Friday, December 7, 2007

Today I met Living History!!!

Here is Don Malarkey during his time as a "Band of Brothers" in World War II.

On the right is Don recently with the actor who portrayed him in the HBO series "Band of Brothers". "ER" fans will recognize him as "Morris" the doctor in that series.

All I can say is...sometimes you meet up with history.

And that's Don Malarkey.

A member of the Band of Brothers profiled by Stephen Ambrose and then by the HBO special of the same name, Don Malarkey is an older man now, deaf from the four years of combat but with a clear eye, a fast wit, and a handshake that could crush a walnut.

Don sat with me for a half an hour for an interview on my radio show, and he's a simply remarkable character.

You look him in the eye and you can see that kid from Astoria who joined millions of his friends and neighbors and brothers to free the world from evil in 1945. You can imagine him in the hedgerows of Normandy and in the snow at Bastogne.

When he left us, he was striding confidently down that stairs, knowing just where he was going next...just like he did leading patrols 60 years ago.

It was an honor to meet him.

Below is a story from his experience in World War II as on of the “Brothers”.

The C-47 shook and rumbled over the ink black sea, pitching up and down as it careened recklessly towards the French shore. Its heavy wings vibrated, rattling loudly over the roar of the engines. Inside the plane men were getting ready to face the darkness, standing up, checking weapons, puking. The big plane was over land now and guts tightened.

Down below, sinister fingers of bright light reached up to grab the plane, holding it in its deadly grip. Angry tracers and their silent invisible partners ripped through the skies, the planes, and the men inside. Flak was bursting all around. The entire drop zone was alive with guns of all calibers, spitting their deadly venom skyward. The hard thumping of the flak bounced the plane, sending large chunks of shrapnel and smaller searing metal shards in all directions of the smoke filled sky. As soon as the jump light flashed green, the men did not hesitate to leap from the open door and fall from the sky.
Anything was better than this hell.

Don Malarkey was one of those men. Once out, he fell for what felt like an eternity through the smoke and the lethal metal fragments on this fateful morning of June 6th, 1944. Finally, his chute snapped open and the ground came up hard to greet him. High above him in the night sky were burning C-47 carcasses as they plummeted towards the ground filled with desperate men who had lived their last day.
Malarkey entered the European campaign unceremoniously in the wet darkness of the unseasonably cold June morning. His training had been superb and like the rest of his men he couldn’t wait to get into the action. But this wasn’t the plan. All of the planning and briefings failed to factor that the planes would be scattered from hell to breakfast from the flak, the confusion, and the carnage. Close by the guns of the vaunted Whermacht thumped away, sending their brilliant white tracers searching into the sky for more victims. Spotlights crisscrossed the sky searching for prey. The stench of gunpowder drifted low across the land hugging the ground and filling Malarkey’s nostrils with the vile smell.
Even if the plan had gone AWOL, Malarkey’s training had not. With the efficiency born of countless hours of training he squared away his chute and got himself ready for war. After all this man was Airborne and it was time to go to work. He pulled out his “cricket” and found that the wonder toy, soon to become synonymous with the Normandy Invasion, didn’t work. Feeling his way through the dark vegetation of the Norman countryside, Malarkey readied his weapon and began to move towards his objective, some obscure place referred to on the map only as “Causeway One and Two”. Even if he was the only guy left he’d be damned if he wasn’t going to get to that objective. Or die trying. As Malarkey groped his way forward he found himself in an orchard. He soon began to encounter other men who were scattered and separated from their teams. He was relieved when he found his pals Sergeants Bill Guarnere and Joe Toye. Soon they joined a small group of brothers from the 502nd. Realizing that they had to move through hostile countryside to reach their objective, the small force went on the alert and silently moved out.
It wasn’t long before the small force ran head long into a German re-supply effort delivering artillery shells to the fighting. The Whermacht enjoyed an unearned reputation for being highly mechanized. But the horse and wagons moving up the causeway were the real prime movers of a German Army that had advanced and then retreated through so many map points over the last three years. Unaware of the Americans, the small wagon column trotted right into the ambush. The Paratroopers made their move and the Germans were guaranteed they would never have to worry about being transferred to the Eastern front. Their war had just ended. There was no firing, just a startled raising of the hands followed by a nice orderly surrender. Malarkey marched the prisoners to a site off the road, his Thompson at the ready. As the prisoners were being disarmed and searched, Malarkey overheard one of the Germans talking in perfect english. He soon discovered the reason. Before heeding Hitler’s call to return to Germany, he had lived in the U.S. In fact he worked at the Monarch Steel Company in Portland, Oregon. Malarkey knew it well, since he worked across the street at Schnitzer Steel Mill. Small world.

