By May 1942 the United States Army was expanding rapidly. Thousands of men were drafted or volunteered to serve in each branch of the U.S. Army or U.S. Navy. One of the new divisions that were activated each month was the 82nd ‘All American’ Infantry Division of Major General Omar N. Bradley in Camp Claiborne, Louisiana.
The Division had fought in France during the First World War, led by Brigadier General William P. Burnham and consisted of the 325th, 326th and 328th Infantry Regiments. The nickname ‘All American’ the division had earned during that time, as the Officers and Enlisted Men came from all over the United States.
Sergeant Alvin C. York distinguished himself in the ferocious battles in the trenches and received the Medal of Honor, the first that would be earned by men of the division. In the Thirties a Hollywood movie was made about Sergeant York and so the legend of the in the meantime deactivated division was kept alive.
A few months after the Japanese attack on the naval base at Pearl Harbor, in April 1942, the 82nd “All American” Infantry Division had been reactivated at Camp Claiborne, Louisiana, and Brigadier General Omar N. Bradley was appointed commander-in-chief. Bradley was soon promoted to Major General. His division comprised the 325th, 326th and 327th Infantry Regiments and several smaller supporting units.
In the meantime experiments had been carried out during the past two years with a new type of warfare: the airborne troops. Several parachute battalions were raised and trained. Major General Leslie McNair, commanding the Army Ground Forces, was a great supporter of this new branch within the U.S. Army and ordered the activation of a number of parachute infantry regiments out of the existing four parachute battalions.
The 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment was activated on May 1, 1942, at Fort Benning, Georgia. First regimental commander was Lieutenant Colonel Theodore L. Dunn, who was soon promoted to Colonel. The officers and men of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment came directly from the Parachute School in Fort Benning, after they had qualified themselves as paratroopers.
Just like in the First World War, the 82nd was once again made up of officers and men who came from all over the United States: from California, New York, the rural areas of Montana and Iowa, South Carolina and Pennsylvania. They all had different backgrounds: farmers, lawyers, coal miners, cowboys, teachers, high school students and mountain men. Some had served in the National Guard or the Reserves. Others had no military experience at all when they enlisted.
So were the men of Company A, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment. They were citizen soldiers and all had one thing in common, no matter where they came from. Each of them had volunteered for the paratroopers and had qualified as a paratrooper at the Parachute School in Fort Benning. They had not ‘washed out’ when the men were separated from the boys at the jump training.
The training at Lawson Field in Fort Benning to become a paratrooper was very tough. A lot of time was spent to physical training, lectures on map and compass reading, demolitions, codes, infantry tactics, signalling and unarmed combat. The candidates also learned how to pack their own parachute. Walking in the ‘Frying pan’ area was strictly prohibited. Everywhere they went, they had to ‘double time’.
The whole training program at Fort Benning was divided in four parts. In the ‘A’ stage, which lasted three weeks, the ‘men were separated from the boys’. The candidate-paratroopers learned to march as a group, ran nine miles every morning before breakfast, learned how to fold and pack their parachutes at the packing sheds, had callisthenics in the field, starting with side-straddle hops and going the full course to push-ups and other exercises. Push-ups were the regular punishment at Fort Benning when men reacted to slow or did something wrong in the view of the instructors.
At noontime the men had chow again which tasted worse than the food they got at breakfast. In the afternoon more running and push-ups followed. Evening chow was again disappointing and remained so even after the paratroopers had joined the 82nd or 101st Airborne Division, but some men did not complain about the unrecognizable hash. Private First Class Fred J. Baldino recalled that one of the officers in A Company was always content with the evening chow: “Lieutenant Wall was in the 1st Platoon. During the training in the United States he was noted for no matter what kind of a meal he ate, he always used to say, “Might fine chow”. I never forgot that. Lieutenant Wall was a fine officer and we never had any complaints about him.”
‘A’ stage was followed by ‘B’ stage. Now the men who had completed the first gruelling three weeks jumped in the afternoons from C-47 mock up fuselages that were four feet above the ground. They also descended from a 35-feet tower in a parachute harness that was suspended from a steel cable. This stage only lasted one week, just like the other two stages that followed. In this stage again a number of men were sent out of the paratroops.
