In honor of the 100th anniversary of the legendary 82nd Airborne Division, we’d like to share our historian Kevin M. Hymel’s article, “From Paratrooper to POW: Bob Nobles of the 82nd Airborne,” which was published in WWII Quarterly on April 28, 2017.
Paratrooper Bob Nobles fought for a week in Normandy with the 82nd Airborne Division until captured by the Germans. Then his new war began. This is his story.
From Paratrooper to POW: Bob Nobles of the 82nd Airborne
“The Lieutenant said for everyone to lay your arms down,” a fellow paratrooper told Pfc. Bob Nobles, who had been fighting for six grueling days in the hedgerows following his unit’s jump into Normandy.
Nobles and his comrades of Company C, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division, were surrounded by Germans. After a short firefight, their lieutenant put out the word and Nobles, an elite warrior with one of the most storied units of World War II, was now a prisoner of war.
Back in early December 1941, 21-year-old Nobles was eating dinner at his sister’s house in Ithaca, New York, when he learned the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. “I knew it was coming,” he explained. He had already registered for the draft and lost his job at an adding machine company that was converting to make war materials. He grew up in a family of six, with three older siblings and two younger. He had a newspaper route to help his family’s finances, but it was not enough. “Every time the rent came due, we moved,” he recalled.
When Nobles’ draft notice arrived, he and his best friend headed to Fort Niagara, New York, for induction, leaving behind Nobles’ girlfriend, Bette Ridley, whom he had been dating for the past five years. He signed up for the paratroopers, having seen the 1941 movie Parachute Battalion starring Robert Preston and thinking, “That looks like fun.” His friend, however, thought the paratroopers were too dangerous. Nobles’ friend opted for the Air Corps and later died in a plane crash at Fort Bragg.
Nobles did his basic training at Camp Blanding, about 50 miles southwest of Jacksonville, Florida, where he was assigned to Company C of the newly formed 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, under the command of Lt. Col. Roy E. Lindquist; out of 4,500 men who originally joined the unit only 2,300 would pass the airborne requirements. The maximum age limit for airborne recruits at that time was 32, resulting in a lot of the older soldiers washing out.
Nobles enjoyed the camaraderie and work schedule of the camp, remembering it as “kinda like college.” The 508th, also later known as the Red Devils, became part of Maj. Gen. Mattew B. Ridgway’s 82nd Airborne Division.
The training introduced Nobles to the M-1 Garand rifle, of which he took particular care; he developed the habit of cleaning it whenever possible. Whenever he waded through a stream, he would strip it down and clean and oil the parts. “Inspectors didn’t have to check it,” Nobles said proudly.
After basic training at Blanding, it was off to Fort Benning, Georgia, to learn to be a paratrooper. To qualify for silver wings on his chest, Nobles had to make five jumps from a Douglas C-47 Skytrain.
For the first jump, the men had to pack their own chutes. “Boy, were we careful,” recalled Nobles. “By the fifth jump we just threw them together.” On his first jump, he and his fellow paratroopers missed the landing field. The second jump was harder; Nobles was the first man out the door and could see how high he was. “Looking down at the ground, that was scary,” he admitted. But the drop went beautifully. “We were jumping from 700 feet. It was nice and quiet.”
The fourth jump was a real challenge. As Nobles’ plane approached the drop zone, one paratrooper in the middle of the line (also called a stick) froze and refused to jump. The plane circled over the drop zone a second time and a third time, but still the man refused. As the rest of the men in the plane became nervous from the pent-up anxiety and the false jumps, some began vomiting. As the smell permeated the cabin, others succumbed.
By the time the plane reached the drop zone for a fourth pass, everyone was throwing up. “That stuff was running down on the floor,” remembered Nobles, “and that was not a good feeling.” The man finally jumped, followed immediately by the whole stick. “We were anxious to get out of the plane.” Luckily, the fifth jump went off without a hitch.
