William B. Breuer *
Banquet Keynote Speaker
Reunion of the 517th Parachute Regimental Combat Team
Marriott Hotel, Nashville Tennessee
July 9, 1989
Sent in by Joe D. Miller, March 2002
|It is indeed a high honor to be
with you tonight for the reunion of the 517th Parachute
Regimental Combat Team, one of the greatest fighting
machines that America has ever fielded.
I have had enormous respect and admiration for the American paratrooper going back to D-Day in Normandy on June 6, 1944. At that time, I became indelibly aware that the American paratrooper was a special breed of warrior, and that his job was one of extreme peril requiring the highest order of courage, daring and resourcefulness.
On that historic D-Day, I made the H-Hour amphibious assault on Utah Beach, and although some of our people fell, the resistance was amazingly light. As we pushed inland against little more than token opposition, the reason for our incredible good fortune became starkly evident: American paratroopers had been there before us paving the way.
Our parachutists' job was to disrupt the Germans and prevent them from launching an attack on Utah Beach while we were coming ashore and were vulnerable. So successful were our troopers that Utah Beach was never threatened, and an entire American infantry division stormed ashore with astonishingly minimal casualties -- 12 dead and 46 wounded -- instead of being slaughtered in the bloodbath predicted by some top Allied leaders.
However, paving the way at Utah Beach had not been cheap for our paratroopers. Victory in war is never cheap. Sprawled in the lush green fields of Normandy and dangling in their harnesses from trees were scores of lifeless forms wearing the coveted jump-boots and baggy pants of the American paratrooper.
Twelve miles to the east of Utah Beach it was a drastically different situation on D-Day. No airborne force jumped or landed behind Omaha Beach to raise merry hell with the German defenders, so the amphibious force going ashore there ran into a meat-grinder and suffered several thousand casualties.
So if anyone questions whether paratroopers made a decisive contribution on battlefields, you can point to the stark contrast between Utah and Omaha Beaches.
American paratroopers were and are proud members of the world's most exclusive and esteemed fraternity. Membership could not be purchased nor bestowed upon you due to wealth, social standing or political connections. Rather entry into the paratrooper fraternity had to be earned by enduring the most grueling training program that diabolical minds could conceive and later by measuring up in the crucible of battle. When you first bailed out into the dark and ominous unknown in a combat operation, you became an instant hero. No one can ever take that honor away from you. Each of you remains a hero.
Due to the nature of the paratrooper business, there was a unique and closely-knit relationship between officers and enlisted men, one of mutual respect for and confidence in each other, a kinship cemented by the fact that everyone leaping from airplanes into battle shared identical dangers. Bodies floating earthward under billowing white parachutes looked alike to hostile gunners on the ground. Paratrooper generals and privates, cooks, riflemen, surgeons, artillerymen, engineers, and chaplains stood equal chance of being riddled by bullets in mid-air or plunging to their deaths with a "steamer."
In the mists of long ago, during World War II, you and others who dared to accept the challenge to "stand up and hook up" ignited the paratroopers' torch or honor, and it has been passed along over the years and is still burning brightly today. Recently I received a letter from a World War II paratrooper who had been grievously wounded in that conflict and has suffered pain since then. This old warhorse wrote:
"Those of us who went through it know that war is horrible. But I would do it all again. Sometimes a man has to stand up and fight for what he thinks is right!"
Where does America get such gallant men?
A Korean War paratrooper, Rudy Hernandez, who was awarded the Medal of Honor and suffered disabling wounds, was asked of late: "If you could be granted one wish, what would it be?" Rudy pondered the question, then replied softly: "I would like to have the chance to serve my country again."
Where does America get such gallant men?
In more current times, teenaged paratrooper Harry Shaw lost both legs when raked by machine gun fire while jumping into Grenada in the mission to rescue some 700 American students from the clutches of the brutal Communist gang that had seized control of the government in a bloody coup. Life would seem to be bleak indeed for a youth of 19 suddenly minus both legs. But from his hospital bed of pain, Harry Shaw thrust out his jaw and declared: "It's going to be tough out there, but I'm going to lick the world anyhow!"
Where does America get such gallant men?
If I had to sum up in one word the reason for the battlefield success of America's elite units, such as the 517th Parachute Regimental Combat Team, that one word would be PRIDE. Each paratrooper had enormous pride -- pride in himself, in his country, and in his unit. That pride sustained him, even in the blackest hours.
Much of that pride had been instilled in you by your exceptional leaders -- Col. Rupert Graves (the Gray Eagle), Wild Bill Boyle, Dashing Dick Seitz, Mel Zais, Forest Paxton, Tom Cross, Ray Cato, Don Frazer, George Walton, and Bob Dalrymple among many others. Their courage, dedication, and ideals epitomized what being an American paratrooper was all about. Although the Gray Eagle at 43 was the army's oldest parachute regiment commander, paratrooping was basically a young man's game. For example, one of your battalion commanders, Lieutenant Colonel Dick Seitz, was only 25 years of age. Twenty-five. I have neckties older than that.