‘C’ stage became more serious. Now they made free and controlled jumps from one of the three giant 250-foot towers. They started to experience the ‘free fall’ while a wind machine taught them how to control and collapse the canopies of their parachutes.
The last week at Fort Benning was ‘D’ stage. Each of candidates had to make five jumps including one night jump out of a C-47 ‘Dakota’ transport plane on an altitude of 1500 feet above the ground. They jumped in sticks of 12 men. Most of them had never been in an airplane before.
When the plane reached the assigned spot where the jump would be made, the red light at the right side of the removed cargo door went on. The jumpmaster in the airplane, usually an instructor, gave the command “Stand up and hook up!”
After each man had attached the static line, a line attached to the backpack cover of his main chute to the anchor line that run along the top of the fuselage to the door, the instructor would give the order to check their own equipment for the last time to make sure that everything was tied up properly.
As soon as the man in the back of the plane was ready he would yell, “Number Twelve OK” and tap the man in front of him on his shoulder. If he were ready as well he would call, “Number Eleven OK” and tap the man in front of him. And so on. It just took about 45 seconds before the man that was the closest to the door would say, “Number One OK”.
Then the instructor would shout, “Stand in the door”. They would shuffle to the door and the first man would step in the open door, placing his left foot forward and his hands on the outer edge of the door. As the green light, below the red light, would go on the paratroopers would leap out of the door, the static line pulled the back cover off his main chute and the prop blasted inflated the chute and the chute would open with a terrific shock. Drifting to the ground they would look around and shout encouragements to each other.
After jumping five times the paratroopers received the desired silver parachute wings pinned on the left pocket of their jackets. It was one of the proudest moments in the life of a paratrooper. They could ‘blouse’ their trousers in their brown leather jump boots and wore the patch of the Airborne Command on their left shoulder, until they joined one of the parachute regiments.
As the officers and men arrived at the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment they finally felt they were home. During the jump training at Fort Benning they had made friends, but they were still more a less lonely as the men who graduated in the jump school classes were assigned to various regiments.
It was in Fort Benning that the brotherhood of A Company was created. Here each of the 140 enlisted men and officers had qualified as a paratrooper. Some of the enlisted men who were assigned to A Company already knew each other from basic training or from jump training.
First commanding officer was the tall Captain William R. Beall, who came from Maryland. Like Major Reuben H. “Rube” Tucker of Ansonia, Connecticut, Captain Beall had served in the paratroops before he joined the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment. He and Tucker had been members of the original cadre of the 1st Battalion of the regiment when they were activated on May 1st, 1942.
First Lieutenant Warren R. Williams Jr. of Sanford, North Carolina was the company executive officer. He had graduated from West Point in 1938 and that was probably one of the reasons that he would be promoted to another job in the regiment. The other five officers were 1st Lieutenant Robert Condon, 1st Lieutenant John S. Lekson (born on April 14, 1917), 1st Lieutenant Fordyce Gorham from Coudersport, Pennsylvania (born on November 10, 1917), 2nd Lieutenant James E. Dunn of New York, New Jersey, 2nd Lieutenant M. Duvall and 2nd Lieutenant James H. Goethe of Jacksonville, Florida. Michael F. Curran was the first sergeant of A Company.
The 1st Platoon was led by Lieutenant Goethe with Lieutenant Duvall as his assistant platoon leader. Staff sergeant Warren F. Leary was the platoon sergeant and the squad leaders were sergeants William C. Hauser, George “Geo” Siegmann and the short but tough Thomas J. McCarthy, a former bricklayer of Worcester, Massachusetts. The 2nd Platoon was led by Lieutenant John Lekson with Lieutenant Condon as second in command and Staff Sergeant Edwin L. Rouse of Georgia as platoon sergeant. The 3rd Platoon was commanded by Lieutenants Gorham and Dunn. Sergeant Burnham R. Garritson was one of the three squad leaders in the platoon. Platoon sergeant was the able Staff Sergeant Bernard E. Karnap of Portsmouth, Ohio.
