Love, Leo

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Love, Leo

My name is Leo Richard and I was born May 11, 1920 in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. My parents George and Mabel were cousins (I know, I know), so each had the last name of Rudy.  They were so excited to have their first born and baptized me at St. John’s Lutheran Church in the middle of town there. I was six-years-old and my brother Bud just five, when my parents hitched their horses to the Rudy wagon train that moved North then West in 1926. And when I say wagon train I mean a Model T Ford caravan. My mother and Uncle Norman, who at sixteen was just learning to drive, drove so slow we had enough time to notice the whole scenic route. That move, that car ride, to Washington State with my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins was one of the happiest times of my whole life.

Bellingham was a beautiful place, my father got work there almost straight away and my mother would give birth to my little sister Edith. In the next year my grandfather’s heart would claim and return him to the earth and life would dim, just a little, for the first time. As the days passed, life would be hard but for those that choose it, work and the promise of a good life could be found. My father worked in the coal mines and my mother in cannery row each fall, with her sister and best friend, Myrtle.

Now, in 1929 the life we knew full of promise and vigor, stalled and paled. The Great Depression hit the town and our family hard. We have always been a resilient family that gives 100% effort and when we work together we can usually overcome most of the hurdles in life. Those years we lived simply and had our faith and each other to keep ourselves united and entertained. Around ’38 and ’39 those hurdles began to take on the look of an ugly mountain range. I spent my teen years watching my folks, my aunts, uncles, family and friends struggle. Family and friends were always one in the same in my world and so when one would suffer, we all would and life dimmed a little more.

The world was descending into chaos, you could tell. It wasn’t like before and it sure as hell didn’t look like it would be improving soon. I would finish high school and later go into work at the mill and read the paper over my lunch hour. The headlines would read things like “Germany Invades Poland” and that thirty countries were in all-out war with one another. There was fear, everything was uncertain and many of the old timers didn’t know what President Eisenhower was doing, not getting involved immediately. I was nineteen-years-old and didn’t know much about the way the world worked, outside of Marietta and Whatcom County but I did feel that I needed to do something. I was moving into the world and I knew, even at that age, that these events would shape that world irrevocably. So, September 22, 1940 just one year and twenty days into what they called The Second Great War, I enlisted as a one-year Private Infantryman and my life would plot a trajectory that I never thought possible.

 “Name!” Barked out bitter looking onion-breath laden drill instructor.

 “Rudy…Leo R.” I squared my shoulders and puffed out my chest hoping to look bigger than my 5’6”, 124 pound frame would allow. And so would begin a basic instruction into the life of a regular army man. It was exciting, I must say being away in the world, being young and knowing I was on my way into making something of myself. By the time my year in the service came to an end I still didn’t really know for sure what I would do next but a series of events decided me quickly and I didn’t hesitate to re-enlist.

I came home and I saw what the town and people were like. The town had grown smaller, the people were poorer, everyone struggling mightily. My mother’s sister, Myrtle was devastated when her strong man and husband, Jim, died tragically and unexpectantly. In November of ’41 Uncle Jim was working on the logging roads, the only higher paying work at the time and late in the evening a log had gotten away from the team and fell crushing Jim’s chest, killing him instantly. The pain and suffering of my aunt and her kids was of the acutest kind and my mother fell into a deep depression as well. My mother hated the idea of me being in harm’s way but I could also see the tremendous pride that was hers, seeing her boy in his colors. I watched my Uncles Jimmy and Norman enlist, my cousin Gene and even my little brother Bud answer the call to serve.

 I’d been hearing about a new program and division of the Army called the Paratroopers and I wanted it. Jumping out of airplanes onto the battlefield hadn’t been done before. It’s like someone threw an idea on the wall to see if it would stick and a bunch of young men, wanting the extra pay, standing with their hands out ready to throw it back on the wall should it begin to slip. By the time I was standing on the platform putting pen to paper with my signature I was an inch taller and eleven more pounds of muscle stretched across my frame. I dated the paper March 5, 1942 with a flourish and was ready to get started. I looked up to see Ole Glory flying against the backdrop of Georgia’s Fort Benning.

