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General(ly) Incompetent

(Originally this was going to be about the August 23, 1943 jump at the Army Base in Alliance, Nebraska where the 507th Parachute Regiment was located.  It blossomed into something beyond its original intent.)

What many people don’t realize is that a Parachute Regiment had quite a few soldiers who don’t have to be Jump qualified to do their job.  But most wanted to be qualified, not just the prestige but also the extra $50.00 a month in pay.  Some of the soldiers were already Jump qualified but not all and they needed to get 5 jumps in to receive the coveted Jump Wings.  Most of these men were Service Company soldiers. 

It was a beautiful Monday as 20 soldiers were loading up to jump at in Alliance, Nebraska.[1]  The wind was 8 miles an hour from the Northwest and the direction of the flight was east to west.  The intended drop zone was just on the edge of the obstacle course (just past Richard Lake).[2]  The co-pilot dropped the Paratroopers early though over Knoll Lake instead.  This was a harbinger of what was to come for the 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment 9 ½ months later in Normandy.[3]

The first 4 soldiers listed in the Jump manifest came down dry on the east part of the lake.[4]  The next 3 men came down up to their chest.  The next 7 went into the lake over their head.  The next three came down up to their chest and the last three men came down dry just like the first 4 men.        

Of those 7 men who went in over their head, 3 drowned stuck on the bottom of the lake.[5]  This “lake” was actually the Base’s Septic System.  The men were mired in the sludge from the Septic.  Bob Donnelly was right in the middle of the men who drowned.[6]  I interviewed Bob about this issue after he gave me the letter[7] and manifest he’d received from Gordon Smith the Jumpmaster in 1996.[8]

Bob saw what was about to happen and he pulled his legs up to his chest and took a deep breath just before hitting the water.  He still hit the bottom and was stuck up to the middle of his boots.  Bob said he had realized right away that he wasn’t going to get free from the muck unless he got out of his boots.  He unlaced both boots as far as he could.  Even then he had to move his feet back and forth to get free.

As soon as he was free he went straight up.  It was only about 8 feet deep where he was so he broke the surface instantly.  Bob helped the man directly behind him to the surface as well and dragged him to land.  2 men from Headquarters Company Second Battalion were in the area when this occurred.

Snow and Zink helped men to dry land as well.  As mentioned above three men didn’t survive the jump and drowned.[9]  The name of those three men were; Robert K. Springer,[10] Carl W. Scarborough[11] and Gordon A. Bergmann[12].  Bergmann is buried in Long Island, New York and Scarborough and Springer are buried in California.

Millard Snow said that an announcement came over the camp speakers saying that anyone who had been in the septic system should report to the infirmary to be cleaned off and receive shots.  That just about sums it up.  There is no good way to go but to die in a septic is near the top of a way no one wants to go.[13]

Here is where the article takes a turn.  In the area where this occurred it was the Second Battalion of the 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment area.  Company F was right next to the lake when this happened. 

Bob Taylor from Company F said Fox Movietone was filming the day of the water jump.  Taylor said after seeing that one of the men went in head first that men from Company F started running to help.  Before they could get to the water they heard the voice of their Company Commander.  Captain Paul F. Smith yelled out and ordered his men to go back to their barracks.[14]  Some of the other Company F men also verified that Smith ordered them to not help the men who were drowning on the jump.

This is where this article turns into something much worse than the death of the 3 men from the August 23, 1943 jump, much more.

Captain Paul Smith allowed three men to drown.  Smith had 75 men under his command and instead of helping in the rescue he turned his men around and let those 3 men drown.

Paul Smith is a perfect example of what is wrong with the US Army at times.  In Normandy Paul Smith disobeyed direct orders not once but twice in June and led his men into potential massacre in July 1944 as well.[15]  Not only wasn’t Smith punished he was promoted.  The Army does that quite a bit actually by hiding their mistakes by promoting an officer (and many times giving them an award).

Smith made a huge mistake in Vietnam as well as the commander of the 173rd Airborne Brigade.  On November 19, 1966 he once again put his soldiers at risk as he did both in June and July of 1944 in Normandy. 

