Brandon Neff
United States
South Jordan
Utah
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6-Jun-1944

Dear Mom and Dad:

Today was the worst day of my life. I am writing this to let you know that I’m not hurt, but that I’m very frightened. Last night I jumped out of a plane amidst a hail of fire and chaos. As I was coming down in my chute, I could see some of my fellow paratroopers being hit by fire and some of the transport planes brought down by flak. The whole plane went down in a fireball and crashed into a farmhouse here in Normandy. I ask you to pray for the families of those guys that never had a chance.

I thought there could be nothing worse than jumping out of that plane, but once we hit the ground, it got worse and fast! Because of the heavy Anti-Aircraft fire, my regiment was dispersed all over the countryside. This morning at 5:30, Lt. Col Ballard rounded up enough men to complete his objectives. I wasn’t hurt so I made up part of his strike force. We needed to capture and hold several bridges across the Douve river near Carentan (try and find it on a map and you’ll know the general area I’m in right now).

Anyway, as we were heading out towards the bridges we suddenly came under fire from a town 400 yards west of us. The paratroopers made it through the fire ok, but the engineers we had brought to blow the bridges were gun down right there on the road. I can’t tell you how horrible it was to see them crying for help as they bled to death from all their wounds. Captain Witt is a good leader and he kept up our morale which is a good thing because no sooner had we found cover than mortar rounds started exploding all around us! I’m glad I didn’t lose my helmet in the jump (I lost most of my gear when the prop blast hit me) because one landed a little too close and I was pelted with rocks and dirt. The mortars kept coming and pinned us down and the Germans then started to shoot at us from town again. Lt. Col. Ballard and Captain Witt were pretty shaken up and it took a few moments before we were able to do much of anything. Once the shooting stopped, we ran towards town to engage the enemy. Suddenly we were shot at from a different direction! There were Germans everywhere! The men I was with were getting hit, but nothing too serious. At least, not like the poor engineers. The fire disrupted our advance, but the other group or paratroopers fared better than us.

Our 1st Lieutenant, a nice man from California, grabbed a few of us and urged us forward into town. In there, he said, we’d find some better cover than out here in plain sight. I didn’t need to be told twice so I ran into town and immediately ran right into a group of German Grenadiers! I ducked behind a low wall, but the guys running up behind me were sitting ducks. I’d guess about 20 guys were killed as we made the advance into town. It was a horrible price to pay, but there wasn’t any easy way around it. Captain Witt was mortified to see this happen to the men he had just urged onward and he sprawled out behind a water trough and just bowed his head. As hard as this war is on me, I can’t imagine how hard it must be to order men to their deaths. One of the other leaders, a 2nd LT, I think, was pretty shaken up as well. Needless to say, the paratroopers that had to run in through all the fire went from battle-ready to demoralized in just a few minutes. Our situation was awfully bleak, but we had to do the best with what we had.

The Germans pressed us again but now that we had some cover and concealment, we were unfazed by the attack. Unfortunately, our counter was ineffective as well. A few mortar rounds exploded in some of the buildings nearby (I sure wish they would have hit some Germans!), but didn’t cause any injuries.

Captain Witt managed to compose himself a bit and while still shaken up, was able to regain some order even as the Germans assaulted us again. I sat behind my wall, safe from gunfire and shot a few times at a group of Germans nested in the loft of a building but I don’t think I hit any. Safe in our hiding places, the paratroopers that were demoralized by the advance seemed to recover, albeit still disrupted. A few more mortar rounds landed, but I don’t think they know how to aim, because they don’t seem to be able to hit anything!

Lt. Col. Ballard tried to rally, but a few shots landed a bit too close for comfort and he settled back down into his make-shift bunker. I fear his morale was flagging at this point and we all look up to him in times like this! All of the paratroopers were safe, for the time being, and with the initial shock over, we were ready for orders!

The Germans came at us again and we were ready for it. They opened up with a heavy machine gun and while it pinned down a few men, some of the paratroopers maneuvered around a building and hit them hard with some well-placed grenades. The machine gunners were really shaken up and I could tell they didn’t have much fight left in them and I hoped they might bolt for cover. Their leader, a LT I think, was pretty shaken up as well. We jumped up and started shooting and wouldn’t you know it, I got one of the machine gunners right between the shoulders. He fell down like the deer dad and I used to shoot, but this sure felt different from killing a buck. This was another person, but better him than me, I say. Anyway, we wiped out their HMG unit, but Captain Witt was hit in the arm. He wasn’t hurt bad, but he had to sit tight and bandage it up.

We got word that more Germans were coming into town, probably the ones that shot at us earlier, but I’m not certain. Then the unthinkable happened. Lt. Col. Ballard, the man who had asked us all to join him was shot and killed. He was so demoralized that he turn to run and was hit several times. He was dead before he hit the ground and we just sat there, not knowing what to do! The Germans kept coming and we fought them back and really disrupted their attack.

The next 45 minutes is a blur. I remember gaining ground only to lose it again. Captain Witt had lost a lot of blood and was pretty demoralized and that disrupted our attack. At one point I remember seeing a bunch of German soldier running alongside a building and I had a clear shot at three or four of them. I fired until my gun jammed and I think I got most of them. At this point, my memory gets a bit foggy. I’m sure I’ll have nightmares about this for the next few days, but it seemed like we just kept killing one another. We’d gain a big advantage over the Germans, disrupting their command and demoralizing their men and then they’d recover and we’d be the ones disrupted and demoralized. Finally, the Germans broke through and just started wiping us out. I withdrew to a safer place and found the Lt. from California, dead, He had been shot right in the face and I won’t tell you how gruesome it was. I caught up with Captain Witt and he ordered a general retreat. We had lost too many men and there was no sense us all getting killed. We fled down the road, shots landing all around us and got back to safety. It took me a while to settle down, and I knew I needed to write you guys, just in case tomorrow I’m not so lucky. I’ve had my first taste of war and it is bitter. I love you both and miss you.

James
 
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