Exclusive–O’Donnell: Drop Zone Into Hell, D-Day

Paratroopers in Normandy including pathfinder Captain Frank Lillyman.
Patrick K. O'Donnell

This week marks the 75th anniversary of one of the great turning points in WWII—D-Day. Some of the first Allied troops to touch ground in Normandy were paratroopers. Beginning nearly 30 years ago, I started interviewing and gathering the stories of thousands of these remarkable WWII veterans. They were my close friends and family. My daughter called most of them uncle. Sadly, very few of them remain.

Today, I’m in Normandy walking in their footsteps, at Ste. Mère-Église and other airborne drop zones behind Utah Beach, hallowed ground where these men made and changed the course of history. This article captures the heart of combat–the raw feelings, emotions, and experiences these men endured in their own words.

One of my closest friends was Dutch Schultz, of the 82nd Airborne Division’s 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment. After the drop, Schultz found himself near Ste. Mère-Église and one of Normandy’s hottest spots—La Fière Bridge. Schultz’s story and the accounts in this article are captured in my bestselling book, Beyond Valor: World War II Ranger’s and Airborne Veterans Reveal the Heart of Combat.

“Before we jumped, I really didn’t realize what I was getting into. I still thought it was like playing soldier when I was a kid. I had a romantic vision of war. We were supposed to take off on the 4th, but it was postponed due to weather. We had a lot of meetings briefing us about our objectives. We took off on the evening of the 5th. At the time, Great Britain was on double daylight savings time. It was light out even at 9:30 or 10:00. We had a lot of equipment, about a hundred extra pounds. One of the things that they gave us was a Teller mine, and Teller mines were used against tanks. They also gave us a gammon grenade. This is the first time that anybody in the platoon had seen a gammon grenade [a small bean-bag-like grenade filled with high explosives for knocking out tanks]. They told us to keep the cap screwed on tight. Anyway, while we were loaded into the planes waiting to take off, there was a tremendous explosion. What happened, of course, was that a gammon grenade had gone off and had blown one of the planes sky-high, killing or injuring most of the people in the plane. There were only two people that came out of that unscathed. They got onto another plane, and they were both killed in Normandy. It was then that I started to realize, hey, this is for real.

“When we started to take off, I took out my rosary and started to say the Hail Mary. I was saying one rosary after another promising the Blessed Mother that never, never, never would I violate the Seventh Commandment, thou shall not commit adultery and all the sex stuff that went with it, until I was married. I still say at least once every day. That was the promise that I had made. I kept saying it over and over. Some of the other guys were also praying. The old-timers were sleeping. We hit the coast of Normandy around 1:00 A.M. As we hit the coast, I noticed that the plane was rocking and rolling a bit, and I saw flames coming out of the engine. So at that point I turned to the guy next to me and pointed to the engine and said, ‘Look at the flames coming out of the engine.’ He said, ‘Those aren’t flames, that’s ack-ack [German antiaircraft fire].’ They were shooting at us! [Laughs.] I really got frightened, really frightened. When they told us to stand up and hook up and check each other out, the plane started to go down, it was hit. Fortunately, the pilot was able to level it off, but we lost a lot of altitude. We couldn’t get out of there fast enough. I mean we got up on our feet, checking the other, and we were ready to go. When I jumped, I counted one-thousand-one, one-thousand-two, and on three the parachute opened. I oscillated once and twisted upward, and the next moment I hit the ground. I didn’t feel anything at the time. There was nobody in this area where I had landed. I was in a field surrounded by hedgerows. So the first thing I did was take my knife that I was so fond of and cut myself out of my harness. In the process of trying to find somebody, someone fired at me. While I was walking around in the daylight, I saw a paratrooper. He was in a prone position maybe 150 yards from where I was. I went up to him, and I approached him from the rear and I said something like, ‘Hi, trooper’ or something like that. There was no response. So I knelt down on my knee, and I saw some white substance on his hand. His eyes were open, and he had a hole in his forehead.

“Later, when we were moving forward, a friend of mine ran across a German soldier lying on the ground crying for help, obviously in a great deal of pain. My friend went up to him and started prodding the man with his rifle asking for his pistol. The German was still crying when my friend put the muzzle of his rifle between the German’s eyes and pulled the trigger. I watched him, and there was no movement in my friend’s face. I was both appalled and awed by what I saw. There was a part of me that wanted to be just like him. I wanted to be tough like they taught us in training, but I couldn’t. Fifty years later I saw him for the first time since the war at a reunion and brought up the incident—he broke down into tears.”

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Lynn “Buck” Compton, a paratrooper with Easy Company’s, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, who was portrayed in the award-winning miniseries Band of Brothers, remembers the action on D-Day.

On June 6, a squad of about a dozen men from E Company (reinforced later by a few other men from D Company) took out a battery of German artillery that was pointed at Utah Beach. Easy Company’s assault demonstrates how the individual initiative of the American combat soldier and a small group of men positioned at the right place at the right time could bend history and potentially impact an invasion.

