(Picture Courtesy of Diane Knechtges)

Francis Fernan's medals and badges

Francis T. Fernan was born on May 31, 1924 in Elmira, Chemung County, NY. He was the son of Leo P. Fernan and Ester M. Fernan, of Elmira, NY. They lived at 959 Oak St. Francis had an older brother named Richard J. Fernan he was born in 1922, and two sisters Margaret and Marian. Their father worked as on the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western (DL&W) railroad.

Francis attended St. Cecillia’s parochial school when he was a child. After St. Cecillia’s parochial school he went to Elmira’s Free Academy where he graduated in June, 1942. He was a Star tackle on the 1942 Elmira High School Footbal Team. He also threw the discuss at the High School Track Team.

Francis enlisted in the Army on December 4, 1942, at age 18. The place of enlistment is Buffalo, New York. At the time of his enlistment he was a student with 4 years of High School. The component of the Army was: Army of the United States - includes the following: Voluntary enlistments effective December 8, 1941 and thereafter; One year enlistments of National Guardsman whose State enlistment expires while in the Federal Service; Officers appointed in the Army of the United States under Army Regulations 605-10. That means Francis volunteerd for the Army. He enlisted for the duration of the War or other emergency, plus six months, subject to the discretion of the President or otherwise according to law. At the time of his enlistment he was still a student.

Francis’ brother Richard enlisted on December 30, 1942, 26 days later as his younger brother Francis, at age 20. He enlisted in Binghamton, New York. His Branch Alpha designation was: Branch Immaterial - Warrant Officers, USA. The component of the Army is described as: Selectees (Enlisted Men). Richard also enlisted for the duration of the War or other emergency, plus six months, subject to the discretion of the President or otherwise according to law. At the time of his enlistment Richard had 4 years of High School and was Machinist’s helper.

Probably Francis and his brother first went to Camp Upton, Long Island for induction (nowadays site of Brookhaven National Laboratory). Processing had to be done fast, so it is likely that they went to a Camp for prosessing that was close to where they lived, maybe even the Fernan brothers went together. Camp Upton is located near the town of Yaphank, in the heart of Long Island’s Pine Barrens. Located about 80 miles from New York City, Upton was easily reached by the railroad network that linked the Northeast states in the 1940ties. New recruits from New York, Connecticut, and other New England states, after reporting to their local draft boards in response to a Selective Service notification, or after volunteering, were usually given orders to report to the Army’s reception center at Upton. The average reception center was often located inside a sprawling installation (others included Fort Dix, New Jersey and Fort Bragg, North Carolina). The recruit might be there four days or four weeks, depending on how long it took to process him and decide where to send him. The average stay was nine days. Recruits were evaluated mentally and physically so that they could be assigned to a particular branch of service, or even utterly rejected.

Upton was a two-hour train ride from New York’s Pennsylvania Station. For the average recruit, the journey from Manhattan to the camp was a rude awakening, especially during the Winter months. The station at Yaphank was tiny and made of wood. Once off the train, there was nothing but wind, sand, and pine trees. The scrawny pines offered no shelter from the wind, which blew the coarse yellow sand particular to Long Island everywhere. Soon, the sand was in clothing, duffel bags and boots. Those who went to Camp Upton in the winter have never forgotten the frigid winds, the stinging, ever-present sand, and the stands of thin ragged pines that surrounded the whole place.

By the arrival, the recruits found themselves in a virtual sea of uniforms. They lined up in their civilian clothes, a single overnight bag at their feet, and listened alternately to the jeering of other soldiers and the barking of sergeants. Even as in World War I the boot camp was overcrowded. But with the advent of WW II, the older barracks buildings were filled with dozens of new ones. Men stayed an average of nine days at Camp Upton, before being assigned to a particular unit and shipped out to another camp for six weeks of basic training and any additional specialized instruction. They were tested for mental aptitude and physical condition, received a uniform, and got their first taste of the Army. Then, they were marched back to the train station with orders to report to places.

The first procedure at Upton was for the men to drop their trousers for an examination of the genitals. The purpose was to determine whether soldiers had contracted venereal disease, and it was repeated regularly, especially whenever a soldier reported to a new post. Next, the men were subjected to a lecture on sexual morality. The men were advised that sex would weaken them and make them easy prey for the enemy. Later in the war, the lecture was replaced by graphic films on the subject of sexually transmitted diseases.

Next, the recruit received his cloths and boots. Inductees were sometimes issued entire WW I uniforms. As a followup to what the recruit heard at the induction office, he now had to listen to a reading of the complete articles, which covered military crimes. Also was some instruction given on military courtesy, as example how and when to salute, as well as some close-order drill, but not to the degree that both would be covered in basic training.

Then came the shots. The legendary injections that men referred to as “the hook”. Generally, these were the first of a series that would haunt a soldier throughout reception and basic, and they started with smallpox and typhoid inoculations. During this same period, the Army General Classification Test (AGCT) was given. A soldier who may have indicated a particular skill, like sharpshooting, would be given a special aptitude test in addition, but, by and large, the AGCT was the most important and was given to everyone. The classic version consisted of 150 multiple-choice questions that had to be completed in 40 minutes. There were three types of questions, embracing block counting, synonym matching, and simple arithmetic. “Liza had 15 books. She bought 2 more and gave 7 to her friends. How many did she have left?” The tests were machine-graded and the scores were used to place or classify the new soldier, which was the main function Camp Upton. A GI generally got his Army assignment on the basis of what he had done as a civilian. The 15-minute interview with the classification specialist (CS) was as important, sometimes, as an AGCT score. The CS recorded the inductee’s work history, education, and training, as well as the sports he played, his hobbies and his talents. These attributes were considered in the light of the Army’s needs, and the assignment was made. Francis joined the Airborne and his brother Richard the US Army.

Camp Upton

The real purpose of reception centers like Upton (beyond classifying the recruit) was to begin the processes of adaptation and acceptance of the Army lifestyle. The Army liked their men young, since adaptation was easier for younger men. At least a third of the population lived in homes that lacked central heat and running water. The Army barracks offered both. The Army offered three square meals a day, shelter and clothing.

