Ed Stecher of Punta Gorda, Fla. joined the 101st Airborne Division in February 1942 when he was 19-years-old. He jumped as part of the D-Day invasion at Normandy, France, 62 years ago today on June 6, 1944 (when first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper).
Stecher was no hero, he said. However, he fought with the 101st during the Normandy invasion, saw action at Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge, was with the 101st when it reached Hitler’s “Eagle’s Nest” retreat in the Bavarian Alps, and greeted Russian troops at Prague, Czechoslovakia, near the end of the war.
Around 11:30 p.m. on June 5, 1944, Stecher’s unit — C-Company, 501st Regiment, 101st Airborne Division — boarded C-47 transport planes in England and flew into the darkness along with thousands of other paratroopers aboard hundreds of transports. Their destination — “Fortress Europe.”
“I wish I could find the words to tell you how many airplanes were lined up ready to take off and fly to France that night,” said Stecher, 82. “The C-47 was the most wonderful airplane we ever built.
“Here we were flying the channel in the middle of the night, and you could look down and see all these hundreds of ships. It almost looked like you could walk from one ship to another, from England to France, without getting your feet wet.
“As we reached the French coast, the flak from German 88 anti-aircraft guns started coming up. Although we weren’t hit by flak, our pilots were starting to get nervous,” Stecher said.
“When we jumped, I was scared to death. It was just starting to get light. There were many, many planes not far from us, and paratroopers were jumping out of all of them. When we landed, it was just like we had planned in the sandbox during practice sessions before the jump. We landed right where we were supposed to.”
Their objective: a rail head and communication center some 20 miles below the last invasion beach at Matenberg, France. According to the French underground, the center provided communications for all of the German military units along the Normandy coast where Allied forces landed.
“We caught the Germans asleep. My guys knocked out the rail head with satchel charges and hand grenades,” Stecher recalled. “We circled back and took out the barracks with more grenades and small arms. I had 36 grenades on me when I landed, and when we finished knocking out our objectives, I only had two grenades.
“Then we took out the communications center and set the place on fire. In 3 1/2 hours, our unit destroyed everything with minimum German resistance. Most of the Germans we didn’t kill ran away. We faced no German tanks, thank God,” he said.
Three days later, when his unit reached Utah Beach, where thousands of the Americans had come ashore, he couldn’t believe the carnage.
“American soldiers who were killed in the invasion were stacked up on the beach like cordwood. It was horrible,” he said.
“By that time, our forces had moved four or five miles off the beach into the hedgerow country of France. Our unit hooked up with Gen. (George) Patton’s 3rd Army,” Stecher said. “With us was the 243rd Artillery Battalion. These were big guns, and Cpl. Bob Beatty and I worked with the artillery spotters to help them call in artillery rounds on the Germans.”
After the Allied breakout at St. Lo, France, Patton and the 3rd Army headed south toward Brest on its way through France, battling the retreating German army all the way.
“We were fighting together with the 1st, 2nd and 5th Infantry Divisions. At a place call Avranches, France, we fought a big battle. That’s where our P-47 (fighters) and B-25 (bombers) came in and gave us a lot of support. They tore up the German tanks at Avranches,” he said.
Like tens of thousands of other soldiers in Patton’s 3rd Army, they raced across France to the vicinity of Nancy, pushing the enemy forces ahead of them. Stecher was given a couple of days leave to visit a relative in an artillery unit near Nancy. Right about then, every paratrooper connected with the 101st Airborne got the call that Bastogne, Belgium, where the division was located, was under siege.
“I’ll never forget Bastogne because of the black stone buildings. It was terribly cold and I was in a foxhole and people around me were freezing to death. It was terrible, and guys were getting wounded. We didn’t have the right equipment and we were running out of ammunition. Finally, they dropped some supplies to us by parachute. We got half of what was dropped, and the Germans got the other half. Even so, I was feeling a lot better because I got some food in the air drop.
“Right after Christmas, the weather cleared and in came our P-47s. That was the beginning of the end for the Germans. The American fighter planes started tearing up the German tanks, and the Germans began falling back,” he said.
“My squad had been sent down toward the Hurtgen Forest to take a railroad line and hold it because we were going to move guns in by rail into the area. We reached there one night and stopped the German advance,” he said. “The next morning, we found that the Germans had pulled out.
“Then, all of a sudden, German tanks, supported by infantry, came out of the woods and into this field in front of us. Our P-47s caught ’em cold in the field and wiped them out.”
Stecher and his unit crossed into Germany at Wiesbaden and continued moving further into the “Fatherland” with little resistance. German forces were in disarray and mainly concerned with staying out of the clutches of the advancing Russian army fighting its way in from the east.
“Along the Audubon, going south out of Munich toward Bavaria, we passed at least 200 German jet fighters hidden in a forest along the road. I went over and took a Leica camera mounted on the wing off one of the planes. They were all ready to fly, but they had no fuel,” he said.
“When we reached Berchtesgaden, Bob Beatty and I wanted to go up and see Hitler’s ‘Eagle’s Nest,’ but the tunnels leading to his mountaintop retreat were blocked. We climbed over the rubble and reached the top.
“Hitler had electric stoves, mirrors in the bedrooms and lots of stuff we didn’t have back home. It was a beautiful place with a great view of the lake and the farms far below.”
Stecher and his friend had to come back to earth once more and continue fighting the war. At long last, they reached Prague, Czechoslovakia, where they met the Russians as the war ended.
“There’s one thing I want to say to you. There’s no ‘I’ in war. There’s only ‘WE.’ All that stuff you see in films about one guy doing all these things is baloney. All this stuff I told you is about the war was not about Ed Stecher. I’m no hero.”
*Note: Edward Stecher died in 2010 and is buried in Charlotte Memorial Gardens, Punta Gorda, Fla.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Wednesday, June 7, 2006 and is republished with permission.
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