"When we finally got the order to go on D-Day, we moved to our planes, loaded our bundles in the belly racks, and saddled up. I was loaded down with nearly my own weight in equipment, one hundred fifty pounds, without including the parachute and reserve... There wasn't much joking or fooling around... I think we were all saying our silent prayers. Just before I jumped, I glanced at my watch. It was an hour and fifty-one minutes after midnight.
The first thing I remember seeing as I descended was a large spire in a bunch of buildings that later proved to be Ste.-Mere-Eglise. To my surprise there were fires in the town. Almost immediately- these things happen in microseconds- I started receiving very heavy flak and machine gun fire from the ground. This was absolutely terrifying. The tracers looked as though they were going to take the top of my head off. "
’Spencer Wurst on parachuting into Normandy on D-Day
Descending from the Clouds: A Memoir of Combat in the 505 Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division
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By Spencer Wurst and Gayle Wurst
Format: Hardcover, 256pp
Pub. Date: November 2004
Publisher: Casemate Publishers
As a Baby Boomer born in the wake of World War II, one of my favorite childhood pastimes was watching war movies. What I didn't know back then was that those antiseptic, hyper-romanticized, Hollywood's productions bore little resemblance to the raw reality of what had actually transpired.
Fortunately, in recent years, thanks to Tom Brokaw's giving what he dubbed "The Greatest Generation" its due, some surviving WWII veterans are taking the time to publish intimate memoirs of their combat experiences. If you want to see why war is hell, one of the best such autobiographies around is Descending from the Clouds which was recently earmarked as a main selection of the Military Book Club.
This "as told to" tome was narrated by Spencer Wurst to his niece, Gayle, an ex-literature professor with a Ph. D. in English from the University of Geneva. Now 80 and long-retired at the rank of colonel after 35 years of service in the Armed Forces, Spencer explains in the Preface that he decided to break his long, self-imposed silence to write the book because he "had deprived my children of a vital part of their heritage."
Between his folksy way of spinning a yarn and his co-author's considerable academic skill at editing succinctly, the net result is a riveting page-turner which will plop you in right in the center of several ferocious engagements in the European Theater of Operations, including D-Day, the Battle of Arnone and the Battle of the Bulge.
As the bio unfolds, Wurst recalls his lying about his age in order to enlist in 1939 at the age of 15. Not long thereafter, when the draft was instituted, an already seasoned Spencer found himself a teenage corporal leading a squad with some men in their thirties. With the U.S. facing the prospect of soon entering the war, they trained to jump out of planes as paratroopers in the 82nd Airborne.
When it comes to the action, Wurst proves to be a master crafter, such as when he vividly describes how half his gear was ripped off by the wind the instant he jumped out of the plane over Normandy on D-Day. Next, he matter-of-factly proceeds to recollect then helplessly watching German tracer bullets pierce his parachute as he floated down to Earth.
Besides paying close attention to the details of his own individual ordeal, Spencer devotes space to relate the high attrition among his fellow rifle platoon paratroopers, a group who suffered a 95% casualty rate over the course of the war. As one of the lucky ones who lived to tell the tale, he is proud to dedicate his book to his comrades in Company F denied "the opportunity to grow old." Thus, Descending from the Clouds stands as a fitting tribute, even if belatedly, from a humble hero awarded both a Purple Heart and a Silver Star, who should never have taken so long to share his story with the world.