|Operation Market Garden
A Personal Diary kept by Glen Derber of the 501 PIR
During the Holland campaign I kept a small diary (forbidden in case of capture by the enemy) in a small calendar book about two inches square. There were only three lines for each day so comments were kept brief to describe the day's events. A single word or phrase was used to jog my memory later and confuse the enemy. A year after the war I got it out and found that some days were already hard to remember so decided to sit down and enlarge upon the details while they were still fresh in my mind. Personal names (except for deceased) were not used as I had no permission to do so. My Sister Jane typed it for me and I enlarged it to include all campaigns after I got my computer.
This diary is by no means complete, giving only a general description of the events that occurred. Many of the colorful details are indescribable, especially so by such an amateur journalist as myself. Furthermore, many of the gory details would make this rather unpleasant reading, and because the true feelings experienced by a person undergoing such unusual circumstances could only be understood by one having undergone similar experiences, this diary may be taken as being only a partial record of the real and colorful events that led to it's conception.Prelude
I was released from Army Hospital Plant 4173, APO 121, U.S. Army on August 7, 1944, where I had recovered from a shoulder wound received several miles North of Carentan, France on June 8, 1944. Two days after my arrival at camp the outfit packed up and left for the marshalling area where it was to prepare for it's second combat mission, a jump near Chartres, France; purpose of which was to cut off the retreating German Army on its way through Paris. Patton's Army got to the DZ (drop zone) ahead of us and the outfit returned to it's base camp at Newbury, England. I was then sent on a seven-day furlough to London, England. The furloughs had been rewarded to the outfit for its work in Normandy. The same evening that I returned from furlough the outfit was again packing up to go to the marshalling area. This time it was to be a jump in Belgium. The objective was to prevent the German army from escaping through a gap in a huge pincers movement the American and British armies were making. Again the American ground forces reached our objectives first and again we returned to our base camp to heave a sigh of relief and live on some more borrowed time. But the following week we were again sitting in the marshalling area sweating out a combat jump and this time they were determined to use us!
It was known as operation MARKET GARDEN. The plan was to outflank the powerful Siegfried Line on the north and then drive for Berlin. Two American Airborne Divisions and one British and Canadian Division were to jump along a sixty mile corridor leading from in front of the British lines to Arnhem, Holland where it was intended to make the Rhine River crossing and then push east into Germany. The 101st Airborne Division had as its objective the first twenty miles of this corridor. The 82nd Airborne Division had the central part and near Arnhem was the British Airborne Division.
Activities in the marshalling area consisted of the usual things, which we were getting accustomed to after the third time. Everyone was issued ammunition, grenades, and knives, which they took away from us before we went back to camp because too many men were getting hurt. There was the packing of equipment bundles and fastening them in place beneath the C-47's we were to ride in. One moral booster was the wonderful Air Corps chow which we were never privileged to get at camp. This was the one time that we got enough to eat; "just fattening us up for the kill", as some put it! I shall never forget the speech made by General Taylor, the Division Commander, in one of the hangars. "Men, this may be your last jump in the ETO (European Theater of Operations) If this mission is successful we should all be in New York for Christmas."
The idea of being home for Christmas was a great moral booster, but to the veterans of Normandy the words, "this may be your last jump" made a grim situation that much grimmer. The many new faces amongst us was reminder enough that this may well be our "last" jump! Then there were those last letters home which were so hard to write because the many things you wanted to explain and tell about had to remain deep dark secrets until, if you were lucky, you could tell about in person.
That always bothered me. I didn't mind coming over here and fighting for my country and getting killed, but the idea that no one would ever know all I had been through for them was just not easy to get used to. But it had to be so. I will never understand why I always got a hankering to smoke cigarettes during times like these, being a non smoker; and I will never forget the last evening before D-Day when I had to show the men that I could inhale a big drag with no ill effects. Several such demonstrations did the trick and I found the tent top beginning to sway around in dizzying circles. I was even too sick to worry about the coming jump. I finally drifted into sleep content with the fact my supper and I hadn't parted ways.
