A personal account of a paratrooper who jumped into Normandy on D-Day

by Vern Evans

Lt. Col. Gerhard L. Bolland was a proud Norwegian American from the farming town of Madison, Minnesota. He started his military career in 1926 in the Minnesota National Guard and was eventually accepted into West Point.

An excellent soldier who excelled both physically and intellectually, Bolland later became a qualified parachutist on July 4, 1942, after training at Fort Benning, Georgia. The paratrooper then took an officer post in the Special Operations Branch of the Office of Strategic Services.

As a lieutenant colonel, Bolland served as the regiment executive officer of the 507th Parachute Infantry from May 28, 1944, to Nov. 24 of that year. He would jump behind enemy lines on D-Day from the 82nd Airborne Division’s lead aircraft along with Brig. Gen. James M. Gavin, known as “The Jumping General,” and fought in Normandy continuously for 33 days.

Bolland later served in the Scandinavian Section of the OSS’s Special Operations Branch, as he had strong feelings about his ancestral land of Norway languishing under Nazi occupation.

“When Germany invaded Norway, it is hard to describe the level of grief that remained not only in my heart but, I’m sure, in the hearts of every Norwegian in the homeland or abroad,” he later wrote, “a pain that would endure until Norway once again tasted freedom from the tyranny of the Third Reich.”

Bolland retired from active service in 1951 due to a disability and, with Norway on his mind, penned his memoirs in 1966. He later entrusted his papers and wartime recollections to his son Matthew.

The following account of his D-Day experience alongside the 82nd Airborne is excerpted from the book derived from those memoirs, “Among the Firsts: Lieutenant Colonel Gerhard L. Bolland’s Unconventional War.”

To the Drop Zone

On our way [flying inside our cargo aircraft] to the drop zone, most of the [82nd Airborne Division] paratroopers did a lot of smoking, some squirmed quite a bit, checking and re-checking their equipment. Others sang quietly to themselves. Each man dealt with the high tension and jittery nerves in his own way. Although many paratroopers jumped into Normandy with their Garand rifles disassembled and stored in a padded case, known as a Griswald bag, my own regiment, the 507th, did not.

Instead, we jumped with the rifle assembled and slung over our shoulders with the belly band of the parachute over it, securing it in place. Also, in addition to the bayonet and trench knife, a backup switchblade was carried into battle, partially inserted into the placket pocket of the M2 jump jacket. There was an assortment of these knives the soldier could choose from. I selected a 7-1/4″ Presto M2 with textured grips. All in all, the average paratrooper was loaded down with about 85 pounds of equipment.

About 20 minutes before we were to hit the drop zone, the plane’s door was removed. The cool air that billowed in felt good. Our first glimpse of France was filled with flak flashes and tracer lines streaking across the darkened sky. Seven-and-a-half minutes before we were to drop, the red light flashed on and we stood up and hooked up.

Jumping With the General

This was [Brig.] General [James M.] Gavin’s standard operational procedure. As soon as we crossed into enemy territory, he had his men ready to jump. That way, if our plane was hit by enemy fire, we could bale out [sic] at a rapid pace.

Since I was in the back of the plane, I started the sound off for equipment check. “Nineteen OK,” then slapped the next man in front of me on the shoulder, “Eighteen OK,” and so forth. Bullets were hitting the plane at this point and I’m sure each man wondered whether he would get hit even before he reached the ground? An entire lifetime of thoughts can pass through your mind between the time the red light flashes until the green jump light comes on.

Suddenly, we entered a dense cloudbank that was so thick you could not see the wing tips of the plane. The aircraft were flying in close formation, so this became a dangerous situation. Gavin thought it may have been a smoke cloud put up by the Germans. One always attributes anything unexpected in combat to the cleverness and guile of the enemy.

In an instant, the command was given by the jumpmaster, “Go!,” followed by Gavin yelling “Let’s Go!” as he jumped out the door. The men bailed out rapidly. Into the night sky, jumping straight down Hitler’s chimney. Because of the pilot’s apprehension with the density of flak around us, and the sight of burning planes going down, he was flying at a much higher speed and the initial prop blast shock was much more violent.

Actually, exiting the plane was quite dangerous since each paratrooper was weighed down quite heavily with equipment. We carried a loaded M-1 rifle, 156 more rounds of ammunition, a pistol with three loaded clips, an entrenching shovel, a knife, a water canteen, a first aid packet, four grenades, reserve rations, maps, and a raincoat. There was little time to worry about the dangers of the undertaking, however.

Hitting Water

The red, green and white pencil lines of tracer bullets were visible everywhere. The Germans were throwing everything at us. Search[light] beams crisscrossed the sky looking for flak targets. Burning planes lit the countryside. The Germans were trying to kill us as we floated to the ground.