My division was the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment or PIR. Our first commander was James M. Gavin who later was promoted to command the entire 82nd Division for pretty much the rest of the contest. The man that was with us day by day was Lieutenant Colonel Arthur F. Gorham, who would become a hero and though young, an elegant man. From the moment we set foot, we were training hard, partly because they needed us to get ready and quickly, partly to decide the best CO’s and NCO’s and partly to get rid of the fellows not best suited for the Paratroopers. We finished up our training at Fort Bragg and united with the other three regiments that would make up the 82nd Airborne. My distinction was 1st Battalion, B Company. On April 29, 1942, after inspections, vaccinations, safety and hygiene lectures, I stood on the deck of the USS Monterey looking on the New Jersey coastline, heading to war.                                    

In Tunisia, North Africa, we trained for another six weeks to get ready for our first invasion. We made the first jump ever to be taken by a regimental sized combat group into Sicily. The invasion into Sicily was known to us as Operation Husky. It was July 9, 1943 when we left but by the time we were ready to make the jump, it was in the early morning hours of the 10th. The winds were hard and heavy and blew us all over hell and back, men died in air or were slammed into the cliffs, we were scattered across the drop zone. After some time and maneuvering we began to make short work to the Germans and defending Italians, taking the city and securing the bridges. Our LTC Gorham had a heroic night after one of his bazooka teams were completely wiped out he grabbed the weapon and destroyed one tank while trying to take out another with hand grenades and his rifle. He was killed in the process, receiving his second Distinguished Service Cross Citation, he was only 28-years-old, like I said he was an elegant man. Knowing that we made history is something that’s hard to wrap your mind around. That the next generations will one day look upon that, perhaps a kinsman might look upon me and be proud of what I did, well…I guess I would like that just fine.

 Operation Husky was very successful in spite of the losses, and many allies thought if we went into Salerno quick, the non-committal Italians would surrender quickly. So, Salerno or Operation Avalanche, as we knew it, was set into motion. On September 9, 1943 the main ground assault began. It didn’t have that surprise element they were looking for though and when the enemy looked at our boys coming in from the sea they yelled, “Come on in and give up. We have you covered.” Extra reinforcements were beginning to also get the call and so on the 14th we jumped in with the 504th to cover the perimeter not yet done so by land or sea. The air guided us in and we were able to provide some much needed support. Colonel Gavin sent both the 1st and 2nd Battalions to join the fight and obtain the objective of five bridges and we took those objectives in twelve hours. Colonel Gavin would be promoted to Brigadier General from this operation. Our new 505th CO would be LTC Herbert Batcheller. That was our second jump and the war for the United States was just getting started.

 Operation Overlord was to be the greatest assault on German occupied Europe during World War ll. The Normandy landings were commonly known as D-Day, the “designated” day for invasion. This day was June 6, 1944. We, the 82nd Airborne, had received our orders earlier. The 1st Battalion would be tasked with cleaning the landing area between St. Mere Eglise and the Merderet River. Weather was bad, I could hardly see my pal standing just a few feet away from me. Even though this was to be my third jump, something about it seemed more sinister. At 1:15 pm, five minutes ahead of schedule, the green light was given and I quickly realized we were going to have a major issue with coverage. We were just landing too far apart. We made our way towards the Cherborg Peninsula and came under heavy fire, scattering us everywhere. In spite of all of that, we were able to piece together units to defend, defeat and liberate St. Mere Eglise, the first town in France to be freed in the war. We did this before our schedule H-Hour to jump. It’s our tradition to be first to the fight, so our motto is “H-Minus.” I lost many friends that horrible day and yet there was pride in what we had accomplished. We learned we were to receive the Presidential Unit Citation, which is the equivalent of the Medal of Honor to an individual and the French Forage for bravery.

 After D-Day, we needed to rest, train, re-supply our equipment and receive new replacements. By the time September came we knew we would be gearing up for another battle. Operation Market Garden seemed simple enough, comparatively speaking. This operation was intended to fix a bridgehead to the Rhine River in Holland. Our job was to seize and hold the key bridges and roads to advance our cause. We didn’t know it but September 17, 1944 would be our fourth and last jump. Now jumping into Groesbeck, Holland was to be done in three waves the first two were done by the 3rd and 2nd Battalion. They seized and secured an opening for us, the 1st Battalion to go in and become the first line of defense to the southwest. Some events occurred that caused the entire process to be sped up and the three outfits were able to group together quickly and surprise the Germans and boy do I mean surprise, they rose that white flag pretty damn quick. Then on the 18th they decided they didn’t like their hasty surrender and we had artillery and mortar fire rain down on us, it was a valiant effort I give you that but the krouts just couldn’t hold a candle to the 505th. The initial operation for us was a success. Now September 20th, the Germans launched an aggressive attack on us trying to cut the road to Nijmegen. They attacked us at every post and hard, even surrounded we held on but barely.  The 505th received a 2nd Presidential Unit Citation for their effort. Think about that, two lightly armed platoons (about 80 men), surrounded by an entire German Infantry battalion supported by tanks, the largest airborne assault in history. We landed close to the mark and didn’t lose many of our guys. We took the Grave bridge quickly and also got Heumen lock bridge too but our main objective was to seize Groesbeek Heights and set up a blockade and we did it.

