Born on June 2nd, 1922
, David Kenyon Webster was a budding writer. He majored in English Literature
, but left to join the paratroops
. He wrote about his wartime experiences in his memoir; “Parachute Infantry: An American Paratrooper’s Memoir of D-Day and the Fall of the Third Reich
”. It is an honest and striking work, well written and keenly observed.
As a member of the famed 101st Airborne Division, Private Webster was involved in many of the biggest moments of World War II. He parachuted into Normandy on D-Day, jumped into Holland in Operation Market-Garden, pushed into the heart of the Third Reich, and helped to capture Hitler’s famous “Eagle’s Nest”. He was also wounded twice.
Originally assigned to F Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR), 101st Airborne Division, he was transferred before the Normandy invasion to Headquarters Company because of his “bitching”. Webster hated the army and found a lot of its ways pointless. Above all, he hated his officers (for the most part). He found most of them utterly useless. Webster particularly objected when his commanding officer, a Lieutenant Peacock, called him away from the cold damp foxhole he was living in on the frontline to a warm dry farmhouse behind the line. Peacock led him to his room and told Webster to sweep it out. Webster commented he was “Boiling mad at my new role as scullery maid”. To Webster, this represented all that was wrong with the army.
D-Day, 6th June, 1944:
“The muscle and fibre melted from my legs. It was all I could do to remain upright and not dissolve into a gibbering, gutless blob of fear…I felt like crying, screaming, killing myself.”
So, as a member of Headquarters Company, Webster jumped into Normandy in the early hours of the 6th June 1944. Along with almost every other paratrooper, he had been dropped in the wrong place. He landed in a swamp. No sooner had he freed himself from his harness, a German machine gun fired. This shocked Webster. He could not believe that somebody wanted to kill him. He wished to find the gunners and talk things over with them, explain that he didn’t want to kill anyone, but all he could bring himself to do was to “passively wait to be killed”.
Eventually his courage increased and he resolved to try and get out of the swamp. But he was alone and scared; “Lost and lonely, wrestling with the greatest fear of my life, I stood bewildered in the middle of a vast lake and looked for help.” Soon enough he heard the sound of someone wading towards him in the pitch dark. He crouched down in the dark. Was the man friend or foe? Luckily, it was a friend from Headquarters Company. The two men were so glad to see each other they embraced.
There followed a night of wading through the swamp and wandering around looking for their comrades. Most notably, Webster ran into another friend, named Ash. Ash had been convinced that he would be killed on D-Day, and Webster had found him lying on the ground. He had badly twisted his ankle on landing. Ash did not want to move to find cover and had resigned himself to his predicted fate. Webster could not understand what had come over him and had to leave Ash. He later learned that Ash had decided to try and save himself in the end and had made his way to an hastily improvised aid station in a stable (a place where Webster had himself rested briefly earlier). Unfortunately the Germans discovered the place “and swarming in without mercy, killed them all”.
Webster saw some action against the enemy in Normandy on June 8th in Vierville. Here he was nearly killed – a sniper’s bullet hit the ground in front of face as he lay in a ditch. As soldiers were rushing to a farmhouse where a Frenchman was giving away cider, Headquarters Company came under attack. Webster and his comrades fought the enemy off. However, such excitement was rare for Headquarters Company as it followed behind all the other companies in the regiment. Webster was disappointed with the lack of face to face contact with the enemy. When he had to be evacuated back to England after being wounded, he was “sorry to leave, because I wanted to see a little close fighting”. Webster was wounded when a mortar landed six feet behind him. He was fairly lucky. The blast knocked him flat and blew off his helmet. He found his arm was bleeding, and to his surprise, it was enough to get him evacuated.
And so ended the Normandy invasion for David Webster.
Operation Market-Garden, 17th September, 1944:
“There, a hundred yards beyond the bridge by the side of the road, near a stone barn, were three Germans. The one in the centre squatted behind a machine gun, with the others close beside him. All of them waved to me in greeting.
You’ll be sorry, I thought, you sons of bitches.”
