Cover image for On time, on target : the World War II memoir of a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne
On time, on target : the World War II memoir of a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne
McKenzie, John D.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Novato, CA : Presidio Press, [2000]

Physical Description:
xii, 240 pages : illustrations ; 23 cm
Reading Level:
1170 Lexile.
Personal Subject:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
D756 .M42 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



The All Americans of the 82nd Airborne Division participated in some of the toughest fighting of WWII. As a teenager, the author joined the division shortly before the Normandy Invasion. His descriptions of the life and death struggles of frontline combat are models of clarity and drama. Includes

Author Notes

Following the war John McKenzie became a chemical engineer. Now retired, he lives in Golden, Colorado.

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

Two World War II memoirs present an interesting and often valuable contrast. McKenzie joined the 456th Parachute Field Artillery Battalion, attached to the 82d Airborne Division, mostly to get out of the replacement pool. He then served to the end of 1946, seeing heavy action in the Arnhem operation, the Battle of the Bulge, and their aftermaths, when the paratroopers were kept on line far beyond their expectations and sometimes their endurance. He makes it abundantly clear that the experience of seeing friends drop away one by one from wounds or death leaves scars, and that he was an expert wheeler-dealer for the benefit of his comrades, on occasion providing them with genuine wine, women, and song. Richard, a B-24 bombardier, spent exactly one week in combat and then, as a POW in Stalag Luft I, a year and a half in greater danger from starvation and Allied bombs. He portrays plainly the perpetual privation, soul-destroying boredom, and real sense of helplessness that the POW suffered even under relatively benign conditions, and he pays high tribute to fighter ace Hubert Zemke for his negotiating skills with both the Germans and the Russians. --Roland Green

Publisher's Weekly Review

McKenzie belonged to the less than 20% of the 82nd Airborne that survived a bewildering variety of missions physically unscathed. From spring 1943 until discharge in January 1946, McKenzie was for the most part an artillery observer for the 456th Parachute Field Artillery Battalion, serving in major battles in Normandy; in Holland (Operation Market Garden of A Bridge Too Far fame); in Belgium to hold "the Bulge"; in Germany at the Siegfried Line and later in occupied Berlin. These pages show him to have been a capable, sensitive, observant 20-year-old, one who went on after the war to become a chemical engineer and businessman (since his retirement, he has published Uncertain Glory, a study of Robert E. Lee). McKenzie's comments about the battles in which he participated are instructive about daily life in his unit, as are his characterizations of adversaries and Allies. There are numerous pointed and memorable anecdotes, such as the "[o]ne little game the Russians liked to play" when encountering American soldiers, which was to "draw their pistols like gunfighters. Our problem was that we could not tell whether it was a bluff or a real threat since we could not understand what they were saying. Rather than wait to see... we simply shot them." For McKenzie, who suffered psychological traumasÄsurvivor guilt, depression, repression of memoriesÄwriting this account constituted a therapeutic endeavor, one that survivors and fans of the genre alike will appreciate for its candor and heart. (July) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One From College Sophomore to Airborne Trooper My war began on 12 May 1943 and lasted for 959 days. This may not seem to be a very long time, but it included parachute jumps, four major battles, and the loss of many friends. After spending time training in England, I fought from Normandy to Berlin.     I was born in Los Angeles, California, on 24 June 1924, the only child of Mildred and Henry McKenzie. My father held management positions and remained employed throughout the Great Depression. We were not wealthy, but his continuous employment at a good salary for those times allowed us to live comfortably. The depression extended from 1929 to 1936, and it was terrible for many American families. I recall my mother buying weekly bags of groceries for some neighbors, and every night we connected a long extension cord to our next-door neighbor's house so they could have light in the evenings. The utility company had turned off their power when they were unable to pay their bills.     