When a teenage paratrooper landed on Dutch soil as part of Operation Market Garden, his dreams of combat collided with bloody reality.
When I heard the 82nd Airborne would be jumping into Holland, I was relieved. It was September 1944. Until I enlisted the year before and got my parachute wings, I’d had a Merchant Marine exemption, living at home in Brooklyn and working on the water as an able-bodied seaman. Now I was 18, a private in the army, and I had been worrying that the war might end before I got a chance to go into combat.
Be careful what you wish for.
I made five training jumps stateside, and another outside Leicester, England, where I had joined I Company of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment. As a replacement, I made very few friends; combat veterans tended to keep to themselves. They figured new guys were bound to make stupid mistakes that would get them and anyone nearby killed.
However, I did meet Francis Keefe, an“old man”of 20 who had been with the 82nd since North Africa as part of its own replacement pool. Francis grew up in Greenwich Village, on Christopher Street. So we had New York City in common, as well as being younger than most of the others. He showed me his metal ID bracelet; a bunch of guys had had them made in Naples.
Upon hearing we would be landing behind enemy lines in the first major daylight jump of the war, paratroopers who had been through North Africa, Sicily, Italy, and Normandy got busy filing insurance and marriage papers. I wrote home to my family in Brooklyn and to Betty Graton, a girl I dated before I enlisted.
Operation Market Garden was a combined move: Market was the airborne part, Garden was the armored part. The idea was to capture and hold bridges so armored columns could reach and cross the Rhine River and invade Germany. The 82nd and the 101st Airborne would be going after some of those bridges.
Sergeants told us to draw weapons, ammunition, K rations, Gammon bombs (imagine oversize socks stuffed with plastic explosive and lead weights), and whatever else we thought we needed for the fight. As a gangster movie fan, I thought the Thompson submachine gun was just the ticket. If someone was going to be shooting at me, I wanted to be able to shoot a lot of bullets back. The Tommy gun came with canvas pouches that each held six clips of .45-caliber rounds to snap onto my suspender harnesses. I badly wanted a Colt automatic pistol, too, but .45s were scarce. I decided that somehow I would get myself a Colt.
I packed and repacked my gear and, like everybody else, griped about weather delays. Finally, on the morning of Sunday, September 17, 1944, I Company boarded the C-47 that would drop us over the town of Grave. I was 5 feet 11 inches and weighed about 190, but with that morning’s big breakfast plus main and reserve chute, weapons and gear, rations, reels of phone wire, and cans of fruit, I probably tipped the scales at 300 pounds.
The noise on the airfield was deafening. Pilots took off, climbed to 1,500 feet, joined formations, and we crossed the English Channel. That morning a lot of planes carrying a lot of troops— more than 14,000 in C-47s and gliders—took off from all over England, and for the 45 minutes we were over Europe the Germans threw up a lot of flak and small arms fire.
As we left English air space, we got to our feet to be ready to jump. I was by a window. I got out my Brownie camera and aimed it over the starboard wing, hoping to get a photo of all the C-47s. I exposed two frames before I had to stow it. That was the last snapshot I took for a while. (It was also the last picture, period, for that camera, which broke when I landed.)
Our airplane descended to 500 feet, and following all the ritual commands—“Stand up and hook up! Check your equipment! Are you ready? Let’s go!”—I Company jumped. With all that weight I came down pretty fast, but for a first combat jump I did okay. One lieutenant hurt an ankle; I helped him limp to an aid station, then joined my platoon and we moved out.
Our orders were to go north to Nijmegen to seize the highway bridge over the Waal River. We were 50 miles behind German lines. Wherever we turned we ran into a firefight. The forward elements would get into it, and we’d wait, somebody would call for a bazooka, firing would slack off, and we’d move to the next pocket of Germans. We stuck to tree-lined roads for cover. It took us two days, fighting the entire time, to reach our objective. Late on the afternoon of September 19 we came through the outskirts of Nijmegen to the dikes south of the Waal River.
Two bridges spanned the Waal, one for trains and one for vehicles. At the southern approach to each, German forces had dug in deep. Allied armor and supply vehicles that needed to get to Arnhem were backing up on the wrong side of the river. We had to take those bridges before the Germans blew them. But we couldn’t do it only from the south side.
To break the logjam, 82nd commander Brigadier General James M. Gavin decided to attack the south approaches to the bridges while at the same time the 504th would cross the Waal about a mile west of the train bridge, land on the north shore, and flank the Germans. We assembled behind the dike while the commanders worked out the details.
