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
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
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
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
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