1942 - 1945
by John O. Andersen

Darvin Lee

Darvin Lee volunteered for paratroop duty in 1942, because he thought he wouldn't have to walk as much as they do in the infantry. He'd heard stories about lots of walking in World War I. That wasn't for him. Also, he'd gotten hold of a brochure about the exciting new field of combat jumping. That was the clincher. He was going to become a paratrooper.

It was in training at Camp Toccoa, Georgia, that he discovered his gross miscalculation about the walking bit.

The regimen required three weekly 6 mile runs in under 50 minutes, up and down Mount Currahee (over 700 feet in elevation above the camp), a 25 mile march in under 8 hours wearing full equipment (up to 100 pounds each), and a 48 mile march in 18 hours.

And as if that wasn't enough, his unit, the 3rd Battalion of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the newly formed 101st Airborne Division, made a 136 mile march from Atlanta to Fort Benning, Georgia in record time.

So much for trying to avoid a lot of walking!

Darvin and his buddies quickly discovered that as paratroopers, they were expected to be among the most highly trained and physically conditioned troops in the entire army. The walks were only part of the story.

Add in the daily calisthenics, obstacle courses, log heaving, duck waddles, rope climbs, jumping from a 34 foot pulley-equipped tower, and then later making free falls from a 225 foot tower.

And of course, there was first-aid training, chemical warfare training, map-reading, orienteering at night, and crawling on their bellies with live machine gun fire overhead. The training regimen was grueling, designed to wash out the fainthearted. And it did just that.

A fully trained and physically conditioned paratrooper was expected to perform his mission under extreme conditions of hunger, fatigue, and mental stress. No doubt, those who survived the program could be excused for believing they were ready for anything.

At 5'9" and weighing only around 155 pounds, Darvin developed the strength and stamina to carry well over an additional 100 pounds of equipment. This included a parachute, reserve chute, 3 days of K-Rations, a mess kit, small T-handle shovel, 4 grenades, an M-1 rifle, an anti-tank mine, 250 rounds of machine gun ammo, a trench knife strapped to his leg, change of underwear and socks, a gas mask, several 8 round clips of rifle ammo, and a raincoat.

Not surprisingly, "dressing up," required the help of others, and Darvin remembers being so weighed down he nearly had to crawl into the Douglas C-47 transport plane.

Speaking of planes, the first time he ever flew in one was also the first time he ever jumped. Talk about a baptism by fire! This was the case for many of the men at that time.

After basic training at Camp Toccoa, Darvin learned to jump out of airplanes at Fort Benning, Georgia, and participated in a number of field exercises at various locations in neighboring states. In fact, his unit trained for an entire year before shipping over to England.

Darvin says paratroopers were not trained in the stereotypical way Hollywood portrays boot camp with the drill sergeant mercilessly barking orders at the recruits. Rather, he remembers how he and his buddies were encouraged to think for themselves, to be individualists to a significant extent, while at the same time maintaining a high degree of camaraderie.

Such skills were vital given the highly unpredictable, and fast-changing situations which paratroopers face. Each man had a specific, often unique mission. Not only did he need to accomplish that, he also needed the flexibility of mind to adjust quickly, and even take over another's duties if necessary.

In September 1943, after a couple of weeks staging at Camp Shanks, on the Hudson River 30 miles upriver from New York City, the regiment departed aboard the Cunard Line transport ship, the SS Samaria bound for Liverpool, England.

From Liverpool, they boarded trains for their designated camp locations in or near villages and cities of Southern England's Wiltshire and Berkshire (approximately 50 miles west of London). Darvin's unit, the 3rd Battalion went to Ramsbury in Wiltshire.

For the next 10 months, his unit trained 6 days a week. This included practice jumps, night operations, street-fighting instruction, marches of up to 25 miles while wearing complete field equipment, familiarization with German weapons, foxhole digging, and simulated attacks of villages. As a member of the Headquarters Company, Light Machine Gun Platoon, Darvin received specialized training in machine gun maintenance, operation, and tactics.

In the Spring of 1944, Darvin's unit took part in large-scale D-Day dress-rehearsal exercises (using live ammunition) along the southern coasts of Devon and Cornwall.

Even though a war was on, the men did get some time off. Darvin preferred low key diversions. Someone told him about the quiet and picturesque town of Marlborough, 7 miles southwest of Ramsbury. So, on his days off, he got in the habit of walking there in the morning, finding a quiet corner of the library, and reading. In the late afternoon, he would head back to Ramsbury.

During one his library visits, he met a volunteer librarian who'd been evacuated from London. She took a liking to him, and eventually introduced him to her daughter Molly, a physical therapist in London.

At the end of May 1944, Darvin and his unit took a train from Hungerford to Honiton in Devon. From there they boarded trucks for the nearby Upottery Airfield, their departure point for Normandy.

Late in the evening of June 5th, the C-47s took off from Upottery, flying the paratroopers south on a course toward the Channel Islands (Jersey and Guernsey). As they approached them, they changed course to the southeast headed for the Cherbourg Peninsula.

