Operation Varsity: 17th Airborne Division Member Frank J. O’Rourke Recalls the Assault

6/12/2006 • Battle of The Bulge, World War II

On Christmas morning 1944, I was a member of the 17th Airborne Division when it was loaded onto Douglas C-47s at an airport in England and flown to France. A week later, on New Year’s Day, we were trucked up to Belgium to a position outside of Bastogne, where the 101st Airborne was surrounded. Some 40 days later, we were pulled out of the Bulge and settled in at a camp outside Châlons-sur-Marne, France, to be reorganized and refitted.

Seventeenth Airborne Division troopers hug the ground to avoid incoming enemy machine gun fire. A British-made Airspeed Horsa glider sits alone in the background.

As a result of the casualties the division had suffered, the 193rd and 194th Glider Infantry regiments were combined into one regiment, while the 507th and 513th Parachute Infantry regiments received hundreds of replacements from the States to fill out their depleted ranks. During the time the division was in the Ardennes, 1,839 were killed or wounded, about 45 casualties per day.

When March came to northern France the sun was bright, and for me and my comrades in Company C, 194th Glider Infantry Regiment, life at Châlons-sur-Marne became pleasant — no artillery, no mortars, no machine gun fire, no foxholes, no frostbite, no casualties.

But it did not last.

On March 20, we boarded trucks and were taken to a camp outside an airfield near Paris. The camp was surrounded by barbed wire and patrolled by MPs. No one got in without permission. No one got out.

There we were briefed. The 17th Airborne Division and the British 6th Airborne Division were to launch an operation, code-named ‘Varsity,’ over the Rhine River at Wesel, Germany, to pave the way for Field Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery’s attack through the Reich. The briefing was thorough and included photos so detailed that we could pick out German foxholes.

The last glider that would land was identified not by a number, as all the rest of the gliders were, but by the code name ‘Phantom.’ This glider would carry two American officers who spoke fluent German. Dressed in Wehrmacht uniforms, they were to drive an enemy jeep up and down the nearby autobahn and spread false rumors among the Germans troops. I thought these two guys must be out of their minds. If the Germans didn’t capture them and shoot them, then we might. Their glider, however, was hit in the air by flak, and the jeep was disabled, so their mission ended abruptly. I always wondered if they were disappointed.

Going into Germany by glider was not a prospect any of us welcomed. On December 12, 1944, while we were still in England, my company had been taken to an airfield for an orientation ride in the Airspeed Horsa, a British glider. Much larger than the American Waco CG-4A gliders, these were capable of carrying 32 passengers as well as the pilot and co-pilot.

There were six gliders sitting in a row on the tarmac when we arrived. Because there were enough of us for seven loads — and I was in the seventh group — I didn’t get to fly. Annoyed because it meant I would have to stay over and fly the next day, I went back with the others to the tents and waited.

In time the guys from the company who had flown that morning began to come in and told us that one of the gliders had gone down when its tail had come off. All on board had been killed. They weren’t wearing parachutes. No one ever wore a parachute in a glider.

The company commander called us out and read the names of the guys in the glider. We lost one mortar squad, one machine gun squad, one rifle squad and some from company and battalion headquarters. Together for more than a year, we knew each other as intimately as we knew members of our own families. That night we stripped the beds of the men from the machine gun squad in our barracks and packed up their personal possessions.

A few days later we went by bus to a cemetery outside Oxford to bury those men. Their graves had been dug by German prisoners, who stared at us as we passed. They seemed, as fellow soldiers, to share our sadness.

On March 24 our glider was scheduled to land five miles beyond the Rhine River at Landing Zone (LZ) S. Operation Varsity had many firsts, which apparently thrilled the generals. It was to be the largest single airborne assault of the war and the first time the glider regiments would land without the LZ being secured first by paratroopers. It was also the first time that the gliders would go into combat on a double tow.

At 0530 hours on the 24th, the first sergeant called us out: ‘Okay, off and on. Chow in 10 minutes. Fall out, column of twos.’

As I awoke, I thought at first that we were still in the States, and I was being called out for another day in the field, another day of running around the pinewoods of North Carolina, digging foxholes, playing at being soldier. But when the cold morning air swept over my face and I saw the first sergeant’s silhouette in the tent opening, I knew this was no dream.

At the airfield C-47s were in a long line, with two CG-4A gliders parked behind each. A Waco glider consisted of a metal frame wrapped in canvas with a plywood floor and plywood benches for the troops to sit on. It could carry 13 soldiers, a pilot and co-pilot. Ours also had cloverleafs of mortar shells tied down on the floor.