Throughout much of World War II, my mother worked almost daily as a volunteer with the United Service Organization (USO) in Hollywood. Most of the time she was the volunteer manager of movie studio tours, and as such she guided many thousands of servicemen and -women through the major Hollywood studios. Many well-known movie actors and actresses would not allow service personnel on their sets unless Mildred McKenzie was with them. Both of my parents' kindness to others served as an early lesson in altruism that has influenced my life.     My father's work caused us to move frequently. As a result, I attended numerous schools and met many diverse people in California, Tennessee, Massachusetts, and Ohio. My parents allowed me a great deal of independence. Beginning at age twelve, I traveled alone by train to spend each of the next three summers with relatives at Lake Tahoe, California. My parents also allowed me to spend a week alone in New York City so I could attend the 1939 World's Fair at age fifteen.     Although my father did not attend college, he became an efficient business executive through diligent self-education. One of his major goals in life was to see me graduate from college, and on the day of my birth he began saving money for that purpose. He always challenged me intellectually and urged all forms of learning upon me, particularly mathematics and related technical subjects. My parents were loving and set rules for my behavior; for the most part, I followed them. Mine was a very happy childhood.     World War II began for America on 7 December 1941 with the surprise Japanese attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. With the start of the war, everyone at my high school in Wyoming, Ohio, became active in paper and metal drives to support the war effort and prepared packages to be shipped overseas to soldiers and sailors.     After graduating from high school at seventeen, I entered Purdue University to study engineering. There I was required to join the field artillery Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program, which later affected my army career. Soon after arriving at Purdue, I registered for the draft. However, rather than be pulled out of school in the middle of a semester, I accepted an opportunity to join the army with an induction date two weeks after my freshman year ended. Living in five states, traveling alone on many occasions, and completing a year at an engineering university gave me a level of sophistication, self-reliance, and confidence that was rare among eighteen year olds. Nevertheless, I was still just a kid of eighteen.     By May 1943, my parents had moved back to California, where my father managed a war plant that produced armored amphibious vehicles. After the school year ended in April, I traveled by train to Los Angeles to be inducted. I entered the service at Fort MacArthur in San Pedro, California, on 12 May 1943, after spending a week visiting with my parents. After passing the physical examination and other tests, I was assigned to field artillery basic training at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Like everyone else, I was by then only a number; mine was Army Serial Number 15,312,751.     My view of army service was simple: it would be a great adventure. Like most of my teenage peers, I had little fear of dying because I thought I was immortal. We all thought we had the best army in the world because it had never been beaten. We were convinced that our generals and other leaders were the best in the world and that they would protect our lives no matter how difficult the situation in which we might find ourselves. Most of us were convinced that God was on our side, so we had little to worry about. Teens my age were making fewer sacrifices than did older men who had to leave their wives and children to serve their country.     In 1943 the full extent of the Nazi evil, along with the malice and madness of Adolf Hitler, were still not clearly recognized. We knew that the Gestapo killed Germans who were in opposition to the state, but we were unaware of the systematic elimination of huge populations of Jews, Gypsies, ethnic Russians, and others the Nazis had singled out for extermination. Genocide was a seldom-used word, even in technical circles, and it was unknown to the general population at the time.     After a week at Fort MacArthur and a weekend pass we were loaded into Pullman cars for the five-day trip to Fort Bragg. Most of the troops I was with had never ventured away from home before, and homesickness quickly became the prevailing disorder on that train.     My initial field artillery basic training consisted of instruction in close-order drill and physical development, with lots of marching and running and some camping out in the swamps and woods that were the major topographical features at sprawling Fort Bragg. On 24 June, after forty-three days of service, I passed my nineteenth birthday like any other day: marching and drilling. After six weeks of boring instruction I was selected for Morse code training because I had done well on the IQ tests. The Morse code training was too tedious and repetitive to suit my taste. I really hated it.     