Joining the Military and Stateside Training

England

D-Day

Vierville and Carentan

Hospital Stays and Leaving the Military

Jumping into Normandy in 1994

Anniversaries and The National D-Day Museum

Joining the Paratroopers and Camp Toccoa

Training in England

The Bocage and Band of Brothers

World War 2 in Film

Reflections

Memorabilia

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Robert L. Williams was born in Covington, Kentucky in 1922 and raised in Park Hills. His life was fairly boring until he entered the Army in August 1942. He had been in the Boy Scouts as a kid which helped him in his Army service. He had spent time in Detroit, Michigan working in a defense plant before the war but the plant closed down and converted to war material. He had gone with a buddy to Vincennes, Indiana where he heard about Pearl Harbor. He was sitting on his buddy's couch when he heard the news. His friend's mother was quite shaken up because her elder son had already been drafted. Williams went back to Cincinnati to work at Wright Aeronautical where radial airplane engines were built. Because of where he worked Williams had a draft deferment. Looking for adventure, he signed up for the Army paratroopers. He was put on a train to Camp Toccoa, Georgia. The camp was designed to put an entire regiment through basic training together. Toccoa was a tough training camp and paratrooper training was especially difficult. Every morning the paratroopers had to run up and down Mount Currahee. Williams' battalion commander made his troops walk from Toccoa to Atlanta, a distance of about 120 miles in order to beat a record for forced march that the Japanese were claiming. Colonel Strayer decided that his men could beat the time while carrying their equipment. They made it in three days. Everyone finished the march but a lot of them had blisters so bad they could not get their boots on. After a stop in Atlanta they continued on to jump school at Fort Benning. They made five jumps in three days then went to maneuvers in Tennessee and southern Kentucky. Williams had to land a C-47 transport plane in a field in Kentucky. After maneuvers were completed they went to Camp Mackall, North Carolina. It was a new camp not far from Fort Bragg. The camp was named after John Mackall, the first paratrooper killed in World War 2. Then they moved to Fort Bragg. It frequently topped 100 degrees there. Williams even wound up in the hospital from the heat for several days. After that they shipped out to New York. When they left Fort Bragg they had to put on plain infantry uniforms to disguise that they were paratroopers.

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[Annotator's Note: Robert L. Williams served in the Army as a paratrooper in Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division.] From New York they sailed to Liverpool, England. It took them 13 days to cross the Atlantic. When they arrived in Liverpool they were still wearing infantry boots and this annoyed them. A local woman noticed their long faces and told them to cheer up. This struck Williams as odd. They got on a train in October 1943 to Albourne, England which was to be their camp. They had long marches and maneuvers every morning. Occasionally people were given passes to go to London. The Germans were still bombing London at the time. The V1 flying bombs had started hitting London and they could feel the vibrations in the ground from 60 miles away. They called the V1s blockbusters. They used to sit around and try to guess where they would be invading. Some thought Norway and some thought Belgium. Williams was given a brand new Thompson and some ammo. They were put on trucks and taken to an airfield. They were scheduled to take off on 5 June [Annotator's Note: 5 June 1944]. They were taken to tents and had to wait for a day for the weather to clear up. At the last minute the NCOs were given maps of the landing area. They were given a steak dinner and fresh eggs. Around eight that evening they went out to get their gear in order. They all required help from two guys to get onto the plane as every paratrooper was substantially weighed down by their packs. Williams noticed that the ammunition for his Thompson was the heaviest thing. They knew they were headed to Normandy.

