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COL Douglas C. Dillard: Paratrooper in the Battle of the Bulge
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COL Douglas C. Dillard describes fighting in WWII as an Army parachute regiment sergeant during the Battle of the Bulge. He also discusses the cold, harsh environment they faced, and how he almost lost both of his legs because of it.
During the interview, Dillard describes an encounter he had with a captured German soldier:
“We caught a German there in that field. And we were all really infuriated and I looked at the guy and he had a breast full of ribbons on this tunic. And I don't know why I did it and I still have them today, but I reached up and grabbed those ribbons and just ripped them off his uniform and stuck them in my pocket. And why I did it, I still don't know. But there was never any thought in my mind of shooting him. It's the furthest thought because we weren't raised that way. But in a rage of passion, in a firefight, then you would do it.”
Dillard would later serve Korea and Vietnam, and retire in 1977 after earning the Distinguished Flying Cross, Legion of Merit (2 Oak Leaf Clusters), Meritorious Service Medal, Joint Service Commendation Medal, Bronze Star Medal (1 Oak Leaf Cluster), Air Medal (4 Oak Leaf Clusters), and the Army Commendation Medal (2 Oak Leaf Clusters). He was inducted into the Military Intelligence hall of fame in 1990.
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COL Douglas C. Dillard served in the Army as a parachute regiment sergeant during WWII and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. He also served in Korea and Vietnam. Dillard retired with numerous decorations, including the Distinguished Flying Cross and Legion of Merit, and was inducted into the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame.
Douglas C. Dillard:
I am Douglas C. Dillard.
My military career consisted of an enlistment on the 3rd of July, 1942 in Atlanta, Georgia. And I immediately volunteered to go into the Paratroops. They had a big poster that said "Pounce like a falcon onto the prey." And caught the imagination of all the teenagers, I'm sure. And I went immediately into basic training and the parachute school.
Our group was assembled at Fort Benning, approximately 500 graduates of the parachute school. And we shipped out to Hampton Roads, Virginia, and sailed to Panama. And en route, Major Joerg, who was a young major, announced that the battalion would be formed and would be designated the 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion. And we were to train in Panama, to jump on the island to Martinique and take it away from the Vichy French government because it was being used as a submarine refueling point.
During that time, I was a private, then a Private First Class, and then a Communication Corporal in the mortar squad. And then the Company Communications Sergeant, so that I was with the Company Commander during our combat activities. I stayed in the army at the end of the war. When the war ended, I was first Sergeant of C Company, the 508 Parachute Regiment. I replaced Sergeant Funk, was a Medal of Honor winner during the Battle of the Bulge. And was reassigned at the 82nd Airborne Division as a First Sergeant in the 504 Regiment. And I transferred to the Georgia Military District to be the administrator for a Reserve airborne division that was being formed. And then took an examination for Warrant Officer and I was appointed a Warrant Officer in regular Army, and reassigned at the 82nd in Division Headquarters Company until the Korean War broke out.
I was ordered on active duty, having been given a direct commission, and served for a short period of time in another Regiment of the 82nd. And then went to Korea and I was a First Lieutenant there in a Special Operations unit and continued in the Army program in the Specialized Intelligence Collection field with the Army. And so then I had consecutive tours as a Captain and Major and Lieutenant Colonel in Munich, Heidelberg, and Berlin. Attended the service school's Army War College. Was promoted to Colonel, commanded the 500th Military Intelligence Group in the Pacific and came back and was the Director of Military Intelligence branch for the Army. And at the time that I retired, I was Assistant Deputy Director for Human Intelligence for the Defense Intelligence Agency. And I retired in September 1977 as a Colonel.
We had arrived in Lyon, France on trains that brought us up from southern France and we're there for about two weeks, maybe 10 days. And I was prepared to get suited up and go to Paris the next day for a 24 hour pass. And at three o'clock in the morning, we were awakened by the Charge of Quarters to go to the orderly room. And the Company Commander said, "The front has been penetrated by German forces. No one really knows where the front is and we must get the troops up early, get a basic load of ammunition or combat gear and be ready to leave on transportation by the break of dawn." And that occurred. We loaded on two and a half ton trucks. There was about 30 men to a truck and the bed of the truck was covered with five-gallon gasoline cans, they're called Jerry cans. So you really couldn't put your feet down on the bed. The legs were extended out over those cans, it made it more uncomfortable. And we left at daybreak and headed up to Belgium and it was rather uneventful until the middle of the afternoon.