That evening, fires were burning all over Nijmegen as engineers on bulldozers carved room behind the south dike for 30 tanks of the 2nd Irish Guards, which would cover us and make a smokescreen with white phosphorus shells as we crossed. Artillery and mortars would throw in; so would a squadron of British Typhoon fighter-bombers. Someone said rowboats were on the way, somewhere in the traffic. Engineers from the 307th Airborne Engineer Battalion would be our ferrymen, rowing the 3rd Battalion across a few men at a time. We would push off at 8 a.m.
While dozers worked, Francis Keefe and I chatted. Some guys were saying we were on a suicide run, but Francis told me I would do fine. The Waal reminded me of places on the Hudson—deep, fairly fast at 8 to 10 miles an hour, and 400 yards across. On the far shore, 800 yards of grassy field rose gently to another dike. We thought as many as 1,000 Germans were dug in on top of that dike, with more on the spans upstream. They had machine guns and antiaircraft guns, 20mm and 88mm. The 260 men who would cross in the first wave included me and Francis.
At 8 the next morning the rowboats hadn’t come; the trucks carrying them were still caught in the traffic jam. Time dragged. Some guys pulled off their packs and catnapped. At 11 we still had no transportation across the Waal. A little after 2, three trucks finally delivered the boats. I didn’t like their looks one bit. They were Goatleys: wood-and-canvas collapsibles, made in England, each supposedly able to carry 13 men plus three coxswains. They were about 400 pounds apiece, 19 feet long, with sides 30 inches high. The gunwales rode on staves that popped into place. There were no life jackets. Those things didn’t belong on a duck pond, let alone a wide, fast-running river. They wouldn’t stop a BB! My harnesses and belt were full of grenades and Thompson clips. If the boat flipped I would sink like a rock.
We formed up behind the dike, 13 paratroopers and three engineers to a boat. At 2:30, eight Typhoons briefly went to work firing rockets, dropping bombs, and strafing. The wall of flak the Germans threw up gave us an idea of what we were in for. At 2:45, the planes disappeared, and the tankers opened up. At 2:55 they started throwing smoke. At 3 an officer blew a whistle and we charged up the embankment and over the dike, hauling our boats and yelling like crazy. The first 100 yards the smoke obscured us, but then the wind blew it away, and the Germans started firing with everything they had. Boats and men spread out about 100 yards along the Waal. The shoreline mud was kneedeep and the water close in was shallow; a lot of us got stuck. Once the boats were afloat, the engineers were supposed to row, but some troopers tried to paddle with the butts of M1s, BARs, and Thompsons. This threw the engineers off course.
Francis and I and the other guys pushed our Goatley into the current and climbed aboard. The engineers started paddling. I sat on the plywood floor, so I was mostly below the water line. I was scared to death, hoping the guys I was with would help me.
The noise was overwhelming. Small arms, machine gun mortar, and cannon fire was ripping overhead. Germans on the dike and on the bridge were raking us with 20mm and 40mm and even 88mm cannon fire. Men were yelling at each other to row together, to row faster, to steer straighter. Men were screaming from being hit. Men were praying. The tanks’ 75mm guns were booming. A guy had set up a machine gun at the prow of a Goatley and was firing at the shore.
Mortar and cannon rounds began landing in the Waal, throwing up cascades. An 88 round hit a boat, which disappeared in a spray of pink foam. I wanted to crawl into my helmet. Bodies were floating in the river. The man ahead of me in our boat jerked and cried out. He fell dead onto me but momentum carried him halfway over the gunwale, sending the boat sideways. Someone hollered,“Pull him back!” I laid the dead guy beside me and tried not to look; that had to have been a big piece of shrapnel. Cannon fire was flashing like lightning, close enough to touch.
It occurred to me that I could die.
The crossing took 15 or 20 minutes that felt like a lifetime. Finally an engineer yelled,“Get ready!” I was up and over the side in a blink. We collapsed in the knee-high grass until the Germans began dropping mortar rounds. Francis stood up. “Let’s go!” he hollered. “If we stay here we will be killed. Follow me!”
The current had spread our boats along several hundred yards of the north shore, creating a long thin skirmish line. Men fixed bayonets and we started up the slope, firing from the hip, yelling and cursing, running across the open ground. It was a mad dash, sprinting and shooting for all you were worth until you got to the dike. Francis was with me the whole time.
Instead of concentrating their machine gun fire, the Germans were spraying it all over. This let us flank many of their emplacements and take them out, often with bayonets. We got to the top of the dike, where we crossed a road 15 or 20 feet wide. Two guys went down, probably shot from a house up the way. Francis was shouldering his M1 to fire a rifle grenade at that house when a German round hit his left wrist. The slug nearly took off his hand. Shreds from his ID bracelet gashed his cheek.
Francis said there was a bandage stowed in one of his back pockets. I fished around and pulled out his wallet.
“What do I do with this?” I asked.
“Throw it away!”
