Seventy-five plus years on, on West Street, as the clock turns from 11:59 PM on June 5 to 12:00 midnight on June 6, a girl lays in her bed and says into the darkness of her room, “They’re landing.” She squeezes her eyes shut and does her best not to cry. That girl is me.
When I began doing research for this project, I thought that the chances of a Reading boy in Normandy on June 6, 1944, were relatively slim. As large as the operation was, as vivid as it is in America’s memory, as heart-wrenching as it is to the average citizen, it just didn’t seem very likely to me. “But why?” you may ask. Well, I’m sure there was someone on those beaches that would at some point in his life, work in Reading, live in Reading, and perhaps even someone who had grown up here. But all I have in common with that man would be the town I live in. No blood, no relatives, nothing like that. So that makes it even less likely that I would be able to figure out much more than the person’s Army issued serial number.
I wasn’t necessarily wrong about this assumption, actually. Of the young men I have researched that grew up here, I have not found a single one that put his foot in the Normandy sand on June 6, 1944. Of those who did not grow up here but lived here later in their life, I have found one – kind of. It would seem that the only Reading boys who touched the grounds of Normandy on June 6, 1944, were paratroopers, and we will start with them.
Arne Helge Gunnar Dahlquist (June-July 1944)
This young man, whose first name was probably butchered so many times in his life that he preferred just going by a nickname (it is apparently pronounced “Arn”), lived at 10 Linden Street when he filled out his draft card. In his later years, he moved around quite a bit so I am not working off the assumption that he grew up here in Reading, although it’s obviously possible. Arne enlisted in the Army in Boston on June 7, 1943. Precisely one year later, give or take a few days, he entered combat in Normandy. It is unclear to me precisely when, how, or why Arne ended up with the 82nd Airborne Division, 325th Glider Infantry Regiment. I also do not know which battalion or company Arne was in either, so as I have done with others, I will cover the varying actions of all battalions.
If Arne had been a member of Company F, 3rd Battalion, 325th Glider Infantry Regiment, he would not have come into Normandy on a glider at all. Company F would actually land on Utah Beach in the RED Sector at 2:00 PM on June 6, 1944. Their job, upon landing on the beach, was to de-waterproof the vehicles that had made it ashore so that they could continue inland without carrying the extra parts that allowed them to land there in the first place. After finishing this job, Company F would have moved inland to make contact with the paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division that had landed in the early hours of the morning. Unfortunately, though, as the men began moving inland they were met with heavy artillery, mortar, and small arms fire.
Now, seeing as there were three battalions in the 325th Regiment and only Company F came in on D-Day itself, it is very likely that Arne was still back in England when Company F was landing on Utah Beach. The rest of the 325th Glider Infantry Regiment would have been loading up their gliders with supplies, going over the plan over and over and over again, writing last letters home, and trying desperately to get some sleep here and there. The 325th Glider Infantry Regiment was supposed to glide into Normandy early in the morning on June 7.
Once Arne was sitting inside his glider, I wonder if his mind wandered at all or if his thoughts were fixed purely on the situation before him. The C-47 towing Arne’s glider would have taken off within a few hours of June 6 turning to June 7. All across America, people would be roused by their neighbors calling or banging on their doors. Journalists all across the country would be hastily writing out their headlines: Allies Invade Normandy. When the C-47 cut the tow line, and Arne’s glider was set free, the world would become silent. The sound of the wind would become Arne’s whole world in those minutes that the pilot of the glider searched for a field to set down the aircraft. Many of the gliders around Arne would be impaled by long metal poles with mines on the ends. Other gliders would be destroyed by the hedgerows in which they would land. And some would get lucky. Arne was one of the lucky ones. Around the time that Arne’s glider would have landed, President Roosevelt’s voice would be crackling through the radio back in the States, calling all the people of the United States into prayer.
The members of Company F, 3rd Battalion, 325th Glider Infantry Regiment that had landed on Utah Beach on June 6 assisted the 8th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division in its attack on St. Mère-Église early in the morning on June 7 and made contact with the rest of the 325th Glider Infantry by 9:00 AM on June 7. Around 9:00 PM on June 7, the 1st and 3rd Battalions of the 325th Glider Infantry moved from whatever position they were in at the time to defend the regimental assembly area. However, sometime late on June 7, the 1st Battalion, 325th Glider Infantry was called into reserve near the La Fiere bridge, which the Americans had still not secured. Again, it is unknown to me which battalion Arne was in but I will do my best to cover all the actions of the three battalions making up the 325th Glider Infantry Regiment here.
