Editor’s note: This article about Denison veteran Leonard Riley originally appeared in the Herald Democrat on June 6, 2010. On Friday, Riley was honored by the French government for his service in helping to liberate the country from German occupation. Read about this most recent recognition in Sunday’s edition of the Herald Democrat.
Born an Indiana farm boy in 1922, Leonard Riley was the youngest of four siblings. Like the rest of the young men in his generation Riley’s birth date put him squarely in the middle of one of the most important events in the 20th century, World War II. And like 160,000 Allied soldiers, Cpl. Riley fought in the battle that would be forever known as the war’s turning point.
On June 6, 1944, the men of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne jumped behind enemy lines into occupied France as a part of Operation Overload, the D-Day invasion.
“We went in behind Utah beach,” said Riley, who was a member of the machine gun platoon in Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion. “There were so many tracers it looked like Fourth of July fireworks.”
The 101st and 82nd Airborne divisions took off from various bases in southern England, and after days of studying maps of the drop zone and weeks of military intelligence planning, the paratroopers were still left unsure of what their experience would be like.
“It’s like the first jump you didn’t know what to expect,” Riley said.
The troops were loaded into aircraft late at night on June 5 after the invasion was called off the night before because of bad weather.
“Sometimes you had so much equipment and stuff on you, you had to be helped up into the plane,” Riley said. “You couldn’t climb up the steps on your own.”
Like the rest of his platoon, Riley was loaded down with equipment, including a leg bag.
“You had a rope tied onto your parachute harness and your leg bag,” he said. “The idea was to pull the little rip cord and let the bag down on the end of the rope so you didn’t have to land with it.
“Well, a lot of people got it loose and broke the rope and lost their equipment. Out of 80 machine guns in our platoon, I got down with one and one other guy got down with one, but the reason I got down with one was because I couldn’t reach the rip cord. The chute was pulling me up and the bag was pulling me down.”
U.S. paratroopers, who had never jumped with the leg bag, crammed it with equipment. Riley said he didn’t know exactly how heavy it was but he was sure it was “heavy as hell.” Fully loaded, the troops were packed with as much as 120 pounds of extra weight.
While Riley was lucky enough to land with his equipment — and without breaking a leg — he and most every other paratrooper landed in the wrong place. Ground fog combined with heavy anti-aircraft fire caused some to miss their drop zones by as much as 20 miles. Riley was four miles from his.
“I was completely alone,” he said.
Riley cut himself out of his chute and “headed out where I thought I was supposed to go.” He crossed a road, walked off into a ditch and found that it was filled with water. Deciding that wasn’t the right course, he went back to where he landed and met another member of his platoon, Virgil Kimberling, who landed in the war zone with only a machete.
The two made their way to an assembly point where an officer had fixed a light to a tree guiding the soldiers to the rallying point. The men waited the rest of the night before setting out for their objective to secure an exit off the beach.
They arrived there by mid-afternoon to find that their commander, Gen. Maxwell Taylor, had gathered some of the men and secured the exit. The next morning the division headed to the city of Carentan, France.
The point was crucial to link Omaha and Utah beaches and for the military’s movement throughout the country. After a costly battle on the part of the 502nd, 3rd Battalion on the southeast side of the city, the division successfully drove out the German forces on June 12. Then the 101st moved on to the port city of Cherbourg, where they stayed for about a month.
“That was D-Day for us. The division lost … over 4,500, killed and wounded,” Riley said.
Operation Market Garden
On Sept. 17, the 101st made another jump, this time into the Netherlands, and without leg bags. Their mission was to secure the highway. They would spend more than 70 days there.
When they arrived in Eindhoven, the first liberated Dutch city, “the crowds were so thick you could barely get through,” Riley said.
Riley remembered the Dutch people as especially friendly.
When he and his fellow soldiers were cut off in Uden, Netherlands, something the division had grown accustomed to, they maintained a gun position outside one of the local’s homes.
“The family that lived there had a little girl about 10 or 12. She’d come out to the gun position and we’d chase her off and back in the house,” Riley said, though he couldn’t recall her name. “Those people were friendly, all the Dutch were friendly.”
Several weeks later, as the soldiers were being trucked back through the city, they saw the girl again as she pedaled her bicycle along with their truck.
Besides keeping an open roadway, which was interrupted a few times by German troops that had to be cleared, Riley and Kimberling took on another mission in the Netherlands.
The pair was attached to E Company, the soldiers made famous by the best-selling novel and film “Band of Brothers,” to rescue a group of British paratroopers pinned down.
After almost two-and-a-half months, the 101st was sent back to Mourmelon, France, to rest, resupply and train, but their time was interrupted.
Battle of the Bulge
“We thought we had it made and were going to lay out the winter” in Mourmelon, Riley said. “That’s when the Battle of the Bulge broke out, and we were rushed to Bastogne (France).”
They arrived by truck on Dec. 19 and were quickly cut off by German troops, again.
“It was cold,” Riley said. “We didn’t have much food. We didn’t have much ammunition.”
When the weather finally cleared, the soldiers were resupplied by air. While the battle for the 101st continued through the end of January 1945, Riley found himself in an English hospital bed.
On Jan. 3, he was wounded by shrapnel to his head.
“I always tell people my head’s not hard,” Riley joked. “The Germans shot me in the head with a cannon and only made a dent.”
The rest of the war for the 101st
It was two months before Riley rejoined his division in Mourmelon and headed to Germany with them. They moved along the Rhine River, seeing only sparse combat.
Eventually they were given the objective to take Berchtesgarden, Adolph Hitler’s vacation retreat. They carried out their final objective in early May.
“We were fortunate in that we trained as a regiment (and) stayed together,” Riley said of his time with the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment.