Charlie Baum, Leonard Riley

Two of Sixteen Million

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This article appeared in the Winter 2008 issue of Texoma Living!.

In the 1,365 days between December 7, 1941 and the unconditional surrender of Imperial Japan on September 2, 1945, sixteen million men and women served in the armed forces of the United States. Each had a story. Those stories were as alike as one man is like all men and as individual as each man is different from the rest. Together those sixteen million stories represent the collective national history of the greatest mass struggle the world has yet experienced.

The wars on opposite sides of the world fought by Charles Edison Baum of Whitesboro and Leonard Eugene Riley of Denison were very different, but both were extraordinary examples of courage, steadfastness, and faith. Theirs are two of those sixteen million stories, and they bear remembering.

Forward written by Edward Southerland.

Four Graves

Planes fore and aft and left and right
Across the sea we flew that night
Then to the sight of green light glow
We jumped into the hell below

Thru the night and into day
We crept and crawled and fought our way
The second sun was going round
When in a clearing there I found

Four crude crosses, neatly spaced
Upon each cross, a helmet placed
Two like the one upon my head
Two others like the foe’s instead.

O’er each grave amongst the hedge
Tucked softly in around the edge
Four and two, and one and three
Mottled silk for a canopy.

Whose sons were these, who lay here dead
The Norman earth their lasting bed
What gentle hands with loving care
Had dug those graves and tucked them there?

They rest in peace, their spirits fled
Leaving but the body dead
As brothers now there side by side
For what cause have these four died?

That we who live, to God I pray,
Might know the peace of four who lay
Amongst the hedges, four abreast
At peace with all, their souls at rest.

S/Sgt. Leonard Riley
506 Parachute Infantry
101st Airborne

Charles Edison Baum
Enlisted June 6, 1941

Charliue Baum
Charlie Baum

by Jaquita Lewter

More than sixty years ago, Charlie Baum found his world turned upside down because of events in a place most Americans had never heard of, a rocky peninsula on the island of Luzon in the Philippines, which separates the South China Sea from Manila Bay. It is called Bataan.

Water Street

Charles Edison Baum was born on July 19, 1917, in Whitesboro to George Campbell Baum Sr. and Callie White Baum. He is a great grandson of Captain Ambrose B. White, who founded Whitesboro in 1848. He was the youngest of three boys. G. C., Jr., and Al Baum were his older brothers. He also had a half-sister, Nettie Baum Ashley.

Baum grew up on Water Street, and his story sounds like something from Booth Tarkington or an Andy Hardy movie. He was a quick kid, a bright kid who made good grades. He made friends easily, he played football, and Sunday mornings would find him at the Methodist Church.

Baum grew up on Water Street in Whitesboro, and his story sounds like something from Booth Tarkington or an Andy Hardy movie.

Baum graduated from high school in 1937 from the same building he had entered as a first grader. A short time later, he took a job with E. T. Allen, Sr., in the grocery and grain business. “I did a little bit of everything at Mr. Allen’s store. I was a delivery boy, I stocked the grocery shelves, and I moved the sacks of grain. And he was like a daddy to me,” Baum said. “After my daddy died, he sort of looked after me. His son, E. T., Jr.— we all called him ‘Mike’—was like a brother. We were best friends.”

When France capitulated to the Germans in the spring of 1940, the Congress of the United States passed the country’s first peacetime conscription act. Inductees were to serve only one year. (In August of 1942, Congress extended the time of service. Speaker of the House of Representatives, Sam Rayburn, stepped down from the rostrum to cast the aye vote that broke a 202 to 202 tie.)

On June 6, 1941, two months before Rayburn’s vote extended the draft, Charlie Baum had enlisted. “I was the only one at home. My brothers were married and had families. I didn’t want them to have to go. I felt that it was the right thing to do.”

He joined the Army Air Corps. “I went to Sherman to volunteer,” he said. “Then I rode the Interurban to Dallas. I was sworn in that same day.” The army liked men like Baum. He was twenty-four years old, stood nearly six feet tall, and weighed a healthy 215 pounds.

When he got back to Whitesboro, he told first Mr. Allen of his decision and, later, his mother. Recalling the reaction of his employer and close friend, Baum said, “He took me to the back of the store where we each sat down on a sack of grain, and he talked to me just like a daddy.” The recollection of this conversation held sixty-seven years ago brought tears to his eyes.

When he told his mother, Callie Baum made a simple request of her youngest son. “Mother asked me to read my Bible daily, if I could. I did my best to honor that request all the time I was gone,” he said.

The Defense of the Philippines

Baum received his brief basic training at March Field, California, and by September he was at Clark Field on Luzon in the Philippines. He was assigned to the 7th Material Squadron attached to the 19th Bombardment Group.

