HomeArchive 2016My Operation D-Day Experiences

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June 6, 2016

My Operation D-Day Experiences

George Lage was a Battalion Surgeon with the 101st Airborne 2/502nd Pathfinders. His daughter and son in law, Brenda and Alan Mitchell, have made available letters Doc Lage wrote to his wife about the D-Day landing which I reproduce here.

Part 1 of 3

My Operation D-Day Experiences

Somewhere in England
August 5, 1944

Dearest Darling,

The other letter I started about my experiences didn’t turn out so good, so after 4 pages I tore it up and decided to start over again. I hope I have better luck getting this one finished than I did the other. Anyway, here goes.

On May 29 we were sealed up in camp and we knew something big was in the air, but we didn’t know exactly when. We couldn’t communicate with anybody outside by any means. After the 20th we were issued most of our clothes and equipment while still here. Then a few days later very early in the morning a few days later we were moved out to a marshaling area at an airport where we were also sealed up, not allowed to talk with anyone not in our area. We couldn’t talk to even anyone at the permanent station or on the airport. We were set up in tents and sleeping on army cots and had very good food. (In fact, the food was much better than regular army chow - as if we were being fattened for the kill.) We had showers with hot water and were really very comfortable.

doc-lage-and-his-medicsDr. George H. Lage and his medics in Normandy, D-Day
Photo courtesy Dr. George H. Lage and the Lage Family.

The last part of May and up until June 5 we were briefed on our mission, enemy situation, landscape, and everything else we had to take into account. We learned the map by heart and looked at things from every possible angle so that if the Air Corps dropped us near our objective we would be able to accomplish our mission under any condition.

We practiced how to get out of planes in case we crashed in the channel. We loaded the planes and made sure everything was ready. We didn’t know the exact date of D-Day, but we knew it couldn’t be far away. We had church service twice a day. and most of the fellows in camp attended at least one of these services. Then we had movies 3 times a day and athletics and calisthenics to keep in shape and occupied so we wouldn’t think so much. Our Division Commander gave us a pep talk - all was in readiness. Then a heavy wind came up and a bad storm and things were postponed. This was the 5th of June when the English girl sent the word that D-Day was here. It evidently was supposed to have been it, and somebody slipped in not telling her it had been postponed.

Anyway, Monday night, June 5th, at 7:30 we had orders to fall out in full packs ready to go and knew this was it. General Eisenhower came out to our camp to wish us the best of luck. Then we walked to the hangar about 1/2 mile, a very grim, determined group of men with our faces black and enough equipment (the best in the Army) to do the job we had to do. In fact, we almost looked like men from Mars, with our big pockets filled with K-Rations enough for 6 meals, two D-Rations (chocolate), and also those personal effects and other things we thought we would need.

I had a gas mask around my left ankle. Two bags about 18x10x6 inches on either side from middle thigh to below my knee contained medical equipment. Then my first-aid kit in front of me and my field bag with clothing, sox and toilet articles in back. Then with our chute, a large main backpack with a reserve chute in front.

With all this equipment I tipped the scales at about 340 pounds which is pretty heavy for jumping. I had about 75 pounds of medical equipment. I weighed 200 pounds. The chute weighed 40 pounds and my field bag and personal kit was about 25 pounds. Everything was so heavy and bulky I could hardly walk. My only weapon was a trench knife and one hand grenade I picked up just before we left the area. However, I had no intention of using them unless it was absolutely necessary.

We went to the hangar and then were taken to our planes by the crew. We had an hour before takeoff, which was spent checking our equipment, checking the bundles in the racks under the plane, checking signals and loading manifests. Then there were all the last minute calls of nature which are always present and most pressing when under mental strain as before a jump or an athletic contest of any kind.

About 20 minutes before takeoff time I had my group (I was jump master of plane #6) get into their chutes and equipment. Then two photographers, still and movie, came up and took several pictures. I had two medics with me, so they took pictures of the “Jumping Medics”. Then the order to load came, and more pictures were taken as we waddled into the plane.

