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Leonard Rosen is a member of a very select fraternity. A volunteer for the paratroops, the 82nd Airborne 'All-American' Division trooper survived four combat jumps in 1943-44. Even among elite paratroopers, such an achievement is noteworthy.
Although his experiences in uniform would be harrowing, for Rosen the war began much the same way it did for everyone in 1941 America. 'I was in Huntsville, Ala., the day Pearl Harbor happened,' he remembers. 'I was listening to the radio in the hotel when they announced it, and I really got shocked…it was a terrific blow.' Rosen was 21 years old on the morning of December 7. Like so many of his contemporaries, he quickly volunteered to serve, enlisting in the Army at Fort MacArthur in San Pedro, Calif. Rosen was then sent to Camp Roberts in Paso Robles, Calif., for basic training.
Unwilling to accept the lot of an ordinary soldier, Rosen was looking for something more from his military experience. 'As soon as I joined the Army, I wanted to be in the paratroops,' he says. 'I was a volunteer, so they sent me to Fort Benning, Ga., for parachute training. Training was fine as far as I was concerned. We trained in the `Frying Pan' area.'
Rather than becoming one of the majority that fell out under the deliberately tough training, Rosen thrived. Part of his instruction was from the man who would make more combat jumps than any other general in World War II — James M. 'Jumping Jim' Gavin. 'The head man who trained us was Gavin,' Rosen recalls. 'He was a captain. He came out of Panama and took over the parachute battalion for jump training. He became our regimental commander and then division commander. But we went and trained in Fort Benning, and then we were shipped to Fort Bragg, N.C. And then we were told we were taking a trip.'
Gavin's goal was to MAKE the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR) second to none in combat performance. After much hard work, in July 1943, Jumping Jim had his chance to put all of his training to the test. The 505th was part of the initial assault on the Axis-held island of Sicily. Before its jump into combat, however, the regiment had to endure the far less glamorous Atlantic crossing on a troopship. Rosen and his comrades in F Company left the United States on SS Monterey. Their destination was the Mediterranean, where the regiment would make its final preparations for the invasion. Joining them would be the equally battle-ready 504th PIR, which followed the 505th one day later on SS George Washington. 'The voyage was six or seven days,' Rosen says. 'We landed in Casablanca in North Africa. The next stop was Ouja, near Oran, in Algeria.'
Although the earlier landings in North Africa had been accomplished with little opposition, this time the Allies would be invading an Axis-held island on the doorstep of the Italian mainland. Generals Dwight D. Eisenhower and George S. Patton, as well as other senior Allied leaders, anticipated that this invasion might be much more difficult.As with any amphibious landing, the invading force would be most vulnerable in the immediate aftermath of coming ashore. It would be the job of Gavin's 505th to jump in to secure the approaches to the landing beaches. Particularly important was a 'Y' road junction near Gela that was protected by a series of concrete pillboxes.
In what would be the largest American airborne operation to date, Gavin would drop his own regiment, along with elements of the 504th PIR and the 456th Parachute Field Artillery Battalion, behind the invasion beaches on the evening of June 9, 1943. Opposite them, in addition to Italian troops, were the Hermann Göring and 15th Panzer divisions.
As the hour approached for takeoff, the paratroopers made final preparations. Busy with their own thoughts, at first many probably did not notice that the winds had picked up considerably. By the time the men were scheduled for takeoff, in fact, the winds had increased to 35 mph, which was 20 mph faster than what was considered safe during training jumps. It was too late to turn back, however, and the mission was too important to forgo the airborne landings, so Gavin and the others proceeded as planned.
The combination of poor weather and inexperience meant the drop was widely scattered. Fortunately, of all the drops that evening, Rosen's 2nd Battalion had the most concentrated ones, and the men were able to organize themselves quickly after landing and clear the beaches behind the 45th Division's intended landing area. 'It was windy,' Rosen recalls. 'We floated around and didn't hit the exact spot — a mile or two away. We got together pretty fast.'
Not everyone was so lucky. It was later estimated that about 80 percent of Gavin's 3,400 men were dropped from one to as much as 65 miles away from their intended drop zone. Fortunately for the Americans, the Italian defenders on the island seemed less resolute than their German comrades. 'The Hermann Göring Division was there,' Rosen remembered. 'But they had the Italian army in there. They gave up right away. As soon as they saw an American they gave up. They were in front and the Germans were in the background directing them.' Half-hearted Italian resistance and an unsuccessful counterattack by the Hermann Göring Panzer Division against elements of the 505th at Biazza Ridge ensured an Axis defeat.
To lose barren tracts of sand in North Africa was one thing, but to allow a large Allied force to land on Italian soil in Sicily was quite another, and on July 25, 1943, Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini was arrested. Although the fighting continued until August 17, when Patton entered Messina, the outcome was no longer in doubt. After a rocky start, the Allies had captured a large piece of Italian territory and had driven the country's dictator from power. German airborne general Kurt Student later said that it was the Allied airborne landings that were decisive, and he asserted that without them victory might not have been achieved.
If Sicily was the baptism of fire for Rosen and the rest of the 82nd Airborne, the invasion of the Italian mainland just two months later demonstrated the division's 'anywhere, anytime' readiness. Opposition to the Allies' September 9, 1943, landing at Salerno was tougher than anticipated, and shortly after coming ashore the 36th Infantry Division found itself in hot water. With the situation quickly deteriorating, the call went out for the 82nd to reinforce the beleaguered attackers.
At midnight on September 13, the 504th jumped into the beachhead with no genuine reconnaissance, and the next day Rosen's 505th dropped onto a still-contested beachhead near the Sele River. The timely arrival of the 82nd forced the Germans — who Rosen says seemed to be fighting on alone with little help from their Italian allies — to slowly withdraw. 'The Italians gave up, most of them,' Rosen says. 'There were Germans there running the Italians — but that wasn't much of an operation.'
Although the Germans were slowly pushed back, they gave ground grudgingly. After regrouping inland from Salerno Beach at Monte Soprano, the 505th led the 82nd's push north toward Naples. 'We organized fast and we started to march to Naples,' Rosen recalls. 'The Germans made their stand at the Volturno River — they backed up to there. That was tough. The Germans really put up a stand at that river. I lost — from the artillery fire — two or three of my friends…there.'
Rosen was wounded during the brutal fighting at the Volturno River and was later awarded the Purple Heart. 'I got hit by artillery fire,' he says. 'My whole hand was cut open.' Despite the wound, Rosen remained with his outfit and was with it when it entered Naples on October 1. During the respite that followed, Rosen remembers that Gavin was promoted to brigadier general, and he also remembers that his former commander was quick to praise his men for their accomplishments: 'He kept telling us we were better soldiers.' They would need to be. The next mission for the 505th would be Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy.
By November the 82nd Airborne — less the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment — was making final preparations to transfer from Italy to Great Britain, where it would train for its role in the invasion of France, which initially called for the division to jump well behind the beaches. Just prior to the operation, however, fears that the Germans had anticipated the location of Allied drop zones led to a change in plans.
The 82nd's drop zone was moved from the village of Saint-Sauveur-le-Vicomte (in the center of the Cherbourg Peninsula) to an important transportation hub farther to the east that was closer to the Utah Beach amphibious landing area. Last-minute changes notwithstanding, Rosen didn't concern himself with trying to predict the invasion orders.
'I knew nothing until I jumped outta the plane,' he says. 'I didn't know where I was going — nobody knew where they were going. We found out when we were on the plane that it was Normandy and we were going to Ste. Mère-Eglise. That's where we jumped, over Ste. Mère-Eglise.'
To avoid another tragic friendly fire incident like the one during the Sicily operation, when nervous Navy crews had begun shooting with devastating effect on transport planes carrying Allied paratroopers to their drop zones, the C-47s that carried the 82nd to France departed from central England and swung far to the west, avoiding an overflight of the massive Allied flotilla that packed the English Channel.
A veteran of previous drops, Rosen does not recall the same sense of drama and anticipation that other veterans have often described. 'I took a smoke. We kibbitzed between us — with the guys talkin'…just regular conversation,' Rosen remembers of the flight over. 'I never thought about where we were going, I just wanted to get there and get out. I think everybody more or less thought that.'
The All-Americans jumped into Nazi-occupied France just five miles inland from where Allied landings would take place at Utah Beach. 'I hooked up and I couldn't wait to get out of the plane,' Rosen says. 'I was just anxious to get out because there was flak coming up. We'd say to each guy in front of us, `Let's go! Keep goin'! Bang!'…You know, when they hooked up on the static line. I just wanted to get out there into the night.'
When the green light signal to jump came on inside Rosen's C-47, the 2nd Battalion's F Company hit the silk. 'I was the fifth one out,' Rosen recalls. 'I wanted to get goin', so I jumped out and pulled the chute open and I had a nice drop in between the hedgerows. Some people weren't as fortunate.'
