03/04/03

He knew he was in trouble when his chute didn't open

Greg Oehm was in the 517th Combat Parachute Team

For Gregory Oehm of Seminole Lakes subdivision in south Punta Gorda, World War II was a matter of timing and luck.

The 78-year-old local man was an 18-year-old kid just out of high school when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, dragging the United States into World War II on Dec. 7, 1942. The first year of the war he worked for Bell & Howell helping make the Norden Bomb Sight.

"They offered me a deferment because I was part of the group working on the sight," Oehm said. "Since all of my friend were already in the service, I thought it was my time to go."

After basic training at Camp Roberts, Calif., he was made an instructor. Oehm spent the next year training soldiers for the front.

"I was the youngest sergeant in our company. I knew this wasn't what I wanted to do. Then I saw a poster on the wall in the noncommissioned officer's club. It showed a paratrooper floating down. The line with the picture read: 'Jump Into The Fight!'

"Myself and two other sergeant friends decided to sign up at the same time for the paratroopers," he said. "We were sent to Fort Benning, Ga., for four weeks of jump school.

"You made four daylight jumps and one night jump," Oehm recalled. "The one at night was the most scary."

He shipped out for Europe and, by January 1945, wound up in an old French fortress built by Napoleon in 1813 in Casern, France. It was a very large stone fort with a big parade ground in the middle and it had 4-foot-thick walls.

Oehm became part of the 517th Parachute Combat Team when he arrived in France. It spent the war attached to first one airborne division and then another.

Just before he arrived at the front, his unit had fought with Gen. James Gavin's 82nd Airborne Division at the Battle of the Bulge. It suffered 65 percent casualties.

A few weeks after arriving at Casern, the 517th was issued white parkas for fighting in the snow. Then half the 2,500-man regiment was sent south with the 82nd Airborne to fight the German SS troops in Bavaria. They were making a last-ditch stand at the end of the war.

Oehm and the other half of the unit were put in boxcars and taken north to Lille, France, along the North Sea. It was freezing and there was snow on the ground. The paratroopers of the 517th spent a few weeks bivouacked in tents in the cold waiting for orders.

All they could do was play soccer and fight among themselves. Things got so bad soldiers had to relinquish their sidearms so they didn't shoot each other.

Shortly before the pathfinders arrived, word got around they might be going to Denmark. Pathfinders were special airborne troops that jumped first to mark the way for the rest of the unit. The Germans had held Denmark since early in WW II and they still held it in mid March 1945.

"We were to take the airport at Copenhagen, we learned. They gave us back our pistols, held services for everyone who wanted to attend, when all of a sudden the pathfinders returned," Oehm said. "The whole invasion had been called off.

"It was about this time we got up one morning and during the night someone had built a fenced-in area nearby. Inside the enclosure were 2,000 Polish women that had been slave laborers in the German mines. I never saw so many paratroopers who knew how to speak Polish," he said with a chuckle.

The war was almost over. Oehm and his unit hadn't used their parachutes in months. Unused chutes don't work properly and often fail to open. The best way to solve the problem their commander reasoned was to have his men make a training jump.

They took to the sky in C-46 transport planes that were larger and had two back doors for paratroopers to jump out of instead of one, like the smaller C-47 they had used in the past.

"All of a sudden, the green light went on and they started jumping. Ahead of me were two green recruits who froze at the door. I took about 10 steps back and charged the two guys in the door. We all went out together," he said.

"Generally, by the time the tail of the plane went by, I knew my chute should open. By then, nothing had happened. I looked up and realized I had a 'streamer," he said. His main parachute hadn't opened.

"My first thought was to pull my reserve chute. Then I realized if I did that it would tangle in the main chute. My only out was to work the shrouds and try to get air into the chute by shaking it open," he explained. "I also realized I had better start looking where I was going because I was losing altitude pretty fast.

"About then, my chute started opening," Oehms said. "A second later I hit the ground. I don't remember much until a couple of GIs came up and said, 'Are you OK?'"

He had miraculously survived the jump. Oehms figures he couldn't have been more than 400 feet from hitting the ground when his parachute began opening.

The two GIs were on patrol in a jeep and saw him heading earthward with his chute streaming behind him unopened. When they realized he had survived the jump, they took him and his parachute back to headquarters in their jeep.

"Shortly after I returned to my unit I heard that the war in Europe was over. Then I learned that we were going to be attached to the 82nd Airborne Division as part of the occupation troops in Berlin," he said.

One of the criteria was that every paratrooper had to be at least 6-feet tall. He was only 5-feet, 6-inches tall, so that ruled him out.

Not to worry. Uncle Sam had a deal for Oehms. He would send him home on a 30-day leave if he volunteered for the invasion of Japan.

"They needed 100,000 paratroopers for the invasion, they told us," Oehms said. "I decided to take the 30 days and volunteer for the invasion."

While waiting to be shipped back to the States, he was in Camp Philip Morris near Rheimes, France. The young staff sergeant struck up a conversation with some of the German POWs because he could speak German.

The POWs wanted him to intercede for them so that they didn't end up working in a French occupation zone. Although there was little Oehms could do to help them, one of the POWs handed him a handcrafted cigarette box he had made.

A few days later Oehms left for the States and his month-long vacation back home. Two days out from Le Harve, France, aboard the victory ship, they learned that the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. A few days after they reached the port of New York, World War II was over.

As Oehms held the cigarette case the German soldier had given him so many years ago, he stood in the bedroom of his Punta Gorda home and looked down lovingly at his war treasure.

The aluminum case was made of a piece of an external gas tank from a P-51 Mustang fighter plane. On its face the inscription read: "Greg Oehm, Mourmelon, France 1945, 517th Parachute Infantry." A hand-carved engraved piece of ivy snaked its way across the bottom of the pack's face.

For almost six decades Oehm has treasured the pack. He keeps it, along with his dog tags, Combat Infantryman's Badge, and a green army cap with a red, white and blue airborne patch in the top draw of a dresser in a bedroom in his home.

In a nearby closet is the white parka he was issued 58 years ago, just before the invasion of Denmark that never happened. He can still get into it with no trouble. Next to it in the closet is an Army-green Eisenhower jacket he wore when he was young. It's still in a dry cleaning bag and almost as new as the day he got it.

As he thought about his Army career in World War II, the old soldier observed, "I lucked out in Europe, I lucked out with my chute and I lucked out as I was sailing home when I learned the war was almost over."

You can e-mail Don Moore at moore@sun-herald.com

 

By DON MOORE

Senior Writer

 

 

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