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All-American Lieutenants: The 82nd Airborne in Normandy

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Few divisions in World War II possess a more heralded combat history than the 82nd Airborne. Under command of Maj. Gen. Matthew Ridgway and later, Maj. Gen. James Gavin, the division contained soldiers of exceptional quality. Nicknamed the All-Americans because its members initially came from all the states, its mission on D-Day was to seize, clear and secure the general area around Sainte Mère-Eglise, France, and then to be prepared to advance to the west on corps orders. Sainte Mère-Eglise was a typical Norman town that became a critical military objective because six major roads in the Cotentin Peninsula went through it. Whichever combatant held the town controlled access to the avenues of approach to and from Utah Beach.

The strength of the 82nd Airborne Division lay in the junior officers and NCOs who carried the war to the enemy. During the opening hours of D-Day—June 6, 1944—three All-American lieutenants personified the fighting spirit of Ridgway’s paratroopers and made a significant contribution to the Allied success. Their names were John Dolan, Turner Turnbull and Waverly Wray. Collectively, they personified Ridgway’s emphasis on frontline leadership, which Ridgway defined as “the art of imposing one’s will upon others in such a manner as to command their implicit obedience, their utmost confidence, their profound respect, and their wholehearted cooperation.”

The Fight at La Fiere Bridge

Of the three lieutenants, the first to see action was John Dolan, commanding Company A, 1st Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR). The 505th PIR was the only parachute regiment to land on D-Day that had combat experience. Dolan was an experienced warrior and a harsh trainer. The specific objective of his company was to seize and defend the bridge crossing the Merderet River on the road that ran from Sainte Mère-Eglise, with the purpose of preventing the movement of German troops to the Utah beachhead.

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Paratroopers from the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment don their gear before boarding C-47s at Saltby, England, for the flight to Normandy in 1944. (Credit: U.S. Army)

Fortunately, Company A landed in good order on the outskirts of town. As Dolan later recalled, “We hit our drop zone right on the nose, because within 20 minutes to one-half hour, I knew our exact location.” Not surprisingly, Dolan encountered the usual problems of organization in the dark, but a half-hour before dawn, Company A departed the drop zone with about 90 percent of the men accounted for. He then moved toward La Fiere Bridge. In the confusion of the night, Dolan lost contact with his lead platoon, but undaunted, he pressed on to the objective.

Approximately 700 yards from the bridge, Dolan came across a dirt road with a wide field beyond it. Deploying his scouts, Dolan maneuvered one of his platoons just as the German defenders opened fire, killing one of his platoon leaders. After eliminating the enemy squad, Dolan continued toward the bridge, where he encountered intense German fire that pinned him down for about an hour. Shortly after daybreak, Dolan and paratroopers from the adjacent 508th PIR occupied the manor house adjacent to the bridge.

With his primary mission complete, Dolan deployed the remainder of his company just east of the Merderet River. To the front of his position was a marsh at least 1,000 yards wide at its narrowest point. Dolan had just deployed his three bazooka teams when the enemy attacked with three tanks. Dolan later explained, “To this day, I’ll never be able to explain why all … of them were not killed. They fired and reloaded with the precision of well-oiled machinery. … I don’t think that either crew wasted a shot.” The combat remained intense, and when his battalion commander was killed by artillery fire, Dolan took command of the battalion until Gavin replaced him.

Aside from continued mortar and artillery fire, La Fiere witnessed no more combat on D-Day. By day’s end, however, 17 of Dolan’s men had been killed in action and about three times that number had been wounded. Nevertheless, he held the bridge. As Gavin contemplated pulling Dolan’s company from the line, Dolan refused to leave without direct orders. He told one of his platoons, “Stay where you are. I don’t know a better place than this to die.” Such was the spirit of the American paratroopers on D-Day.

Best Tactical Decision in Normandy

Just as Dolan was fighting for his life at the bridge at La Fiere, Turner Turnbull encountered his rendezvous with destiny at Neuville-au-Plain, a small hamlet about 2 kilometers northwest of Sainte Mère-Eglise that sat astride the major north-south road that led to Cherbourg at the tip of the Cotentin Peninsula.