One of those whose drop was rougher than anticipated was Rosen's battalion commander, Lt. Col. Benjamin H. Vandervoort. 'I think he broke his ankle on the jump,' Rosen says, 'because the first time I saw him he was on a cart.' Others who had a difficult time were the division's glider troops. The drop zones inland from Utah Beach were bristling with deadly anti-airborne defenses that included 12-foot-tall posts topped with mines, wired together. These defenses and the hazards of landing one of the fragile gliders at night and in the confusion of the airborne drops led to terrible casualties among the glidermen on D-Day morning and during the landings that followed. For Rosen, the grisly casualties suffered by the glidermen were particularly hard to take.
'We saw the 325th Glider Infantry come in at Ste. Mère-Eglise and that was a real tragedy — watching them hit Rommel's asparagus posts. That was a rough deal. They just had to take their chances.'
Along with the rest of F Company, Rosen had come down near Ste. Mère-Eglise, and he believes that some of the German troops in the town thought the initial paratroop drop was the extent of the invasion. 'First of all, I didn't hear much ground fire. I think it kinda took them by surprise because when we landed in Ste. Mère-Eglise the German headquarters were all having a party. We caught them dumbfounded. There wasn't too much action with the Germans running through the hedgerows. They had a few big artillery pieces that we captured right away. But we took them by surprise.
'I was worrying about getting myself on the ground. I didn't want to land on a house or whatever. I was maneuvering my position. We got into our drop area very well. Our company came together right away. After a few hours, it wound up that we were all together…those that were still alive.'
A paratrooper from Rosen's stick, Private John Steele, landed on the church steeple inside Ste. Mère-Eglise and survived the night. He was hauled in by the Germans but escaped a few days later.
Many did not escape. 'One guy had gotten hooked up in a tree, and when we got to him he was dead already — they shot him,' says Rosen. 'That's the part that hurt.' But the hurt quickly turned into anger for Rosen. 'I was mad at the enemy. I had guys die in my arms, and that was a tragedy. There was nothing I could do. It makes you mad as hell. The first German you see you wanna kill him right away.'
While paratroopers from the other regiments and the nearby 101st Airborne Division were badly scattered, Rosen's 505th banded together pretty quickly in and around Ste. Mère-Eglise. 'I was right on the edge of the village,' Rosen says. 'When we jumped, the French people were in their houses and I don't think many came out until we secured the area. I don't think they wanted to get killed.'
Working quickly, elements of the 505th drove off any German defenders and secured Ste. Mère-Eglise, earning for the previously obscure Norman village the distinction of being the first village liberated in occupied France. Major Edward 'Cannonball' Krauss marked the occasion by raising the Stars and Stripes over the town. No ordinary flag, Krauss' banner was the same one that had flown over Naples, the first city liberated in occupied Europe. Unlike Naples, however, there was no time for celebration. Rosen and the rest of the 505th were busy fighting off a series of German counterattacks designed to retake the town.
As Rosen had experienced in Sicily and Italy, combat brought a number of close calls. One that stands out was the time he stepped on a mine: 'I got flipped over with a machine gun on my side and nothing happened! I didn't feel anything! No injury! As soon as we started to leave Ste. Mère-Eglise, they warned us that there were a lot of minefields there.'
Other hazards were presented by the deadly German 88s, which began to strike Ste. Mère-Eglise in earnest on June 7 once their gunners knew the town was under American control. 'We had action because we ran up against artillery — those big 88s set up in certain areas they had camouflaged,' Rosen recalls. 'And we knocked out a couple of those. It was a rough deal. They'd say `we want volunteers,' and three or four of us would go up there and heave hand grenades in there.'
Rosen would continue to fight with the division through its many battles in Normandy, and wasn't evacuated until July 11, 1944. As expected, the division had performed magnificently during the Normandy campaign and achieved all of its objectives. Rosen and the others found, however, that with each step closer to the heart of the Reich, the fighting became more brutal and the cost heavier. The 82nd suffered 5,436 casualties during its monthlong stay in Normandy — 1,119 from Rosen's 505th, a loss rate of 55 percent. Rosen had somehow beaten the odds and after a short respite prepared for his next jump.
That call came in September 1944. As part of his attempt to kick open a doorway into the heart of Germany, British Field Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery proposed one of the most daring and spectacular operations of the war. Utilizing the newly formed First Allied Airborne Army, the field marshal would drop three airborne divisions behind German lines in Holland to seize a series of bridges so that a rapidly advancing armored column could drive up 60 miles of road and leap across the Rhine River. If everything went according to plan, the Allies would be across Germany's great natural barrier in the West and deep inside Adolf Hitler's Ruhr industrial heartland. As part of what was called Operation Market-Garden, the 82nd would be responsible for seizing bridges around Nijmegen.