Camp Upton and the other reception centers were only way stations. Every day, men were shipped in and out, bound for one of the 242 (by 1945) training camps where they would learn the real aspects of soldiering. They never knew where they were send to. They all then made the short or long haul to another Camp or Fort. For all intents and purposes, they were in the Army now and didn’t ask questions. In a few short weeks, they would learned to follow orders.

Francis was selected for service as a paratrooper, he served in the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment (501 PIR). Currahee Mountain was selected as the site for the first Parachute Infantry Training Center. Francis took his pre-Jump Basic Training at the famous “Band of Brothers” Camp Toccoa, Ga. The Camp Toccoa location was first established in 1938 as a training camp for the Georgia National Guard. It was named Camp General Robert Toombs to honor a General from the War between the States. It was just a wilderness camp with no facilities until the War Department chose the location for a Paratrooper Basic Training Site shortly after WWII started. The story goes that Colonel Robert F. Sink, 506th Regimental Commander, thought that it was really bad psychology to have young soldiers arrive at Toccoa, travel Route 13 past a casket factory to learn to jump at Camp “Tombs”, so he persuaded the Department of the Army to change the name to Camp Toccoa. Original plans were for a camp that would accommodate 20.000 or more men. Two regiments with their supporting units were the maximum there at any one time, but this only occurred when the training of one regiment overlapped the training of the previous regiment.

Left: ID of the 501st PIR
Middle: 101st Airborne Division Patch
Right: Currahee ID

The 501st PIR was activated in Toccoa, GA in November 1942 where the young men who volunteered for hazardous duty were given basic training, following the same idea that Colonel Sink’s 506th PIR had utilized. Colonel Howard R. Johnson was the dynamic commander of the 501st PIR. Volunteers both drafted and Regular Army, who had joined the Army to be paratroopers, arrived by trainloads, fresh from induction centers. The airborne was in that time a new element of the Army, all the paratroopers voluntered for becoming a paratrooper. Most mentioned reasons were the extra $50 “parachute pay”, or just wanting to be part of the elite forces of the US Army.

Paratrooper cap patch

The paratroopers were considered to be elite troops and received extra money or “parachute pay” for their hazardous missions. The glider troops, however, had duties just as dangerous but were authorized no extra pay. This situation continued through 1944, with unit commanders doing their best to keep the peace within their ranks. Throughout these difficulties the 101st continued to train and to reorganize, attempting to acquire airborne qualified personnel for the necessary positions.

Jump from a C-47

The 506th was departing for jumpschool at Fort Benning as the first volunteers for the 501st began to arrive at Toccoa. The 506 troopers tossed cherry bombs into the barracks of the 501-ers the night they departed. The recruits were trained by a cadre, some of whom were already jump qualified. Putting the troops through special pre-jumpschool Basic Training at Toccoa, many men who were not capable of long distance running were weeded out of the 501st. Distance running was the main emphasis in Colonel Johnson’s book. As Francis was a sportsman distance running wouldn’t have been a problem for him. Francis passed the special pre-jumpschool Basic Training at Toccoa and became a member of the Currahees .

Camp Toccoa

In spring, March, 1943, the 501st left Toccoa, one battalion at a time to attend the Parachute School at Ft Benning, GA. The 511st and 517th regiments had arrived to train at Toccoa in the same manner, (although they were destined for different divisions.) Some 501st commanders, like Major “Big Red” Shelby of 3rd Battalion, were disappointed that the regiment rode to The Parachute School (TPS) on trains. He had wanted to march there, as the 506th had done. The troops were not disappointed and Shelby was shipped out before the 501st sailed for overseas. Francis had completed four weeks of jump training during at Ft. Benning in which he had made five jumps from a plane in flight. The last was a jump at night involving a combat problem on landing. After completing his jump training, at Ft. Benning, Francis earned his Jump Wings. After that the troops received furloughs.

After their furloughs they settled-in for many months of large unit training at Camp Mackall, N.C. On November 8, 1942, construction began on the Hoffman Airborne Camp on about 56.000 acres obtained from the Department of Interior and purchased from local landowners. There were over 1.750 buildings erected mostly of the Theater of Operations (T/O) type. The one-story T/O buildings were the most temporary construction with rough plank siding covered with tar paper. A heavier grade tar paper served as roofing material. Construction included seven service clubs, two guesthouses, three libraries, 16 post exchanges, 12 chapels, a hospital, 65 miles of roads and three 5.000’ runways in a triangle. Those buildings included headquarters for the U.S. Army Airborne Command, the garrison command and the division headquarters. There were also numerous service buildings. The camp’s cantonment area was constructed with a north and south area separated by about a mile with the Station Hospital in between closer to the north area. The south barracks area were for troopers in training and contained all the services necessary to sustain them. Those troops began arriving in January 1943.

On February 8, 1943, they renamed the facility to Camp Mackall in honor of Private John Thomas Mackall, 2nd Battalion, 503rd PIR. During the Allied invasion of North-Africa in the airborne operation called Operation Torch, he was mortally wounded in an attack by French Vichy aircraft on his aircraft as it landed near Oran. Seven paratroopers died at the scene and several were wounded, including Mackall. He was evacuated by air to a British hospital at Gibraltar where he died on November 12, 1942. Mackall’s mother and two brothers were among family members attending the camp dedication on May 1, 1943. A bronze plaque recalling the event which injured Mackall was unveiled at a ceremony that day and installed at the division headquarters building. Later it was removed when the camp was dismantled. In the 1970ties it was misplaced and never found back. A granite monument now stands at the front of the camp.

Camp Mackall greetings card

The US Army Airborne Command moved to Camp Mackall in early 1943 from Ft. Bragg. While the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions remained garrisoned at Ft. Bragg. The troops were trained under the Command at Camp Mackall before leaving for assignments elsewhere that year.

Francis and the others were to receive basic training at Camp Mackall in addition to perfecting their skills. At Camp Mackall Francis probably received a medal for Mortar Shooting ( Mortar Shooting Badge Bar), as he was assigned to the 81mm mortar platoon of HQ, second battalion. The 81mm mortars were hugh and heavy things, so they probably assigned Francis to the mortar platoon because he was a strong and tall person. Francis’ original platoon leader was Lt. William Russo.