And we arrived in a village, named Hotton. And we could hear small arms fire and artillery going off in the truck stop. And one of the officers came back and said, "There's SS attacking from the other side of the village and we're not going to be able to go through. We'll have to turn around." So we're in those narrow roads and the two and a half ton trucks each had a trailer and it was very difficult, but the drivers were able to get the vehicles turned around and we took a different route into Belgium.
We drove all night and in the wee hours of the next morning, pulled into an area around Ster, S-T-E-R, Belgium. And we were immediately attached to the 30th Infantry division that was engaged in a very hot contest around Stoumont and they had hundreds of casualties already in the woods. We were bivouacked in barns. And I remember that morning a sergeant from the 30th division came up with a trailer and he had a 55-gallon drum in the trailer, full of hot water in C-rations. And that was about the 20th of December and I don't recall having a hot meal after that until I was evacuated on the night of 6th January, to the hospital. And it's a can of C-rations that had been heated in that hot water.
We remained in the direct support of 30th Infantry Division for a couple of days. And then we were told that we were going to attack a village, because the 30th division had so many casualties that they had to get them out and the weather was beginning to deteriorate. So on Christmas Eve, we marched over to an area and we were to cross about 1500 feet parallel to the front line and then make an abrupt right turn and attack the village. And as we deployed and started to march in the attack position, we suddenly were stopped and turned around and told, "We're not going. We're going back to our bivouac." And the next day, we learned that the 30th Division thought we were a regiment of 3,000 rather than a battalion of about 600, and that was the reason that mission was canceled. And we returned to the village of Rahier and dug in. And I don't recall having got into any building or out of the elements until, as I said, the 6th of January when I was evacuated. We were out in the elements the whole time.
Well, strange as it may seem, there were portions of turkey and some other assorted bits brought up and served in the chow line, out in the field. And I remember some of the guys would take a turkey leg and stick it up in the tree and figure, "Well, it's freezing weather so it's not going to go bad, and I'll eat it tomorrow."
And everyone knew it was Christmas, but there was really not much joy because by that time we'd already been out in the elements for over a week and sleeping in a foxhole, just wrapped up with a blanket in a shelter-half is not very comfortable. And it began to show on the morale of the troops because the exposure, I think, was beginning to have an impact. So the joy of Christmas was there, but it was not really a celebration. It was a recognition more than anything.
In the bivouac area, I used a misnomer, I should have said a slit trench rather than a foxhole because we dug in to just get below the surface of the ground and you could stretch out and roll up in the shelter-half. We didn't have ponchos at that time. Shelter-half and a blanket. And that was just before the weather had gotten so cold that you could still dig a few inches in the ground.
Regarding the foxholes, in some cases, German possessions were overtaken and they really were foxholes that you could get in maybe two to three feet below the surface, or maybe they were three feet deep and timber had been placed across the top of them in order to absorb the shell fragments. Because if you're just in a hole with no cover, you were still subject to fragments from mortars and artillery shells. In other cases, efforts were made to dig a hole, but by the time we started the attack on 30 January, that was practically impossible. What one eventually did was scoop out a hole in the snow and if you could find any timbers or any material that sort, you'd try and prop it up so that it would absorb some of the fragments from any shells that were exploding in the trees.
Of course, we've already mentioned that we came up from southern France. So we were still essentially lightly clothed and most of us either wore the jumpsuit or the wool shirt and trousers. I, fortunately, had been able to barter with one of the tankers and was able to secure a tanker suit. And the tanker suit is a pair of coveralls with suspenders that are padded and a matching jacket that goes over it that has a wool padding inside. It was very warm, but confining, as well. And I went to the motor pool one day and saw a stack of coats that had come in. The army does not yet have them now, but they were called mackinaws. And it was a three quarter length coat with felt padding inside, issued to drivers. So I beat the supply sergeant out of one of those. So my uniform, the weak part, of course, I was still wearing leather jump boots. I had the tanker suit, the tanker jacket, and the mackinaw over that. And underneath all of it, the regular wool shirt and trousers and a wool knit cap, steel helmet. And I do not remember having any gloves.
