Easy Company Mortarman Tells What It Was Like to Fight After D-Day

https://www.reutersconnect.com/all?id=tag%3Areuters.com%2C1944%3Anewsml_GM1EA5S0UJJ01&share=true

Easy Company Mortarman Tells What It Was Like to Fight After D-Day

A true hero.

The green light lit up the inside of the Douglas C-47 Skytrain’s fuselage, and 20 paratroopers from Easy Company’s Stick 70, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division charged out the door. Twenty-year-old Private Bradford “Brad” Clark Freeman, the fifth man in line, exited and his parachute quickly popped open. In the intermittent light of the full moon, he could see a pasture rushing up at him. He counted five cows below before he hit the ground.

“It was a nice jump,” Freeman recalled. He noticed one of the cows had a white face and red body, reminding him of the cows on his family farm in Artesia, Mississippi. For a brief second, he thought he was home before remembering he was now in enemy territory with a war to fight.

As Freeman freed himself from his jump harness, he looked skyward and saw paratroopers jumping out of another C-47. Their parachutes blossomed, and the men drifted to the ground. One man landed by a nearby road. Freeman rushed over and discovered it was his friend Private Lewis Lampos from Georgia, who slept across from him at their Aldbourne, England, barracks. Lampos had broken his leg. Freeman gathered up Lampos’s parachute and hid it in the woods then dragged him into some bushes. He briefly treated Lampos’s leg and told him if any vehicle passed by to shoot the driver. Then he took off to find more paratroopers as Lampos cursed after him. “They told us if you couldn’t help a wounded paratrooper,” explained Freeman, “you had to move on.” 

Freeman eventually joined a mixed group of paratroopers led by Lieutenant Richard “Dick” Winters. When Freeman mentioned that he thought he had landed on his farm, the other soldiers ribbed him. Sergeant William Guarnere repeatedly asked him, “What makes your big head so hard?”

They made their way through fields and high hedgerows, where Freeman eventually picked up an M1 Garand rifle, which he preferred to his folding-stock carbine. “It wouldn’t shoot far enough,” he said of his carbine, “but it was a good street fighter.” As the sun rose, they passed a field filled with captured Germans. Sergeant Don Malarkey, who was part of the group, started talking to one of the prisoners. “Malarkey and him had known each other from Oregon,” said Freeman.

Winters assigned Freeman and a few other paratroopers to guard a crossroads near the Brecourt Manor farm, where Winters and elements of 2nd Battalion would later take out four German artillery pieces. Freeman spent the rest of D-Day at the crossroad. Considering the action around him, his day was relatively quiet. The Germans never assaulted his checkpoint, nor did he see any 4th Infantry Division soldiers coming up from Utah Beach. “Every once in a while, someone would get a prisoner,” he recalled, “but we were moving around and really didn’t see many.” He did hear Navy shells soaring over his position as they screeched toward targets farther inland. “Those two or three shells made a big racket,” he recalled.

Freeman was the only member of the company from Mississippi. Raised just west of Columbus by Methodist parents, he was the youngest of four boys: Earl, Herb, Glover, and Carry. As a child, he sometimes played with a girl named Willie Gurley, but as he got a little older, his parents put him to work. “When I was 11, I got my Social Security number and I worked with [Earl] measuring cotton,” he explained. By high school, he and his brother Carry enjoyed reading about world events, especially Russian and German paratroopers. “We thought we’d like to be paratroopers.”

The two put their interest into practice one day when they grabbed a visiting neighbor’s umbrella and ran to the barn. Climbing up to the loft, they opened the umbrella and jumped. The umbrella immediately collapsed, and the two crashed to the ground. “We ran into the woods until our mother called us back to milk the cows,” said Freeman. “Nothing was said about it.”

Freeman was swinging on a neighbor’s swing with their young daughter one day when the girl’s mother came out to say that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor and that he should go home. It was December 7, 1941, and Freeman was only 17. “I didn’t know what was going on,” he recalled.

As the country went to war, Freeman attended Mississippi State College in Starkville, signing up for the draft when he turned 18 in September. “I figured if I joined the Army,” he said, “I could finish that year of school.” When the semester ended, he was sworn into the U.S. Army on December 12, 1942, and four months later he reported to Camp Shelby in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, for induction.

