I try each Memorial Day to tell someone’s story…someone who gave their life so I can remain free.
I’ve been married to Chuck almost 30 years, and those years have been filled with moments where I learned about his life before me. One of his most touching stories is about a man that he never met. That man was his Uncle Bobby. So I went online in search of his story. Chuck didn’t’ even know which unit he served in.
Chuck was a World War II baby. His parents met at Furman University, and they married immediately after graduation. His father went to work for Sears in their management program, but World War II came suddenly and ripped them away from each other.
Chuck’s mother’s sister also met her husband at Furman University, and they married immediately as well. She married Robert Mazy Mitchell a young man from Greenville, South Carolina. This was Chuck’s Uncle Bobby.
Both Chuck’s father and his Uncle Bobby enlisted after Pearl Harbor, one in the Navy and the other in the Army. Both went into officer’s training.
Chuck’s Dad became one of the 90-day wonders, spending time in special training at Cornell University and later Solomon’s Point, Maryland. As a Lieutenant, JG he didn’t see action until June 6, 1944 on a beach called Omaha.
Mitchell went a different direction to the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment as a First Lieutenant in training at Camp Blanding, Florida. The 508th later became part of the 82nd Infantry Division and all of the 82nd were sent for vigorous training at Fort Bragg. These were pioneering paratroopers. Up in the C-47 transport planes, they stood up, hooked up, and leaped. He was in Company I.
The Normandy Invasion
Bobby Mitchell left New York City on December 28th on a troop ship the USAT James Parker and arrived in Belfast, Ireland at dawn on January 9th.
He was transported by train to Portstewart and sent to the Cromore Estate for bivouac. Portstewart is a coastal seaside city on the northern coast of Ireland. There he trained in night patrolling and had his first experiences with hedgerows, training that would become important later.
He left Cromore by train on 10 March for Belfast to load on a ship for Scotland where he debarked in the Firth of Clyde port of Greencock. Then he got on a train for Nottingham where they boarded trucks to go to Wollaton Park for another bivouac.
From there the unit again became part of the 82nd Airborne Division, commanded by Major General Matthew Ridgway. They camped ten miles away at a former country hotel called Tollerton Hall, Nottinghamshire.
His brother-in-law Charlie Littlejohn was in England at the same time, and we wonder if the two of them ever got to see each other there before the Invasion.
On June 5th and 6th, the paratroopers of the 82nd’s three parachute infantry regiments along with the glider infantry regiment boarded hundreds of transport planes and gliders and began the largest airborne assault in history. They would be among the first soldiers to fight in the Normandy Invasion. Over 10,000 troopers parachuted in a night jump.
Bobby Mitchell parachuted near Ste-Mere-Eglise in the Manche region of France at 2:15 a.m. on June 6th. He was already in the thick of the fight inland when Charlie Littlejohn’s LCI delivered troops to the beaches of Omaha during the second wave.
Mitchell dropped behind Utah Beach. Like most paratrooper units, the 508th was dropped in the wrong location and had much difficulty linking up with the other unit they were ordered to meet up with. A platoon leader of the 508th, First Lieutenant Robert Mathias, of company E, was the first American officer killed by German fire on D-Day.
Landing in the swamp lands along the river, the heavily laden troopers quickly assembled into fighting units though there was much confusion. When I read that they landed in swamp lands, I thought maybe this was why they trained in Camp Blanding’s Florida swamps.
To make a long story shorter, Mitchell survived the jump and was back in Nottinghamshire by July 13 after heavy fighting with the Germans. He had seen days of bloody action without relief and without replacements where 5,245 Allied paratroopers were killed, wounded or missing.
The 508th lost 1,061 men out of its initial 2,056. 307 paid the ultimate price including Lt. Col. Herbert F. Batchellor. But the 82nd overall was victorious. Every mission was accomplished; no ground gained was ever relinquished.
For their courage, devotion to duty, and combat action during the first three days of fighting, the unit was awarded the Distinguished Unit Citation (later re-designated as the Presidential Unit Citation). In Nottingham, England there is a memorial to the fallen members of the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment.
Operation Market Garden
As Charlie’s LCI continued to move men, machinery, and supplies back and forth across the English Channel, his brother-in-law Bobby Mitchell was already training for another invasion.
Those first days and weeks after the Normandy invasion were halcyon days of pursuit. There was wonderful optimism within the Allied armies, but it was quickly followed by a heartbreaking stalemate amongst the hedgerows of Normandy.
This stalemate passed and again the Allied forces were optimistic, especially after they crossed the Seine. Their commanders were already raising their sights to the Rhine itself. This is why the 508th were already training back in Nottingham.
Finally, the British and Canadian troops dashed over 250 miles and Brussels fell. Next was Antwerp. The British were at the Dutch-Belgian border.
