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A Mile in Their Shoes

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2014, Aaron Elson


A Mile in Their Shoes

The Online Version

2014, Aaron Elson

The Last Hurrah

Ed Boccafogli, 82nd Airborne Division

Page 2

    Aaron Elson: Tell me about that first jump.

    Ed Boccafogli: You mean the first jump in practice?

    Aaron Elson: No, the jump into Normandy.

    Ed Boccafogli: We prepared for the jump – I’d gone through demolition school, so when I jumped I had TNT and a C-3 pack of explosive. I had fulminate of mercury blasting caps strapped to my boot, and a land mine. Everybody had to carry a land mine. I had the front parachute, the back parachute. Musette bag. Rifle.

    Aaron Elson: Why a front and a back parachute?

    Ed Boccafogli: The front one is reserve, in case of malfunction. In combat, you very seldom pull it because if the back one doesn’t function you’re already on the ground. You’re only jumping at four or five hundred feet. But in a higher jump the reserve is helpful.

    Another thing – we left on June 4th, because the invasion was supposed to be June 5th. Many people don’t know that. We left on the night of the 4th. We circled around for about a half-hour. We were the lead unit. Circled around, picked up other units from various aerodromes. And then the crew chief said it’s being canceled because of the storm. Christ. It’s like a man going into a ring. He’s gonna fight now for his life or death. You could hardly breathe. It was a complete letdown, because you’re keyed up. Your mind was thinking of every little thing, the sand tables [models], where the church was, where this is, where we’re supposed to assemble, where the river is, where the La Fiere Bridge is. All these are in your mind, and you’re trying to orient yourself to when you hit the ground. You want to know exactly where you’re gonna go, where your buddies are, and hope to hell you don’t all get killed.

    And you’re green troops. By green I mean we hadn’t had combat before. Some of the 504 of the 82nd were in Sicily, so they’d had experience, especially the noncoms. But we were green.

    Then we landed, and we went back to the tents. Some guys were inside the hangars and some guys in the tents.

    That night there was a storm. I mean a storm, lightning and everything. They had the regular squad tents, with a pole – square ones. And the tent next to mine got hit by lightning and collapsed. Nobody was hurt, but everybody had to start moving canvas to get them out.

    The next morning we had breakfast, and I’ll never forget – I was standing in the tent and there was this kid John Daum. We called him Johnny. Skinny kid, didn’t look any more than 16 years old, tow-headed. And he’s standing there like a statue, looking into space.

    I went over. I said, "Hey, Johnny!" Being I was older and was more rugged, I used to take him under my wing. I said, "What’s the matter, Johnny? ’Ey?"

    And he’s there like in a stupor.

    "Hey," I said, "what the hell’s the matter with you?"

    He says, "I’m gonna die tomorrow." Just like that.

    "Ahh, come on," I said. "Chrissake. Some of us will, some of us won’t, but you ain’t gonna be one."

    He was one of the first guys killed. I didn’t see him get killed, but one of the fellows said he ran up the incline, and he saw him drop. He got hit with a bullet.

    These things are with you the rest of your life.

    Anyway, then we had to strip all our bundles; the parachutes, the bundles with extra parts, machine gun, mortars, ammunition, rifle ammunition, plus bundles with medical supplies. Strip ’em. Repack ’em. This is all just to keep you going.

    While they’re stripping them – these things are never written into the history – they have bundles with land mines. You need them. You get over there, you’ve got to block a certain area of road for protection.

    Somehow, one of the land mines must have been activated. They figure the pin must have fallen out of one of them or somebody had activated it stupidly. It fell, and as it hit the ground, "Boom!" A whole damn bundle of land mines exploded. Six or seven people were killed and seven planes were damaged.

    That was a disaster right off the bat, like a bad omen. The jump was canceled. Then this had to happen.

    That night, we got back in the planes. Now your tension was twice as much, being you went through it the night before. Especially the first group, which was ours.

    We took off at 9:30 or 10 o’clock on the night of the 5th, and we circled until 1 in the morning of the 6th. We had to pick up, I don’t know, a couple of thousand planes between the 101st and the 82nd. The 101st had a different route. They went north to south, and we went between the Jersey and Guernsey Islands and we came in from the west. Then we reached the Merderet and Douve rivers.

    There were cloud banks and then the ack-ack coming up, shrapnel hitting the planes. You’d see these balls of fire. You can hardly sit in there because you had so much equipment. You’re looking out the little window, and you could see those damn balls of fire all around, like in Desert Storm. All that stuff going up, we were going through it.

