Tonight We Die As Men, The Story of the 3rd Battalion, 506th PIR
After Capt. Ramsey, Lt. Powell and Pvt. Durden defeat a small group of German soldiers near a stable on a French farm in Normandy’s bocage country, they find Pvt. Cobb, a paratrooper, in the farmhouse. This event, by itself, isn’t that remarkable. But, when Cobb identified himself as “3rd of the 506th,” my interest was piqed. After all, the 506th’s 1st Battalion served in WWII, Vietnam, Korea and Iraq. The 2nd Battalion became famous after its depiction in the HBO miniseries “Band of Brothers.” Not much has ever been said about the 3rd Battalion. This, I told myself, was something worth investigating.
My investigation led me to a book by Ian Gardner and Roger Day, Tonight We Die As Men: The Untold Story of Third Battalion 506 Parachute Infantry Regiment from Toccoa to D-Day. Gardner and Day tell the story through testimony from 3rd Battalion veterans, French civilians, and anyone else involved in the unit’s actions from training to Normandy, as well as original research and historical documents.
The 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment was activated on July 20, 1942, at Camp Toccoa, Ga., and Col. Robert F. Sink was placed in command. The 506th was the first unit recruited directly from the civilian population, and was divided into three battalions. According to Cpl. Martin Clark, men were assigned to battalions in the following fashion: 1st Battalion took anyone with prior military training, including the Boy Scouts, 2nd Battalion took the remainder, and 3rd Battalion consisted of the men who arrived at Toccoa in September 1942.
After arriving at Toccoa, members of the 506th endured 13 weeks of training that was designed to eliminate all but the strongest (7,000 recruits had been cut to nearly 2,000 by the final week), and included regular 7-mile runs up and down the 1,735-foot Currahee Mountain. In December 1942, the regiment moved to Fort Benning, Ga.. The 3rd Battalion, commanded by Lt. Col. Robert Wolverton, took a train to Atlanta, then marched the remaining 136 miles to Fort Benning. Here, they were fully qualified as paratroopers after five training jumps. In June 1943, at Camp Breckinridge, Ky., the 506th officially became part of the 101st Airborne Division. On Sept. 5, 1943, the 3rd Battalion left the United States aboard the HMTS Samaria, destined for England and Camp Ramsbury, where they lived in huts and trained for the invasion of Europe.
The 3rd Battalion’s D-Day objectives were two wooden bridges and passenger ferry on the river Douve, located six miles inland from Utah Beach and about two miles east of Saint-Côme-du-Mont. The footbridge, vehicle bridge, and ferry were important links between Omaha and Utah beaches. HQ Co., supported by H Co., were to secure the road bridge, while G and I companies were assigned to capture the footbridge downstream. The 3rd Battalion would be assisted by two platoons from C Co. 326th Airborne Engineers, who were to destroy the bridges if necessary. After taking the positions, the 3rd Battalion was to defend them until relieved by the U.S. 4th Infantry Division.
However, when the plan was put into action, it didn’t go as planned, even though the 3rd Battalion had a higher percentage of men dropped on target than the rest of the 101st. Eight sticks (planeloads) landed on drop zone D, and 26 were less than a mile away, though this was still not as accurate as the planners had hoped. Wolverton’s stick landed in an area with a high density of enemy soldiers, and he was killed in less than a minute, hanging from a tree in his harness (his body was later used as German target practice and not cut down until four days had passed).
Many paratroopers were scattered, and many lost equipment on the way down. Some were captured, and some landed with other units and fought with them until reunited with their original squads. Many of the surviving 3rd Battalion men made it to the bridges, but their situation was unknown to the rest of the division.
The day after the jump, 2nd Lt. Charles Santarsiero made contact with Gen. Anthony McAuliffe, the 101st divisional artillery commander. Santarsiero said that as he described the actions of the 3rd Battalion since June 6, the general “wore a worried expression.” At the conclusion of the story, McAuliffe “walked over and said, ‘Charlie, thank God, you’ve brought great news.’ He then smiled, took me by the arm, pointed at his battle map and said, ‘Look at the last entry I made before you entered.’ He’d placed a red circle around the bridges with a note saying, ‘No word from 3rd Bn 506. Unable to contact by radio, sent numerous patrols out but unable to get through due to enemy forces. We can assume that the 3rd Bn has been annihilated.’”
The unknown situation of the 3rd Battalion led the Allies to order the bombing of the two bridges, strikes that injured some of the paratroopers who were, unknown to the pilots, not annihilated and actually holding their positions. By noon on the second day, the 150 men at the bridges had established firm communication with Sink’s command post. Later, the 3rd Battalion joined the attack on Carentan and fought in Bloody Gully. By the time the 101st shipped back to Southampton between July 10 and July 13, 1943, the 3rd Battalion had suffered the highest percentage of casualties in the division. Of 575 men that jumped, 93 had been killed and 75 were captured.
As a lover of history, I enjoyed this book immensely. It offered information that I couldn’t find elsewhere (even overturned errors that had been previously accepted as fact), and the first-hand accounts of a diverse batch of sources provided me with insight into the cruelty, kindness, preparation and panic on both sides of the battlefield that is hard to find elsewhere. There were also pages full of photographs sent to the authors from 3rd Battalion veterans, maps and other documents. Most of the information in this post is from this book, and I barely scratched the surface of the story told through its pages. If you’re interested in learning more, it can be found through most libraries and ordered through most bookstores. You won’t be disappointed.