Nostalgia

Thunder From Heaven: A Paratrooper’s 45 Days of Constant Battle in WWII

The pin Uncle Joe wore on his uniform. The pin Uncle Joe wore on his uniform.

Most of the photos you’ll see here of my Uncle Joe were taken in 1943 (photos of the troops are not mine and are noted with their source at the end). In June of 1943 my Uncle Joe had been drafted and I think he and Aunt Ann took as many photos as they could to keep each other company before they would be separated. His brother Teddy, a minor league ballplayer, had been drafted just a month earlier. His sister Josephine had joined the Women’s Army Corps that same month, and his other brother Henry had been drafted a year before in 1942. This family really did their part.

*I’m going to call Uncle Joe just “Joe” for the rest of this entry for simplicity’s sake (even though it feels so weird) but know that I’m talking about the same person 🙂

Joe somewhere in Europe. Only paratroopers had the PRIVILEGE of tucking their uniform into their boots! Joe somewhere in Europe. Only paratroopers had the privilege of tucking their uniform into their boots!

Joe had been drafted when the Army began to draft married men; earlier in WWII the government had only enlisted single men of age. He’d been working as a machine cleaner and foreman at an ice cream factory (he later owned an ice cream store too) when his number was called. In order to send more money home he volunteered as a paratrooper. And because he spoke Polish (his parents had only emigrated in 1906 from Poland and his mother never learned English….You didn’t need to on Polish Hill in Pittsburgh) he was used to interrogate anyone speaking a Slavic language when his unit needed it.

Thunder From Heaven

So it was on the 10th of April in 1943 that Joe reported for duty in Pittsburgh. The 17th Airborne Division (nicknamed “Thunder From Heaven”) were activated under General William M. Miley just days later.

Interestingly, it was actually the Germans who spent their time developing large-scale air formations during the early part of the war. The US took notice (though not so closely of the heavy casualties the Germans suffered) and formed their own units.

photos Joe carried of his wife, my Aunt Ann, with him into war. Both taken in 1943 and are absolutely tiny in scale. Photos Joe carried of his wife, my Aunt Ann, with him into war. Both taken in 1943 and are absolutely tiny in scale. Left: Men of a U.S. airborne unit board a C-47 troop carrier Left: Men of a U.S. airborne unit board a C-47 troop carrier “somewhere in Britain” preparing to making a test jump. U.S. Signal Corps photo ETO-HB-44-16726 (original photo – TFH collection). Right: What they will encounter. This official US Army photo taken in FEBRUARY 1945 illustrates the violence of the fighting in this area. This anonymous 17th AB trooper stands in the front of Café Bertemes investigating a German MG42 machinegun (with courtesy of Ozzie Gorbitz).

The division spent an entire year of gruelingly training into an elite squad before they were shipped off to foreign service. Training included tons of leaping off towers built up to 250 feet tall to practice their parachute landings, marching for long hours and of course a large amount of time jumping out of planes. If you paused at the door you were out. And because of the higher pay, you were easily replaced.

I asked my father if Joe ever mentioned why he volunteered for the higher pay and higher risk (his wife Ann was working and they had no children). He said they figured that if he had to fight anyway and he was killed if might as well be for more money. Sometime’s it’s the simplest of answers, huh.

Coal to Potatoes

Another reason the larger pay may have seemed worth the extra danger was Joe’s origins. When Joe was around 10 his father, working at the steel mill, suffered a fatal stroke. His mother, who spoke no English and was a housewife, now had eight children to support. Joe and his older sister’s had to claim his father’s body at the mill. There was no pension, just a hard hat which the men passed around as a collection. Whatever they collected was handed to the kids. That was it.

More photos of my Aunt Ann carried by Joe, both taken 1943. They're a bit damaged (especially the ink in her eyebrows on the Left). They're only a little larger in size than your thumb nail on your hand! More photos of my Aunt Ann carried by Joe, both taken 1943. They’re a bit damaged (especially the ink in her eyebrows on the left). They’re only a little larger in size than your thumbnail on your hand!

