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A teenage squad leader in Company F, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division, took part in the brutal battle to wrest Nijmegen’s Hunner Park from its fanatical SS defenders.

Spencer F.Wurst is one of a handful of men who can lay claim to the distinction of having made three of the four combat jumps of the hard-fighting 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment,, 82nd Airborne Division, and lived to tell about it. Lying about his age, Wurst enlisted in the Pennsylvania National Guard in 1940, when he was 15.After mobilization, he transferred to the paratroopers and earned his wings at 17. In an adaptation from, his forthcoming memoir, Descending From the Clouds, Wurst describes the gallant but little-known role the 2nd Battalion, 505th, played in the ferocious battle for Hunner Park— a battle that secured the south end of the Waal River highway bridge at Nijmegen during a crucial phase of Operation Market-Garden in September 1944 and earned the author a Silver Star.

Wurst’s account begins after he and members of his 1st Squad, 3rd Platoon, Company F, shelter in an outside cellarway after a German 88mm gun drove off British tanks supporting the American paratroopers. occupy them and still cover most of the street that led up to the park. It was a very tiring time. I never heard anything from Lieutenant Carroll about my reluctance to move back up the street, and the position we occupied allowed us to be just as effective as if we had moved closer to the park.

I don’t remember any outstanding events in the early morning of September 20. It seems to me that we moved one street to our right, facing the bridge, went up that street, made a left turn, and went up another street. We were still taking artillery fire. This was larger than 105mm and could have been 155mm, and it was coming in at a steady pace.

As we searched for a better approach to our main objective, we found ourselves on a street of stores with big plate glass windows on the front and sides. We heard a large-caliber shell come in, and a bunch of us dived for the farthermost recesses of a storefront. The shell exploded too close for comfort, almost in the center of the street. The entrance we were sheltering in was surrounded by large glass windows, and all of them shattered. Glass went flying everywhere, but again we experienced a miracle. Eight or even more of us had crowded up in that entrance, but only one man was seriously wounded.

That was Lieutenant Carroll, who had been hit by a shell fragment; it was a very painful and serious wound. The splinter broke the main bone running from his knee to his ankle. We gave him a shot of morphine from a first aid packet. When the medic came up, the lieutenant asked for another shot, but was told he couldn’t have a second right away.The pain was bad, very bad, and the first shot hadn’t taken hold, or wasn’t going to.

We now had a wounded platoon leader on our hands. We couldn’t afford to leave someone with him, and we didn’t want to leave him lying where he could be hit again. Yet if we hid him, it was possible no one would find him. Finally we decided to put him in a house with a cellar window facing the sidewalk. We manhandled him down and placed a big white sheet of something on the sidewalk to indicate a wounded man was under cover in the cellar. I had to use some of my persuasive powers to kill the idea of leaving a second man with the lieutenant. If we left someone with everyone who was hurt, we would lose two men for every one wounded. So we left Lieutenant Carroll in the cellar and moved forward until we again hit the street to our right that led up to the park.

As we tried to organize our approach, we were able to make a little reconnaissance. I put my machine gun crew in the second story of a building that looked almost directly up the street toward the park. They were to cover us as much as possible as we moved up the road. Both rifle squads of the 3rd Platoon were on the right side of the street that led toward the park. A lot of heavy small-arms fire began to come in again. Worst of all were the 20mm anti-aircraft guns. We worked our way up and through the houses and sometimes out on the sidewalks, advancing toward the end of the street to get into assault position.

I don’t recall who was commanding the platoon. We went in with two officers, but I think they both had already been wounded.

We had a hard time moving up the street. We tried to take cover by going through backyards and passing from the windows of one building into another. In this type of fighting, the regular infantry would do what they call “ mouse holing,” getting into a house and blowing through the wall into the next, continuing down the row instead of going out in the open. We unfortunately lacked the explosives, and the damn picket fences kept us from sneaking along the house fronts. We had to climb over them, and there was just no good way to do it. The spearheads kept catching us and hanging us up. Finally we managed to work our way up to the house on the right-hand corner overlooking the park, and take cover. This was at the end of the street, directly opposite a house that had burned the night before. The fire had died out, but the house was in ruins.

