Ray R. Hess
F Company, 517 PRCT
Valley Forge Military Academy to Camp Toccoa
I graduated from the Valley Forge Military Academy in 1942. Following my high school graduation I attended Lehigh University from July 1942 until February. With my Father serving on the “draft board”, I knew that I was to be drafted shortly. The later part of March or early April, I received notice to appear for a physical. Passing the physical, I was eligible to join any branch of the service. That weekend I made a trip to New York City with a group of friends, saw paratroopers and how smart they looked and decided that was for me. One week later, April 17th 1943, approx 100 inductees gathered in front of the Salvation Army bldg in Bethlehem, Pa. Some were friends, former schoolmates at Liberty High, and etc. Anyway we walked down the main street of Bethlehem, under the Hill to Hill bridge to a waiting Jersey Central train which took us to Allentown, Pa., where the railroad hooked on another railroad car or two with inductees from the Allentown area and the coal regions to the north and proceeded to take us to the New Cumberland inductee center south of Harrisburg Pa. I spent about a week at New Cumberland, was interviewed once and asked if I wasn’t interested in attending O.C.S. school. My reply was NO that, I wanted to be a Paratrooper so a few days later, I was with a group of twenty-four other men headed for ??????. We found out later that it was Camp Toccoa, Ga. (my thoughts were “where the hell is that?”). A Lieutenant Alicki, after we had removed all our gear from the train, greeted us and ordered that we get down and give him 25 “push-ups”. We were taken by truck to Camp Toccoa and ordered by Lt. Alicki upon arriving there to get in formation to jump out of the 30ft. mock-up towers.
After the towers, and I don’t remember the sequence of events that followed, but we were interviewed by Major (his rank at the time) Seitz. He asked three questions as I remember it, ”Did you play any sports in high school? Were you ever in jail, and why do you want to be a Paratrooper?” After the interview came a physical. If you jumped out of the tower, were approved by Maj. Seitz, and passed the physical, you were in the 517th and the next thing was a crew cut hair cut and on to the training. Of the 25 men that left Pa, 4 us of made it. Training consisted of jogging around the camp grounds, roughly 1 1/2 miles, then an hour of calisthenics followed by classes on the M1 rifle, the carbine, machine gun, mortar, tactics, etc and then another run of 1or2or3miles. If you screwed up during the day -- for punishment, it was “give me 25 or 50" that is PUSH-UPS. After 6 months of that, we were mean and tough and with officers like Lissner, Riddle, and Guicki, you couldn’t be any thing different but tough and we were ready for jump school.
F Company at Camp Toccoa 1943
Jump School at Fort Benning
I don’t remember too much about jump school, except there were four towers similar to the tower at the 1940 Worlds Fair. One tower was the same, a controlled drop; the other three were free drops. More importantly, we had to pack our own chutes for the first five parachute jumps so we were extra careful, that we packed our chutes per instructions by our teachers., making sure that folds were where they were supposed to be and knots in the strings according to regulations An instructor, a burley build Master Sergeant, gave a “pep talk” to the whole class. One part of his talk that I remember well after all these years was “we have had only 1 percent failures in all the main chutes that have been packed, but don’t let that be a concern, you always have a reserve chute and only ½ of 1 percent of the reserve chutes that were packed have failed, but don’t let that concern you either because there will always be a “meat wagon” on the ground to get you. Well, anyway we made five qualifying jumps, received our “wings”, and it was bye Fort Benning, hello Camp Mackall N.C.
Mackall was sand, Pine trees, and large cities, but the training was the same except it had a few parachute jumps mixed in, but then orders came to go to Tenn. for maneuvers. We arrived there on the first of February and it rained every day for twenty-nine days except for three days when the sun showed its face. One thing happened in Tenn. that I shall never forget. We hadn’t eaten for an entire day because the “chow trucks” couldn’t get thru the mud to feed us, or at least that is what we were told. Anyway, we were given a “ten minute” break. We hadn’t eaten for over 24 hours and I was hungry. We fell out to the side of the road and I noticed smoke rising at the crest of a hill to our left, I walked to the crest of the hill and lo and behold there was a house with chickens running around the buildings. I then saw an elderly lady and asked her if I could buy something to eat, the lady replied that she did not have anything to eat. I then asked her if she would make me a fried egg sandwich, her reply was that she had no bread. I then asked if she had ingredients to make soda biscuits, she nodded yes. I asked how many eggs her chickens laid, she replied fifteen, I said I’ll take the fifteen and gave her fifteen Dollars, That evening we were still there at the same spot, I went back up the hill to the same Lady, asked if she wanted to make the same deal as we made in the morning. She replied SURE so I had thirty fried egg sandwiches in one day. Needless to say, I didn’t eat fried eggs for years.
