In the Presence of Heroes

Originally posted on November 10, 2009
Years ago I began the process of getting touch with my Uncle Harry, who was a paratrooper killed at Anzio in February of 1944. Not in any spooky sense, but to try and remember the life of a man who joined the Army in early 1941 and who was looked up to by his friends and family as a natural leader and who died in the fog of war too young. After doing some research, I attended a reunion of his unit to try and find someone who may have known him to try to get to know him better. Not much of a thread to connect over 65 years, but something to try and connect with why he did what he did and who he was as a man. I have been through my own experiences and wanted to find a connection. What I found was something more.
The 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion was a very unusual unit. They were an independent battalion, only 400 men in an Army where the normal combat unit is a regiment of 3-4 Battalions. The 509th did not fit into most battle plans easily, but they gave the commanding general a unit of very tough, capable soldiers who could go anywhere fast to hold an airfield or bridge or town. They were the first unit into combat in North Africa, making our country’s first parachute assault against the Vichy French, and yes, a number of men were killed. They fought again throughout North Africa, including Kasserine Pass, where they held, and a bunch of places now long forgotten. Along the way they gained a reputation as something of a bunch of buccaneers and a little bit raffish. Maybe it had something to do with their first CO, LTC Edson Raff. Through the years, the 509th has been staffed and commanded by some of the finest men in the Army. in Mid 1943 LTC, later General Yarborough, the father of the Special Forces, commanded the unit. More recently, Generals Casey and Petraeus started their careers there. The 509th has always attracted the best.
After North Africa they were rested in Casablanca, which was much less romantic than it sounds. They were held in reserve in Sicily, which for the airborne was a debacle. Hundreds of American and British paratroopers were lost there before they even landed, many shot down by our own antiaircraft fire. At Salerno, they were parachuted behind enemy lines at Avellino to try to relieve the beachhead. Half of them didn’t make it back from that one, captured or killed. Later on, in a town called Venafro, 11 miles east of Cassino, they became mountain troops in a bitter cold, wet November and spent a month in the line with the Rangers. That was all one could ask of any man. Pneumonia, shrapnel, small arms, and hand to hand combat decimated the unit at each of these stops. My uncle, we knew, had been wounded once in North Africa and again at Venafro. He was said to have escaped from the hospital in Naples to get back to his unit for the Anzio landings, where they were the spearhead, the first men on the beach. He was killed by shrapnel a few weeks into the battle. Once again, the 509th was at the tip of the sword.

I met his Company Sgt., George Fontanesi, at one of the reunions. He remembered my uncle as a kid from Brooklyn, but not much more about him. George is 90 now (he has since passed on). He also told me that in the 509th, the turnover was so high from wounds and deaths that men came and went at far too fast a pace. You lost track, and only after the war sometimes found out. He gave me an example. There was a hill in village called Carano at Anzio, where my uncle had died a few days prior to this battle. The 509th were at the very point of the Allied line in front of the entire army, and the Germans were throwing what seemed like their entire army at B/509 trying to drive the Americans into the sea. On that hill was a reduced Company. Whatever was left of what was supposed be 100 men after almost 4 weeks of close combat. Maybe there were 25-30 men left at that point. The other Companies were nearby, but the Germans decided that they wanted that hill and sent a reinforced regiment with tanks and artillery. It is in the history books. B Company took everything the Germans could hit them with and held. In the middle of the night, George told me, they received 18 replacements. In a foxhole with a piece of paper and a flashlight, it was his responsibility to parcel them out to the fighting positions. The next morning, every one of those men was dead. Such was the history of the 509th. George explained it as it was, no varnish. An awful lot of 509′ers never made it home alive. The wounded sometimes came back, but often didn’t. Harry made it back twice before he died. It was that kind of bond they shared.
The 509th then fought as the pathfinders for the invasion of Southern France, again the first to fight. They helped liberate Cannes and Nice and the French Riviera and lost more men, and then rested at the end of the year outside of Paris. Like the 506th Regiment (the Band of Brothers), they were called out to fill the lines at The Bulge and took another bad hit at a place called Sadzot in Belgium for Christmas, when a full division bore down on them. A month later, they fought one last time at St. Vith. The orders to disband the 509th and parcel the troopers out had been on the way since before the Bulge, but only reached them on January 27. On the 28th, they pulled out of close contact with the enemy at the bottom of a hill with only 55 men still standing. Officially, the unit was disbanded on March 1, 1945. From the first to fight in the European Theater in Africa to March 1, 1945 over 7,500 men passed through the 509th, the majority wounded at least once or dead.