    My plane was hit after I got out. That I know because the guys were missing.

    I fell out. I slipped on vomit. Some guys were throwing up, from nerves, and as we pivoted out my feet went out from under me, and I went out upside down. My hips caught the side door of the plane. The wind was like hell, holding me there, and guys in the meantime as they’re going out they’re hitting me in the head with their feet.

    Finally I twisted and broke loose, thank God. Then as I’m coming down I hear crackling through the air. And what was it? Bullets were going through the parachute. I could hear crack-crack-crack-crack. And Jesus Christ, as I came down, I climbed up the risers [to collapse the parachute] and I came flying backwards, and went into a hedgerow. I was hung up on a tree about a foot off the ground.

    I took my knife out, and I’m slashing all the rods, because now I figure the bullets are gonna be coming through the brush. I hit the ground behind the dirt bank, and I threw everything off. I threw the land mine away. The hell with this, I figured it wasn’t worth dying for. Plus we had a Mae West [life jacket] and a gas mask. The Mae West was in case we were shot down in the water. We had all this unnecessary equipment. I’d rather drown than carry that damn thing.

    All this extra equipment, you’d get killed if you had to keep it. You couldn’t crawl through the brush. I threw this, I threw that, cut everything loose. I even cut myself [in the leg] getting out of the parachute.

    I took off like a rabbit. I go and I’m getting to a hedgerow. I get over to a little gate, one field to another, and I hear somebody coming. So I lay down on the ground. I lay flat. They’re coming. I hear click-click [paratroopers had clickers to identify themselves].

    I’m looking for my clicker, and I couldn’t find it. So I lay flat on the ground, and I’m looking up, and I could see this silhouette go by. It was one of our men. "Yo!" I said. Oh, man! I was glad to see one of my own men.

    Then we grouped together. There were four of us. We got over to a road, went down the road, and then we ran into the Germans. The Germans were coming up the road. We shot like a sonofagun, fired all the bullets we could, and took off backwards, because our objective was to get to Hill 30. That was the main objective. And to try to group into bigger forces.

    Then we heard some fighting off to the side, and you could tell the difference between the German and American weapons. The German machine gun is like a rip, like the Uzis today. Our light machine guns went donk-donk-donk-donk.

    We finally hooked up with another small group. Then another one. By daylight we had quite a group.

    At one point we got into a big firefight, and I jumped into a ditch. The Germans were on the higher ground, and they were firing down. There was a dirt road with ditches on either side. Bullets were hitting all around. I got into the ditch, and I’m laying flat on my back. The road bed is here, and the bullets are striking the bank. The bank on that side was a little higher. If it was lower, the bullets would have come right down.

    Then they let up. In the meantime, the other guys were firing, but I was in a spot where I couldn’t even get up. If I would have got up, I’d have got hit.

    Also you’re frightened. And you talk about frightened, you stop breathing actually. In Holland, too, in the town of Weiler, we got in one hell of a fight with the Germans, and there I actually stopped breathing. Stopped breathing. I ran I’d say 200 yards without taking a breath of air. My heart even stopped. This is what it’s like when you get into a fight. You see these pictures on television, it’s such a joke. There’s no such thing as these so-called hero-baloney. Everybody I knew of, they were frightened stiff when they were really into a fight.

    But anyway, we finally got to Hill 30. Just before that we got very heavily shelled. They were using aerial shells that burst above the ground. I don’t know that much about artillery because I was never in the artillery. But that shrapnel’s coming down, and one guy got a big sliver like this [about four inches] into his rump, and I hit the ground. I lift my head after they stop shelling, and there’s smoke in front of me. I look, and there’s a hole. A piece of shrapnel had just come down into the ground. And the hot shrapnel, with the moisture, was making smoke come up. It missed me just by inches. The other guy got hit in the rump.

    We finally got to Hill 30. We had a lot of casualties. Some minor. We left a few dead here and there. We got to Hill 30, and we set up.

    Aaron Elson: About how many men were in your group?

    Ed Boccafogli: On the hill, there were 180 to 200 men. Across the river, in Chef du Pont, Colonel Lindquist had assembled another 200. So between the two sides we had control of the causeway.

    Now we had to hold it until the 4th [Infantry Division] finally reached us four days later, and then they could get across and continue their drive.

    Then we went south, to Beuzeville. We took the bridges there.