 If I could pause now and just say, moving into December I was tired, the unit was stretched to the breaking point, we’d lost a lot of men and I know I’d seen things no man should ever have to see. So, the Battle of the Bulge was a strange battle. Many people in your time think they know what happened there and to some extent they do. Because of the beating we took during Operation Market Garden and D-Day, our troops, supplies and support were all at critical levels. Many of the 101st, and 82nd Airborne were on leave recuperating and training after the high cost of those battles. Some were as far as 150 miles away from the front. Most who had fought in Holland were given six day furloughs in Paris or London. When the German surprise offensive began on December 17th, we sure got together quickly and were sent to the Ardennes to push the Germans back. To make matters worse the US hadn’t issued winter uniforms yet, things all happened so quickly that the men had to be sent to the front with only their field jackets and long john underwear to protect them from the cold. I watched more men suffer and die from the cold than get killed by German fire I think. We were moved to Werbomont, Belgium and myself in particular went to Rencheux. On December 20th, the 2nd Battalion and E Company had to retreat under very heavy fire and were all killed. G Company, along the Salm River were also all killed. It was a dark night. Afterwards BG Gavin was able to get control of the situation, the 517th was attached to the 82nd and our numbers improved. We had a new objective, we had to go back to the Salm River. There were three smaller objectives and the 1st Battalion was to seize Reharmont, the others to obtain Fosse and Noir-Fontaine, once seized, phase two would secure the nearby roads and woods, then finally the Salm. By 5:35 pm, with great difficulty we took the Salm. On February 3rd we thought we were going to get some rest and re-group, we had been reduced to one third of our workforce but we were sent 50 km to the North and the Huertgen Forest. At 10:30 on February 8th an attack began and the Germans had lain mines and traps but the 505th was able to push through, with minimal casualties before obtaining the objective of Schmidt.

 It’s strange the things you remember and experience on the last day of your life. On one hand you feel you have all the time in the world to reminisce over your life but in actuality it happens in the blink of an eye. The people you’ve loved, the things you’ve learned, the experiences you’ve had. When I woke the morning of February 11, 1945, I didn’t know that I wouldn’t see another day. I was exhausted, the kind of exhaustion that penetrates deep into your bones. Some would say it was from the snow and cold but not that deep, not that deep. Two of my toes were blackened and there was no blood visible in my fingers. I had been a soldier for four and a half years, enlisted at nineteen. I was three months shy of twenty-four years of age and I felt as old as the mountains. I remembered thinking on the ship to Europe how much I was going to see, how grown up everyone was going to think I was, coming home a hero. I see danger ahead but I don’t react quite right. I feel like I did on that first jump, excited, edgy and in slight awe and fear. But now I feel something pierce my body and watch my own blood spray over and redden the earth and I think of my mom. I see her face as it ages and smiles and know love, pride and mourning will now war within her. There should be pain but by some miracle I’m spared that. My body shifts, turns and begins to fall and I think of my life, how many men I’ve watched fall this exact same way, how many of them I contributed to. I think now of all the firsts we were able to accomplish. I can hear my heartbeat slowing and I can see my family back home, their love and their support. Did I make a difference here, even though I sacrifice this…my body lies facing up, I am so cold, is it the snow…perhaps not. The world dims and is now dark. When you’re young, you feel so free and invincible, I only had that for a short time in life but I can also tell you that free and invincible will find you again. I smile at the hope that one day I will be remembered by the generations after me, that their choices will affect our great nation and propel it forward, that they will grab hold of every opportunity to create a life well lived and that they will strive for “H-Minus” too.

Love, Leo

505th PIR 82nd Airborne

 

 

 

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