Gliding Downward Behind Enemy Lines
In a glass cupboard, the ones found only inside a grandparent’s home, beside many curious dishes and sparkling domestic-wares, sat a small phial. By the looks of it the little bottle was empty.
“Smell it,” Harriet Milheim said, and as the phial was passed around, the strong scent of lady’s perfume poured into my lungs. Decades disappeared for Harriet’s husband, Maynard who began to remember where and when he purchased the little bottle.
Crouched inside his glider with his side-arm held close, Maynard Milheim of Muncy heard shots from the enemy as his motor-less craft was cut loose from the towing planes. The spiraling descent of the glider mimicked the churning of his belly as he hoped to land clear of dreaded German artillery positions.
Following their abrupt landings, the men of Company C of the 307th Airborne Engineer Battalion of the Army Air corps hustled into action by taking key tactical positions–bridges, bridgeheads, and fjords, for example.
Being placed behind the frontline, Maynard was in a maelstrom of hostility; the frontline soldier’s danger lay ahead, Maynard’s was all around.
In the midst of this hell, silent thoughts or mumbled words “Get me home safe, please, God!” was a common prayer of the member and faithful attendee of Muncy Presbyterian Church.
Prayer, fear, and death were constant companions of Maynard. He was now gliding down in the dark abyss of “Fortress Europe,” avoiding the enemy and the more dangerous obstacles like hedges, trees, field artillery, and “Rommel’s Asparagus,” which were poles stuck into the ground designed to destroy aircraft. All could tear his tiny craft to pieces.
This time he was liberating the French, and he was doing it from behind in the town of Ste. Mere Eglise, just southwest of Utah Beach, in the small hours of the morning. Maynard and the 307th Airborne Engineer Battalion began the assault on June 6, 1944.
The war had all began for the young farm boy when he was drafted into the armed service in June of 1942. He along with Wesley Victus and Elam LaFonne were sent on a train in Montgomery and they, along with others of Lycoming County, went south to Harrisburg to get physicals and to be sworn in at Fort Indiantown Gap.
Milheim went on to basic training in Belvour, Virginia and to join the 307th Airbome Engineer Battalion of the 82nd Airborne Division newly formed in the swamps of Camp Claiborne Louisiana under the leadership of the unpretentious General Omar Bradley.
The uniforms the 307th AEB had a notable blue patch on one sleeve that bore the monogram AA for All-American because their battalion had a member from every single one of the 48 states of America.
It wasn’t until Milheim left the United States that his adventure truly began. Crossing the Atlantic today is a leisurely eight-hour flight to Europe but for the brave souls of the early ’40s, it was a terrible ordeal. There was no mass air transport–the only way to cross the tumultuous ocean was by boat.
According to Milheim it was a ’10-day, 11-night night journey” with seasick companions who spewed forth a staggeringly vibrant green vomit.
A suppressing unspoken fear grew when the ship had reached outside of the range of fighter aircraft protection to a region called the Dead Zone, where the U-boats would ravage allied shipping with their ravenous wolf-pack hunting tactics.
But Milheim made it to Casablanca on the shores of Africa where Allied forces were husbanding their strength for an attack on the soft underbelly of the Axis beast. Milheim and the rest of the 82nd Airborne Division were placed under the command of radical, unpopular but adamantly diligent General Patton, whose invasion of Sicily, which began on July 9, 1943, had slowed down to a halt.
A plea for help was made and the 82nd Airborne was dropped behind the defenses of the southeastern town of Gela and Scoglitti to reinforce the U.S.S. 7th Army. This was Maynard’s first taste of action, but to his great misfortune, the paratrooper drop was poorly executed, the weather was bad and it blew men off course.
Not only was there disorganization, but also heavy fighting during the first day caused panic in the American anti-aircraft gunners, who fired on Axis as well as Allied planes.
Despite the best efforts made by the seventh army to make known the paratrooper drops on July 11, the 82nd Airborne received heavy casualties to friendly fire and Milheim lost many comrades.
With the successful allied invasion of Sicily came the desperate struggle to get a foothold on the Italian mainland. On Sept. 13, 1944, the American armies were stopped dead in their tracks on the beach landings at Salerno and the 307th AEB was called upon again but under a new title, the 504th Regimental Combat Team. It was dropped in the dark, on the beach heads to the red and yellow light of oil drums set on fire to guide the paratroopers to their target.
The Italian campaign would not be over for the 82nd Air-borne division until the Battle of Anzio on Jan. 22 1944.
Here the 504th RCT met the fanatical Hermann Goring Division, one the best trained outfits the Axis had. But the 504111 RCT prevailed and the fighting was so terrible for the German’s that one officer exclaimed in his diary that the paratroopers were “Devils in baggy pants,” a name which would stay with the 504th to this day.
The 504th also caught the eye of high-ranking officials, as it was the first U.S. parachute force to earn the Presidential Unit Citation, an award for units displaying gallantry, determination, and esprit de corps in accomplishing its mission under extremely difficult and hazardous conditions, setting it above other units participating in the same campaign.
After gliding down into the dark of “Fortress Europe” and seeing the liberation of France, Maynard saw the long dark clouds of Nazi occupation blowing away by the strong westerly wind. The sunshine returned and for a war-weary farmboy from the Susquehanna River Valley, Maynard discovered that he was in yet another world. Not the countryside, nor the drab war, but in the most beautiful city under the sun, Paris.
Maynard was a man of simple tastes but wandering the famous streets, his nose was alerted to the scent of woman’s perfume. It was here where he purchased a small phial for a stranger who was an ocean away and would someday become his beloved wife.
And as I sat in the Milheim kitchen, I heard Harriet excitedly say, “Would you like to see it?” and she retrieved a small phial. By the looks of it the little bottle was empty.
“Smell it,” Harriet Milheim told us, and as the phial was around the phial and the strong scent of lady’s perfume poured into my lungs, decades disappeared for Harriet’s husband Maynard.