Securing Neuville-au-Plain was the mission of Lt. Col. Ben Vandervoort, commander of the 2nd Battalion, 505th PIR. As he redirected his battalion to Sainte Mère-Eglise, Vandervoort dispatched one platoon north to outpost the area around Neuville-au-Plain, which originally was to have been held by Vandervoort’s battalion, and to block any German reinforcements arriving from the direction of Cherbourg. Vandervoort selected Turnbull of Company D for the critical mission of securing Neuville-au-Plain while he maneuvered the remainder of the battalion to Sainte Mère-Eglise.

An experienced combat leader, Turnbull hastened north to Neuville-au-Plain and deployed his platoon on a rise about 40 yards north of the village. His fields of fire extended 600 yards to the front and gave him perfect observation of the road from which he anticipated that the Germans would launch their attack. No sooner had Turnbull placed his platoon in position than Vandervoort arrived with a 57 mm antitank gun to bolster the defense.

The enemy to Turnbull’s front was a reinforced battalion that had been alerted to move toward Sainte Mère-Eglise earlier in the morning. The enemy now found its way blocked by a determined platoon of American paratroopers commanded by a seasoned combat veteran. Turnbull was gratified when Vandervoort directed his battalion reserve to come to his aid. By this time, he had already sustained 16 casualties, including six dead. The combat continued unabated through the afternoon. By dusk, Turnbull had endured several additional attacks and his platoon was down to 23 men.

Turnbull contemplated his options, and after discussion with several paratroopers, he decided to withdraw to Sainte Mère-Eglise. Due to the excessive casualties, he realized that he would be forced to abandon his dead and severely wounded paratroopers. Three soldiers volunteered to stay and fight while the platoon medic administered to the wounded. Having made his decision, Turnbull then led his remaining men to safety in Sainte Mère-Eglise. Just before sunset, the Germans occupied Neuville-au-Plain.

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A June 1944 aerial view shows how Sainte Mère-Eglise straddles a main highway, the route the Germans would likely have used to attack the Allied beach landings. (Credit: U.S. Army)

Forty-three men of Company D had gone to Neuville-au-Plain that morning; only 16 came out with Turnbull at dusk. In his post-battle report, Vandervoort was extremely proud of Turnbull and the 3rd Platoon of Company D for delaying two battalions for more than four hours, calling it “a small-unit performance that has seldom been equaled.”

The next day, an enemy mortar burst killed Turnbull outside the village that he fought so hard to save.

Though seemingly inconsequential in the overall scheme of combat on D-Day, Turnbull’s spirited defense of Neuville-au-Plain bought precious time for Ridgway to coordinate the all-round defense of Sainte Mère-Eglise, preventing the Germans from attacking the town from both north and south. Like Dolan’s defense of La Fiere, Turnbull played a critical role in holding Sainte Mère-Eglise, the town both Ridgway and Gavin considered vital to the 82nd Airborne’s mission.

505th’s One-Man Army

As dawn broke on June 7, the beleaguered paratroopers at Sainte Mère-Eglise awaited another attack from the Germans. Since the principal threat to Sainte Mère-Eglise was developing north of the village, Vandervoort focused his efforts in that direction. On the northwest side of the town, Vandervoort’s Company D, the same company to which Turnbull belonged, decided to take matters into their own hands.

Waverly Wray, Company D’s executive officer, was sure that the German counterattack was imminent. Wray prided himself as a hunter and a crack shot. He once boasted that he never missed a shot that he didn’t mean to. He was in his early 20s, extremely physically fit and mentally alert. One observer noted that Wray possessed the “combat ‘sixth sense’ of the true warrior—an indefinable intuition, which warns of danger before it appears.”

Wray began June 7 by supporting Company D’s defense against a determined attack by two reinforced German battalions. The fighting was ferocious. When an enemy machine gun was inflicting a number of casualties, Wray crawled in front of his lines, destroyed the position with grenades and killed the surviving members of the crew with rifle fire. He then occupied the position and remained in close contact with the enemy until he saw a German officer running toward another machine-gun emplacement. Wray shot and killed the officer and then crawled toward the second emplacement, still under direct fire. He destroyed the crew with hand grenades and rifle fire and returned to his platoon. Wray’s one-man counterattack killed 15 enemy soldiers.

