Dead Man's Ridge
Pfc. Al Bryant, 17th Airborne Division, 513th Parachute Infantry Regiment, B Co
(On January 4th, 1945, the 17th Airborne Division and it's attached units launchedtheir counter-attack in an area about twelve miles west of Bastogne dubbed "Dead Man's Ridge.")
On the eve of January 3rd, 1945 Company B of the 513th PIR moved into a wooded area about ten miles from Bastogne. This was our first encounter seeing dead frozen soldiers laying in the snow, both German and American. They didn't look real. One of our troopers was heard to say "they're sure making this maneuver look real with all these wax dummies laying around."
It was dark when we reached our bivouac area and we were told to dig. The ground was frozen and full of roots. I remember it took a long time for the two of us to dig a hole big enough for both of us to fit into. If only we had known that the Germans had left behind a five or six man bunker no more than eight feet from where we dug in!
On the morning of the 4th, just as it started to get light the Germans started an artillery barrage on our position. We were not safe in our fox hole because the artillery shells were going off in the treetops and raining shrapnel down all around us. It was just light enough to see the opening to the bunker that the Germans had built. About ten other troopers saw it at the same time and we all dove in, someone said "I'll light a match." Someone else said, "Don't!" "Why?" someone asked. "Because I think I'm sitting on a dead German" was the response. When the artillery shelling stopped we moved out over a large open field that had no cover. That was when the artillery shelling started again. There was snow on the ground and every time a shell hit and exploded it left a big black ring in the snow about fifty feet across. I wondered at the time if the black ring was represented the killing zone. When it happened again I was glad to see one trooper get up and move out of the black zone on his own. It was at this moment that I first experienced the sound of a bullet passing directly over my head. I dropped to the ground and landed on top of my gas mask. When I saw how much the mask elevated my hind end all I could think of was I was going to get my ass shot off! I didn't think twice about discarding my gas mask.
We finally made it to the road just north of the small village. It had high banks on both sides and that is where we were told to dig in. The Tiger tanks were shelling the tree tops that bordered the village. The raining shrapnel caused me to give thanks that I was not in the village. Our anti-tank weapons were useless against German Tiger tanks. When our bazookas fired a missle and it one of the tanks it might knock off a liitle metal but no real harm was done. We had a trooper dug in with a bazooka about forty feet in front of us. He fired his bazooka at a Tiger tank, the tank fired back and our trooper was directly hit by an eighty-eight millimeter shell. One of his body parts landed near me.
We had four tanks in support.Two were knocked out almost immediately by the Tiger tanks. In a disabled tank one of the crew was screaming for help. In plain view of the enemy our medic Captain climbed up on the tank and pulled him out. The surviving crew member had both feet blown off. We were out of anti-tank ammunition and up the road came two Germans under a white flag. The one in the back was holding a light machine gun. They told our officer in charge that down in the village where our woundedwere being kept, they had a Tiger tank with the cannon pointed at them and they would be killed if we didn't surrender. One of our troopers tried to bayonet the German holding the white flagand machine gun but several of our troopers stopped him. I remember that the officer who surrendered us was not our regular Battalion commander.
As the Germans marched us away, we passed a Tiger tank with the tank commander standing up in the turret. I held up two fingers in the shape of a 'V'. Big mistake. The tank commander pulled out what looked like a forty-five pistol, aimed it at me and started shouting in German (which I didn't understand). Luckily, there was someone nearby who understood German and told me that the person holding the gun wanted my gloves. I don't need to go into detail on how quickly I responded to this request.
Some time that day they lined us up against a brick wall where we were looking at a tank with that big gun pointed right at us. I know that I was pretty nervous at this point because I had no ideawhat was going to happen. It turned out they were only going to search us for any hidden weapons.
The 4th of January 1945 was one of the longest days of my life. That night they put into a big barnand interrogated us one by one. When they brought me into the interrogation room, my first thought was that this looked like a WW 1 moviewith all the high ranking officers with monocles standing around. As I could see by the flickering light, they were in their fancy uniforms. They started out by telling me everything they knew of the 513th. I guess this was to make me think since they knew just about allthere was to know it wouldn't matter what I told them. I gave them my name, rank and serial number in reply to each question and said that I would rather not answer. They soon sent me out to wait with the others until they finished interogating the remaining troopers.
From there they led us to a big building that looked like a hospital. They led us through a large opening in the basement. I was the last man in the column and as our troops moved through the opening they started to scream. This is when my imagination ran wild. I think that at that moment I knew the end was near and I looked to see if there was any possibility of escape. But there was the German with the light machine gun bringing up the rear. My only thought at that time was that I would live another thirty-seconds if I went through the opening. As I passed through the opening much to my relief, but then anger as I saw what the men were screaming about! It had been a long and vigorous dayand they were extremely tired. It was places in the hay where now they could finally get some rest and sleep. That was what they were screaming about. This had been the longest day of my life!
(Reprint from Thunder From Heaven Volume 55 Number 1 - March 2008 [Final edition])
Jump over the Rhine conclusion:
McMeans was an unlikely paratrooper
Editor’s note: Second of a two-part series on paratrooper Pfc. Floyd McMeans’ experiences during World War II.