The 1st Battalion that had been called into reserve at dark on June 7 had stayed in reserve until the late hours of June 8, 1944. As the men of the 1st Battalion began moving up toward the bridge, Company C, the company in front for this attack, lost contact with Company B in a marsh. If Arne had been there, he probably would have felt that there was something wrong in his gut. All the guys would probably have been looking at each other, thinking the same thing: “I can’t see the other company anymore.”
As Company C crept through a wheat field and orchard down to a sunken road, gunfire began to crack through the air. Company C might have been completely obliterated if it were not for Private First Class Charles DeGlopper’s brave actions. If Arne was a member of the 1st Battalion, 325th Glider Infantry Regiment, chances are good that he heard or saw what happened next. As Charles was advancing with the forward platoon, the platoon leader was shot and killed. Charles DeGlopper, realizing that his platoon was about to get wiped out by a group of Germans he could barely see in the darkness, yelled for his buddies to run for one of the nearby hedgerows while he held off the Germans. Standing in the middle of a road, an easy target for an enemy, DeGlopper opened fire and continued to fire until his wounds brought him to his knees. He wasn’t going to stop yet, though: Charles DeGlopper reloaded and repeated the process as he bled out in the road.
Later on, when members of C Company returned to the area to recover his body, they found the ground strewn with dead German soldiers. I can almost picture Arne standing there, looking on with his mouth open in surprise. Charles DeGlopper would be one of three airborne troops to receive a Medal of Honor for actions carried out in the days after D-Day.
In the mid-morning hours on June 9, the 325th Glider Infantry Regiment (minus its 1st Battalion who was already across the river fighting around the area where their comrade, Charles DeGlopper, had fallen) assembled to cross the La Fiere bridge over the Merderet River. They knew the Germans would be waiting for them, but they also knew it would be the only way to get over the bridge in the allotted time. At 10:00 AM, every single American soldier near the La Fiere bridge opened fire. Arne, who would have been there if he wasn’t a member of the 1st Battalion, would have probably watched this happen with fear and anxiety. The whole world would have lit up around him. Then the signal came. The 325th Glider Infantry Regiment began to charge across the bridge. To some men, it looked suicidal.
Arne would have broken out running, probably slinging his rifle over his shoulder. He would dig one boot into the soil and then push forward onto the bridge. The sound of hundreds of boots slamming into the stone bridge would have echoed across the river. Men would fall all around Arne. When the surrounding units went into the bridge to see what had happened, they described it as a log-jam of dead and dying soldiers. Many of the men still alive laid on their bellies and refused to keep going.
Lieutenant Travelstead of the 401st Glider Infantry Regiment that had come in to help the 325th assault the bridge remarked that when he crossed the bridge, all hell broke loose. He said at one point, while he was standing in the middle of a causeway, two paratroopers suddenly appeared at his side. Moments later, an explosion knocked all three of them into a ditch. Both of the troopers had shielded Travelstead and were now dead. The Lieutenant would later say that the memory of those two men haunted him for the rest of his life. Eventually, Arne and the other paratroopers and glider troops would secure the area and be able to push forward. Whether Arne was in the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd Battalion of the 325th Glider Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division, I can guarantee you one thing: Arne saw things so horrible in the days following his landing that I’m sure he never forgot them.
By the time the 82nd Airborne Division was brought back to England, they had been in combat for 33 days and had 5,245 paratroopers either killed, wounded, or missing. How our boy made it through is a mystery to me, and it probably was just as much of a puzzling question to Arne himself in the years after the war.
Roy James Sherrod (June-July 1944)
Close your eyes. Picture Washington Street in Reading if you can. Walk up and down the street until you find 13 Washington Street. There it is, you see it now. Something pulls you towards it. Your feet begin reaching farther with every step. You’re almost at the front door. You would give anything just to make it to that door, to open it up and go inside. Feel the warmth and safety, feel your mother wrap her arms around you and hug you, and say, “Roy, my boy! Oh, I’m so glad you’re home!” You are only a foot away from the front door when it opens, and your mother is standing right there. She’s right there. You only have to reach out and you would touch her. But then the scene fades, and you are no longer standing on your front steps…
The men of the 101st Airborne Division had been on standby since the late hours of June 4. They had gone over the planned time and time again, it was the only thing they had to do. There was too much anxiety to think about much else. Roy James Sherrod, of 13 Washington Street, was probably wondering right around now why he had signed up to jump out of a perfectly good plane. But surely, he probably told himself, all this training wasn’t for nothing. If he just remembered what he was taught, he ought to get lucky.