They family had already struggled financially before this big blow. Joe’s oldest sibling, Martha, had left school after eighth grade and found employment at a department store. That still wasn’t nearly enough to cover expenses. With the loss of their main breadwinner survival was now precarious. The younger children who couldn’t find work headed down to the train tracks to pick up any coal debris from passing trains. They’d sell some of the coal and then stop at the produce yards to buy some potatoes. Then they’d use their leftover coal to roast the potatoes and sell those as a snack.

As soon as each of them hit working age they’d leave school for work. Joe went to a technical school for machine engineering and finished in two years. So a little extra money, just as it would be to so many others, was pretty appealing.

(Left: Joe and Ann, Right: Tapped together photos about the size of a quarter carried by ann during Joe's deployment). (Left: Joe and Ann, Right: Tapped together photos about the size of a quarter carried by ann during Joe’s deployment).

Britain and Beyond

In August of 1944 the 17th Airborne Division landed for the first time in Europe. Initially they remained where they landed, in Britain, as reserve troops because they were newbies. Several other units with combat experience spearheaded maneuvers during Operation Market-Garden which seized bridges in the Netherlands so that the Allies could enter Germany.

In December the Germans made their move into Belgium and quickly began to advance towards Antwerp. Bad weather kept the 17th Airborne from the Battle of the Bulge at first. During Christmastime the weather finally cleared enough for them to be flown into Reims, France in secretive night flights. From there they moved into Belgium and marched through the snow to Morhet to relieve the 28th Infantry Division. Joe received his only wartime injury at this time: frostbite so bad he lost all his toenails and suffered permanent injuries to his feet. It would not be until the beginning of January when they entered combat for the first time.

January 21, 1945. Troops of the 17th AB Dision move up toward the front over snow covered roads near Houffalize, Belgium (Signal Corps photo realised by Pvt George H Mallinder - 167 Sig Photo Co. SC 253918). January 21, 1945. Troops of the 17th AB Dision move up toward the front over snow covered roads near Houffalize, Belgium (Signal Corps photo realised by Pvt George H Mallinder – 167 Sig Photo Co. SC 253918).

During the first week of January the 17th Airborne and Joe entered the campaign at the Battle of Dead Man’s Ridge. Fighting lasted for three days and they suffered 1,000 casualties. Along the way they earned their first Medal of Honor. They captured several Belgian towns but had to withdraw under enemy counterattack. They reapplied pressure with aggressive patrolling and regained some ground.

By mid-January they were still in the thick of combat. They’d seized several more towns by breaking through German lines and turned towards Luxembourg to clear more of the enemy out. They were finally leaving the long, exhausting Ardennes campaign behind in France. (And despite the happy photos of the French you see being liberated, Joe said those he ran across didn’t seem much bothered either way…maybe they thought nothing would change, maybe they just wanted to be on their own again, who knows. The Belgians though, they were overjoyed).

On January 28, 1945, the 17th Airborne Division fought in the Bulge for over 26 consecutive days in awful climatic condition. This photo illustrates some of the poor conditions for the men during this month  (Original photo - TFH collection). On January 28, 1945, the 17th Airborne Division fought in the Bulge for over 26 consecutive days in awful climatic condition. This photo illustrates some of the poor conditions for the men during this month  (Original photo – TFH collection).

No Rest, To The Rhine

In February 1945 the tide had turned in the war and plans for Operation Varsity began to form. The 17th Airborne Division was chosen to take part in an assault that would enable the British Army to cross the Rhine River. It would be the last full-scale airborne drop of the Second War. And it would be behind enemy lines.

In late March, 4,000 aircraft from the British and the US dropped their men on enemy soil at the edge of the Diersfordter Forest. If they could accomplish their goals they would provide Allied access to Berlin. Though they now had extensive combat experience this would actually be the first airborne operation for the Thunder From Heaven (and as it turns out their only one).

At this stage in the war the army had finally worked out what made a successful airborne drop and placed ground units in position not far from the paratroopers’ landing locations. If left alone they would be completely isolated and could suffer major casualties.

