Private Charles Wilbert
101st Airborne Division - 326th Combat Engineer - B Company
This article is taken from letters and personal recollections of Charles A. Wilber of Schenectady, New York. To fill in the gaps caused by military secrecy and my Father’s reluctance to tell the horrors of the situation so my Mother would not worry, information was gathered mainly from “Rendezvous with Destiny” by Leonard Rapport and Arthur Norwood Jr., published in 1947 by Konecky and Konecky and “The Epic of the 101st Airborne” published in Auxerre, France in 1945 by the 101st’s Public Relations Office.
Charles A. Wilber of Schenectady, New York joined the army on June 2, 1943, serial #32858893. After taking training at the Engineer Replacement Center at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, he was shipped overseas to England on the 80,000 ton passenger liner turned troopship, the Queen Mary in October of that year. A letter written on the ship describes what he felt was a rather funny event. “We were going to chow led by some sergeant and he took us down a stairway, up another, through a kitchen, up a stairway through another passageway, down a stairway through a kitchen where we were finally cornered, marched to another passageway and up a stairs and there we stood for an hour as it seems we were early. It was a typical example of the old army Snafu (Situation Normal All F***ed Up). It made most of the fellows mad but it struck me as amusing. I got a big kick out of the looks on the faces of the people we encountered such as cooks and so on. They all looked at us the same way you would look if a herd of elephants trampled through your house.” In November, 1943, he joined the newly organized 101st Airborne Division the “Screaming Eagles” at first in the Headquarters & Supply Company and later in Kiwi Baker, the code name for B Company of the 326th Combat Engineers. In order to identify the regiment or a battalion, easy to recognize emblems were stencilled on the right side of their helmet which with the Engineers was the letter E. His squad was in the first platoon of Baker Company and would ride to battle in the CG-4A Waco glider, an aircraft that could carry up to 12 soldiers along with the pilot and co-pilot or 3,750 lbs total weight.
The Americans and their English allies were enthusiastic on this new form of warfare because of what they considered successful operations by the Germans early in the war. They were unaware that due to the fact that nearly one third of the 21,000 German airborne forces were killed in Operation Mercury, the invasion of Crete in May, 1941, that Hitler had ceased any large scale operations of his paratroop and glider units feeling they were too costly.
The 101st Airborne Division was created on August 16, 1942 when the 82nd “All-American” Division was split into two Airborne Divisions. The first commanding general of the 101st was General William “Bill” Lee, the father of American airborne forces. Most of the initial officers of the 101st were from the 82nd including Generals Maxwell Taylor and Donald Pratt and Colonels Robert Sink, Robert Cole and John Pappas. As General Lee said on the day of activiation, “The 101st has no history, but a rendezous with destiny”.
In England the Combat Engineers were stationed 30 miles west of London at Basildon Park in a 91-room, 232 year-old manor with the 81st Airborne Antiaircraft Battalion. It was here that they trained for the D-Day Invasion of France. It was at Newbury on March 23, 1944 that the men of the 101st were inspected by such people as Prime Minister Winston Churchill, (whom my Father described as looking very old) Field Marshall Bernhard Montgomery, Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower and General Omar Bradley.
Training in England for the Normandy invasion included a two-week exchange with the Royal Engineers (Airborne) in which Americans worked with their British counterparts and vice versa. One surprised event that my Father wrote home was that he lost a English pound note, then worth about $4.00. He looked in all his pockets including the clothes he had just changed but no luck. Shortly thereafter a English soldier arrived in his barracks and returned the pound note that he found on the shop floor where my Father was working and tracked down the American soldier who lost it.
In a letter written on a Saturday afternoon on May 5, 1944 to his future wife he wrote”You asked me what I do. Well, honey as far as I know I am classified as a bridge carpenter(can you believe that) but I do just about everything. The engineers I am in is a special outfit and we do speciality work but I can’t tell you just what as it is a military secret. As far as seeing action is concerned I really don’t know whether we will or not. It is a possibility of course but I really don’t know. Try not to worry about it as there is nothing we can do about it anyway. If I should see action I’ll try to write as often as I can and if at any time you don’t hear from me for a while don’t worry as I may be training out in the field”.
As it turned out the 326th Engineers would be in combat situations in all four campaigns the 101st was in. Out of the 99 men that were in Baker Company in May, 1944, 35 would be killed and 60 wounded or captured. At Bastogne the 326th would have their own section sandwiched between the 327th Glider Infantry Regiment. When General Patton’s forces broke through the German encirclement, the first troops the tank men met were from Able Company of the 326th Combat Engineers.
My Father enjoyed England but didn’t care too much for the weather which always seem to be damp and cold. What made matters worse the English were quite use to it and the Americans always sought warmth. While the rooms may have been always cool the beer was not, much to the chagrin of the Yanks.