We now were very close to the park. We had to exit the house, go past the picket fences, turn right on a wide street, and there we’d be. When we reached the corner, our new company commander, Captain Roland Rosen, appeared; he said we were going to assault the park. I’m not sure about the 2nd Platoon, but by now the 1st and 3rd were on line at the end of their respective streets.This was Captain Rosen’s first time in combat. We didn’t question his order, but I think we should have. To assault Hunner Park, both we and the 1st Platoon had to come out of our shelter, go 15 or 20 feet to the sidewalk, move up the street that ran perpendicular to the park, cross the street that ran parallel to the park and force our way into it.

Captain Rosen led the attack with his Tommy gun, calling, “ Follow me!” I passed the word that the captain was going to lead and came out of the house at the head of my squad. Most of the troopers followed me out. We got to the street and started into the park under direct small-arms, grenade and machine gun fire at ranges of 15 to 75 yards. We formed a crude line on the run and assaulted across the street. The enemy was well dug in, fighting from foxholes and trenches located between the sidewalk on back 100 yards into the park.

Just as we got into the skirmish line, a crucial thing happened: A very big, scared German soldier— I only saw him as a flash in my mind— leaped up from a foxhole just inside the park. He lifted his hands up over his head as he ran across the sidewalk toward us. There was absolutely no doubt about his intentions. He had his hands up high over his head, very evidently wanting to surrender. But as he leaped up, many men fired on him. In combat you must react instinctively and quickly.This is what we did, and the man was practically a sieve before he hit the ground.

Years later, I wondered why he had waited so long to give himself up. No doubt if he had attempted to surrender earlier, he would have been shot by his own men. The park was manned by SS troops, tough, die-hard Nazis. Nevertheless, if that one man had only waited to be dug out of his hole and then surrendered, or if he had jumped up and run toward us before we began the assault, the battle might have been less ferocious.

Because this incident occurred in full view of everyone in the park, I believe it resulted in many needless casualties. We took very few German prisoners. SS troops were very determined fighters in any case. We were facing the 9th SS Panzer Division Reconnaissance Battalion. At least 500 of them were manning the bridge defenses. Where regular German army troops might have given up, the SS simply would not. But when they saw us shoot that unarmed man, they thought they didn’t have the option to surrender. Our casualties were heavy, but the Germans’ were worse. At the end of the day, only 60 were still standing to be taken prisoner. About 100 more escaped, but the vast majority had been killed or wounded.

I don’t know how many men from either platoon made it across the street on the first assault, but we took many casualties. I got across and into the park. Just before I took cover, I saw Captain Rosen run back down the middle of the street. He passed me going full speed to the rear, holding both his hands over his mouth. He had evidently been shot through the face, and he later died of this wound.

I was just inside the park, near the sidewalk leading around the edge. I dived into a bus stop enclosure with glass on the top half and some other material about halfway up. I had concealment, but there wasn’t much cover. I glanced down the street and saw Germans coming into the park a little beyond the 1st Platoon area. As I attempted to fire, my rifle jammed.

I knew I couldn’t stay in the enclosure, which was quickly becoming shredded by small-arms fire. I crawled out on the side walk. Six or eight feet away I saw a hole, dug very nicely and surrounded with fresh earth that the Germans hadn’t had time to carry away. I crawled over to it, dropped down in, and attempted to clear my rifle. No sooner had I got in the hole than a rain of bullets impacted the dirt piled up around it. I looked out and discovered one or two other men from our platoon going back across the street into the houses.

Although the firing never stopped completely, it sometimes slowed down a little. During one of these lulls, I hollered across to the corner house for my squad to cover me, saying I was going to dash across the street. I was closer to a whole lot of Germans than I was to my squad, and if any SS happened to understand English, they would have been alerted to my movements.

