More than half a century after he was shot in the back and hand in two major World War II engagements, the 77-year-old Punta Gorda, Fla. retiree still has trouble talking about what he went through. “It was hell,” he said.
Hamilton was first scout for the “Screaming Eagles,” the 101st Airborne Division , when it took part in the Normandy Invasion and at Bastogne, Germany’s last big offensive battle on the Western Front, during World War II.
“Our first battle was the Invasion of France, Omaha Beach,” he said as he relaxed in a recliner on his pool patio. “The 101st was dropped behind German lines on midnight, June, 5, 1944.
“Our faces were all black. We looked like Indians. I bet the Germans were scared when they saw us,” he said. “As we got ready to go Gen. Eisenhower came to see us. He wished us luck and then added, ‘Give ’em hell.
“I landed in an orchard where I was tangled up and had to cut myself out of the tree with my sheath knife,” he said.
“Every time I’d cut a parachute cord a branch would go ‘ping.’ I was scared as hell because I thought the Germans could hear the ping. I knew there were Germans nearby, I could hear them talking.”
There was a lot of shooting going on. More than 1,000 paratroopers from the 101st landed right where they were supposed to behind Omaha Beach. Their mission: Block German reinforcements from reaching the beach.
The main force was to land along the coast of France at noon June 6, 1944. It didn’t make it on time. It was 2 p.m. before Allied forces started coming onshore in any numbers according to Hamilton.
“I looked down that beach at Omaha from where we were,” he said 57 years later. “You wouldn’t believe it. Ships were coming ashore and dropping soldiers off, but the water was too deep. They were drowning. It was terrible.”
Company-A moved out to take a French town about a mile or so back from the beach. Hamilton was leading his company toward the fortified enemy village as first scout.
“We got to a crossroads and I didn’t know which way to go, so I looked back at my company commander. He motioned to go left. Just as I turned left, a German machine-gunner opened up. He shot me in the back and it knocked me off the road into a ditch,” he said.
“I had a backpack on, but I could feel the blood running down my back when it hit me. My back was starting to get numb. The bullet came out my side.
“A moment later a German threw a ‘potato masher’ (German hand grenade). It landed right beside me. My heart was beating so bad, I swore the ground was going up and down.
“The next thing I knew, one of my buddies jumped on top of me and spread his arms to protect me from the explosion. Nothing happened. It was a dud.”
His company captured the German machine-gun and took three prisoners. Hamilton said he wanted to shoot them after they surrendered for what they did to him.
“My company commander told me, ‘No. We might get some useful information out of them,'” he recalled.
Although they put sulfur powder on his wound and bandaged it, Hamilton was feeling worse and worse. He was sent back to a first aid station and from there put aboard a boat and taken to a hospital ship offshore.
“When they took the bandage off and I got a look at the scar, it was a foot long and about an inch wide. I thought I was dying” he said.
Six weeks later word came down: “Any paratrooper who could walk was to be sent back to the front.” The 101st was ordered to Belgium to support the U.S. VIII Corps under attack from the 5th Panzer Army. The American unit was a green outfit that lacked experience. The 101st was a battle-hardened American division.
The “Screaming Eagles” were trucked in. They didn’t jump this time.
Hamilton and his best buddy, Jim Tackett, found themselves in a foxhole along the perimeter around Bastogne at the onset of the “Battle of the Bulge,” surrounded by a Germany army with Tiger tanks and crack infantry support troops.
On Dec. 22, three German officers under a flag of truce delivered a message from Gen. Panzertruppe von Luttwitz, commander of the XLVII Panzerhops, demanding the surrender of the Americans at Bastogne.
“All at once I saw this white flag coming my way. It was three high-ranking German officers. They were wearing such beautiful blue-gray uniforms,” he said. “They were very sharp looking as they marched up.
“They wanted to know where our command post was. So up that way they went. All three of them were up there for about a half hour before they came back and I let them go,” he said. “We found out later Gen. (Anthony) McAuliff, our commander, told them ‘Nuts’ when the Germans demanded our surrender.”