After getting seated in the plane I read the last minute instructions, and messages from the Allied Command and Gen. Eisenhower telling us how important our mission was and how the entire invasion depended upon our accomplishing our mission of knocking out certain strong points so that seaborne troops could land. It was quite a momentous occasion and I knew everyone knew how important each man’s job was and were really thrilled to know that our Battalion had been picked to be the first planes in, leading the spearhead of the greatest invasion of all times. I think everyone also realized the seriousness of the danger we were about to face.

Our Battalion had the spotlight as it had been picked for the hardest yet most spectacular job of all the airborne troops. In other words, we were to be the star, and the rest, the supporting cast. Our job was to knock out some big coastal defense guns which would oppose the beach landings, and we had only about 5 hours from the time we jumped until “H” hour to do it. (A day before we went in, the Air Corps had hit our objective with heavy bombs and demolished as much as they could - which worked out for the best as later events will show.)

We were mentally prepared for anything. Then the motors started and the planes taxied to the runway which was lined by the ground crews wishing us the best of luck, etc. It was enough to make little thrill chills run up one’s spine and they did on mine.

Then the motors speeded up and we picked up speed. It took a long time to get off the ground because of our heavy load. Very soon though, the ground started dropping away below us and we were heading off for the great unknown. We circled the field while the rest of the planes took off and got into formation. When the groups were formed we flew for awhile until we met up with other groups that joined us. It was a very impressive sight to see all of the planes in the air at once and with our flying lights it looked rather like a Christmas tree. Our fighter protection was above and to our sides so far out they could barely be made out. As the darkness settled and the moon came out, it was rather an eerie sight to see the sky full of red, green and white lights.

Everyone was quiet in the plane, some were looking out the windows, some were dozing, others were just staring into space. Everyone had a very grim, determined look. I dozed, looked and prayed throughout the trip and I think everyone else did. Prayer is certainly very comforting in a situation like that and I’m sure because of my faith in God and my prayers that I faced this trip the calmest I have ever been on a flight for a jump.

The coast of England melted away below us and soon all I could see was the reflected moonlight on the channel. A little ways further we saw hundreds of ships in the channel almost extending from England to France. (Just before we reached France all the lights on the planes were turned off for protection.)

In what seemed a short time later the coast of France came into view, very calm and peaceful looking. However this only lasted about three or four minutes, then all Hell broke loose and it looked like a big 4th of July fireworks celebration. As far as the eye could see, many colored tracer bullets and flak came at us like luminous fingers out of the dark. Everywhere I looked I could see more tracers. I was rather fascinated as they would come at me, then curve away under our tail in a big arc as we passed over them. However, this reverie didn’t last too long as a few bullets hit our plane and I realized very suddenly this was serious and I began to be very anxious to get out onto the ground where we thought we would be safer.

Just before we reached the coast, the pilot told me we were 20 minutes from our objective so I awakened everybody and found all were OK and feeling fine. My time was then occupied trying to get a bundle of supplies into the door so we could toss it out first. The air was rather rough and we got bounced around a bit. I was supposed to get a red light when 4 minutes away and a green light as signal to jump. However, the red light never came on and I was just beginning to get worried about it as I knew it was time to jump as I had been keeping track of time with my watch.

However, the next signal was “GO!” by the crew chief which rather surprised me as we hadn’t gotten our previous signals so we weren’t quite ready to go. I rechecked with him, and he said “GET OUT!” and then I saw chutes in the air below us, so I yelled back to my men, “Stand up, hook up, and let’s get the hell out of here!”

I tossed out the door load, tripped the bundles in the rack under the plane, yelled, “LETS GO!,” and tumbled out into an inky blackness crisscrossed by tracer bullets. (The jump master always jumps first.) I turned two complete flips in the air before my chute opened with a shock that jerked me upright. I looked up and could see chutes off in the distance, then looked down and judged the ground to be 400-500 feet below. I then looked up and saw tracers going over my head. I followed their course down to the origin and saw they were coming from a corner of a field that I would land in! The tracers followed me down and a few hit my chute but none touched me.

