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Growing up in the 1960s, I was crazy about World War II history after my mother told me that my father, Robert Emary, was a paratrooper in the war. My father was a member of the 101st Airborne and had served at Bastogne in Belgium. I read and researched what I could and quickly found myself in awe. My father, like most combat veterans, rarely said much about his service. However, the 2001 miniseries “Band of Brothers” provided a reason for him to start talking about his service.
When he finally saw “Band of Brothers,” my father had a difficult time watching it. He told me, “Short of the smells, that’s how it was.” My father was a member of the same 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment as E Company, the same regiment featured in the series, and just a little farther down the line in I Company. As an adult, I’m even more impressed by my father and all those who served during World War II.
My father graduated high school in 1942 at the age of 16. On his 18th birthday in October 1943, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Airborne. He completed basic training at Camp Croft, South Carolina, where he fired a record score on the rifle range. He completed jump school at Fort Benning, Georgia, in May 1944 and arrived in England in late June of 1944. He was among the first wave of replacements following D-Day.
A credit to his high marksmanship scores, he was selected as the first scout for I Company and began training with a Springfield M1903A4 sniper rifle. The first scout was the soldier who was typically several hundred yards in front of his company with the duty to locate the enemy. His 03A4 training in England included zeroing and shooting to 500 yards. He told me, “There was no point shooting past 300 yards because it wasn’t accurate enough.”
On September 17, 1944, my father had the unlucky fortune to be aboard one of the few Douglas C-47 Skytrains that were shot down during Operation Market Garden. His plane was hit and caught fire just before the drop zone. He said it was below 400 feet when he made it out, and his ’chute opened just 100 feet above the ground. With no time to maneuver, he landed on a barbed-wire fence that destroyed his pants and did serious damage to his legs and rear end. He took the pants off of the first dead German he came across and kept moving. (Several hours later he managed to acquire a pair of GI pants from somebody after thinking it wasn’t the best idea to be in a mixed uniform.)
I Company led the attack into Eindhoven in the Netherlands. They were met by heavy resistance and stopped. My father did make it into the outskirts of Eindhoven where he employed the 03A4. It was at this time he relayed to me that he had been sneaking down a street when someone began shooting at him from a church steeple with an MP40. He said he returned fire at the location he thought the guy might have been, and then there was no more fire from the church. The fighting turned house-to-house and he quickly got rid of the 03A4 and switched it for an M1 Garand. He said the Dutch were marvelous adding, “Here we were in the middle of a firefight and then here comes this Dutch guy with a platter of beer. We’re shooting and getting drunk at the same time.”
After playing with and launching practice grenades from my Garand, I asked my father if he had ever used rifle grenades in the war. “Yeah,” he said. “In Holland, I got into a duel with a German mortar crew. They were behind a house. I was shooting rifle grenades at them and they were shooting mortar rounds back at me. I was in a ditch and it had been raining so the ground was very soft. Next thing I knew, I was blown 10 feet out of the ditch. I had no boots or helmet and couldn’t hear. The guys around me said the mortar round had gone right between my legs and appeared to have gone several feet into the soft ground before going off. I was pretty lucky that day.”
After the Germans were pushed across the Rhine river, my father showed his ingenuity. This event is mentioned in George E. Koskimaki’s book, “Hells Highway: A Chronicle of the 101st Airborne Division in the Holland Campaign, September-November 1944” (2007, Random House, 560 pages, $9). I Company had been put on the line in a fruit orchard. Nightly, the Germans were trekking across the Rhine and trying to infiltrate throughout the orchard. Koskimaki’s book says, “A trooper by the name of Emary tied grenades in the trees with trip wires. After this, nobody went in the orchard.” I asked my father after reading this excerpt if he remembered this. With an impish smile on his face he said, “Yes, I remember doing that.”
My father said Bastogne, Belgium, was really bad, but their morale was high. When they heard they were surrounded, the saying went around, “They’ve got us surrounded, the poor bastards.” It was at Bastogne that my father earned the Silver Star. During the initial phase of the German advance on Bastogne, I Company provided cover for the 1st Battalion’s withdraw from Noville, Belgium. I Company came under heavy attack from infantry and tanks and was threatened to be cutoff. That’s when a German command car with an MG42 machine gun passed by my father. He tossed a grenade into the car, killing the German crew. He then drove the command car back to the Germans and stopped the infantry with the MG42 where German tanks began firing at my father. When the second round hit the vehicle he told me, “That was the end of that little maneuver.” My father’s attack on the Germans provided the time and diversion for I Company to withdraw and he was able to get back to his company. This remarkable story is brought back to life in Brigadier General S.L.A. Marshall’s book “Bastogne, The First Eight Days” (2016, S.L.A. Marshall, 274 pages, $17).
In mid-January 1945, the 101st began counterattacking out of Bastogne, pushing the Germans back. During this week-long campaign, my father captured a Luger. His squad was coming out of some trees and were attacked by a German tank when a bazooka team hit the tank. My father was the first guy on the enemy tank. He pulled the pin on a grenade before tossing it in, but it was obvious that he didn’t need to. He saw what was left of the commander who wore the Luger. My father cut the belt and took the pistol. He said that when the 101st was relieved on January 17, I Company had 11 men left who were still able to fight. He was the highest-ranking NCO left, a staff sergeant.
In July 1945, the 101st was in Zeller am See, a lake resort in Austria where they had a big 4th of July celebration. This event was mentioned in Stephen E. Ambrose’s book “Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest” (2001, Simon & Schuster, 336 pages, $25). One part of the celebration included a 12-troop jump and free fall, followed by parachuting into the nearby lake, and my father happened to be one of the 12. As the I Company first sergeant, my father naturally volunteered on behalf of his company. The jumpmaster was Lieutenant Horner who, in trying to be funny, tied a bed sheet to his harness and hid it in his jacket. About half way down, Lt. Horner pulled the sheet out to make everyone think he had a streamer (i.e. a parachute that didn’t open), but he couldn’t get it untied. He had to cut it loose before nearly hitting the water, seconds before he was able to open his main.
Of course, there are many more stories, but these pages don’t offer enough space. My father came home with a Good Conduct medal, the Bronze Star, three Purple Hearts and the Silver Star. I agree with Tom Brokaw who said these guys were “the greatest generation.”
If you know a veteran and can get that person to talk, please write their stories down. My father passed away on August 19, 2018, so I’m glad I could. We are at a point in time when there aren’t many World War II veterans left, and those who are still with us won’t be for much longer. These guys lived history and they did it well.