Scene of a 81mm Mortar Crew in the Dead Man's Corner Museum in St. Come-du-Mont, Normandy, France
(Picture Courtesy of Rick Demas)

Private Francis Fernan (not Corporal) somewhere in the period from the beginning of spring, 1943, and early January, 1944, when he sailed for the UK
(Picture Courtesy of Diane Knechtges)

When Francis and a big lot of other paratroopers were on leave in Charlotte, N.C. in 1943 fights broke out between about 1000 paratroopers, a few Hawaiians, also stationed at Camp Mackall to teach the paratroopers the best technique of commando fighting, and about 500 civilians. The fight soon develloped to a big riot.

Everything started in the Victory cafe at 11 PM, in the second block of World Trade Street. A few paratroopers and Hawaiians started to fight in that cafe, and soon others from each side joined in. Some of the soldiers from Morris Field became involved in the struggle, they were said to have expressed a desire for “fiar play” for the Hawaiians. Hunderds of other drawn by ciriousity, crowded around and soon the streets were filled with struggling and milling soldiers. Soon the fights expanded to 3 blocks of the World Trade Street.

45 Minutes after the fight had start order was restored and most of the soldiers had been scattered. A reserve contingent of Camp Sutton military police, armed with tommy guns, rolled up at about 11.45 PM and were lined up in front of the First Presbyterian Church, with their machine guns at “ready”.

While the MP was engaged in breaking up a fight in the milling crowd a paratrooper tried to remove a .45 pistol from the holster of a military policemen. The gun went off in the process still in his holster, hitting Francis in the leg. The incident is described in the article, but Francis was not named as the soldier. The MP succeeded in restoring the order, and the soldiers had been scattered and fled away to keep out of the MP’s hands.

A number of Hawaiian soldiers were injured, Francis was shot in his leg and 2 MP’s were beaten up in the disturbances. Francis didn’t turn himself-in for medical attention until about 4 days later, when his wound became so serious that he could no longer drill with his platoon.

Newspaper cutting of Francis' fight (Picture Courtesy of Mark Bando (webmaster of http://www.101airborneww2.com/))

By the spring of 1943 the division was ready to face its first test in local maneuvers. In September/October, 1943, the 501st went to 2nd Army Maneuvers in Tennessee for larger scale operations. In December, 1943 another round of furloughs was granted.

Francis in his M-42 uniform
(Picture Courtesy of Diane Knechtges)

In January, 1944, Francis and the others sailed to England, by way of Camp Myles Standish, MA., aboard the USS George W. Goethals. The North Atlantic was a really rough in that time of the year. It was wintertime, with 45-foot waves. Nearly everyone was seasick, including some sailors. All the way across the Atlantic the smell at ship was that bad.

They landed at Glasgow, Scotland. There they took the train to camps at Newbury and Lambourne, England. They became members by attachment only, of the 101st Airborne Division. This was actually a disappointment in loss of identity for the original 501st soldiers, who believed Colonel Johnson’s prediction that the 501st would make a name for itself as a crucial element in winning WWII.

In England, training was as hard and realistic as ever. It became increasingly oriented toward an airborne assault into German held Europe. Though none of the paratroopers knew it initially, the regiment was actually training for Operation Overlord, the top-secret Allied plan for the combined air, naval, amphibious, and airborne operations into Hitler’s Europe. As D-Day drew closer, a few key commanders and staff were briefed on the part the 101st would play in Operation Overlord.

Jump out of a C-47

Then, with D-Day just days away, the 501st, with the rest of the division, was sequestered in well guarded marshaling camps, where every man finally learned not only his own mission, but the overall mission of the 501st, and the 101st Airborne Division. These very extensive and intensive briefings were to pay big dividends during the real battle. The 101st participated in three formal exercises: Beaver, Tiger, and Eagle. During Operation Beaver at Slapton Sands on the Devonshire coast, elements of the division jumped from trucks instead of planes with the mission of capturing the causeway bridges that crossed the estuary behind the beach. The division performed much the same mission during the second exercise, Operation Tiger. Operation Eagle, held during the second week of May, was the division’s dress rehearsal for its role in the coming Normandy invasion. The 101st, this time jumping from actual planes, was once again assigned to capture the causeways leading away from a simulated beach. Although a misunderstanding caused most of the division to jump at the wrong coordinates, the mission was accomplished and the exercise was considered a success. The division then returned to its stations to continue preparation for the coming battles on the continent.

Eisenhower's visit to the men that are close before their jump into occupied France

The famous D-day Ike letter

At 2215, 432 C-47's began taking off from 7 departure airdromes in England, with 6,600 paratroops of the 101st Airborne Division. The 501st (less 3rd Battalion) was to take off from Merryfield Airport at 2245 Hours on June 5, 1944, 3rd Battalion was to depart at the same time from Welford Airport. That was one day later as planned. Now the invasion had to start with still no ideal weather, or else the invasion had to be take place about August, and that was too long to keep such a large mission secret. All units were to fly across the English Channel and drop into Normandy, five hours prior to the seaborne landings. The 501st drop zones were north and east of the town of Carentan. Two battalions were to seize key canal locks at La Barquette and destroy the bridges over the Douve River, while the third battalion was in division reserve.

501st heading for Normandy

The paratroopers engaged Normandy from the west. There Pathfinders were dropped at about 0.15 Hours to mark the DZ’s (Drop Zone) for the other paratroopers that would get dropped there one hour later. The break-up of the troop carrier formations, from a combination of low clouds, and enemy anti-aircraft fire. Most of the pilots had never been under fire and paniced. This caused highly scattered drops, in most cases not on or near planned drop zones.

As the flight over the Channel commenced heading for Francis’ DZ D they stood up. The planes were so crowded. The crew chief was supposed to be by the open door keeping the lines cleared as they exited. When the men were flying over the Cotentin Peninsula the men began to close in on the door. The first two had the task to push out an equipment bundle and release the others under the plane. Looking down, flares and tracers were spouting in all directions. Machine guns were firing at the Paratroopers. The men splashed down, some in a few feet of water in darkness and total disarray. Then the men tried to get rid of their parachute as soon as possible as there were Germans all over the place. Evidently many had landed totally scattered along the sector Utah Beach.

