My Longest Day

by Jack Trovato

In Memory of Samuel Strain
Awarded D.S.C.
"A" Battery 155
17th Airborne Division

The Rhine River has served as Germany's natural western defensive barrier for centuries. By March 1945, the Rhine was the final barrier separating the Allies from the heart of Germany. Plans were underway to cross this barrier and capture the Ruhr, Germany's industrial heartland. With the capture of the Ruhr, Germany's war machine would eventually collapse.

The area chosen by the Allies to make the amphibious crossing was between the German cities of Emmerich and Wesel. Airborne forces from the 17th Airborne and British 6th Airborne Division assisted the Rhine crossing by seizing the Diersfodter forest, which consisted of high ground that the German's would utilize to direct artillery fire on the amphibious forces crossing the Rhine. Airborne forces were also tasked with seizing bridges over the Issel river, the next major water obstacle the Allies would encounter once they crossed the Rhine. The Airborne Phase of this operation was called Operation Varsity. The following account is from Jack Travato, of the 17th Airborne Division, describing his experiences during Operation Varsity.

Jim Murphy and I met in an infantry replacement depot in France. Both of us were eighteen years old and discovered that we had a lot in common. We were eager volunteers for the "17th Airborne Division." We were assigned to 1st. Squad, A Battery, 155 Battalion., in Chalon, France. They had been in the Battle of the Bulge with everyone killed or wounded except the squad leader. After 2 weeks of torturous physical training, interdispursed with piling in and out of airplanes and gliders, we received our wings and a raise in pay. Within three days, we were in a marshaling area looking over maps of a little town named Wesel and a bridge that crossed the Rhine river into Germany. We squeezed into this egg crate in what seemed to be the middle of the night. At dawn's light, the view through the window was both awesome and majestic. The sky was filled with planes and gliders as far as the eye could see. Strangely, I felt like more like a spectator then a participant in this event.
The ride got bumpy and I could feel my stomach turning. I fought this feeling until I saw Murphy throwing up, followed by the rest of the rest of the squad and myself. It was one big stinking mess. I was in a state of disgust with myself, but was shaken out of it when I saw these big, black puffs of smoke all around us. The realization that this was flack from enemy A.A. guns brought me to the ready; someone was trying to kill me! We jumped out of that stinking mess in what seemed a split second. The next two hours in and around the drop zone, was confusing and chaotic. As I now look back, the events flash through my mind like a kaleidoscope. The squad spread out all over the place, crawling on our bellies trying to get together. Enemy small arms fire was picking off men who dare to kneel or stand up. Mortar shells were opening up the ground here and there. Gliders were landing in every direction, tearing themselves up by hitting houses, telephone poles and power lines. C-47s were being shot down like sitting ducks as they exposed their bellies in banking maneuvers after dropping their cargo. A B-24 was 100 feet up, directly over my head, with its wings aflame and a guy pushing cargo out the door.
Jack Trovato, Dusseldorf, April 1945
Jack Trovato in D.P. Camp for Russians, near Dusseldorf, April 1945

Seconds later, we witnessed a thunderous explosion as the plane hit the tree line. I was to see many men get killed or wounded that day. I saw a trooper who had his cheek torn open by small arms fire. He stood there, his helmet down around his neck, blood running down his face and body. With a boiling anger in his eyes, legs spread apart, he began pumping lead from a grease gun into a house 100 feet away. Within seconds he was blown away by small arms fire. Whoever he was, I will never forget him.

I’d been on the ground now for over two hours; all I could think of was survival and finding someone to give me orders or direction. Finally, our squad leader got us all together. As we moved out of the drop zone, I kept hearing this snapping and popping at my ears. When I asked Sam Strain, a veteran trooper, about the noise, he informed me that a sniper had me in his sights. Every so often a shell would come lobbing in with deadly accuracy, hitting a jeep or piece of our artillery. I learned to keep my distance from them. I had always loved trees; I was now beginning to fear them. A shell hitting a tree would splinter it into a multitude of fragments, showering death all around it. Within hours, we began taking prisoners. Every so often, Sam Strain would fall back with two or three of them, and within a very short time he would rejoin us. I wondered where Sam had taken the prisoners. Cpl. John Gillespie informed me that Sam was "taking care of them", and that we could expect the same if captured. The unwritten word was that German paratroopers were taking no airborne prisoners and neither were we. My thirst for revenge became aroused as I saw our men lying helpless and dying along this bloody trail. I tried to help one of them who has been hit by a tree burst. The right side of his body had been slashed open, part of the tree still lodged in it. I yelled for a medic, I became somewhat hysteric as Cpl. Gillespie grabbed me by the arm and told me to keep moving.