As we waited at the airfield, Sergeant Milton Anderson’s 60mm mortar squad — the squad I was assigned to — sat under its glider’s wing, smoked cigarettes and waited for the order to load. The pilot looked like a typical glider pilot. Wearing a wool knit cap, an old flight jacket and dress shoes, he was not outfitted for combat. His appearance was so casual that it gave me a sense of security to be in his hands.

The co-pilot, however, did not look as nonchalant. A C-47 pilot, he had been pressed into service because of the shortage of glider pilots. He looked nervous; he should have been.

The C-47s began to rev up their engines, and the word came down the line for the troops to load up. The platoon leader, Lieutenant Herman Clausen, sat up front behind the co-pilot. As the section sergeant of the mortars, I sat by the door. If the pilot and co-pilot got hit, Clausen was to land the glider. Given that he had no training in how to fly the fragile craft, all he could have done was to try and get down without crashing and killing us all. We liked Clausen, but we weren’t too confident in his ability to learn to fly a glider with two dead pilots at the controls.

Through the front of the glider’s Plexiglas nose, over the shoulders of the two pilots, I could see the fat, gray, whalelike tail of the C-47 tow ship with a nylon rope hanging loosely from it like an umbilical cord. A corporal from the ground crew climbed up on the front of our glider, attached the towline to it and gave a thumbs-up signal to the pilot before dropping to the ground and moving off to the right and front of the C-47.

He began to signal with his extended arm in a twirling motion to the C-47 pilot to begin moving his plane forward. When the towrope snapped straight out, the corporal twirled like a ballet dancer and, pointing his right arm at the end of the runway, signaled the C-47 pilot to rev his engines to full power. The towrope stretched taut, and our glider jerked forward, first up on its nose, then flopping back down again on its tail, until it began to roll along the runway behind its mother ship. The glider pilot pulled back on the stick, and the Waco lifted into the air after the C-47. We were airborne.

The fields of the landing zone are littered with gliders that have landed intact.

It was too noisy in the glider to talk, so we sat hunched forward in out seats, resting on our rifles, smoking cigarettes, looking out the small porthole windows where, when we passed over villages, we could see people standing in the yards outside their houses waving up at us as the gliders swept over them. For two hours the glider pitched and yawed behind the tow plane as the pilot fought to maintain control, always conscious of the towrope, which could wrap around a wing, tear it off, and we would plunge to earth. He also had to keep careful watch on the other glider attached to the towrope. With the slightest loss of control, that glider could have swung over and crashed into us — or we could have crashed into it. As we neared the Rhine River, the pilot turned and shouted over his shoulder, ‘Five minutes!’

Soon after, puffs of flak appeared ahead and to the right of the C-47. They looked like small, black clouds as they drifted past.

The pilot raised his right hand and rested it on the tow release. ‘Get ready!’ he shouted. Throughout the glider, we began bracing ourselves, locking our rifles tight against our bodies and the edge of our helmets. The pilot hit the tow release, and the nose of the glider lifted sharply. The tow plane pulled away to begin its run back to the Allied lines.

The glider banked to the left, hanging momentarily as if in a stall with its left wing almost perpendicular to the earth. Then it straightened out and rushed toward the ground at a speed of about 60 miles per hour.

I could see the earth through a small Plexiglas window in the rear floor of the glider. When we were 10 or so feet off the ground, I pulled the release on the door beside me so it wouldn’t jam when we hit and trap us inside.

The landing was routine. The glider went up on its nose as it slowed, then came down again and stopped. I unsnapped my seat belt and went out the door.

In front of me was the bank of the Issel Canal. It gave me cover from the front, so I ran toward it. Slightly to my left was glider 113, which had been on the short tow with us. As I rounded its tail, a burst of bullets kicked up dirt in front of me. I wheeled left toward the source and saw a glider pilot sweeping the field with an automatic rifle. He stopped when he recognized me, and I ran to the ditch where Gene Tinnan’s machine gun squad was huddled and firing at a flak gun emplacement in the corner of the field.

Without a tripod for his machine gun, Frank Paskowski had propped it up on a hedge and had pinned the Germans down until Bob Waterloo’s rifle squad came along the top of the canal and threw a grenade at the entrance to the emplacement. The Germans came pouring out with their hands up in the air.

Normally we sent prisoners back to the rear, but since we were five miles from the Rhine and had no rear to speak of, we herded the Germans into the center of the pasture. The glider pilots guarded them until someone came along to collect them.