I jumped up and ran across the street. Rather than expose myself on the sidewalk, I attempted to vault a picket fence. I didn’t do it very gracefully, but I got over and made it into the corner house we had occupied before the assault. There I immediately cleared my rifle. It was filled with plaster dust and other dirt from the houses we had gone through.

When I got back from the park, I also discovered we had lost a man by the name of William Hall, who had joined us at Quorn. He’d been killed near the entrance of the house, and still lay dead on the sidewalk. Larry Niepling ran out, removed Hall’s wristwatch and then dashed back. He assured me he had loaned the watch to Hall the night before, when Hall was next in line for alert status. Niepling considered the watch a valuable personal possession, but I didn’t care how valuable it was. I could neither understand nor accept his exposing himself to fire in plain view for the sake of a damn watch.

I moved into a position outside the house, where a vestibule that stuck out offered some protection from the front, then I exited the vestibule and made a sharp left turn behind it. Quite a way up, a ledge jutted out about a foot from the wall. I climbed up and had a pretty good view all the way to the far end of the park. It was obvious to see the enemy was bringing in reinforcements.

I got into the best firing position I could and took these men under rapid fire. I had to shoot around the corner of the vestibule, thereby exposing my head and upper torso. I also had to lean to the left from the waist up, a very unnatural, cramped position, while I kept my feet in place, planted on the ledge.The enemy was only visible for a short period of time. I fired rapidly, first as they were exposed, and then to cover the area where they might be hidden. The more I shot, the more of them I saw coming up over the bank.

I soon expended all the ammunition in my cartridge belt. I hollered down to the men in the house to throw some more up, and I continued with my rapid fire. My rifle barrel got so hot that it heated up the forearm and front guard over the barrel. It actually boiled the oil residue out of the wood, and probably some of the Cosmoline too. I continued to fire and got a lot of fire in return. All the while, this stuff was bubbling out of the wooden handguard.

Lieutenant Joe Holcomb came up and gave us a short briefing. He had taken command of the company after Captain Rosen was hit. A more experienced commander, he didn’t try anything spectacular. We were to undertake a new assault of the park as soon as the entire 1st and 2nd platoons came on line to our right and Company E had worked into the near edges of the traffic circle. The assault would be coordinated either by radio or timing. At the very least, we knew that when we went into the park the second time, the coordinated force would be larger than the first assault, in which only the 3rd Platoon and elements of the 1st had participated.

As we got ready to go for the second attempt, Lieutenant Holcomb calmly walked out on the street and gave the order to assault. I followed him with the survivors of my squad behind me. We came out of the house on the double and got into a rough skirmish line, formed on the run. I glanced to my right and left, and what a sight I saw! A nearly perfect, coordinated attack by two infantry companies on line. Our companies were probably about 110 to 115 strong at the time, so going in we totaled 220 to 230 men. Our alignment was very good, well formed to my right and left, with everyone going in on the double to get into cover in the park. It was a very grand sight to behold.

The enemy’s fire combined with our own was deafening. It was the hottest, heaviest fire I had ever encountered. We took heavy casualties. A 20mm round had killed Lieutenant John Dodd on this or the first assault. When the 1st Platoon medic went over to him, he was killed in the attempt. Lieutenant Holcomb was seriously wounded; my close friend Andrew Fabis was wounded and later died. Many others were fatally hit or wounded before we got midlength of the park.

The small-arms fire was so overwhelming that it momentarily stopped us. It appeared to me that I could reach out and grab the bullets as they flew. I took cover in the prone position behind a very large tree. I fired as fast as I could, and many rounds of enemy fire burrowed into that tree trunk. They were shooting anywhere from six inches to a foot and a half high. I can’t describe the intensity of the fire we were receiving. It’s a miracle anyone lived though this short period. A British tank had moved in shortly after the assault, although I don’t remember any British tanks in the area before we began. We were firing, the tank was firing, and the enemy was firing. It was deafening.

From behind my tree, I observed Howard Krueger as he crawled 15 or 20 feet to my right front. He actually reached down into a foxhole, grabbed a German and pulled him out. He motioned the prisoner to the rear, and both of them crawled back to our skirmish line. The German didn’t stop; he crawled another 20 feet and stopped to help our medic bandage one of our wounded. Very shortly thereafter, he was killed by German fire.

