Information for Veterans and their families
---by Tony Welch
At age 23, Leonard Hornbeck's reflexes have never been sharper. Instinctively, he jumps straight up just as the “potato masher” disappears beneath his combat boots. In that frozen moment of time the grenade explodes between Leonard's legs, propelling him skyward. If the German soldat who tossed the grenade tried to duplicate his feat – performed in the dark – he would have gone through a case of explosives without coming close.
Hornbeck's sitting across from me now, sporting his customary smile. In a few weeks he'll turn 90. His wife Katherine has planned a party, with relatives traveling to Oregon from as far away as Texas. Among the participants will be Len's two daughters, Paula and Paulette, as well as a scattering of grand-children.
Of the 15,600 potential story tellers who descended by parachute from the darkened skies on June 6, only a fraction will leave a written record of their hazardous undertaking. Hornbeck's voice numbers among the dwindling Curahees yet to be heard.
chance encounter with Tech Sergeant Leonard I. Hornbeck occurred in a
doctor's office. His airborne cap was cluttered with a dozen ceramic pins
and decals. I inquired: “The hundred and first?” Big grin.
Then: “The five-oh-sixth?” His grin widened. Standing off
to the side, Leonard's wife eyed me suspiciously; maybe I was peddling
burial plots – or worse, variable annuities.
I noticed Leonard was stocky, with a fulsome chest and stout shoulders. No paunch. And biceps, I imagined, that still rippled beneath his long shirt sleeves. It's his legs that aren't up to snuff. In recent years Leonard's come to depend on a walker for mobility. “The pain's never entirely gone away from day one,” he confides. Meaning D-Day, 66 years ago.
Beginning in his mid-teens, Leonard spent the greater part of his working life as a logger in northwest Washington State. At five feet four inches, Hornbeck barely exceeds the height of the old growth stumps he left in his wake. Upon reaching his mid-seventies, Leonard finally quit the woods and sold his sawmill. His grandsons recall teaming up with him as teenagers during summer vacations. Says Jeff Coles: “That's when I made up my mind to go to college. I'd look around – ooof! All those trees far as I could see.”
One of seven children, Hornbeck moved north with his family from Roseburg, Oregon to the village of Concrete, Washington in the late thirties. His father worked for the Bureau of Public Roads, a federal agency. Like many of his youthful contemporaries, Leonard was attracted to the mystique of aviation; it was 1941, fascism was aflame in Europe, and the U.S. armed forces were actively recruiting – in certain categories, very selectively.
“I wanted in the worst way to be an aviation cadet – that was the biggest challenge I could think of,” Leonard explains. “So I enrolled in Mount Vernon Junior College to make up for my shortage in math courses, and that helped me pass the written test. What I didn't figure on was failing the physical.” Though he made a number of determined inquiries, Hornbeck was never told the reason. “I strongly suspect they had too many applicants who qualified, and this was their way of letting the surplus down gently – rather than just saying we can't use you.”
Hornbeck then shifted his attention to communications technology, and on completing the college program applied for active duty in the army. Following basic training at Camp Roberts in California, Leonard was assigned to a communications course. But his lust for the wild blue yonder went right on raging.
Enter the paratroopers, center stage. “They were certainly up in the air,” Hornbeck reasoned, “and that's exactly where I wanted to be.” Accepted in l942, Hornbeck began training in the fall at Fort Benning. He completed many forced marches and the mandatory five parajumps required of every applicant, followed by advanced communication schooling. During this period, the recently formed Five-O-Six regiment showed up at Benning. “We had a nickname for those guys –- the Walkie-Talkie Non-Jumpie outfit,” Leonard reveals. “And now here they were. A lot of them were draftees. I was willing to be assigned most anywhere, but not there. So guess what? – suddenly I'm a Five-Oh-Sixer.”
Airborne uniform patches are varied and inventive. Among the many identifying
Now an instructor, Hornbeck found himself thrust into the midst of the newly arrived parachutist wannabes. His concerns soon dissipated. “It took about two or three weeks before I discovered that my earlier impressions were completely unfounded. I began to make a few friends. One of them was Bob Plants. Much later on, Bob and I were among a group that took a test to determine who would fill a couple advancement slots. Bob came out on top and at age 21 became a master sergeant. I scored right behind him and went from corporal to technical sergeant.”
The subsequent ocean voyage to England in September 1943 passed without incident, and was soon followed by more intensive training. The 82nd and Hundred-and-First were competitive, both in the air and on the ground. Sometimes it got downright personal, leading to a flash point that begged for a resolution.
Says Leonard: “This one guy, he made a remark or two about my height. He was the arm wrestling champ of the Eighty-Second. So I sat him down and we planted our elbows on a table.” But it didn't end there, Hornbeck adds. When word got out, the reigning champ of the 101st showed up with fire in his eye and a cocked elbow. Leonard pinned him too, for good measure.
Hornbeck spent two weeks with a British paratroop battalion, whose members had been bloodied but unbeaten in North Africa. They would likely meet Americans again on French soil, and the Brits thought it important to become acquainted with their allies in advance. “During the visit, they set me up in a swimming class,” Leonard remembers. “Well...I sank like a rock.”