England, despite the dreary old weather and warm beer, was home to many men. In a letter dated February 5, 1944 he describes an English Friday night dance that he was assigned to keep order. “It reminded me of a dance that might be held in any church hall in any small town in the states. There was the usual “snappily” dressed wolves, the flirting country girls and the elderly women full of enthusiasm and laughter when they danced some old number. I enjoyed watching the people. It reminded me of a dance you would see at Mariaville much like the one we went to several summers ago, “The Firemens Annual Round & Square Dance”. Music by Cowboy Pete & his serenaders. The only difference I could see was that the orchestra was dressed very nattily and the girl in the orchestra (she wasn’t bad, kiddin) wore an evening gown. The music was loud and what the orchestra lacked in ability they made up in volume. At one time I noticed, the saxaphone player must have turned the wrong page, for he played a few bars which didn’t go at all with what the rest of them were playing and he quickly turned another page over. The result of his error was a discordant clash of the notes and at last he retired beaten by a strong ride by the accordionist. It made me feel very homesick as it recalled the dear dead days when I, in my Bond special, eyed the entrancing movements of a very good girl dancer. “Of course she’s a good dancer,” Her feet? -- Oh, I never noticed” You know the sort of thing I mean. I’d like to write more about the people at the dance but I imagine you must have a pretty good idea of the sort of dance it was by now. As a matter of fact of it wasn’t for the uniforms of some of the men you might feel as though it were back home. The English girls jitterbug too, but very few of them have the ability to hit the off beat, so necessary to become a good “Jitterbugger”. Initially the 101st was assigned to capture the town of St. Mere-Eglise, but in May, 1944 this assignment was given to paratroopers of the 82nd Division. Before dawn on June 6th, paratroopers of the 82nd landed directly into the town where German forces were stationed. Unable to get to their weapons which hung below them, and the Germans aided by the light of a huge fire caused by Allied bombing, the Americans were cut down before they could fire in their own defense. In daylight other elements of the 82nd found these men, some still hanging from trees, some only feet from the soil that others were to liberate, never seeing a grandfather’s life.
The objective of the 101st airborne sections was to land near the town of Ste. Marie-du-Mont, knock out German gun emplacements, gain control of the causeways to Utah Beach and contain any German reinforcements coming from the south via the important junction town of Carentan. Most of the 101st was to land by sea with the 4thInfantry Division and then move inland to link up with the parachute and glider units. This was due to the shortage of aircraft and the worries of heavy causalities, some estimates were as a high as 80%. Most of the glider assignments was given to the battle-tested 82nd. Of the 516 gliders the Americans rode on D-Day only 84 were from the 101st. My Father was to arrive by glider but this was given to other units which made my Father rather happy. Landing by Waco gliders or the English borrowed Horsas was risky business. Practice landings in training were hazardous, putting down an aircraft under fire and landing in areas beset with machine gun nests, flooded regions, thick hedges, embankments and anti-glider poles with mines attached to them was a whole different matter. On D-Day the commanding officer of the 101st's glider forces, General Donald Pratt, would be killed when his Waco, overweight with metal plates to protect the General from ground fire, crashed into a tree. After the invasion, salvage teams could find only 13 gliders of the 516 committed that could be used again.
The Americans were very confident that the invasion would not fail. Superior naval and airpower along with their training made them feel invincible. As my Father would say “there was no way in hell that Germans were gonna stop us”. Hitler’s boosting of his impregnable Atlantic Wall was breached on the first day
In late May the “Screaming Eagles” were assigned to their departural stations. The division was to land in Normandy by three different echelons, by parachute, by glider and by sea. Over half of the 14,546 personnel the Division could muster on D-Day were to land by sea. From the port city of Cardiff, Wales, Pvt. Charles Wilber set sail for France aboard a converted passenger ship, the Susan B. Anthony.
On June 7th, a day after the initial assault, the Susan B. Anthony struck a sonic mine off of Omaha Beach. After being rescued my Father watched in horror as the ship’s Captain and chief engineer were seen going down with the ship. Fortunately, the Susan B. Anthony hit bottom allowing the men to swim safety away. All 2,689 personnel were rescued from the sinking vessel which to this day is the greatest shipwreck in history in which no one was killed.
The engineers of companies A & B, who lost everything in the sinking, were picked up by the English escort frigate, HM Narbrough and then sent to Utah Beach around 2:30 p.m. Some of the men thought they may be send back to England after what happened but they soon were to realize this was not the case. When one man questioned the wisdom of sending men into combat unarmed and with no supplies, the naval officer said “don’t worry, where you’re going there is plenty of weapons and equipment lying around”. My Dad was the first one off the landing craft and stepped off in water over his head. To make matters worst the landing craft’s door caught his leg and trapped him below the surface. Fortunately a fellow trooper saw this and was able to pull him free. The fact they had no equipment or weapon probably saved his life.