On the evening before June 6, 1944, the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division was loaded up into their C-47s. I imagine no one really said much. I can kind of picture Roy, just sitting there, staring at the other guy from his company, Company I, sitting across from him, perhaps fidgeting with the netting of his helmet or the clicker they all got to help identify each other once they had landed. The engines of the plane Roy was in would roar to life, gurgling a bit at first, coughing, and then steadying out to their constant rumble. The craft would have begun to lurch forward with Roy and his comrades inside, and the wheels would leave the ground. Many men were probably asking themselves if they’d ever touch ground again.
I doubt Roy would have seen the sight in the ocean down below, but Roy’s officer probably would have. I kind of wish that all the paratroopers could have seen it. The unending line of ships in the channel below them. On the evening of June 5, 1944, I hope that at least one person in Reading thought about Roy. Wondered where he was, wondered what he was doing if he was okay. If they did, I’d like to think that just like Eisenhower said, “The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you,” that the hopes and prayers of the people of Reading flew with Roy on that day of days, just as they had with Arne.
Once across the channel, all hell broke loose in the skies over Normandy. The sound alone would have been terrifying. All around Roy’s C-47, flak would be puncturing the silence and pulling it inside out. Planes likely exploded and were torn to shreds all around. The nervous pilots would turn on the red light a bit too early and the officer on board would yell, “Hook up!” One by one, each of the men aboard Roy’s plane would stand up and attach their static line to the cord running overhead. From the back of the plane to the front, every man would yell out his number (the man in the back would probably be number 18 or so, and the first man would be number 1). They would tap the man in front of them and check that their harness was properly hooked up. The red light would turn green and every man would begin to push up and jump from the plane.
It is at this point in time that I lose track of Roy. I do not know where he ended up or what he was doing. He did land relatively safely, I believe. I wish I could tell you more about what happened to our Roy. All I know for sure is that sometime, probably in the early hours of June 6, Roy took a bullet to his neck. If he was killed almost immediately, or if he laid somewhere far from home bleeding out and quite aware of his condition, I do not know. If there was anyone with him when he died, whether friend or foe, I do not know either.
Despite all Roy’s bravery, all his training, all his hard work, all the love, and care that his family had hopefully given him from the moment he entered this world, despite all of it, the odds just weren’t on his side. Roy never would walk up the front steps of 13 Washington Street again, never feel his mother wrap her arms around him. Roy’s death would be just one of thousands that would consecrate the sand and soil of Normandy. Today, you can find Private Roy James Sherrod at the cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, France in Plot A, Row 13, Grave 13. He was 20 years old when he died. Let us not forget him.
Richard Charles Austin (June-July 1944)
Born on October 13, 1922, in Reading, Massachusetts, Richard Austin would grow to be 6’1” with blond hair and blue eyes. When he filled out his draft card, he and his family lived at 180 Prescott Street. In the middle of Richard Charles Austin’s junior year at Norwich University (December 1942), Richard left school to enlist in the United States Army. According to what I believe was the Norwich University Class of 1944 yearbook, Richard would volunteer to join the paratroopers in September 1943. It is unclear to me which company Richard was in (it could be Company A, B, or possibly Headquarters) but I do know that Richard was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, 1st Battalion.
So, much like Roy James Sherrod, around midnight, as June 5 turned to June 6, 1944, Richard would be sitting in a C-47 troop carrier far from home. The engines of the plane Richard was on would cough to life and the floor would shake as the plane’s wheels left the ground. If Richard could see outside, he would have seen hundreds and hundreds of other C-47s soaring through the sky around him. The wind would howl through the aircraft. Richard’s thoughts might have drifted home, wondering what had happened in Reading that day. I wonder if he felt like he was living on another planet. Perhaps he repeated the words Eisenhower had spoken to them all in his head as they flew: “Soldiers, Sailors, and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force! You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you.” Eisenhower was right. The eyes of the world were upon them then and are still upon them now.
Soon, Richard would hear sounds that hinted at what he would face: flak, fires, explosions, and yelling. His plane would probably shake and bob about, rocking on the waves of anti-aircraft fire. The red light would come on. Richard would stand up and secure his harness and attach his static line. Everyone would go down the line checking himself and the man in front of him. The red light would flicker to green and out Richard would go. As he descended from the skies over Normandy, Richard may have noticed that the fields below had been flooded by the Germans. Perhaps he landed in one and somehow managed to free himself from his chute before drowning.
