Irish Hills resident Fred Bahlau remembers sitting in his Vandercook Lake home with his parents listening to the Philco radio more than 60 years ago. News of a bombing at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii caught the young Bahlau's attention.
Japan had just attacked American soil at Pearl Harbor, and the United States would be drawn into World War II.
"I couldn't wait to get into the service," Fred said. "My dad, Adolph, had been in the Army and Navy, and my brother was in the Navy. The only problem was I was only 17 when I graduated from high school, which meant I needed both parent's signatures to get into the Army."
Fred's mother was dead set against his joining the Army. Fred and a buddy ran off to join the Royal Canadian Air Corps - which would take soldiers under 18 - but learned that the wait to get in was four weeks.
"We wanted to get into the action and we wanted it now," Fred said. "I was really down."
Fred visited a recruiter who could see that he was dejected.
"What seems to be the problem?" the recruiter asked Fred.
He told the recruiter about his mother not wanting to sign papers so he could join the Army. The recruiter asked Fred a number of questions, including one about his father's profession. His father was an electrician.
"That's easy," said the recruiter. "You are going to go into your Mom with this paper and tell her you are going to Idaho for electrical school."
On Saturday morning, Fred went into his parent's room and sweettalked his mother.
"Oh look, Adolph," his mother beamed, "Fred wants to go to electrical school and become an electrician just like you."
His parents signed the papers, and Fred was out the door.
"The next morning I was gone," Fred said. "I went to Detroit in 1942 to join the Army."
Fred went to Detroit with his buddy Fred Strohm and while standing in line met Bernard Rinne from Albion, Michigan. Bernard was going to join the artillery.
Three spots from the front of the line a sergeant came up to the trio. He was smoking a big cigar and was bragging about this new group of soldiers. He pulled out a letter from his 'brother' about the troop.
"I got this letter from my brother in a new parachute troop in Toccoa, Georgia," the sergeant said as he took a big puff of the cigar. "He says this camp has all new barracks and a mess tent. The best part is the soldiers get $50 extra per month for being in this parachute troop."
Bahlau and Strohm jumped at the idea, but Rinne was hesitant.
"I told my mother I was going into the artillery . . . near the back of the line of fire."
Bahlau said that Rinne had taken a liking to the two and eventually gave in.
"You little bastards, I'm going to go into the Airborne with you," Rinne said.
The trio had joined the 101st Airborne Division, which was originally activated on July 23, 1918, as part of the mobilization for World War I. In 1940, the US Army began testing the viability of parachute infantry units. After the first tests at Fort Benning, Georgia were successful, the Army began forming Parachute Infantry battalions and regiments. After the British Army successfully used parachute infantry in combat, the US Army authorized the raising of two Airborne Infantry Divisions: the 82nd Airborne and the 101st.
When the 101st was formed, its core units were the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment, 327th and 401st Glider Infantry Regiments, and three artillery battalions. Additional support units were the 326th Airborne Engineer Battalion, the 101st Signal Company, the 326th Airborne Medical Company, and the 426th Airborne Quartermaster Company. In October of 1942 the new Screaming Eagles reported to Fort Benning for rigorous training in how to jump out of airplanes and fight a war when you land.
The training was intense. No only did the soldiers have to learn basic infantry skills, they had to learn two entirely new ways of fighting a war. At first, the parachute troops and the glider troops trained separately. In 1943, they began to train as a Division. In June of 1943, the 506th was added to the ranks of the 101st, just in time for the Second Army Maneuvers. That training exercise was designed to test if the 101st was prepared for battle. In July 1943 the 101st was certified as ready and began to move to their embarkation points in New York.
Before Fred, Strohm, and Rinne got to that point, they had to endure Camp Toccoa and Fort Benning. Climbing out of the train and heading to Camp Toccoa for that 'new camp', Bahlau remembers it was raining like hell on the trip up the mountains.
"The trucks took us about three hours up into the mountains," Bahlau said. "When we got there, there were no new barracks (as the sergeant had said) and no mess tent. There were just tents, cold oatmeal and cold coffee."
"Where are the new barracks?" the trio said as they jumped out of the trucks. The driver just laughed.
Bahlau spent six months at Camp Toccoa before heading to Fort Benning. At Fort Benning, the soldiers had to complete five jumps before they could get their wings. The new Airborne troop practiced by jumping from huge towers about 300 feet off the ground.
