Crossing the Waal - 20 September 1944
Meldon Hurlbert, Company C, 307th Airborne Engineer Battalion, 82nd ABN DIV
I had just turned 20 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
Everyone was glued to the radio seeking more information, everyone was saying we would be at war with Japan. When we heard about the attack we were al itching to get back at the Japs.
It wasn't long before I got into the Army, and then things started happening.
When I initially joined the Army in 1942 I was in the tank corp. A friend of mine asked me to join the paratroopers†since he was and the pay was better.†The army was asking for†volunteers to join the paratroopers. We made a combat jump in Sicily and later made an amphibious landing at Anzio. We were seasoned veterans when we had arrived in England in 1944 where we were waiting for a next operation. Our next mission would be a daylight combat jump near the town Grave as part of operation Market Garden.
We landed on september 17, 1944 on a sunny sunday. The jump was uneventful. Since we were engineers we carried Explosives, block T&T, composition C2 and primer cord in our packs during the jump. We had caught the germans by surprise. We did not encounter flak over the drop zone and we landed in open fields. So far everything looked good for us. My Company did not receive any casualties coming in that day. We spend the rest of the day defending the drop zone.
Civilians were pretty much unseen until things settled down, less fighting and they had control of the area.
On 20 September, the fourth day of the battle, C Company under the command of Captain "Spike"" Harris received orders to report at the power plant on the river bank at the north side of the Waal River. At that time the center of Nijmegen was still in German hands and they where still holding the railway- and the road bridge further upstream from the power plant. In a desperate attempt to capture both bridges, General Gavin decided that a crossing of the river in assault boats was necessary. Since the Engineers where the traditional boating teams in the Army, C Company was assigned to the job. Mel says ?we had indeed received training in crossing rivers but we had not done that in these flimsy boats?. The only assault boats the British could bring up to the front at that time where canvas boats with wooden frames.
C Company 307th Engineer would bring the boats across with men of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment on board under command of Major Cook. Initially H-Hour was set at 8.00 but at that time the boats where still stuck in the traffic jam on hells highway. The scene was chaotic on that road because it was under constant attack from the Germans. H-Hour was postponed to 13.30 and later to 15.00
The crossing went off late in the afternoon and the river was swift. We were all scared but we did what we were ordered to do. We had not seen the river prior to the assault. We had waited all day behind the embarkment. When we first pulled the boats out into the water, men would jump to quick in the boats which grounded the boats. Many of the regular soldiers had no experience with boats. By this time all hell was breaking loose from both sides. The man in front of me (Woods) got hit and was killed by a large caliber shell which knocked him back. He landed all bloodied in my lap. The Germans were dug in and where firing directly at us from across the bank.
Each boat only had several paddles so the other men used their rifle butts. Our boat was sunk about 3/4 of way across. Luckily at this point the river was no that deed and the water was up to my chin so after the boat sank I walked to the other side. When I reached the other side I was hit in the rear end with shrapnel. The situation was chaotic. I remember seeing a railroad track nearby. There was so much going on with everyone shooting at each other with all kinds of weapons. I also remember seeing allied fighter planes supporting us.
The soldiers of the 504th that survived the crossing stormed the germans defenses on the north side of the river. Losses where very heavy, but the men were able to grab the northern end of the railway- and road bridges. The played a major part in the capture of both bridges. The men of C Company 307th Engineer battalion, that had not been killed or injured during the first crossing returned with the remainder of the boats and made several more crossings carrying more men of the 504th across.
During his Army career and as part of the 82nd Airborne Division, Hurlbert received five Combat Stars. Wounded three time, he made four combat parachute jumps, one amphibious landing and two river crossings under fire.
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