Legend

 

An Interview with Colonel Edson Raff
 
Even at age 90, Colonial Edson Raff has an indomitable personality - combine that with his accomplishments - he is a legend. At the 1997 Airborne Awards ceremony he granted the Drop Zone a rare personal interview. Colonel Raff spends most of his time at his home in the South Pacific on the Island of Bora Bora.

Prior our interview, Colonel Raff delivered a well-crafted speech about his career to the audience at Airborne Awards Ceremony, where he was honored as "Airborne Man of the Year". As his speech unfolded, the audience was taken back in time to Colonel Raff's early years as First Captain of Cadets at a small prep school in Winchester Virginia called the Shenandoah Valley Academy. From these early days, First Captain Raff gained some valuable lessons that he carried into battle and throughout life. Raff explained, "The superintendent of the school was a reserve colonel who spoke to the cadets every morning. From that tough old guy I learned three things: 1) I don't give a damn for any man who doesn't give a damn for me; 2) Be able to look any man in the eye and tell him to go to hell; 3) Stonewall Jackson's Battles in the Shenandoah Valley (which I remembered in Tunisia later on)." Colonel Raff then brought the audience through the rest of his life and military career.

Among the many notable milestones in his career, Colonel Raff is also known for being one of the early architects of the Special Forces - the use of a green beret was his idea - as well as leading America's first combat parachute jump into North Africa and leading the 507 PIR in the last combat jump in the ETO during Operation Varsity, the drop on Weasel, Germany.

I have recently been doing research on Operation Varsity, and was drawn to the last jump and our discussion focused around this experience.


Prior to climbing into the C-47 transport plane that would take him over the drop zone, Colonel Raff commander of the 507 PIR unit, established a bet with Lt. Col. Joel Crouch, the expert Army Air Force pathfinder pilot, that Crouch wouldn't drop him in the right place. Croutch accepted the bet and said he would drop Raff in the right drop zone or he would buy him a case of champagne. Putting the bet in the back of his mind, Raff boarded the C-47, which took off from England and sped away toward the drop zone over Weasel, Germany, (code named Operation Varsity). As the plane neared the DZ, Raff recalls "I was alone standing in the door of the plane looking down at the river passing beneath the plane, smoke partially obscured my view. At that moment, I said a prayer to the infant Jesus, The Little Flower, 'Little Flower, in this hour show Thy power.' The prayer was given to me by my sister who was a nun. I said the prayer before every jump."

Colonel Raff further explained the sequence of events that occurred before the jump. "A split second after I said the prayer, the green light came on, as I looked down, I saw several objects below me. The first thing that caught my attention were several German soldiers on the ground with rifles in their hands looking up. The second thing I noticed was a heavy equipment bundle that was swinging back and forth as it descended toward the ground. The bundle saved my life because the Germans thought it was a bomb and disappeared into the cellar of a nearby house. I landed in the chicken yard behind one of the homes. There were no chickens, since they had all been eaten. The loneliness was numbing as there wasn't another paratrooper in sight. But soon I joined up with others in the 507 and, I was astonished to see, Germans to our right in the process of pulling artillery behind us. Needless to say, they were soon captured. Most of the Regiment had been dropped in the wrong places but we were ultimately able to accomplish our objectives."

"Ten years later, I was in a public tennis court in Hawaii. As I was playing a game of tennis, I looked across the court and I saw someone who looked like Joel Crouch. I went over for a closer look and it turned out to be him. After relating the story about where I landed, he asked me if I still wanted the case of champagne? I told him I'd pass since after the war I became a "tea totaler" and abstained from alcohol."