On the second grab I found the bandage. I was sure Francis was going to lose that hand; it was dangling in a bad way, with bone and tendon and muscle showing. But I bandaged him anyway, kneeling with my back to the dike. I felt very clearheaded.
“Hey, Francis,” I said. “You’re going home. Gimme your .45. Some rat at the hospital is just gonna wind up stealing it.”
A bullwhip cracked by my left ear. Francis yelled and slumped. He had caught another bullet, this time in the right shoulder. He nodded toward his pistol. “Take it!” he moaned.
I made sure there was a round in the chamber, said “Good luck!” and stuck the pistol in my web belt. Other guys were taking care of Francis. I ran to join the assault.
Of the 26 boats in the first wave, about half made it. While the engineers used them to crisscross the Waal with the rest of the 504th, those of us who had taken the dike charged east along the road, pushing the Germans back. There were about 130 of us. There was no communication, just officers leading from the front. We would do what seemed to be the right thing, and if that went wrong we would try something else.
The Germans fought the whole way. We were shooting and running, shooting and running, often face-to-face in combat. A guy would throw a grenade at a machine gun emplacement, then stand and fire into the spot, and run some more.
At the highway bridge I saw our company commander, Captain Moffatt Burriss, and his executive officer, Lieutenant Robert Blankenship. Ahead were three blockhouses. The bigger ones on either side each had a wrecked flak rig on top. In the middle of the roadbed stood a smaller building.
Captain Burriss was running down the right lane. I was running a little behind him on his left, about 30 feet from the blockhouses. Two Germans about my age came around the small building. When they saw me they turned and fired. One slug knocked the clips off my left shoulder harness. The other bullet blew my Thompson out of my hands.
Time slowed down. The Germans had these shocked looks. They were working the bolts on their Mausers, trying to chamber rounds so they could take another shot at me.
I had no place to hide. Captain Burriss was too far away to help. If I tried to run they would shoot me in the back. I yanked Francis Keefe’s .45 out of my belt and charged. Firing as I ran, I emptied all eight rounds into those young men and after the gun was empty I kept pulling the trigger. When I got to where the Germans had fallen, I collapsed onto their corpses, trying to catch my breath. After a few moments I reloaded the Colt and fetched my Thompson. The stock was a mess. I tore it off; I figured I could use my Tommy gun the way Germans used Schmeisser submachine guns. I ran to join Captain Burriss and the others.
We kept rolling the Germans back, never letting them regroup. The bridge girders were full of Germans. Some had tied themselves in place and were killing Americans who tried to cross the road. More paratroopers had gotten to the north shore of the Waal. The battle ebbed and flowed, lots of noise and then quiet as somebody would try to move into a new position.
The light was fading when we heard a different sound: sustained machine gun fire. Germans began dropping from the bridge girders. Others started running toward us on the pavement. Four Sherman tanks were heading our way across the bridge. We had taken the south approach and the cavalry was coming!
The lead tank rumbled to where we were fighting. Captain Burriss and others ran to it.“You guys are the most beautiful sight I’ve seen in years!” Captain Burriss shouted to Sergeant Peter Robinson of the Irish Guards Armoured Division.
We had captured the bridge, but we were low on ammunition. Lieutenant Blankenship yelled at me to see if any of the wounded men waiting for evacuation had bandoliers or clips.
That was gruesome. I salvaged clips and bandoliers and even individual rounds from friends who had terrible wounds. I saw American and German corpses that looked as if some great beast had grabbed them with its teeth and talons. I hung clips on my harness to replace what the Germans by the blockhouse had shot away, and handed around the rest.
To guard against a counterattack, Captain Burriss deployed us at the north end of the bridge and among the adjacent houses. I started digging a foxhole. The platoon sergeant came by to check on us. I did not have watch that night, and was very happy about that. I finished digging my foxhole around 10, ate a K ration supper, and curled up to sleep.
Market Garden ended badly, and the war went on. Francis Keefe spent 20 months in hospitals in Belgium, England, and stateside. The doctors who saved his hand said my bandaging helped him avoid amputation. I fought at Bastogne and through Germany, and eventually was wounded, too. And some rat at a hospital did wind up stealing Francis Keefe’s Colt .45—except the rat stole it from me.
After the war I returned to New York and became a tugboat captain; later I worked as a tug and barge dispatcher out of Rockefeller Center. Francis got a job driving trucks for the City of New York. We grew to be close friends. He retired to Jupiter, Florida. I live in Port Jervis, New York. Francis—who in 2009 fractured his 85-year-old shoulder making a parachute jump at Grave with Captain Burriss, 89, to mark the 65th anniversary of our jump—tells anyone who will listen about how one afternoon in Nijmegen I stole his wallet.
Originally published in the December 2012 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.