It wasn’t long before the front line exploded. The men of the 101st could hear the Tiger tanks crank up. The weather was miserable with snow three-feet deep, fog and more snowflakes coming down. It was bitter cold.
The enemy sent in the tanks, followed by infantry clad in all white snow suits. Even their Mouser rifles were covered in white so they would blend into the frozen landscape.
There was no chance of Allied air cover for the beleaguered American troops at Bastogne. The lightly armed 101st had to hold off the German hordes as best they could until reinforcements broke through.
The Germans were pounding the American line with 88 mm guns from their heavy Tiger tanks. One night, in the middle of the battle that would seal the Third Reich’s fate, Hamilton and his buddy, Tackett, decided to take their jump boots off while trying to catch a few hours sleep in their freezing cold foxhole.
“We’d had our boots on for days. We took them off to dry our feet so we wouldn’t catch trench foot,” Hamilton recalled. “It felt real good without boots.
“All of a sudden we heard a lot of tanks coming our way. Me and Jim had our boots in our hands ready to run,” he said. “About that time our company commander came by our foxhole and said, ”Wake up, wake up — the English are coming.’ What a relief. They weren’t German tanks.”
The Germans started falling back with the arrival of Gen. George Patton’s 3rd Army. Hamilton and Tackett were still in their foxhole with a .30-caliber machine-gun.
“I was firing like hell. I fired a whole belt of bullets at the German infantry. I could see them falling,” Hamilton said. “The next thing I knew, I got hit in the left hand. When I took my glove off, I thought my hand was coming off with it. It looked bad. I put a tourniquet on the wound to stop the blood.”
He had to stay where he was. He was on the front line in the middle of a major battle. Hurt hand or not, he kept on firing his machine-gun.
“That night, a young kid who came up as a replacement took a bazooka and shot the tread off a Tiger tank. It was the only place you could hit them and stop them with a bazooka,” Hamilton said. “I’ll never forget that day, this kid who wore glasses tried again.
“I saw him get up with his bazooka and fire, but he didn’t hit the tank right the second time. They saw him and opened up with their machine-guns. They hit him right between the eyes. His glasses were hanging from both ears–one lens on one side of his head and the other one on the other side. I never even knew his name.”
As more replacement troops moved up to the front lines, Hamilton was taken by Jeep to a field hospital in Bastogne where they operated on his badly damaged hand. When he arrived in England a few days later a doctor checked him out.
“Once more the head doctor came through. He looked at my fingers. I told him they were dead. Then he turned to the nurse and said, ‘Z.I. this man.’ That was the code they used that meant I was going to be sent home,” Hamilton said.
He was sent home in early 1945.
“I couldn’t believe it. I never thought I’d get home again. I cried,” Hamilton recalled.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Sunday, Dec. 23, 2001 and is republished with permission.
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Arvith B.”Orval” Hamilton, 80, of Punta Gorda, Fla., passed away Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2004, at his home. He was born Oct. 8, 1923, in Muskegon, Mich., to John B. and Mary (Stevenson) Hamilton.
He served in the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division during World War II. He was known to be the first scout on the beach at Normandy on D-Day and was surrounded by the Germans at Bastogne. He received three Purple Hearts and the Normandy Medal of Honor. He retired from Chrysler’s Jeep division in Toledo, Ohio.
He is survived by his wife, Lucille; daughter, Dawn (Hamilton) Thurlow and her husband, William J., of Punta Gorda, Fla.; sons, Gerald E. Hamilton of Fort Myers, Fla., and Robert J. (Emmie) Hamilton of Manila, Philippines; grandchildren, Cheryl Thurlow (Cliff) Delzell and Robyn Thurlow (Chris) Carpenter, both of Port Charlotte, Fla., Gerald E. (Rebecca) Hamilton of El Cajon, Calif., and Keith E. (Lori) Hamilton of Bremerton, Wash.; and six great-grandchildren. Mr. Hamilton was preceded in the death by his first wife, Doris Marsh.
Services will be private.