“Operation Varsity” was underway. A joint American-British operation, it consisted of over 21,700 paratroopers and 3,100 planes and gliders, a sky train over 200 miles long that lasted for two hours.
Unknown to Pfc. Floyd McMeans of Athens, Gen. Eisenhower was watching the operation from a church tower west of the Rhine River and witnessed two-thirds of the C-46’s damaged and in flames as they struggled toward the drop zone.
Twenty-two aircraft carrying the 513th went down and 38 were damaged.
The 513th had a tough assignment: parachute east of the Rhine River near Wesel, Germany, push the German Army back and allow the 2nd British Army to cross the famous river. It was their first combat jump and would be the last full-scale air drop in World War II.
McMeans was an unlikely candidate for a swaggering paratrooper, tough men who took pride in wearing spit-polished jump boots, bloused pant legs and shiny parachute wings on their chest.
The blue-eyed, sinewy, 135-pounder had been born Oct. 3, 1919, in Hardin County, Tennessee. His father, J.D. McMeans, had married D.C. Junior — “a mite near full-blooded Indian.” Her family was from Counce, Tennessee, and had moved there from Oklahoma. Their ancestors once lived in Georgia and were likely part of the Trail of Tears enforced march to Oklahoma. McMeans’ parents moved to Limestone County when he was 7 or 8 years old where his father logged for the Hendricks brothers sawmill on Lucas Ferry Road.
Later, the family moved to the George Houston place near Tanner and cut timber, then out to Ben Peck’s sawmill near Piney Creek on Nick Davis Road. That’s where McMeans grew to manhood. His buddy, James Wilson, knew some girls that attended Reunion Church of Christ on Holt Road.
“We’d go there to see the girls,” says McMeans. That’s where he met pretty Leona Montgomery.
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, McMeans says, “I didn’t know nothing about it.” His life was simple and pretty much confined to his community. He had quit school in the sixth grade and worked full time doing what he had always done — cut timber and saw logs.
Two months later, Feb. 18, 1942, he was drafted and sent to Ft. McPherson, Georgia. Following boot camp he was assigned to Coast Artillery on Swinburne Island guarding New York City. His monthly pay was $18. McMeans, now 94, using a hearing aid and cane, volunteered for the paratroopers to earn more money.
“I made $51 dollars a month instead of $18.”
He attended jump school at Ft. Benning, Georgia, where the tradition of paratroopers yelling “Geronimo” originated in 1940. He and Leona corresponded. He came home on furlough wearing his shiny paratrooper boots, bloused pant legs and silver jump wings and attended a funeral at Isom’s Chapel with his mother. A local soldier had been killed in the war.
“Mama knew the family, and we went to show our respect,” says McMeans. “And I wanted to show off my Army uniform.”
The 513th Infantry Regiment was formed at Ft. Benning on Jan. 11, 1943, and two months later was assigned to the 17th Airborne Division. They departed Boston headed for the war on the USS Wakefield on Aug. 20, 1944, and arrived in Liverpool, England, eight days later. McMeans sailed out of New York harbor as a replacement on the Queen Mary, April 5, 1945, and arrived in Europe 13 days later.
In war, events don’t always go as planned. When the 513th jumped across the Rhine River, they landed smack dab in the middle of a heavily fortified area near the town of Hamminkeln. To complicate matters, British gliders landed on top of them. The paratroopers confronted a frontal assault by the Germans and pushed them back capturing Hamminkeln.
“After the jump, we rode British tanks chasing the Germans,” says McMeans.
The operation was successful, capturing 1,100 POWs. During the war, the 17th Airborne suffered 1,191 killed and 4,904 wounded in action.
Hitler and his new bride, Eva Braun, committed suicide on April 30, 1945. A week later, Germany surrendered unconditionally and the war in Europe was over. McMeans and the 513th boarded ships and sailed toward Japan.
“We passed the Rock of Gibraltar,” he remembers. “Then the Japanese surrendered.”
He was discharged on Nov. 28 at Ft. Benning, where he had first learned to jump out of airplanes. Then he boarded a bus to Athens. He had served his country three years, four months and 21 days.
He returned to Ben Peck’s sawmill for a while and then landed a job at Redstone Arsenal. On Aug. 28, 1945, he married Leona Montgomery before a justice of the peace, and they moved into a small house in the Clements sawmill yard on Nick Davis Road. They have five children: Judy Ann Bunker, Martha Legg (deceased), Debra Gail Thornton, Rhonda McMeans and Edward Glenn McMeans. There are 10 grandchildren, 10 great-grandchildren and 1 great-great-grandchild.
McMeans is the holder of the American Theater Ribbon, European-African-Middle Eastern Ribbon with one Bronze Star, Good Conduct Medal, World War II Victory Medal and the Parachutist wings. He and Leona, 92, live on Drawbaugh Road and still attend Reunion Church of Christ where they first met over 72 years ago.
(Reprint from The News Courier - Sep 30, 2014)
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