He’s lost his eyesight and much of his hearing, but George Alley’s memories of World War II are as sharp today as they were 70 years ago, when he lived them.
He was in his first semester at Purdue on Dec. 7, 1941, and as a member of the Reserve Officer Training Corps, which was required of all male students in land-grant colleges, he knew he’d be called up before regular draftees. The recruiting officer in Cincinnati told him he had time for one more semester.
Because he liked the esprit de corps of paratroopers, he signed the little slip of paper that said, “I agree to jump out of an airplane in flight with the use of a parachute.” In July 1942, he boarded the streetcar that stopped in front of the recruiting office and ran straight across the Ohio River railroad bridge to the front gate of Ft. Thomas, Kentucky.
He completed 13 weeks of basic training at Camp Walters, Texas, where the temperature was 135 in the shade and tanks of water for bathing were perched atop sand dunes. “The cold water in the shower came out nearly boiling,” George remembers.
“It felt like hanging over an elevator shaft with air blowing up past you,” he says of jump school and communications school at Ft. Benning, Georgia. “We packed our own chutes, using bags of shotgun pellets to keep them from sliding off the packing tables. If you mistakenly left one of those bags in your chute, you’d get an awful thump on the head when the chute opened!”
At Ft. Benning, George and a buddy named Bill got acquainted with men in the 10th Armored Division. When the paratroopers got their jump wings, George suggested they take their new friends out for a steak. “I told Bill that we might meet up with them one day and be mighty glad to have their help,” George says.
In mid-January 1944, George’s division, the 101st Airborne, sailed from Boston on a victory ship. They arrived two weeks later in Edinburgh, Scotland, and took a train to a tent city near Newbury in Berkshire, England.
The Normandy invasion was supposed to have taken place in 1943, but the Allied Forces were not prepared. By the time the 101st Airborne got to England, everyone knew it was coming soon. Strategic propaganda did a good job of convincing the Germans that the attack would be farther north and that it would come later in the summer. Field Marshal Rommel concentrated his forces in the north of France, and left Normandy to celebrate his wife’s birthday in Germany. And the worst storm over the English Channel in 20 years further assured the Germans that no one would venture out in such weather.
“We had just three practice night jumps to prepare us,” George remembers. It was the largest air assault in history and the only one ever carried out at night. For many of the 16,000 American paratroopers and glider jumpers, it was a disaster – 2,499 of them died. Inexperienced pilots, fierce winds and enemy fire took many of the planes miles off course.
“Our pilot dropped us on the night of June 5 exactly where we were supposed to be,” George says, “but the Germans had blown all the bridges, and we couldn’t get across the river to meet the ground troops landing on Utah Beach. We came down behind enemy lines, and tracer fire went through my chute. But at least we knew where we were. During the landing on the beaches, Russian soldiers taken prisoner and forced by the Germans to fire at the American troops deliberately shot over our heads.”
In July, the 101st Airborne was sent back to England for two months, and on Sept. 17 they parachuted into Holland, where they were attached to Field Marshal Montgomery’s troops, with the objective of keeping the roads open so the British could reach the Rhine River.
“They never made it,” George says, “probably because they were never in a hurry. They used to stop every afternoon, build a fire and heat water in their canteens to make tea, while our guys were getting the heck kicked out of us. One day, when the English officer in charge of two tanks failed to move quickly, our regimental commander, Col. Ewell from Texas, finally yelled, ‘Captain, a Boy Scout with a screwdriver could take those damn tanks apart while you were getting them into position.’”
Action in Mourmelon, France, followed. Then, in mid-December, as the Battle of the Bulge began, George’s division, along with the 82nd and 17th Airborne, were ordered to Bastogne, a major crossroad in the Ardennes region of Belgium, where the Germans were breaking through.
“Because we needed to get there in a hurry, we traveled at night in huge trailers in a convoy 100 miles long with the headlights on – a terrible risk.
“When we reached our command post, an old convent, we were mighty glad to see who was parked by the door – our old friends from Ft. Benning, the 10th Armored Division. ‘Bill,’ I said, ‘we did the right thing buying them those steak dinners!’ GIs, mostly new to battle, had been overrun by the Germans and were rushing past us, just wild to get away. They said we were going to be surrounded, and we told them we were always surrounded; it was part of the game. The snow was knee deep, and the temperature fell to -20 degrees. We slept with our boots on, because we never knew when we might have to run.”
In a bold move on Dec. 22, German officers presented the 101st Airborne commander Gen. Anthony McAuliffe with a surrender ultimatum, prompting his famous response: “Nuts!” George remembers the terrible sadness of singing “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” some 4,000 miles from Indiana.
Mattresses were spread on the floor for the wounded until Patton’s army broke through the road to the rear on Dec. 27, and 2,000 men could be evacuated to field hospitals in England. By Feb. 1, the German efforts were doomed. Because it was feared they might start killing prisoners, the 101st was pulled back to Mourmelon near Reims, while the Russians moved toward Berlin.
“It was very important to them to be the ones who took the city,” George says. “They had terrible losses, but the lumps they took made a very big difference to U.S. troops. We had our chutes packed, ready to jump into the areas where the prisons were, but the German guards fled as the Russians approached.
“We were still at Mourmelon on VE Day, May 8, 1945,” George remembers, “and we all assumed we’d soon be taking part in the invasion of Japan.” The A-bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on Aug. 6 and 9 and Japan’s surrender on the 15th ended that worry.
“Americans were clamoring for all the boys to come home immediately,” he says, “but we didn’t have enough ships to do that. The English and French soon switched the Queen Mary and the Normandie back to commercial use. I finally made it to Newport News, Virginia, on the Wheaten victory ship in time to get home for Christmas. The cab driver for the last leg of my trip said he’d have to charge me $4, and I said, ‘$4? I’d be glad to pay $40. I’m going home!’”
George returned to Purdue on the GI Bill in the fall of 1946, one of 14,000 students, rather than the 8,500 he’d left in 1942. With credit for service time and classes he’d attended at Georgia Tech as a paratrooper, he was able to graduate a semester early. On Feb. 7, 1949, exactly seven years and two months after Pearl Harbor, he led his forestry classmates into the graduation ceremony, and his new life began – a life that would include many years with the U.S. Forestry Service, marriage to Juanita in 1953 and five children, including the late Fred Alley. George and Juanita recently moved from Baileys Harbor to Sturgeon Bay.