On 26 June 1942 Brigadier General Matthew B. Ridgway, the Assistant Division Commander, took over from Major General Bradley. Two months later the 82nd Infantry Division was converted into an airborne division and had to transfer a large number of units and men to provide the cadre for a newly activated airborne division, the 101st. The 325th and 326th Glider Infantry Regiments, the 319th and 320th Glider Field Artillery Battalions, the 307th Airborne Engineer Battalion and the 307th Airborne Medical Battalion were among the units that were not reassigned.
In September 1942 Major Reuben H. Tucker had been transferred by Colonel Dunn from the 1st Battalion to the Regimental staff as executive officer and was replaced as CO of the 1st Battalion by Major Warren R. Williams of A Company, who had made two rapid promotions in just four months time. Williams’s battalion executive officer became Captain G.W. Rice. The S-1 (personnel) officer was 2nd Lieutenant S.E. Powers, while 1st Lieutenant William E. Harrison presided over both the S-2 (intelligence) and S-3 (operations) functions. First Lieutenant William W. Magrath of B Company became the new executive officer of A Company.
To replace the 327th Glider Infantry Regiment and other large units that had been taken away, new units were added to the 82nd Airborne Division. The 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment was the first parachute infantry regiment to become an integral part of the division.
The division was transferred from Camp Claiborne to Fort Bragg in North Carolina on October 1, 1942 and further training continued. Fort Bragg was to become the home base of the division.
Private First Class Fred James Baldino was one of the first members of A Company. Born on February 25th, 1922, he grew up in Ashland, Schuykill Country in Pennsylvania. His father Frank Joseph Baldino worked as a steam engineer for a coal company and had emigrated as a young boy from Italy. Fred had several other brothers and sisters. The oldest two could speak Italian fluently, but after some years his parents decided that their children should learn English language first, as they would use it more.
Fred grew up during the Depression and the economy in central Pennsylvania was scarce. Therefore many men in the area worked as a bootleg miner on the grounds of a coal company. Bootleg mining was illegal, but many young men had to do this in order to support their families. Fred was one of them and recalled of the mining:
“As you dug deeper, the coal got harder and harder until you hit the real pay dirt: the hard coal. All the while you were digging down you would be shoring up the shaft with timbers as you went down, further. You would then bring a car over with a hoist and bring your days work up and go out and sell it. This kept the coal region boys alive for a very long time. If the coal companies found the bootleg mines, they would destroy them. This was done from around 1937-1942 and kept the town alive and the men for about 50 miles around them with money to feed their families.”
One of Fred’s best buddies, John Pechanwski, decided to join the army to earn a little bit more. Fred decided to join as well and they were assigned to the 55th Material Squadron of the 41st Army Air Corps Group:
“I joined the Army before Pearl Harbor, which was on May 10th, 1941, or near there. I was only nineteen and at that time they were not drafting people until they were 21, but my good friend was 21 and about to be drafted and so we both went and volunteered. We were sent to the ground crew of the Air Corps, being as I could type, I soon made it to sergeant and was issuing tools out to the airplane mechanics.
After Pearl Harbor, as we sat in the Post Exchange one day drinking Beer, with about 6 friends, one of our group said: “You know, we won't get to kill any Germans in the ground crew of the Air Corps.” So he said: “Why don't we join the Paratroops?” And so all of us went over to our Commanding Officer [Lieutenant Ross] and told him we wanted to join the Paratroops. He said: “You are crazy, but there is nothing I can do about it.” That is how I joined the Paratroops.”
It took several weeks before Fred and the other five men received their passes to travel to Fort Benning in Georgia. There they would receive their jump training:
“About September 1942 I was sent over to Fort Benning Georgia to take the paratrooper training course. On my way over to Fort Benning from Tallahassee, I stopped at a military camp that my brother Tony was training at.
When I went into the post and all the guys saw and found out that I gave up sergeant stripes to go to private, just to join the paratroops, they thought I was crazy. Tony and all the guys were going through basic training at the time.