A lot of Paratroopers lost their equipment. Some paratroopers even hit other planes, because the pilots of those planes didn’t recognize the DZ’s either. In most cases Pathfinders didn’t mark the DZ’s, because they also got dropped wrong and didn’t had the time to get to the DZ to mark it for the pilots. Accordingly, actions that night bore little resemblance to those so carefully planned and briefed. Amazingly, the regiment (and the division) accomplished its multiple missions, but none of them as rehearsed.

101st Airborne drop pattern
(click on picture to enlarge)

The 501st parachuted into Normandy behind Utah Beach. Francis landed on Drop Zone “D” near Angoville au Plain. An oil-soaked building near the drop field was set on fire and the paratroops were immediately hit by machine-gun and mortar fire. Some of the men landed in or at the edge of the swampy plain east of Angoville-au-Plain. Francis fought between Angoville and St. Come du Mont on the first 3 days of the Normandy Invasion. RHQ, and First Battalion were to seize the lock at la Barquette, over the Douve River. Second Battalion, so Francis’ Battalion, was to destroy Bridge #2 over the Douve on the N-13 highway and secure the town of St. Come du Mont. Third Battalion, jumping in “reserve” was to land on DZ “C” and provide security for 101 Div. HQ at Hiesville.

501st PIR on D-day
(click on picture to enlarge)

The paratroopers of the 101st were promised reinforcements at dawn, when 51 of the division’s gliders were scheduled to land. The gliders, however, had problems of their own. Many of the gliders crashed, and several soldiers of the division were killed, including Brig. Gen. Don F. Pratt, the assistant division commander. A second glider landing at dusk that day produced even more casualties.

Despite mis drops of some of the units, some of these objectives were accomplished on D-Day, except for the destruction of Bridge #2 and the capture of St. Come du Mont, so the objectives Francis’ Battalion had weren’t accomplished. By nightfall soldiers from the 101st had secured the beach exits in their zone and contacted the landing forces of the 4th Division. The 101st also controlled the la Barquette lock, but could not secure crossings on the Douve River.

Operations in Douve River area

While securing the southern flank, the 506th later contacted the group under Col. Howard R. Johnson (commanding the 501st Parachute Infantry) at the la Barquette dam, and Captain Shettle asked for reinforcements, but Colonel Johnson, who was in an equally precarious situation, could spare none. The best he could do was to promise help in case of emergency. The help that finally came, however, was fortuitous; that night 40 men who had dropped farther south, in the Carentan area, walked in and joined the group. Actually the Germans made almost no effort to take advantage of Shettle’s weakness. In the middle of the night the Germans tried a tentative push toward the bridge, which Shettle’s engineers had already prepared for demolition, but gave up in the face of American small-arms fire.

Captain Shettle had thus set up the left anchor of a defensive line along the division’s south flank. The completion of the division’s defensive line in the south was the mission of the 1st and 2nd Battalions, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, commanded by Colonel Johnson. To carry it out the 1st Battalion was ordered to seize the lock on the Douve River at la Barquette, and the 2d Battalion, commanded by Lt. Col. Robert A. Ballard, to blow the Douve River bridges on the main road from St. Come du Mont to Carentan. The regiment was also ordered to take St. Come-du-Mont, if possible, and to destroy the railroad bridge to the west. Of these objectives, the la Barquette lock had assumed a special importance in the eyes of the planners.

La Barquette actions

The lock, located due north of Carentan, controls the water level of the Douve River to the west as far as the confluence of the Merderet. When the lock is opened the high tide floods the river channel and spreads gradually over the whole low marshy area between St. Come du Mont and Carentan. Ultimately, through opening and closing the lock according to the tide level, the valleys of the Douve and Merderet can be turned into a shallow lake as far north as le Ham and as far west as St. Sauveur le Vicomte. East of the lock the tide flow is kept in the river channel by flood banks from 6 to 8 feet high. During the years when the RAF had this area under observation, inundations were observed periodically, extending in a large westward area between the ridges of high ground around St. Come du Mont and the solid lower ground south and west of Carentan. Possession of the lock therefore meant control of a potentially valuable natural barrier to possible German counterattack against the south flank of the beachhead. Actually the tactical value of the lock was exaggerated. The flooding was unusually slight and erratic. The area behind the lock was flooded and drained so slowly that the inundation could not be used as a flexible defense measure. Furthermore, if seizure of the lock were coupled with destruction of the bridges north of Carentan on the only good route across the swamps, the task of safeguarding the left flank of VII Corps would be greatly facilitated.

Securing of this objective came close to failure at the outset, primarily because of a bad drop. The 501st PIR, according to the original plan, was to drop between Vierville and Houesville, astride the two highways north of Carentan. A few days before D-Day “Drop Zone D” was shifted southeastward to the area Anoville au Plain-Bse. Addeville at the request of Colonel Johnson, who wished to land closer to his objectives, the la Barquette lock and bridges north of Carentan. A secondary consideration which also favored this change was the fact that anti-airborne landing obstacles were appearing in the fields of the original DZ. This brought the drop zone considerably nearer the lower Douve, and when the regiment actually made the drop, the first plane serial, carrying the 1st Battalion and regimental headquarters, was badly scattered, some of its sticks landing deep in enemy territory south of Carentan. Many others landed in the swampy bottom lands to the west. The 1st Battalion’s command personnel was particularly hard hit. The commanding officer was killed, his executive officer was apparently captured, and all other company commanders and staff were also missing initially. In part, at least, the day was saved by an accident. A large percentage of planes of the 1st and 2nd Battalions’ serials had unloaded too soon. As the jump signal flashed in Colonel Johnson’s plane, a bundle became wedged in the door. The delay caused by this prevented a premature unloading and brought Colonel Johnson and his men squarely down on “Drop Zone D”.

