Personal Accounts of Life in WW2
St Mere Eglise
The night before D-Day, the 3rd Battalion of the 505th Parachute Infantry, 82nd Airborne Division, jumped into the main square of Ste. Mere Eglise in Normandy, in advance of the Allied invasion. They were tasked with holding the town for one day so the Germans couldn't reinforce the beach head, but the anticipated reinforcements landing at Utah Beach couldn't get through. Troop strength and ammunition in Ste. Mere Eglise dropped by half and they had no big guns with which to hold off German tanks; they were pinned there under fierce attack for three days.
Among these brave soldiers was a paratrooper named Harry Gershon. He lived, but that was not his last battle. Harry Gershon fought many more, survived the Battle of the Bulge. While temporarily seconded to the British, the 22-year-old lieutenant led a patrol which virtually stumbled upon a scene of unspeakable horror. This young American Jew was the first Allied officer to liberate the prisoners of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. In his last battle of the war, he took out a strategically placed German machine gun nest with a well-placed grenade, but lost a thumb and parts of two fingers in the process, and was finally sent home. He was recognized for his wartime bravery with a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart, but it was more than fifty years before his children learned about his heroism. (When his first child asked what had caused Daddy's missing fingertips, he just grinned and said, "I bit my nails.")
I am proud to say that Harry Gershon is my father. He and his wife, Shirley, are currently on vacation, celebrating his 82nd birthday and their 40th wedding anniversary. I am fortunate to be able to say that. Most of the brave soldiers of World War II are gone now; huge numbers of them never even returned sixty years ago.
On the event of the dedication of the WWII memorial in Washington DC, I just wanted to express my gratitude to the brave generation who sacrificed so much in the name of freedom and to one particular representative: You've always been a hero to me, Pop!
On March 17th 2004 I received an email from Allan Bentham who has shown me how great a man Captain Walker really was. A story of human interest in the midst of chaos. Here is that information:
Corporal Bentham, RAF 1112608, shuffled wearily along the platform at Euston, dragging his kitbag. He was surrounded by hundreds of servicemen of varying ranks who weren’t smiling either. He looked at his watch, which said 11.45. His train was due to leave at midnight, to return him to his native Lancashire for seven whole days. He was proud of his watch; solid gold; a gift from his wife who had taken the risk of posting it to him in wartime. He couldn’t wait to see her, and their two children, after so long. He squeezed on to the train, quickly realising that his three-hour journey would be a bad one. There were no seats left, of course, and soldiers were stretched-out on the net luggage racks in each compartment. He lit a cigarette, only to have it knocked from his mouth by the kitbag of a sailor who was slowly fighting his way along the corridor. This just would not do. Always having been a bit of a “chancer”, in a Methodist sort of way, he pushed back to the platform and on towards the empty 1st class sections he had noticed earlier. This was much better, he thought, as he lounged in luxury with a compartment to himself. The train was due to leave in five minutes, his watch told him, and who would know? Suddenly the door slid open and in stepped a naval officer. The airman leapt to his feet, slammed-on his cap and saluted. “I’m sorry sir, I shouldn’t be in here”, he said, and reached fearfully for his kit. “That’s all right corporal, I could do with some company”. “Thank you very much sir, “ said a very relieved airman, unable to believe his luck.
“Do you mind?”. Said the officer, producing his pipe. “Not if you don’t sir” said the corporal waving his packet of Players. The officer smiled and started to fill his pipe. The corporal lit his cigarette and quietly observed his companion. A good ten years older than his thirty four. He looked weary, this sailor. Why not? There was a war on. He was tired himself. Conversation began, initiated by the corporal, who had no wish to lose his illegal luxury. The officer had been lucky in his choice of companion. Corporal Bentham was a man of sensitivity, wit, and a born raconteur. The two men began to relax. Before long the smoky atmosphere was filled with laughter, and the corporal saw that he was with some kind of kindred spirit, despite their difference in status, and began to enjoy himself. After perhaps an hour the pair lapsed into companionable, puffing silence. A few minutes later, completely at his ease, the corporal said “I’ve got a nephew in the navy. Sir”. “Oh good,” said the navy man, “what ship?”
“H.M.S. Starling, sir”. Silence from a stunned naval officer, who snatched the pipe from his mouth. “Good God man - that’s MY ship.” “Oh well then”, from an unfazed corporal, “you must know my nephew”. The officer slowly re-seated himself and said with disbelief “What’s his name?” “Fowler sir, Arthur. Named after me I think”. The officer slowly shook his head and smiled. “He’s my chippy”. When the two parted company it was Captain Walker who reached for the corporal’s hand. They said their goodbyes still laughing and wished each other luck.
That was 1943.
The airman was my father. I heard this story many times from the age of six onwards. I have no idea whether Captain Walker related it to my cousin, his chippy, who died many years ago. I cannot believe that he did not.
I still have my father’s gold watch! You mention the video about the Battle of the Atlantic. I appear in it briefly, even in close-up, playing saxophone in a big-band re-creating the music of the era! I feel sure you will have enjoyed my story, bringing back as it does a few hours in the lives of two men whose paths just happened to cross.
This is also on page http://www.mikekemble.uk/walker/walker1a.html