It was the cold misty day of September 17, 1944, when, amid the roar of C-47s, the 101st Airborne Division took off on its first mission as part of the First Allied Airborne Army -- the Airborne Invasion of Holland. At thirteen hundred hours the Eagle paratroopers, some 6800 of them, began to pour from flak-scarred planes and drop onto the flat Dutch fields.
Veterans of Normandy's confusion were surprised by this Holland jump. Units landed in formation, close to the predesignated drop zones, and companies were organized into small tightly controlled outfits. Fighters of the Dutch underground, who had never stopped hating and killing the Nazis during Holland's dark years, came forward to aid their liberators. Kraut soldiers suddenly recalled important engagements in the more immediate vicinity of the Fatherland and hurried homeward. But if the jump was easy, things soon changed.
The 501st Parachute Infantry dropped near Veghel and seized that town without meeting organized resistance; the 502nd and the 506th landed near Eindhoven. <<H>> Company, 502nd, sent to secure the highway bridge across the Wilhelmina Canal near Best, ran into some of the bloodiest fighting of the entire war there. Soon the whole 2nd and 3rd Bns where there, fighting to take the bridge away from the determined Nazis. It was there that Lieutenant Colonel Robert Cole, winner of the 101st's Congressional Medal of Honor for leading a bayonet charge on Carentan's approaches, fell with a sniper's bullet in his brain.
There too, Pfc. Joe E. Mann performed the heroic deeds that ended with his death and won for him the Division's only other Congressional Medal. As <<H>> Company advanced the troopers came under direct fire from 88's on the opposite side of the canal. Mann, wounded four times as he crept forward, managed to knock out one of these guns with his bazooka. Evacuated to the aid station, he insisted on returning to his platoon. Through the long night he took his turn on guard. When at dawn the Krauts attacked, he fought back, firing his rifle braced against his good arm. Finally a potato masher fell into the trench. Mann threw himself on it and died saving his buddies.
While the <<Deuce>> was having its troubles with the Best bridge, the 506th was blasting its way into Eindhoven, first large Dutch city freed from the Nazis. On D plus 1 the 506th cleared the town and established contact with British troops in that area. Then, 24 hours after the drop, the 101st was able to report, <<All initial missions accomplished>>.
Now began the long hard fight to hold open the highway from Zon to Eindhoven, vital supply line for the British Second Army. Eagle infantrymen rode British tanks as they shuttled up and down the vital corridor to meet the German attacks. At times Jerry succeeded in cutting <<Hell's Highway>>, as its defenders dubbed it, but the airborne men counter-attacked and re-opened the road.
Fifteen days after the invasion the Division began to move into the area between the Nederijn and Waal Rivers with Nijmegen on the south, Arnhem on the north. Here on the <<Island>> the Germans fought desperately to recoup their losses.
It was October. The <<Island>> was cold and muddy. Mud clutched at boots, stuck to clothing, worked its way into GI chow. Cold water seeped up in the foxholes overnight faster than GI ingenuity could cope with it. Strange British rations settled unhappily into stomachs adjusted to the American ways of living. German artillery punctuated the nights and days until it seemed to each rifleman that his particular foxhole was the specific target for half the Kraut Army.
But when the German 957th Regiment attacked Eagle positions it found airborne men ready and willing. The savage assault of the confident Nazis was met with deadly fire; when the Krauts fell back the 957th had ceased to exist as a fighting unit. Next, the 363rd Division challenged the 101st defenses. Opheusden, defended by the 327th Glider Inf and the 506th Pcht Inf, was the focal point of the struggle. Time after time the town fell to German assault only to be retaken by counter-attacking Eagle fighters. Retreating or assaulting, skillful skyfighters inflicted huge losses on the enemy. Ten days of this savage fighting spelled the end for the 363rd.
Patrolling was the principal duty of the 101st Airborne after the destruction of the 363rd. A six man patrol led by Captain Hugo Sims, 501st S-2, was the highlight of this patrol work. Crossing the Rhine at night by boat, the patrol set up an outpost in enemy territory, observed traffic during a long day and finally, that night, escaped with their prisoners to the American lines.
Finally on November 28 the 101st was relieved after more than 70 days in the line. The Eagle Division's second combat mission was completed.