Combat from a parachute
When Harvey Davis came to, he felt a Luger automatic pistol at his temple, with a member of the dreaded German SS looming behind it, barking in Bavarian.
The only survivor of a glider-full of Americans that had just smashed into the Dutch earth, Davis was surprised to be alive.
Delirious, with 22 wounds oozing his lifeblood and two crack storm troopers leering above him, he figured he was dead anyway.
“And then they just walked away,” the World War II Airborne soldier recounted at a recent gathering of glider soldiers and paratroopers who live in Nevada County. They loosely call themselves “the real ‘Band of Brothers,'” after the acclaimed HBO series about America’s elite Airborne troops during and after D-Day.
According to Davis, group founder Richard Earl and others who meet once a month for lunch, the TV show was accurate, but nothing can truly describe the utter horror of wartime. They don’t dwell on it at the lunches, preferring to remember the good and humorous times of their service, enjoying the camaraderie of those who made it back.
But for a prodding reporter, Davis said, “To this day, I wonder how in the hell I ever made it back.”
He figures the SS didn’t kill or capture him right away because of his wounds and corpse-like appearance. Or it could have been the German elite troops had some respect for an American counterpart, a member of the all-volunteer Airborne – he just isn’t sure.
“I don’t know, I don’t know what it was,” Davis admitted.
As he lay on the soil passing in and out of the pain, Davis awakened again to the sound of men approaching. Fortunately, it was members of the Dutch Underground, who took him to a shelter and secretly treated his wounds for two weeks. And then it got worse.
Germans overran the hideout, “and to the best of my memory, they killed all the Underground and captured me.” At first, the Germans tortured him, “to get me to tell them to where my outfit was (and was going), and I told them to go to hell,” figuring once again that he was going to die anyway.
He didn’t crack and survived the next 91/2 months of the war in three different prisoner camps. In one, he saw “the coolest thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life.”
One day, an American plane strafed the camp, and after the first swath of bullets, “All the guys stood up and humanly spelled out ‘POW.’ The plane came back and tipped its wings and flew off.”
These days, Davis’ Airborne veteran buddies are helping him through the bad memories, all agreeing he got the worst of their collective experience. “I couldn’t talk about it until this year,” he said.
Among the men, “there’s a feeling that never has to be said because of what you’ve been through,” said Leslie Rich, who jumped into combat in France and was wounded in Belgium. “Everyone has a long story, and they’re all different. Once you get that training (at paratrooper school) and you meet somebody who’s been through it, there’s electricity. ‘Band of Brothers’ was really a good term for it.”
As for combat and war stories, “You don’t have to talk about it,” Leslie said. “You talk about women or whatever.”
Glen Slicker didn’t see a lot of rough combat in his Airborne glider outfit – he repaired runways when he got to Europe. The extent of his combat experience was diving into foxholes to dodge buzz bombs, the German’s foray into armed rocketry.
But Slicker went through the same training as everyone else in the Airborne, “and it was pretty rough. There was always the feeling when you took off of whether you would make it or not. It was hair-raising.” That’s what brings “the camaraderie with the guys” – that, and that “there’s so few of them anymore.”
“We all shared the same experience,” said group organizer Earl. “We all went through jump school at Fort Benning (Ga.), and we have a lot in common; and our age, of course.”
Earl saw about three weeks of intense action but doesn’t dwell on it.
“If you saw ‘The Band of Brothers,’ you know what it was like. We’d just as soon talk about pleasant things ” at the lunches, he said. “We talk about the good times and forget about the bad times.”
One of the good times was in Germany when Earl was watching over displaced Russians. “We’d let them out in the middle of the night so they could rob the German gardens,” Earl said. He jumped 12 times in training or battle, and “two years ago, I did my 13th,” at age 75.
“I landed standing up,” for the first time ever, he said. “You weren’t supposed to do that back then.”
So what was on a Airborne GI’s mind when he jumped into enemy territory?
“You hope you survive, you hope you don’t get hit (by gunfire) before you hit the ground,” said Carl Polo. He was recalling his jump into Corregidor, part of the Allied thrust keeping Gen. MacArthur’s promise to return to the Philippines. “Lots of guys got hit (by machine gun fire) as they were coming out the door, and planes were being shot down” before paratroopers could jump out.
In the group, “everyone has a story to tell,” the former platoon sergeant said. “We kind of lean on each other. One fella’s a POW (Harvey Davis), and it’s nice for him to hear from the other guys.”
Polo was in charge of a mortar platoon “directing fire right up front with the infantry. I had to get near enough to see them (Japanese infantry) and where the enemy fire was coming from.” He was scared “many times, especially on Mindoro (Island),” another battleground where Japanese planes, “were dropping anti-personnel bombs on us. I was so sick, though, I almost didn’t care.”
Polo had “malaria, dysentery and jaundice. Some guys were in a foxhole, but I was layin’ on the ground, hopin’ I didn’t get hit … I only had three malaria attacks when I came back to the States – one bad and two little ones.”
The sergeant remains proud of his Airborne service “because everybody had to volunteer, and it was very rugged training, the jumping and stuff.”
“There’s a lot of camaraderie (at the lunches) in knowin’ the guy next to you did just what you did: jump out of a perfectly good airplane,” said former paratrooper and demolitions expert Justin Dyer.
Being in the Airborne “was a brand-new thing in those days,” said former paratrooper Joe Sliakis. “We were kind of a distinct outfit, kind of like the Green Berets today.”
“We’ve done something not many people have done; it’s unique to our group,” explained Lew Downing, who used to live in Grass Valley. He recently moved to Rocklin, but still makes the monthly Band of Brothers lunch.
At the Battle of the Bulge, Downing and his regimental combat unit “came into a little town” just when “the Germans were breaking through” Allied lines.
“We got to to a farmhouse with a stone wall about 3 to 4 feet high. The Germans heard us,” he said, and they started zeroing in mortar rounds, “one in the front, one in the back; and then I thought, ‘Geez’ and they got one right in there on us … I got shot up pretty bad.” But he was rescued by a medic then in a hospital for a year.
Prior to that, Downing experienced an incredible moment.
Separated from his unit just after D-Day, he and his friend Eddie were being sheltered in the little town of Fayence by the Free French underground. The underground leader, “6-foot-8, a real giant back then,” invited them to seat at a head table one afternoon when several hundred people wandered in for a celebration. “All Saints Day or something,” Downing remembered.
“They wanted us to sing our national anthem, so we sang ‘The Star Spangled Banner,’ the best we could for two 20-year-olds. And then they brought their flag out and they sang their national anthem. It had been five years since they sang it … Everybody was crying, I was crying, Eddie was crying; and then everybody started hugging each other and shaking hands. It was the most moving thing I’ve ever seen.”
The men say they continue to meet because of their unique experiences and, now, the renewed sense of patriotism brought on by Sept. 11, 2001.
“The people in the Airborne have a special relationship,” said Pacific theater paratrooper Jerry Davis. “It’s a true brotherhood because of what they have in common, coming down into combat in a parachute.”
“It’s just kind of a get-together to re-win the war,” Sliakis said.
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