Bahlau was in the 506th Parachute Infantry. Although he sometimes kidded about his training, the then 19-year-old Bahlau was moving up in the ranks. By the time he went to the Carolinas for training, he was a staff sergeant with 12 men underneath his command.
Bahlau went by ship to England, living off a diet described by him as "tomatoes and potatoes." He was in the Third Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry, H Company.
"It was unbelievable that England didn't sink," Bahlau laughs. "There were so many planes and tanks."
The soldiers could feel that D-Day - June 6, 1944 - was only a matter of days away. Three times the soldiers readied themselves for battle but were called back.
"The last time we went through the exercises to get ready we knew this was it," Bahlau said. "There was a mess tent and they told us we could have anything we wanted. We stashed away cigarettes, steaks, and anything we could get our hands on."
Also, American Generals put on a "fashion show" of sorts for the soldier. Soldiers dressed in German uniforms were paraded around so the other soldiers could get a good look. Bahlau said the exercise was beneficial.
"We had never really seen what a German uniform looked like," Bahlau said.
A few days later, the training would pay off as Bahlau was part of the largest American invasion in history.
The 101st was given the mission of landing behind enemy lines in the area designated at UTAH beach on the Cherbourg Peninsula. Once on the ground, they were to clear the exit points from UTAH for the 4th Infantry Division's breakout. In addition, they were to block any reinforcements from reaching UTAH. At 10:15 p.m., on June 5, 1944, 6,600 soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division began taking off aboard the 1,432 C-47 transport aircraft from England. Shortly after midnight, the C-47s were over UTAH and the 101st Paratroops began hitting land.
Problems began immediately, because of heavy enemy fire many of the transports had taken evasive action and could not find the proper drop zones. In addition, dense fog blanketed the area. The Pathfinder teams, which had dropped an hour before, had done their best but could not mark all of the drop zones in time.
By the time the paratroops were on the ground, 1,500 had been killed or captured. About 60 percent of the soldiers' equipment had either been dropped into swamps or dropped into enemy hands. Despite these problems, the remaining soldiers began to rally around their leaders.
"It was an amazing sight to see so many American dropping into one area," Bahlau remembers. "We had trained our fanny's off ... I don't remember anyone who was scared."
Bahlau dropped on the ground safely, within 100 feet of his objective. His division was to secure a wooden bridge. Bahlau was one in a small group that ran to the edge of the bridge and jumped into the waist-high water. Once across the bridge, Fred narrowly escaped being shot. It would be one of a number of times he would face death from a first-person perspective.
A German soldier suddenly rose up and shot Fred's partner. Fred's gun was jammed from all of the sand, but he finally shot the German soldier. Fred and a number of men carried the soldier to the other side after securing the area.
Four days later he received a Silver Star and Bronze Star for his heroics in Carentan. There were 11 soldiers decorated that day, and a French girl had collected flowers to give to the soldiers. Unfortunately, she only had nine. She ran into a flower shop and brought flowers out to Bahlau and another man.
"She threw her arms around me and kissed me," Bahlau said. I told my family that story for years. It was not until they saw footage of the ceremony on History-Channel-type show that they believed me."
By the summer of 1944, the Allied Armies began to encounter supply problems, There were plenty of supplies in England, but not enough port facilities to unload them in France. The command decided to focus their attention on the port city of Antwerp and devised a bold plan. The British Second would launch a ground attack on Antwerp while the newly formed 1st Allied Airborne Army would conduct an Airborne assault on Mass, Wahl and lower Rhine Rivers. On September 17, the 101st Airborne, along with the 82nd and British 1st Airborne Division landed in the largest Airborne assault of the war, 20,000 in all.
The 101st managed to liberate several Dutch towns from German control while they were repulsed several German counter attacks. On several occasions the fighting was hand-to-hand in brutal street fighting. By the end of November, Antwerp was in Allied hands and the first supply ship dropped anchor on November 28, 1944. The 101st was ordered into a base camp for some much needed rest, which was cut short by the German Ardennes Offensive.
By this time, Fred was made 1st Sergeant. As for his friends, Fred Strohm broke his leg in England and Bernard Rinne was killed in Holland. Fred moved to the 3rd Battalion Headquarters and remembers another near-death experience.
I was on guard one early morning when Ben Heiner came to where I was," Bahlau said. "He said he had seen the shape of a German helmet. He thought the Germans were flanking the small town we were in."