Now fully parachute qualified, Nobles and the rest of his regiment were sent to Camp Mackall in North Carolina for 13 weeks of intense unit training. Anyone who fell out of a daily exercise had to remain in the camp and salute those who made it. When an especially cruel sergeant fell out on the last day of a 33-day exercise, the men cheered. “It lifted everyone’s spirits,” said Nobles.
It was at Camp Mackall that Bette finally got to see her longtime boyfriend again. She visited with Nobles’ friend Charlie Howe’s girlfriend. With three-day passes, the two couples headed off to Charlotte and checked into separate rooms at a local hotel. They were enjoying each other’s company when military policemen knocked on the door. “They were protecting us from hookers,” recalled Nobles.
After the weekend, the two girlfriends stayed in nearby Hamilton and came to the post to watch the parachutists in their airdrops. On one jump, Nobles told Bette which plane he would be in and even dropped a roll of toilet paper out the door before he jumped so that the women would know where he and Howe were landing. But the two women, as paratroopers dropped around their car, forgot to count the planes and missed Nobles’ paper streamer.
Nevertheless, Nobles and Howe visited their girlfriends at night, and since Howe had a car they could be back on base in time for reveille.
On Easter Sunday, April 25, 1943, Nobles and Howe married their girlfriends in a double wedding ceremony. After a quick honeymoon, they returned to their regiment, which soon shipped out to Cheraw, South Carolina, for large-scale war games, followed in August with more war games in Tennessee.
On December 19, the well-trained and newly married Nobles headed next to Camp Shanks, near Orangeburg, New York, with the rest of the 508th’s 1st Battalion. Once billeted, the men were given final examinations and inoculated for typhus and other diseases. Three days later, they boarded the U.S. Army transport James Parker and headed to sea.
Would they be headed to the Mediterranean, where elements of the 82nd Air- borne were fighting in Italy, or head south through the Panama Canal, destined for the islands of the Pacific? Would they dock in England and await the invasion of France? If their battalion commander, Lt. Col. Herbert Batcheller, or company commander, Captain Walter Silvers, knew, they weren’t talking.
Until they were at sea, the Army did not divulge their destination for security reasons. While sailing east across the Atlantic, the men learned their destination was Northern Ireland and that they eventually would be part of the invasion of France. “We arrived in the snow,” recalled Nobles.
From there, the regiment transferred by train and ship to Wollaton Park near Nottingham, England. The devil-may-care Americans were a breath of fresh air for the war- weary British. “We had a motto of ‘Live today, die tomorrow,’” said Nobles. “The women loved it.”
Wollaton Park is a large country estate that was created in the 16th century. Wollaton Hall, the main manor house, which today is a museum, bears a vague resemblance to the sumptuous home in the PBS series Downton Abbey. The grounds surrounding the manor house were converted into an Army camp.
Another 508th paratrooper noted, “Nottingham was a modern city with theaters, excellent restaurants, and fine public buildings. The population was about 250,000. It was more than we expected or could have possibly hoped for. [Our camp was in] a gorgeous location with manicured greens and lots of trees…. Although we were living in tents, it wasn’t primitive. All the floors were paved with concrete stepping stones and each tent contained a very suitable heat-stove set in its center.”
While Nobles and his comrades trained for the airborne drop into France, the two American airborne divisions in England, the veteran 82nd and green 101st, were going through changes. Originally, both were composed of two parachute infantry regiments and a glider regiment, but a third parachute regiment was added to each for Normandy.
Ridgway’s 82nd had proven itself in heavy fighting in Sicily and Italy with the 505th and 504th Parachute Infantry Regiments. But, while the 505th reached Ireland in December, the 504th remained in Italy and did not return to England until April, a scant two months before June 6, 1944—D-Day. With its numbers reduced by combat and the men exhausted, the 504th would sit out D-Day, replaced by Colonel George V. Millett Jr.’s 507th and Colonel Lindquist’s 508th.
The Allies planned to drop the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions behind Utah Beach, on the western flank of the Normandy invasion. Both divisions would hold bridges, causeways, river locks, towns, and road intersections to support the American 4th Infantry Division’s amphibious assault.
Lindquist’s 508th would be dropped west of the Merderet River on the 82nd’s far west sector. Its mission: protect bridges over the Douve and Merderet Rivers and the road intersections near the towns of Brienville and Beuzeville-la-Bastille, blocking the Ger- mans from pushing the 4th Infantry back into the English Channel. Nobles’ company would be protecting a road intersection.
Now it was a matter of waiting. Physical conditioning was stepped up, and the practice jumps ended. No one was told when the operation would start or where it would take place. Most of the soldiers correctly guessed it would be in northern France, but that’s all they knew. At the end of May, the parachute divisions were trucked from their encampments and locked into tightly guarded airfields where row after row of C-47s and gliders were parked. The 508th’s 1st and 3rd Battalions were taken to RAF Station Folkingham, 31 miles southeast of Nottingham. There, paratroopers studied detailed maps, aerial photos, and sand tables showing villages, coastlines, rivers, and roads, but there were no identifying names on any of the information.
A couple of days before Operation Overlord was scheduled to begin, a powerful storm was predicted to blow across Britain and the English Channel. The weather prediction was frightening enough to cause General Dwight D. Eisenhower and SHAEF to postpone the start of the invasion for 24 hours; it was reset for the early morning hours of June 6, and the para- troopers would lead the way.
D-Day arrived. In the late-night darkness of June 5, after receiving doughnuts and coffee from Red Cross Doughnut Dollies at RAF Station Folkingham, Nobles and the rest of the men in the 508th’s 1st and 3rd Battalions strapped on their gear and weapons; Nobles also packed four letters from Bette. The men in Nobles’ stick then loaded onto a C-47 that belonged to the Ninth Air Force’s 313th Troop Carrier Group and roared off the tarmac shortly before midnight, heading for Normandy along with hundreds of other planes
The flight over the English Channel was uneventful. “We were all thinking,” Nobles said. A lieutenant walked the aisle, talking to everyone, trying to both cheer the men up and calm them down, but Nobles did not appreciate it. “I almost told him to sit down.”
When the red light by the fuselage door lit up the cabin shortly after midnight, Nobles and his 16-man stick stood up and hooked their static lines to the anchor cable running the length of the cabin and checked the preceding man’s equipment. Then the red light went off, replaced by a green one, and the men charged out the door. Nobles could see tracers coming up and trees below him, but he did not have time to take it all in. “By the time my chute opened up, I was on the ground,” he said.
Nobles landed in a farmer’s field all alone and immediately unhooked himself from his parachute. He then removed the reserve chute on his chest, which was blocking him from his rifle. He threw away his gas mask, correctly thinking he would never need it. Relieved of this equipment, he took off on foot until he came across another paratrooper. “Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!” shouted the man. “I’m from Kokomo, Indiana! I forgot the password!” Nobles just laughed at the panicked soldier.
Nobles had no idea where he was, but he was not alone. Most of the 508th paratroopers had missed their drop zone because the unit’s pathfinders had run into trouble. Pathfinders were specially trained paratroopers who jumped prior to the bulk of the unit to set up guiding lights and Eureka transponders that communicated with the aircraft-mounted Rebecca air- borne transceiver sets that told the pilots carrying the follow-on troops when and where to drop them.
But the 508th’s pathfinders had jumped into the midst of the German 91st Infantry (Air-Landing) Division and took heavy casualties. The surviving pathfinders managed to set up only two signal lights and a single Eureka. As a result, the regiment—like virtually every other airborne unit—was wildly misdropped; Nobles and his stick landed 10 miles from their designated drop zone.
More disaster befell the 1st Battalion. The 33-year-old commander, Lt. Col. Herbert Batcheller, West Point Class of 1935, was killed by a German machine gunner on June 6 or 7; a few days later, command of the battalion passed to Major Shields Warren, the unit’s executive officer.
Warren said later, “I heard by word of mouth on [June 9 or 10] that Lt. Col. Herbert Batcheller’s body and that of his radio operator had been found together next to a hedgerow. Apparently he had absorbed a 30-40 round MG 42 burst in the chest…. To the best of my knowledge, no one in the 508th saw Herb Batcheller or his radio operator alive after the drop.”