The 509th appeared and disappeared through the 60′s, almost like a ghost until the 1970′s when it once again was reactivated as a front line unit. The 509th Airborne Combat team was the only airborne unit in Europe, once again the tip of the spear. A separate Pathfinder Company were activated only to again be deactivated along with 1/509. In the 1980′s the 1/509th was again activated, this time it seems for a good while. They are the OPFOR (Opposing Force) who train other Army units in urban and guerilla warfare. These days, most of them are Iraq and Afghanistan vets, some with 3 tours, who do their best to drive much larger forces crazy in order to prepare them for the real thing.
Wearing beards and keffiyahs and kidnapping Colonels, capturing command posts, delaying and ambushing larger units than themselves, and then reviewing the results and both teaching and learning from each encounter are all in a day’s work. It is very demanding work, but it has its charms. One trooper delighted in telling me how they had captured a senior officer and then used his cell phone to call other CO’s, threatening them in pidgin Arabic laced with English curse words. He took special pleasure when he found his own former CO’s number. Some of these soldiers jumped in during the first Iraq invasion. Others came from other line units. Every one of them is smart and creative and committed.
One has to love the sublime logic of the Army. The 3rd battalion/509th PIR was stood up at Ft. Richardson, AK in 2006 as part of the 25th (Tropic Lightning) Division, based in Hawaii. As part of Spartan Brigade, they went to Iraq, where they distinguished themselves as a part of the Anbar Awakening where generals argued over who would retain their services. One Company, along with a company of Marines, fought a pitched battle with over 2,000 insurgents. I met one of those Marines by chance at a supermarket the day before Thanksgiving last year, and he told me his part of the story. He didn’t have the words to express his admiration, and I’m sure the feeling was mutual. It was rough Eventually, with the cooperation of the local sheikhs, Anbar was pacified and proved General Petraeus’ strategy for the Surge to have been a success. Other Geronimo companies served in Baghdad, Babil, and elsewhere. Anywhere it was hot.
There is a toll for this. Honor in combat does not come necessarily from bravery, but from survival. 21 509′ers gave their lives in Iraq. One squad in Able Company (Able Nation) lost every member but one. He ended up in Afghanistan when 3/509 deployed. He wasn’t going to leave his buddies. I understood why my uncle did what he did back in early 1944, but this brought it all full circle. It’s the same as it’s been since Julius Caesar; squad, company, maniple, century. One for all and all for one.
We had a reunion a few months ago. There were only 6 of the originals able to attend; the rest gone or infirm. We had a lot of guys from the 70′s and 80′s, and 60 active duty 509′ers from Ft. Polk dropped in (literally). A few from 3/509 were there who had been transferred to new postings. The Army is like that, 2 years and you’re in school or halfway across the world in a new post in most cases. But the connection to the 509th remains. West Point has the Long Gray Line, but this is about shared experience and hardship; in training and under fire. I never thought I would get so much out of it. Lessons learned 60 years ago; lessons learned a lot more recently. And a lot of good friends across the age band.
The kids coming back from Central Asia have seen as much as anyone else of war and its pain. Urban combat in Iraq and fighting in the high mountains and valleys for sometimes 3 or 4 1 year tours of duty has its own burden. And it has its price. Not a lot of people volunteer for this, and that in itself has deep meaning. The young ones are going to need the older ones. 4 months ago, a kid named Justin Casillas was carrying another kid named Aaron Fairbairn who had been wounded, over his shoulder to the aid station at a Godforsaken place called FOB Zerok when they were both killed. 6 days ago, another young man named Julian Berisford was killed on patrol. This isn’t going away anytime soon.
The bond between the old soldiers and the younger, whatever the unit, is more critical than ever. I see this as a part of the ongoing mission. There’s been talk of the VFW or Legion having issues at some posts with the old guys vs the Vietnam or younger guys, but not in the 509th. The Vietnam era guys especially can relate to the stress and make a contribution. Some of them are doing it already.
Back in 1941-45 or in Afghanistan or Stateside now, it takes a very special man to jump out of a perfectly good airplane. It takes even more to face a determined enemy with a rifle in your hands. Every one of these men, and every veteran deserves the respect of us all. They have earned it the hard way. There is little of the trivial about these men. But there is compassion and brotherhood and all of those noble characteristics we don’t have enough of these days. Heroism is a combination of many things. To me, the greatest of all is keeping on even when the fear in your heart tells you your number is up. Every one of these men, old and young, meet any definition of the word you’d care to use.
So when you’re at the store or work or any of the places you go tomorrow and you look around, remember not just these men, but all of the men and women who have served. When you take the oath, you commit your life to your country. It is one of the great callings, especially in America. Also remember that overseas, the French and British and Canadians and Australians and many other countries remember their veterans tomorrow as well. And give a thought to every one of them around the world.