And the other people made do as best they could, and some were still wearing those cotton jumpsuits. And some had managed to find some wool underwear. And I think that what had happened, the major move on the part of logistics was to open the port of Antwerp so that ships could come in and it would really shorten the logistic line from the English Channel into Belgium. And we were caught so short with that surprise incursion into Belgium that I'm sure many units did not receive their winter gear in time to have it as we moved up and were engaged on the front. So during that period of time, we did not any additional clothing. We should have had galoshes or overshoes, should have had heavier wool clothes, including overcoats. And some of the men that did have overcoats, as it's been noted in our history, were ordered to strip them off and leave them so that we could move fast. And historically during that campaign, the 551, had a, during that three day period had a reputation of being fast moving. And in that way, quite often the flanks between the 505 on the left and the 517th on the right, there was not contact because we were moving fast. And eventually we paid for it, with the frostbite cases.
Clothing was a part of it. But being exposed to the elements, that long. As I indicated earlier from about the 20th of December up through the 7th of January, we had been out in the elements. Some people I'm sure had been able to get in the building here or there as could be found. But I do not recall having been in any shelter from that period of time until the night of the 6th, when I was taken to the aid station. And over a period of time, that cold just permeates the body regardless of how warmly clothed you are, because we're moving, we were in constant firefight for three and a half days. And the perspiration that you're working up, it cools and it really dampens the inner clothing. And you can never overcome that. And if you get that chill on your back, you'll never be warm until you completely change clothes and get in a warm environment. And I think that was true for practically all of our troopers.
I think the main influence in perking up morale is that we had finally been told that we're going into the counterattack, after we did the raid at Noirefontaine. After that raid, on the 27th, the morale was sky high. We could beat anybody and we were just invincible and we ready to take on the rest of the German army. And then there's a break. So whenever that happens, the soldier gets a little loose and the inactivity is going to cause problems, little drop of morale. And as soon as we were told that we're going to go on the counterattack on the third, the morale began to zoom. At last, we're going to get moving and get out of this cold environment. Because we felt that we were going to be very successful in rolling the Germans back across the Salm. And we then would be able to get into a warm environment and get some hot food and a change of clothes.
As it turned out, that morning, on the third until the night of the seventh, the battalion was never in the reserve. It was in a constant firefight with very small breaks between engagements. And that really kept the adrenaline flowing. And that's, I think, what kept the troopers going is that they had a mission to accomplish. They were very proud of their unit, they had very high morale. And we could see the... Although it had cost the unit a lot of casualties, we were accomplishing our mission and there's a great sense of pride there. We were across phase line two, and ready to go into Rochelinval in spite of the casualties that we had.
The 5th and 6th of January, we had moved into the area there, on the hill opposing Rochelinval. And Lieutenant Booth had assumed command of the company. And he came down to me, I was trying to dig in, he said he was going to battalion and I was the senior person left in the company and that there were two officers coming down. And to just tell them to dig in until he got back and he would make their assignments. It was Lieutenant Kinley and a Lieutenant Doll and they came out of the quartermaster. And the first thing they told me is, "We are really eager to get a combat entry badge." And I said, "Well after tomorrow, we'll see how eager you are." And I showed them an area near me to scoop out some snow and try and get down in case we'd start getting some more shelling. And a patrol had just come back from down below and they had identified the bridge. And the general conversation around the GIs area is that if that's a bridge we can anticipate the Germans really resisting because that's their exit, their access route over the Salm. And the feeling then, as we talk to each other, is that the next attack is going to be very, very deadly and probably more costly than what we've already been through since the 3rd of January.
