Editor of The Best Times
Paul Rogers of Overland Park will always remember his first parachute landing and first taste of combat in World War II.
He was among more than 10,000 paratroopers who were dropped in Normandy during the early morning hours of June 6, 1944 as D-Day unfolded on the beaches of France.
His landing didn’t go according to plan. Rogers landed eight miles from his drop zone. Well, he didn’t really “land.”
“I found the biggest tree in all of France to land in,” he said and laughed. “I had to climb down like a monkey.”
Sergeant Paul “Hayseed” Rogers was a member of the third platoon in Easy Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, in the 101st Airborne “Screaming Eagles” Division. The company with 140 members was formed in Toccoa, Ga., trained together, and stayed together on the battlefields until they came home from the European front less than a year after D-Day.
Easy Company, and the lifelong friendships and annual reunions of its veterans after the war, inspired author Stephen Ambrose to write “Band of Brothers” in 1998. It became a 10-part HBO miniseries produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg in 2001. Rogers was one of the technical advisers.
Rogers is the oldest of 18 living members of Easy Company. He turns 96 on July 12.
He was among Easy Company veterans who were flown to France by HBO 13 years ago, treated to a guest premiere of the miniseries, and enjoyed tours in France. Some visited areas where their battles were fought.
A picture taken at the time shows him with 44 veterans from Easy Company posing at the American Monument at Normandy.
“There are only seven of us left,” he said, referring to the men in the picture with him.
Rogers, a farm boy who grew up in Adrian, Mo., was 22 years old in 1942 when he enlisted in the U.S. Army and volunteered to be a paratrooper.
“I wouldn’t have missed it,” he said. “I didn’t have to go, but I couldn’t have lived with myself if I didn’t go in.”
His training in Toccoa was “rough, tough,” running three miles up a nearby mountain and back every day and once marching 119 miles in three days with all of their equipment.
“If it sounds like a lot of miles, it was,” he said.
Speaking in a soft, assured voice at his home in Overland Park, Rogers reached across 70 years of history to bring alive the baptism of fire for a 24-year-old soldier in D-Day that was a turning point of WWII and the beginning of the end for Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich.
“I was the old timer,” he said, noting that most of the others in his unit were in their late teens or early 20s.
Historically, D-Day was a hold-your-breath moment when America and her allies sent an estimated 5,300 ships and landing craft, 12,000 planes, and 150,000 soldiers to Normandy’s 50-mile stretch of beaches. With more than 9,000 Allied soldiers killed or wounded, though, the sacrifice on D-Day was precious.
“We weren’t all that scared. We didn’t know what we were getting into,” Rogerssaid. “We landed everywhere, and all hell broke loose.”
Like many paratroopers, Rogers lost half of his equipment, including his rifle, in the jump on D-Day. He, along with many other soldiers, were scattered far and wide over the Normandy countryside.
For eight intense days, Rogers fought with the 505th Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division, including the liberation of Ste. Mere Eglise, before rejoining Easy Company. He was promoted to sergeant after the campaign in France.
He had more battles ahead. D-Day was just the beginning of an arduous military campaign that would continue to Holland when Rogers, then a mortar sergeant, participated in Operation Market Garden in late September andwas seriously wounded in his right arm by shrapnel. Two men carrying ammunition next to him were killed. He spent four weeks in an England hospital, returned in time to fight in the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium’s Ardennes Forest, and was in the Siege of Bastogne.
In January 1945, he fought at Foy, Belgium, and destroyed a German tank with a bazooka. Rogers became the platoon sergeant after the Battle of the Bulge campaignand fought with Easy Company until the end of the war, finishing his European tour near Berchtesgaden, Germany, where Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest was located. He was discharged in 1945 as a tech sergeant.
By that time, Rogers said, there weren’t many of the original “Toccoa boys” left. He said about 70 of them made it home alive.
“Everyone had a Purple Heart. Some had two,” Rogers said.
He also was wounded a second time, but didn’t want a Purple Heart. A mortar had landed near him, but not close enough to kill or seriously wound. He suffered a slight injury from a small fragment of shrapnel.
“I got hit in the butt. I was a little embarrassed so I didn’t make a big deal about it,” he said with a smile.
After the war, Rogers attended Easy Company and 101st Airborne reunions regularly, forming friendships so strong Easy Company veterans knew each other better than their real brothers at home.
“We were pretty close. I think we were all responsible for each other being alive,” Rogers said.
One good friend was Jim “Moe” Alley of Seattle. He was grateful to Rogers for just surviving the D-Day parachute drop. Alley jumped right before Rogers, had trouble getting out of the plane, and was about to be pulled in half. Rogershad to throw Alley out to save him.
“I kidded him ever since, saying he just didn’t want to go,” he said.
Alley died in 2008.
Seventy years ago, Rogers and other WWII veterans were all young men, many fresh out of high school. Each is a witness to what has gone into legend as the Longest Day.
According to U.S. Veterans Administration,of the 16 million American service members who returned home from WWII, barely one million are still living in 2014, including approximately 9,775 in Kansas. The average age of a World War II veteran is about 92 and 555 of them are estimated to die every day this year as the pool of surviving veterans draws down. The V.A. estimates the last of these Greatest Generation soldiers will be gone by 2036.
Rogers has no regrets, just pride, in answering the call of duty, parachuting into France and landing in a tree, and being a part of an Easy Company that did not have an easy time in war.
He still has a piece of his parachute from D-Day, scores of pictures, and 20 medals, including a Bronze Star and Purple Heart, in a display case along with HBO poster about the Band of Brothers.
A hand-written ledger and sheets of stationary reflect his wartime memories. Rogers was also known for writing funny poems about some of his military brotherhood.
“I could have done more, but a tree got in my way,” he quipped.
Although his company was recognized in book, TV, and lore, Rogers knows that tens of thousands of soldiers from all branches of the armed services fought in WWII and achieved Victory in Europe (V-E) Day on May 8, 1945. It was celebrated 349 days after D-Day.
“I’m just another guy,” he said softly. “In war, we’re all brothers.”
Editor’s Note: The Best of Times is a monthly newspaper provided to all Johnson County residents aged 60 and over. (First reprinted, with permission, June 2014. Unfortunately, Mr. Rogers passed away in March, 2015.)
Veteran recalls longest day