D-DayLong before sun-up on September 17, 1944 the CQ (charge of quarters) came around to awaken us and we forced ourselves from under those cozy blankets and into the frosty chill of a September morning in England. All the things we would take with us had to be carried on our persons and the easiest way to carry clothes was to wear them. Dressing consisted of putting on all of the following: First a cotton undershirt and shorts; on top of that most of the men wore woolen undershirts and drawers, but I couldn't stand to wear the drawers, so dispensed with that item. Over that an OD (olive drab) shirt and pants. This would leave one feeling uncomfortably warm on those sunny Fall days, but this was combat and one had to think of the long cold nights and rainy weather too, so over the OD's was worn a woolen sweater. Oh yes, about then it might be a good idea to put your socks and jump boots on so you could come down off your cot to finish dressing. Overall this clothing, I wore an old jump jacket and to top it off we all wore combat jackets, and those jump pants with huge pockets on each leg which was the mark of distinction of the Paratroopers and which were the cause of a nickname the Germans had made up for us in Normandy. The "Devils with the baggy pants" is what they called us. Then out we go for reveille, and then off to what we jokingly call the "last meal". By that time the sun was up to make this a very beautiful Sunday morning and everything seemed so quiet, and serene, and peaceful that it didn't seem possible we could be in the midst of a battle fighting for our lives, three countries away from there before the sun would set.
But, such were the aspects of belonging to the Paratroopers. We then packed up what we weren't taking with us and turned it in. The rest of our things, including our chutes, which had been issued and fitted previously, we gathered together and marched with them to the airfield which was nearby. Here we waited for the signal to board the planes in preparation for the take off. It would be interesting to note the amount of equipment we were required to hang on us for the jump.
Many of our machine guns were lost with the equipment bundles in Normandy, so on this jump each gunner Corporal was to carry his weapon with him, in a leg bundle. I was one of the "lucky ones" who got to carry one. In addition to us, gunner Cpls. carried an '03 Springfield rifle with a grenade launcher and two rifle grenades. I had over one hundred pounds on me when I boarded the plane so that I was virtually an equipment bundle with a human being tied on. The machine gun was fastened directly to the parachute harness so that your body didn't take the strain of the opening shock. After the chute opened, a pull of a rip cord handle left the leg bundle down on a twenty foot rope, and it was out of your way for landing. When the bundle hit the ground it took weight off the parachute instantly and slowed it down to give a less severe landing. About 0945 hours the word came around and we all boarded the C-47's. As I recall, it took two other men to help me into the plane, I was so loaded down with equipment. At 1036 hours the wheels of our C-47 lifted off the runway, and as I sat and watched the soil of England fall away I couldn't help but recall a similar occasion when on the evening of June 5, I had watched the same spectacle and reminded myself of the grim fact that it might be the last time I ever gazed on English soil. All of a sudden, England, strange country that she was, seemed like home to me in comparison with what I was heading for. Now, here I was doing the same thing all over again.
The air was rough that day and the flight lasted over two and one half hours, so there were a lot of sick troopers at the end of that ride, including myself, which was the only time I got sick enough to vomit while making a jump. I shall never forget the landscape over which we flew. First the beautiful countryside of England with its small and neat little fields, then the English Channel and France, which by contrast with England looked rough and messy. We didn't fly very high and it was encouraging to look down to see people stop at their work and gaze in awe at us as we flew on to our mission. I sat there wondering what lay ahead for me and it scared me as I had never been scared before. I recall bolstering up my moral by reminding myself that this was going to be my last supreme effort, and I just had to get through somehow. I thought about home, too, and wished my family could see what I was doing.
As the ride progressed I thought less about the dangers ahead and more about my stomach which was feeling very bad. Half the men were sick and vomiting and the smell filled the plane. Then, after watching a buddy part with his breakfast, it suddenly hit me and I asked for the "bucket". After that I felt better, and we were about to enter enemy territory so I was too busy, and tense, and scared to get any sicker. The signal came to stand up and hook up, which was done so that in case we were hit we could quickly leave the plane. We considered ourselves very fortunate because we were at the front of the long string of planes, our Division being the first to go in, and our Battalion being the first one in the Division, which put us right up front. The Germans would be too surprised to bring much effective fire against us. We then came to the front lines we saw a convey of British vehicles waiting to make the break through. Seconds later we were in enemy territory and things began to happen. I could see puffs of black smoke around us indicating anti-aircraft fire. Every now and then a close one would jar the plane and I could hear shrapnel hitting the wings and fuselage. I recall very vividly a German soldier standing down there with his rifle pointed up at us. I at once felt a great feeling of superiority over all that was below me and a feeling of helplessness because I was unable to fight back. My fear was disappearing now for the sweating out period was nearly over, (that is the worst part of any combat mission) and I would soon be fighting back at this, my enemy, who seemed to be every where beneath me. Then, with the DZ but seconds away, the man behind me (Fletcher P. Cranford) discovered that my static line was under my belly band. There were a few hectic moments as he untangled it for me, and I prayed that the green light wouldn't come on leaving me stranded, before I got hooked up again. Had I jumped with it as it was, I probably would have been killed or, at least, badly mangled.