Saturday March 23, 1945. One day before the invasion of Germany. The weather is beautiful and the men are waiting the for the go order. This photo is one day before Varsity and shows gliders Ready to go. They will be towed by Douglas C-47 planes (National Archives). Saturday March 23, 1945. One day before the invasion of Germany. The weather is beautiful and the men are waiting the for the go order. This photo is one day before Varsity and shows gliders Ready to go. They will be towed by Douglas C-47 planes (National Archives). March 24, 1945 morning: on the way to the biggest airborne operation of the World War II. Soldiers of the 17th Airborne are on the marshalling area just before boarding their planes (National Archives). March 24, 1945 morning: on the way to the biggest airborne operation of the World War II. Soldiers of the 17th Airborne are on the marshalling area just before boarding their planes (National Archives).

At 10 a.m. the first paratroopers descended on Germany land. Earlier that morning General Miley had received the go signal: “Two if by sea.” The troops were fed the traditional paratrooper breakfast of steak and eggs, loaded onto trucks and then brought to their planes for their liftoffs.

It took more than 1,800 aircrafts to transport the nearly 10,000 soldiers of the 17th Airborne (and the 8,000 men in the British 6th Airborne Division). The area where they were to insert themselves was a relatively small one and it became the most congested airborne assault ever attempted. It was so congested that the rather flimsy glider planes pushed to new altitudes to stack-up over the traffic. New height records for combat release were set that day…a scary prospect when you are a slow moving target taking longer than usual to reach the ground as the Germans take aim at you. The airplane sky train was nearly 200 miles long and it took them 2.5 hours to finish.

Uncle Joe's dog tags. Uncle Joe’s dog tags.

Medals of Honor

On top of all that traffic there was a “protective blanket” of 676 US fighters and 213 Royal Air Force fighters escorting them. Joe and his fellow paratroopers were anxious to get on the ground. As soon as they heard their command “Stand up and hook up!” they were ready to jump. At least there they felt that had more of a fighting chance as they watched Allied aircraft nosedive to the ground, succumbing to heavy German fire.  It’s a good thing the war was coming to an end because of the 1,305 glider plans that landed in Germany only 172 were salvageable.

The invasion was successful. Within a day they had secured several key bridges, destroyed a German tank and engaged with several German troops victoriously. The 17th Airborne managed to capture and hold each location on their task list, often in mere hours. The collective effort also led to the capture of 3,000 German soldiers…which was actually much more than the Allies could really handle but that’s another story.

This picture was taken on March 29 (?), 1945 by S/Sgt Koha (Signal Corps). The caption reads: This picture was taken on March 29 (?), 1945 by S/Sgt Koha (Signal Corps). The caption reads: “A platoon of the 17th Airborne Division uses salvaged bricks from the ruins in Holsterhausen, Germany, to make an approach to a bridge to Dorsten, Germany”. Note these soldiers are indistinguishable from Infantry soldiers with their “old” M41 uniforms without shoulder sleeve insignia (US Army Signal Corps collection).

The 17th Airborne earned their second Medal of Honor that day. Private George J. Peters, a platoon radio operator, landed with 10 other paratroopers near German soldiers…who had a machine gun. As the paratroopers struggled to free themselves of their parachutes the Germans opened fire. George freed himself and single-handedly attacked, drawing the fire away from his fellow soldiers. When he was wounded he stood back up again and continued towards the Germans. Once more they leveled him with a hail of bullets. Unable to get back up he crawled closer to them, tossed a grenade which destroyed the machine gun and killed its operators before dying himself.

A few hours later they earned yet another Medal of Honor. Private Stuart S. Stryker led a charge on a German machine gun nest and freed several Allied soldiers who had been captured. By the end of their mission the 17th Airborne had suffered around 1,346 casualties. For comparisons sake: the 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions lost 340 men on the infamous D-Day. Operation Varsity was to be the worst single day for Allied airborne troops.

Uncle Joe passed in 2008, Aunt Ann a few weeks after him. I was never able to find his dog tags until last month. I found them in an old mint tin with their wedding rings. Uncle Joe passed in 2008, Aunt Ann a few weeks later. I was never able to find his dog tags until last month. I found them in an unasuming mint tin with their wedding rings.