The handful of men with Nobles gathered themselves and headed off in search of the intersection, stopping to cut telephone wires and skirmishing with German infantry along the way. Nobles’ campaign started off ingloriously. “I stumbled into a pit used for a bathroom,” he recalled. When asked if there were any members of the 101st Airborne intermixed with Nobles’ group of about 20, he recalled, “There may have been one or two here or there.”
Late on the afternoon of D-Day, as the sun began to set, C-47s flew over Nobles’ head, releasing gliders. “We didn’t see them land,” he said. They landed too far away, behind numerous hedgerows. But that was it for Allied air cover. “Before we left England, someone told me, ‘There are gonna be planes above you, on your sides, everywhere.’” Where were all the planes? Nobles never saw any Allied air cover the entire time he fought in Normandy.
For six days, Nobles and his group roamed the hedgerows looking for the road intersection they were supposed to hold. At one point he tried to climb a steep, nine-foot-high hedgerow while a paratrooper holding a bayoneted rifle stood behind him, ready to follow. But Nobles slid back and nicked his buttocks on the bayonet.
To hide from the Germans, the paratroopers moved at night and slept during the day. They asked local French farmers where their intersection might be, but the language barrier made communicating difficult. “One guy spoke Latin and conversed with the French,” Nobles recalled, but it did not help. The men never found their intersection, and they never came across any other Americans—only some French farmers burying dead paratroopers. The Americans did manage to capture a few Germans.
The whole time, though, Nobles never thought about the amphibious forces on Utah Beach—the 4th Infantry Division. All he knew was, “If the invasion on the beaches failed, we were on our own.”
At first Nobles and his lost comrades survived on K-rations, which no one liked, except for the chocolate D-Bars. Once the food ran out, they killed a cow and ate it. The men drank from streams and accepted food from local farmers, but it was never enough. “We were looking for crumbs,” recalled Nobles. Whenever the men had free time, they picked lice off their bodies and cracked them between their fingernails. “Our pastime,” Nobles called it.
On June 11, Nobles and his group clashed with a larger enemy force. He spied a group of Germans walking across a field, raised his trusted M-1 Garand, and aimed at a soldier. “I fired, and he fell,” he said, simply. The paratroopers managed to nab a few prisoners during the skirmish.
Soon thereafter, a German “potato-masher” grenade exploded in the tree above Nobles, but he escaped harm. The Germans attacked and the Americans pulled back to a farmhouse. With the Merderet River to their backs, they could not retire any farther.
While the Americans put their German prisoners into the farmhouse, one American climbed into a wine barrel and fired on the encircling enemy. Things looked bad for the Americans. “We were surrounded,” said Nobles.
Nobles was lying on the ground next to the farmhouse when a German shell screeched overhead and smashed into the structure. “It was a hell of a scary sound,” he recalled. A few minutes later a paratrooper told him the lieutenant had ordered everyone to lay down his arms. The fight was over.
The Germans emerged and began disarming the Americans. Nobles thought they looked odd. “They looked like gypsies,” he said. “They didn’t have usual uniforms.” An English-speaking German officer oversaw the surrender. One German took Nobles’ rifle while another took his watch. Angry about the robbery, Nobles tapped the officer on the shoulder and told him what happened. The officer made the man give back the watch.
It was dark once the Germans finished organizing the Americans into ranks and marched them to some waiting trucks. The next day as the trucks headed into the interior of France, American P-47 Thunder- bolt fighters swooped down on the caravan. Some of the men dove into a roadside ditch while others remained in the trucks as the planes opened fire.
“Those .50-calibers made some sound,” recalled Nobles. “We didn’t know if they were trying to help us get away from the Germans.” Unfortunately, the planes killed some of the American POWs.
The trucks arrived at the city of Alençon, where the Germans put Nobles to work carrying burn victims into a hospital operating room. He and his comrades were then placed in a boxcar and shipped to Paris by rail. There, as the train waited at a station..
Read the entire article at WWII Quarterly.
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