At 1305 hours the green light suddenly flashed on and we started pouring out the door. I was so weighted down that I had to be pushed out by an assistant who was there for that purpose. There were five of us with leg bundles and I was the fourth one in the stick. There were those tense, terrifying moments of eternal waiting as I watched the Dutch landscape approach me; and then it happened and I was swinging under a beautiful canopy with no "Mae Wests", torn panels, or anything; which was surprising considering the weight I had tied on me! Then I tried frantically to release my leg bundle, but to no avail. I had to give up trying when I saw the ground approaching at a rapid pace and I set myself for what I thought would be a crash landing and a couple broken ankles. However, I was fortunate in the fact that my oscillations timed out just right so that I hit following the lowest point of the swing, and the soil here was very sandy, so I simply plowed two six inch deep furrows with my jump boots and rolled over in a heap, heaving a sigh of relief to know that at least I had gotten down safely.
Now to get on with what I came here for. I got out of my harness and secured my equipment as rapidly as possible, meanwhile glancing in all directions for the enemy who was supposed to be here. But no shooting occurred so I stopped long enough to cut a nice piece off my chute to take along. This could be used later as camouflage for my LMG, (light machine gun) scarves, and also the idea that if I got through this mess OK it would be nice to take home with me.
Then it was time to think about getting organized so I headed for the assembly area which was marked by a white smoke bomb. I found the rest of my gun crew and checked in with the platoon sergeant, then waited for orders. I couldn't quite get used to the idea of no shooting and wondered where the Germans were.
I remember how comical my best buddy, Manuel Dandis, looked as he sat in a ditch with a bandage around his head holding his broken jaw up with a very sad expression on his face. He had missed the Normandy jump because of a broken ankle, jumping off the top of a bus, no less, and his look of disgust at getting hurt so soon on this one was magnificent! He still could give me a smile though even if it hurt him to do it. He was a pretty game guy and wouldn't be evacuated despite his broken jaw and several crooked teeth.
Our objective was a couple bridges and a town by the name of Veghel. Soon things were organized and we started the march toward our objective at a terrific pace which left a lot of troopers staggering and falling behind because of the heavy clothing and all the equipment we had to carry and it being such a nice warm day. Soon civilians came from nearby to help pick up the equipment chutes and also to cart the chutes home to make into dresses and other clothing. We passed through a small village on our way into Veghel and I looked at the Dutch people that I'd read about and marveled at their pretty Sunday clothes. The young children especially looked so pretty in their little Sunday dresses, pigtails, and wooden shoes. They were overjoyed to see us and came forth with everything in the way of food they had to offer. I stopped and had a cup of the first fresh milk I'd tasted since leaving home where we had one Guernsey cow on our ten-acre truck farm. I also gathered apples along the way. It was fun to converse with the local populace for this was another new language to me. I don't know where they got all the orange paper and stuff from but it was hanging everywhere. Orange is the Dutch national color and was forbidden under the Nazis. They would do almost anything to help us. One girl about 14 years old offered me an apple and I got her to understand that I was unable to eat it because I had a box of ammo in each hand, so she carried the ammo while I ate the apple! For a while I completely forgot about the people back home whom I was supposed to be fighting for, because here was someone who actually showed their appreciation by trying to help, not just a letter now and then.