The 517th PRCT heads to Italy
All the while that the 517th was in Tenn. we were part of the 17th Airborne Division, but sometime during “Tenn. Maneuvers”, the powers to be decided more paratroopers were needed in Italy and pulled the 517th along with a battalion of artillery, the 460th, and a company of engineers and made up the 517th PARACHUTE REGIMENTAL COMBAT TEAM. We pulled out of Tenn., the last day of February, sent back to CAMP Mackall for preparation to be sent overseas. We were given a 10 day furloughs and got ready to board the ship “Santa Rosa” for Europe and our entrance to WWII. Our voyage over was un-eventful except for one day. We had been in a convoy of 5 ships and a Navy Destroyer. This one morning when I got on deck there was only our ship and one Navy destroyer. Our ship was dead in the water with the destroyer circling around the Santa Rosa. In the forenoon they corrected the problem and away we went to catch up with the other ships of the convoy.
I should mention here that a few years before my Parents took a Caribbean cruse on the Santa Rosa. Another fact was that this ship was manned by the British and the first day on the ship it was eggs and orange marmalade which I hated and for dinner it was lamb which I also don’t enjoy, so the next week or for the length of the trip across, my meals consisted of candy bars. I should also note that we were the first ship to have WACs on board with the GI’s and secondly the ocean was like a lake, no large waves or storms, the sun shone every day. The ship tied up at Naples Italy, we unloaded and marched thru Naples to a dormant volcano crater and there we bivouacked until all our weapons arrived. We were to be involved with the liberation of Rome, but our machine guns and mortars were shipped over on another ship and it did not arrive in time for the 517th to be involved in the liberation of Rome. I do not remember how long we stayed in the crater but when our mortars and machine guns did finally arrive, we were shipped up the coast of Italy to a city that I will not attempt to spell. The 517th spend approx 2 weeks in combat, mostly with the 35th Division. After that we were pulled back to the Rome area to get prepared for the invasion of Southern France. While bivouacked on the outskirts of Rome, I met a Cousin of mine, Kathryn Sandt, a nurse in an Army Hospital in Rome. We spent a day together viewing the places of interest. I was granted an audience with the Pope and blessed by him along with about 100 other servicemen on another day. The St. Peter’s cathedral was the most beautiful building that I had ever seen in my life. Cousin Kathryn, knew the day we explored Rome together, that the 517th was to invade Southern France. What a secret that turned out to be.
The Invasion of Southern France
The 14th of August came quickly, we were give last minute instructions, got our gear together that we were taking with us and stowed the rest of our belongings in our duffel bags to be shipped to France. We boarded the planes I think about 2:30 AM on the 15th of August and jumped at approx 4:30AM. The flight from Italy to Southern France was so interesting that I slept on the equipment bags which were stacked to the rear of the plane. These bags were thrown out of the door first, and we went after. I don’t know the hour that we jumped, I do remember, after I exited the plane that I looked down and it looked like water but turned out to be fog. It was scary not knowing what was below or where we were landing. I landed into a stone wall, bruising my right thigh that turned black and blue from the back of my knee to my butt. The first man that I encountered was Major Vella, head of our medical men, who told me not to bother him that he broke his ankle or foot or something. I left him looking for a friendlier solder, as long as he wasn’t a German. I finally found a road and a group of 517th men. Time after that is blurred, I remember coming within view of Frenchmen burning the dead bodies of Germans, What a stench, the first time in my life that I experienced the order of burning human flesh and it was awful. We continued our journey across Southern France, clearing out the Germans as we walked. A more defined history of our experience can be found in books on the history of the 517th except for one event that turned out to be the closest that I have ever been to death as far as I know. We were bivouacked on a hill near Sospel. This hill had cliff on one side which made it impossible for the Germans to hit us with artillery, but could reach us with motar fire. I had six men in my squad. Jonientz, when a motar round hit a hundred yards away, went for his foxhole. If a shell hit fifty yards away, Haller and Gilbert went for their foxholes. I should explain that most of the Germans artillery or motar shells made a distinct sound as they came in. I should further explain that we had built a fire to cook our roast beef and string beans. We were allowed to build fires because of the terrain, and the “Krauts” could only harass us with motar fire . However this one afternoon or early evening the third shell had a sound that it was going to hit close by, so Jones or “Reds” as we called him, and I stayed till the last moment. I can remember saying to him, "Reds let’s go." Our foxholes were within fifteen yards of our fire, I dove with a cup of coffee in my hand, which I had just finished preparing, into my foxhole, without spilling a drop, when the motar shell hit, sprayed dirt and stones around me. Other than my ears ringing, I seemed to be okay. When the dust settled and I looked about, I couldn’t find a fire nor roast beef or string beans. The shell had hit the center of our fire, there were no sparks, no string beans or pieces of roast beef to be found. Only our canteens and cups full of shrapnel holes and nothing to eat. A few days later, after taking Sospel we were relieved, and hiked to a city with a train station for our trip by ”forty & eight” rail cars for our trip to Soissons and the “BATTLE OF THE BULGE.”