For the Americans in Hawaii, the war began at 8:30 in the morning on December 7, 1941. Nine hours later, nine hours during which little or nothing was done to prepare Clark Field for what was sure to come, the Japanese struck there. Baum operated a .50-caliber machine gun in the defense of Clark Field and the Bataan Peninsula.

Charlie Baum
Charlie Baum: “Mother asked me to read my Bible daily, if I could. I did my best to honor that request all the time I was gone.” Photo by Anne-Marie Shumate

He remembered being on guard duty Christmas Eve, 1941. The unit had fallen back to the edge of the dense jungle. As he paced off the perimeter of his assigned area, he suddenly came upon two trees illuminated with hundreds of lightning bugs. “They were lit up like Christmas trees,” he recalled. “I stopped and looked up. I could see God’s face in the top of one of the trees.”

On April 8, 1942, Pfc. Baum (actually he was a sergeant though his promotion had not been made official due to poor communications) and his unit were in front of the first line of contact. He and a second lieutenant dropped back to prepare machine gun pits in case of retreat. “We used the machine gun to hold back the enemy as we retreated,” he recalled. “We fired 18,000 rounds in about four hours time. The gun barrel bent from being overheated.”

Immediately, the squad dismantled the gun and retreated with the Japanese in pursuit. The Americans scrambled to the position where the front line was supposed to be established. No one was there. The enemy attempted to surround them, and they fought back. “I had my .45 on my side,” Baum said. “We were chased almost to Camp Cabanatuan. We tried to form a line, but orders came down that night to surrender.” Ordered to stack their weapons in preparation for the surrender, the squad tossed them into the sea instead. “We stacked them in Manila Bay,” Baum said with a little chuckle.

When he asked a Japanese colonel if the prisoners would be treated properly, the officer replied, “We are not barbarians.”

At dawn on April 9, with 10,000 Americans still stubbornly defending the island of Corregidor off the tip of Bataan, Maj. Gen. Edward P. King surrendered his used-up army of 75,000 (11,796 Americans, 66,000 Filipinos and 1,000 Chinese Filipinos) to the Japanese. When he asked a Japanese colonel if the prisoners would be treated properly, the officer replied, “We are not barbarians.”

Half a world away back home in Whitesboro, Callie Baum and other family members received word that Charles E. Baum was missing in action. It would be eighteen months before they would learn that he was a prisoner of war.

Prisoner of War

The victors were unprepared to deal with the vanquished. The Japanese had expected the Americans to continue fighting for several more months and had anticipated no more than 25,000 prisoners. Gen. Homma, overall commander of Imperial forces in the Philippines, already had decided to move the POWs to Camp O’Donnell, an American air corps base about one hundred miles north of Marivales, the principal city in southern Bataan. Knowing that many of his soldiers were sick, wounded and weak from months on short rations, Gen. King offered to use American trucks to transport the prisoners. Gen. Homma refused. They would march.

Baum was one of the first group of seventy-five men to make the continuous four-day-and-night march. His “uniform” was a pair of shorts, and he carried a New Testament hidden inside the waistband. The Bible was a gift from USA Chaplain Ernest A. Israel, signed and dated June 30, 1941. The inscription reads: “Good luck, Charles.” Baum carried the New Testament throughout his captivity. A diary entry written on a blank page reads: “Dec.14 – Sunday – I pray they will keep this day holy.”

The Japanese showed little concern for their captives on the march. The prisoners got neither food nor water. They were not allowed to stop and rest. They were prodded with bayonets and were under constant threat of being shot to death on the spot.

Route of the Bataan Death March that began on April 10, 1942 and covered 85 miles in 6 days.

“I remember coming up on a sugar cane field,” Baum said. “I broke from the march and ran to the edge of the field where I pulled up two stalks of cane. A guard came after me waving and slashing his bayonet. It was early morning and the sun was in his eyes, and I managed to duck and weave underneath his slashes.” After several failed attempts to strike Baum, the guard left him alone and began to focus his attention on another nearby soldier. This man was not as fortunate as Baum had been.

A second incident during the forced march was recalled with poignant clarity. “We were passing alongside a bar ditch that was partially filled with muddy water,” Baum said. “I pretended to stumble and fell face forward into the ditch. I began drinking all the water that I could gulp down, just as fast as I could before the guards stopped me. When I raised my head I saw the bloated body of a dead soldier in the water nearby.” Baum paused for a moment to collect himself before continuing with the story. “That water still tasted good to me.”

Baum has no way of knowing exactly how many men died during the complete forced march which relocated 75,000 men.

Baum has no way of knowing exactly how many men died during the complete forced march which relocated 75,000 men. “I saw several men shot on the way,” he said. “Many of the men were already wounded. Many were sick and were too weak to walk. Another soldier and I carried a man who was unable to stand on his own for a good six hours.” Baum paused again. “Finally the guards made us leave him. We had to lay him down right there on the road. We moved on a little ways, and then we heard a shot. We all knew what happened.”