“I landed in an orchard near some hedgerows. It was very quiet right at that moment; there wasn’t anybody around. For some reason the release thing on my chest harness didn’t work, so I had to cut my way out of my parachute harness. Pretty soon I could see one paratrooper drifting down in a chute, and he landed about fifty yards away from me. I got up and ran over to him, and he challenged me. We were from different outfits, but I had the password, so we got together. We started stumbling around in the dark looking for guys to get some people together.

“By that time, I could see other people coming in. The Germans were firing up at them, and I saw some of our men getting hit. We finally got on a road. I had no idea where we were. I ran across a guy from another company, he was from D Company, an officer. He had a broken leg, and he was laying in a ditch alongside the road. He had one of those Thompson submachine guns with him, and I didn’t have any weapons because my weapon was in the leg bag that broke off my leg when we jumped! So I talked him out of his submachine gun, and I told him, ‘If you get picked up by the medics you won’t need a gun, and if the Germans get you you’ll be better off without the gun, they won’t have an excuse to shoot you.’

“He let me have the gun. I wandered around on the roads, and more and more people began to gather. We got together maybe a dozen people. I hadn’t fired a shot yet. As we were walking along the road … we heard the sound of incoming artillery, and we dropped down in this ditch. This was a huge shell, one of those big things fired offshore by the navy. This thing sounded like a boxcar; when it hit the ground it was a dud or we would have all been wiped out. We cut some telephone wires, and we took a few prisoners. They were Polish and Russians. They came out surrendering to us, and we didn’t have any place to put them, so we just sort of walked them along the road. We were trying to find our way back to this objective we had, which we never did find. The objective was the causeways—we never made it there. We were a few miles from where we were supposed to be. We just sort of stumbled around in the dark and did any sort of damage we thought we could do. We captured a few people, and we shot at a few people. I was coming up this road with a handful of guys. There was some shelling going on. They were hitting the roofs of buildings, farmhouses. That’s when Lieutenant Dick Winters said, ‘Well, I think there’s some artillery out there someplace across this field.’ He said, ‘Why don’t you go out there and take a look and see what you can find.’

“There was about a dozen of us at the time, and it was around nine at night. I stripped down except for this submachine gun, which I cradled in my arms, and on my belly I made my way across this field. The guys were shooting from behind me kind of laying down, covering fire with machine-gun fire. I made it about a hundred yards across this field, and there was a hedgerow here. I looked through it and I could see some Germans were dug in, and I saw these two guys stoking this cannon. So I thought, ‘Oh, hell, I’ll jump through here with my Thompson and take these guys out.’ I leaped through the damn brush into the trench with this submachine gun. I went to pull the trigger, and it didn’t go off! I pulled the hammer back, and it ejects a live round—it’s got a broken firing pin! So I’m standing there, and these two Germans look at me, and they’re wondering what the hell I’m doing. They take off running, so I threw a couple of hand grenades, and I hit one of them right in the head as it exploded.

“By that time, a couple of our guys came charging up and jumped through the hedgerow with me, and we got into these trenches and were running around shooting anything in sight. I remember there was a wooden carton or case laying there in this thing, and on top of it was one of those German grenades they call ‘potato mashers.’ It was lying on top of this carton, and somebody kicked the box, and the thing rolled off into the middle of this trench, and the pin fell out. We all just kind of pushed ourselves against the side of the trench, and it went off. It didn’t hurt anybody.

“We worked our way down this trench line the rest of the night. More and more guys started showing up. We wanted to push out from there, but every time we started to move, we’d get shot at, and a couple of guys would get killed in front of me as we tried to work our way down this trench system. It was the first time I saw a person killed in front of me. I got out of the trenches and moved up onto some higher ground. I could see there were two trenches running laterally, and I was up there shooting down in this one direction where I thought the enemy was. These other guys were trying to make their way down into the trench, shooting Germans. Meanwhile, we were being raked by German machine gun fire from the hedgerows. There was just a lot of confusion, but suddenly somehow it all came to rest. We stopped, and we were able to move out of there, and we moved up the road. It was about 11:30 when we were finished. During the course of the attack our guys destroyed the guns.”

Ultimately, the American involvement at D-Day boiled down to the grit, initiative, and leadership of American’s greatest asset—the individual soldier. All of these qualities would be put to the test in the coming days as the Germans attempted to wipe out the Normandy beachhead.

Check back tomorrow for the first-hand account of one of the epic small-unit engagements at Normandy–The Battle for La Fière Bridge. 

Patrick K. O’Donnell is a bestselling, critically acclaimed military historian and an expert on elite units. He is the author of 12 books including The Unknowns: The Untold Story of America’s Unknown Soldier and WWI’s Most Decorated Heroes Who Brought Him Home, Beyond Valor, and Washington’s Immortals. The historian has interviewed thousands of WWII veterans and captured their stories in their own words. . O’Donnell served as a combat historian in a Marine rifle platoon during the Battle of Fallujah and speaks often on espionage, special operations, and counterinsurgency. He has provided historical consulting for DreamWorks’ award-winning miniseries Band of Brothers and for documentaries produced by the BBC, the History Channel, and Discovery. PatrickkODonnell.com @combathistorian

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