One Sunday afternoon I went to the post exchange (PX) and had a malted milk drink. The next morning I felt very ill and went on sick call. The doctor who saw me said I was fine and accused me of "goofing off." Never in my army days did I malinger, so I was really offended. He ordered me back to my unit, and soon I was too sick to care what he thought.     About an hour after I got back and after considerable verbal abuse from the cadre, I passed out. I awakened two days later in the post hospital. I later learned that seven soldiers had drunk milk products at the PX at about 1300 that Sunday, and two died. It took four weeks for sulfa drugs and other treatment to get the bacteria out of my system. During much of this time I was well enough to act as a volunteer orderly in the gastrointestinal ward, which had one influx after another of various intestinal illnesses. My stay there convinced me that going back to an army hospital for any reason was something I should avoid at almost any cost.     I was given a two-week convalescent furlough upon my release from the hospital. To make it to my parents' home in California and back in time, I had to fly. The army ran the only airline we could use, and its service was unscheduled to say the least. I was taken to the airport at Fort Bragg, and there I was listed as a no-priority passenger, which meant that almost anyone could "bump" me along the way to Los Angeles. The planes used were C-47s, the military version of the Douglas DC-3 twin-engine transport. They were used as troop carriers and glider tow planes by the airborne divisions. The aircraft proved so reliable that they continued in military and commercial service for many decades. After waiting a few hours I was informed that there was a plane going to Memphis with an available seat, so I took it. I waited for two hours in Memphis before being told I could fly to Oklahoma City. This process continued with stops in Denver and Phoenix, and I finally arrived in Los Angeles two days after leaving Fort Bragg.     I had a wonderful ten-day visit with my parents. My mother included me on one of her USO tours of a Hollywood studio. I recall the three of us going to the Lawry's prime rib restaurant in Beverly Hills, which was owned by a Mr. Frank who was a friend of my father. Mr. Frank welcomed me and treated us very well, although prime rib was off the menu because of meat rationing; they served turkey instead.     On the way back to Fort Bragg I had a priority since there was a specified reporting date in my orders. Nevertheless, the trip still took two days with six stops. Although much more primitive than today, air travel was still the best form of transportation available. We sat in uncomfortable metal seats along the sides of the plane, often with piles of cargo strapped down in the middle of the compartment. No drink or food was served. The difference between flying in those Spartan army transports and today's luxurious jet airliners is so great that it is difficult to believe how much of an advance has taken place. Those pitiful army airline services were a first attempt at moving masses of people and supplies by air and one of the precursors to modern commercial aviation.     I had to start over when I went back to the code school. Before I became ill, my closest friend was William Wallace, who had also completed his freshman year at Purdue. Bill was very bright, but my illness separated us. I never saw him again although I looked for him at Purdue when I returned there after the war ended. I hope Bill survived the war, but I cannot be sure. Bill was the first on my list of friends lost to death, wounds, or the unknown.     The way those huge training camps worked was to organize a cadre of experienced soldiers who served as teachers and administrators. The new soldiers, or trainees as they were known, were assigned to areas of specialization in companies of about two hundred men. A captain who was assisted by two lieutenants commanded each company, and a sergeant commanded each barracks of about forty-eight men. The company commander and his subordinates were in charge of discipline, keeping records, and training. This form of organization made for a two-caste society with the trainees being the lowest of the low. We had no privileges, and with rare exceptions were confined to the post all of the time.     