We followed the canal we had landed beside, then passed a woods on our left where we drew fire. A rifle squad from the company went in and cleared the woods. As I watched them, I thought about how much we had matured from our first days in combat during the Battle of the Bulge — we had become professional soldiers.

When we reached our objective along the canal, we dug foxholes and prepared to defend the position. A couple of hundred yards or so farther down in the corner of the pasture that fronted us was a German bunker. We set up Sergeant Bill Wolford’s mortar and gave Rich Wise, the gunner, a rough estimate of the distance to the target. The mortar round arced through the air and landed on top of the German bunker — a direct hit. Enemy soldiers came pouring out and began running to the woods behind them. We were so surprised that we just stared at each other and at the running Germans.

An artillery observer with us called coordinates to his guns across the Rhine to lay a barrage on the woods where we saw the Germans taking cover. We heard the shells coming, but instead of passing over us to their target in the woods, they began exploding on our side of the canal.

The artillery observer was hit by shrapnel, and we were just as glad to see him go. He had given the guns the wrong coordinates. We didn’t need his kind of help.

In the afternoon a Consolidated B-24 came over on a resupply mission. It had been hit by flak, and as it passed over we could see smoke pouring from its engines. It was down to only a few hundred feet when two of the crew jumped; their chutes opened just as they disappeared into the woods.

For the rest of the day we lay on the bank of the canal and kept watch on the distant woods for some sign of the Germans. We didn’t know it, but the enemy was not that far away. In the afternoon, some 20 yards across the canal, a small white piece of cloth began to wave from a foxhole. We stared at the flag. We stared at each other. Finally we yelled, ‘Kommen Sie hier.‘ Two Germans got out of the foxhole and with their hands in the air came over and surrendered. One was an old man who was genuinely happy to be taken prisoner. The other was a young SS man who acted arrogant. We were not impressed. The whole scene was comical. How could these two Germans have been 20 or so yards away all this time and gone undetected? We sent them back to join the prisoners we had in the pasture.

Our night passed in relative quiet. The next day we searched through a British glider that had landed in the pasture and crashed across the canal. There was no sign of the pilots.

Also in the distance across the pasture we could see glider 122 from C Company. It had come down outside the company’s landing zone and sat alone in the pasture by the edge of the woods. The men who had traveled in it had not been as lucky as we had been.

Sergeant James Gregory’s rifle squad and the platoon leader, Lieutenant Hymie Glasser, had come down in that glider. As Glasser tried to figure out where they were, the members of Gregory’s squad thought it was all too quiet. There were no other gliders in the pasture; they were all alone. There were no signs or sounds of war. Perhaps they thought they had landed on the other side of the Rhine.

But the quiet didn’t last long; they soon started to receive rifle and machine gun fire. When they returned fire, one by one they were picked off.

First killed was Sergeant Gregory, next the BAR man Rich Mowrey, and then a replacement who had joined the company only a few weeks before the Varsity operation. He had lasted just one day in combat; none of the survivors knew his name.

Lieutenant Glasser received a head wound, and Bill Whalen, the platoon runner, thought he was dead. Glasser’s eyes were open, but he did not seem able to talk. Whalen poured sulfa powder on the wound and then gave him a shot of the morphine all airborne troopers carried.

With the platoon leader wounded and the squad leader dead, Whalen took charge. A German lieutenant called to them in very good English that they should surrender. They looked about them. They had three dead comrades and a lieutenant with a serious head wound. There was not much sense in continuing to fight, so the Americans laid down their weapons, stood up and surrendered.

They were taken into a bunker where a German noncom, who had been wounded in the leg during the exchange of fire, kept threatening to shoot them. The German lieutenant stopped the man from menacing them, explaining to the captured Americans that the sergeant’s leg wound was very bad, and that he had lost a brother in Africa. According to the German lieutenant, the anger was understandable.

Lieutenant Glasser, although not able to talk, was still alive, so the remaining squad members made a makeshift litter and carried him as they were moved back through the German lines. In one town they came upon a hospital, and their German guards told them it would be best if they left the lieutenant there. They reassured the Americans that he would get the necessary medical treatment. He did and went on to survive the war.

On the third day after landing across the Rhine, we were scheduled to be replaced by a company from the 513th Regiment. As the time approached, I sent the mortars back and had begun to follow them when the Germans attacked. Bullets flew over our heads as we crouched behind the canal bank.