We got into town and found that only a few Germans were there. The advance patrols met them and shot a few, and the rest left town. We had some more time on our hands while they planned our defensive positions, so we got more acquainted with the people, exchanged some of our invasion money for theirs and compared clothes, etc. Again they came forth with things to eat, but by now I had my fill and was getting choosy. I tried some cake. It wasn't too good but was something different anyhow. Late in the afternoon we got orders to move to one side of town and set up a defensive position near a bridge. The Germans had conveniently dug a foxhole for us there. We enlarged upon it and I set up my LMG in preparation for the night. The first night was very quiet where I was, except for some harmless tracers passing overhead, but the other sector of my platoon had quite a scrap with some Germans who ran in on them. No one in our platoon got hurt. The Germans came along in the dark probing the foxholes with their bayonets and the story was told next morning about someone grabbing a Kraut's rifle, pulling him down into the foxhole, and slitting his throat.
Next day I took my LMG and moved to a new position where the Germans had attacked the previous night. There were quite a few dead Krauts lying around. Having set up in my new position and dug in for protection, I arranged it with my crew so that two of us would stay at the gun and watch while the other two went to the rear and scouted around for things to eat, because we hadn't received any rations yet. This was the third day, and we only came in with three meals of rations. I was certainly glad that the civilians were so friendly. I had a special family that I usually went to. It was near my gun position and they were very nice people even if they seemed rather poor. I was so impressed by their gratitude and willingness to help me, that I gave them some of my meager. I got my first taste of ersatz coffee from them and strangely enough liked it very much despite their apologies for it's poor quality. It had a taste similar to cereal. I was also much impressed by the fact that of the women in the immediate neighborhood all but one or two were pregnant! I began to wonder, but not being facilitated with a knowledge of their language I never made inquiries.
I was especially impressed by a young girl of my own age by the name of Anny Thiesen. She seemed rather friendly and at the same time shy and bashful. We had great fun kidding with her. The two days I was in that position I went to visit with her and the neighbors every chance I got. Besides being a source of food, it helped relieve the monotony of watching and waiting for the Germans to come. I will always remember when upon leaving after my last visit, Anny's young sister hung her head out the window and said "Anny, und, Klen, darlinks". I hadn't thought I'd shown my affections that much.
Those few days of quiet were suddenly ended by a report that forty tanks and supporting infantry were heading our way from the other side of town. We immediately pulled out and marched through town on our way out to meet them. By this time the enemy had begun shelling the town with artillery and the march through wasn't without excitement. Most of the windows along the Main Street were broken and gaping holes showed up in roofs that had gotten in some shell's path. I recall one incident where a mother and her baby were at the table eating when a shell struck the roof. It tore a hole in the roof and shrapnel splintered the table but the baby was untouched and the Mother suffered only a badly cut finger. She was showing it to some of our men as I passed by explaining how it happened and she was all smiles.
On the far side a halt was called and tension rose as the call came back down the line "Bazooka teams up front!" My Buddy, "Greek", (Manuel Dandis) was a member of a bazooka team and I remember the comedy act he put on as he passed us. It must have been his way of relieving his tension because I didn't envy him his job at that moment. Again we moved forward past the outskirts of the town and into the open fields again. We halted at the edge of a large open field and proceeded to cross it in a dispersed formation. I'll never forget what happened there because it was the nearest thing I ever came across which compared with combat as the movies depict it. I was about one-third the distance across the field when an enemy machine gun quite some distance off to our left flank opened up on us. Watching those tracers coming my way and hitting not more than fifteen feet in front of me was blood curdling! Needless to say, I was flat on the ground in a second, and looking for the source of that deadly nuisance. The gun was too well concealed and too far away to be located and it was useless to stay there where no cover existed so I gathered myself up and made for the opposite side faster than I thought could be possible with such a load. One of my men became separated from me during the dash for safety. Once across we started out towards our enemy again.
Ordinarily, the purpose of a heavy weapons section of machine guns, which was what I was a part of, is to give support to the rifle companies, but things were pretty mixed up and my section leader sent me down a ditch to set up my LMG on a corner. I found that I was there all by myself with no rifle protection, but some riflemen came later to build up the line. I was in a shallow ditch and across the road from me was a farmhouse and beyond that across a small field were trees which made excellemt cover for the enemy. We had hardly formed our positions when an enemy tank made its appearance at the far end of the clearing. The tank commander had his head and shoulders out of the hatch, evidently unaware of our presence. A burst from a BAR (browning automatic rifle) made him duck for cover.