After resupplying his men, Wray reported to Vandervoort and explained the situation confronting Company D. Vandervoort ordered Wray to return to company headquarters and launch a spoiling attack. Wray prepared D Company for the assault and conveyed Vandervoort’s orders to his wounded commander.

Wray then decided to conduct a personal reconnaissance in order to determine the size of the enemy force and to formulate a plan of attack. Armed with his M-1, a .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol, a .38 revolver and as many hand grenades as he could carry, Wray crawled along the hedgerows, venturing beyond Sainte Mère-Eglise. Eventually, he heard several German soldiers talking on the other side of the hedgerow. Stepping up and looking over the earthen embankment, he saw eight Germans in a sunken lane gathered around a radio. Unbeknownst to Wray, he had stumbled into the battalion command group of the 1st Battalion, 1058th Grenadier Regiment, just as they were preparing to attack the Americans.

Without hesitation, Wray burst from the hedgerow and demanded that the Germans surrender. Seven officers instinctively raised their hands, but the eighth reached for his pistol. Wray shot the man instantly. At the same time, two enemy soldiers in a slit trench about 100 yards away fired at Wray. One bullet tore off part of his right ear.

Historian Stephen Ambrose described what happened next. Ignoring the return fire, “Wray dropped to his knee and began shooting the other seven officers, one at a time, as they attempted to run away. When he had used up his clip, Wray jumped into a ditch, put another clip into his M-1, and dropped the German soldiers with the Schmeissers with one shot each.” Watching Wray as he completed his reconnaissance, one soldier noticed, “The bullet had struck his steel helmet almost dead center at the front rim. A quarter of an inch lower and it would certainly have gone into his forehead. Instead, the bullet was deflected and struck the hinge of his chin strap and clipped a piece of Lieutenant Wray’s ear, leaving his face, neck, shoulder, and part of his uniform covered with blood.”

Returning to company headquarters, Wray collected more grenades and led his men in a counterattack. After finding the German battalion deployed in a sunken lane bordering one of the hedgerows, Wray positioned the platoon’s 60 mm mortar and a .30-caliber machine gun to fire down the lane into the enemy’s left flank. Now leaderless because of Wray’s heroics, the Germans fled northward. By midmorning, the German counterattack was halted and Sainte Mère-Eglise was secure.

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U.S. troops patrol a churchyard in Iles Saint-Marcouf, France, near Utah Beach, two days after D-Day. (Credit: U.S. Army)

The next day, Wray and Vandervoort returned to the spot where Wray had killed the German officers. On examining the corpses, Vandervoort noted that Wray had killed each officer with a single shot in the head. Looking at Wray’s field jacket and his ear, he remarked, “They’ve been getting kind of close to you, haven’t they, Waverly?”

Wray replied, “Not as close as I’ve been getting to them, Suh!”

Company D’s 1st Sgt. John Rabig overheard the exchange and turned to Vandervoort and said, “Colonel, aren’t you glad Waverly’s on our side?”

About three months later, Wray was killed in action near Nijmegen, Holland, while covering his company’s movement to the rear. As Wray raised his head over a railroad track embankment, a German sniper killed him with a single shot in the middle of his head. “The last I saw of him,” one trooper remembered, “he was headed for the Germans with a grenade in one hand and a tommy gun in the other.”

In Retrospect

Before the Normandy campaign was over, the 82nd Airborne Division paid a frightful cost among its junior officers. According to military historian Guy A. LoFaro, 71 percent of the 82nd’s Infantry first lieutenants and 65 percent of its Infantry second lieutenants became casualties. Of Dolan, Turnbull and Wray, only Dolan survived the war.

Historian S.L.A. Marshall best captured the fighting spirit of the 82nd Airborne Division on D-Day: “Veterans who fought at Sainte Mère-Eglise recall it as an affair of blood and iron, filled with shock, suspense and crisis amid the constant threat of being overrun. [The town] was won and held in a series of small alley brawls, and wreaths of laurel cannot make them larger.”

As the nation commemorates the 70th anniversary of D-Day, we cherish the memory of All-American Lieutenants John Dolan, Turner Turnbull and Waverly Wray, along with a host of junior warriors who spearheaded the invasion and liberated Europe.