Frank Paskowski had his machine gun dug in at the canal and fired at the Germans trying to cross. A German bullet slammed into his right hand, and he wheeled back from the gun. He had lost two fingers. Another member of the machine gun squad took his place and continued firing down the canal.

The Germans stopped trying to take our positions at about the same time the company from the 513th arrived. As I moved back and passed the line of troopers from the 513th, I recognized one of them from my hometown. I said something like, ‘You’re going the wrong way,’ but he didn’t see the humor in it.

By now we had hooked up with the ground troops coming across the Rhine, and we settled down for the night in a relatively secure area. First Platoon Sergeant Morris Patty took a patrol out to check the perimeter of our position. He was killed by a sniper on his way back.

The next day, along with the British 6th Airborne, we pushed off in the lead of Montgomery’s army in a sweep that would encircle the Ruhr Valley. We met only scattered resistance until we came upon Munster. It was a fairly large city with a population of probably more than 100,000. We attacked about 4 in the afternoon across pastures that surrounded the town. Supporting us were British tanks from the 6th Guards Armoured Brigade. As I stopped behind a hedge, one of the tanks came up beside me and a sergeant, sitting up in the turret, leaned over and shouted to me, ‘It’s a bloody good show, Yank!’ I just stared at him. It sounded like a line from a movie. The ‘bloke’ was obviously enjoying himself. But he was right. The 17th crossed the open pastures surrounding the city, and as I followed along I had to agree it was a ‘bloody good show.’ When we reached the city, I met the company commander, Captain Ray Strang. ‘Lieutenant Clausen got it,’ he said. That was all we ever said when someone was killed. ‘He got it’ was our euphemism for death. It didn’t sound so bad. It sounded as though he had received a present. Lucky him. But Clausen was well liked and regardless of how we masked our emotions, it still hurt.

After Munster, we continued to march on through the German countryside until we reached Duisburg in the Ruhr Valley. For us the war was now over. The last one of us who got it was Lieutenant Clausen.

Years after the war, I read the after-action report the Army had prepared on Operation Varsity. The report listed each glider in the operation and described what had happened to it. Glider 122 was listed as being missing when it came down outside the LZ. My glider, 114, was one of the few that had not been hit in the air by small-arms fire or flak. Too many were listed as having aborted their flight because they had been hit in the air and exploded.

I have a picture of C Company taken before we went overseas. The officers of the company are in the center of the first row. There were five of them. Three were killed. The only one to remain with us was Captain Strang, the company commander. There were other officers who had joined the company at various times. One was Lieutenant Robert Brown, who was the Weapons Platoon leader. He was killed only weeks before the end of the war. Moving down a road through a woods, we came under sniper fire. Most of us hit the ground in ditches parallel to the road, but not Brown. He stood up and said, ‘I’ll get the bastard.’ He didn’t. The bastard got him. The Army gave Brown a Silver Star.

Brown was one of the few people I knew who wanted to be in combat. The rest of us just accepted the job that had to be done. Some did it better than others, but no one was running around trying to be a hero. When we first landed in France and were waiting for trucks to take us to Belgium, I was sitting next to a fire with Lieutenant Brown and he showed me a World War I trench knife he carried. ‘I’m gonna kill some Germans with this,’ he said and then added as though it was an afterthought, ‘And they’re gonna kill me.’ He did, and they did.

Then there was Lieutenant Guerett Loomis. He was tall, very tall. He was transferred to battalion headquarters and went in by glider with Major Leland Huntley, the assistant battalion commander. Their glider landed directly in front of a German 88mm artillery piece. The Germans fired and put a shell through the front of the glider, killing all on board.

When we had first arrived at the Bulge, one of the mortar squad leaders, Don Swanell, and I dug a foxhole behind a low line of hedge. In front of us was the body of a dead GI. He was from the 28th Division and had been hit by a piece of shrapnel that had cut a slice across his stomach. He lay on his back, and the flesh on his abdomen had curled back as it froze.

Brown and Loomis came up to our foxhole and wanted to know what we were going to do with the dead GI. We shrugged. We had no idea what we were supposed to do with dead guys. So Brown and Loomis each grabbed one of the GI’s legs and dragged him back to the village of Houmont, where they were collecting the dead. When both of them were killed later on, someone else dragged them back to where the dead were being collected.

When I got home, I put a white dot on the picture of everyone in the company who had been killed. There were a lot of white dots, but there could have been more. The men underneath the white dots were replaced. Some of those replacements also would have been white dots.

This article was written by Frank J. O’Rourke and originally appeared in the April 2004 issue of World War II. For more great articles be sure to pick up your copy of World War II.

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