Of the 75,000 who left Marivales, 54,000 arrived at Camp O’Donnell. Some Americans and many Filipinos had found opportunities to escape and taken them. It is estimated that 5,000 to 10,000 Filipinos had died or been murdered along the way, along with 600 to 650 Americans. Death on the march was an iffy thing. Some of the Japanese soldiers guarding the prisoners treated them, if not well, then at least humanely, while a half a mile up the road, prisoners were murdered without apparent cause.

In the Camps

Baum was kept at Camp O’Donnell for sixteen days, and then he was sent out on a salvaging detail for the Japanese. After a month and a half of this detail he became ill with malaria. No medical attention was given to the prisoners. “We looked after each other the best we could,” he said. “Even if you were sick, you still had to work. If your fever got up to 105 degrees, you could ‘stay in’ for the day. Otherwise you had different camp jobs to do.”

The malaria brought chills with the fever. Baum remembers wrapping himself in three blankets and still being unable to stop the shaking. Later while in a different camp location, he developed beriberi, a disease of the nerve endings which brings about muscular paralysis, weakness, and extreme weight loss. This is caused by the lack of vitamin B in the diet.

“We had very little food provided by our captors,” Baum explained. “A small serving of rice every day, and sometimes it was every two days. We had to forage for anything else to eat. A starving man is not too particular about what he eats. We ate dead fish, worms, grass, grasshoppers, chemical salt, soup made from the stalks of pepper after the Japanese had removed the peppers, or soup made from the bones of animals.”

The Japanese pushed the troops across the jungle with no water, and a single meal of rice for the entire journey. 600-650 Americans perished.

Once they butchered and cooked a mangy camp dog that had strayed onto the premises. Baum chewed animal bones in order to provide calcium to his undernourished body. He cleaned his teeth with charcoal.

After contracting malaria Baum was sent back to Camp Cabanatuan in Central Luzon. There he served as first sergeant of Company F. His job was to supervise the burial of allied prisoners who were dying at the rate of twenty-five to seventy-five each day. The mounting malnutrition, diarrhea and malaria took a heavy toll. Very few medical supplies were available at Luzon, and these items were largely smuggled in by the Filipinos. “These men would have been executed immediately if they had been caught,” Baum said.

The prisoners were subjected to frequent beatings and barrages of verbal insults and accusations.

The prisoners were subjected to frequent beatings and barrages of verbal insults and accusations. There were inconsistencies in the guards’ behavior and treatment of their charges. “We never knew what to expect,” said Baum. “They required us to learn the Japanese language. We had to learn in five minutes to count off perfectly. The men who failed at this task were beaten until they could perform satisfactorily.”

Even so, there were snatches of human kindness and compassion. Once when Baum was quite ill with malaria, one of the guards brought him some bananas. “His name was Tanaka, and I had been teaching him some English. I think he appreciated that and the fruit was his way of thanking me. He saved my life.”

The Land of the Rising Sun

In the spring of 1944, Baum and other Americans were moved by ship to Japan. “The transport ships that carried us were old antiques,” he said. “They herded us in like cattle. We were prodded on board with bayonets.”

During the ninety-day journey, Baum witnessed American soldiers go crazy with the effects of the malaria and jump overboard into the ocean. There was very little food and very harsh treatment. The transport ships were unmarked, and the two vessels immediately following Baum’s ship were sunk.

When the ship arrived in Japan, Baum and the other men were taken to Osaka where they joined fifty British and 150 Dutch POWs who were already at work in a copper factory. They made copper plates used for submarine batteries. He would remain here until WWII ended in 1945 and the camp was liberated. He weighed eighty-six pounds when he was freed.

During the forty-two month ordeal, Baum never doubted that he would survive and return home. “I learned to control my mind,” he explained.

During the forty-two month ordeal, Baum never doubted that he would survive and return home. “I learned to control my mind,” he explained. “I read my Bible as much and as often as I could, just as mother had asked me to do. I made plans for later, after I got home. I thought about survival all the time. Those men who gave up died fast. You learn to get by.

The Bible got passed around among the other prisoners, too. Often they would ask to borrow it just to read a favorite passage. Baum kept a dated written account on the blank spaces of its pages. He also managed to keep his class ring with him and a lucky $2.00 bill that belonged to a friend back home. Baum was “holding” it for him at the time of his enlistment.

In the weeks following the Japanese surrender and his liberation, he was carried by hospital ship to Tokyo Bay, flown to a Manila replacement center, and transported by ship to San Francisco. He was provided with doctors and medical care and placed on a nutrition regimen that slowly increased his food intake and allowed him to begin to gain weight.

POW’s were transferred by ship to Japan in spring of 1944. The 90-day journey on these “hell ships” proved fatal for many prisoners.