Operation Market-Garden brought about the largest landing of airborne troops in history. Webster jumped into Holland with E Company, 506th PIR. He had transferred to E Company so he could see more action. E Company (Easy Company) was featured in the book “Band of Brothers” by Stephen E. Ambrose, which inspired the HBO and BBC miniseries of the same name. Webster features in this miniseries, played by the actor Eion Bailey, but sadly Webster’s portrayal is disappointing. This is not the fault of the actor, rather the writers and producers. Webster’s character that comes across so strongly in his memoir is very different in the series, and most of the events he describes in his book are altered totally. Still, the series remains an outstanding one.
Webster got his wish and came face to face with the enemy far more often than in Normandy. He was the point man for E Company, which meant he led the way as they moved across country. This wasn’t a desirable job as the man on point is often the first man to be killed. But, as Webster so often did, he swallowed his fear and got on with the job in hand. His first enemy contact came when he spotted three Germans around a machine gun. They must have thought Webster was a fellow German as they waved to him. Webster’s eyes were better and he levelled his rifle at the machine gunner’s chest...and missed. The Germans had run away before he could fire again. Webster cursed himself; “I am the world’s worst shot. Never could shoot worth a good goddamn.”
The 101st were charged with liberating Eindhoven. Webster encountered sporadic enemy contact as they worked their way into the city. They were enthusiastically greeted by the Dutch citizens, overwhelmed with joy at being freed from the Nazi regime. Webster became very fond of the Dutch people.
The 101st couldn’t stay in Eindhoven long as they had to help secure the road leading to the British 1st Airborne Division fighting in Arnhem. They rode on top of the British tanks as they moved towards the end of “Hell’s Highway”. Webster was always a very cautious soldier. He never wanted to put himself in unnecessary danger, and as such would never volunteer for anything. He always tried to sit near the back of transport trucks so he could get out quickly in case his convoy was attacked. Riding on the tanks made Webster uneasy as tanks were always a prime target. The officer who told them to “Ride these tanks till you’re hit, and then start fighting” would have done nothing to alleviate Webster’s unease.
The convoy came across a German half-track and all the paratroops jumped off the tanks as they fired shells at the vehicle and destroyed it. Webster and his fellow soldiers ran towards nearby Nunen where they had to oust the Germans positioned there. After fierce fighting, E Company was forced to retreat. Webster was angry at the fiasco; “it was a mess. And for my platoon leader, I had only four-letter words.”
Still, Webster enjoyed Holland when he could. It was pleasant country with a pleasant, friendly, and generous people. But it was far from free of danger. Shelling was a persistent worry. Webster once had to endure a terrible shelling for several hours from German 88mm guns. All he could do was sit in his foxhole with his friend and hope they weren’t hit. The shells were getting closer and closer. Webster confided in his buddy; “I never felt so helpless before. I’d give a foot to get out of here.” Shelling was the worst kind of attack to face as nothing could be done to stop it. “I dissolved and waited to die,” Webster recalled. Fortunately, the shells passed by, the nearest landing only ten feet from Webster’s hole.
Webster took part in several more firefights. His final fight in Holland took place around eight miles from Arnhem. It was here that he killed his first, and only, enemy soldier. At least, the only one he could be sure of – who knows if a stray shot he fired happened to hit someone? Webster was keeping watch over a field. The atmosphere was relaxed and two buddies came over to chat. Suddenly, a German jumped out a ditch and ran across the field. He was 200 yards away. “I jerked my rife to my shoulder and began to trail him. When the muzzle was pointed at the leading edge of his chest, I squeezed the trigger. The German dropped as if he had been flattened by a pile driver.”
Strange that Webster only killed one man throughout the war. This was not because he was a bad soldier. Far from it – he was a good one. It’s really a matter of chance. Some soldiers would happen across more enemy, and therefore kill more as a consequence. Others, like Webster, didn’t come across so many. Donald R. Burgett, a paratrooper from A Company, 506th PIR, must have killed over thirty enemy soldiers within a day of landing in Normandy, according to his memoirs. A few paratroopers went through the war having never fired their weapon.
After killing the German, Webster was told of E Company commander Captain Richard D. Winters’ orders for E Company to attack a factory which was a thousand yards away. Webster did not relish the prospect. They moved out and as they prepared to attack, they were set upon by some German soldiers. Webster and two others ran to return fire. A machine gun opened up on them and Webster was hit in the leg.
He cried out, “They got me!”.