I drifted over a row of trees and hit with a thud in the same field the machine gun was in. However, just as I hit another flight came over and the tracers went after them, much to my relief. There were 20 to 30 cows in this field and they came galloping over to see what was going on. I was never so glad to see cows in my life because they were a perfect screen between me and the machine gun.

I hurt both ankles when I hit and the pain was rather intense and I had a great deal of difficulty getting out of my harness. Just as I finally did and was on my knees trying to get my stuff together, I saw a dark shape coming toward me. I thought my time was up, so I just hugged the ground and waited. It was a horse so I was safe again. Just then the moon came partially out from under a cloud so I got a look at my surroundings. When the moon was again covered up, I crawled over a hedgerow which was just in back of me. My ankles were hurting but were the least of my worries at that time as I was interested in putting distance between the machine gun nest and myself. I hobbled along two hedgerows, then across two fields and came onto a road. After cautiously looking up and down, I crawled over the hedge onto the road.

At this point I didn’t have the slightest idea where I was but knew that I was a long way from where I should have been. I took out my map and compass but couldn’t recognize any terrain features. I watched for the flights of planes and saw them flying in every direction so they were no help. I knew I had jumped late which would put me East and figured I was South, so I headed North and West hoping our assembly point was in that direction. At this point I certainly felt alone and out of place with no weapons for protection. Anyway, I knew I couldn’t stay there, so started out along the road. After a couple of hundred yards I rounded a bend and a machine gun opened up on me. I dove for the ditch and crawled back around the corner fast. Then I went the other way and hit a bend where another machine gun opened up. I hit the ditch again and crawled back to safety.

I retraced my steps back to the point where I had entered the road and was challenged. My heart stopped still for a few seconds while I had a mental picture of the enemy across the hedge with a gun trained on me!

doc-lage-paratrooperImage courtesy Dr. George H. Lage and the Lage Family.
Then I realized it was one of our men, so I answered and felt very much relieved to find the 2nd man from my plane. He had run into the same difficulty in the field as I did, but now that there were two of us, our spirits went up. After my road experiences, we decided to travel cross country.

After crossing three more fields and hedgerows we came upon 5 more paratroopers. This made 7 and we knew we could now give a pretty good account of ourselves so we went on. About 5 minutes later we picked up 3 more and then a little later we ran into a lieutenant from our Battalion with 10 men. We held a powwow and still couldn’t figure out where we were. Then another of our lieutenants came up with ten more men. This gave us 30 men. We decided to go where we thought our objective was. I was the senior officer present and expected to do something - which I did.

I outlined my plan of an advance guard, the main body, and the rear guard. I already had four injured men, mostly sprains (no bullet wounds yet) so I said I would bring up the rear with the injured. We started up a lane, but the injured including myself were so slow that we lost the rest of them after 150 yards. One of the injured was a 3rd lieutenant with a sprained knee. He had joined up with us just as we started off. After we had lost contact, we kept going up the lane to a road junction where we found some other paratroopers had set up a position with a couple of machine guns and several rifles. They had run into enemy opposition so we stopped to take stock of the situation.

I think I better stop here, darling and continue this in the next letter as I won’t be able to get any more pages into this one.

Love, George

The war is endlessly fascinating for me. I was born in Berlin ten months before the breakout of the war in September 1939. I was raised in wartime Hungary. My earliest memories are of war. It’s like a slideshow of disjointed images. I was too young to understand and to be scared. It was only as an adult that I understood how lucky I was to come out of it alive. As an adult I also understood that had it not been for the Allies I probably would not have survived, my brother didn’t. I owe these men and women a huge debt of gratitude.
Denny Schlesinger

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Last updated June 7, 2016.