The End of the Long March Home

Charlie Baum came marching home on Friday morning, October 26, 1945 when he came back to Whitesboro. His family, friends and neighbors, Whitesboro schoolchildren who had been dismissed from classes for the day, and the entire town were with Callie Baum at the train depot to welcome her boy home. “Mother never lost faith that I would come back,” Baum said. “All that time and she never wavered. She told everyone she met that God would bring me home again.”

Shortly after his homecoming, Baum met Waunema Ruth Chisum. “I didn’t know her before,” he said. “I saw this really pretty girl wearing a lacey dress walking down the street one day. I said, ‘Man alive! Who’s that gal?’ And Mr. Allen introduced us.”

A courtship began, and the couple married June 24, 1946. Daughter Kay was born in 1949, and a second daughter, Susan arrived in 1954. Baum opened an ice cream parlor and confectionery business downtown, which he ran for a couple of years. In 1948, he enrolled in Austin College, where he attended classes for the next two years. Friend Norman Bennett lived in Gainesville; he would stop by on his way to class to pick up Baum, and they would carpool to Sherman.

In the early 1950s, Baum served as Whitesboro’s postmaster. When the political party in power changed, he was replaced. He took a job working in the hardware business with a local store and was looking into the possibility of purchasing the business. Instead, his life course took another turn and headed him down a different path.

In 1953, Superintendent Lyman Robinson offered Baum a job teaching at the junior high school. He accepted the position teaching science, math, health and P. E. He also coached football and girls’ basketball. His teams excelled under his tutelage. “I ran those girls forty-five minutes straight nearly every day—up and down those bleachers. I had them where they could move on that court.” He went back to Austin College and completed the twenty-one hours necessary for a degree and certification by attending nights, week-ends, and summer sessions. He graduated in 1955. He taught until 1965, when he left education to become postmaster a second time. He held that position until his retirement in 1981.

In 2004, the Whitesboro Intermediate School Gym was dedicated and named in his honor. On that occasion the tribute read in part, “Charles E. Baum for his lifelong service to country, community, and family.”

Life is good,” Baum said with a smile. “I do not harbor any animosity for the things that happened to me. Would I do it all again? Yes, I sure would. We’re the luckiest people on earth. You’ve got to go through something to appreciate it.”

Editor’s Note: Charlie Baum passed away May 5, 2013.

Leonard Eugene Riley
Enlisted Fall 1942

Leonard Riley
Leonard Eugene Riley

by Edward Southerland

It was Corporal Leonard Riley’s first trip to Europe. He was the second man in the stick, and standing in the door of the C-47 he could see the red streaks of the tracers climbing up from the German flak batteries along the coast as if they were reaching out for the airplane, his airplane. When the jump light flashed from red to green, the twenty-year-old machine gunner stepped into the open doorway, grasped the edges of the door frame the way he had been taught back at Fort Benning, and jumped into the night. Was it really worth the extra fifty dollars a month?

Up and Down the Mountain

“I was born on a farm outside Brookston, Indiana. Brookston is a little north of Lafayette, where Purdue University is. I grew up on a farm,” said Leonard Riley of Denison. He speaks softly. You have to listen closely to what he says. In his eighties, he is tall, straight and courtly. Yes, “courtly” is a good way to describe this man.

“I was born in a log house, not a log cabin, but a house made out of logs, but I don’t remember much about that, but I do remember the farm.” The Riley family lived and farmed on several homesteads in Northern Indiana, and Leonard graduated from the high school in Chalmers in the spring of 1941.

Ralph came home late on the first Sunday in December with the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor…

That fall, he took a few classes at Purdue, but did not continue. Instead, he came home to help on the farm and work with his brother Ralph, older by two years, who was a carpenter. Ralph came home late on the first Sunday in December with the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the brothers stayed up talking about what had happened and what was going to happen.

Ralph Riley was drafted in the spring of 1942. “He was trained in Missouri and sent overseas,” said Leonard. “He never did get a furlough to come home before he went to North Africa.” Leonard Riley enlisted a few months later in Lafayette on September 23, 1942.

“I went to Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indianapolis. They were looking for volunteers for the paratroopers, and I wanted the extra fifty dollars. For somebody who had been working for a dollar a day, that didn’t sound too bad.” (Enlisted men in the paratroops drew fifty dollars a month jump pay; officers got one hundred dollars.) “There was another guy there from Lafayette, and I talked him into doing it too. He made it through too.”

Joining the paratroopers and being a paratrooper were not the same thing, as Riley and his friend soon found out. The Russians, Germans, and French had developed the concept of parachute troops during the 1930s, but it was not until the success of German parachutists in Holland and Belgium that the American army organized a volunteer test platoon. They made their first jump in August 1940. Two years later, on August 15, the reactivated 82nd Infantry Division became the 82nd Airborne Division.