While Freeman joined up, his four brothers took on various wartime careers. Earl had spent four years in the Army before the war and had gone to work with the Civilian Conservation Corps at Camp Shelby. Herb caught a thorn in his eye while cutting bodark hedges and was ineligible for service. Glover, who had played football for Southern Mississippi State, joined the infantry and served in Greenland and Iceland before transferring to England, where he took classes at Oxford University. Carry, who had jumped out of the barn with Freeman under the umbrella, earned an officer’s commission in the 11th Airborne Division. He jumped into New Guinea and fought in the Philippines in the Pacific Theater.

After Freeman’s induction, he traveled to Fort McClellan, Alabama, for basic training. The Army issued him a uniform but had no size six boots, so he began training in his Sunday shoes. Once he graduated, a contingent of paratroopers came through the camp looking for volunteers. Freeman, considering himself a veteran paratrooper since he had jumped under an umbrella, eagerly joined and headed off to Fort Benning, Georgia, to become part of the airborne.

He joined Colonel Ducat M. McEntee’s 541st Parachute Infantry Regiment, training at Fort Benning. All candidates had to make five jumps, including one at night, to earn their jump wings. Despite the tension and anxiety of jumping out of a plane (or perhaps because of it), Freeman often jumped with a plug of Bloodhound brand chewing tobacco in his cheek. On one jump, he leaped out of the aircraft, but one of the candidates refused to jump. “They took him away,” recalled Freeman. “That was the last time I seen him.”

On his third jump, Freeman’s parachute deployed but his leg got caught in his harness. As he floated to Earth, an instructor shouted up to him how to disentangle his leg. He wrestled himself free before hitting the ground and landed safely except for one thing: “I swallowed my chewing tobacco.”

For the night jump, on October 30, 1943, three C-47s packed with paratroopers took off, but one aircraft crashed, killing 14 men. “I didn’t know them, but they gave me 14 days to go home,” said Freeman. He wanted to be home for Thanksgiving, November 25, but his 14-day leave expired on Thanksgiving Day, forcing him to return to duty before the holiday arrived. Upon his return, he received his coveted wings.

The training continued with Freeman making it through the daily grind of hikes and calisthenics. Despite the regiment’s excellent performance and high marks, it was part of the Army’s strategic reserve, not slated for overseas duty. Freeman wanted to fight. Fortunately, the 11th, 82nd, and 101st Airborne Divisions needed paratroopers for combat. Freeman was picked for Maj. Gen. Maxwell Taylor’s 101st, which had already departed for England in September, three months earlier.

In February 1944, Freeman, promoted to corporal, boarded a converted cruise ship to cross the Atlantic Ocean for England. He enjoyed standing on deck and watching flying fish jump alongside the ship. The trip was not all smooth. When the ship hit a storm with heavy seas, the crew sealed all the hatches. “We felt like we were being smothered to death,” Freeman recalled. When the ship finally arrived in England, he and about 11 other paratroopers disembarked onto a ferry boat.

A lieutenant from Easy Company in Colonel Robert Sink’s 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment arrived in a jeep to bring the men to camp. Freeman did not like the looks of Lieutenant Dick Winters, the leader of Easy Company’s 1st Platoon. The two sat across from each other and, as Freeman remembered it, “We looked at each other like two bulldogs who wanted to fight.” Winters stood up, and Freeman, thinking they were about to grapple, started to get up. “Just sit back down,” Winters told him. “As you were.” Freeman sat down, and the two talked. He had a new respect for Winters.

Winters brought Freeman and the other new paratroopers to their new barracks in Aldbourne, headquarters for the 506th. They arrived at night, when the entire camp was blacked out, with no street lights and windows draped by heavy black curtains.

The next morning, Sergeant Guarnere marched the new paratroopers to the company commander, Lieutenant Thomas Meehan, who had taken command from Captain Herbert Sobel three months earlier after a handful of sergeants threatened to turn in their stripes instead of serving under Sobel. After a few words, Meehan dismissed all the men except Freeman, telling him the company had no room for a corporal and that Freeman would be reduced to a private first class. Freeman did not complain. “I liked being a private,” he reflected. Meehan assigned him to Sergeant Don Malarkey’s 4th Squad in Lieutenant Winters’ 1st Platoon. Freeman came to like Malarkey. “He was a good fellow all the way,” he said.