Three weeks after the November 19, 1966 battle Smith was relived from command two months early due to his mistake.  A tour of duty in Vietnam was one year.  The Army in its infinite wisdom gave Major General Paul F. Smith the Distinguished Service Cross.  Smith who had been the 173rd Abn Bde Commander was shunted aside from further combat commands.

Smith was sent back to the States in June of 1967 and retired the next year July 1968.  He spent a total of 24 years in the Army as an Officer.  Because of his mistake in Vietnam his career was over to a large degree.  Usually once a soldier reached the rank of General they would retire at the 30 year mark.  By retiring early it speaks volumes.  That was the Army’s way of saying thanks, but your services are no longer required.

The Normandy incidents highlight his poor judgment as a commander in combat.  The first incident was when 400 men from the 507th Prcht Inf were moving through the hedgerows of Normandy.  They were led by Colonel George V. Millett,, Jr the commander of the 507th Prcht Inf.  They were moving single file during the night at the start of the Normandy invasion. 

Colonel Millett was at the head of the column with Captain Smith at the other end at the end of June 6, 1944.  When morning arrived the back half of the column was missing.  The 200 men that were part of Colonel Millett’s men were captured the next day. 

Captain Smith’s job was to keep the column in contact with the lead elements.  Smith failed once again just like the fiasco at the jump in August 1943.  What Smith said was that one of the men in the middle of the column fell asleep on his feet and lost contact with the first half of the column.  In reality Smith disliked Millett from the start.  Captain Smith wanted to break off from the Millett and did.  A better commander would have located the front of the column but not Smith.

If this hadn’t happened the 507th would have been able to hold off until the main body of the 82nd Abn Div got to them.  They had more men than the Second Battalion 507th men holed up on the west bank of the Merderet River.  They were commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Charles J. Timmes.  The hill where the 507th men were is now known as Timmes Orchard. 

Captain Smith met up with a Lieutenant Colonel Harry J. Harrison from the 508th Prcht Inf.  Harrison was the Executive Officer for the 508th Prcht Inf and took command of Smith’s men.  They made it to the west bank of the Merderet River.  Lieutenant Colonel Harrison ordered the men across the River to join up the main body of the 82nd Abn Div.

With the Millett incident Captain Smith just broke away from the main body of the 507th men commanded by Millett.  This time he outright refused to have his men follow the orders to cross the River.  Lieutenant Colonel Harrison told Captain Smith to move out and Smith said no, I don’t take orders from a different Regiment.  Smith disobeyed a direct order in Combat.  The 507th men sat out what became the attack on La Fiere Causeway later that morning June 9, 1944.

Forward ahead during the night of July 4, 1944 when the 2nd Battalion including Company F attacked towards the la Poterie Ridge from the north.  Companies D and E stopped in the woods just north of la Poterie Ridge.  During the night they succeeded in getting F Company on the south slope of the ridge and the rest of the Battalion slightly behind them on the North Slope of the woods.

The next morning at daylight Company F realized that Captain Smith had his men bed down in the middle of German encampment.  Because Company F was too far in front of Companies D & E Company F men were on their own.  They took a heavy toll that morning.  Companies D & E joined the fight and Company F fell back in reserve.  Once again Captain Smith made another huge mistake that cost Company F lives.

In the Army’s infinite wisdom not only was Smith not relived of command but instead he was promoted at the end of the Normandy Campaign to command Headquarters Company First Battalion. 

The moral of the story is that being incompetent gets you promoted in the Army sometimes.

Even years after retiring he thought that he was a General in the real world.  He was put in his place by a 507th man who told him “you are no different than a private” in civilian life.  He didn’t like that at all but there was nothing he could do about it.

He contacted me via email one time and tried to blackmail me.  I sent a return email back to him and never heard back from him again.  Go figure that a bully will back down when called out for what they are.  Smith is the perfect example that sometimes just because you get to that rank it doesn’t mean you’re good at it.

There was going to be a larger article but I realized what the point is, nothing.  Hell, look at retired General Flynn who worked in concert with the enemy (Russia) and will be going to jail.  Retired General Smith is just another in a line of Army Generals who rose to the rank of General by playing the game.  It’s just a shame how many 507th men he killed by his incompetence.

 

Brian N. Siddall
February 13, 2020

 


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