The Germans were marched off and ordered to stay in the middle of the road with no exceptions. Suddenly a strafing plane flew low above them, its guns letting loose on unseen targets. Educated the hard way on the power of air supremacy, one of the Germans darted to a trench for protection and was promptly and unceremoniously shot. Just one example of the many Germans who would die all over Normandy this long and fateful day. The paratroops moved on, now warned to avoid the main road that ran the length of the invasion beaches as it was targeted for obliteration at 0600 by the guns of the big ships cruising just over the horizon.

You can’t know everything in a battle, but the battery of 105 mm howitzers dug in and well camouflaged seemed like a real miss for the boys in intelligence. Dug in three miles west of Utah beach, these guns were designed to lob shells at a high trajectory that maximized their impact. The 105 mm gun had done a lot of damage in this war. From Africa, Poland, Italy and the vast expanses of Russia, the weapon forged in the infamous furnaces of Krupp, had killed the sons of many mothers. And now it was thundering away at the vulnerable men on Utah and Causeways One and Two. Each deadly shell that crashed onto the beach sent hot metal shards and jagged chunks of beach shale in all directions, chewing up the exposed men as they scrambled to move inland.

If these four guns could get into an undisturbed rhythm, the results would be disastrous.

Dick Winters got the word that the Germans were raising hell on Utah with these big guns. Now the senior officer of Easy Company (because he had the good fortune to still be alive), Lt. Winters wasted no time pulling together a scratch force of twelve men to assault the position. Twelve was going to have to do since that was all that could be located from the company who had dropped earlier that morning. The rest were dead, missing, or scattered. Winters ordered his men to drop everything but their weapons and ammunition and move out, explaining his plan of attack as they moved. Don Malarkey, along with Sergeants Guarnere and Toye, were a welcome part of the team. After all they were from Easy Company, the battalions’ designated assault company. They would be sorely needed as all hell was about to break out.

Heavily camouflaged and hidden from the constant prying eyes of air reconnaissance, the guns of “Brecourt Manor” -as they would soon become known- were connected by an elaborate trench system and well protected by support troops. Some of which were manning deadly MG42’s. Tucked amongst the famous Norman hedgerows, Brecourt Manor was part of Le Grande-Chemin, a farm complex of four buildings that lent itself well as a forward artillery position. The efficiency of this well defended hornets nest was measured by the motionless men in olive drab uniforms that had earlier stumbled head-on before its ramparts. Moving towards the sound of the guns, the small band was able to get close enough to get a fix and move into position. 30 calibers were deployed as covering fire and mortars were brought up. However, the mortars were missing base-plates.

Malarkey crawled up to a hedge, pushed his way through the vegetation, and peered through. Not far in front of him he saw the outline of one of the 105’s dug in well under heavy camouflage netting. Winters had scratched together a plan and it was time to get into the war. In an orchard just outside of Brecourt, Winters ordered each man to line up and spray four clips into the general area of the gun positions. As the men fired away, Winters ordered Malarkey to cross the field to set up a defilade position. Taking a deep breath, Malarkey got ready to run. Just then the gravelly voice of Sgt. Buck Compton called him back. Compton makes the run himself, disappearing through the dense underbrush. Now the sixty man German garrison is alert and returning fire in all directions.

The war is on.

Malarkey breaks from the safety of his position, rolls down the opposite side of the embankment and lands in the German trench system. A few feet ahead of him a startled German defender takes off running down the long trench line. Malarkey pulls up his Thompson and prepares to fire, but the panicked soldier has gone around a bend in the trench. As Malarkey scrambles out of the trench he watches as the German soldier and another man wearing an officer’s cap break for the German safety of their own defensive line. The officer drops heavily from a shot to the head courtesy of Dick Winters. The accompanying soldier also falls to the ground clutching his back, also felled by Winters.

