through about my transfer?"

    "No, not yet." He said, "Make out the papers again, maybe they went astray."

    So I made them out, request for transfer. I waited another week. In the meantime, I’m nervous. A couple of guys were needling me because I wanted to get out. "What’s the matter, you don’t like this place?"

    There was this one big fellow in the mess hall. He kept needling me, "When are you gettin’ out? When are you gettin’ out?" So that day I went back in, the third time, and the sergeant said, "I don’t know."

    I said, "Look, I’ve been waiting four weeks now."

    He said, "Make out the papers again."

    So the clerk pulled the drawer out, and in all the papers I saw one paper on which I could make out my signature. I reached right down in the drawer and I pulled it out. They’d never processed it.

    I was like a wild man. I stormed out of there. It was just lunchtime. I went inside the mess hall, and the guy gave me the needle. It was the worst time he could have done it. I whacked him, right in the mess hall. They had potatoes, cabbage and whatever, all over the floor. And we were wrestling there for fifteen minutes. It was a mess.

    The next thing I know, they grab me and bring me in to the provost marshal. A colonel.

    He said, "What’s your problem, son?"

    I said, "Sir, if I don’t get out of here within the next week, I’m gonna be behind that compound."

    Then I explained what happened.

    He said, "Is that true? Sergeant Flood, come in here."

    Sergeant Flood told him, "Well, we. ..." He gave him some excuse.

    The colonel said, "I want those papers processed immediately." Then he said, "Why do you want to get out of here?"

    I said, "It’s a nice place here, but I just can’t get along with most of the fellows. I’d rather be in a fighting unit. If we’re gonna be in a war let’s get over there and get it over with."

    He said, "I commend you."

    Papers come in, boom-boom-boom. Two days later, three of the guys that were giving me problems, they were noplace in sight. I was gonna bomb each one of them. I was really hot. In fact, I had one fight in the barracks, knocked a guy right through the window.

    So I get my transfer and go up to Fort Benning. The next day I’m doing fifty pushups. I said, "What the hell am I doing here? I must be nuts." Running. Everything running. You couldn’t even stop to take a leak; you had to turn and take a leak running. You had to doubletime wherever you were. You couldn’t get caught walking. You went to the latrine, you had to doubletime, even when you were ready to let loose. It was rough. The training was unbelievable. I passed out twice. A lot of guys passed out. You see, they’d get you with the Indian war clubs in front of the big hangars. This was in July. Hot as anything down in Georgia. They’ve got the war clubs and you’re doing circles. Then you’re doing deep knee bends at the same time. And then in the front. And then overhead, you’ve got these … they’re like bowling pins. And the pain in your arms is unbelievable. Next thing I know, from the heat and everything, I’m on the ground and they’re slapping me. "That’s all right, you’re okay." They pulled me on the side, gave me a glass of water with some salt in it. "You’ll be okay." Another guy passed out; they go over there. They give you a kick in the rump. If they see you blink, they grab you and pull you on the side. "What’s your name? Report to the orderly room." Boom. Out. They don’t want anybody that’s faking. If you pass out, that means you went over your limit. But if you fake it, they don’t want you there. We had some fakers. I had one guy that I sent back with seven prisoners and those seven prisoners would have been dead except that I sent him back. He had tried to goof out on me during the Bulge. Monahan that guy’s name was. I had to chase him all the way back to a regimental aid station. There was nothing wrong with him. He was looking to get evacuated. I beat the hell out of him. I hit him fifty times on the head, knocked his helmet loose. I got him up to the front line, we went into the attack, lost quite a few men, took seven prisoners. I had one guy, I think his name was Wood. One of his sergeants, Sergeant Savage, shrapnel took his head right off. He was laying there and there were brains all over. Wood came over, he wanted to take the prisoners back. He’s got a Thompson [submachine gun], and he’s shaking like a leaf. I wrote a story for a book but they didn’t put it in, because it’s showing that the American, too, was a killer, not only the Germans. The Americans, some of them are vicious. Not in this case. It was a matter of he lost his brother, the equivalent.

    So I grabbed Monahan. I said, "Monahan, take the prisoners back."

    Meantime, the Germans are over there, and they’re shaking like a leaf because they could understand English and they could understand what it was all about. Go back 200 yards, he would have killed every one of them. So there’s seven Germans that are still living. They owe me their life.

    But anyway, going back, now where the hell was I? Oh, so I got into Benning. In the training, we’d run around Lawson Field, which was quite a distance. It’s six or eight miles around. In the morning you got out and you had to doubletime all around the field before breakfast, then fall out. The first two weeks you’d think you were gonna die. You were walking dead. After two weeks you were an angel. You were floating through the air, because the body now started to acclimate to the rigors.