It might be well to give a brief description of the weapons I carried before explaining what followed. I always was and always will be fond of rifles so I was always a rifleman at heart. However, my job was to be a machine gunner and so the LMG was my weapon. My personal weapon was supposed to be a folding stock carbine but not liking their short range and lack of power I jumped in with a Springfield rifle and a grenade launcher and carried five rifle grenades along with me. Now it is easier to realize what I mean by being loaded down.
To continue; when this German tank made its appearance I left my two remaining crew members with the LMG and prepared to do business with the grenade launcher. About the time I was preparing to fire a round, two riflemen who also had a grenade launcher started firing, so I sat by and saved my ammo, while they found out the range. They came close enough to scare the tank back out of sight. The enemy then tried an infiltration with infantry. The system they used was this: Two Krauts came out in the open and started slowly towards us with a white flag as if to give up. Some officer on the right fell for the ruse and a yell to cease-fire came down the line. I don't think he saw the other Krauts sneaking up some ditches and along a fence line on our left. While this was happening I had taken the grenade off the end of my rifle and took out the blank cartridge used to launch it. Having never "zeroed in" my rifle, I had put in a couple tracers so that the first shots I fired would tell me how it was shooting. About then someone wised up to what the Krauts were up to and the two who were going to give up turned and ran. I stood up out of the shelter of the ditch in which I was crouched and drew a bead on one of the Krauts. He was heading for a brick house across the field and I squeezed the trigger when he was but ten feet from safety. I have an indelible impression on my mind of that tracer as it reached out and tapped him on the back, just to the right of his backbone. He rounded the corner and pitched forward out of sight. I was jubilant over my skill as a marksman and became so excited that for a brief time I forgot about the dangerous bullets flying about until someone told me I'd better get down in the cover of the ditch again. This was the first of the enemy I'd encounted thus far. I was later assured of the fact that he had been killed when someone on my far right flank mentioned the fact that someone had hit a Kraut with a tracer as he rounded a corner and fell flat on his face. I felt pretty exuberant until they decided to open up on us with the big gun on the tank. My assistant gunner opened up on some Krauts he saw and immediately became the target for the tank's guns. A close hit wrecked the LMG and my two wounded crew men had to be evacuated. The tank then advanced toward us and I was busy getting my grenades ready to fire again. It crept up to within 50 yards of us, which was just behind a building across the road from my position.
I remember how puny that grenade on the end of my rifle appeared as I saw that huge metal monster creeping up on me! It set the house on fire and then backed off down the road from where it came. Two old people who were in the house tried to run across the field to safety but were cut down by German machine guns. This act only increased my hatred for the Nazi. There was a slight lull in the fighting then and we evacuated our wounded, and my remaining crewmember joined me. The Krauts began a counter attack and bullets started flying all around and I crouched in the ditch watching them cut off branches a few feet above my head. I saw a tracer glance off a branch and strike my crewman (Pelham Noyes) in the face. He spun around with pain and the smell of burnt flesh reached my nostrils. The bullet had lodged in his cheek, and I can imagine how that red-hot bullet must have felt. Just previously I had warned Noyes to get down in the ditch instead of leaning back against the opposite side from which the bullets were coming. His reply was "I'm safe here", one of those "famous last words" we used to kid each other with! Noyes rejoined the platoon later and described how they had grafted a piece of skin from his buttock onto the hole in his face and had this complaint; "Now whenever I get tired my face wants to sit down"). That left me with no gun crew and a badly battered LMG that I gave to the rifle company. We then withdrew our lines a bit nearer town and dug in for the night.
Next morning I joined another gun crew. We had dug in with a large open field before us so any infantry trying to cross would be duck soup. Two American tanks manned by Limeys were directly to our rear using a house as cover. The following morning a huge German tiger tank came directly across the open field heading for our lines. It was just a decoy. As soon as the Limey tanks opened up some German anti-tank guns finished them off. One of our Bazooka men stopped the German tank and the Limeys managed to finish it off before they, themselves were put out of action. The two Limey tanks burned up. While all this shooting was going on we were at the bottoms of our holes and wishing they were much deeper. Three men in the crew I had joined were evacuated after that was over. The situation was beginning to look pretty tough. I took the two remaining crewmen and took over the LMG. That afternoon we were having a job trying to keep the Krauts from those bridges as they would attack first one place, then another, and we moved about to counter their attacks. During one of these moves the enemy had observation on us from some place and they zeroed in on us with artillery. They were 88's, either tanks or self propelled. (The German 88 fired a "flat trajectory" projectile which traveled above the speed of sound like a rifle bullet and gave no warning that it was on the way. (I called them "Flat Tragedy" shells.) hey hit us without warning while going down an open stretch of road. I dove for the ditch on my side and buried myself in mud. The shells hit across the road from me; one less Buddy, hit in the heart.
