The First Men In: US Paratroopers and the Fight to Save D-Day
June 2006 from HarperCollins
Within hours of landing in Normandy, the men of the 82nd Airborne Division accomplished their first mission when they seized the critical crossroads town of Ste. Mere Eglise. But as the sun rose on June 6, 1944, the airborne commanders realized that most of the nearly 14,000 paratroopers dropped on the extreme right flank of the Allied invasion area had missed their targets. The scattered troopers fought in small groups, cut off from one another by the dense Norman hedgerows and cleverly dug-in German defenders. The lightly armed paratroopers stood between the vulnerable landing beaches and repeated enemy counterattacks. They fought for no-name crossroads and isolated fields along the first few miles of the long road to Berlin. Their training, courage and leadership paid off; they purchased with their blood the critical hours the Allies needed to get ashore. Often outnumbered and frequently outgunned, the men of the 82nd accomplished every mission, held every piece of ground gained, and thus helped secure the success of the greatest amphibious invasion in history.
June 6, 1944
Captain Roy Creek had only seconds to look around after his parachute opened. In the distance, anti-aircraft fire sparked upwards at the fleet of aircraft droning over the peninsula, though none had hit his aircraft. Nearby, he could just see the mushroom shapes of other parachutes in the air around him. Below him was what looked like a meadow, flat and grassy, with no trees to grab his chute and, more importantly, no obvious sign of any German defenders. This was Creek's first combat and his first jump into enemy territory. So far, so good.
Then he hit the water.
He was immediately in over his head, the nearly hundred pounds of equipment strapped to his body pulling him down, the tangled swamp grasses grabbing his legs. His collapsing chute floated down on him like a shroud.
For Creek, who had grown up in arid New Mexico and had never learned to swim, this was a nightmare. The brackish water closed around him, his own warrior's gear pulled him down to into the cold darkness. He thrashed at the water, felt the surface with his hands; it was above his head, but not too far. The trick was to stay calm.
Fighting panic, he grabbed at the knife strapped to the outside of his right boot. Thank God it hadn't come loose in his flailing. He whipped it out, fighting against the tangled risers, the long thin lines connecting parachute to body harness and now spread over him like a net. He sawed desperately at the thick harness, the leg strap, then the belly band around his middle. In his frenzy he cut every strap he could find, including (he later learned) the straps holding his equipment: the mussette bag with his personal gear, his map case, his ammunition. His tommy gun, tied in behind his reserve, also went down in the dark. He was free of the weight, but still in danger of drowning.
He kicked and flailed and, by sheer luck, found some purchase in the mud and slimy grass, and he felt the bottom rise beneath him. Finally, his head cleared the water, and he sucked in cool air. Still terrified, he didn't stop fighting until he had pulled himself out and lay on a muddy bank, gasping for breath.
When he regained his wits, Creek realized he had narrowly escaped drowning in an area that was supposed to be dry.
Where did all this water come from? The drop zone of his unit, the 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment, part of the 82nd Airborne Division, was just west of the gentle—and narrow—Merderet River. In their map studies, the Merderet River looked more like a stream; an athletic young paratrooper could probably jump across it in most places. But Creek had hit the edge of a wide swamp, with water deeper than a man's head. Had they landed so far from their drop zone that he was in a lake that didn't even appear on their maps? Or had the American planners completely missed the fact that the river had flooded its banks?
Neither case looked good. If he was that far off the mark, he would have a difficult time figuring out where he was, gathering his men, and moving to their objective. If he was anywhere near the right place, but the planners had missed a large body of water right in the middle of their area of operations, what else might be wrong with the plan?
Best to think about that later. Focus on the immediate. An infantry captain in command of a company of nearly one hundred and fifty men should not be lying on the ground, lost, soaked and unarmed. It was an inauspicious start to his war.