Moving south, Colonel Johnson collected some 150 men of miscellaneous units. At the trail junction just north of the lock, he verified his position and sent fifty men to take the objective, while the remainder of the force deployed defensively in place. The assault reached the lock in one dash, crossed it, and dug in on the soft ground of the far bank before the enemy could bring the area under shell fire. Even then the Germans made no attempt to press in on the bridgehead. Colonel Johnson thought that with a little additional strength he could proceed with the mission of blowing the bridges, which were only 2.000 yard up the river. But the patrols sent out in that direction drew fire with every movement. Satisfied that the lock situation was in hand, that his own position on this low-lying hollow was not favorable, and that he would need a stronger force for the task of destroying the Douve bridges, Colonel Johnson decided to move north and make contact with elements of the regiment at Bse. Addeville, 1.000 yards to the northwest. Patrols had reported that Major R. J. Allen, regimental S-3, had a sizeable force there.

Attack on St. Come-Du-Mont
(click on picture to enlarge)

Leaving the defense at the lock, Colonel Johnson took about fifty men to Bse. Addeville, hoping to gather sufficient strength to proceed against St. Come du Mont. At 0900, the force arrived at Bse. Addeville. Near this town Major Allen had gathered a hundred men from several units, but these were already engaged with the enemy to the north and west. Without knowledge of other units in the division, Colonel Johnson was uncertain as to how best to employ his small forces. His decision was finally crystallized by a radio broadcast of the BBC from London. It was the noon news bulletin and brought word that the invasion “is going according to plan and the operations of the American airborne divisions are meeting with success.” This news that the battle was going well elsewhere encouraged Colonel Johnson to proceed with the regimental mission. A small force was to be left at Bse. Addeville, with the bulk of his troops returning to la Barquette to move on the bridges.

At this point Colonel Johnson learned that 250 men of the 2nd Battalion, 501st PIR (Colonel Ballard), who had not been heard from previously, were heavily engaged at les Droueries, 1.000 yards to the northwest. Colonel Johnson was intent on the mission to the south and wanted Colonel Ballard’s force to join him. But the enemy was between Colonel Ballard’s force and that of Colonel Johnson’s, and neither Major Allen’s nor Colonel Ballard’s units could move to join forces. Leaving fifty men at Bse. Addeville under Major Allen, Colonel Johnson took command of the remainder of the force and moved out at about 1330.

At the la Barquette position the force was met by intense enemy artillery, mortar, and small-arms fire, coming partly from east of Carentan and partly from the direction of St. Come du Mont. Among the men Major Allen had collected was Lieutenant Farrell, the naval shore fire control officer. He was in radio contact with the fleet and called the Quincy. Within a few minutes the first 8-inch salvo was delivered. Despite the difficulties, Lieutenant Farrell’s adjustments brought a remarkably accurate concentration on enemy positions around St. Come du Mont, and their mortar fire slackened immediately. Following this the naval fire was shifted to support the 2nd Battalion, 501st PIR, at les Droueries.

With enemy fire partially neutralized in the vicinity of la Barquette, Colonel Johnson resumed his efforts to take the Douve bridges. A new patrol, however, again reported progress to the west impossible because of heavy enemy fire. Colonel Johnson therefore ordered the extension of the defense at the lock east and west, pushing as close to the highway as possible. The bridgehead was built up to 100 yards in depth south of the lock. As protection against attack from the north, the position was expanded about 200 yards east and west and reinforced with automatic weapons. The 250 men with Colonel Johnson were augmented at 2000 by 30 brought down by Major Allen from Bse. Addeville. About 20 of the defenders were sent out during the night on patrols in an unavailing effort to find the headquarters of the division and of the 506th PIR. Contact with Captain Shettle’s men of the 506th at le Port was maintained. The other patrols were lost.

By the end of D-Day Colonel Johnson’s miscellaneous force had accomplished only a part of the regimental mission, the part originally assigned to the 1st Battalion. The 2nd Battalion, becoming involved with the enemy in the vicinity of St. Come du Mont shortly after the drop, was never able to move south to deal with the Carentan bridges on Colonel Johnson’s right flank.

Angoville au Plain (Normandy, France) in June 1944 and 2007

Monument for the 501st PIR, 101st Airborne in Angoville au Plain, Normandy, France
(Picture Coutesy of Rick Demas)

Colonel Ballard (2nd Battalion) had assembled, between Angoville-au-Plain and les Droueries, small groups from each of his three rifle companies and his battalion staff. He planned to move at once on St. Come du Mont, which lay astride his main route to the Douve bridges. Prior G-2 information had indicated that the town was held by only one enemy platoon. It soon became apparent, however, that there were enemy forces of some strength at les Droueries between Colonel Ballard and his objective. Orders were consequently issued for the attack on les Droueries.

At 0530 two “companies”, each with about 30 men, moved out abreast to seize two crossroads on the two trails from Angoville au Plain southwest. The third company followed in support. The enemy frustrated the frontal attack with small arms and mortars but a new group of men, mainly from the 506th PIR, arrived and succeeded in flanking the enemy on the right. Some progress had been made, although the Germans had not been beaten back, when Colonel Ballard received orders from Colonel Johnson to join him at la Barquette. The battalion, therefore, disengaged as soon as it could and returned to Angoville au Plain about noon, planning to move to la Barquette across the swamps south of Angoville au Plain. However, the area was covered by enemy fire and was soon found impassable and the battalion moved instead along the west edge toward Bse. Addeville, which Major Allen had just reported he was about to vacate in order to join Colonel Johnson. The 2nd Battalion had moved only about 400 yards when it was stopped by heavy fire from the same enemy force which had contested the morning attack on les Droueries. There the battalion remained for the night, in close contact with the enemy. The 501st PIR, Francis’ Regiment, had secured the lock at la Barquette, but strong enemy resistance had prevented the capture of St. Come du Mont as well as the destruction of the railroad and highway bridges north of Carentan.

In the St. Come du Mont area the enemy effectively held the 501st PIR against the swamps in the vicinity of les Droueries and Bse. Addeville. There were no men to be spared to proceed against the railroad and highway bridges across the Douve, and the enemy was thus left strong and mobile to the southwest.

Excerpt from: Roland G. Ruppenthal, American Forces in Action: Utah Beach to Cherbourg. Washington, D.C.: Historical Division, War Department, 1945. About the author: Major Roland G. Ruppenthal was a member of the 2nd Information and Historical Service, attached to the First Army.