Leonard Riley, Photo by Anne-Marie Shumate
Leonard Riley, Photo by Anne-Marie Shumate

On the same day, the War Department activated a brand-new division, the 101st Airborne, at Camp Chase, Louisiana. The first division commander, Major General William C. Lee, told the first recruits that the division “has no history, but it has a rendezvous with destiny.”

The combat arm of the 101st would have three parachute infantry regiments, the 501st, 502nd, and 506th, supported by two regiments of glider infantry, two parachute and two glider field artillery battalions, as well as antiaircraft, medical, engineer, maintenance, signal, and counter intelligence units. Riley was assigned to the 506th.

The United States Army had never created an airborne division from scratch before, so every idea, every approach was new. Colonel Robert F. Sink, West Point class of 1927, commander of the 506th from its inception through the end of the war in Europe, was a career soldier who had been with airborne from the beginning of the experiments two years earlier. He determined that the “Screaming Eagles,” for that was the division’s newly adopted nickname, would be the toughest, most physically fit troops in the army, anybody’s army.

To that end, he selected a post named for Confederate General Robert Toombs, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of northeast Georgia near the little town of Toccoa as the regiment’s basic training site. Camp Toombs was on Route 13, which went past the Toccoa Casket Factory, and that was a bit much, even for a hard charger like Sink, so Camp Toombs became Camp Toccoa.

It was an isolated place whose most prominent physical feature was 1,740-foot Currahee Mountain. “Currahee” comes from gurahiyi, a Cherokee word for “standing alone.” The 506th came to life on that mountain, and “Currahee” became the regiment’s battle cry and their nickname.

We were a sort of a test idea,” said Riley. “We were formed out of all these raw recruits, and we were the only regiment in the camp. The camp wasn’t even completed. The barracks weren’t finished. That’s where we ran up and down the hill.”

“Three miles up, three miles down” became the regiment’s rallying cry as the Currahees ran up and down the steep, twisting trail to the top of the mountain, again and again and again. For rifle practice, the troopers had to leg it thirty miles over the mountains to a firing range at Clemson Agricultural College in South Carolina.

“Five thousand enlisted men came to Toccoa, and two thousand lasted,” Riley said, in a matter of fact sort of way. “What did you feel about it?” he was asked. “Did you think you might not make it?” In that same matter-of-fact tone, he replied, “I don’t remember thinking anything about it. You just did it.”

After thirteen weeks of basic, the men of the 506th went to Fort Benning, Georgia for jump school. “When we left Toccoa, we marched to Atlanta,” Riley recalled. Col. Sink had read a Reader’s Digest article about the marching prowess of the Japanese soldier and was confident his men could do better, so Leonard Riley’s Second Battalion marched the 118 miles to Atlanta, rather than take the train. The front page of the Atlanta Journal brought America pictures of the paratroopers swinging down Peachtree Street to the railroad station.

“Our first battalion preceded us to jump school. They were set up to spend the first week in physical training. Well, they were so fit they ran the instructors ragged, so when we got there, we didn’t have to go through all that,” said Riley. “The first time I jumped, I had butterflies, but I didn’t have any problem with it. The second one was worse than the first one, because we half knew what to expect.

“I think it was on the second jump I managed to get my leg caught in a suspension line when the chute opened, and I started coming down upside down.”

“I think it was on the second jump I managed to get my leg caught in a suspension line when the chute opened, and I started coming down upside down. I managed to get straight before I hit the ground though.” Riley made two jumps that day, and on the second one another paratrooper swung into him, the two chutes became entangled and the pair of troopers came down together. “He had a machine gun, and I was afraid he was going to land on top of me. We made five jumps altogether to qualify as a paratrooper.”

After Benning, the second battalion joined the first battalion at Camp McCall, North Carolina—“It was named for the first paratrooper killed in North Africa,” Riley said—and then participated in the “Tennessee Maneuvers,” where they made two more jumps under combat conditions. The training was constant. The troopers, civilians less than a year before, learned to move under fire, to patrol, to attack a defended position. War is not a haphazard affair. At least, it is not supposed to be.

While at Camp McCall, Riley learned that his brother Ralph had been killed in North Africa. “We grew up together,” he said, and after a long pause, “We did everything together.”


By September the regiment had concentrated at Camp Shanks, New York, in preparation for embarkation to England. Riley, now attached to Headquarters Company of the second battalion, crossed on the S.S. Samaria, a Cunard Line transport ill-suited to her assigned job. “A lot of the soldiers had to be down in the hold,” Riley said. “I was lucky. I got to stay on deck.” The crossing took ten days.

The regiment was billeted in thirteen small villages in Southeastern England. Riley was in Aldbourne. The training picked up where it had left off in the states, but with a new urgency and a new twist. “After they decided where the invasion was going to be, we started running through some of the same situations they expected there. Although of course we didn’t know where it would be.”

