Some of my favorite memories of my time serving in the 82nd Signal Battalion was revolved around the combat vets in the outfit. Some saw action in WWII. Some in Korea. Some in both. Each of them had a chest full of medals and great ‘jump’ stories. One of my favorite vets was Sergeant Estes. He jumped into Normandy on D-Day, and was awarded a Bronze Star for single handedly capturing a platoon of German soldiers. But unlike most of the paratroopers who jumped in the darkness very early on that day, it was not the first combat jump for Estes. He jumped almost year before, in the first US combat airborne assault ever, again in the dark, the invasion of Sicily, where he got his first Purple Heart.
‘Just a bullet scratch in the shoulder, but I’ll take the medal.’
When I served with him, he was a Battalion cook, transferred to the mess hall a few years before.
‘Just biding my time. Cooking’s good. No getting up before the sun and running 5 miles. On 24 hours – off 48. Good life.’
Tall, thin, face like cracked leather, with a drawl that needed a translator until you got use to it. His fatigues showed a faded outline of a higher rank of sergeant.
‘Never get too fancy sewing on your rank. Saves time when lose a stripe or two. Airborne’s got the youngest sergeants in the Army, and the oldest privates. I got me my Good Conduct ribbon during a time when I was too busy overseas to do any bad conducting.’
Quiet man usually. Hard to get to know. But once he decided to take a liking to you, he was a hoot to be around. He would really open up with some great stories, especially after a beer or two. Estes and I were next to each other in the parade to honor General ‘Jumping Jim’, ‘Slim Jim’, James Gavin, the 82nd’s favorite General, upon his retirement.
‘I’d follow that man into hell. Come to think of it, that’s exactly where I followed him,’ Estes said, swigging a beer to wash the hot dust out of his throat. ‘Following him got me my second Purple Heart. Hurt like hell!’
It was the first time I saw Estes in his Class A’s. Two Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star, and a Silver Star on his chest along with a slew of campaign ribbons. ‘You got yourself quite a bunch of salad on your chest, Sarg. You got a reason to be proud.’
‘Well,’ he answered in a slow drawl, ‘I walk tall with the war ribbons, and my two purple Washingtons- and my Silver Star; but I don’t take much credit for the Bronze Star. Cuz it was an accident.’
‘What? I heard you captured an entire platoon of Germans, all by yourself and got the Bronze Star for it!’
‘Yup. But I didn’t Sergeant York it. It was an accident.’
Estes like to tell stories in bits and pieces. Almost like a Saturday Matinee serial. Leave you hang, come back next week and get another piece of the story. Took several sessions and quite a few beers before he told me about the ‘accidental Bronze Star’ and what led up to it. Estes also told stories in the grand style of Appalachian oral history. Slow, deliberate, filled with great mountain expressions, vocal inflections, physical gestures, and perfectly timed dramatic pauses. All in the sweet drawl of the hills.
I can give you the gist of his story leading up to getting the Bronze Star by ‘accident’; but not in his exact words, and certainly not in his exact style. I wish it would have been like today, put him in front of a camera and put the result on You Tube for everyone to enjoy.
‘Born and reared in the Tennessee Cumberlands. Just a couple big hills from where Sergeant Alvin York had his home place. Hard rock farm. Could hardly keep my folks in vitals, let alone enough for us six kids. All the paying jobs around weren’t around cuz somebody had them already. The only way to make any money was to become a faith-healing, tent-preacher with a couple rattlesnakes.
‘One day me and Levi, from the next farm, decided to go on the bum. We hiked a ride to where the freight trains have to real slow up a steep grade. Ran out, opened a car door, but there were a lot of hobos in it, so we found us an empty one. It was heading south, and we surmised that would be a good way to go. At least we would talk their language.
‘Now hoboing ain’t the fun you think it would be. Just listen to the songs of Jimmie Rodgers. He tells it like it was. And listen to the words real close in BIG ROCK CANDY MOUNTAIN. Dangerous life. If you do find an odd job, it’s hard work, low pay, usually cold food from last night’s dinner. Most of the time, you beg to eat, and you sleep in the cold. By the time we made it to Augusta, we were talking about heading back home.