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[Annotator's Note: Robert L. Williams served in the Army as a paratrooper in Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division.] About 10:30 that night the planes started taking off. When they formed up there were about 900 planes in the air. At about one the next morning the planes started flying toward Normandy. As they passed over the islands of Guernsey and Jersey the Germans started attacking with antiaircraft fire. The planes began bouncing around and they could hear the shells going off over the roar of the engines. The planes flew into a fog bank. They scattered to avoid running into each other. Williams went to look outside and saw a nearby plane explode into a ball of fire. Williams and the others had to hold onto the steel cable in order to keep their balance. They were several hundred feet below the optimal jump height. Williams landed in three feet of water. Many of the paratroopers suffered sprained ankles and broken legs. Another soldier about 15 feet from Williams tried to signal him with a clicker [Annotator's Note: the clicker was a tool used by some paratroopers to confirm that nearby soldiers were friendly]. Williams could not find his clicker but eventually got the code out and removed his parachute. The Germans had flooded the area and 33 men drowned that night. Some even jumped into the channel. He met two other paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne and eventually found a road. Eventually the water level started to drop and they found dry land. Immediately after finding dry land however, they stumbled upon a German machine gun nest. Two of the men were killed instantly and Williams was shot in the left pants pocket. Williams had K rations and hand grenades in the pocket and the machine gun fire tore the pocket off. The force spun Williams around. He thought he had been hit. He dove back into the water and reached down to see how bad his wound was. He was amazed to find that he had not been hit. He did not try to hook up with the other survivor. Williams moved about a mile through the water away from the machine gun nest. He was looking over Omaha beach and witnessed the B-26s [Annotator's Note: Martin B-26 Marauder medium bomber] bombing the coast as the sun was rising. He eventually found a farmhouse. About 15 or 20 other people also found their way there too. Then they started out to fulfill their objectives. Williams came across the remains of a German motorcycle that had caught a direct hit from an allied plane. The remnants of the bodies gave Williams his first clear glimpse into what was happening. They headed towards Sainte Marie du Mont to meet up with Williams' company. Williams met up with his company and slept standing up against a bank. Most people did that as well. Everyone was afraid of German attack so no one got much sleep for the first week of the invasion. The only things that the soldiers had to eat were their K and D rations.

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The second day, Robert L. Williams and the others went to the town of Vierville. They had gotten reports that Vierville was free of Germans. They started patrolling through the town. A machine gun opened fire and killed a sergeant. Williams figures that the Germans had fled the town and then infiltrated it in secret. He assumes the presence of American forces startled the Germans. The Germans had cover behind hedgerows and at the top of the church tower. They could hear a tank coming and feared that it was a German tank. It came around a bend and they were relieved to discover that it was American. The tank opened fire on the church steeple and obliterated the machine gun nest. Then the company opened fire on the Germans in the hedgerows. They started to run out of ammunition. Williams ran down the line getting ammunition for the BAR [Annotator's Note: Browning Automatic Rifle] operator. They put a .50 caliber machine gun on top of the tank and they began to mow down the Germans. Eventually the Germans began to wave white flags. One soldier refused to stop firing and Major Horton had to draw his sidearm to get the man to stop shooting. They killed 125 Germans and captured 125 more. After leaving Vierville on the way to Carentan they ran across a German Fallschirmjäger [Annotator's Note: German paratroopers] battalion comprised of 16 and 17 old kids. The German battalion did not last very long. Then they moved to a hill overlooking Carentan. Sherman tanks started lobbing shells into the city all afternoon long. Williams found a German foxhole. Before nightfall Williams saw a Messerschmitt flying reconnaissance. Later that night another plane came and dropped a large bomb on the area trying to knock out the tanks. The Germans had blown up the bridges over the canals of Carentan. Williams and the others found a ravine. He lost his Thompson submachine gun ammunition going over a hedgerow. The ravine led right into the east side of Carentan. They were ordered to dig a foxhole but before they could get more than a few inches deep they decided to fall back. Attempts to attack Carentan directly had failed in the face of heavy machine gun fire. They decided to try and attack the other side of the city and they ran into a panzer division with some Tiger tanks. They had a light tank and sent it around firing at everything. Someone gave Williams a pair of binoculars and, as he tried to spot the enemy, two 88 millimeter shells came over and hit on each side of the hedgerow he was hiding behind. Williams figures that the Germans thought he was an artillery spotter. From what he has heard from the other veterans of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment that battle outside of Carentan was the hardest battle they ever fought including Bastone and Holland.

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The medics tagged Robert L. Williams with stating that he was suffering from combat exhaustion and he was brought to Omaha beach. There he saw a bunch of German prisoners being loaded onto ships. Williams was put on a ship to Southampton. After arriving in the hospital his uniform was taken and burned. Williams got to take a shower and eat some sandwiches. Although he had not gotten over his combat exhaustion he was returned to his outfit in time to train for a jump into Paris. Eisenhower allowed the French to go into Paris first which canceled the jump. The jump into Holland was scheduled for 17 September 1944. Captain Sobel [Annotator's Note: Herbert M. Sobel] was the supply officer. Sobel read Williams' hospital report and turned Williams down for the jump into Holland. Williams was forced to stay back at the camp when Operation Market Garden took place. Later Williams went to another hospital for a physical and ended up staying in the hospital for six months. The doctors put Williams on sodium amytal, a powerful sedative to treat him for shell shock. Williams talked to a colonel who assigned him to the motor pool. After the war was over Williams spent the rest of 1945 in France. Later he was sent to Le Havre and put on a Victory ship bound for New York. From New York Williams was sent to Fort Knox. There he was given an honorable discharge and sent home. Williams spent six months not really knowing what he was going to do but eventually found a job in Cincinnati as an apprentice diamond setter. The government paid for his training. He wanted to work on bulldozers but two officers spoke to him and convinced him to stay where he was. Williams is still a diamond setter. He also bought a farm and raised Black Angus cattle and grew tobacco. The exertion did not bother him. He kept the farm for 39 years. Eventually the farm became too much to handle so they sold it and moved to small ranch house in a subdivision.