And that afternoon, Lieutenant Booth came back and he got the officers together and they began planning the attack for the next day. Roy McCrell, the First Sergeant of A Company, had just come back from the aid station. On the 3rd of January when we started in the second phase of the attack, we had crossed an open field and as we came out of the woods to attack across that open terrain, I could see a tank off to my left and hundreds of Germans digging in along the line that we were attacking. I thought to myself, "God, this is absolutely crazy that we're going to be able to accomplish this." And Captain Dalton, I was the Communication Sergeant, so I was with the company command group, he and I, the First Sergeant and the Liaison Officer. And we started out across that field and we got about in the middle of the field and an 88 tank round exploded right in front of us. If we'd been 10 feet further, we'd probably all been killed, but it knocked everyone down. And as we shook our heads and looked around, Captain Dalton was lying down there. So we pulled him back, we got a medic and he was hauled off the field. And the rest is history, where there was a movement to the right to flank the German possessions. And Sergeant McCrell had hurt his back because we had trouble under that fire, we were still getting machine gun fire and sporadic tank rounds being fired directly on a position. So we were moving and dragging and moving and he hurt his back.
So that night, he went in the aid station. So when he came back that day on the afternoon of the 6th he went around and checked all the troops. And by that time, both of my feet were completely numb up to my knees. I couldn't even stand up. And Roy said, "You got to go to the aid station. If you don't go, you're going to lose your feet." And the reason that happened to me the first day as we started the attack, we came down the very steep hill from Basse-Bodeux, made a right turn, and started up a meadow to get in our attack position. And there was a stream right in the middle of that meadow. And as I started to jump across the stream, a mortar around landed right in front of me and I misjudged and fell right in the stream. So my clothes and my feet were completely wet. And we kept moving, it didn't have a chance to change.
And the second night, one of the troopers did remove his boots, but he couldn't get them back on. I said, "I'm not going to do that." And the night I was evacuated, I still had the same boots and wet socks that I've had that first morning when we started. And that directly contributed to my case.
Fortunately, they caught it in time and after four weeks in the hospital in England, I was released for duty and went back enjoying the 82nd. So I credit Roy McCrell, really, with saving my life that night because I would've been right with Lieutenant Booth. And when he stepped around that curve and that MG 42 raked him from one end to the other, I probably would have been caught up in it also. And I told the family that, when we had Roy's funeral at Arlington Cemetery.
Colonel Joerg, in my mind, was a unique person. You have to remember, at that time I was 17 years old and everything he did, in my mind, was the epitome of an outstanding leader. He was able to develop a relationship with the enlisted men that I've not seen with many other officers that I have served under, in 35 years in the Army. There was a youthfulness, a vitality. There was an implied personal interest in you when he would talk to you. And there was a reciprocal feeling towards him by the enlisted men.
I know that in talking to some of the officers, they had some difficulty, but that is quite often the case where there's a rather dynamic commander who has the following of the enlisted men and not necessarily a total following of the officers. Because he reminded me a lot of General Westmoreland, who was very demanding of his officers. That wasn't that he did not demand performance by the troops, but the troops performed through their officers and he didn't violate the chain of command in that respect.
And during my career, I tried to emulate the perception that I carried with me of his leadership qualities and trying to be personable when I dealt with the individual on a one to one basis that I wanted he or she to understand that I had their personal interests at heart. And I was not just going through the formality of make an appearance, saying "Hello," saluting, and leaving. And that was a quality that I remember with Colonel Joerg. And I've talked to many of our veterans that they echo the same sentiment.
He was very much like General Gavin and Ridgway in that regard. And the fact that he had placed himself in that very forward possession in the tree line, I think once again to recall the battalion had been in very difficult fighting for over three days, no sleep, no warm meals, and again, improperly clothed. And I think he was there partly to demonstrate that, "I'm here with you and I'm supporting you." And also, a vantage point to observe the battlefield. Because as you look at the terrain from that vantage point, he could see down that open terrain into the Rochelinval area so that he didn't have to totally rely on the rather defective communications, that we had to have a more first hand view of what was happening on the battlefield. And unfortunately, it led to his demise. However, one cannot say that had he been 200 yards for the back end of the woods, he would not still have been killed by one of those tree bursts.