One Saturday morning in early August I was summoned to the orderly room. Thinking this could only mean trouble, I was pleasantly surprised when I saw my father in the company commander's office. I have no idea how he managed to save enough gasoline coupons to allow him to drive from California to North Carolina. Although he said he was on business, I am sure his main purpose was to see me. My father was a good manager and salesman, and somehow he talked the captain into giving me a pass from 1200 Saturday to 1800 Sunday. He had rented two rooms in a Fayetteville tourist home, and it was a great pleasure for me to sleep in a good bed with real sheets (two things in which the army never believed). We visited and had three good meals together. Our parting had a strange finality to it since we both knew I would soon be going overseas. Fortunately, we both lived to see each other again a little over two years later.     Although I became reasonably proficient in hearing, transcribing, and sending dashes and dots, what I really learned was that I wanted to find something--anything!--else to do. After seven weeks of code school which completed my basic training, I was sent to Fort Meade, Maryland, to wait for assignment to the European theater of operations (ETO). Not many things are worse for a soldier than being in the army when it really has nothing for him to do. The discipline was not bad, what made this time intolerable was the dullness of having no useful duties. I did get several weekend passes to visit Washington, but the USO facilities--the only sleeping quarters I could find there--were depressingly similar to the barracks at Fort Meade.     By that time, January 1944, the powerful German army had tasted its first severe defeats. The Russians had driven the Germans farther back from the gates of Moscow and destroyed nearly an entire field army at Stalingrad. The Western Allies had driven the Germans out of North Africa and Sicily and invaded the Italian mainland, driving the German armies north to a point just south of Rome. The Italians had surrendered to the Allies, abandoning their Axis partner, Nazi Germany. Stalin was demanding that the Western Allies support the Russian war effort by invading France and establishing a second front in Europe. We all knew that such an invasion was inevitable in 1944, and we also knew we would be part of it somehow. The only things we did not know were where and when the invasion would occur.     All of us hoped to be assigned to a unit in an organized and well-trained division where we could get to know the men beside whom we would have to fight. However, in January we were assigned to a replacement artillery battery. This ad hoc unit was to be shipped in parts from Fort Dix, New Jersey, to somewhere in the United Kingdom. Individuals then would be assigned to combat units as replacements for casualties after the invasion. The unit consisted of eight hundred men under a captain and two lieutenants. Its leadership was so weak that I was made an acting corporal. The only real benefit to this was that I no longer had to peel potatoes on kitchen police (KP).     In late January we boarded a liberty ship, which was a really poor excuse for transportation. The North Atlantic in the dead of winter is a most unpleasant place in which to take a trip by ship. We were in a large convoy, and on the two of thirteen days when we were not in a storm, it was fun to watch the destroyers and corvettes weaving among the ships at high speed to protect us from submarines. Our convoy was lucky: only a single German torpedo struck one of the forty ships in it. The ship survived and limped into port. Still, the incident was enough to tell all of us we were in a very serious situation. We knew that survival was unlikely if anyone ended up in the freezing ocean. As we proceeded through one raging storm after another, almost everyone I knew became deathly seasick. Maneuvering on the icy deck was especially difficult. Somehow I escaped the seasickness, but three less fortunate men on board died from it. The situation was not helped by the fact that the ship was British. Our hosts served us their usual fare of boiled, dried codfish three times a day as our main source of nourishment. The ship's captain reported our progress toward Europe every day, and the storms were so bad that on one day we actually lost twenty-four miles.     Our ship landed at Liverpool on 10 February 1944 and we boarded a train that took us to Wales. I was one of the first hundred men to go to a new camp to set it up. Here began what seemed at the time one of the worst six weeks of my existence. After being dropped off at Cardiff, we were trucked west to nearby Barry on the coast. A few miles inland from Barry was a low, swampy meadow in a vale just below a beautiful manor house. Someone said it was a golf course, which it may well have been in a peacetime summer, but that February it was a cold swamp. We were given a hundred eight-man tents and ordered to build a camp there.     