Battle of the Bulge
In Soissons, we were put in barracks that I guess were used by the French Army before the Germans defeated France. Anyway we arrived there on the 10th of December, I think. The “BATTLE OF THE BULGE” began on the 16th of December. Between these two dates there were loads of rumors that the war would end and we would be going home, but Hilter put an end to all the rumors by starting an all out offence of his own and putting a ‘bulge” in the U.S. and British defensive line. On the 21st of December the 517th re-entered the fight. I don’t remember all the details except that it was cold, darn cold and snowy. We fought in such places as Spa, Stavelot, St Vith, and other small Belgian Villages. All that I can say about the Bulge , “IT WAS MISERABLE.” I cannot find any article about an Allied bombing raid on Berlin with 5,00, American & British Bombers on December 24th or 25th of December1944. But anyway it was so cold on these two days that each engine on the airplanes left a vapor trial. So all the planes going east towards Berlin left four vapor trials, and the fighter planes that were flying cover for the Allied Planes and the German planes trying to intercept the Allied Bombers left vapor trials that resembled a child scribbling on a piece of paper. You could see which of the bombers on their way back to England had been hit by ack-ack or fighter planes, as they left only three or two and even one vapor trial behind. We even saw the smoke from one of the bombers as it crashed in the distance. We were too far away to see if any crewmen from that plane parachuted to safety. We were marching along a macadam road as this all transpired and between myself and the fellow in front of me a spent 50-caliber hit the macadam and left a hole in the road surface about six inches in diameter and about the same dept. I have often thought and wondered what it could have done if it had hit one of us in the helmet, just a headache or worse, we’ll never know.----- As far as I can remember we had frozen “C-rations for our Christmas dinner. Most of the time, starting with the first day of combat, we didn’t know where we were or where we were going next, we obeyed orders.
The next place we went to was Bergstein, Germany. We arrived there I think on the 5th of February and that night we went on the attack to capture a Ruhr River dam. At the time that the attack was to start we had a pouring down rain storm. Between the rain, mud and darkness, the attack was a failure. “F” Co men were given a piece of florescent rope, approx 1” long that we put on the back of our helmets with orders for each man, “in case a soldier fell into a hole, the soldier behind was to leave the fallen man and continue on his way so that contact between men would not be broken.” This did not happen, because a man fell into a hole (anti-tank trap), the man behind stopped to help the fallen man and the line of men behind lost contact with the men in front. As a result the men in front got behind the lines and were captured and taken prisoners by the Germans. Those of us who were behind the fallen man were told to go back. By now the Battalions were reduced to company strength. A couple of nights later, the Second battalion led by Seitz traveled silently down a trail, the remainder of “F” CO was in the back of the column. It took all night for the front of the column to reach the road that members of “F” Co were captured on a few nights earlier. A German machine gunner was to our right and firing over our heads all night long with another machine gunner to our left was doing the same thing, except that what the two were firing at I do not know. At daybreak we were told to return to where we started from. Except that on the way back we stopped for orders. “F” Co was to’ dig in’ at the top of the hill, in a clearing or a field at the edge of the woods that the German machine gunner was firing from during the night. I protested slightly knowing that the machine gunner could be in that wooded area, but my protest was in vain and we went there in spite of my argument. Sgt “Pappy Ellis, Tech Sgt. Joe Samoska and I were together talking as to were we would place our positions and ”dig in”, when the machine gunner that I thought was in that wooded area appeared and started firing at us, we hit the ground with the German gunner firing over our bodies and the tops of weeds falling on us. Samoska indicated to Pappy and me that he was hit, where I do not know. Ellis said he was going back further, I tried to discourage him, but he left any way. I moved over closer to Joe, listened to his labored breathing, opened his shirt collar, unbuttoned his overcoat trying to help him breathe. I put my arm under his head, but as I looked in his face, his eyes rolled back and his breathing stopped. I tried in vain to get his pulse, but couldn’t find any and guessed that he had died in my arms. I think so many times of this incident and wonder why I didn’t protest more and maybe saved Joe Samoska’s life.