I believe from the standpoint of surviving that I was really amazed that for the extended period of time that we had been out in that environment and had been subjected, almost hourly, to showers of either mortar or shells and being constantly in a small arms engagement, that in my case, that I was still standing. And I once again had that feeling that I've heard echoed time and time again, it's the guy on the right and left that's going to get hit, not me. And I think that we, even today, in the back of my mind, I still have that feeling.
So that was an impression as how can we still be here and be going plodding through the snow and under these conditions and seeing all the casualties. Some of the bodies stacked up and others that were wounded that we could not get them out. And that was the bad part of it. I mean, combat is combat. But when you see someone that has been disabled, and you don't know where to take them, and you have no means of evacuating them at that time and with those elements, you know they're going to freeze to death. So that was the downside of that.
And I guess one again, in the back of one's mind would think, "Well, that may be me next." And I still have very fresh memories of that. And some of the people I served with for three years that were killed right in front of me. And I mean, that was quick and dirty, as we say, and they didn't suffer. But it was a tremendous loss that you never get over.
And I remembered, and I believe that Greg cites it in the book, we caught a German there in that field. And we were all really infuriated and I looked at the guy and he had a breast full of ribbons on this tunic. And I don't know why I did it and I still have them today, but I reached up and grabbed those ribbons and just ripped them off his uniform and stuck them in my pocket. And why I did it, I still don't know. But there was never any thought in my mind of shooting him. It's a furthest thought, because we weren't raised that way. But in a rage of passion, in a firefight, then you would do it.
And the day that Lieutenant Durkee led that bayonet attack, I was right with him. Although, I had a sub machine gun and the barrel was already frozen, I could not even move the receiver. So I just slung it on my back and pull out my 45 and cleared it and went right along with Durkee. And I think that's the worst scene that I can recall. And often refer people to the apocalypse, about the Vietnam War. That's the scene I remember with Durkee. He killed that first guy with a butt stroke from his rifle and just moved right up through that entrenchment. They were dug in row behind each other and as they tried to get up out of the foxhole, he killed them. And they'd just fall back in that freezing weather. You could see the vapor performing from the breath, the warmth, coming out of their body. And that's still very clear in my mind.
I remember discussions of the anxiety to get warmer clothing in the thought, "Well, gee, we can capture some of these Germans, we'll just take their great coats." I really didn't hear anyone talk about killing them to take their coats, but capture them. Because I remember with a group of prisoners that we had, and there was a comment, "Why don't we take their coats? We're freezing to death." And the officer said, "No, we don't do that." And number one Colonel McCrell said, "You will not wear German clothes or equipment." Because in southern France we had captured a lot of Germans and they had nap sacks that had nice, it looked like a pony skin as a cover for the back of the sac. And some of the guys started wearing them. Well, you could be mistaken for a German, so the order was out, you don't do that. So I think there was idle talk among some of the troops, but I think C Company is where that came up, that they were up around Fosse or Bergeval and someone said, "Why don't we just go up there and capture a few of those guys and we'll take their clothes?" But that was prohibited.
When we heard about the massacre, it, naturally, infuriated all the troopers and the thought there was to get revenge. But I think that that pretty much dissipated, that thought, because when you're out on your own in the attack, you're thinking about yourself and following the officers of the officers or NCOs on how you handle prisoners.
I know that there's allegations that one of our sergeants executed a couple of Polish prisoners. I have no personal knowledge of that. I would say that there's always the possibility of that happening because in southern France, a soldier in our battalion had just been informed that his brother had been killed. And he was guarding a German wounded prisoner out in front of our lines and about 50 minutes after the officer left, they heard a round fired from a rifle. And the soldier came back in so he tried to escape. So that may have been a legitimate, not legitimate in the sense that it was right to do it, but it may have been a legitimate story that it actually occurred.
But other than that, I have no personal knowledge of any of our troopers having ever having done that. And I think that there was such pride in our unit, that unless in the spur of the moment, in the passion of the moment and rage and having just seen someone kill next to you, that it may have been done. But I have no knowledge of it.
There were, of course, many, many stories and one can't be aware of all of them. Durkee stands out because he was always a very demanding and dynamic platoon leader. And the day that I was with him there and he ordered the charge, I mean, that was really a demonstration of leadership and courage that motivated everybody to get on with the task at hand. And he really should have been awarded at least a Distinguished Service Cross for that, which incidentally, he did earn in Korea doing the same thing with a bayonet attack.