Francis fought between Angoville and St. Come du Mont on the first 3 days of the Normandy Invasion, in that time his battalion occurred the failed objectives of the first Invasion day, on June 8, 1944. The 501st regrouped at Vierville, 9 June, then crossed the Douve River near Brevands, passed through Catz, and staged for the encirclement of Carentan at St. Hilaire Petit Ville.

Vierville, Normandy, France
(Picture Coutesy of Rick Demas)

Church of Vierville, Normandy, France
(Picture Coutesy of Rick Demas)

The plan of the 101st Airborne Division provided for two crossings of the Douve. The left wing, starting at 1.00 Hours on June 10, was to cross in the vicinity of Brevands; part of this force was to join V Corps near the Vire River bridge southwest of Isigny, while the main force was to drive southwest to seize Carentan. The right wing was to cross the causeway northwest of Carentan, bypass Carentan, and seize Hill 30, southwest of the city. Capture of Hill 30 would put the Americans astride the principal German escape route from Carentan, as movement to the south and east was hindered by the Vire-Taute Canal and extensive swampland. As the battle for Carentan developed, the left and right wings of the division were coordinated to form a ring about the town, and within this ring a pincers closed in on the town itself.

The Attack on Carentan (Click on picture to enlarge)

At about 20.00 Hours on June 11, Colonel Harper was called back to the regimental command post. Here Lt. Gen. Courtney H. Hodges, General Taylor, General McAuliffe, and Colonel Johnson had gathered to plan the next day’s attack on Carentan. General McAuliffe was given the command of the task force which was to make a coordinated attack; it consisted of the 501st and 506th Parachute Infantry Regiments and the 327th Glider Infantry Regiment. The 501st PIR was to move from its defensive position north of the Douve, cross the river near Brevands, where a treadway bridge had been built, and swing southwest to join Colonel Sink’s men of the 506th PIR near Hill 30, thus completing the division’s ring around the city at La Fourchette.

(Pictures Courtesy of Rick Demas)

Then, Francis was in the attack on Hill 30 southeast of Carentan, on 12 June, 1944. The attack on Carentan was to be two pronged. The right arm of the drive was to cross the causeway northwest of Carentan, bypass the town, and continue to the southwest to occupy La Billonerie, also called Hill 30, which, it was thought, covered potential escape routes available to the Germans. The left arm of the assault was to cross the Douve River near Brevands, with the main body of that force continuing on to Carentan, while a smaller portion of the force moved east to the Vire River to contact the V Corps. Carentan fell, with the second Battalion of the 506th and the 401st Glider Infantry entering the town from opposite sides. On the following day, the 501st repulsed counterattacks by the 17th SS division south of Carentan.

The Fall of Carentan (Click on picture to enlarge)

On 13th June the Germans launched a fierce counterattack in an attempt to retake the town of Carentan. The U.S. First Army directed elements of the 2nd Armored Division to support the 101st in defending Carentan. Together the Americans stopped the enemy thrust and held the town.

The rest of the time in Normandy combat was spent in the area south of Carentan, near la Billonnerie, together with elements of the 506th. The 501st Regiment was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation for their role in the Normandy Invasion.

The 101st remained as a First Army reserve until mid-July, when it returned to England for rest, training to absorb replacements. The division had suffered considerable personnel and equipment losses during the Normandy battles. The 101st spent the summer replacing equipment, training new soldiers, and waiting for its next mission.

Detailed Information about Cpl. Fernan on D-day from: Mark Bando (webmaster of http://www.101airborneww2.com/)

The successes were the result of the initiative, stamina, and daring of the individual parachutists, who each assessed his own situation on landing, and decided how best to accomplish some part of the overall mission- recalled from his detailed briefings. Fierce fighting in Normandy by no means ended with the beginning of D-Day, but continued with important results in assisting the amphibious landings and joining the beach at Utah to that at Omaha. The gallant efforts of the 501st were at high cost; the regiment lost 898 men killed, wounded, and missing or captured.

Returning to their base in England via LSTs, in the middel of July, the 501st slowly regained its pre D-Day capabilities with many replacements and another round of intensive training. There was good news of a Presidential Unit Citation for actions of the 501st in Normandy, and many planned assaults into France, where aborted as the allies overran planned objectives. They also received The French Croix de Guerre with Palm for operations in Normandy.

Then, in the early fall of 1944, plans were made for what was not a “dry run”, the airborne assault into occupied Holland with the Code name Market Garden. Market Garden was planned as a two phase operation. Operation Market was the airborne phase of the assault, with Operation Garden being the ground assault. The paratroopers of First Allied Airborne Army, including Francis, were to jump into the Holland and secure the corridor from Eindhoven north to Arnhem, through which the ground forces of the British 30th Corps could advance and push on to the Jesselmer (Zuider Zee). The eventual goal was to cross the Rhine River and breach the German West Wall defenses. The Dutch countryside, criss-crossed by innumerable dikes, drainage ditches, rivers, and canals, however, would prove difficult to traverse if the ground troops could not advance by road. For the plan to be a success the paratroopers had to keep the roadway open and the bridges along the route intact and secure.

Corporal Francis Fernan wearing his parachutewings
(Picture Courtesy of Diane Knechtges)

H-Hour was set for 17th September 1944, and the 101st, along with the 82nd Airborne Division, the British 1st Airborne Division and 52nd Lowland Division (Airportable), and the 1st Polish Parachute Brigade were set to jump. Operation Market Garden commanded by Lt. Gen. Lewis H. Brereton, commander of the First Allied Airborne Army, was to be carried out in daylight. Shortages in transportion planes, however, prevented the three divisions from dropping all their troopers at H-Hour, and the commanders had to decide which units would go in first. The 101st Airborne Division was to anchor the British Airborne Corps’ most southern flank and secure a 15-mile sector between Eindhoven and Veghel (Vechel) . Taking this into consideration, General Taylor decided that the three parachute regiments would jump on the 17th of September. The 327th GIR was to arrive on the 18th, and the artillery units the 19th.