You could hear the bullets whizzing by. I pulled down on the front risers of my ‘chute to collapse it a bit, also called a ‘chute slip, a common practice we were taught in paratrooper school. This allowed me to drop at a greater rate of speed. I held this until I feared I was getting too close to the ground. Easing back on the risers, I slowed my descent to a normal rate. In the dark it is hard to estimate how close you actually are to the ground. I unfastened my reserve ‘chute and let it drop since the main chute had deployed successfully and it was no longer needed.

Within about five seconds after that, splash! I hit water and went completely under. After the initial shock, the struggle to reach the surface took every ounce of strength I had because of the sheer weight of my equipment. The wind and the current pulled the collapsed ‘chute and dragged me forward, face down. The water was too deep to stand.

Still in a state of shock, I instantly recognized the seriousness of my situation. I struggled to get out of my ‘chute right away by grabbing my M3 trench knife and cutting away the harness. That was a mistake. Desperation started to set in. My lungs felt like they were going to burst.

Saved by a Voice

I felt myself becoming light-headed and was to the point of going unconscious. I had a few quick words with the Lord and, despite what atheists may claim, I heard, in a very audible voice, “Roll over onto your back.” As soon as I did, the ‘chute that was drowning me by dragging me face down, was now planing me along the top of the water, keeping my head up so I could breathe. My heart was pounding, but I was alive!

Half gasping and half choking, I coughed up some of the water that had gotten into my lungs. Once I realized my head would remain above water, I slowly began to retain [sic] my composure. I paddled and kicked my way towards the shoreline until I could feel my feet touch. Once able to stand, on very shaky legs no less, I dragged my soaked and tired, but very grateful, body to the river’s edge and unlatched my ‘chute.

Sitting there alone catching my breath, I could hear the artillery and gunshots going off all around me. For the first time in my life I offered a sincere prayer of thanks to the Lord for sparing my life. At one point, a piece of shrapnel hit the ground and rolled within arm’s reach. “Well,” I thought, “that would make for a nice little souvenir to remember my first night into battle.” “Ouch!” The shrapnel lasted only about a millisecond in my hand. Today’s lesson learned. Shrapnel fresh from an explosion is still very hot!

Flooded by the Germans

I removed my equipment and began to get out as much water as I could to lessen the weight. I poured out my boots and squeezed as much water as I could out of the clothing. When I got to my mess kit, there was a minnow swimming around inside the container.

I learned afterwards I had landed in the Merderet River. … To make matters worse, portions of land surrounding the river had been flooded by the Germans to hinder airborne operations. Much of the surrounding area had been hidden from aerial reconnaissance because of high grass. It was disguised as solid ground. What should have been a smaller shallow river was now much deeper and turned into a thousand-yard-wide lake. Many other paratroopers were not so lucky. They drowned under the weight of their equipment when they hit the flooded waters in the dark…

As is well known, the 507th was spread out over a greater area than any other parachute infantry regiment, from Cherbourg to Carentan, over 60 square miles by some estimates.

Much as other units had suffered from disorganization and dislocation, we paratroopers of the 82nd dealt with our problems and proceeded to accomplish our missions to the best of our abilities. The feeling was the Germans had their chance while the paratroopers were on their way down. Now it was the Americans’ turn…

The Nazis were not Supermen

When the 82nd Airborne Division finally pulled out of the front lines to return to England, 16 of its 21 regimental and battalion commanders had been killed, captured or wounded. The Allied paratroopers landing in the dead of night did not have the advantage of a gigantic supporting cast just enumerated, nor the thousands of ships and aircraft spewing fire. They were on their own; small groups of courageous men, armed with little more than their rifles, dropping directly onto German defenses.

In Normandy, I had the privilege of serving under the proud banners of the 82nd Airborne Division. It gave richly of its strength and fought hard against the enemy. We fought for 33 days straight without let up or reinforcements.

In fact, from D-Day until D+33, it had ground up two German divisions which were never to fight as units again. The price was high. I can still see the morning report figures of those that remained and were present for duty from my own regiment, the 507th [Parachute Infantry Regiment] PIR. We dropped into Normandy 15 percent over strength (more than 2,500 men). Only 733 remained the day we went out.

Severe losses like these have paralyzed many divisions, but throughout the Normandy campaign, the 82nd never lost combat effectiveness. The division’s infantry companies did most of the bleeding during desperate night actions and bloody slogs through hedgerows.

Their dead lay strewn from Sainte-Mere-Eglise to Amfreville to La Haye-du-Puits. Their deeds and bravery captured the hearts of Americans as their D-Day assault, at the time, was one of the nation’s greatest successes. General Gavin had long been known to High Command, but now the press took to him and he became a public figure.

The 507th was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for its assault crossing the Merderet River, holding positions on the west side and stymieing large German forces. We knew the fighting forces of the Third Reich were not the supermen they thought they were. They could be beaten.

Observation Post is the Military Times one-stop shop for all things off-duty. Stories may reflect author observations.

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