There were other cases where medics exposed themselves. And in the case of Rochelinval, there was one, I can't remember, I think it was a Private Wilson, who had medical training, but he went over to administer aid to one of the soldiers and he put his helmet on that soldier. And in the process he was killed.
And there were many acts of that sort. And that, I think, it happens in all units. Now we're particularly proud of the morale and the pride that we had in our unit because we had been together, trained very long and hard for almost three years. And it was really a strong bonded unit that now was in this critical mass of that bad weather, the enemy, and the constant prodding by the headquarters to move on. And as I mentioned earlier, our unit moved fast and as a result, quite often we were out of contact with units on our flank. And of course, we had been dressed down in order to move through the snow without over shoes or overcoats. And of course we paid the price for that. But that was sought.
There was an elan and a spree of that unit that exists today with our veterans that it's hard to describe to someone. In just simple terms, it's a brotherhood within a brotherhood. And we like to think that there's a brotherhood within the Airborne community, and within that there are sub elements and the Special Forces have it. And when you go and visit those units, you sense it right away. And right or wrong, they're going to defend their unit. And we had a bad situation with a commander of the regiment that we were attached to. He had been our commander at Fort Bragg. Whether it's right or not, it's just a situation that developed, many of our men still understood that. And there was a feeling that we would do our very best, and if necessary, we would outshine that regiment we were attached to. And I think we did. Although we paid a very heavy price for it.
I received a letter from General Ridgway back about 1985. I had written to him about a recognition for the unit. And in his letter he pointed out that there was no other battalion more gallant than the 551 in the European campaign. And to me that was a very high state of recognition coming from, if you will, the airborne leader of World War II, General Gavin. And today, we take great pride in that formal recognition. But there was always a sense of accomplishment carried by every man that I remember in the 551, to do the job and to carry our colors and not be considered second place to anyone. And as a separate unit, you're used and abused because the organic elements of a either regimen or division, they're going to take care of their people first. And I think somewhere in the research that has been done, a senior officer admitted that perhaps the battalion was not given its fair shake of supplies, particularly the winter gear when it came in.
And I'd like to say one other thing that... I mean, you can check this to verify it, but there was a shortage of ammunition and we had to finally track down the correspondence out at St. Louis. And the files out there contained the firing logs of the Airborne Artillery Battalion that was supporting the 504 Regiment. And from those firing logs, we could see that there were only two fire missions that day in the vicinity of Rochelinval. And the first one that came down around 9:30 after this carnage was all over was smoke, 110 rounds of smoke. It was to cover the position so that we could with pull our dead and wounded off the field. About an hour later, there was another several rounds, I don't remember the exact number, it may be 30 or 40, that were fired over the town across the Salm River. None of that artillery fire ever supported our battalion during the attack that day. And we've had people tell us that we're crazy, that we got our fair share of artillery. Didn't happen. And one of the reasons, and probably the main reason that the artillery ammunition was in shortage was the Longshoreman's Union in the United States was on strike and they could not get the vessels loaded. And even today, I have a feeling about unions. And I know their place and everything, but I'll never forget that. Because we were told, "Well, that's all you get because we have to ration our artillery because it's short and we can only fire on certain priority targets.
I think that our battalion, and that's short life, it was All American. I know that's the designation of the 82nd Airborne Division, but these were young volunteers, draftees that came from all sections of the country and many of them made the supreme sacrifice. And when the job needed to be done, regardless of how dangerous, they did their darndest to get it done. And I think that accounts for, even on such a short battle strength, and under those severe conditions that the 551 pursued its subjective and ended up securing Rochelinval and the bridge. That may or may not have ultimately contributed... Not that the 551 influenced Hitler to order withdrawal, I don't mean that at all. But that action then showed Hitler that all of his troops had been pushed back west of the Salm and it undoubtedly went into his decision to start the withdrawal. And we take great pride in having been a part of that.
That was COL Douglas C. Dillard. To learn more about him and his experiences, check out his books, Operation Aviary, and Tiger Hunters. The links are in the show notes.
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