At 1:40 a.m. Darvin jumped into "Dropzone D" which was approximately 2 miles directly north of the town of Carentan, and four miles southwest of the English Channel between Utah and Omaha Beaches. The 101st Airborne, to which Darvin belonged, was the first American troops to jump. An hour later, the men of the 82nd Airborne made their jump. In total, there were over 13,000 paratroopers who dropped into Normandy in the early hours of June 6th.

Darvin remembers the jump well. He landed in a field very close to trees. First, he quickly severed the chute using his jump knife. Then he reached for a grenade and placed it on the ground next to him. This was his defense while he assembled his M-1 rifle.

After that was done, he took a bearing, and determined he needed to go back through a wooded area to reach the designated assembly area. He had been the second to last man out of the plane.

Before he got very far, however, he heard rustling nearby. He saw the silhouette of a soldier's helmet, which appeared to be American. He "challenged" him with the secret code all of the paratroopers knew, but the man didn't answer. Darvin wasn't sure whether or not he was a German. After some delay, the man identified himself as an American.

So the two joined up together. Soon they met some 10 other American soldiers led by an officer. They weren't from Darvin's battalion. So, he decided instead of following them, he would continue looking for his unit's assembly area. Within an hour or so, he found it.

The 3rd Battalion's immediate objective was to capture two wooden bridges over the River Douve near the village of Brevands. Then they would assume positions in the higher ground on the opposite side. The idea was to clear the way for the tens of thousands of advancing seaborne troops who would be establishing a beachhead in the morning.

When Darvin, 5 officers and some 28 other men arrived at one of the bridges, they discovered the Germans were already dug in on the opposite bank firing mortar shells at them. So, with no other option, they took up less desirable defensive positions on the west bank of the river. From those positions, they would fight for the next three days.

After daylight, a German mortar shell exploded close to Darvin. Five or six pieces of shrapnel, altogether the size of a pencil eraser, lodged themselves in his left shoulder. This wasn't considered a serious wound; just a little bleeding. So he fought on.

One of the problems the men faced was the inability of communicating with headquarters about their situation. They had no field radios. Presumably, aerial reconnaissance information led headquarters to assume the 3rd Battalion had suffered heavy losses during the jump, and had thus failed in their mission to secure the bridges. This was only partially correct. They were dug in on one shore of the river, and fighting the Germans on the other.

Not knowing this, and assuming the bridges were in German hands, the American higher headquarters sent P-47 Thunderbolts to strafe the area and destroy the bridges.

Unfortunately, and despite the fact that Darvin's unit displayed the orange cloth panels which identified them as Americans, the P-47 pilots still strafed them.

One of the bombs designated for the bridge missed and landed just 10 yards from Darvin's foxhole. It shook the ground mightily. Later, a bomb did hit the bridge, and Darvin recalls watching the timbers flying in all directions.

By June 8th, he and the others dug into the bank of the Douve, were relieved by men of the glider infantry. So Darvin's unit withdrew and found rest for two days in a farmhouse.

On the 13th of June, Darvin was in combat again in a counterattack against the Germans. He opened fire against a German tank some several hundred yards away. The German tank responded with two exploding shells. The second shell hit so close that it killed the guy next to him, and knocked Darvin over. He got up, felt his head throbbing, and noticed blood on both hands. He thought he'd been shot through the head and was going to die.

As it turns out, shrapnel had entered near the corner of his left eye, scraped a grove into his skull, and exited behind the ear; a serious, but not life threatening wound.

He was able to get out of the combat area under his own steam, and make his way to a field hospital where, because of the large number of casualties, he had to wait 12 hours before getting operated on.

Thus ended his fighting in Normandy. He was sent back to England where he spent a few weeks in a hospital to recover from his wounds.

One day, at the end of that period, an officer visited the hospital to round up the men like Darvin who were ready to return to combat. The officer marched them to the train station. They would be shipped off to a replacement center where they could be assigned to any unit that needed them.

Darvin didn't like this idea at all. He had trained long and hard as a paratrooper, and expected to stay with his unit throughout the war.

So, he marched with the officer and about a dozen other men to the train station. But when they entered the station, Darvin quietly turned around and walked out the door, without being noticed, and hitched a ride back to camp.

Later, he was called before the post commander to explain his actions. The officer didn't know what to do with him. Darvin suggested that because his unit had been promised some leave after Normandy, he might as well just start his now!

Unsure of how to handle the case, the officer sent him back to Ramsbury. For a short time, Darvin enjoyed using consecutive 8 hour passes to London where he would go to date Molly. During that time they got engaged, and set a wedding date for the 27th of September.

In the meantime, his unit returned from Normandy, and prepared for the next assignment.

It turned out to be Operation Market Garden, the liberation of Holland. On September 17, 1944, with over 14,000 paratroopers, it would go down in history as the largest scale combat jump ever.

Of course, that put Darvin and Molly's wedding plans on the indefinite backburner. They would have to try again later. But such is life when a war's on.


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These pages are maintained by veterans of the 506th Infantry Regiment
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This page updated 9/17/2001