The Parachute School training was very hard to get through. We went through a lot of physical training: running, jumping, rope climbing, training how to fold a parachute, test jumping out of a dummy airplane, mock towers, etc. A good percent of the men, probably 20 %, did not pass the training tests. We had to make five jumps to qualify to be a trooper.
On our first jump I and many of us were so determined and anxious to make that first jump, that we didn’t mind it so much as to fear. The second jump I hardly remember, but when it came to the third jump and we realized what we were doing, many of us had a lot of fear. But still we persisted and did our third jump.
After the third jump we settled down and didn’t mind the other jumps. I speak for my self as I don’t know exactly how the others felt. I came out of Jump School class number 38 at Fort Benning and received the coveted paratrooper wings. I was then assigned to the 504th and became attached to Company A.”
Private First Class Albert B. Clark from Stockton, California served also in the 2nd Platoon of A Company. He was nicknamed “ABC” after his initials or was simply known as “the cameraman”, as he always walked around with his camera. Born on March 30th, 1920, Bert was two years older than Fred Baldino and served in the 3rd (Mortar) Squad, commanded by Sergeant Fred Lanning:
“I joined the Army in San Francisco the end of April, 1942 and took three months basic training at Camp Roberts, California. The latter part of October or the first part of November 1942, I was sent to Fort Bragg, North Carolina and assigned to the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment. Then assigned to Company A, Second Platoon. That is where I was until wounded in the Market Garden operation. Lekson was our platoon leader before we left the States. He was a first lieutenant. He then went up to battalion headquarters.
We spent the winter in extensive training and weapons familiarization. I was assigned to the 60mm Mortar Squad and that was my carrier. They said that it didn’t snow there but I have pictures of us on the range in 3 to 4 inches of snow. We made several jumps there, both night and day. We left there in March.”
Private First Class Mitchell E. Rech of Marion, Ohio enlisted in the U.S. Army on June 2nd, 1942. He received his basis training in Camp Croft, South Carolina. After completing training, he was shipped to Jump School at Fort Benning, Georgia. Upon being awarded his wings, Rech was sent to Fort Bragg to become a member of the 1st Platoon in A Company. He married his hometown sweetheart, Marguerite Brunson, in Dillon, South Carolina on April 10, 1943.
While A Company was stationed at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, Colonel Dunn was succeeded by Lieutenant Colonel Reuben H. Tucker on December 1, 1942. Major General Ridgway relieved him from his command as he thought Dunn was unable to secure results. Tucker had served as a captain in the 504th Parachute Infantry Battalion and when the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment was activated he had been appointed as commanding officer in the 1st Battalion before he became the executive regimental commander. He was well liked among his men.
Command changes also took place in A Company, as the regiment was built up. Captain Julian A. Cook, the executive officer of the 3rd Battalion, was transferred to Regimental Headquarters by Lieutenant Colonel Tucker. Lieutenant Colonel Leslie G. Freeman of the 3rd Battalion was made executive officer at Regiment, which meant that the 3rd Battalion was now without senior officers.
Tucker appointed his S-3 officer, Major Charles W. Kouns, as the new battalion commander of the 3rd Battalion. He also recalled Captain William Beall, who was still commanding A Company and had been part of his 1st Battalion cadre when the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment had been activated in May.
Beall was still a company commander which wasn’t fair, as junior officers like Warren Williams had already been promoted several times. Besides, Beall was a good officer and Tucker knew that. He therefore promoted Beall and transferred him to the 3rd Battalion as battalion executive officer. To replace Beall, Tucker chose the 1st Battalion’s S-3 officer, 1st Lieutenant Willard E. Harrison of San Diego, California. Harrison was promoted to captain.
Second Lieutenant Fordyce Gorham was promoted to first lieutenant and became the Regimental S-2 officer, as Captain William Colville was assigned to the 2nd Battalion. Lieutenant John Lekson received a promotion as well and replaced Captain Harrison as S-3 officer in the 1st Battalion staff. Second Lieutenant James Dunn was promoted to first lieutenant and transferred to C Company.