    Then we’d go on forced marches, and there’s always some guys that are gonna drop out. But you evaluate, did he go his limit? And you’d get a big gorilla. You’d think he was like [Mike] Tyson, strong; or what’s his name, the actor, Rambo, would turn to a big bowl of jelly. But you’d get a little bit of a guy, he’d go to the end. Another big guy would collapse very easy. But is it his limit? You can run them until they collapse. So you evaluate the man according to what his limits are. That’s the reason for that punishment. The same thing in the Marines, to find out how much you’ve got in you.

    Aaron Elson: At this point were you still a private or were you a sergeant?

    Ed Boccafogli: I was a private. Right after I got wounded I became a corporal. Then when we jumped into Holland I became a sergeant. A squad sergeant. And then a platoon sergeant, but I never got my bottom rocker, because of one boy. I forget his name. I don’t remember names now. You get 75 and all of a sudden everything starts to…Kleinfeld! Kleinfeld, my platoon sergeant. As we moved up into the Bulge, the truck overturned. Quite a few guys got hurt; he was one of them. He was evacuated to the States, and he came back after the war. So they kept his rank open. In the meantime, I was the acting platoon sergeant through the worst part of the whole damn Bulge. From Christmas right straight through to the end.

    Aaron Elson: What was it that drew you to the paratroops? What did you think about jumping out of a plane?

    Ed Boccafogli: Oh, that was nothing. Once you got up there, the first time, you look out, you say, "Boy, I must be nuts."

    They tell you, "Don’t look down." I looked down but then I looked up again.

    Aaron Elson: Did they have a simulated tower?

    Ed Boccafogli: We had training towers like they have out in Coney Island. You’re standing there, and it’s worse than actually in an airplane because you’re looking at the ground. You’re looking at all the guys sitting; they look like ants. And you’ve got the cable up there, you hook on, and now you’ve got to jump. So as you jump you fall down, "Zzzzooop," the slack is taken up. You go flying down into the sand pit, and it’s beautiful. Once you do it, you climb back up there and you jump again. Now you're getting a thrill out of it.

    Then you had mock doors. You had to jump out and go into a roll, all the different things. And then you had to hang on harnesses and pull, to adjust the height. It would control your parachute. Not like today. They can stop in midair. They have equipment today, if we had that, we’d have won the war in half the time.

    Aaron Elson: Really?

    Ed Boccafogli: No, but see, parachuting is only a method of getting there. Once you’re on the ground, you’re an infantry soldier. You’re high class, well-trained, but you’re an infantry soldier. And the idea is to use what they call vertical envelopment. Send your troops in behind the Germans. If you’ve got to outflank them and try to get around, it’s hard. By throwing them in behind, you attack from the rear. The thing is, if you don’t succeed then you’re stuck. So that was the idea in Normandy. The 101st jumped at Carentin, and they dropped us at Ste. Mere Eglise, Chef du Pont and Beaulieu. The Merderet and Douve Rivers, the two principal rivers, were not big, but the area is something like the Meadowlands was fifty years ago. Imagine trying to get armor from here into New York if you don’t have the causeways. You can’t get across those swamps. So that was the idea of the Merderet and the Douve rivers, to get the bridges and the causeways, and the road net at Ste. Mere Eglise. Those were the critical points. Because once the Germans could get through to the coast, they could drive them back into the ocean. We had to prevent the Germans from getting to the coast. Then we had to hold so that our troops, when they reached us, would have the bridges and the causeway to get through the marsh area and then continue on, circle around and go up to the Brittany and the Cherbourg peninsulas.

    Nobody ever realized how important that operation was. They say Eisenhower waited all that morning before the invasion to find out how the paratroops made out. He said if they failed it would have been another Dieppe. And when he heard that everything was going, he proceeded with the invasion. There was mass confusion, but the confusion also caused mass confusion for the Germans, because they couldn’t understand what the hell we were after.

    I was lucky. I landed within, I’d say, maybe hundreds of yards of where I was supposed to. Others landed five miles away. Many of them were killed, because by the time they tried to work their way back they ran into German units. A group of four or five guys against let’s say a company, it’s only a matter of time. They’re taken prisoner or killed. And as we moved south later on, in this village we found rifles in the cemeteries with a helmet on top, meaning there was an American soldier there. Out in the fields, too, we’d find them.

    Aaron Elson: Who buried them?

    Ed Boccafogli: The French people. In that case. In the other cases, we had to bury them there. We ourselves didn’t have to do it, but the graves registration, if they couldn’t evacuate the bodies they covered them, and put the rifle and the helmet on. Later on other units would come and take the body out.

    They had a lot of bodies. One guy was telling me, he was in a graves registration unit, he said it was the most horrible thing. They’d just take the bodies like pieces of, you know, down at the butcher shop. They’ve got the lambs and the cattle, they’d just throw them up on top of the thing, human beings, throw them up there, one on top of the other; any kind of soldier. Then at the collecting point they’d find the tag. It was very horrible.

Contents                       Ed Boccafogli, Page 2