“We made a practice night jump and got mixed up with a group of German bombers that had come over, but we jumped anyway…”

Some situations could not be anticipated, however. “We made a practice night jump and got mixed up with a group of German bombers that had come over, but we jumped anyway,” said Riley. “After you jump, you always look up to see if you’ve blown any panels, the smaller sections that make up the parachute. I was looking up when something hit me in the face. I though that somebody had swung into me.”

That somebody was Mother Earth. Riley had come down faster than anticipated. “I had looked down and thought I saw some trees, but I guess I didn’t. I had fallen over and was flat on the ground. Anyway, I got up and took off for where I was supposed to go, and all of a sudden I missed my carbine. I don’t know how far I went, but I turned around in the dark, and walked straight back to it.”

In late May 1944, the regiment was restricted to their staging areas in preparation for the invasion. The paratroopers were packed and ready to go on the night of June 4, but the weather over the channel was bad, and plans were postponed. If the invasion were delayed again, it would be three weeks to a month before the tides were right for another try.

The next day, with the weathermen forecasting a short break, General Dwight Eisenhower uttered some of the most important words of the war. “We’ll go,” he said, and Operation Overlord was on.

Two of Leonard Riley’s buddies sit waiting for the “ready” light in an transport over Europe.

Leonard Riley’s recollection was not so dramatic. “About eleven o’clock on the night of June 5, we got on the planes and took off. They gave us some airsickness pills. The first time in all the jumps we made that they gave us airsickness pills. I think they were just to calm us down.”


“I jumped at 01:15. When I landed, I was all alone. Everybody was scattered. We were four miles from where we should have been. To assemble, the first men to jump were supposed to follow the line of flight and the last out were to go in the opposite direction.

“During training, the British had come up with a leg bag. You tied it to your leg with a jump rope, and it had a little rip cord. The idea was after your parachute opened, you’d reach down and pull the ripcord and let the bag down on the rope so you didn’t land with it. My bag had a machine gun in it, and it was so heavy and pulling down, so that I could not reach the ripcord, so I landed with it. It could have broken my leg, but it didn’t.

“It was very dark. I don’t remember moonlight. I crossed a little farm road and fell into a ditch full of water. I was alone, in the dark, and I was wet.” The Germans had flooded the field behind the Normandy beaches, and many paratroopers drowned in the dark.

Riley got out of the ditch and went back to his landing spot. There he met one of the men in his squad. “He was supposed to have a machine gun, but he had lost all his equipment except for a machete.” The two troopers moved down a road for a couple of hours, bumping into more equally lost Americans. In time, one of the company officers had collected about two hundred men, and the ad hoc unit started toward the coast to carry out their mission.

“We were supposed to secure exits one and two from Utah Beach,” Riley said. “We were all day getting down there, and we lost a few people. It was a week before we got most of the battalion together.” In the meantime, division commander Major General Maxwell D. Taylor, who also had landed by himself, had rounded up some of his paratroopers and taken the beach exits.

“After the beach was secured, we headed inland towards Carentan. That had to be taken to join up Omaha Beach and Utah Beach. After Carentan, we ended up in Cherbourg, and we eased off. A few days later, we went back to England on an LST.”

Riley passed over the actions after D-Day quickly, but it was more complicated, and more dangerous than that. The 101st took Carentan on June 12 and held against a heavy counter attack the next day by German infantry and armor. The 501st and the 502nd launched an attack early that morning and ran into a German attack going the other way. Columns of the 506th got underway, only to see German columns moving the opposite direction.

Two of the regiment’s light tanks were knocked out quickly, and it was tight. But help was on the way.

Two of the regiment’s light tanks were knocked out quickly, and it was tight. But help was on the way. By mid morning, P-47s were working the Germans over from the air, and American tanks of the 2nd Armored Division were up in support of the troopers. By July, most of the division was in a quiet sector near Cherbourg, and on July 13, they disembarked in Liverpool. The division had sustained 4,670 casualties during their action in France.

Market Garden

While the division was training back at their old billets in Britain, General Bernard Montgomery was arguing for a daring plan that he thought would end the war before Christmas. Instead of slugging it out with the Germans all the way across France, he proposed to use three airborne divisions, the American 82nd and 101st and the British 1st, augmented by a Polish brigade, to capture three essential river crossings in Holland and open Highway 69 from the Belgian border to the Rhine for a dash by the British XXX Corps around the German flank.

The 101st drew the first of the three crossings, bridges over the Wilhemina Canal and the Dommel River just north of Eindhoven. But the paratroopers in England knew nothing of these plans and were expecting to jump into France again to support the push by George Patton’s Third Army.

We didn’t know what was coming next,” Riley recalled. “Twice we loaded up and got to the airport before it was called off. Patton was moving fast, and we weren’t needed.” While waiting, Riley got in some leave time. “I went to Scotland, to Edinburg, and spent a day or two.”