    Aaron Elson: In that three-day fight, what kind of equipment did you have?

    Ed Boccafogli: We had mortars. And one light artillery piece. That was it. I went on three different patrols to try to get ammunition, because we ran out. When we jumped we all had four bandoliers of ammunition across our belt. And by the second day we ran out. That’s how much we used. I was down to one clip and six or seven rounds. Then finally we got some ammunition.

    Aaron Elson: What was it like going on the patrols?

    Ed Boccafogli: We went down through the swamp. We went all the way down to where the water was there [in an aerial photograph]. There were some farms in there. It looks very small but that’s a big area. We only took a section because we wanted to get the causeway.

    There were ten or twelve of us. Warnecke, he was my platoon sergeant. Eventually he was made a battlefield commission, stayed in the military, and retired a full colonel. He sent a tape, too, to the Eisenhower Center, [in which] he says, "And can you imagine me, with the name Adolph Warnecke, and with a slight German accent. …" They couldn’t find better soldiers, though. Knapp, another one, Jannigan, all from B Company, became battlefield commissions. I had been put in in the Bulge, but the war ended, and then the whole thing stopped.

    Getting back, so they attacked us, and during the early morning we tried to go down and get some ammo from the parachute bundles in the swamp. Some of the parachutes had different colors, and the colors represented what would be in that bundle. But half the parachutes were already sunk. We’d see part of it standing up. Mixed in, we’d see a red, white and blue one, or a white and red one. A lot of them landed in the swamp. Some of them had a body on them, too. The white ones.

    We spread out along the edge and waded into the swamp. I got out maybe from here to across the road over there, grabbed a parachute, and the water was about [up to my chest]. I’m trying to keep my head low, and me and this other kid are pulling the parachute. And as we’re pulling, bullets start ricocheting off the water from the other side. The Germans spotted us. I go under water, the helmet and everything. I come up, get some air, pull.

    We get to the bank, and as we’re pulling the parachute up, this kid Maloney standing right beside me, "Poom!" Right dead in the chest. We had to leave the body there.

    We brought the bundle up, and what we were looking for was mortar rounds and rifle ammunition. I forget what was in there, but there was very little of what we needed. Then we had to go down and get another one. And then they sent other patrols. Finally, little by little, we retrieved about ten bundles.

    Aaron Elson: Were these patrols at night or during the day?

    Ed Boccafogli: Daytime. Then I went out on the second day. We had a patrol, and there were six of us, to see if we could round up some fellows. We were walking along a hedgerow, when all of a sudden a guy screamed.

    And he’s down in the ditch, all covered with hay. It was a young lieutenant. He had been shot through the legs. He crawled into the ditch, and pulled all the weeds and stuff over him, and he lay there. He said all day the first day and part of the second day he watched Germans go by. He saw the silhouette of the helmets. Night patrols, day patrols.

    All of a sudden he saw us and let out a scream. He was so happy.

    Another time we went out, and we got into a hell of a firefight. There’s a lot of ditches there, a lot of sunken roads. We got into a firefight and one of our men was killed, one guy wounded, two or three Germans. They finally broke off, and we captured a flak gun, which they had been dragging.

    We got it back [to the hill]. We had no ammunition for it, but at least we had a gun. They had one less to shoot at us.

    To give you an idea of how many casualties we had, out of 2,010 in the regiment, on the 14th of July I think there were 900 left. Three hundred and some killed. I think six hundred or so wounded. And four or five hundred missing.

    When we went to the reunion in 1976, there were only about 24 of us, but from my company there were only four of us. Everybody was crying. It’s unbelievable. Because when I got discharged from the Army, I had 90 days to reenlist. They picked out about 20 of us noncoms and brought us up to headquarters, gave us a big spiel that they were gonna form a new training unit, and that we would be raised in rank and we would be the cadre to introduce the new unit, which was the Green Berets at the time.

    So we had ninety days. When I got back I met my wife, and then I said I had enough. I didn’t want no more war. But a couple of them stayed in. In fact, one guy, his name is De Vries, from Wallington, he stayed in. He went through Normandy, he went through everything; he went all the way through to Korea, to Vietnam. He was a command sergeant major; got every god darn decoration. I wrote to him, and he wasn’t home, because then he was still in the military, and never got an answer.

    You know who was in my company? Bill Windham, the actor. He was one of my riflemen. He came to a couple of reunions. He plays the doctor in "Murder She Wrote."

Contents                       Ed Boccafogli, Page 3