National Security: Paratrooper-Prisoner

I enjoy interviewing and reading first-person accounts by veterans. As a military historian and strategist, I like to read the ‘big picture’ accounts from generals and the like, but when you read a story by an individual soldier, you gain a perspective of what war is really like ‘where the rubber meets the road.’ A friend and business acquaintance from Live Oak, Erny Sellers, recently sent me a copy of a monograph written in 1997 by his wife’s uncle, North Carolinian Edward Isbell. Edward, who is now in his early 90s, was a World War II veteran paratrooper, a member of the 82nd “All American” Airborne’s 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment. Edward Isbell joined the Army in the early days of America’s entry into the war and quickly volunteered to become a paratrooper. Paratroopers were the most elite arm of the Army, tougher and better trained than any other combat unit. Every man was a volunteer. A paratrooper could always count on the man next to him; the same could not be said for lesser trained units stocked with draftees. In the early morning hours of D-Day, June 6, 1944, Sergeant Isbell jumped from a burning C-47 Dakota transport aircraft into the Cotentin Peninsula of Northern France in the black of night. Night jumps were especially hazardous for all the reasons you can imagine. The Germans had opened dikes to flood farm fields as part of their defense. Many paratroopers, loaded with more than a hundred pounds of gear, drowned upon landing. Others were shot from the sky as they descended. The theory behind an airborne assault is to get the paratroopers on the ground as quickly as possible because they are quite vulnerable in the air. When I trained at Fort Benning a generation later, we used T-10 parachutes and jumped at 1,250 feet and were in the air for about 30 seconds before landing. Edward most likely jumped at a lower altitude. He lost most of his gear with the opening shock of his parachute inflation. German soldiers were firing at him as he descended, but he made it to earth safely. By definition, a paratrooper is surrounded by the enemy – their job is to jump behind enemy lines and then form into a light infantry unit to take and hold an objective (usually a bridge or crossroads) until relieved by the heavier armed units that would be landing on the beaches. In the case of the two airborne divisions that jumped into Normandy that night, their mission was to assist the 4th Infantry landing on Utah Beach to the east in cutting off the Cotentin Peninsula and its strategic port of Cherbourg. Cherbourg was necessary to land reinforcing units before the breakout into France. Sergeant Isbell was never reunited with his unit over the next five days. He would meet an individual trooper and they would move at night to avoid detection, all the time hoping that he would meet advance elements of the 4th Infantry. It didn’t happen, and on June 11, he was captured by a German patrol. He would remain a prisoner of war for the next 11 months. The remainder of Sergeant Isbell’s account is the story of a POW in the last stages of the war. It is a story of deprivation and starvation, with each man making the necessary accommodations in order to survive. For the most part, he and his fellow POWs were not mistreated by their guards. Instead, the harsh conditions were mostly a function of the German nation breaking down in its final stages. During this eleven month period, his prison conditions changed often and radically. It basically took the Germans two months to spirit their prisoners out of France and across Germany to an actual POW camp. Conditions for food and travel were very poor. In a POW camp for the next four months, conditions gradually deteriorated. Edward and some of his mates felt their best opportunity for survival and potential escape was to leave the camp by volunteering for a work detail. This came about in mid-December 1944. Now, they were battling the frigid cold, in addition to illness and starvation. One escape attempt was thwarted which led to harsher treatment. Their work detail was repairing railroads, which were under constant threat of attack by Army Air Force fighters. Friendly fire was a real concern. At war’s end, there was the anxiety of who would be their liberators, the Russians or the Americans. Happily, they were rescued by the advancing American Army. My World War II Story by Edward Isbell is a remarkable account of perseverance and survival written for the benefit of future generations. It is a compelling read.

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