We were relieved by the 509 Parachute Infantry Regiment and taken by truck somewhere in Northern France. We were told later that we were now part of the 13th Airborne Division and taken to Joigny, France. A few days later we were taken to an airfield, put on an alert, for a possible jump behind enemy lines. Three different times we were briefed, three times the French or American Armored Troops took the objects that we were to capture and shortly thereafter WWII in Germany ended. It was back to Joigny France. In the next few weeks soldiers with higher points were shipped back to the U.S. Points were given for each month of service in the Armed Forces, state side or overseas, and medals earned. During this time, Jim Knowles from Bethlehem and I made a day trip of about twenty miles to visit Joe Ryan, also from Bethlehem. Joe was in a medical company in the 13th Division. I won’t go into the details of our visit with Joe.
Next, it was to make a choice of whether to stay in the 517th, maybe get a thirty-day furlough, and then to the South Pacific, or stay in Europe in the army of occupation. Members of the 517th had a choice because of combat time in Italy. The 82nd Airborne Division was chosen to represent the U.S. in Berlin Germany, along with British, French, and Russian Forces. I might add that members of the 517th, who stayed with the outfit landed in New York City on VJ day. That was the day the war with Japan ended. Anyway, I choose to stay in the Occupation Army and was shipped to Epinal France, where I met Thomas Gilmer who also attended Valley Forge. While in Epinal, I developed a strange illness, a fever that lasted about ten days and to be able to leave the hospital I had to be fever free for two days. After my release from the hospital, I hooked up with four other man from the 82nd Division. Together we went to the office of the Provest Marshall’s in Epinal to get permission to fly into Berlin. Our wish was granted, but for four days we were grounded because of rainy weather. The fifth day was clear and we boarded planes to take us to Berlin, one man to each plane.
I was assigned to Headquarters Company , 1st Battalion, as a Mortar squad leader. My first full day in Berlin I pulled Sgt. of the guard duty. That evening we received a call that a Russian Major or Colonel was molesting women at a train station. The Officer of the Day summoned me and together we drove to the train station. On the drive to this train station, I was briefed by the Lt. and told that I could refuse any food that the Russian Officer had, but any vodka that he might have, I had to drink, like it or not. The Lt. was correct, the Russian officer offered us bread and meat from his coat pocket which we both refused, then offered vodka and poured for us two water glasses full of vodka. The Lt. whispered to me to drink it “bottoms-up” and I followed his instructions and we got rid of the Russian. Next day I joined the 505th Regiment football team, and besides Tom Gilmer, I met Lt. Joe Palladino also of Valley Forge football days. In November sometime, we were told to get our things packed, that we were going home to the U.S. I have never regretted my stay in Berlin. It was sleep until noon time or play “ping-pong”, have lunch , rest, get your football uniform on, go by truck to the football field, practice for about 2 hours, board the truck, stop at the “red cross” for coffee and doughnuts and then go back to our house. We would then go to a neighboring battalion take showers and eat dinner. After that it was change into better clothes, and head for the “First Three Graders Club” and talk and drink beer.
After those grueling months in Berlin, we were separated. I was shipped by train to Marseilles, France to wait for a ship home. The first day on the Mediterranean Sea was calm. However, the second day was different, we entered the Atlantic Ocean and the beginning of a “North Atlantic Storm”. We got into it about dinner time, the ship began to roll, the dinner trays slid on the tables, garbage cans slid across the floor, what a mess. The whole next week was “hell”. The ship’s propeller would come out on the water and the entire ship would vibrate, then the bow would knife thru the next wave and the ship would shutter. The ship’s crew published a daily paper, which showed the ship’s progress. One day I remember the mileage was 0. It took us almost two weeks to get to Boston and then the whole east coast had twenty inches of snow or better. I got to Indiantown Gap on the 23rd of December, 1945, Judy’s first birthday. I got home that evening, returned to the Gap the day after Christmas and was discharged that same day.
Ray Hess of Bethlehem, PA., a World War II paratrooper with the 517th Parachute Regimental Combat Team, talks with an active duty soldier at the graduation ceremony Friday morning.
Text and Photo from Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, July 15, 2011