- The Washington Times - Friday, June 5, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

BOOK REVIEW:

TONIGHT WE DIE AS MEN: THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE THIRD BATTALION 506 PARACHUTE INFANTRY REGIMENT FROM TOCCOA TO D-DAY

By Ian Gardner and Roger Day

Foreword by Ed Shames

Osprey, $27.95, 344 pages

Reviewed by James C. Roberts

Saturday marks the 65th anniversary of Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of Normandy, perhaps the most massive military operation ever mounted in history. Most of the veterans of this great assault are gone, felled by Abraham Lincoln’s “silent artillery of time,” but a number remain.

British authors Ian Gardner and Roger Day have set out to tell the story of the 3rd Battalion of the famed 101st Airborne Division’s 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment. The objective of the battalion was to capture and secure two wooden bridges built by the Germans over the Douve River east of Carentan, as access to what became known as Utah Beach. Despite the successful achievement of this important objective by the 3rd Battalion, accomplished with heavy losses, the authors found that little had been written about the battalion. In fact, they call the 3rd a “forgotten battalion,” as opposed to the 2nd Battalion of “Band of Brothers” fame.

The authors resolved to tell the story of the battalion, endeavoring to interview all of the surviving members. No fewer than 10 of them died during the four years the authors pursued their research, but they succeeded in interviewing more than three dozen survivors, including Col. Ed Shames. At the time of the invasion, Col. Shames was the operations sergeant for the 506th Regiment, which meant he had in his custody the regiment’s invasion plans for Normandy.

Col. Shames was the first noncommissioned officer of the 506th to receive a battlefield commission. He was later transferred to E (“Easy”) Company in the regiment’s 2nd Battalion.

Col. Shames played a crucial role in E Company’s battlefield success and was interviewed for 17 hours by historian Stephen E. Ambrose as he was researching “Band of Brothers.” He had strong objections to Mr. Ambrose’s account of the 506th actions, however, and Mr. Ambrose, angry about challenges to his veracity, essentially wrote Col. Shames out of his book - and thus the following film series. It is good to see Col. Shames receive his due in this book, for which he wrote the foreword.

The book is meticulously researched, and the authors have uncovered much new information and corrected some misconceptions, such as the location of the two bridges. The book begins with the creation of the 101st airborne Division and recounts the intensive training the division volunteers received at Camp Toccoa, Ga., with its famous Currahee Mountain, whose slopes the recruits came to know all too well in endless runs to the summit and back.

The 101st Paratroopers came to be known as the “Screaming Eagles,” and the battle cry became “Currahee.” Following months of rigorous training that eliminated more than 50 percent of the volunteers, the 506th shipped out to New York City. There they embarked on a converted British ocean liner, packed in like sardines for transport across the Atlantic to England.

Billeted in the village of Ramsbury, about 70 miles west of London, the 506th undertook another intensive round of training, preparing for their drop into France on D-Day.

On May 26, an advance party (including Col. Shames, who was a staff sergeant at the time) departed Ramsbury for Exeter Airfield 120 miles away to prepare for the arrival of the 506th. Upon the arrival of the troops, the airfield was put in lockdown with no one permitted to leave. Supreme Allied Command then sent in a briefing team with top-secret maps of the invasion area. As the operations sergeant, Col. Shames was the only enlisted man permitted to see them.

In the late-night hours of June 5, the Screaming Eagles of the 506th, weighed down with more than 100 pounds of equipment each, loaded onto 48 planes (“Sticks”) and flew across the English Channel and across the Normandy Peninsula toward drop zone D.

The pilots encountered intermittent heavy cloud cover, and many missed the drop zone by a wide margin. The paratroopers descended through intense anti-aircraft fire and many were killed in middrop. The regiment’s commanding officer, Col. Robert Wolverton, and his executive officer got hung up in trees and were shot by the Germans, never reaching the ground.

Those who did make it safely to the ground were widely dispersed and often disoriented. Col. Shames landed in the town of Carentan, which he had noted on his map as a place to be avoided at all costs because a large German force was quartered there.

Following a hair-raising series of maneuvers, Col. Shames managed to avoid being killed or captured by the Germans and was able to cross over the River Douve and link up with other paratroopers. As the designated map carrier, Col. Shames was able to guide them to their objective of the foot bridge. Despite the chaos of the drops, the widely scattered 506th survivors organized themselves and secured their objective, the two bridges.

A week of heavy fighting ensued as the Germans and Americans attacked and counterattacked. On June 13, the reconstituted remnants of the three 506th Battalions fought the Germans in what became known as the “Battle of Bloody Gulch.” Col. Shames was dispatched on a hazardous scouting mission and managed to make it back to regimental headquarters, where he reported that the 2nd Battalion’s flank was exposed to superior German forces. The 3rd battalion, held in reserve, was ordered into action; the tide was turned and the 506th prevailed. For his actions that day and the preceding week, Col. Shames received his battlefield commission.

The Battle of Normandy was a major, though costly, success for the 506th, but it was hardly the end of combat for the unit - far from it. The 506th participated in the ill-fated Market Garden operation in the Netherlands and were thrown, poorly equipped and poorly clothed, into the Battle of the Bulge, where they helped hold the line against overwhelming odds in Bastogne.

The 506th were then sent plunging into the heart of southern Germany, and they captured Adolf Hitler’s retreat at Berchtesgaden, where, as one of them put it, “I sat on Hitler’s bed and drank Hitler’s cognac.” Then they moved through the spectacular Alpine scenery of Austria in the liberation of that country. Then, having defeated Nazism and saved the Free World, they went home to take up normal lives. Despite all they had done and all they had seen, many had not yet turned 20.

James C. Roberts is president of the American Veterans Center and Radio America.

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