No one knew how to put up the tents, but we all learned quickly enough. If we had not, we might have died from exposure. We had no transits or other surveying instruments but I had taken a surveying course at Purdue, so I made a primitive transit from wood scraps and a few nails. Using that, a compass, some string, and a hundred-yard tape, the three officers and I laid out a tent city for eight hundred soldiers. Our methods were similar to those used by the Roman army two thousand years earlier. Water squished under our feet when we walked, and any hole we dug would instantly fill with water. The temperature was constantly between thirty-two and forty degrees Fahrenheit, and the relative humidity was 100 percent. Sanitary facilities were miserable, and conditions were ripe for many unpleasant diseases. We had no doctor or medical facilities of our own, although there were hospitals available for us in Cardiff.     What made our situation worse was the isolation. We seemed to have been forgotten by the U.S. Army, and the British authorities probably did not even know we were there. We managed to get food from somewhere, and we all became sick. Dysentery was the most unpopular and frequent disorder. We were never quite sick enough to die or go to the hospital, instead we just stayed in our bunks until the illness passed, trotting to the latrine whenever necessary. I had dysentery several times. At night, with no flashlights or other lighting but with extreme urgency, dysentery makes for a terrible mess in the morning. When we weren't sick we stood guard in cold, tin sentry shacks. In most cases, this meant we did not even have an opportunity to march a route and get some exercise. What we were guarding or why anyone would want it was a puzzle we never figured out.     In mid-March some officers from the 456th Parachute Field Artillery Battalion (PFAB) visited our artillery replacement camp looking for volunteers. They had just arrived in England from the Anzio beachhead in Italy, where the battalion had suffered heavy casualties. They explained that the 82d Airborne Division, of which they were a part, would spearhead the invasion of France and would no doubt see heavy fighting. If we volunteered, we had to agree to complete a parachute jump school that the division planned to organize. If they were given time, the parachute training would come before the invasion; if not, it would come afterward. They emphasized the fact that the 82d was an assault division and that its mission would be to help establish a beachhead. Once this was accomplished, it would return to England to prepare for another assault. They said everyone would be granted furloughs after the division's return from France.     After being an abused orphan in Wales for six long weeks, it took me about ten seconds to decide to join the 456th. It is a decision I have never regretted. Although the offer sounded dangerous, the alternative idea of joining an unknown outfit as a casualty replacement (cannon fodder) did not appeal to me as being very safe either. Having the opportunity to train with the men I was going to fight beside appealed to me. Being in an elite outfit meant that someone might care for me, and I might care for it.     Those of us who volunteered were trucked to Market Harborough, a pleasant little English midland town southeast of Leicester. Even in war, the English countryside is beautiful in the spring, with an abundance of bright flowers and flowering trees. The 456th was billeted in a country manor just north of town. It was truly beautiful, although anything would have been wonderful to me after our situation in Wales. My quarters were in the mews (stables), and with their brick floors, solid walls, and nearby sanitary facilities and baths, it was like heaven on earth.     Somehow the paratroopers never learned I knew Morse code--or maybe they simply weren't interested in this skill. Anyway, I never volunteered the information. Basic intelligence was in relatively short supply and thus a valuable commodity. Being an ex-college boy, they saw some in me. They were also impressed with my surveying training, ability to read maps well, and interest in making some kind of a positive contribution. I was assigned as an acting reconnaissance corporal, and promised I would gain that rank permanently if I demonstrated an ability to carry out my assigned duties. Those were twofold: become a qualified member of an artillery observation team that would help to direct fire against the enemy, and help scout out the various positions that elements of the battalion would occupy and place them accurately on a map.     