After experiencing the destruction artillery can cause, learned to hate and fear trees, I soon developed the same fear when crossing open fields. We came upon an open field and began crossing it when the fury of German artillery busted loose. The air bursts were about fifty feet overhead raining shrapnel down upon us. I saw Murphy jump into an abandoned German foxhole, and I decided to do the same. I then felt the butt of Sgt. Strudsky’s rifle on my helmet and heard his orders to "Get out and keep moving." That was the last order Sgt. Strudsky ever gave me; ten minutes later he was killed along with two of my squad members. Cpl. Gillespie was now our squad leader. We had no sooner stopped for a break when he shouted. "Okay guys, on your feet. Let's go." I soon realized that this was a special assignment when only our squad moved out to the edge of another open field and Lt. Mandress was with us. Affectionately called Mandy by his men, I would soon learn to both love him and to hate him. He had volunteered our squad to move out into the field, which was about 2 miles across, in order to test the enemy strength on the other side. As we had just lost our squad leader and two veterans, I wondered why he picked the remnants of a squad which included two rookies. Sam Strain remarked, "Any leader always wants the best with him on a mission, it makes his job easier, but its our ass."

We walked out into the field at a very slow pace. I could see a farmhouse which was close to the tree line at the opposite side of the field. Mandy headed us in a direct line to it. We were midway between our lines and the farmhouse when all hell broke loose. Mortar shells came lobbing in from the German side of the field from behind the farmhouse. Seeing Murphy and Tom Burnard jump into a shell crater, I jumped in behind them. Within seconds, the rest of the squad was lying on top of us. Mandy ordered us to get up and spread out. Cpl. Gillespie asked, "Can’t we wait for our outfit to give us some covering fire first?" Sam Strain remarked "Them bastards have probably taken off!". The mortar shell bursts were getting closer and closer to our crater. It would not be long before they had us zeroed in. Without saying a word, Sam Strain crawled out of the crater. The next thing I knew, he was on his knees with a bazooka over his shoulder, aiming at the enemy tree line. Boom! It went off. Gillespie fed him two more shells. Boom! Boom! He had evidently hit something as the mortar shelling ceased. We then crawled out of the crater. Sam Strain had saved all our lives through his heroic action. I thought to myself, "It’s going to be a long run back to our lines." My heart jumped to my throat and then sank again as Mandy started running towards the farmhouse yelling, "Let's go! Let’s go!" My lungs were bursting as I tried to keep up with him.

A glider, which had forced landed 10 miles from the drop zone, came into view as we approached the farmhouse. It had taken a direct hit in its nose and was almost demolished. We ran into the farmhouse as small arms fire traced our steps. The house was occupied by a farmer and his daughter. They were tending the wounds of a trooper who had crawled in from the glider. The trooper said he thought someone might still be alive in the glider. The words were no sooner said than Sam Strain grabbed his carbine and took off towards the glider. He was no further than 100 feet when the Germans opened fire on him. He knelt down and returned their fire. About this time Mandy yelled out "Cover him!" He had no sooner yelled the warning when Sam must have been hit square between the eyes. His head jerked back and his helmet popped off behind him. Throughout the day, Sam Strain had become my role model. Now he was lying dead in a German field. I joined the rest of the squad in a cry of vengeance, emptying our rifle clips into the German tree line. As I reloaded my clip, it took all I could muster in order to keep from trembling. I peered over the windowsill into the tree line and could see figures pop up and then disappear. I followed one figure and kept him in my sights, squeezing off 3 rounds before I realized what I was doing. I could tell that I had hit him by the way he jerked and then fell. I had been firing at tree lines all day, but this was the first human being I had ever knowingly killed or wounded.

Gillespie had seen the German soldier fall through his binoculars. He remarked, "Nice shooting trooper." Up until now they had referred to us as "hey you" or "shitface." Mandy gathered us together and said, "We have to get back to our lines." "We'll start out together, but we may have to split up and it will be every man for himself." Some of the men started grumbling , "How about the wounded trooper", "how about Sam Strain , we can’t leave them." When Gillespie asked for volunteers, the grumbling stopped. The sun had set. The plan was to try and make it back before it was too dark to see, but still not enough light for Gerry to zero in on us from the tree line. Gillespie looked at me and said, "Okay, I’m going to take off. You count to 10 and then take off after me. The rest of you guys follow Jack the same way." Mandy grabbed my arm and said "Okay, you hold it right here." I could hear the Germans open fire as Gillespie took off with the bullets kicking dust up around him. I counted to 5 and froze. Mandy let go of my arm and shouted "Go kid, go!" The squad was halfway across the field when Gillispie stopped and waved us all down. Within seconds, machine gun fire came whistling over us.

