The third day after the D-Day invasion, on June 9, 1944, American troops under command of Major General Matthew B. Ridgway seized and secured a crossing of the Merederet River, key to the Allied incursion into France.
For Ed Kroenke of Estherville, it was the first of three major engagements of the war, any one of which would have given odds against a soldier surviving. When it was all over, Kroenke had landed in a glider behind enemy lines on D-Day, June 6, 1944; parachuted into Holland after that; then fought in the Battle of the Bulge. In his company of 155 men, there were 143 casualties. And, despite a glancing blow on his helmet that left him blind in one eye 10 years later, Kroenke did not count himself among them.
"We lived it. Our company was the ones out front," said Kroenke, eyes drifting a moment from a foxhole of memories. "It was pretty tough."
Tough began when Kroenke was drafted in 1943. He went to Ft. Bragg for both basic and AIT training. When the Army asked Kroenke if he liked jumping out of perfectly good airplanes, he said why not.
"That's a lot better than going in on the beachhead," Kroenke reasoned.
Assigned to the G Company, 325th Glider Infantry Regiment, Kroenke glided into France behind enemy lines on D-Day, June 6, 1944 - landing a mile and a half from Ste Mere Eglise. Theirs was one of the luckier landings. Some gliders hit houses and trees and the crews were killed.
They found themselves among hedgerows - lines of briar-spiked hedges so thick they kept out sheep, cattle and goats. But not the Germans and Americans who fought through them.
When they landed, the Germans were well-armed, most with automatic weapons, while the Americans had M-1 Garands, efficient and effective semiautomatics that would have fared better in open terrain. But in the hedgerows 100 yards apart, short-ranged, efficient automatics had the advantage.
The 82nd Airborne Division was beginning its fourth day of combat in France. The first French town to be liberated, Ste Mere Eglise, rested secure in the midst of the American paratroops and glidermen, while elements of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment and 325th Glider Infantry Regiment attacked northward toward Cherbourg with the 4th Infantry Division. West of town, on the banks of the Merederet River at La Fiere Manor, Major General Matthew B. Ridgway, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, contemplated difficult orders from VII Corps - seize and secure a crossing of the Merederet River without delay. Control of the Merederet crossings and the west bank of that river was a key D-Day task of the All-American Division, one that the Division struggled with from the earliest hours of the airborne mission in France. The pressure on General Ridgway to seize the causeway was immense.
So what was the hardest part for Kroenke?
"Staying alive," he said simply. "It was just like virgin country. It was hedgerows and grass. There were a lot of good places to hide."
Lots of good places for Germans to hide.
The bridge and long causeway at La Fiere had been captured June 7 by paratroopers from the 507th and 505th Parachute Infantry Regiments, only to be abandoned later that day. From D-Day evening through early D+2, the 1st Battalion, 505th parachute Infantry Regiment valiantly defended the eastern end of the La Fiere bridgehead against assaults by the German 91st Division and the 100th Panzer Replacement Battalion. On D+2, elements of the 507th and the 325th relieved the 505th at La Fiere. These forces would spearhead the frontal assaults across the Merederet River on D+3, June 9, 1944.
As D+3 dawned, General Ridgway gathered his forces for the assault against heavily entrenched Germans on the Merederet west bank. The 3rd Battalion of Colonel Harry Lewis' 325th Glider Infantry Regiment led the attack, backed by two companies from the 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment led by Captain Robert D. Rae. Supporting them were the 319th and 320th Glider Field Artillery Battalions along with artillery from the 90th Division and elements of the 746th Tank Battalion. Brigadier General "Slim Jim" Gavin led the attack.
The artillery barrage started at mid-morning, forcing some of the Germans to the east bank where they surrendered. Most, though, returned artillery fire to the 325th.
Generals Ridgway and Gavin personally led the attack across the narrow causeway. Lieutenant Joe Shealy was leading his mortar platoon along the causeway when he saw Ridgway working near a stalled Sherman tank. An enemy shell exploded, severely wounding Shealy, but he kept going. The victory finally came when Ridgeways' troopers seized La Fiere Causeway.
It was after his jump into Holland when Kroenke was wounded. He was walking with his lieutenant beside him. There was fire, and the corporal behind them said he'd been shot in the head.
"Sure you are," they joked.
It was no joke, though. Those were the last words the corporal ever said. Then the lieutenant took two rounds to the head - and lived to talk about it. Then a glancing bullet slammed Kroenke's helmet, stunning the daylights out of him. It wasn't enough of an injury to give him a Purple Heart - but enough to dim his vision in his left eye over the next 10 years until it vanished into nothing.
The Battle of the Bulge was Kroenke's third major engagement. As squad leader and platoon sergeant, he carried a BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle), precursor to today's M249 SAW.
"We didn't have very good winter clothes," Kroenke said. In the minus-15 to 20-below cold, he lost his toenails. The only way he could stay alive was by digging a hole and crawling into it like an animal.
Kroenke had hoped to keep his dented helmet as a souvenir, but somewhere in Belgium, he misplaced it.
Before the Battle of the Bulge, everyone thought the war was over. When that battle was over, they really knew it was.
"That Battle of the Bulge, that took care of that. That and the atomic bomb. That saves a lot of lives."
Looking back at it all, Kroenke seems to hold no grudges or guilt. "That's what we were there for. You had to get them before they got you," he said. On one occasion, both sides agreed to a lull in the fighting so the hedgerows could be cleared. Kroenke even sat down with a German soldier who shared some of his bread - good, homemade German bread and butter. The Germans said they actually liked Americans - unlike the English whom they detested. They continued to swap stories until the ceasefire was over, then returned to fighting.
After the war, Kroenke worked as a bricklayer, building new memories against the old ones of war that faded in time but never really went away.
Forgetting and yet remembering. One brick at a time.