Malarkey is now in the open and running hard towards the first big gun. From their trench position the Germans are firing away, determined to defend their guns. Running hard, Malarkey sprays the area in front of him with automatic weapons fire, kicking up dirt and showering the defenders. He grabs a fragmentation grenade from his web belt and puts his finger on the pin ring. A German defender runs away, his helmeted head bobbing up and down with the hope of living a little while longer. Malarkey slides under the gun like a baseball player stealing home. He lands next to the lifeless body of a former member of the greater Reich. Now the frantic enemy is alert and fully pissed off. White hot bullets are pinging against the gun and tearing up the ground searching for the paratrooper. Returning fire, Malarkey tucks up under the gun behind the dead German and returns fire. Everywhere there is the sound of war as the bursts of gunfire merge with the screams of men desperately fighting to survive the carnage. As Malarkey returns fire he looks out into the field where the dead Germans are lying.

Beside the officer is a black leather case. Malarkey’s eyes narrow. He imagines that inside the case is the one thing he covets most from this war, an officers Luger. To this day he can’t say what got into him. But he will tell you that the need to get his hands on one of those pistols was enough to pull himself out of the scant protection of the trench and into the naked pasture that was anything but serene. An MG42 can fire 900 rounds a minute and there were several among the sixty-man defense crew deployed to defend the big guns. In the insanity of battle the most ridiculous of sights can have a curious effect on the combatants. Malarkey running in to the field in search of his long desired prize could only be rationalized by the Germans as a medic committed to helping out one of their wounded men. So the guns stopped firing in his direction long enough to grab his “prize” and it was out in the middle of god’s creation, naked and defenseless that Malarkey realized that he was holding the empty case to the 105 gun site. A good officer can be heard over almost anything and this was certainly the case for Malarkey as he heard Winters voice shouting over the chaos of war to get his ass back to the trench. Running for his life the Germans made a furious attempt to pick him off as he ran through a hailstorm of dirt and debris all around him. He knew he’d be hearing about it for a long time afterwards if he managed to survive this battle.

As he dove out of breath under the gun, the bullets followed after him kicking the hell out of everything around him. Sergeant Guarnere’s voice was calling him from the other side of the hedgerow. As Malarkey reached him, Guarnere’s strong arms pulled him though the brush to relative safety.

Working their way back to Winters, the men encountered a small group of prisoners being held by part of the squad. Just as the men arrived, Cleveland O. Petty, who was manning a 30 caliber during the assault, walked up to the first prisoner and smashed him in the mouth with the brass knuckles on his 1918 trench knife, sending him crashing to the ground. Buck Compton jumps in and threatens a court martial, trying to maintain order amongst the killing. As the assault on the second gun continues, Winters orders Malarkey to take the left flank and set up a 30 caliber for covering fire. By this point the battle was moving away from him and his contribution to it’s success has been guaranteed. The last thing Don Malarkey did in that battle was to fire a few mortar rounds in the general direction of Brecourt Manor.

Three of the guns were destroyed that day in what has become a text book example of a frontal assault against a fixed position. In 1984 Don Malarkey went back to Brecourt Manor and met with its owner. He walked over and pointed out large shrapnel marks on the wall. “This is where your mortar round landed” the farmer said in his thick French accent. Malarkey walked over and touched the wall still damaged after all these years. His fingers traced the scars and he smiled.


mick b; the Postman said...

Thanks for this post, Big Bill. We need to hear more about these self-sacrificing individuals who believe in this country so strongly they are willing to fight and die for it. It's a heart condition that dissipates exponentially with every passing generation. How ironic that some citizens mock the great country that affords them the freedom to open their mouths in dissent. Some would say that that is an essential quality to being an American. There is a fine line, however, between disagreeing with the direction or policies of a nation and maligning your country in the presence of Hugo Chavez, burning the flag, etc. Though I've never served my country militarily, I'll defy anyone who claims any nation is greater than the United States of America.

Bill's Waste of Air said...

Thanks Mick.
I will eventually try to post the actual audio from the interview.
This man was brave, humble and an absolute pleasure to meet and talk to.
The WWII generation are dying at a rate of about 1600 a day, so they are going fast. I would implore anyone who knows one, relative or friend, thank them now before it is too late, and get them to talk. Many of them have not talked about the horrors they went through, some never will, but some of them are just waiting for us to ask.
I would also highly suggest watching the series "Band of Brothers" and then it will really bring to life a little of what they and he went through.

Tammy Bowers said...

Great post. I actually read the whole thing. I don't usually read the long ones, but was too engrossed to stop. I watched Band of Brothers in 2003 and again last year when I had to read the book for a History project. It was excellent each time through. People survived amazing things. Makes me feel like a wimp!
Lucky you to have met Malarky in person!