Where were the Americans? Some raced across Belgium and Luxembourg to the border of Germany. More reached and crossed the Moselle River into northeastern France. Many were operational in Brittany. To the south, the 6th Army arrived from southern France and together the Allied forces created a unified Western Front that stretched from Antwerp to Switzerland.
The one problem, though, was that logistically the supplies were far behind the moving armies. There were major delays in the supply line, and several Allied forces stopped to wait on supplies, one army as much as five days.
By early September they worried that winter was coming on, and with it, the supply problems would worsen. During this turbulent period, they made the decision to launch Operation Market Garden, a daring strategic maneuver that failed, but only narrowly.
Meanwhile, in Wollaton Park, Nottingham, the First Allied Airborne Army formed. General Matthew Ridgway again commanded the Americans. Their first movement would be Operation Market Garden, a daylight air assault into Holland which would again be the largest airborne operation in history.
Bobby and the rest of 508th jumped on September 17th at 1:30 in the afternoon. Their orders were to seize roads, bridges and the key communication cities thus cutting Holland in half and clearing a corridor for British armored and motorized columns all the way to the German border. He survived the jump.
The 508th established and maintained a defensive position over 12,000 yards in length with German troops on three sides of their position. Still, they seized a key bridge and prevented its destruction. Together with the rest of the regiment, they cut Highway K, preventing the movement of enemy reserves or escape of the enemy.
Their jump was in the vicinity of Grave, 57 miles behind enemy lines. The rest of the 82nd captured and held key bridges, one of which over the Maas River was the longest bridge in Europe.
Meanwhile, Bobby and the 508th were under heavy enemy fire from German paratroopers. Fighting was intense and the 508th held the high ground in a place they nicknamed “Devil’s Hill”. Other units desperately fought to hold their ground and conducted aggressive combat and reconnaissance patrols.
Still, key roads and rail bridges remained in enemy hands, as the 508th maintained the eastern flank. Stiff resistance from the Germans caused fighting to move from house to house overnight and into the next day.
Two days later on September 19th, near Oosterhout, Holland Private John Towle of Cleveland Ohio, Company C, 504th PIR earned the Congressional Medal of Honor when he single-handedly without orders and armed with a rocket launcher moved into an exposed position and broke up a German counterattack of 100 infantrymen, two tanks and a half-track. He was mortally wounded.
Meanwhile, on this same day, Bobby Mitchell died, too. We don’t know exactly how it happened, but we do know he was posthumously awarded a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart with Oak Leaf Cluster. He was also awarded a Soldier’s Medal when he distinguished himself by heroism not involving actual conflict with an enemy. He is buried at the Netherlands American Cemetery in Margraten, Netherlands.
At Furman University, he is also commemorated by the Doughboy Statue on Childer’s Plaza, along with 54 other Furman men who died during World War II.
The 82nd Airborne during WWII earned 3 Congressional Medals of Honor, 78 Distinguished Services Crosses, 1 Distinguished Service Medal, 32 Legions of Merit, 894 Silver Stars and 2,478 Bronze Stars. Their permanent home is at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
The 508th received 1 Medal of Honor, 14 Distinguished Service Crosses, 111 Silver Stars, 341 Bronze Stars, 3 Legions of Merit and 7 Soldier’s Medals. They awarded one of the latter to Bobby Mitchell for distinguishing himself by heroism not involving actual conflict with an enemy. This is a curious award that says that it involved personal hazard or danger and also the voluntary assumption of risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. It added that saving a life in the absence of risk is not sufficient justification.
A Golden Star
Later, back home in Augusta, Georgia, Chuck’s mother and his aunt were both living with their mother along with their two new babies, both of which had never seen their fathers. Chuck’s mother, Dody, described to me that moment on a beautiful Fall day when a military car stopped at the curb in front of her mother’s home. She said it was like watching a film in slow motion.
Two Army personnel came to the door for Chuck’s aunt. That is how the family learned that they were now a gold star family. The gold star that replaced one of the blue stars in their window told members of their community of the price that the family paid.
Charlie Littlejohn traveled from the Atlantic directly to the Pacific after their effort in Europe was done. His outfit stopped in San Diego for further orders. Dody Littlejohn took nine-month-old Chuck all the way out from Georgia to California by train so Charlie could see his young son before shipping out again to fight the Japanese. The bombing of Japan turned his ship around before he got there.
Chuck and his first cousin, Bobby Mitchell’s son, grew up together and were extremely close as youngsters. Being of the same age, the two boys spent time together at their Grandfather’s farm and at each other’s homes though they often lived states apart.
They fished and played cowboys and Indians. During high school, they night fished off the bridges in the Florida Keys. Later, they enjoyed the freedom of visiting each other in college, one attending Georgia Tech and the other the University of Georgia. Today, they are there for each other during the weddings, birthday parties, and funerals.
This Memorial Day, try to look up someone that gave their all for this country. It is amazing what you can find. We didn’t know this much about Chuck’s Uncle Bobby until we looked him up online.
Their stories need to be remembered.