The Seattle Times     

 

STORIES OF SOLDIERS COME TO LIFE IN VIRTUAL MUSEUM

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By:  Jack Broom

Published  11/11/98
Section: Front Page -Cover Story

 

Looking back, Charles Fairlamb knows he was in great danger during an overnight raid on a German encampment in World War II, but back then, fear was something he didn't have time for.

"You have to keep moving," said Fairlamb, of North Seattle. "It's more action than reflection. You've been given a job to do, and you do it."

That determination comes through in the story Fairlamb, 83, tells in an online exhibit presenting stories of some 200 World War II U.S. paratroopers and rangers.

The Drop Zone "Virtual Museum" also features scrapbooks, photographs and military artifacts, along with an electronic forum in which veterans can contact one another.

Fairlamb's story, told under the title "Night Raid," is not one he regards as a tale of heroism, just an example of what soldiers were called on to do. That's what gives the Drop Zone its strength, its sense of ordinary people in an extraordinary time.

Picture a subfreezing, moonlit night in France in December 1944. At the time, German forces had made a push into Allied-held territory, creating what became known as "The Bulge." Allied commanders wanted to counterattack, and Fairlamb's 800-member 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion was ordered to make an early move. Their mission: to conduct a raid on German troops staying in a collection of stone buildings at a farm called Noirfontaine, about a mile away.

"We were told to bring back prisoners," Fairlamb recalls. Officers wanted to interrogate enemy soldiers about German troop strength, plans and position. As was common in military campaigns, Fairlamb and his comrades, who were huddled in the woods, got the shortest possible notice. "We had about a half-hour to get ready . . . the fewer people who know about it ahead of time, the better."

Fairlamb's battalion was told Allied fire would be suspended, but only for the night. If they didn't return by dawn, all bets were off. Halting fire allowed Fairlamb's group to pass through Allied lines, but it also alerted the Germans an attack might be in the works.

"They knew our troops were moving, but they didn't know when or where," Fairlamb said.  Consequently, the Germans "searched" with artillery fire, spraying it methodically around nearby woods and fields. The exploding shells made bathtub-deep craters the U.S. soldiers could duck into to catch a breath.

"The thinking was they wouldn't send another shell to the same position - at least right away," Fairlamb recalls. The freshly made craters still reeked from the explosive compounds the shells carried. Although Fairlamb's comrades didn't know it at the time, the field they crossed was laced with German land mines.

But one of the few benefits of fighting in near-zero temperatures, Fairlamb said, is that the land mines froze up and didn't detonate. The severe cold also meant U.S. soldiers had to carry their bazooka shells inside their jackets so the munitions wouldn't freeze.

Approaching the farm, Fairlamb radioed information to a mortar team, directing a shot into the farm's wooden-roofed barn, setting it ablaze.  "All hell broke loose," as the two sides exchanged fire. More shells struck the blazing compound, Fairlamb said. Overpowered, many Germans fired as they retreated; about a dozen were taken prisoner.

Partly because of the swiftness of the raid, and because the approximately 100 Germans were greatly outnumbered, Allied casualties were light. Only about 10 men from the 551st were wounded in the mission and none died, Fairlamb said.

The following day, Dec. 28, men of the 551st held an overdue Christmas service. Despite their exhaustion, the bitter cold and lack of shelter, the mood was helped by the surrounding snow-covered pines and the warmth of friendship in adversity.

There was even tinsel dangling from nearby trees - strips of metal foil the Germans had dropped to confound Allied radar.

A religious man who carried his Bible throughout the war, Fairlamb said the unusual Christmas observance seemed entirely fitting, though the soldiers had to be constantly prepared for the possibility of an attack. And it felt strange, he admits, to be holding "a hymn book in one hand and a rifle in the other."

Fairlamb is the only Seattle area veteran whose story is told in detail on the site, but that may change. Patrick O'Donnell, Virginia-based creator of the Web site, has interviewed more than 500 veterans and expects to add to the collection.

O'Donnell, 28, wasn't born until decades after World War II, but it has always fascinated him. "When other people were reading dinosaur books, I was reading World War II histories."

The Drop Zone is a volunteer effort and has turned down advertising to retain the feeling of a museum, rather than a commercial venture. A high priority is collecting and preserving oral histories from men such as Fairlamb before their stories are lost forever.

O'Donnell said the Web offers the perfect opportunity to pair the age-old story-gathering technique of oral histories with modern communication opportunities. "In that sense," he said, "it can be a bridge between generations."

 

 



1998 The Seattle Times