Saturday, July 21, 2012
Friday, July 20, 2012
Monday, July 16, 2012
(I got this email this morning from my Dad and I wanted to make sure I recorded his experience of this reunion he went to with my grandpa).
I wanted to share with you the experience of attending the 517th Airborn Regimental Reunion with my Dad in Kansas City while it is still fresh in my mind. It's been quite a remarkable few days. I have learned and observed a lot since arriving, discovering some things I didn't know about the 517th and deepening my appreciation of the sacrifice of these wonderful men.
We had 13 veterans that attended the reunion -- there are about 40 men from the 517th still alive, but only 13 were strong enough to travel here -- highlighting that fact, a 14th member died on the way to Kansas City. These men are between 88 and 94 years of age (interestingly, only 3 came with spouses -- the rest are widowers). It is pretty remarkable being in their comany. Dick Spears, the last surviving Battalion commander attended -- he is 95 years old. After serving as a Captain over the 3rd Battalion, he went on to become a Two-Star General in the army.
The first night of the reunion, I struck up a conversation with a tall, fit man in his early 20's who I assumed was a family member with one of the veterans. It turned out, he was an Army Ranger who was home on leave in Kansas City and had heard the 517th was having a reunion. I told him that it was nice of him to make the time to come to the reunion and that I was sure the veterans appreciated his willingness to be there. He responded, "No, you don't understand. Within the Army Special Services, the 517th is legendary -- it is the most decorated regiment in the Army -- we studied them at West Pointe. I couldn't pass up an opportunity to meet these men. They're heroes to me."
The first night, we watched a documentary on the 517th -- similar to the type of interviews that were done with the men of Company "B" after the Band of Brothers series. It was really moving.
A lot of us were excited to see the premier of the new Soldiers and Saints movie the following night, but for me, the highlight was this documentary -- I am bringing a copy of it home with me. The new Soldiers and Saints movie, by the way, was terrific -- much better than the first movie. It is about the 517th's jump into Southern France (Operation Dragoon). I can't wait for you to see it. It was not only about the paratroopers of the 517th, but actually about members of the First Battalion, which was my father's unit. It was very moving. But again, for me the documentary was the best. I was very moved when I saw the Soldiers and Saints movie, but wept when I saw the documentary. You'll understand when you see it.
Some observations --
I was touched by how deferential the other veterans were when they learned that Dad had been the Battalion Staff Sargeant for Captain ("Wild Bill") Boyle, who led the First Battalion (think Captain Winters in Band of Brothers). They were really close and Boyle was considered to be a legend in his own right (receiving the Distinguished Service Cross - the Army's second highest medal after the Battle of the Bulge). Boyle died 5 years ago, but his wife and five of his 10 kids were at the reunion. It was pretty emotional when Dad talked with Babbie Boyle and shared with her the admiration that he had for her husband and what they meant to each other. She responded that she had heard a great deal about Sargeant Kelley over the years, and how thrilled she was to meet the man who had saved her husband on more than one occasion.
The final night, our keynote speaker was the Lieutenant General of the Army over Special Services. I learned some things about the 517th that I hadn't known:
* During operation Dragoon in Southern France, the 517th engaged in front-line combat for 93 consecutive days -- an Army record that to this day has never been broken.
* The 517th had the highest "kill rate" among combat units.
* The 517th's reputation was so lethal that the Germans simply referred to them as "Devils with Baggy Pants" or "Big Pocket Murderers" (referring to their jump suits and their practice of never taking prisoners -- Since the 517th always fought behind enemy lines -- they had no provision for taking prisoners. If you encountered paratroopers from the 517th, you were as good as dead). They were more feared by the Germans than any other Allied force.
* The 517th was among the most highly decorated regiments in the history of the Army. Following the Battle of the Bulge, the entire regiment received a Presidential Commendation for bravery in the face of daunting risk (no, Dad never mentioned that to me).
* The 517th suffered a casualty rate of 89.1% -- at the end of World War II, it was permanently retired (having literally run out of men) Despite that high casualty rate, eight of its members went on to become Army Generals (also a record).
The general told the story of the 517th's final battle in Belgium -- which was the battle in which both Dad and Captain Doyle were gravely wounded. In order to cut-off the retreat of the German Army, the 517th was ordered to seize and control a key position behind the enemy lines. Holding that position until the regular Army could relieve them. Despite being hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned, and squarely in the path of the retreating German Army, the 517th would not "quit" the field. In that last engagement with the Germans -- the 2nd Battalion was pinned down and nearly wiped out -- only saved when Wild Bill Boyle and the 1st Battalion's HQ Company (my Dad's company) flanked the enemy and drew their fire. At the end of that final day's engagement, over 500 men of the 517th were killed (about half the remaining regiment).
Unlike many veterans, Dad didn't stay in touch with many former comrades after the war. That had always puzzled me. I now appreciate the reason for that -- he lost most of his friends in the Bulge.
My Dad tells the story of how when the 517th returned home, Life Magazine flew the men back to Georgia where they had done their basic training and had them line up in the field where they had taken their original regimental photograph before shipping off to Europe -- with each man standing in the same spot as in the original regimental photo -- to demonstrate how many men the regiment had lost. Apparently, the resulting photo was so stark and bereft of men that the Army refused to let Life Magazine publish the photo -- it was just too painful to see it. I think I now better understand that decision.
This will likely be the last national reunion of the 517th Airborn -- the veterans are getting too old to make the trip. It was an honor being here. I fear that with the passing of this, the "Greatest Generation," we will not see their like again.
Thursday, July 5, 2012
Fireworks at Turtle Bay!
I finally got some cute videos of Ollie surfing. We forgot his surfboard this day but he was ripping it up on his boogie board. He is seriously amazing. Can't wait to get Amelie swimming so she can get out there too!