A worse scare for Leonard occurred during a nighttime exercise, one that came dangerously close to undermining the 506's determined effort to reach a certain skill level in preparation for D-Day – date unknown.
“Poor planning, that's what it was,” Hornbeck avows. “Can't blame what happened on high winds or bad weather – there was neither that night.” Whatever the snafu, the sticks exited over terrain that was sharply sloped. Many of the troopers slammed into the banked hillside, resulting in numerous injuries – some serious. Leonard himself blacked out. “My lower torso and back took a beating,” Hornbeck reveals, “and all this happened about two weeks before D-Day. I was still in considerable pain and discomfort, but I never let on once I left the hospital. I'm sure a whole bunch of other guys kept quiet, as well.”
June 5, 1944. 506th regimental headquarters personnel prepare to
The night drop onto the Cotentin Peninsula was an extremely complex undertaking, with the initial thrust provided by 15,600 paratroops of the 101st/82nd loaded aboard 821 C-47 Skytrains. Leonard's triple-plane element carried headquarters personnel from all three regiments, mainly communications specialists – of whom only a handful were able to locate their regiments late on D-Day. Their first adversary was a fog bank overlaid with broken clouds, encountered just inland. The ensuing confusion resulted in numerous navigational errors. Then suddenly the sky cleared, and almost immediately the night lit up with tracers. Gunner Helmut Grahns, 19, rousted from bed, recalls tracking the aerial convoy with his quad-barreled flak gun. “I was wearing only my helmet, boots and a long night shirt – what a sight.” After the armada had passed, Grahns counted 373 empty 20mm shell casings scattered around his Swiss-made anti-aircraft weapon – plus a pair of crashed C-47s burning a mile away.
Hornbeck's element, unscathed, overshot its drop zone by more than a dozen miles. Time: around 01:30 hours. Estimated altitude: 500-600 feet. Leonard kicked out a pile of equipment bundles, including a SCR 300 radio, then stepped into space. “I don't know how unusual it was, but we had no officer aboard,” Leonard notes. “Bob Plants held the senior rank, and the two of us were in charge. Bob brought up the rear as jump master.”
pent-up uneasiness about falling through the night sky was instantly replaced
by a dread of the unknown – the unseen fate that awaited Hornbeck
and his companions once on the ground. Leonard hit the deck feet first,
tumbled in a ball and quickly regained his feet. “All my aches and
pains from the night jump in England – they just disappeared. All
I felt at the moment was acute anxiety.”
The group, now strengthened to about 50 men, chanced upon a country road heading toward the coast. Leonard reckons they'd advanced 500 yards or so, when the grenade from nowhere bounced between his feet. Hornbeck might well lay claim to being the only member of the Hundred-and-First to go airborne twice on D-day and live to tell about it. “The guy closest to me swore I shot straight up in the air for a good fifteen feet. But you know paratroopers – they exaggerate a lot.”
In shock, Hornbeck lay on his back for a few minutes, struggling to regain his breath, then forced himself to his feet. To his surprise –- and relief--- he found he could still shuffle along despite the throbbing pain in his legs and groin. The column resumed its march, intent on avoiding further contact with the enemy in order to reach their assigned area. But that wasn't to be. Within two miles they encountered a sizable force of grenadiers well armed and organized, blocking their way. “They really opened up on us,” Leonard recalls. “We went to ground and returned their fire, but it quickly became evident we couldn't match their firepower. When our ammo began running out, they jumped up and outflanked us. We held a pow-wow and decided it was all over.”
The bitter pill that Hornbeck chose to swallow still sticks in his craw.
“The grenade was a big disappointment to my ego, I'll say that,” Leonard explains. “But surrendering...” His voice trails off. “When you set out on an undertaking the likes of D-Day, the only thing that matters is how you handle the responsibility you've worked so hard to be entrusted with. So in that regard, I feel that I failed.”
Adversarial counterparts to the 101st Airborne were the Fallschirmjagers,
The last time Hornbeck saw master sergeant Robert Plants, the latter was speaking earnestly with a German officer. “I'm pretty certain that's how I got off the battlefield,” Leonard notes. “Bob somehow persuaded them I needed immediate medical attention, and it wasn't long before they put me in a truck and off I went.” By late afternoon Leonard found himself in the city of Valognes, 12 miles southeast of Cherbourg. Hospitalized, Hornbeck underwent a physical. A German surgeon scrutinized Leonard's pelvic area, then declared: “Ihre Mannlichkeit ist intakt.” Translation: “Your maleness is intact.” Followed by a toothy Hornbeck grin, it might be imagined – plus a sigh of relief.
“The doctors never found so much as a speck of shrapnel anywhere,” Hornbeck explains. “The explosive shock wave did all the nerve and muscle damage.” Had the potato masher been a fragmentation grenade, rather than a concussion device, Leonard would almost certainly have made the list of 231 Currahees from the 506th regiment who died in the battle for Normandy.
the 10-week Normandy campaign, Allied losses very nearly
Leonard remained hospitalized for three weeks. On June 24, the Allies carpet-bombed Valognes into utter ruin. Roughly half the hospital was destroyed; Hornbeck's ward only narrowly escaped. The surviving POW patients were transported inland, eventually passing through Paris after numerous interrogation stops and in-transit delays.