Market Garden was the biggest airborne assault in history. By parachutes and in gliders, 34,600 men descended on German-occupied Holland on Sunday, September 17. “It was a beautiful drop. Can you imagine a whole regiment, two thousand of us, landing on a bright, mild day in one field? In thirty minutes, we were formed up and going, headed to a bridge over the canal at Zon, which the Germans blew up as we got there. I remember sleeping in the rain, propped up against a tree with a rain coat over my head. We went into Eindhoven the next day.”

The Royal Engineers came up and put a Bailey bridge across the canal, but it was the next day before XXX Corps, bivouacked in Eindhoven, got on the road north again. The operation had just started, and it was two days behind schedule. The object of the 101st had been relatively easy.

The job of the 82nd, to take the bridge over the Waal River at Nijmegen proved more difficult. It was successful, but only after an assault across the river by paratroopers in canvas boats.

It was the Rhine crossing at Arnhem that proved the operation’s downfall. The British took one end of the bridge and the town but were stopped by German armor and cut off. Arnhem was the “Bridge too Far” that cost the British 1st more than 13,000 killed, wounded, and captured.

Leonard Riley did not know what was happening north of his regiment, and he was too busy with running fights with the German troops in the area…

Leonard Riley did not know what was happening north of his regiment, and he was too busy with running fights with the German troops in the area around Eindhoven to much care. “Some of us, I guess one section of machine guns, were sent to Uden, which is quite a ways up north. I remember riding on the back of a little Volkswagen with a machine gun mounted on top.”

They arrived in Uden about eleven in the morning and found that the Germans had cut the road behind them. Headquarters Company plus one platoon spent the next twenty-six hours defending the town. They fired and moved and tried to convince the Germans that there were a lot more Americans in Uden than there really were. It worked, and the enemy never mounted an attack with their overwhelming numbers.

When the rest of the 506th came up, the regiment moved into space between the Waal and the Lower Rhine, the river which ran through Arnhem. “It was called the ‘Island’,” Riley said. “The British had jumped at Arnhem and got clobbered, and the Polish brigade had jumped where we ended up, and they got clobbered. There was a group of British soldiers, about 110 of them, with four American pilots trapped on the Arnhem side of the river.”

When the German’s began a new push into Belgium, Riley’s 101st Airborne Division was ordered to Bastogne.

There was also a working telephone line from the entrapped Tommies to the G.I.s on the other side, and after communication, the Americans arranged a rescue. “Lieutenant Heyliger of E Company got some boats and went after them. I don’t know how I got to go. Maybe Heyliger just picked me,” Riley said. “We didn’t cross the river. We set up on the south side of the river, on the flank, to provide cover.”

The 506th held a position on the Island until mid November—“We did have some pretty decent battles,” said Riley, a significant understatement when compared with the account recorded in the 101st Division history. As winter came to the low country, the division was pulled out, unit by unit, and sent to an old French artillery garrison twenty miles from Reims, in the Champagne region.

Once Camp Mourmelon was put in shape, the soldiers got some rest. There was a Red Cross club, sports, and leaves. And then came the early morning of December 16, in the cold and misty forests of the Ardennes, where three German armies had smashed into four American infantry divisions, the 2nd, 28th, 99th , and the 106th. The Germans were driving hard for the vital road center in the Belgian town of Bastogne. The G.I.s, sent to the sector for rest, were sent reeling, but they fought where they could, fell back and fought again, buying time in a desperate situation where time was essential.


“We thought we had it made,” Riley said. “We were going to spend the winter in Mourmelon. We had turned our machine guns in for new ones and were having our equipment repaired, and then the Germans broke through, and they needed somebody, so it was us.”

One the morning of December 17, Supreme Headquarters (SHAFE) ordered the 82nd to Werbomont on the northern flank of the growing bulge in the Allied line, and the 101st to Bastogne. The 101st had men scattered about France on leave. Gen. Taylor was in England for a meeting, so the command fell to the deputy division commander, Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe. The division loaded onto trucks and headed north around noon on the eighteenth.

The story of the defense of Bastogne and Gen. McAuliffe’s reply of “Nuts” to the German demand for surrender has been told time and again, in books and movies and in the ten-part television series, Band of Brothers, which focused on E Company of Riley’s 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment. Here are his memories of that time in a cold hell.

I was supposed to go to Paris on a pass, but instead of going to Paris, I got on a truck for Bastogne. We didn’t know what was going on. I guess Gen. McAuliffe knew, but we didn’t. “We got up there overnight, and they ran with the headlights on, which was unusual. I got a new machine gun covered in cosmoline (a thick grease used to prevent rust), and had to clean it on the way up there.

We went through Bastogne the next morning towards a little town called Foy. We turned off to the right into the woods and set up next to E Company. The First Battalion went to Novillé, the next town down the road, and got pretty clobbered there. We finally got to pull back to the main line. We were back there in the woods, cold and snowy. It was not too pleasant.

