Tim Dyas of Ridgewood, N.J., was a sergeant in the 82nd Airborne Division when he parachuted into Sicily -- right into the middle of the Hermann Goering tank division. Having to surrender was the toughest decision of his life.
Aaron Elson: Tell me a little about your familyís military background.
Tim Dyas: It wasnít my father; my mother and father separated when I was four years old. Have you read "Angelaís Ashes"? Okay. We didnít go back to Ireland. My maternal grandparents came here from Ireland, and my grandfather was in the Civil War. First, some guy named Bob Morris paid him money to take his place. Then he got out and he went back in on his own, and he lost his leg with Farragut at the Battle of New Orleans. He eventually died from his wounds, but he lived long enough to have eight kids.
The uncle I was named after served in the Spanish American War, and then my father was gassed in World War I. And I had a couple other uncles, my motherís brothers, who served in World War I.
After I got out of the service, I volunteered for Korea but they rejected me because of my back. And I was delighted that neither one of my boys got chosen for Vietnam.
Aaron Elson: Growing up, did you hear about your familyís military history?
Tim Dyas: Oh, all the time. Thatís what my poemís about; my mother, and her mother Ė my grandmother Ė a lovely woman, all the time talked about how their ancestors had fought for this country. Of course my father wasnít there to talk about his, but I did get plenty of that from the female members of my family. They were very proud of what their father had done in the Civil War, proud of what their men had done in World War I.
I joined the service a year before Pearl Harbor. I joined with a National Guard unit, because that way Ė I worked for the State of New York at the time Ė if you were called up in a National Guard unit the state had to make up the difference between your military pay and civilian pay, and thatís the only way I could afford to do it, because I was supporting my mother. My brother was already in also.
Aaron Elson: Were you in anything like the Civilian Conservation Corps?
Tim Dyas: When I got out of high school that was one of my alternatives. The Civilian Conservation Corps, the Marine Corps, which I looked at, or go to work in this hospital. And I chose the hospital; I made more money, and it was closer to home.
Aaron Elson: What did you do in the hospital?
Tim Dyas: I started out and I became a cook. Which, as a POW, used to haunt me. I used to think of all the food I had at my disposal, and now I had nothing to eat.
Aaron Elson: Which hospital was it?
Tim Dyas: This was Central Islip State Hospital out on Long Island. It was a huge mental institution in those days before they de-institutionalized people, which meant that they took schizophrenics, threw them on the sidewalks of New York and let them become homeless people.
At that time they were all in the hospital. Some of them had been there 30 years or more.
Aaron Elson: You said your ancestors came over from Ireland?
Tim Dyas: Yes. My fatherís ancestors supposedly are Spanish. The name Dyas was anglicized from Diaz. And his ancestors came over with the early Spanish explorers and settled in California and migrated East Ė his branch, anyway Ė to Georgia.
Aaron Elson: And your mother?
Tim Dyas: My mother was born in Brooklyn, in an Irish-Catholic family.
Aaron Elson: So you grew up similar to an Angelaís Ashes kind of existence?
Tim Dyas: Yeah, except I didnít have any drinking. I look back on it now and nobody in the family really did any drinking. There was the kind of poverty, but then during the Great Depression everybody was. Ö I remember in high school we were running a cross-country race and I hadnít eaten in two weeks. So I used to kid in the German prison camp, Iíd say, "Hey," in fact Iíve told this to politicians in letters, "Your policies prepared me for my two years in a German prison camp because I learned to go hungry growing up in your country."
Aaron Elson: How many brothers and sisters do you have?
Tim Dyas: I had a brother, and he was in the service in World War II, and then I had a cousin who I was extremely close to. He was in the Air Force. His plane cracked up, and he lost all his teeth. He died a few years back, and my brother died about three years ago. He and his wife, who preceded him in death, are both buried in Arlington. She was an Army nurse in World War II.
Aaron Elson: What kind of work had your father done?
Tim Dyas: I donít know. As I say, he split when I was four years old and he vanished from the scene.
Aaron Elson: Did your mother tell you about him?
Tim Dyas: Not very much. We never discussed it, surprisingly. She was very reticent about that. When I was 28, I was a grad student up at Harvard, and he sent me tickets to go out to Oklahoma and meet him. Surprisingly, he never remarried when my mother died. She died while I was a prisoner of war, which was a real blow.
Aaron Elson: It must have been. So, you got out of high school, where had you gone to high school?
Tim Dyas: Jamaica High School, out in Queens, which was a magnificent school. We had so many kids taking Latin and Greek. In addition to a department of modern languages we had a department of classical languages. It still is a superb high school.
Aaron Elson: Was your brother older or younger than you?
Tim Dyas: He was younger by a year and a half. He stayed in the Army and retired as a captain.
Aaron Elson: Okay, so you enlisted Ö
Tim Dyas: I joined a National Guard unit, which was then called to active duty. We knew this was going to take place.
Aaron Elson: In 1940 or í41?
Tim Dyas: In the beginning of í41.
Aaron Elson: Was that like volunteering for the draft?
Tim Dyas: No. I was never even signed up for the draft. I was too young.
Aaron Elson: That wasnít the deal where you would put a year in?
Tim Dyas: Well, this outfit was called up for a year. We used to kid about that. Did you know the slogan OHIO? Soldiers used to yell it. It means Over the Hill in October. Of course nobody ever went. We had a politician from some local area of upstate New York who joined up for a year; he figured heíd get out and it would look good on his record. When Pearl Harbor happened he almost shot himself he was so upset. He was gonna be in for the duration. Oh, what a funny guy.