‘There was this fancy movie house, and it was showing SERGEANT YORK. We had to see it! Had a little bit of money we were saving for some food, but it was enough to get only one of us in legal. Levi got a ticket and got me snuck the side door. Watched it twice. When we walked out of that movie house, I was gung-ho, knew what I wanted. I was going to join up in the Army. And I knew where to go.
‘We had passed an Army recruiting place on the way from the tracks. I spent most of the night trying to convince Levi to join up with me; but he said as much as he liked the idea of three squares a day and a cot to sleep in, what with the talk of the US maybe getting in the war, there was no way he was do anything forward enough to get shot at. Come morning I went one way to join up and Levi went the other to catch a freight.
‘I told the Army sergeant I wanted to join up with the 82nd, cuz that was Sgt. York’s outfit, and he came from my hills. And it shouldn’t be so hard cuz Camp Gordon where old Alvin got his start was right outside Augustus. He said it didn’t work like that.
‘If I wanted to join the 82nd I might have to jump out of airplanes cuz there was a rumor the 82nd was going to be the first airborne division in the US army. I surmised it couldn’t be any more dangerous than being on the bum. Then he told me I’d have to go to Fort Benning for boot camp, still in Georgia, but a ways away, and I could volunteer airborne in boot camp. I asked best way to hitch there, and he told me I could ride a bus for nothing after I signed up with him. I didn’t lie. I told him my actual birth date. He pondered a bit and wrote down I was born a year earlier than I said, and warned me to never let anyone in the Army know how young I really was. Then he even bought me a good meal before putting me on the bus with my papers in hand.
‘As for Levi, I got a letter from my brother a few years after. He said Levi and a couple old boys tried to rob a bank. Got outside and walked into a squad of police. Levi, who said he wouldn’t do anything to get himself shot at, was the first of the boys to throw down his gun and throw up his arms. He got his 3 squares and a cot alright, but he had to bust rocks on a Carolina chain gang to earn them.
‘It worked out sweet for me. Got through basic, got through jump school ,and got into the new 82nd Airborne Division, 505. Had my wings before Pearl Harbor. Wasn’t one of the original 48, but came close to it. Was one of jumpers in the first US airborne combat assault. Sicily – 9 June 43. We didn’t know what was going to happen, but we were all glad to leave the training in hot, hot, hot, North Africa in the rear view mirror. It was a night jump just like Normandy was. Combat jump, no reserve chutes, low altitude, not enough time for a reserve to help. You catch a streamer you just got to pray and try to shake it loose.
‘We figured on going onto the mainland and fight old fat Mussolini’s boys; but instead we went to England to train for the Big Dance.
‘It was cloudy at 1AM, June 6, of 44, but at least the storm had subsided. We jumped behind the lines but not exactly where they wanted us to land. My platoon landed in a hayfield with hedgerows on three sides, and a stand of trees at the far end. Great jump, great DZ, no harm to any of us. But we did hear occasional shooting afar, but none in our direction.
‘You could make out a supply chute tangled in the far trees. The captain ordered me to run down there and drag it back to our regrouping. I set my rifle down and took off. I was cutting the shroud lines to free the chute when I heard a lot of mumbling. And then a German soldier came out of the trees, followed by a lot more, a whole platoon of German soldiers. My rifle was a far ways off, but one man, even with a 03 Springfield, couldn’t do much against those odds.
‘That was the bad news. The good news was all the Germans had their rifles raised over their heads. They were surrendering to me. One soldier who talked good English asked that they be taken prisoner. What with all the airborne soldiers all around the area, they saw no point in trying to fight. Besides, he said, most of them were tired and wouldn’t mind sitting out the rest of the war in a POW camp.
‘I had to ask one of them to give me his rifle and the rest to lay their’s on the ground. Ordered some to pick up the supply boxes and marched them down to where my platoon were watching and laughing and shouting how I was a big hero just like old Sgt. York that I was always going on about.
‘And that’s how I got the Bronze Star for capturing a whole platoon of Germans, all by myself. Nothing to be so proud of. Like I told you, it was an accident. Don’t think they’re ever going to make a movie called SERGEANT ESTES.’
He was right. They never made a movie called SERGEANT ESTES; but accident or no, I told him he should stand tall wearing that Bronze Star. It was earned honestly. And one hell of a story.