I glanced to my right rear and saw Lt. Col. Benjamin Vandervoort, our battalion commander, approaching my position. Our dead and wounded were lying all around us, hit only moments earlier. We pleaded with the CO not to expose himself to the heavy fire, but he continued until he reached my position. He looked at me and calmly said, “ Sergeant, I think you better go see if you can get that tank moving.”

I asked him again to take cover, then I jumped up and ran to the tank. I took off my helmet and beat on the turret. Finally, the hatch cracked open six inches. I hollered to the tank commander, relating the colonel’s order to move forward and continue firing. While I was showing him where he should shoot, I had to remain standing. Finally the tank lumbered forward, and I signaled to what was left of my squad to start moving.

We moved forward, still in a rough skirmish line, until we came across barbed wire running midwidth of the park. We wanted the tank to move through to make a path. Instead, it advanced a little to our left front. We went to the right and had a real time getting through the wire. Niepling, with a shortened belt of ammo, was actually firing his light .30-caliber machine gun from the standing position as he moved through the wire. Then there was a little Greek from the 1st Platoon, George Pagalotis, a bazooka man whose bazooka was almost as long as he was tall. He ran right up to a fortification dug into a bank by the Valkhof Gardens and fired a round directly into the opening. I think someone from the 1st Platoon got the tank’s attention and moved it over to the bank, where it fired rounds from five to six feet away. Talk about direct, point-blank fire!

My squad was the first to break through to the east side of park. When we got on the east side of the barbed wire, we dropped into a well-constructed World War I-type trench the Germans had dug. From here we had a good view that overlooked the approach road, the entrance to the bridge and the bridge itself. I heard some shouted commands from my distant left rear that I later learned were British infantry moving up by the numbers.

As we dropped into the trench, groups of Germans started to withdraw across the bridge, taking cover behind the girders. This was a bad move. We had seized the high ground overlooking the bridge and had a perfect view. As soon as they dashed to the next girder, we had them. There were 30 or so to start, but I don’t believe a single one got across.

Right after that, another group of Germans came from our left. This group was pretty smart.They rushed up the left side of the bank all together, went over the top, across the road and down on the right side of the road that led to the bridge. This was a large drop-off on the east side of the road, and so they gained the cover of the roadbed. They took us by surprise and got away with it.

I took two or three people and scrambled down the bank and onto the road. I thought we could get some good shooting by going over to the berm and looking down, but the Germans had anticipated our movement and barraged us with grenades. Rather than risk death or serious injury, I withdrew to the trench with the men I had taken.

As I look back on the battle in Nijmegen, for the life of me I cannot remember who was in command of the company after we took the park. To my knowledge, no officer came forward immediately after Lieutenant Holcomb was wounded in the assault. Later that night or early the next morning, a first lieutenant may have come to the company and assumed command. I heard from one of my friends in the 2nd Platoon, Corporal Leonard Rosen, that a senior officer had approached him after the assault and told him to take command of the remains of the company. When I looked around me at the far end of the park, it appeared to me that I was the senior person. I’m not saying that I took command of the whole company. I’m just saying that after the assault very few authoritative voices were heard on the east side of the park.

The 2nd Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, received a Presidential Unit Citation for the action in Nijmegen on September 19 and 20, 1944, along with the 3rd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry. I received the Silver Star for action in the park. All the Company F officers who were anywhere near the heat of the battle became casualties, so I’ve often wondered who submitted the request for the award. I think it may have been Colonel Vandervoort, but I never did find out.

Spencer F.Wurst rejoined the National Guard in 1946 and served in the 112th Infantry Regiment of the 28th Infantry Division until 1969, when he was promoted to colonel and assigned as assistant chief of staff, G3, Pennsylvania National Guard. He retired in 1975 to Clymer, N.Y. His memoir is scheduled for release in October by Casemate. For further reading, try A Bridge Too Far, by Cornelius Ryan.


Originally published in the September 2004 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.