Aaron Elson: Which branch did you go into? You were a paratrooper?
Tim Dyas: Thatís where I wound up. I had to fight like hell to get out of my regular unit. They wanted to send me to officers school but I didnít want any part of them, they were all mixed up. They started out as an artillery unit and became a tank destroyer unit, and by that time Iíd had it. I kept fighting to get to the paratroopers and finally got out in 1942. In late spring of í42 I went to jump school.
Aaron Elson: What was it that drew you to the paratroopers?
Tim Dyas: First of all, with all that patriotic lore at home, I knew I would see action. Secondly, they paid a little bit more. I think it was an extra fifty bucks a month, and I could use that helping my mother at home.
Aaron Elson: How much were you sending back to your mother?
Tim Dyas: Well, Iím trying to remember. I sent about eighty dollars a month out of my hundred dollars thing and Iíd keep twenty bucks. I didnít drink. I didnít smoke. What could I do?
Aaron Elson: Did you have a girlfriend?
Tim Dyas: No. I didnít bother very much with girls. I couldnít afford them.
Aaron Elson: Were you in the 101st or the 82nd?
Tim Dyas: The 82nd. When I joined, I was sent to Company A of the 505th Parachute Infantry, which at that time was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel James Gavin, who later on as you know became a general. And retired in disgust because he said heíd rather be a private in an army he believed in than a general in an army he didnít. He was a magnificent leader. Oh, and then Ridgway. The 505 was put in the 82nd, and Ridgway wasnít a jumper. You should have heard them muttering. He went right out the next day and qualified. He was a magnificent leader. Absolutely magnificent. Two brilliant, magnificent, compassionate generals. They were great. Thatís another reason, incidentally, I went to the paratroops. I knew they would have the best in officers, and I would prefer to be with that type of a leader than what I had in the other outfit.
Aaron Elson: What rank did you have?
Tim Dyas: I was a sergeant, and then I took a reduction to private to go to the paratroopers. But in about three months I was a sergeant again, because most of the fellows that were in the unit had never been in the service; they went right in from the draft. So I became a sergeant very quickly, and then a platoon sergeant, and when the first sergeant from Company B was killed in a jump accident, his company commander asked me to come over to be his first sergeant, and my company commander couldnít promote me, so he let me go over. About three weeks later he came over and said, "Youíre coming back. Our first sergeantís gone." So I was the first sergeant until we just started to go overseas, and then the regular first sergeant came out of the hospital and everybody went, "Blecch!"
Aaron Elson: You said that in the other company the first sergeant was killed in a jump accident? Do you remember how that made people feel, to see that happening before you go into combat?
Tim Dyas: What happened is, he was the first sergeant in Company B and we were in Company A, so we jumped ahead of them towards the objective. And the plane following his, the speed dropped, and he went right in through them, and cut them to ribbons. A guy named Callahan, and an awfully nice guy too. It shook everybody up.
Aaron Elson: More than one person was killed?
Tim Dyas: Yeah, there were three or four or five or six. The plane hit the whole stick of paratroopers with its propellers going.
Aaron Elson: That must have been traumatic.
Tim Dyas: It was. You know, this was war. And even in the States it was war. This was happening, people were dying overseas. Not that we were heroes. As far as Iím concerned, the only heroes Ė nobody thatís alive is a hero. The heroes are all those who were killed.
Aaron Elson: So now youíve become a first sergeant. And you went back to Company A?
Tim Dyas: I was only there a period of time, and then the company commander from Company A yanked me back to his company and made me field first sergeant. I was a platoon sergeant technically, but I was field first sergeant when we jumped in Sicily.
Aaron Elson: And what does the first sergeant do?
Tim Dyas: The real first sergeant takes care of all of the administrative functions in a company. And also, if heís worth a hoot, heís out there with the troops as often as he possibly can be. I prefer, just as I did in my civilian job as a school principal, during the day to be with the students, and then afterward, or earlier, do the paperwork, to get that out of the way. Iíll never forget one time I put my feet up on the desk and was lying back thinking and the company commander walked in. I jumped up. He said, "Thatís all right. Youíre doing a good job when you can do that." That was funny. I was telling somebody yesterday Ė we were at a meeting the other night and somebody kept asking questions which dragged the meeting out Ė when the company would come back from a forced march, 20 miles or so, and weíd line up, and I was behind the company commander because the minute he stepped out I had to take over the company, and heíd always say, "Any questions?" And Iíd shake my fist at the troops [when he wasnít looking]. I told him later on in life, he said, "I always wondered why there were no questions." We didnít want to stand out there, weíre all dead tired. He was a wonderful guy. Weíre still good friends. He lives in Texas now. He stayed in the Army and retired as a colonel. He was supposed to make brigadier but the minute his report on Vietnam came out that we were losing they made him retire.
Aaron Elson: You went first to Sicily?
Tim Dyas: Thatís where I got captured. We went to North Africa, and the unit landed at Casablanca, which was nowhere like the movie. And we went by train up to a town called Ojuda. There were a lot of French Foreign Legionnaires stationed near there, and we lived out in the boondocks in our pup tents and did a lot of training at night. It was in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains.
Aaron Elson: The Foreign Legionnaires must have been a wild bunch.
Tim Dyas: Well, surprisingly, there were some of them in our prison camp. One of the men there was one of the most interesting men Iíve ever met in my life. Heíd been an oberleutnant in the German Navy and deserted because he couldnít stand Hitler. Joined the French Foreign Legion, and he happened to wind up in our prison camp. He was a topographer by profession. He could put dots on a wall and draw a map to scale; he was brilliant. I have a drawing he made of my prison camp photograph.