We moved on and the artillery would follow us right along. We spread out and dug in. The casualties were removed; that is, the wounded. The dead were picked up after things had quieted down. We then pulled back to new positions and re-dug ourselves in. The shelling continued at intervals all afternoon. I had just gotten into position nicely and prepared to settle down for a good night when word was received that we were going to move again. To make matters worse, it started to rain. We moved about midnight, in the pitch black, and into a position where we didn't know the lay of the land or what was to our front. All I knew was who was directly to my left and right. Before me was darkness, and somewhere out there, the enemy. To make matters worse I had gotten the GI's (Dysentery). We had to dig our foxholes in the inky darkness and the rain made it pretty miserable. One of us would dig while the other listened and watched. Occasionally I would have to leave the shelter of the hole we were digging to relieve myself. All in all, it was a pretty miserable night!
When the sun appeared the next day I soaked in it's warmth and began to feel better again. That afternoon we made another attack. It was quite a mixed up affair. We had them cornered against a river (or canal) but had to cross open ground and enter a woods to clear them out. We got close enough to exchange hand grenades, then the riflemen fell back leaving us out in front by ourselves. I fired my rifle grenades into the woods to scare them out. We finally cleaned them out. I wounded one for sure, and probably two more. We lost our platoon Sergeant, dead, and our medic, wounded. There was another hectic night in which no one knew either our own or the enemy's positions. I set out booby traps so no one could walk in on us at night and we settled down to eat Limey rations and guard the LMG.
Next day we got straightened out. At 1300 hours we had our first mail call. Only ten days and the mail was through already! I got eight letters and my moral was up to normal again. We dug in at our new positions and prepared for another night of watching and waiting. Things had settled down for a while so all we had to do was keep guard on the LMG. I found time to write some letters home, and I also went back to the CP (command post) to mail them and visit "Greek" to see how he was getting along. Things were pretty good except that we were dug in in a ditch in a low spot and in a field about fifty yards away was a dead horse which was beginning to smell. About twenty feet down the ditch from our foxhole was a dead Kraut. I "rolled" him and collected a gun cleaning kit. I sat on him and ate my meals a couple times; it was a nice dry seat! We used to crack jokes about him.
We stayed in this position several days and I found time to write more letters home. We then withdrew to the rear where we had the shelter of a bigger ditch and the whole section could get together for meals. That way we'd put it all together in some pots we picked up in nearby houses and heat it over a bonfire. It tasted good that way. During this lull I also found time to take my shoes off for the first time in 12 days. After all the marching, and rain, and mud, they were badly in need of some fresh air! Again it started to rain and things were still dull so a buddy (Manuel Dandis) and myself decided to go souvenir hunting. We were picking around looking amongst some discarded helmets when mortar shells began to drop near us. We hit for a ditch and as soon as it was quiet ran like mad to get out of there. We had gotten about 150 yards when some more came over and they landed so close to the ditch we were lying in that we decided maybe it would be best to forget about souvenirs and we dashed back to the safety of our foxholes. During this lull there was also a reorganization of the platoon to account for casualties and I got a different gun crew.
On the fourteenth night we got our first frost and all was quiet except for one lone German who got lost and walked right into our position. He came up and asked one of our men for a cigarette. Instead, he got two bullets, right through the middle. He had some nice boots on and before he was done kicking someone had taken them off from him.
On the fifteenth day we were finally relieved and went into town where we got to take a shower. We stayed in a schoolhouse that night and the next day I cleaned my LMG and equipment (didn't learn anything new in that school). That evening I had nothing to do so I decided to go out and see how Anny was getting along. I found her house a shambles and no one around. I was worried for her safety but being in no position to help I returned to the school and went to sleep. The next day we packed up, boarded trucks and headed up the corridor for Nijmegen.