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Without Absence of Courage
May 12 2009

It has been many years since that day. They called it D-Day, the invasion of Europe. It was a day that I would never forget. I was a young paratrooper. I was only twenty-one years old at the time. I I was barely old enough to understand how life and the world worked, but I was about to learn some life lessons very quickly.
“SGT Will, it won't be long now. We are finally going to see some action!”, shouted CPL Edison in with a sense of excitement over the sound of shells exploding outside the plane. I glanced over at him and simply nodded with a smile. We had been waiting for an opportunity to make a mark in history books for three years. I suppose I wouldn't have much of a story to tell if I had spent the entire war in England drinking tea and eating stale cookies.
At that second, the buzzer on the plane sounded as the light over the jump master began to flash repeatedly. “Stand up! Hook up!”, shouted CPT Roberts. I struggled to keep my balance as I clamp my hook onto the static line. As quickly as I slapped the ring to the line, I hear the screams of the captain as he said, “Go! Go! Go!” The door came closer quicker with each millisecond. Step after step, I came closer and closer to the flack and death waiting outside the door. Then, I made the turn out the door, and there was no more ground beneath my feet.
The free fall of a paratrooper last for only a brief, violent second. After that second, your chute catches the wind, and your body is jerk back from its fall. The feeling is comparable to getting hit by a speeding car. The harness of tightened against my body as it rapidly slowed my descent. The sky exploded all around me in the darkness with sporadic burst of light and speeding fragments of flak shells. I had never been so frightened in my life and astounded. I looked down to see where the ground was but had no luck spotting the ground. All that was beneath me was darkness. The drop was a descent into the very bowels of hell.
Suddenly, I saw the outline of an image standing out in the midst of the darkness and explosions. The ground would have been such a welcome sight at that point in time. Unfortunately, I was not looking at a nice patch of tall grass as I had hoped I would have hoped find underneath my feet. A tree was the dark outline standing out from the darkness. I would have been perfectly happy going the rest of my life without getting acquainted with that tree. To my regret, I was giving the opportunity to become familiar with the enormous tree in the French wood line that miserable night. I kicked and flailed about wildly to try to redirect myself away from the branches of the tree. I tugged with all of my might and leaned to my right side, but none of it worked. In situations like that, there is normally nothing that you can do except to brace for the impact. The branches smacked my chest and my arms, and for a second, I thought that maybe the experience would not be so bad. I was wrong. I was very wrong. As the leaves cleared, I finally had a clear view of what was to come for me. A very large, round, and firm tree trunk glared directly at me in the only unforgiving and unmoving way that a tree trunk can stare at any paratrooper that is unfortunate enough to make its acquaintance.
I don't remember the impact of the trunk. In moments of great stress, individuals tend to block out certain memories. It is called black out sometimes. For me on that night, it was called getting knocked the heck out. As I came back out of the world of dreams, I felt a pulsating and wet sensation dripping from my forehead. The light beams shined downed into my eyes causing me to squint fiercely. The feeling was much like a throbbing hangover. I reached over to my side and detached my rifle casing allowing it to fall to the vacant ground twenty feet beneath my dangling feet. The next inevitable step was to get down from the tree too. I took deep breath, graped my harness release, and pulled. I did not welcome the firm ground as I would have the night prior. My legs buckled under the impact of the sudden stop. I rolled about three times total before once again hitting the trunk of the familiar tree from which I had been suspended the prior night. Hurriedly, I scrambled to my rifle case and secured my cherished rifle in my hands.
The next goal was to find those Germans who had been flinging flak at me as I dropped from the sky in the night, but I did not hear or see them. There was no noise and no movement in any direction. My fellow paratroopers were nowhere to be seen either. The birds were not even talkative on that morning. All I had on me was my rifle and ammunition. Without a compass, I had no choice but to simply pick a direction and start walking.
The travel was slow and methodical. I weaved through the forest hoping to figure out where I was. In England, the paratroopers studied maps of Normandy and the surrounding area over and over, but for some reason, I just could not get a grasp on where I was. Time had also lost its meaning. Disorientation seems to come along with getting knocked out for several hours by a large tree trunk. Finally, I came to a clearing in which I could see a single Panzer tank performing maneuvers. The tank was all by itself and vulnerable. The tank was coming upon a bridge that I could remember from my briefings in England. The bridge was the was a main supply route between the beaches of Normandy and German supply trains.