“Once we crossed the border into Germany, it seemed nobody wanted us,” Leonard continues. “We were either standing around under guard in open fields or else shunted by train between towns.” At one stop – a city heavily bombed by the British the night before – Leonard and his fellow POWs were hustled out of their boxcars and made to stand in a group on the station platform. Understandably, the mood of nearby civilians became increasingly ugly.
“This German in the crowd came forward, a guy around fifty years old,” Hornbeck continues. “He commenced cuffing my ears, but good. And he wouldn't stop. Finally a couple guards walked over and dragged him away. I'm guessing maybe his family had been killed or injured in the bombing.” Such railway station encounters occurred many hundreds of times during the war, occasionally with fatal consequences.
Leonard eventually ended up in Stalag 111B, a sprawling enclosure located 60 miles SE of Berlin. The camp held a mixed bag of Russians, French, Serbs, Croatians and rebellious Hungarians – some 50,000 captives in all, of whom 5,000 were American and 30,000 were Soviets. Hornbeck's scanty recollection of 111B events appears to be influenced as much by the lethargic atmosphere typically associated with imprisonment as by the dimming passage of time itself. To wit:
Do you remember ever going to a movie? Movies...no. Do you recall seeing any theatrical plays staged by your fellow inmates? No. What about any live musical performances? No. Did you ever visit the camp library? What camp library...? Were there any escape attempts while you were there? No. Was there a secret radio receiver in camp? Not that I ever heard of. Consciously or unconsciously, Hornbeck has blotted these various activities from his memory. Baseball, for example, proved a huge morale builder at 111B, with uniforms that exactly duplicated major league teams in the States. Hornbeck recalls none of it.
The only three items that remain vivid in Leonard's memory: the arrival of Red Cross packages (and their importance), battalions of anti-American bedbugs, and his encounters with what appears to be a remarkable number of German military personnel who once resided in the United States. “ I must have talked to close to fifty Germans while being moved around Germany who claimed to have lived in America. Some of them spoke better English than I did.” On reflection, it's likely that the German POW prison system actively recruited bilingual personnel as a means to enhance communications between captured and captors – including eavesdropping on the always-scheming kriegies.
Angelo Spinelli, a signal corps combat photographer made
“The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming!” Beginning in January, 1945, the Stalag 111B administration began assembling groups of prisoners for transit. Leonard finally made the list in late February, moving out in a thousand-man group. Its departure had been dangerously delayed, for which a tragic due bill was shortly forthcoming.
than an hour into their journey and just east of the Oder River,
its peak (1942), there were 120 POW camps in Germany and occupied Poland
Their journey was a long and perilous one – rather resembling a foot-sore, ragtag excursion with no immediate destination. The intent was to connect with either American or British forces, but none were to be found. Finally acknowledging their dilemma, Leonard and his group crossed into Poland and headed for Warsaw. Food and shelter enroute proved scarce; conversely, nasty surprises were plentiful at nearly every turn. Entering an abandoned house, Leonard pulled back the covers on a down-filled bed in eager anticipation of a blessed night's sleep. But Hornbeck had company; a youthful female stared back, sightless. Either a suicide, Leonard reflects, or more likely the victim of yet another drunken Russian soldier. The Dirty-Half-Dozen, as they might be labeled, also learned not to hitch rides in open trucks, having once been frost-bitten by the onrushing night air. Through it all, Leonard nurtured a soft spot for the Polish civilians who so willingly shared what little they had. “Once we were invited to join some Russian soldiers roasting a pig over an open fire,” Hornbeck recalls. “We filled our bellies but there was still a good bit left over. So I asked the Russians if I could give the rest to some Poles.” A torrent of Russian curse words filled the air, and Hornbeck quickly abandoned the idea.
well remembers helping dig a latrine trench much like this one
FEET! Hornbeck jumped into Normandy wearing a pair of specialized boots
identical to these – available in 110 (!) different sizes.
For Pledger, arrival at Odessa proved to be his 'day of days.' “I remember about a thousand men gathered together – French and American G.I.s mostly, plus some paratroopers from the 101st. It was quite a stirring march to the quay, led by a Russian Army band. We passed by the Potemkin Steps, made famous in the silent film about the Russian Revolution.”
At dockside, Pledger and Hornbeck and all the others boarded the S.S. Highland Princess, a converted cruise ship. Destination: Port Said, Egypt. There, the Americans were segregated and along with other collected ex-POWs yearning for home, took passage to Boston on a Matson liner.
No more boxcars and slop buckets. No more appelle (roll calls) in the pouring rain and blowing snow. No more rotten cabbage soup nor latrine trenches. No more lice-ridden straw mattresses. No more neins and nyets.
Just miles of majestic Douglas fir trees, stretching to the horizon....