The planes carrying the 101st greeted by heavy anti-aircraft fire as they approached their DZ’s, but the pilots were able to hold formation, and the paratroopers, for the most part, were dropped in the right DZ’s. These were located to the west of the main highway and in the center of the division’s sector, near the villages of Son, St. Oedenrode and Best. Elements of the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment landed on DZA-1 near Heeswijk, and others on the DZ between Veghel and Eerde, north of the 502nd, Francis’ was dropped near Veghel, 25 miles behind the German front lines. The mission was to secure the part of Hell’s Highway, gain control of the rail and road bridges over the Willems Canal and the Aa River, which would tie-in with the 82nd Airborne below Grave. Heavy fighting raged around Veghel and Eerde.

Francis' Dropzone

Francis was in the fighting to hold Veghel from 17- 28 September, 1944. The 501st, among them Francis, accomplished its mission, capturing Veghel and the surrounding bridges against little enemy resistance.

Positions on 17 September+1

In the days following the link between the airborne and ground forces the 101st, now in defensive positions, faced enemy counterattacks as the Germans attempted to cut the road and stop the flow of Allied forces and equipment north. General Taylor received information that the Germans were planning a large scale attack, coming from the east and west sides of the road in the vicinity of Veghel and Uden, to the northeast. Ordered to Uden on September 22, elements of the 506th arrived to defend the village moments ahead of the Germans, but the main assault came at Veghel, where Francis still was. Taylor dispatched the 327th GIR to reinforce the 2nd Battalion, 501st PIR, at Veghel when he received the information about the upcoming attack. General McAuliffe was also in Veghel on the September 22. He had been searching for a new division CP (command post) when the information came in, and General Taylor gave his artillery commander the responsibility for the defence of the town of Uden.

The Screaming Eagles turned back the first attack on Veghel, which came from the village of Erp to the east. The Germans, however, swung to the northwest and cut the highway between Veghel and Uden, and then turned south to attack. As the German armored forces approached Veghel, McAuliffe ordered an anti-tank gun, with which they destroyed the leading tank, and the enemy column turned back. Additional battalions of the 327th arrived, as did other elements of the 506th, along with British tank squadrons. The Germans continued attacking Veghel thru the afternoon, including several heavy artillery bombardments, the men held their position, among them Cpl. Francis Fernan. The next important step was to reopen the highway; men and equipment were hardly needed further north on the closed road.

The Germans continued their attack on Veghel the following day, with any result. The Germans were able to cut the road again, but this time near the village of Koevering, between Veghel and St. Oedenrode. While the Germans continued to attack the 101st along the Hell’s Highway sector, the division’s positions remained intact and they kept the road open. Allied operations had forced the Germans to spend men and equipement for the defense of Holland, men and equipment which was hardly needed in the East. Although the Operation did not succeed in its original goals, successes in Holland provided the Allies with a foothold for future campaignes.

In early October the British moved their 8th and 12th Corps into position along the highway, and it was thought the 101st could be better used elsewhere. After things quieted down in that sector of Hell’s Highway the 501st moved north to the Betuwe, near Heteren on 4-5 October, 1944. That area was known as “the island”. This area, a narrow strip of land north of Nijmegen, situated between the lower Rhine and Waal Rivers, was victim of several German attacks. The division suffered heavy casualties in defense of this “island”. Shortly after the 101st assumed its positions in the line, the British Corps returned to England.

Also while on the dike positions on October 8, 1944, Colonel Johnson, the leader of the 501st was killed in action by German artillery fire. LTC Julian J. Ewell assumed regimental command of the 501st. The 82nd joined the 101st on “the island” later in October.

Somewhere very close to this dike Francis was Killed in Action

Francis original platoon leader was Lt. William Russo. The 81mm mortar platoon leader was another Lt., Lt. Alton Phipps, who allowed the mortars to be dug-in too far behind the main dike east of Heteren in the Valburg Area on November 4, 1944. The Germans on higher ground on the north bank of the Neder Rhine could spot their firing positions and sent in counter battery fire at 1700 Hours, that killed Francis and wounded others. Francis was 20 years old at the time of his death.
Information from: Mark Bando (webmaster of http://www.101airborneww2.com/)

Notice the wrong KIA date on the paper!
(Picture Courtesy of Rick Demas)

Eugene Hilker's Letter to Francis' mother (Picture Courtesy of Diane Knechtges)

Louis Eugene "Gene" Hilker, Jr. was a friend of Francis Fernan. They served together from their training back in the USA untill Francis death. Steve Hilker, the son of "Gene" Hilker, told me about his dad's job: "...Dad was a forward observer for the mortar platoon. He received two purple hearts, a third wound he never reported but had to have a piece of shrapnel removed from his hand in 1946. He also was awarded the bronze star with oak leafs as well as other medals. We have a newspaper clipping of him being awarded the distinguished service cross, but that is the only record we have that he received the medal...." Mister "Gene" Hilker passed away on 1 August, 1994 (Cimarron, KS.).

"Gene" Hilker's son, Steve, is searching for any information about his father's WWII history. If anyone has some information about Mister Louis Eugene "Gene" Hilker, Jr. please contact the webmaster at rickmommers@msn.com

Eugene Hilker wrote after the war to Francis’ mother: “Fran was hit, while walking behind a dike, by a German mortar shell. The shrapnel eneterd the upper part of both legs. He died of shock before he reached the aid-station”. Mister Hilker also said that Fran, as his friends called him, didn’t suffer. He never regained consciensness after being hit.

“I saw him at this aid station, he looked very natural, just as if he were asleep. His body was not magled in the slightest sense”, Mister Hilker told Francis’ mother.

Mister Hilker also said: “he was hit approximately three miles west of Arnhem, Holland and is now buried in the US Cemetery, located 5 Miles south of Nijmegen, Holland. Many of his friends are with him, including Colonel Johnson, former commander of the 501”.

Steve Hilker, the son of Louis Eugene "Gene" Hilker, Jr., told me: "...Here are a few details about the action that killed Fran as I remember dad telling me. They were walking along a dike down near the waters edge. They walked as near the water as possible so as to keep their heads below the top of the dike as much as possible. Fran was behind dad when the incoming mortar round impacted right next to Fran. The round landed in the mud and the soft soil absorbed much of the blast and shrapnel, sparing my dad..."