On September 17, 1944, the 505th hit the silk over Groesbeek, Holland, and began its fourth campaign. Rosen's landing was a bit rougher than previous ones. 'I jumped right through a house. I landed right into their kitchen while they were eating dinner. They had thatched roofs in Holland out in the country. They were so happy, they were hugging me!'
Stepping outside, Rosen was soon in the thick of the fight. 'As soon as we landed, there was a trainload of supplies and troops — and we knocked that out right away. It was a German train going through with supplies. We took it.'
Nijmegen and its strategically vital rail and highway bridges over the Waal River were still to the north, so quickly after the 505th's 'train heist,' Vandervoort pushed his battalion into the city. As was their standard practice, immediately after being driven from the city, the Germans reorganized and launched a counterattack.
'We were in the park right by the bridge, German 88s firing out all the time. You couldn't walk across the street,' Rosen says of conditions in the town. 'As soon as they saw somebody, those 88s went off. That was a tough deal. I lost my captain who just came from West Point. His name was Rosen too; he died in my arms. He was from Texas and wore side arms, like Texas Rangers, you know.'
During the fighting for the town, Rosen had one of his most peculiar encounters. After a failed attempt to clear Hunner Park, Rosen was resting when he was approached by Lt. Gen. Sir Miles Dempsey, commander of the British Second Army. Dempsey was near the front to observe the 504th's attack on the city's bridge, which was vital if his armored column was to proceed. 'He came and talked to me in Holland when our squad was practically wiped out,' recalls Rosen. 'We lost a lot of men there. He said to me, `Who's in charge?' and I said, `They're all dead.' ' This did not stop the British general. 'You're in charge,' Dempsey shot back. Although he was impressed that the general was near him in the thick of the action, Rosen was unfazed by his nominal promotion: 'I took it with a grain of salt. It didn't mean anything to me. He was a good man.'
The 504th eventually took the road bridge at Nijmegen, but only after it had suffered heavy losses in a brutal daylight river crossing. As the 504th attacked the bridge, Rosen's 505th was busy inside the town. 'Some guy come[s] running out of that tunnel — they [the Germans] must have been on drugs — he came running out and he [ran] up to my medic who I was talking to and shot him dead,' remembers Rosen. 'Right next to me. Shot him dead. And then one of my friends shot the German dead. The medic was saying, `Rosen, don't let me die. I'm dying.' But I couldn't do anything. You feel helpless.'
He also felt helpless when, after the armored column failed to reach the British airborne troopers at Arnhem — and the bridge over the Rhine — the division was relieved by Canadian troops on November 10, 1944, nearly two months after first landing in Holland. The operation was ultimately unsuccessful, but a large swath of the Netherlands had been freed from a brutal occupation, and the division had added further laurels to its reputation as it repeatedly bested larger German forces. When General Gavin, now 82nd Airborne Division commander, rose to salute Dempsey after the successful capture of Nijmegen Bridge, the British general briskly returned the salute, thrust out his hand and said, 'I'm proud to meet the commanding general of the finest division in the world today.'
Veterans now of four combat jumps, Rosen and his buddies had barely finished wringing the mud and filth from their sodden uniforms when they were again called into action. On December 16, 1944, Hitler launched his Ardennes counteroffensive and quickly ripped a huge hole in the Allied front in Western Europe. With his lines already stretched to the breaking point, Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower called on the only reserves he had — the war-weary 82nd and 101st — to plug the breach and try to restore some order.
Rosen had just returned to the division's cantonment near Reims, France, from a much anticipated leave to Paris, when he got the word that they were returning to the front lines. 'After we got back to Paris and were having a ball, they said, `We're leavin' right now," he recalls. 'Just like that!'
As the troopers quickly assembled, soldiers from untried as well as combat-exhausted First Army divisions that had been resting in preparation for the spring campaign were fighting for their lives against three well-equipped German armies. When Rosen and his buddies asked why they were again being called to action so soon after Holland, they were told about the breakthrough and the desperate state of American troops caught there. 'They called us [together] and told us that we had to go over there and stop this.'
In the actions that followed, the 101st Airborne gained immortality as the division that held a small Belgian farming town for eight days and was soon being praised as the 'Battling Bastards of Bastogne.' Just as important, though less well remembered, was the 82nd Airborne's unglamorous and unheralded battles to hold back SS General Sepp Dietrich's Sixth Panzer Army, which was battering outnumbered American units while driving toward its ultimate objective, the Belgian port city of Antwerp.
