by Stephen E. Ambrose
by Stephen E. Ambrose
There were some unusual junior officers on the front. One was Lieutenant Ed Gesner of the 4th Infantry Division. He knew survival tricks that he taught his platoon, such as how to create a foxhole in frozen ground: he shot eight rounds into the same spot, dug out the loose dirt with his trench knife, placed a half stick of TNT in the hole, lit the fuse, ran, hit the dirt, got up, ran back, and dug with his trench shovel. Within minutes a habitable foxhole.
The junior officers coming over from the States were another matter. Pink cheeked youth, they were bewildered by everything around them.
FIRST LIGHT came to Ste. Mere-Eglise around 0510. Twenty-four hours earlier it had been just another Norman village, with more than a millennium behind it. By nightfall of June 6,1944, it was a name known around the world-the village where the invasion began and now headquarters for the 82nd Airborne Division.
At dawn on June 7 Lieutenant Waverly Wray, executive officer in Company D, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR), who had jumped into the night sky over Normandy 28 hours earlier, was on the northwestern outskirts of the village. He peered intently into the lifting gloom. What he couldn’t see, he could sense. From the sounds of the movement of personnel and vehicles to the north, he could feel and figure that the major German counterattack-the one the Germans counted on to drive the Americans into the sea, the one the paratroopers had been expecting-was coming at Ste. Mere-Eglise.
It was indeed. Six thousand German soldiers were on the move, with infantry, artillery, tanks, and self-propelled guns-more than a match for the 600 or so lightly armed paratroopers in Ste. Mere-Eglise. A German breakthrough to the beaches seemed imminent. And Lieutenant Wray was at the point of attack.
Wray was a big man, 250 pounds, with “legs like tree trunks,” in the words of Lieutenant Colonel Ben Vandervoort, commanding the 505th. “The standard-issue army parachute wasn’t large enough for Wray’s weight, and he dropped too fast on his jumps, but the men said. Hell, with his legs he don’t need a chute. He was from Batesville, Mississippi, and was an avid woodsman, skilled with rifles and shotguns. He claimed he had never missed a shot in his life. A veteran of the Sicily and Italy campaigns, Wray was, according to Vandervoort, “as experienced and skilled as an infantry soldier can get and still be alive.”
Wray had Deep South religious convictions. A Baptist, each month he sent half his pay home to help build a new church. He never swore. His exclamation when exasperated was “John Brown!”-meaning abolitionist John Brown of Harpers Ferry. He didn’t drink, smoke, or chase girls. Some troopers called him the Deacon, but in an admiring rather than critical way. Vandervoort had something of a father son relationship with Wray, always calling him by his first name, Waverly.
On June 7, shortly after dawn, Wray reported to Vandervoort-whose leg, broken in the jump, was now in a cast-on where he expected the Germans to attack and in what strength. Vandervoort took this in, then ordered Wray to return to the company and have it attack the German flank before the Germans could get started.
“He said, ‘Yes Sir,’ saluted, about-faced, and moved out like a parade ground Sergeant Major,” Vandervoort later wrote.
Wray passed on the order. As the company prepared, he took up his M-l, grabbed a half-dozen grenades, and strode out, his Colt .45 on his hip and a silver-plated .38 revolver stuck in his jump boot. He was going to do a one-man reconnaissance to formulate a plan of attack.
WRAY WAS going out into the unknown. He had spent half a year preparing for this moment, but he was not trained for it. Wray and his fellow paratroopers, like the men at Omaha and Utah beaches, had been magnificently trained to launch an amphibious assault. By nightfall of June 6 they had done the real thing successfully. But beginning at dawn, June 7, they were in a terrain completely unfamiliar to them. In one of the greatest intelligence failures of all time, neither G-2 (intelligence) at US First Army nor the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) G-2, nor any division S-2 (special staff intelligence) had ever thought to tell the men who were going to fight the battle that the dominant physical feature of the battlefield was the maze of hedgerows that covered the western half of Normandy.