Newspaper article of Francis' dead (Picture Courtesy of Rick Demas)

Cpl. Fernan's Report of Death (Picture Courtesy of Rick Demas)

Francis Fernan's Report of Burial (Picture Courtesy of Rick Demas)

Letter to Francis Fernan's Parents to inform them that their son is Burried at the Molenhoek Cemetery
(Picture Courtesy of Rick Demas)

The 501st remained in defensive positions along the main dike there, until late November. After 72 days of combat in Holland the division returned to a new staging area, in Mourmelon, France, just 24 relative quiet days after Francis’ death. Everyone thought the withdrawal would be a long, well deserved rest period. Accordingly, many men were on leave or pass, the Division Commander was in the United States, the Assistant Division Commander was in England (leaving the Artillery Commander, General McAuliffe, in command), and there still were major shortages of equipment and supplies, not replaced after Holland. The men of the 101st received replacements, equipment and new clothes and got trained for the next jump for a Rhine crossing in March. Three weeks later the German winter offensive in the Ardennes erupted and the 101st was jammed into trucks for an overnight rush to Bastogne in Belgium on December 18.

In the course of the three campaigns, 517 members of the regiment were killed or died of wounds in action among total casualties of 1751, including wounded or missing in action, according to the 101st Airborne Division records.

Francis Fernan's Disinterment Directive Form (Picture Courtesy of Rick Demas)

Letter to Francis Fernan's Parents to inform them that their son is Buried at the Margraten Cemetery
(Picture Courtesy of Rick Demas)

Inventory Forms of Personal effects of Cpl. Francis T. Fernan (Pictures Courtesy of Rick Demas)

Francis Fernan's Purple Heart
(Picture Courtesy of Diane Knechtges)

Francis Fernan's Purple Heart
(Picture Courtesy of Diane Knechtges)

Francis' Notice of Settlement, National Service Life Insurance Letter
(Picture Courtesy of Diane Knechtges)

Pfc. Richard J. Fernan, served in the Philippines at the time Francis died. For Richard the war started in April, 1944, in New Guinea. Richard was 22 years old at the time his younger brother died at the other side of the world. Francis’ niece, Diane Knechtges, remembers that Richard often said he wished that it was him who was taken instead of his younger brother. Richard survived the war and returned home to his wife Marion, parents and two sisters Margaret and Marian. Richard became the proud father of two sons.

Pfc. Richard Fernan and his wife Marion
(Picture Courtesy of Diane Knechtges)

In February 1949 Francis was reburried in Margraten, at the Netherlands American Cemetery, in his uniform and blanket, with his body complete and in the third stage of decomposition. The flag was sent to Francis Fernan's parents January 31, 1949.

Francis’ niece, Diane Knechtges, told me:“ I was born in April of 1945, 5 months after Fran was killed, so I never actually knew him. But the memories of his life and death were so strong in the family that it seemed as if he were still there. My family lived in an apartment upstairs from my grandparents. My Aunt Marg and her family lived around the corner and our back yards met... we were very close. Four children in each family (5 girls and 3 boys); we grew up together. Our Uncle Richard lived across town and had two sons. Although we lived upstairs, there was really no separation... we spent as much time downstairs with Gram and Pa as we did upstairs. My memories include the “presence” of Fran. Gram had a big console radio (which we listened to a lot!), and Fran’s Army picture had it’s place of honor on top of the radio. There was another picture of him on the mantle over the fireplace. The pictures were treated with reverance and awe by all of us... so it was a catastrophe one day when the picture was knocked off the radio as a result of some of us kids running and playing in the room. The picture fell, the cover glass broke and made a small scratch on the picture”.

She also remembers the American flag that was given to her grandparents. Diane doesn’t know for sure if it was the same flag that draped Francis’ coffin, but she believes it was. That flag was treated with reverance as well, and it was carefully displayed on the front porch on National Holidays. “Each time it was hung, it was as if Fran was closer once again”, she told me.

Chemung County Memorial Statue for their WWII casualties
(Picture Courtesy of Diane Knechtges)

Chemung County Memorial Statue for their WWII casualties (Picture Courtesy of Diane Knechtges)

Chemung County Memorial Statue for their WWII casualties (Francis Fernan's name in the middle)
(Picture Courtesy of Diane Knechtges)

In 2004, I, Rick Demas, adopted Cpl. Fernan’s grave.

Rick next to Cpl. Fernan's grave
(Pictures Courtesy of Rick Demas)

In 2001, a friend and I went with my brother's school trip to the Military Cemetery in Margraten, and heard that it was possible to adopt the graves. After the guide showed and told us some things about the cemetery, we asked who was the person to contact to adopt a grave, and he gave us the address. When we came home, we immediately took out our ballpoints and started to write. A few days later, we received the grave which we applied for. We received the adoption certificate, some addresses to write to, and a note that we were too young to adopt a grave but, for us, he had made an exception. I wrote a letter to the three addresses I received and, after a year, had gotten useful information from only one. The others said that they could not give any information because there was a privacy law, enacted in 1974, that made my request impossible. In the information I received were some handwritten letters from the parents, and papers from the Pfc. Hass’ Army file. With the information I received, I started an Internet search on my 2003 Christmas vacation. Most people could not help me. A few others started to help me in my search, and I very appreciate the help of people like David Steely, the Division Manager, and Maureen Jakubisyn, a daughter of a 102nd Infantry Division soldier. Thanks to them, I got a major breakthrough in my research. After that, in 2004, I volunteered for two more graves—if possible, from Airborne soldiers, because I like their role in the war very much. That was the grave of Cpl. Fernan and Pvt. Hoskins. Around Christmas 2004 I requested a fourth grave, and that was Alfred Corgan's. I officially adopted the grave in 2005.

Cpl. Francis Fernan's grave
(Picture Courtesy of Rick Demas)

Cpl. Francis T. Fernan’s final resting place is, together with 8.301 Brothers in Arms, the Netherlands American Cemetery in Margraten, Plot G Row 3 Grave 21.

Roll of Honor
Hq2, 501st PIR,
101st Airborne Division

(click on picture for the Roll of Honor)

Other men from Francis’ platoon I know the names of, thanks to Mr. Bando, are: Jim Karim, Granada Hills, California and Daniel Martin, Plymouth, Indiana. If anyone knows them or other sources that can provide me with info on Cpl. Fernan please contact me, at rickmommers@msn.com