David Kenyon Webster used to fantasize about war. When he was ten, he and his friends dug trenches near the brook behind his house and pretended they were Doughboys in France using the rusty guns they saw at the American Legion against the Germans. He used to wear a British Black Watch regiment cap with a red and white checked band and black ribbons dangling in the back. His nascent dreams of soldiering ended with sights of the destitute Depression era vets, pictures of mutilated war dead, books like Johnny Got his Gun, and anti-war student groups at Harvard. If someone had told David Webster, the Harvard student, that he would go to war he would have laughed at them.

When the War came, he figured he might as well have a ringside seat. He wanted to do his part and see what it was all about. He wanted to fight, more as a test of manhood and intellectual curiosity than for an ideal. The paratroopers guaranteed action so he joined them. He was assigned to Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division.

david kenyon webster

David Webster in Holland

Webster learned that he hated the army and being a soldier. He saw war as stupid and meaningless, a power play made by people who controlled nations, not a choice by the ordinary people. As a soldier, he saw himself as a nameless cog in a giant wheel, without individuality and importance, risking his life for a cause that would only help the politicians and upper class take more for themselves. He saw World War II as no different. David Webster believed this until his unit overran Nazi slave labor camps in Germany. Then David Kenyon Webster realized that his was a just cause.

David Webster and the 101st Airborne Division jumped into Normandy as part of the big invasion of Europe. It somehow seemed incredulous to him that he was there, incredible to think he would jump into combat and not a trench dug by children in Bronxville, New York; to think he would be fighting Germans, fighting with guns and knives and not the clay and dry reeds of his childhood games. D-Day was set for June 5th, but the paratroopers left their airfields on the evening of June 4th, to drop in France between midnight and one on the morning of the 5th. On the 4th, the men had gotten steak and mashed potatoes, peas and white bread, and the first ice cream they had had overseas. The men got seconds, then thirds; all they could eat on their last meal before the invasion. Then the wind got strong and made men afraid. High winds meant the scattering troopers all over the drop zone, uncontrollable landings, broken legs and backs, lost equipment and smashed gliders. It meant death in a hundred ways before meeting the enemy. Another regiment in another division, the 504th of the 82nd, had their drop planes blown off course in high winds where they were blown out of the sky by their own fleet during the invasion of Sicily. The men that landed were scattered all over the island with heavy casualties. When word came that the invasion of Normandy was postponed another day, the paratroopers whooped and hollered, ran around and slapped each other on the back, happy that they would not die that night.

The scent of grass and flowers in the summer heat of June 5th mixed with the smell of army canvas and sweat and the sour smelling, gas impregnated suits. P-47 Thunderbolts crisscrossed the sky above, leaving vapor trails in their 24-hour cover of the airfields. This was a day of waiting, waiting until the long summer sun, fueled by daylight savings time, went down. Men cleaned their weapons over and over, checked their bolts, chain smoked or just sat, numb to the rest of the world. Time passed, each second like that for prisoners on death row on reckoning day. Everyone was on edge, wound up for something to happen, in their own world where time seemed to slow and everyone seemed focused on their impending doom.

It was the same all over England: the soldiers of many nations that had mobbed London and Edinburgh and Birmingham on passes were penned in marshaling areas or at sea, waiting, waiting for the invasion just like the millions of people in Europe were awaiting them. Only when Webster looked past the camp, into the golden farmers fields did he realize that the outside world had not changed, life went on as it did and would go on even if he were killed that night.

The men moved out at 5:30 pm, walking on the sunken lane to the hangar where the parachutes were kept. The sounds of hundreds of gas masks and shovels, bayonets brushing against legs and the clap of rubber soles on dirt was heard as they walked. An old lady came out of her white, thatched roof cottage to watch them pass. She waived her handkerchief and said “God Bless you, God bless you all” with tears in her eyes. The men she waved to were silent, lost in the thoughts of those heading to war.

Trucks took them from the parachute hangar to the airplanes. There would be twenty one paratroopers on his plane, the sergeant in the back and the lieutenant up front. Webster was eighteenth in line to jump. He sprawled out near the plane and lay in the sun. He was hot, and weighed a hundred pounds more with his woolen long johns, wool pants and shirt, Jumpsuit, rifle, three grenades, cartridge belt, two bandoleers, Hawkins mine, gas mask, smoke grenade, trench knife, bayonet, canteen, wire cutters, first aid packet, ammunition and life vest. The men sat and waited for darkness. They had plenty of time to think, to imagine what might happen and they pretended to each other that they were not nervous. It was 10:45 pm before the crew chief from the C-47 said it was time to go. Webster shuffled to the ladder and was helped up by the lieutenant and crew chief. He got a packet of airsickness pills and a quart size ice cream carton to puke in if he got sick. At 11:15, the engines rattled and the planes carrying the regiment left England.