Sure enough the Germans started firing. Fred organized approximately 100 men and started moving. Captain Harwick came up the road and said the Germans had killed the driver of his Jeep and he had to bail out. Harwick said that he needed the maps and information in the Jeep. Fred volunteered to take another Jeep to get the maps. Under heavy fire, he was successful at getting to the Jeep and retrieving the maps.
"Captain Harwick's Jeep was in water but fortunately, the maps and information was not damaged," Bahlau said. "I threw the driver in the back of the Jeep and headed back. You could hear the bullets hitting the side of the Jeep."
Bahlau was given a Silver Star and Bronze Star for his heroics in Holland.
Not all of World War II was guns and death. Bahlau had time to have a little R & R and made the most of it. Captain Morton asked Bahlau to liven things up for the men and he created Club McCombo. He took a deserted building and made a bar of it.
"Club McCombo was the talk of the division, Bahlau said. "We only had time for a couple of parties there."
On December 16, 1944, the German Army launched their Ardennes Offensive with 13 Divisions. Their objective was to capture the Ardennes forest region in Belgium and France and paralyze the Allied armies in the west so they could concentrate on defeating the Russians on the east. The initial attacks by the Germans were very successful, and the Allied front began to collapse. On December 17, the 101st Airborne received orders to move north to reinforce the key town of Bastogne. Bahlau was now going to be part of two of the most famous military maneuvers of WWII: Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge.
Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe was named acting commander, and it was up to him to lead the division in trucks and trailers 107 miles to Bastogne. When the division arrived, the Germans were already on the outskirts of the city and McAuliffe ordered the 501st to launch a diversionary attack east of the town to district the Germans. It worked perfectly and in the confusion, the 101st drove the Germans from Bastogne and established firm defensive positions.
The fighting around Bastogne was intense as the Germans wanted it as badly as the Allies wanted to keep it. By December 20, the city was completely surrounded, and the 101st was completely cut off from the rest of the Allied Armies. The Germans launched several brutal attacks on Bastogne and managed to enter the city on several occasions. Each attack was driven back with some hard hand-to-hand fighting. The defenders of Bastogne were badly outnumbered, but held out with everything they had. Two days later the Germans offered to allow the 101st to surrender, but McAuliffe issued a short - and now famous reply - "NUTS."
Bahlau remembers how cold it was in Bastogne.
"We couldn't have fires except in the morning, and we had to live in little holes," Bahlau said. "I think the jump boots kept the blood flowing."
After days the 101st received vital air and artillery support, including several batches of air-dropped supplies. On December 26th, the US 4th Armored Division broke through the reinforced Bastogne. The division had driven over 100 miles to reach the city. More units from the 3rd Army began to arrive. Slowly the Germans around Bastogne were reduced and driven back. Over the next three weeks the German fought for every inch of ground, but were driven from Belgium. For their heroic defense of Bastogne, the 101st Airborne Division was awarded the Distinguished Unit Citation, the first ever to be awarded to an entire Division.
Following the siege of Bastogne, the 101st was ordered into the Ruhr area of Germany. The 101st became part of a blocking force that later became known as the "reduction of the Ruhr Pocket." By the end of April the entire German force had been eliminated, and the Allied forces had captured 325,000 prisoners. The final mission for the 101st had came at the end of April. Teaming with the 3rd Infantry Division, they assaulted Hitler's vacation retreat at Berchtesgaden. The 101st also captured several key members of the Nazi Regime who were later brought before the War Crimes Tribunal at the Hague.
During WWII the 101st Airborne Division spent 214 days in combat. The soldiers were awarded two Medals of Honor, 47 Distinguished Service Crosses, 516 Silver Stars, and 6,977 Bronze Stars. The division was responsible for capturing nearly 30,000 enemy soldiers. More than 2,000 Screaming Eagles were killed in action; 7,976 were wounded; 1,193 became Missing in Action, and 336 were taken prisoner.
Bahlau knew he was one of the lucky ones to survive Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge.
He had planned to re-enlist in the 101st, but they were de-activated after the war.
He returned to the Jackson area and married childhood sweetheart, Dorothy, three months after returning. He and Dorothy built an antique business, a restaurant, and an electrical maintenance company together, and a wild west amusement park in the Irish Hills area of lower Michigan.
From Jeff Steers, editor The Brooklyn Exponent: "Feel free to use the story Look Out Bahllllau! on your web site. The article was written for Fred because we know that he is proud of this heritage in the 101st Airborne."