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[Annotator's Note: Robert L. Williams served in the Army as a paratrooper in Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division.] At a reunion in 1993, one of the veterans got the idea to jump into Normandy for the 50th anniversary but the 101st Airborne Division got wind of the plan and refused to allow it. Williams decided he was going to do it anyway. Eventually, 19 D-Day jumpers decided to jump. President Clinton got a letter explaining the plan during a parade and General Downing told President Clinton to let them jump. Free transportation was arranged from Houston. Williams' friend had a C-47 [Annotator's Note: Douglas C-47 Skytrain cargo aircraft]. Two weeks before the ceremony he heard back from his friend saying that he would fly them to the jump site. There was a big party at the airport in Paris. They got on two buses. They thought they were headed to Euro Disney but they ended up at the Paris City Hall. The mayor had wanted to speak with them and when they arrived at City Hall there was another party waiting for them. After leaving city hall they headed to Euro Disney. They were waved around the massive line of tourists and given passes to explore the park. Williams saw a French cowboy show. They left Euro Disney on the way to Normandy. They arrived in a small town in Normandy and the people of the town took them into their homes because there were no motels nearby. When they got off the buses there was a crowd of French people waiting with name cards for the family that they would be housing. Williams and his family stayed all night and got a nice dinner and breakfast the following morning. The next morning the ladies went to Caen for shopping while the jumpers went to practice for the jump. The next morning they got up early and it had been raining. Williams wasn't hopeful about the weather because of the several days of rain. However on the morning of 6 June, the weather was perfect. The American Army wanted to kick off the celebration with a jump by current paratroopers but the French shot that idea down instead saying that the old guys should kick things off. They went and got all of their equipment. They did a couple of practice jumps to practice their roll. Around two in the afternoon they all loaded onto the planes. All 19 World War 2 veterans jumped out of the C-47. Everyone was joking around until the airplane engines started and the years fell away and each man's thoughts went back to the last time they were in this situation. Williams thinks the high point of the entire trip was when the engines came on. The last guy to jump, Earl Draper, had to cut his main parachute and use his reserve line. He hit the ground hard but was all right. When Williams landed a photographer from Time Magazine took his picture. Williams' photograph has been in five issues of Time Magazine since that day. Williams landed near the railroad tracks and made a nice landing. The change in the order meant that the old guys got most of the limelight. While the crowd was celebrating the veterans, C-130s flew over carrying the current paratroopers but no one paid it much attention. After the landings they all marched into Sainte-Mere-Eglise. They spent the whole afternoon with the French civilians talking and signing things. The French had brought wine with the emblems of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions. Williams and the others had police escorts wherever they wanted to go. Williams and another veteran, Warren Wilk, were sent with a French woman to the town of Barneville.

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[Annotator's Note: Robert L. Williams is a World War 2 veteran of the 101st Airborne Division and jumped into Normandy in 1994 on the on the 50th Anniversary of the Normandy Invasion.] They spent the night there and the next morning they returned on their buses to ceremonies at Utah Beach. There was nowhere for them to sit so they ended up stealing the seats set aside for generals and Williams ended up in the seat of the Army Chief of Staff, General Gordon R. Sullivan. The Clintons sat right in front of them and Hillary told them how well they had done. Francois Mitterand was also there. A lot of the old guys booed Mitterand. Bob Dole was also there and got a much more positive response. President Clinton turned and said that Williams must be in pretty good shape to jump at his age and that the United States might need him back in the Army. Williams said all right as long as Clinton did too. Then they got on a bus and headed to Omaha Beach for the unveiling of the statue of General Eisenhower. He got to meet Ike's son General John Eisenhower. Williams had a friend named Joseph Slosarczyk who died at Carentan and his family had never learned what happened to him. When Williams went into the American cemetery there he looked up his buddy Joe's name and found his grave. After returning to the United States, Williams got in contact with Joe's nephew. Williams and Joe had taken a picture together in Swindon, England. Williams jumped into Normandy with that picture in his pocket. Williams sent a packet of information to Joe's family to give them closure. They sent Williams picture back to him. Williams managed to accomplish the two things that he wanted to when he set out for France. He sees it as a small miracle that everything worked out as well as it did. Williams went back to France for the 55th Anniversary. They spent some time in Paris and on the way to the beach they passed Vierville. Their French sponsors came to visit them at the farm for two weeks. Williams recalls meeting Dr. Stephen Ambrose, shortly after he wrote the book [Annotator's Note: the book Band of Brothers]. Ambrose invited Williams down to New Orleans to speak to the professors at the University of New Orleans History Department. Ambrose paid their way. Williams also met Andy Rooney. In 2000 Williams was invited back to New Orleans to attend the dedication of the D-Day Museum. Many of the surviving Band of Brothers [Annotator's Note: members of Company E, 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division] gathered at the Hotel Monteleone with Ambrose and Stephen Spielberg. The next day there was a parade and Williams met David Burnett for the first time. Williams rode in a jeep during the parade. Tom Hanks made a speech. He read Ernie Pyle's article that was written after the invasion.