Pride had been your hallmark since the 517th Parachute Infantry Regiment was mated with two other crack outfits, the 460th Parachute Field Artillery Battalion and the 596th Parachute Engineers. You were "blooded" -- that is, shot at and the hell scared out of you for the first time -- in the towering and treacherous mountains of Italy in early 1944.
Then you were brought down from the peaks and into the Rome region, where you got ready for your first combat jump spearheading Operation Dragoon, the invasion of Southern France. As though that gut-wrenching specter was not bad enough, Dragoon was the war's worst-kept secret -- the Germans knew you were coming, and almost knew the locale where you would bail out.
You were a separate combat team then, and you would remain a "bastard" outfit. As such, you were often forced to scratch and claw for the material things your outfit needed, because you did not belong to a division. However, being a bastard parachute outfit and bounced around on a steady basis by the Big Brass had its unique advantages. You became skilled experts in "midnight requisitions," when hidden talents as cat-burglars emerged. You were short of jeeps, so under cover of darkness your "patrols" made frequent forays into Rome, where American rear-echelon outfits were surfeited with vehicles. Suddenly, Rome was stricken by an epidemic of vanishing jeeps, which, curiously, reappeared in the 517th areas.
Most of all, being a separate parachute outfit generated a fierce esprit that no doubt excelled even that found in abundance in the American airborne divisions.
Finally your time came. The 517th Parachute Regimental Combat Team -- 3,900 paratroopers in all -- jumped behind German coastal defenses along the French Riviera in the pre-dawn and foggy darkness of August 15, 1944. Although some tiny packets and lone troopers dropped far from the DZ's, your outfit rapidly assembled and accomplished all missions.
Then for long, frustrating and miserable weeks, you fought and bled and died in the freezing Maritime Alps -- a nasty ordeal that one might call the Forgotten War. Typical of 517th battle skills and resourcefulness, one of your units captured an entire German company while suffering only four casualties. And when you were finally relieved in the dead of winter in later 1944 and shipped to the region east of Paris for a richly earned respite, you were abruptly rousted out of warm beds and hurled into the frigid cauldron known as the Battle of the Bulge.
There in the bitter woods and bone-numbing, arctic-like cold, and mass confusion of the Ardennes, you slugged it out with Hitler's panzers and tough, veteran SS troops. Have no doubt about it: the Fuehrer's hopes for victory and a negotiated peace depended upon his smashing through your positions and elsewhere along the northern shoulder of the Bulge to reach Liege and then on to Antwerp.
Conditions were brutal, the fighting savage. Your courage was legendary and your losses heavy -- the white snow ran red with the lifeblood of troopers of the 517th Combat Team. Soldiers froze to death. Frost-bite resulted in surgical amputations. Stomachs knotted painfully because food wasn't available. Only those who were there will ever know how you suffered. Yet you halted everything Hitler's legions could throw at you, and helped write an epic chapter in American history.
Today, there are cynics who consider it strange that old comrades, such as you fellows of the 517th, come back to each other year after year. With great gusto, you tell the same war stories -- well, almost the same stories, allowing for a slight exaggeration each year. You hug each other and you slap each other on the back. You call each other by old nicknames largely forgotten. And you laugh uproariously over recollections of romantic antics of long ago in North Carolina or Italy or France -- after first making certain that your wives are not in hearing range.
Cynics say: "Surely these grown men can't enjoy going through all that same old nonsense year after year." But the cynics cannot grasp that a group of comrades are linked today by a common experience too incredible ever to be fully comprehended by anyone who wasn't there. The cynics have no conception of how mutually shared fear, suffering, danger and anguish forged such powerful bonds between fighting men that neither the passing of decades, nor any force on earth can break those bonds. The cynics fail to understand the elation you feel when you have faced the Black Angel of Death many times, beat the odds, and find yourself able to celebrate your good fortune with comrades.
However, even tonight you feel an aching void in your hearts for buddies of long ago who were cut down in the sunrise of their lives and had to be left behind. It's tough to die when you're in your teens or twenties. They didn't want to die. They wanted to come home, too. Time will never diminish your visions of their cheerful, boyish faces.
As the clock ticks on and the shadows lengthen, you often reflect: Was that horrible ordeal I endured long ago worth it? Always the answer echoes and re-echoes -- a resounding Yes. For you realize that you fought and bled to assure that your loved ones and those Americans not yet born could live without fear, in freedom, dignity, and relative prosperity. That is the priceless legacy that you and all American fighting men of World War II have bestowed upon the current and future generations -- and let no one forget it.
You and your loved ones -- many of whom are here tonight -- can be immensely proud of the fact that your courage, devotion to duty, and sacrifices contributed enormously toward making all this happen. You kept the faith with God and country. You fought the good fight. You measured up when the chips were down. And today, each of you can proudly proclaim:
"I was an American paratrooper!"
* William B. Breuer is the author of numerous military history books, including:
Operation Dragoon : The Allied Invasion of the South of France
Geronimo! : American Paratroopers in World War II