It is most likely that Richard’s planned drop zone would be Drop Zone D, assigned to the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment as well as the 3rd Battalion of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment. When Richard landed, he would have removed his parachute from his back and pulled out his primary weapon if he still had it. One thing that many fail to realize is that lots of paratroopers that landed on the morning of June 6 didn’t actually have their weapons. This was because of a new invention that the paratroopers had been given to hold supplies, and it was called a leg bag. It was exactly what it sounded like: a bag attached to the leg. Many men put their rifles in said bag. When the men jumped, the bag just fell off their leg. So to be honest, the chances that Richard even had his rifle were pretty low, but let’s get back to the story.
He would have landed with a thump. Almost immediately, I hope his hands were groping through the bags and packs he had on, trying to figure out what he did and did not have. For those first anxious minutes, he might have even forgotten himself a little bit, only to realize his mistake when he felt someone staring at him and looked up into the face of a German soldier. Richard might have opened his mouth and closed it again, a tear pricking the corner of his eye before both him and the German launched themselves at one another. In those desperate hours, many men would have to kill with their hands, their feet, their hearts, and souls. Many men who have been interviewed about the experience after the fact have said how towards the end, as the color started to drain from the German’s face, they considered letting go.
As soon as Richard felt comfortable moving from the spot he had landed in, likely near Angoville-au-Plain, he would have done so. He might have shaken as he walked, wincing at every stick that cracked beneath his feet. Perhaps Richard would hear rustling in the bushes nearby and freeze. A quiet voice that did not belong to Richard would break through the silence: “Flash!” it said. Maybe Richard didn’t remember the response he was supposed to give, and he searched his pockets for his cricket, a children’s toy that was given to members of the 101st Airborne Division that they could use to identify a friendly by clicking it. If the person who heard it was friendly, he would reply with two clicks. He couldn’t find it. The voice came again, “Flash!”
“Umm, uh gosh…Thunder! Thunder!” Richard would eventually reply. Suddenly, a group of American paratroopers would appear in the bush to his left. Richard probably would not have had time to feel relieved. They had a job to do: seize the lock of the Barquette and nearby wooden bridges, while also destroying the bridges over the Douve River and eventually taking the town of Carentan itself. By 4:00 AM, the Barquette lock had been seized by a force of about 150 paratroopers.
Around 5:30 AM, Richard, whether he was alone or not, probably would have heard the sounds of heavy gunfire coming from an area to the south of Angoville-au-Plain and may have been drawn to it if he was still searching for other paratroopers. The men from the 2nd Battalion of the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment that had been able to find one another were assembling and launching an attack on Les Droueries. If Richard fought there, it would have been his first experience with combat in a small environment, fighting from house to house. Grenades would be the weapon of choice for many soldiers, throwing them into enemy-occupied buildings and homes, waiting for the explosion, and then rushing in. Nowhere would be safe for Richard. His head would have been on a swivel at all times, his hands clutching tightly whatever weapon he had. By the night of June 7, Les Droueries would be in American hands and the advance towards Saint-Côme-du-Mont would continue.
On June 10, 1944, the Battle of Carentan would begin, with the 1st Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment (the battalion I believe Richard was probably in) seeing limited combat until June 12 when the command staff of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment ended up getting surrounded. The fighting was intense, and it was only after three brave men of Company I, 2nd Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment snuck up on a German machine gun nest and called in an artillery strike on the location, that the Germans were forced back. Later on that day, the 501st Parachute Infantry was again deployed to the southwest of Carentan and ended up meeting enemy armor. I bet Richard probably had not seen an enemy tank in person before that day, and then all of a sudden, there she was, her turret facing Richard and his comrades.
On June 27, 1944, the 83rd Infantry Division relieved Richard and the rest of the 101st Airborne in the area of Carentan. Richard would have then moved to Cherbourg where the 101st Airborne Division relieved the 4th Infantry Division before finally being able to return to England in mid-July. There is no doubt in my mind that the Richard that walked out of the door of 180 Prescott Street all those months ago was no longer the same man. He had watched men die, watched them explode, watched them slowly bleed out, perhaps held them as they passed on, maybe looked into the eyes of an enemy and felt compassion for a moment, felt the warm embrace of those he liberated and watched the eyes of a child light up as she ate his chocolate ration. But no matter how much this war had changed him, he was still ours.