We lay there as darkness fell upon us. The moon was bright, but clouds darkened the area intermittently. We realized our predicament when the gunners started using tracer bullets. Tom Burnard remarked, "Oh shit!, We’re in a crossfire." We lay there for what seemed like an eternity. The German gunners were spraying our tree line, and our men were spraying theirs. We were safe as long as we dug in and waited it out. We lay there watching the tracers. It was a fascinating sight. Anyone crazy enough to stand up, could tell when to duck down as the stream of tracers headed our way. It was close to midnight before the firing stopped. Mandy stood up and walked about 50 feet towards our lines and signaled us to him. Each time the moon came out from behind a cloud, we hit the ground and stayed put until a cloud covered it again. We were progressing fairly rapidly, when flares suddenly lit up the area. We hit the ground again as our troops opened up on us. We all started shouting obscenities in no uncertain terms.

The firing ceased, Mandy told us to stand up and hold our rifles over our heads and start walking on in. When we finally got back to the edge of the field, we learned that our outfit had come under heavy shelling and suffered high casualties. As a result, they had to retreat and regroup. About one hour later, a new outfit had taken over the position. They had been informed that the Germans were expected to counter attack from across the field at anytime with armor and infantry. We learned later that the Germans were ready to attack when our squad had come out into the field. They had postponed the attack until they could determine what we were doing out there. By doing so, they lost the daylight hours needed for the attack. It was 3:00 A.M. when Mandy gave the order "On your feet! We’ve got a hard night ahead of us if we’re going to find our outfit by morning."

We wandered throughout the forest all night long. All of the outfits were bedded down for the night and we were challenged by their sentries at least six or seven times. It was close to dawn when we finally found our outfit. Sgt. Fred Bell and Cpl. Charlie Knight were the first to greet us. Charlie remarked, "We had given you bastards up for dead." He couldn’t have been closer to the truth. The sun was just rising as Murphy and I sat down looking at each other. His face was caked with dirt and I could see long streaks on it where tears had dried: a vivid trail of the miserable hours spent on his longest day.

We had just enough time to freshen-up before the outfit moved out. In the months to follow I was to understand what Sam Strain had meant when he said, "Any leader wants the best assigned to him for his mission." It starts with the highest echelon of command wanting the best Corps Commander. He, in turn, wants the best Army as does the Division, Regiment, and Company Commander, filtering on down to the Squad and finally the individual grunt.

During the next two weeks, the usual sequence of action took place. Knowing that the airborne divisions are the shock troops of the army, it’s assumed that heavy fighting against tremendous odds will take place while surrounded by the enemy. It took over 10 days of fighting until the rest of the army and armored units arrived to relieve us, or so I thought. After almost two weeks of combat, we had established an arrow head, the tip of it piercing into Germany. I thought we would begin to fall back to the tail of the arrow, as new infantry divisions moved up to the cutting edge and lead the assault. This would not be the case.

As a result, the Army High Command decided that this mission could best be completed by the 17th Airborne, forgoing the unwritten promise to relieve us after we had accomplished our original mission. For the next three months, we found ourselves at the tip of the arrowhead until the Germans unconditionally surrendered. By that time, our squad had been reduced to only four remaining members; Cpl. Gillispie, Murphy, Burnard and myself. The rest (8 men) were either killed or wounded.

Once a man becomes hardened by being on the cutting edge of the front line for a disproportional amount of time, he becomes nothing more than a beast on the prowl. The high command, being aware of this, has now produced the tool needed to accomplish the task at hand. The vengeance and frustration of the grunt can only be taken out on the enemy. The atrocities committed by our forces more than matched those of the Germans. It’s a wonder that any of us ever returned to normal. A few months ago, I visited with Tom Burnard and Charlie Knight. I am happy to report that the heavily bearded killers are now pussy cats. Those of us who returned had enough ribbons and citations to cover our chests. But I'm sure that all of these men are proudest of the one little bronze arrowhead affixed to their E.T.O. (European Theater of Operations) ribbon, signifying that they were the first. Whenever I see the arrowhead on someone, I know that more than any other medal, he had truly earned it.

I must say that I spent more than a few miserable hours writing this account. There were many times when it brought me to tears and I felt an overwhelming compulsion to tear it up. My daughter Jacqueline, who typed the first draft of this story remarked, "You had never told me this before," and she urged me to finish it. She wanted to see how it ended. And as I told her "I’m afraid man’s inhumanity to man will never end."