It seemed as though there was nowhere to go from where I was without being spotted by the tank. The area was open without concealment from the four-man crew of the tank with the exception of the river bed leading up to the bridge that was only a few yards from the tank. I imagined that if I could get close enough to the tank then I would be able to overtake the crew and to gain control of the Panzer. I hesitated for a few minutes thinking if I could pull of the task.
Finally, I decided that I had no other choice than to take the tank and try to destroy the bridge. I slowly crawl along the edge of the wood line taking extra precaution to remain undetected by the crew. I had to stop five times along the edge of that French tree line to avoid being noticed by those four Germans. After about forty-five minutes, I reach the river bank. The river was relatively narrow but had a steep drop off of about eight feet which would make the waterway impassable for German supply trucks to cross without the aid of a bridge. Luckily, no supply trains had passed while I was making my way to the tank.
After my forty-five minute crawl, I rolled over the edge of the drop to make it down to the rocky edge of the river. The river was much like a trench that cut through the country side of France making the remaining three hundred yards of my journey much easier than the previous one hundred yards along the tree line. I still remained disciplined in my movements as I crept along the river bed. At a distance of only fifty yards from the Germans, my footing slipped after I had been so cautious in my movements. Quickly, I darted to the edge of the dirt wall to conceal myself from the tankers above my position. The sound of my mistake fortunately was masked by the sounds of the tank to my amazement.
After a brief two minutes, I returned to my progression toward the tank. Finally, I made it to the bridge with the tank only feet from the wall of dirt upon which I was leaning. I studied the movements of the tank commander so very closely. He never knew I was only feet from him. I decided that he would not be able to keep his steady watch forever. I knew if I wait long enough he would have to look down into his vehicle or in a direction that would provide me with enough time to gain an advantage on him.
I did not have to wait long. After only seconds, he ducked down into his tank providing me the opportunity that I needed. With a speed that was mustered from some unknown source, I threw my body over the berm, rush the ten feet to the edge of the tank, and mounted the Panzer. The task was surprisingly easier than I had imagined. Marksmanship was not involved in the task. Simply, shoving an M1 Durant down into the crew compartment of the Panzer and squeezing off rounds point blank was sufficient in freeing the tank of its crew.
“That was easy. Now what do I do?”, I said to myself as I glared down at my bloody accomplishment. As I stood on top of that Panzer, I heard a distant voice. At first instant, fear struck me. “Oh, no. There are more Germans around here I didn't see.”, I thought to myself. As I search the farthest distance in my field view, I heard the voice again, “Hey, are you American?” The voice was in English and had a New England accent to it.
After searching the surrounding area, I finally pinpoint the location of the calls. A young fellow stepped out from a tree line that rose from the wild grasses about two hundred yards from the distant side of the bridge. He was dressed in a standard issue U.S. Army uniform. Then, another American walked out from the forest and another followed him. He was followed by an entire platoon of paratroopers. The image of thirty airborne paratroopers walking across that bridge had been the best image that I had seen during that entire morning.
As they came to the edge of the tank, a young man wearing captain rank stretched out a hand to me and said,”Come on down, Sergeant. You did well. It's good to have you back.”
“Thanks, sir.”, I said as I grabbed CPT Roberts hand and hopped down.
Finally, I felt that I had reach safety and was not alone. It was a good feeling. It was much better than being alone and suspended from a tree while covered in blood. All of the paratroopers of my platoon had survived the jump and landed in good areas that did not have to hang from trees. A gust of wind and some flak had forced my chute to float away from the rest of the platoon and into that terrible tree.
“Sir, how did the landing go and what are we doing now?”, I asked as I had been starving for information about our mission.
He turn about and reluctantly answered, “The landing went well, bloody, but well. We are done with the beaches and heading for a town called Bastogne.”
He turn back around and walked off to talk to one of the other soldiers. I grabbed my weapon and went off to whatever waited ahead of me. I did not know what kind of battles awaited, but I would not be alone again for the rest of the war.
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