New officers came in to replace Dunn, Gorham and Lekson. The assistant platoon leader of the 2nd Platoon, 2nd Lieutenant M. Duvall, was made 1st lieutenant and platoon leader of the 2nd Platoon. He was replaced in the 1st Platoon by 2nd Lieutenant Ned E. Wall from Parsons, Kansas. Lieutenant Wall was born on March 16th, 1919 and had graduated as a major in education from Washburn University in Topeka. In June 1941 he was drafted and attended the OCS in Fort Benning.
After he had volunteered for the paratroopers, Lieutenant Wall had been assigned to the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment in Headquarters Company. He had been with that company for some months, before he was transferred to A Company.
First Lieutenant John M. Randles of McKinney, Texas was assigned to the 3rd Platoon as the new platoon leader. Born on June 10, 1919, he had graduated of Texas A & M in the late 1930’s. First Sergeant Curran was replaced by Staff Sergeant Edwin Rouse of the 2nd Platoon. Rouse was succeeded by Sergeant Bertram J. Bishop. Lieutenants Condon, Duvall and Goethe were the original company officers that would stay with the company when they were sent across the Atlantic Ocean.
The Table of Organization of the paratroops was changed before the company went overseas. Originally there had been 8 officers and 140 other ranks in a parachute company. This was now changed into 8 officers and 138 enlisted men. The entire division started preparing themselves in the first months of 1943 to go overseas.
Captain Harrison and his executive officer, a 1st lieutenant, served in the company Headquarters along with 27 other ranks. Each of the three platoons in the company was made up of two officers and 37 other men. They were divided into Platoon Headquarters, one mortar squad and three rifle squads. The rifle squads were 12 men large and the mortar squad numbered 6 men. The Platoon Headquarters consisted of a first and a second lieutenant, intended to reduce the risk of a leaderless platoon. They were aided by a platoon sergeant, a medic and three messengers, one of who operated the SCR-300 radio.
The platoons in every rifle company of the 504th Parachute Infantry were numbered 1, 2 and 3. The squads in each platoon were also numbered 1, 2 and 3. The 3rd Squad always included a 60mm mortar and there was a Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) in both rifle squads. A sergeant and a corporal were in charge of a squad, while a staff sergeant served as a platoon sergeant or as a supply sergeant or communications sergeant at company headquarters.
A Company was part of the 1st Battalion, which consisted of four companies: A, B, C and HQ Company. The battalion numbered around 600 men. The 2nd and 3rd Battalion in the 504th were also made up of three rifle companies and a HQ Company. HQ Company did not only comprise a Mortar Platoon, equipped with 81mm mortars and a Machinegun Platoon to fire with .50 caliber machineguns to support the rifle companies. The company also supplied scouts and German or Italian speaking troopers for patrol and interrogation.
One of these scouts was Private First Class Theodore H. Bachenheimer of Hollywood, California. He was born in Germany as a son of a Jewish father and had emigrated with his parents and brother to the States in 1934. Bachenheimer taught the men of A Company some German sentences like “Kommen Sie hier” (“Come here”) and “Machen sie fort” (“Get moving, go on”). Private First Class Fred Baldino of the 2nd Platoon recalled of Ted Bachenheimer at Fort Bragg:
“It was there at Fort Bragg that I first met Ted Bachenheimer. He was teaching an intelligence section that I was assigned to. Ted had in his possession a German Army manual and was teaching us the methods of the German Army. He was assigned to Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion.”
On April 20, 1943 the 82nd Airborne Division left Fort Bragg and moved by trains to Camp Shanks in New Jersey. Camp Shanks was the last stop for all the U.S. Army units that were shipped to Europe or the Mediterranean. The AA-patches, resembling the divisions nickname ‘All American’, silver jump wings and jump boots were hidden and the men wore other boots instead to give German and Italian spies no idea to which outfit they belonged.
In Camp Shanks the last letters to their family at home were written before they would depart from the port of New York, as the men knew that the letters that they would write on board of the ship would arrive after a long time.
After a few days the men of A Company were shuttled by ferryboats to Staten Island, New York. Here they would board the troopship that would take them to Casablanca, Morocco. The greatest adventure in their life was soon to begin.