Webster closed his eyes. The airsickness pills he had taken had made him drowsy. He felt light, and detached with a feeling of relief that the waiting to go had ended. Now that he was on the plane he felt a burning impatience to fight, to get it over with. He felt his parachute digging into his body, the tightness of his clothes and gear and a chill that was creeping into his stomach. The plane bounced, jolted and turned as it climbed higher, the engines straining to lift it higher. The smell of oil mixed with cigarette smoke and the crisp air coming in from the outside. Someone threw up and the smell of vomit made someone else throw up. Thoughts raced through Webster’s mind. Everything he had been told during the past few days went on over and over again in his mind:

Assembly at Hébert, look for a white light from the pathfinders…if no white light, listen for a bugle call, two toots for second battalion….kill the enemy, don’t shoot, use your bayonets, your knives, kill silently, don’t give away your position by firing….Hébert is not a town, just apple orchards, a crossroads and a few houses, pronounced aybare, not Herbert…..Kill the enemy….password is flash, answer thunder…one cricket click to challenge, two to answer… shout “Bill Lee” when you jump, General Lee would appreciate it… KILL the enemy… don’t wear the brimmed knit caps, General Taylor hates them…KILL THE enemy… check your sleeve detector for poison gas…ALL men are going to jump tonight, NOBODY comes back to England tonight, that’s an order… KILL THE ENEMY….

Webster wondered how much longer it would be, how much more sitting and waiting there was. The plane banked and Webster looked out the window hoping to see the English Channel, instead he saw the red and green wing lights of C-47’s waiting to take off. The planes were still circling the field. They had to wait for all the planes to take off then gather in formation. After that it was still an hour to Normandy.

David Webster

David Webster, a well dressed infantryman.

The engines softened as the C-47 went down to five hundred feet over the English Channel. David Kenyon Webster looked out into the black sea which held the thousands of ships below. A blinker from the fleet signaled that everyone knew who everyone was, there would be no friendly fire. The hundreds C-47’s turned their wing lights off. The red light that had filtered through the cabin from the other planes faded, only the drone of their engines betrayed that they were still there. The blue lights from the pilot’s passageway went off also and Webster was surrounded in blackness, save for the dull glow of cigarettes that illuminated the sweat and black greasepaint and fear on the faces of the paratroopers . It all seemed unreal to Webster, after years of training, to be going into battle. Maybe the men on the seas below, surrounded by the sound of the waves and salt air, looked into the sky at the hundreds of planes above them and also wondered if what they saw was real. Webster’s mind went back to himself, his plane and the ten thousand Germans he was told were near the landing zone.

The red light came on in the door over the Nazi occupied Channel Islands. The men stood up, making themselves less of a target and to be ready to get out if the plane were hit. The shuffle of cloth and canvas, the sweat and breath of overburdened men, came before metallic clicks of static lines clipping to the anchor lines of the planes. Enemy fire came from the islands. Red tracers arced slowly into the sky then seemed to speed up when they flew past the windows of the plane.

It became quiet as the men left the Channel Islands behind them. The next landfall was Nazi controlled France. The planes rose to 1,500 feet over the French coast, ready to drop to seven hundred before the drop. “Push me, push me when we go” the man next to Webster said. The men sounded off for equipment check, each making the sure the man in front of them was okay. The plane began to swerve as the pilot took evasive action as the first flak and machine gun fire came up. Men were thrown all over. Webster clung to the static line to keep upright. The air outside was full of pieces of metal exploding. Inside, the plane was shaking and bouncing, shrapnel and bullets hitting the plane and sounding like rocks against a tin roof. He prayed to God, he prayed that he could get out of the plane, prayed to die fighting rather than on a C-47 that was a fireball in the sky. Each second brought more flak and machine gun fire, more sharp movements as the pilot tried to survive. Webster felt a tingling, his body crying “let’s go, jump out of the airplane, You’re going to get shot down!”. The rest of the men on the plane disappeared from his consciousness, all Webster could think about was himself. Each second that passed brought him closer to getting out of this deathtrap, closer to the salvation of jumping between thousands of enemy soldiers who wanted to kill him. He didn’t care. He just wanted to get out.

“Closeup and stand in the door!” The lieutenant shouted. The green light came on. The lieutenant was out, and the men dropped out one by one. The hulking, fully equipped paratroopers made their way to the door. Some fell under their own weight, men struggled to push the men who fell out so they could jump out after. Number 15 had jumped, number 16, then 17, now, as he stood in the door, as the wind blew in his face, Webster got his first view of France . He had expected to see farms and hedgerows, the Church steeples, and rustic homes of Normandy. What he saw instead were miles of water reflecting against the moonlight. A big voice in him screamed “They flooded the fields! You ‘re wearing over a hundred pounds of gear! You’ll drown! Your gear will drown you!” then a smaller voice told him “There are a lot of men out in the channel depending on the paratroopers and their mission.” and then he remembered the voice of his commander. “It is a combat mission. Nobody comes back to England tonight, NOBODY.” He could feel the man behind him crowding him, desperate to get out of the plane.

David Kenyon Webster felt his hands grab both sides of the door vibrating in the air. He felt the man behind him crowding him, desperate to get out too. David Webster took a last breath and pushed himself out into the sky above Normandy.

David Kenyon Webster jumped into Normandy at about 1:10 am on D-Day and landed in a flooded field. His plane was so low when he jumped that he did not have time to prepare for a water landing. Luckily the water was shallow. He joined the scattered groups of men that had been dropped all over. A few days after fighting in Normandy, he was wounded by a mortar shell and evacuated to England. David Webster asked to be transferred to an infantry company and was assigned to Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment where he served in Holland and in Germany. He died in 1961 in a boating accident.

For Further Reading Check Out:

Parachute Infantry: An American Paratrooper’s Memoir of D-Day and the Fall of the Third Reich

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