George Henry Leidenheimer, Jr.
B Company, 507th PIR, 82nd Airborne
We emplaned on the evening of June 5th. The air
armada flew into the Atlantic to a rendezvous radio signal on a
submarine. Then we turned east toward the coast of the Cotentin
Peninsulla. I slept until someone awakened me. I looked out just
as we crossed the beach. Lt. Alderton was our jumpmaster and wanted
me to jump immediately behind him. At first we flew through a thick
fog or dense smoke. Leaving the smoke, puffs of antiaircraft explosions
and colorful streams of machinegun fire greeted us. The German tracers
were red, blue and green. American tracers were only one color.
Every now and then, a bullet would zip through the floor and out
the top of the plane. The port engine caught fire and flames flashed
by our jump door. Apparently the fire extinguisher doused the flames
and the engine continued. Then the starboard engine caught fire
at about the same time that we saw the green light. The green light
signal to JUMP! It was about 2:20AM.
I jumped after Alderton and observed a German
fighter plane following, firing at our C-47. (After returning to
England, General Eisenhower let us check on the status of our plane
didnt make it back.) We jumped at what I estimate was less
than 300 feet, because I oscillated only once before hitting the
deck. I was fired upon by machine gun on the way down. I was cutting
my harness off with my trench knife when a machine gun opened up
again. I accidentally dropped my knife and hauled ass down a road.
A German challenged me: HALT! I jumped into the gutter and ditched
the anti-tank mine that was slowing me down. Two Germans chased
after me, firing their rifles. I came to an eight-foot fence and
ran through an open gate.
The German soldiers were on the road in plain
sight about twenty feet away. I should have killed them both, but
we had been ordered not to fire until daybreak. So I fixed the bayonet
on my rifle, expecting them to follow me. I knew that I could take
them both since the gate was only wide enough to let one through
at a time. However, they wouldnt leave the road and I got
tired of waiting for them and left the area. Next I found Richard
Guscott who had oscillated into a stonewall, bruising his ribs.
I hid him in a hedgerow and promised to return for him. Later I
found Joe Sienko and several other guys. I told Joe to go open an
equipment bundle out in the field. He gave me a blank, 1000
yard stare so I slapped him with an open hand. When
I say move, go! I shouted at him. He moved.
We set up two machine guns, a mortar, a case of
grenades and plenty of ammunition in a dug-in German position. By
then, it was daylight so I told the guys that I was going to find
Guscott. After walking only fifty yards, an MG42 opened up on me.
Winston Churchill said after the Boer War, Theres nothing
more exhilarating than to be shot at unsuccessfully! I suppose
I felt that same exhilaration, but I was too busy hitting the ground
and scanning for the source of the gunfire to notice it. I saw two
500-pound bomb craters in the middle of a large open field. The
machine guns presence indicated that there was probably a
squad of ten men in one of the two craters. I placed an extra clip
of eight rounds in front of me. This would give me sixteen shots
in case they rushed me.
I heard a noise behind me. Turning around, I saw
a German Sergeant pointing a Schmeisser machine pistol at me. I
stood and put up my hands, while nine Germans came out of the closer
crater. The young blond who fired at me was shaking like a leaf.
No wonder he missed me! Looking back at my men, I thought that if
I took the machine gun away from the German and hit the ground,
my guys could open fire on them. However, all I saw were the backs
of their helmets. Their attention was elsewhere.
The Germans escorted me to a small building where
a group of captured American paratroopers were already assembled.
I was really happy to see Guscott, but not necessarily under those
circumstances! A German lieutenant who spoke perfect English came
in and asked for everyones names. After Louis Pfeiffer gave
his name, he asked if Pfeiffer spoke German. Pfeiffer lied to him
saying, No. When he got to me, I gave him my name, rank
and serial number. He saw my sergeant stripes and asked how many
paratroopers jumped in France. I told him loudly, Look, Bud,
I told you my name, rank and serial number and thats all Im
gonna tell you. I was trying to impress everyone to reveal
only the required information. We had been warned not to lie to
the Germans. We were told that they were smart and if several men
lied, the Germans would be able to sort out the lies and come up
with the truth.
