The St. Louis Dispatch     

 

CYBER MUSEUM RECORDS PARATROOPERS' D-DAY TALES

 

By:  Victor Volland of the St. Louis Dispatch

Published  7/28/98, Section: Cover Story - B1 




Missouri veterans are among those recounting adventures for people via Internet Web page.


Neither Roy Creek nor Gene Tennison owns a personal computer, but the World War II paratroop veterans are stars on the Internet with their first-person accounts of bravery under fire as well as the day-to-day drudgery and boredom of war.


They are among 200 former airborne soldiers and glider men, now in their 70s and 80s, who are sharing war stories on a recently created Internet Web site called the Drop Zone Virtual Museum, an online oral history resource.

Some of the same "in-their-own-words" stories of quiet heroism have been told in historian Stephen Ambrose's "Citizen Soldiers" and "D Day." Ambrose's books, which relied heavily on such first-person accounts of soldiers of all ranks, in turn inspired the Steven Spielberg movie "Saving Private Ryan," which was released in theaters last weekend.

Creek of Lake Quevira, a resort community near Kansas City, was a young company commander of an 82nd Airborne unit that parachuted behind German lines in Normandy several hours before the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944. Tennison of Doniphan, Mo., was a private first-class in an airborne infantry outfit that got its combat "baptism of fire" in the bloody Battle of the Bulge, a turning point in the war in January 1944.

Creek's 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment had trained long and hard in the rains of Northern Ireland and the English Midlands before embarking shortly after midnight on June 6 aboard C-47 transports.

Their first combat mission was to land and secure the crossings of the Merderet River at La Fiere and Chef du Pont for the taking of the pivotal village of Ste. Mere Eglise. (The better-known latter battle was featured in the book and film "The Longest Day.")

The jump was from a perilously low 600 feet, and heavy fog made it even dicier, Creek recalled. With anti-aircraft fire exploding around the planes, the red jump button "began getting larger and larger," he wrote in one of the clearest and most gripping accounts on the Web site. "Two minutes! Hook up! Check equipment! Close up! Are you ready? Green light! Let's go! The invasion was on!"



Drowned with parachutes

What appeared a lovely flat meadow in the dark turned out to be a flooded area. Some of the men drowned with their parachutes, and much of the support equipment was lost. There was no resistance yet, and Creek and about 50 other paratroopers from various units regrouped in the protective hedgerows. But just before daybreak the first gliders began to come in and were met with machine gun fire from the hedgerows opposite.

The group received orders to move on to La Fiere and had to wade in chest-high water back through the marsh amid sporadic sniper fire. "All that could be done was to keep on walking and hoping," Creek said. Reaching the high ground overlooking La Fiere bridge, his group was ordered to proceed along the railroad to the next town, Chef du Pont, and capture its bridge across the Merderet.

They were to rendezvous there with a similar mixed group that had a ttacked from the other end of town, reached the railroad station in the center with little opposition and raced toward the bridge - which happened to be where the withdrawing Germans were also heading.

"Speed seemed to be the answer," Creek wrote. The Americans were too late. The Germans hastily set up a defense, shot two approaching U.S. officers and dug in along the only approach road to the bridge. The outnumbered enemy managed to turn back two storming attempts, and the mission devolved into stalemate.

Most of the group then was called back to La Fiere, leaving Creek's rump core of 34 to "hold at all costs." That directive came in a command message from Gen. James Gavin, who was assistant commander of the 82nd Airborne and would become ambassador to France in the Kennedy administration and a critic of the Vietnam War. Gavin ordered air drops of needed guns and ammunition and then a relief troop of 100 men with a 57-millimeter field gun that dislodged the Germans from the bridge. The battle was over.

"The bridge was ours, and we knew we could hold it," Creek wrote. "But as with all victories in war, we shared a letdown feeling. We knew it was still a long way to Berlin." He and his comrades gathered the bodies of the dead, American and German, and covered them with parachutes.

D-Day was almost over, but Creek and his men had no idea whether the invasion was a success or failure. At the second midnight of the "longest day," word was received, and they could relax and get some needed sleep.

"As we dug in and made ourselves comfortable for a turn at short naps, the smell of death, which was to be with us for a long time to come, had begun to permeate the night air. It was D+1 in Normandy."


Tennison tells his story

"When Doves Cry" is the poignant title of Gene Tennison's compact account of Jan. 4, 1945, when he and the men of "A" Company of the 550th Infantry Airborne Battalion got their first real taste of war during the latter, lesser-known stage of the Battle of the Bulge. The battle-seasoned German Army, with their backs up to their own border, unleashed a vicious counter-attack that destroyed or captured most of "B" and "C" companies as they were pushing to the village of Renuamont, 10 miles west of the American stronghold of Bastogne.

The forward attack caught the Americans by surprise and created general confusion. "Those of us who were left didn't know what to do or where to go," Tennison writes in the Web site.

He and a buddy took cover in a shell hole in the snow-covered and bitterly cold Ardennes forest in Belgium. "Then, oddly, I heard the sound of a crying newborn baby," he relates, describing the familiar but eerie "wa, wa, wa" sound.

"The noise got closer and closer," he continued. "Finally, we could see that it was coming from a stretcher being carried by four men through the deep snow. A figure was slumped in the stretcher, and the first thing I noticed was an arm dangling off the stretcher, twisting around and around in mid-air, hanging by a thin shred of flesh."

The wail was coming from the patient, who grew silent as the group neared. Tennison relieved one of the stretcher bearers, and as they waded in the snow to a medic station the badly wounded soldier began to mutter repeatedly, "Who's with me?"

"His eyes were plastered with mud and blood," Tennison further described the soldier, who cried out, "Oh, God, I just wish I could see just one more time."

Tennison, now 77 and retired, is still haunted a half-century later by that young soldier, who he believes died. After the war he became a paramedic and then a registered nurse. He is still active as secretary-treasurer of the 550th Airborne Battalion Association and edits its journal, The Static Line.

The Drop Zone Virtual Museum is on the World Wide Web at www.thedropzone.org. It was created two years ago by 28-year-old WWII buff Patrick O'Donnell, who lives in Fairfax Station, Va., and is a consultant to a Washington firm that develops information technology systems for the military.

"These are largely untold stories by unsung heroes of the war," said O'Donnell, who first heard some of the stories while growing up in Seattle from uncles who had served in combat with airborne units in World War II.

These tales whetted the boy's appetite for more derring-do stories by paratroopers, a U.S. rapid-response force created at Fort Bragg, N.C., with formation of the famed 82nd and 101st airborne divisions in July 1942. That was seven months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought the country into the war.

Creek, 81, still hasn't seen his story on the Internet but said he plans to soon on a computer of one of his more with-it contemporaries. "I haven't gone high-tech yet, despite pressure from my children," he said, laughing.

Like other veterans of foreign wars, Creek has many stories that will stay locked inside. "There are countless memories of other (stories) not and never to be told," he told the Drop Zone.

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 St. Louis Dispatch