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Robert L. Williams was amazed that he was able to find his friend Joe's grave. Williams had Joe's Army serial number and he was given precise directions to the grave. For Williams, visiting the grave of a fallen comrade helps to bring the memories back that 50 years of living had helped to dull. Williams thinks that the 50th anniversary celebration has helped to rekindle interest in the subject. He has been invited to several high schools to talk about World War 2. Williams tried to join the Navy before Pearl Harbor. He was 17 and the Navy was taking underage people at the time but a problem with his teeth made the Navy turn him down. Williams believes he probably would have been at Pearl Harbor if he had been accepted. Williams saw advertisements on government buildings recruiting for the paratroopers. He had a draft deferment because he worked in a defense plant that made radial engines but he enlisted anyway. Basic training was largely calisthenics. There were a lot of night marches. They started running Mount Currahee in just gym shorts. By the end of the three month training they were running up and down the mountain in full gear. W Company was a spot on the edge of the camp for the washouts. There were not many. The guys were all in good shape. Colonel Strayer [Annotator's Note: Colonel Robert L. Strayer] was the battalion commander. He was in his 30s. Colonel Sink [Annotator's Note: Colonel Robert F. Sink] commanded the 506th PIR [Annotator's Note: 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment]. Sink was tough but he was a good leader and a fair commander. Williams believes that Colonel Sink and Colonel Strayer were vital in keeping a lot of their guys alive. Williams believes that Sobel [Annotator's Note: then Captain Herbert M. Sobel] was a good Army man for training. Sobel did not give breaks to anyone but his strict training was useful. The other men did not want to follow him into battle and Sobel was moved to a supply job. Most of the outfit hated Sobel. Sobel later attempted suicide after the war. Major Horton [Annotator's Note: Major Oliver M. Horton], the executive officer of 2nd Battalion was very different. He was usually quiet. He was killed by a mortar shell in Holland. Williams was usually in the command post so he spent a lot of time with Horton.

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Robert L. Williams' buddy Joseph Slosarczyk was in charge of the pigeons. In England, Joe was tasked with throwing pigeons out of a C-47 [Annotator's Note: Douglas C-47 Skytrain cargo aircraft] in order to train them to fly back to their nest. Joe was sentimental about his pigeons. Joe thought he was going to win the war by sending messages back to England but he landed in water and his pigeons drowned. Everyone else found it hilarious but no one laughed in front of Joe because they respected him. They used to call him Joking Joe Jones. He would always try to tell jokes but would mess them up. Everybody had a nickname. Joe wound up as a wire man. The day Joe was killed he was sent as a wire man over to Company D. Williams joined Headquarters Company the first day. Paratroopers had to be volunteers. Williams was promoted to sergeant while in England. England was dark. They couldn't drive with headlights or even light a cigarette for fear of bombing. They were taken into barracks. They slept on a straw mattress that was quite cold and damp. They stayed there from October until June [Annotator's Note: October 1943 until June 1944]. Williams credits the Boy Scouts with helping him a great deal in surviving both his training and the war. He was doing close order drill when he was 12. When the artillery was detonated near him he emerged largely unscathed. He caught a little bit in his left wrist. It bled for a couple days but it was nothing compared to the shock. He is still easily startled but he doesn't have nightmares. He remembers seeing a bunch of German bodies in Normandy and remembers that one didn't have a head. He saw one American soldier who was choked by his helmet and his face turned green. The Germans also put grenades under dead bodies because looting the dead was common. Williams often looted socks and sardines from dead Germans. The war, for the most part, didn't bother Williams. Williams wasn't very fond of his Thompson [Annotator's Note: .45 caliber Thompson submachine gun] so he often dropped it and picked up an M1 rifle.