The German lieutenant looked at me, red-faced,
clicked his heels and said, Stand at attention when you speak
to a German officer, and dont call me Bud!
I refused to stand at attention and just glared at him with folded
arms. He sputtered, Turn around and face the wall! Turning
away slowly with my eyes on him, I unzipped the secret pocket on
my chest and held my switchblade in my hand. The lieutenant turned
and spoke to the guard. I thought he was telling the guard to shoot
me. If the guard had raised his rifle, I was going to cut the guards
throat. He didnt shoot me, the lieutenant left, and I sat
down next to Guscott. Gus was trying to light a cigarette, but the
guard came and slapped it out of his hand and confiscated the cigarettes.
We were taken outside and ordered to empty our
pockets onto tables. I complied, but there was so much confusion,
I walked back around the table and put everything back into my pockets.
They took us out on the road and we started walking. When American
P47s flew over, the Germans would jump down in the ditches lining
the road. They shouted at us, Langsam! (Walk slowly!)
Id tell the guys to walk fast and wed leave them behind
fighting weeds in the ditches. The officer heard me and jabbed me
in the ribs with his Schmeisser. After the P47s had passed, theyd
get back on the road and tell us, Mach schnell! (Walk
fast!) I whispered for our guys to slow down again the officer jabbed
me in the ribs and told me shut up.
I worked my way up to our lieutenant to suggest
that we overtake the Germans. There were only eight of them and
about forty of us. Except for the German officer who was jabbing
me with his gun, all the other Germans had their rifles slung. I
suggested that the next time he jabbed me, I take his head off.
Our lieutenant replied, The war is over for us. This
was the only time that I felt depressed during the war. I had such
respect for our officers, especially this one! He was a handsome,
athletic guy and a great leader. One time I saw him give his reserve
chute to Andy Peluso. Andy accidentally pulled his reserve, splitting
the silk all over the floor of the plane
just as we were about
to make a practice jump. The lieutenant then led the stick out without
a reserve. That took more nerve than I had. His statement when we
captured then, made no sense to me. It had never entered my head
that we wouldnt be successful and win the war. In retrospect
Ive decided he must have believed that we might not be successful
and some of us would be killed. I decided right there that when
the opportunity presented itself, I would have to plan to escape
I suffered a slight ankle injury on the jump so
I limped all day. I exaggerated its severity because I knew the
enemy tends to believe your spirit is broken if you are injured,
and theyll be able to control more easily. I also knew they
wouldnt watch you as closely. We walked through Valognes and
I could see the French were unhappy to see so many American prisoners.
This was encouraging to me because I knew that when I escaped, the
French would help. We marched through town to a big chateau where,
they herded us into a chateau courtyard where perhaps two hundred,
paratroopers were gathered. Another German officer ordered everyone
from the 82nd to go to an area to his left, and the 101st soldiers
to go to another area. Of course, no one cooperated. The officer
then inspected arm patches and directed each guy to the area he
had designated. When he approached me in the front row, I put on
my best theatrical limp. He asked if I were wounded,
I replied, I think I broke my ankle on the jump. He
told me to go sit against a building. I obeyed.
He directed more 82nd guys in my direction and
I soon realized that I couldnt see the guards
couldnt see me! I crawled into the doorway of the barn, pulled
an old wooden butter tub, some rakes, shovels and hoes over me.
I removed my bright 82nd shoulder patch. My American flag patch
was on my right shoulder, away from the door. I heard them counting
excitedly. One German came into the barn and seemed to look directly
at me. He left without seeing me. (Months later, I learned from
Horace Pendergrass after he escaped, that a young soldier, Harry
Dover, saw me crawl into the barn and followed. They beat him in
the head with rifle butts. His wife later told me that he had gone
blind and committed suicide.)