Two general attributes were considered essential for a paratrooper to function efficiently and stay alive: an excellent state of physical fitness and the development of heightened mental alertness. The former was easy to accomplish because we ran in formation for two hours and did two more hours of calisthenics each day. The second point meant anticipating everything and being surprised by nothing, a skill that was much more difficult to learn. Many kinds of combat exercises and training--in large or small groups, by night or day, under live fire, when fresh or tired--helped to increase our alertness. Being aware of everything around us and remaining constantly alert to possible threats from all directions was emphasized to us trainees. We were placed in many scary simulated combat situations, and soon the tendency to be paralyzed by fear and indecision began to disappear. It was replaced by the confidence we needed to react properly to most surprises. One of the things they tried to instill in us was to reach a calm and measured decision of what to do quickly, no matter how threatening the situation we faced. The degree to which the officers and noncoms were able to accomplish this directly affected our ability to survive later.     Everyone knew we were training for the invasion of France. The battalion, however, had a fundamental problem concerning its equipment. The 456th was equipped with twelve light 75mm pack howitzers. Originally designed to be carried by mules over difficult terrain, the weapons had been adapted for delivery by parachute. Each artillery piece, with its ammunition and other equipment, was dropped in about twenty bundles. The weapon was then assembled on the ground. After being dropped and assembled, several leather straps were attached to the howitzer, and a crew of about twelve troopers pulled it from place to place. We spent many hours pulling our howitzers at the double time in training.     We quickly discovered that if any of a howitzer's important parts--the barrel or the right wheel, for instance--was not recovered after the drop, the weapon was useless. Since the drop into France would most likely be at night, the question was whether enough complete guns and men could be assembled to form an effective artillery unit. Furthermore, at that time most of the men in Battery A had not yet undergone basic parachute training. These factors led to the decision to bring us ashore by sea on the third day of the invasion.     Although we were not qualified as paratroopers, we were still issued jump boots. My shoe size is 12 1/2 AA--a size that is difficult to find most anywhere. I made a serious mistake when I disposed of a properly sized pair of army boots. The closest sized jump boots they were able to come up with for me was 11D. They were short and uncomfortable but there was nothing I could do about it. I wound up training and going into Normandy with sore feet. My problems with jump boots plagued me throughout my service.     By mid-May we were as ready to invade France as we would ever be, and my corporal rank was made permanent. Most of the division was trucked to airfields in southern England from which they would take off for France, while we were moved to a restricted camp, Saint Mary's Hill Camp No. 3, in Wales. Security was tight--a double row of barbed-wire fences surrounded the invasion force camps with a four-yard space between them. We stood guard inside the fence and military police (MPs) stood guard outside. The compound thus was more like a prison than an army camp. When we arrived on 25 May, no one had any idea how soon we would be going or where the invasion would occur. Most of us remained in this prison arrangement for ten days, with no facilities for running or other physical exercise beyond calisthenics. At no time were we given any details of the invasion plan or the part we would play in it. To say there was tension would be an understatement.     On 29 May, Battery A's vehicles, howitzers, and ammunition were loaded on ship number 212, the Excelsior , at Rothgate Docks in Cardiff. I was among the troopers who went along to load the guns and vehicles; the rest of the battery boarded on 3 June. Already on board was a regiment from another infantry division. These men had not yet been told what their destination was. The Excelsior sailed for France at 1715 on Monday, 5 June. Copyright © 2000 John D. McKenzie. All rights reserved.

Table of Contents

Prefacep. vii
1 From College Sophomore to Airborne Trooperp. 1
2 Chaos at Normandyp. 13
3 The Fight Continuesp. 26
4 Back to Englandp. 37
5 Reflections on Elite Unitsp. 49
6 Into Holland by Gliderp. 54
7 The 82d Airborne Fights as Infantryp. 68
8 On to France for Rest and Refittingp. 84
9 Into the Bulgep. 92
10 Captured by the SSp. 104
11 Reflections on Fightingp. 114
12 The Allies Resume the Offensivep. 122
13 Frozen Bodies Stacked Like Cordwoodp. 127
14 The 82d Airborne Breaches the Siegfried Linep. 136
15 The Huertgen Forestp. 145
16 Back to Francep. 152
17 On to the Rhinep. 162
18 Under Monty Againp. 167
19 A Nice Furlough in Nicep. 175
20 Berlin Occupation Dutyp. 184
21 We Kill Three Russiansp. 192
22 Biarritz American Universityp. 201
23 Back to Berlinp. 212
24 Going Homep. 217
25 Home at Lastp. 228
Epiloguep. 231
Bibliographyp. 240