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[Annotator's Note: Robert L. Williams served in the Army as a paratrooper in Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division.] Until they arrived in Carentan they had to play a lot of hide and seek amongst the hedgerows. Williams' pack included socks, handkerchiefs, K rations, long underwear, wool olive drab fatigues, a jumpsuit, a Mae West life jacket, a harness, musette bag, a parachute, a gas mask and other small supplies. Everyone threw their gas masks away and the Germans threw tear gas. Williams never needed the air sickness pills that many of the men needed. He was anxious to get out of the plane and could not understand why it was taking so long for them to cross the channel. When the artillery started over Guernsey it made it all real to Williams as it had almost been a game to him before that. Williams felt somewhat hypnotized by their maneuvers. It kept him from panicking when he landed. Williams' drop zone was in Hiesville but he missed the town entirely and landed in Foucarville. The lack of colored film made it difficult to tell what was flooded and what was not. Everything was very secretive. The commander would have to censor everything that was sensitive information. When they first arrived in England in their infantry disguises they went to Albourne where they were allowed to put their jump boots back on. Later that night they listened to an Axis Sally [Annotator's Note: Axis Sally was the collective name of German and Italian English speaking radio broadcasters whose broadcasts were aimed at undermining allied moral] radio broadcast that welcomed the 101st Airborne Division to England. Williams was an advisor on the Band of Brothers miniseries. He advised Ron Livingston, the actor who portrayed Captain Nixon. During night patrols, Nixon would often go himself. Williams saw Nixon often around Toccoa. Williams does not remember seeing Nixon during the war. Williams received a letter from Major Dick Winters after he jumped into Normandy in 1994. The barracks were arranged by battalion so Williams knew everyone in 2nd Battalion.

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Robert L. Williams did not know the men of Easy Company [Annotator's Note: Company E, 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division] that well because they were not in his company but he knew them because of his work in headquarters. Williams believes The Longest Day to be the greatest movie ever made. It combined the war with his idol John Wayne. Williams liked the movie Saving Private Ryan but found it to be somewhat inaccurate. He found the movie's opening scene to be very authentic but it did not give a sense of just how large of a killing zone the beaches really were. After the first scene, the movie got a little bit too Hollywood for Williams' taste. Williams is still grateful for the renewed focus that the movies helped to put on World War 2. Williams gives higher marks for authenticity to the miniseries Band of Brothers. Williams remembers certain things while watching the show. Williams remembers Sobel [Annotator's Note: Herbert M. Sobel] policing the area making sure no one left anything behind while on maneuvers. Williams did not talk about the war after he came back. Everyone was in the war so Williams saw no real reason to talk about it with others. The first reunion he went to was in 1985. He met up with some of the guys and relived the war. His family did not know about anything until the 50th Anniversary. Even Williams' wife had a police escort while they were in Normandy.

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Robert L. Williams thinks it very important that museums and memorials commemorating World War 2 continue to tell the story. He thinks political correctness has changed history to a certain extent. Williams thinks the truth is enough of a story. He thinks that Ambrose [Annotator's Note: Historian and author Stephen E. Ambrose] put so much effort into The World War II Museum as penance for his younger days as a hippie. Williams thinks it important to study World War 2 because he earnestly believes that Germany would have dominated the world if the United States had run out of supplies like the Germans did. Williams believes that the Germans were better trained while the Americans were more nonchalant. The German soldier needed orders which aided the Allies. Williams thinks the D-Day landing is the most important day of the 20th Century. He thinks the average person does not understand just how much they owe to the Allied victory in World War 2. Williams has his own little museum in his basement. They ran into Russian troops in the German Army and he had Russian packs and German hats.

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Robert L. Williams takes the interviewer through his collection of photographs. He has pictures of the plane the veterans jumped out of as well as a group photograph of all the jumpers. His photograph from Time Magazine is also hanging on the wall. Photographs of various other dignitaries also hang on the wall. He also has some preserved newspapers from the war and a copy of the propaganda leaflet that made him want to join the paratroopers in the first place. He also has a picture that David Burnett took of him several years ago. He has a catalog of the planes that were used in both the European and Pacific theater. He has also kept some of his uniforms. He has a highly detailed map of the landing site and a series of press clippings related to his jump for the 50th Anniversary and his work on the farm. He has several pictures of the parade that he rode in on the day the D-Day Museum was dedicated. One guy in Williams' platoon kept a diary starting from the day before D-Day. Every time someone was wounded or killed he noted in his diary. He did this until the 17 June [Annotator's Note: 17 June 1944].

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