And he almost immediately berated himself for his use of such an unoriginal movie cliché! It was as if, as Stephen E. Ambrose commented, he was composing his memoir as he went through the war.
The bullet made a hole clean through his right calf, missing the bone. It was what was known as a “million dollar wound” – one that would not be fatal or debilitating, but was serious enough to get a ticket away from the front line, and maybe back to England, or even the USA.
Webster made the journey on foot back to the rear forces, despite his wound. His journey was far from easy – he had to dodge the attentions of some German artillery and avoid being shot by both sides – German and Allied. But, make it he did. He even stumbled across a Dutch family who fed him pancakes. But he also had to crawl through mud and cow dung, so it all balanced out in the end!
Webster was evacuated to hospital. His fighting in Holland was over.
Into the Third Reich, 1945:
“How could a civilized nation run concentration camps and murder millions – and still fight for that way of life? How could a man fight for a nation that broke up millions of families, that put old women and children to work in slave labour lagers? The Third Reich was a cancer on the face of Western man. I was glad now that I had played a part, however small, in helping to remove that cancer.”
Webster returned to his unit in February 1945. He had missed the hell that was Bastogne. The Battle of the Bulge had hit the 101st Airborne hard. The war was coming to an end and Webster found himself moving further and further into Germany. There was much less frequent fighting now. For Webster the war was now about trying to make the best of a bad situation. “Liberated” alcohol was taken advantage of whenever possible. The only fighting Webster really did was being assistant gunner covering a patrol that was sent over a river to obtain prisoners. Still, this took some guts as his firing position was such that as soon as the gun was fired, German artillery would spot them and they would be killed for sure. But Webster knew that the lives of the men on patrol may depend on the covering fire his gun could provide, so he manned the gun anyway. Fortunately, covering fire was not called upon.
As Webster travelled into Germany he “started to pass the remnants of Germany’s lowest triumph, the concentration camps.” Webster had started out hating the war and thinking the whole thing was pointless. But now, he realised that it was a cause worth fighting for.
Capturing Berchtesgaden and Hitler’s “Eagle’s Nest” allowed a lot of fun for Webster and his fellow troopers. After hard fighting, they could now have the pleasure of looting from the homes of the high ranking Nazi party members. There were cars for the taking, including armoured Mercedes Benz staff cars. However, the greatest pleasure for Webster and others came in looting Hitler’s personal wine collection. Getting drunk on his finest champagne was no more than was deserved.
After this, the war was winding down. Germany surrendered. The war in Europe was over. It was now a matter of trying to get home. The army initiated a points scheme where points were awarded for various things. Men who obtained 85 or more points would be allowed to go home, and wouldn’t have to face a potential move to the Pacific Theatre. Webster had earned enough points for a ticket home. But various clerical mishaps had conspired and his final points took weeks and weeks on end to come through. During this wait, Webster was forced to go through tedious and pointless training exercises with the new replacements to the company. This was a major low point for Webster. He was persistently late, deliberately. He got drunk whenever the opportunity arose (he had to be carried into the training camp on the first day!). Eventually, his points came through and Webster left the army forever.
After the War:
“I’ll never wear another uniform as long as I live.”
After the war, Webster pursued a career in writing. He became a journalist, writing for The Wall Street Journal and The L.A. Daily News. He wrote an acclaimed book about sharks; “Myth and Maneater: the Story of the Shark”, and his war memoir stands as one of the best around.
On the morning of September 9th, 1961, David Kenyon Webster set sail from Santa Monica in his boat, the Tusitala – “the teller of tales”. He took with him equipment for shark fishing. That evening, his wife Barbara came to meet him. But he didn’t come into harbour. The next day the Tusitala was found awash five miles offshore. One oar and the tiller were missing. And so was Webster.
It has always struck me as somehow bizarre that a man could survive the carnage of World War II, only to die in some random sailing incident. It is a tragedy that he died so young, but a blessing that he left his memoir so he might be remembered. The latest edition of his memoir contains a selection of Webster’s letters home, which make for fascinating reading. I admire David Webster, not only for his exploits as a paratrooper, but his honesty and ability in telling his story.
Quotes taken from: Parachute Infantry: An American Paratrooper's Memoir of D-Day and the Fall of the Third Reich, David Kenyon Webster, Delta Books, 2002.