Rushed to Belgium, Rosen and the rest of the 505th found themselves at Trois Ponts guarding crossings of the Salm River. Dietrich had to take these spans if his offensive was to have any hope of success. As the GIs quickly found out, the Germans were not their only enemy. '[We] couldn't do anything because of the weather,' Rosen recalls. 'We were freezing to death. It was snowing all the time. You were cold and miserable. You didn't even care if you got killed because what could be worse than this?'
The Germans were out there, however, and over the next 212 weeks the 505th and the rest of the 82nd held off repeated enemy attacks — many of the most intense coming from the tanks of the three SS panzer divisions that were thrown against the paratroopers' lines. 'There were a lot of casualties,' Rosen remembers of the fighting along the Salm. 'You'd see guys lying all over the place. I was sitting in a trench in the Battle of the Bulge; I'll never forget this, my good friend named Lynch was sitting right next to me, an 88 hit him and blew his head off.'
The 505th fought off the German attacks until January 1, 1945, when the bulk of the remaining panzers were sent south to help the other surviving Wehrmacht and SS units withdraw safely from the salient created by their attack. Having endured two of the most difficult weeks of their time in combat, the men were given only a couple of days' rest before taking part in the general American push to regain the ground lost during the German offensive. From January 3-10, the division fought a series of battles that brought them back to the positions the First Army had occupied at the start of the battle and all but destroyed the German 62nd Volksgrenadier Division.
A veteran of more combat than most, Rosen stayed with his unit rather than seek reassignment. 'I never thought about getting home because I wouldn't go home until the Germans were defeated. I knew I still had work to do,' he says. 'It was the same the first time I went into battle and the same…[at]the closing battle — I felt the same way.'
After a short respite, Rosen's unit returned to combat, fighting at the West Wall and crossing the Roer River in mid-February. Then it was back to Reims for another short rest before heading back to Germany, crossing the Rhine on April 4 and entering Cologne on April 25.
Five days later, on the same day that Hitler committed suicide in the bowels of his Berlin bunker, the 82nd Airborne crossed the Elbe River. Near Lugwigslust, Germany, Rosen and the 505th found an entire German army group ready to lay down its arms.
'The guy came right up to me and surrendered to a group of us together,' Rosen recalls. 'The line went for miles.' Used to fighting a ruthless and determined foe, it now seemed as though the Wehrmacht could not capitulate fast enough. 'Everybody was carrying white flags, and this German general was in the lead of his division. His whole division gave up.'
It was during this surrender that Rosen, a Jew, was given a shocking example of just how deep anti-Semitic feelings ran in Germany and a reminder of why he had fought so long and hard. After the general surrendered his defeated force, Rosen overheard him remark, 'The Jews caused this whole war.' As Rosen recalls: 'It sounds funny now — didn't sound funny then. Especially after what I went through, it didn't sound funny at all. I was really mad. It was the first time I ever threatened to kill an unarmed man. They had to pull me away because I was going to kill him.'
The general's remark is especially ironic considering that the notorious Woebblin concentration camp lay just outside the town where the surrender occurred.
Incensed by what his men had discovered, General Gavin forced the citizens of Lugwigslust to dig the graves for the dead prisoners, despite their protests that they were unaware of the camp's activities. Even after more than 60 years, Rosen does not accept this. 'You wanted to punish everybody,' he says. 'When somebody would say to you, I didn't know — that's all BS. You didn't believe them. You knew they all knew.'
Within a week, it was finally all over. Rosen remained with his outfit and, after a short leave to Marseilles, was back with the All-Americans sweating out his part in the war against Japan. By August, the veteran of six campaigns learned of the atomic blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While many men served in the 505th, only a scant few can claim to have survived all of its battles as a rifleman and to have been an integral part of a regiment that received two Distinguished Unit Citations, the French Fourragère, the Netherlands Order of William and the Belgian Fourragère.
With no enemy left to fight and his mission finally accomplished, Rosen returned home and began a comparatively mundane life as a civilian. Now enjoying a well-earned retirement, Rosen has had an opportunity to look back on his distinguished combat career and what kept him going during those battles long ago. 'We were just thinking about the job that had to be done,' he says. 'I didn't think about getting killed or anything else. You're young and you don't think about that — I didn't anyway. It was an adventure. When you get older, it becomes different.'
This written by Ben Herndon and article originally appeared in the May 2006 issue of World War II magazine. For more great articles subscribe to World War II magazine today!
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