Silent Victory

The British had asked the names of the airborne divisions involved to be withheld for 24 hours after the start of Operation Varsity. And so while the Allied press reported heavily on this final large-scale assault on Germany, they did so without a mention of the 17th Airborne. Later many Americans wouldn’t realize the Thunder From Heaven had even been involved.

Work was not finished for Joe’s division and they continued their advance though Germany, relieving the 79th Infantry Division. Sometimes called the “Pittsburgh of the Ruhr” because of its working class steel town roots, Essen, Germany soon fell to them too as did other neighboring cities.

In five months of combat the Thunder from Heaven suffered over 2,000 casualties in action, nearly 5,000 injuries from combat and had seen 129 soldiers go missing. Joe himself had spent well over thirty days in continuous combat.

When the Allied forces entered in Germany, they progressively discovered the atrocities committed by the Nazis. The men of the 17th Airborne found such abuses, especially in Duisburg, where they discovered a Russian mass grave. The caption reads: When the Allied forces entered in Germany, they progressively discovered the atrocities committed by the Nazis. The men of the 17th Airborne found such abuses, especially in Duisburg, where they discovered a Russian mass grave. The caption reads: “Former members of the Nazi party in Duisburg, Germany, lower the bodies of Russian civilians into graves who were murdered by the Germans. They were forced to dig the graves and inter the bodies in a central section in the town as a constant reminder of the atrocity. 5/2/45 17th Airborne Division, XXII Corps, U.S. Fifteenth Army.” (original Signal Corps photo – TFH collection).

From April to June in 1945 the airborne division and Joe were on occupation duty and returned to France. In late August, after Japan had surrendered, they returned home and continued domestic service until the December 21, 1945. When you were drafted, or enlisted, you signed up for a standard term of “duration of the war, plus 6 months.” Joe was deactivated from service at Unit B Separation Center #45 in Gap, Pa (we talked about that town before with the Johnston Brothers gang, here. Oh wow, it just occurred to me that their reunions are held in Lancaster maybe for that reason!) The unit was then disbanded for good.

This photo was taken at Châlon-sur-Marne, France, on March 06, 1945 when the famous star (and outspoken anti-nazist) Marlene Dietrich came to the 17th AIRBORNE's area on tour. She strikes a pose with an unknown 17th AB trooper (NARA). This photo was taken at Châlon-sur-Marne, France, on March 06, 1945 when the famous star (and outspoken anti-nazist) Marlene Dietrich came to the 17th AIRBORNE’s area on tour. She strikes a pose with an unknown 17th AB trooper (NARA).

Uncle Joe never talked much about the war after that. It was too painful even 50+ years later. If a WWII documentary came on the TV he’d leave the room. My father was able to hear about some the battles he had been in from Uncle Joe but nothing too detailed. Mostly I’ve reconstructed his time as a paratrooper through his old war records and my own research.

He said he saw his time in the war as just a necessary job that had to be done. He never wanted to talk heroics and he definitely felt survivor’s guilt. Luckily, his brother Henry also survived the war and brother Teddy never was sent overseas thanks to the Sole Survivor Policy from the Sullivan brothers tragedy. Joe went on to own that ice cream store I talked about and teach me little Polish sayings like “dobra szynka” (good ham)…although I became a vegetarian as an adult so I never get to show that one off 😉

Right: This 17th Airborne trooper reads the good news on the Star and Stripes journal: the war in Europe is over! On May 8, 1945, the 17th Airborne Division closes its European campaign with a heavy price for victory (National Archive). Left: Joe and Ann. Right: This 17th Airborne trooper reads the good news on the Star and Stripes journal: the war in Europe is over! On May 8, 1945, the 17th Airborne Division closes its European campaign with a heavy price for victory (National Archive). Left: Joe and Ann.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and my dad who often asked Uncle Joe about his wartime 😉

All photos of the 17th AB in action, and not of Uncle Joe, were found here with their captions and original sources.