I heard the officer say that anybody who tried
to escape would be shot. Then he said they were going to feed everybody.
I was so hungry; I was tempted to postpone my escape. Toward dusk,
I crawled out to an open area of the barn. All of the paratroopers
were in a barbed wire cage with machine guns mounted on swivels
at each end so the cage could be swept in a moments notice.
I was lying there, trying to figure how to get the paratroopers
loose, when a command car drove up. I looked out and saw a German
general and his beautiful blonde French girlfriend.
Before dark, they placed more guards on the chateau
and I realized it would be impossible for me to gain access. I tried
to go out the back door of the barn. As soon as I got out on the
street, I had to retreat because gangs of drunken Germans were coming
from town. It puzzled me because they werent speaking German.
[I discovered fifty years later while in Valognes, that they were
Georgians (Russians) who had been impressed into the German Army.]
I went back into the barn to survey an alternate escape route. The
only way out was to cross in sight of two guards. I watched them
for a long time in order to see how they walked their posts. I could
see no pattern. I had to take a chance. I crawled out on an open
lawn, taking what seemed like ages to get to a four foot wooden
picket fence next to a tree. The closer guard came within ten feet
of me as I climbed up on the fence with my head and shoulders in
Slowly turning my head, I realized that he had
stopped and was looking directly at me. Thats where my training
paid off. In our training games, we learned that the first man who
moved was dead. After a seeming eternity, he turned and continued
walking his post. I dropped down and moved toward town, scaling
several stonewalls that divided the apple orchards. I tried eating
an apple but its bitter taste forced me to spit it out. The Krauts
made an error, letting me escape. Later I had 27 sure kills. Coincidentally,
I had 27 parachute jumps including Normandy and the Rhine jumps.
We spent two months in the Bulge, but we jumped
out of cattle trucks around Bastogne for that battle.
Finally, at dawn, I dropped inside the churchyard.
All was quiet as I entered a small building alongside the church.
On a table were a bottle of wine and half a loaf of French bread.
I finished them quickly before I realized it was probably the host
and wine for Mass. After that quart of wine, I was willing to take
on the entire German Army.I walked into the large room under the
church and found a room full of sleeping kids and two nuns, who
bolted upright in bed. Then I made my first mistake of the day.
I said, Je suis americain.
They thought I spoke French and replied in French.
I interrupted them saying, No parlez francais. They
brought an English speaking Frenchman and the priest. I told them
Id just escaped and asked to be hidden. They said, Sergeant,
if they find you here, theyll kill all of us. So I thanked
them and started to walk out. (I learned fifty years later that
the town had been occupied by an S.S. Panzer Division.) The Frenchman
said to follow him and hid me in a barn in the back of the churchyard.
He was preparing to leave when I told him, Mangez!
He brought me a poor boy sandwich and a bottle
filled with milk. I climbed up in the hay and went to sleep. I heard
P-47s overhead, it was 2PM. and Id had a good nap. The planes
were going after the tanks that were nestled near the church. Each
P-47 had two 500-pound bombs. The third bomb blew all the shingles
off the roof of my building. I now had a seat on the 50-yard line.
In total there were eight P-47s that dropped 16 bombs. When the
moon went in at 11PM, the Frenchman brought me a map and showed
me where the Americans were. I asked him if he had a weapon for
me, but he didnt. I asked permission to take a hatchet Id
spied in the churchyard. He nodded. I went to war with a hatchet.
I crossed a road that was loaded with traffic.
After I made it across, I headed south on the railroad tracks. I
walked along a branch of a river and heard coughing all along the
tree-lined banks. My imagination pictured a whole German Army coughing,
but daylight proved it to be cows coughing up their cuds. Did I
feel foolish at daybreak!
George H. Leidenheimer
Shoulderpatch of the 82nd Airborne.