Members of a World War II combat unit known as the “Battling Buzzards” returned to Fort Benning’s Eubanks Field for the last time Friday during a reunion at the jump school.
“This is the end of the line,” Marvin Moles said as 435 Airborne graduates were presented jump wings during a 9 a.m. ceremony. “We are back where we started in 1943.”
Moles of Dublin, Va., was one of 30 members of the 517th Parachute Regimental Combat Team who came to Fort Benning to watch an Airborne graduation ceremony similar to the one that turned them into elite paratroopers 68 years ago. It was the last reunion for the soldiers, many in their late 80s and early 90s. The soldiers saw heavy action in Italy, southern France and the Battle of the Bulge during World War II but couldn’t have been successful on the battlefield without training at Fort Benning and at Camp Toccoa in north Georgia.
Moles recalled how soldiers were ordered to run 1,500 yards to determine the best soldiers to fight. At Fort Benning, Moles said none of the soldiers in training failed to get through jump school.
“That’s a pretty good record,” he said.
After jump school and another six months of advance training, Moles fought two battles in Italy before his unit jumped into the dark during the invasion of southern France on Aug. 15, 1944. Landing some 35 to 40 miles off their course, Moles said he watched one of his fellow soldiers drop through a tiled roof.
“You just went out the plane,” he said. “My plane was slow and my chute was open when I hit the ground. I was relieved to get on ground.”
And so was Joe Calder of Raleigh, N.C. For Calder, the invasion of France brought back memories of jump training at Fort Benning.
Calder, 89, said he could have been lost if he had parachuted into one of the large wells in France.
“In France, they had great big wells,” he said using his hands to describe the opening. “If I had been about a foot farther that way, I would have went down that damn well.”
The 517th were scattered and that forced some of the combat team to join lost British paratroopers.
“It was a band of about 100 of us,” Calder said.
Calder said he never forgot about a black truck driver who wanted to fight with a combat unit. He left his 2-ton truck and joined the 517th, even though blacks weren’t allowed in combat units at the time.
“He left his truck and came with us as a rifleman,” Calder said. “He stayed with us three months or so. When he went back to his truck, the commander had to write a letter and explain he was with the 517th on the front line.”
Ray Hess, 86, of Bethlehem, Pa., said it’s a wonderful feeling to return to where it all started.
“We were the first to jump with helmets,” he said.
The visit to Fort Benning was eye opening for many of family members who came to experience what their fathers had only told stories about.
Donna Shelton of St. Louis and her sister, Diane Lynch of Dublin, Va., came with their father, Marvin Moles.
“This is extremely special for everyone,” Lynch said. “He has told us many stories. He has painted a story with words.”
Shelton said all the grandchildren love to hear Moles tell stories about the “Battling Buzzards.” When Moles saw the “Band of Brothers,” an 11-hour World War II television miniseries, he said it was close to his experiences in war. “He said he smelled the smoke, smelled the burning flesh,” Shelton said. “He said it came right back to him. It was all right there. He said that was real.”
Carole Calder, daughter of Joe Calder, said the reunion was really a proud day.
“It makes me understand what he went through with this group,” she said.
After the ceremony, the soldiers and relatives went on a tour of the National Infantry Museum & Soldier Center.
The graduation ceremony also showed the spirit of the Airborne soldier.
“It’s exhilarating to see the spirit,” said Lt. Gen. Richard Seitz, a young commander of the combat team in 1943. “That’s one thing that hasn’t changed. The spirit is still great, the enthusiasm.”
Seitz, 93, of Junction City, Kan., said soldiers still walk the same as they did 68 years ago.
“They strut just like they used to,” he said. “They have respect like they used to. They have that look in their eyes and the training is so good.”