“The first night we dug a foxhole, straight down, so we could stand behind the gun. It was so cold. We had our overcoats, and we’d buckle them together to try and keep warm, but we never did get warm. Later we moved and dug a slit trench. We decided to put a top on it, so we chopped down some logs, made a top and covered it with dirt. The very next morning a German bomber came over and dropped anti-personnel bombs, one of which landed on one of our logs and slid off down the bank before it went off.

“We had a bottle of Cognac sitting by the gun, and a bomb broke the bottle. We had a guy named ‘Pappy’ Warren—he wasn’t much older than we were—and he scooped up the dirt, strained the liquid through a handkerchief and drank it.”

“I did a lot of stupid things when I was young, I guess. I saw some rabbit traps and thought, ‘Boy that would taste good.’ So I went around and around through the woods looking for that rabbit. I never found the rabbit.

“They talk about how we were rescued by Third Army. We weren’t rescued; they just finally got up to where the fighting was. The 101st wasn’t relieved until late in January, and we went back on the offensive early in January. That’s when I was wounded.”

“They lobbed in a mortar round. I was getting ready to set up for the night, and the shrapnel got me and another guy…”

“It was January 4. They lobbed in a mortar round. I was getting ready to set up for the night, and the shrapnel got me and another guy. It would have killed me if it hadn’t a gone through my helmet first. I walked back a little ways, but I don’t remember after that. I remember walking back to our old position, but not how I got to the aid station. I remember being in the aid station, and all the way back to Paris. I was operated on in Paris and then sent to England to the hospital. In the meantime, the 101st was relieved and sent to Haguenau.” (Hagunau was in Alsace, along the Rhine River.)

“I don’t remember exactly how long I was in the hospital, but when I got out, I didn’t go back to my unit, but to a repo depo (replacement depot) at our base camp in Mourmelon. I had only been there for a day or so when the rest of the division came in.

The 101st came back to Mourmelon around the first of March, so Riley must have spent about two months recovering from his wound. On March 15, the division went on parade to receive the first Distinguished Unit Citation ever awarded to an entire division.


“From Mourmelon, we went to Düsseldorf, Germany, in the Ruhr pocket. We didn’t have much fighting there. We were on one side of the Rhine and they were on the other and about at the end of their rope. That’s where we were when Roosevelt died.

“From there, we headed toward Berchtesgaden. There were four of us from different companies in the battalion with a lieutenant, in a jeep, and our job was to go ahead and arrange billets for the rest of the outfit. We threw people out of their houses and then moved on and did it again. It was fun. We gathered up all the liquor we could find and put it in a big wooden water tank to keep cool. I was in Berchtesgaden several days, but I never did go up to the Eagle’s Nest (Hitler’s mountain retreat).”

When the war ended, Sgt. Leonard Riley was in Kaprun, in the Austrian Alps. “I don’t recall when I found out,” Riley said. “Of course we knew it was over. Germans were surrendering by the thousands, and there were displaced persons, DPs, everywhere. Kapun was the end of the chowline, so we didn’t have all that much, but we’d leave a little bit of food on our plates and a DP would stand at the end of the line and take what was left.”

In the back of the mind of every American soldier in Europe was the idea that his next job might be the invasion of Japan.

In the back of the mind of every American soldier in Europe was the idea that his next job might be the invasion of Japan. The 101st was back in France when word came of victory in the far Pacific. “I guess I was relieved,” Riley said in the same matter-of-fact way he described all his experiences.

Going home

Everyone was counting points, the system the military was using to decide who went home. Riley had the points, but the 101st was staying in Europe, so he was transferred to the 77th Division for the trip back to the States. “Were supposed to sail out of Le Havre, but the longshoremen were on strike in New York, and we had to wait a month. I’ve hated unions ever since.”

Leonard Riley was discharged from the United States Army on November 30, 1945. Since that night in June, when he had stepped into the night over occupied France, he and the 101st Airborne had fought in three of the biggest, most desperate battles of the European war, and in uncountable little ones. He had left his home on an Indiana farm, at eighteen, not knowing what he really wanted to do. He had come home at twenty-two, not really knowing what he wanted to. Th ere was not much call for experienced machine gunners in civilian life.

“I was lost,” he said. “I did some carpenter work and then delivered Studebaker trucks out of South Bend. Th en I started delivering mobile homes.” Th e trailers came from the DeRose plant in Bonham, Texas, and eventually Riley moved there as a traveling trailer repair man. When he retired from DeRose, he was general manager of the plant. He married a Bonham woman and raised two step-children. In 1977, he moved to Denison and became a building contractor.

Leonard Riley is a retired plant manager, a building contractor, and a machine gunner who jumped out of perfectly good airplanes. He still is active in the Texoma Chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart. And he still has his jump boots.

Editor’s Note: Leonard Eugene Riley passed away on June 16, 2013.

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