Since the epic Band of Brothers miniseries debuted in 2001, there has been a seemingly never-ending supply of published unit histories and personal reminiscences of troopers who served with the 101st Airborne Division. One might ask if the late Donald Rich’s memoirs, while noteworthy, warranted publication in book form. The answer is a resounding yes.
Rich’s memoirs, coauthored with Kevin Brooks, detail the activities of a common soldier who served in an uncommon unit: the glider infantry. While there are a number of excellent books written by men who served in the parachute infantry, only a fraction document the experiences of those who rode gliders into combat. Rich’s candid, and sometimes gut-wrenching, description of flight in gliders, whether it be for training or actual combat, is graphic and, at times, challenging to read.
A midwesterner, Don Rich was born in the eastern Iowa farming town of Wayland in Henry County. A selfproclaimed farm kid, the nineteenyear-old Rich originally intended to enlist in the U.S. Army but was instead drafted by Uncle Sam in February 1943. Rich was inducted at Camp Dodge near Des Moines. Following basic training at Camp Roberts, California, Rich and the other troops were transferred to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, for their 49 unit assignments. Rich was assigned as a bazooka gunner with Company G, 2d Battalion, 327th Glider Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, then undergoing training and organization at the post.
Following weeks of intensive conditioning and preparation and a brief leave to visit his family in Wayland, Rich and the members of the 101st Airborne Division sailed from New York for England. Once there, the 327th was stationed at Camp Ranikhet near Reading for its D-Day preparations. The strength of Rich’s preinvasion recollections are his descriptions of camp life, his familial relationship with the Hollingsworth family in nearby Reading, and the constant training.
As the 101st Airborne Division’s parachute elements began landing in France on 6 June 1944, Rich found himself and his fellow troopers not silently gliding into France on a dark night, but tossed around in a landing craft crossing the English Channel with the rest of the invasion fleet. With some minor exceptions, the 327th waded onto Utah Beach with relative ease late on the afternoon of 6 June. On 11 June, during the ensuing battle for Carentan, Rich was wounded in the left leg and evacuated to England.
Following six weeks in the hospital, Rich rejoined Company G as it prepared for Operation Market Garden. On 18 September, one day after the initial invasion into the Netherlands, Rich and the rest of the 327th arrived by glider. Rich’s narrative centers on the battles to clear the Zonsche Forest and secure the city of Veghel, a key objective that straddles the north-south road soon to be christened Hell’s Highway.
After Market Garden’s ultimate failure, Rich and the 327th participated in the fighting on the strip of land between Nijmegen and Arnhem known as the Island. The hard-fought battles on the Island, particularly for the village of Opheusden, only recently have begun to receive some well-deserved attention by military historians. In late November 1944, after seventy-two days of combat in the Netherlands, the 327th was ordered back to France to rest and reorganize. The respite was short-lived, however, as German forces attacked in the Ardennes less than three weeks later.
Rich and his fellow soldiers were positioned southeast of Bastogne near the tiny hamlet of Marvie, Belgium. Here the 327th, among other units, repelled repeated attacks by German armored forces attempting to encircle and destroy American forces guarding Bastogne. Rich’s narrative of the Ardennes Campaign provides a vivid depiction of what would become the 101st Airborne Division’s most celebrated battle. His descriptions of the ferocious combat, German tank attacks, the confusion in battle, the appalling weather, and bitterly cold temperatures that caused many cases of frostbite are noteworthy.
Following the Battle of the Bulge, Rich and the 327th participated in the bitter fighting in January 1945 to reduce the bulge. Afterward, the men were ordered to Alsace in northeastern France where they were positioned along the Moder River near the city of Haguenau. They were then assigned to occupy and guard Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest in southern Bavaria. By late summer and early fall of 1945, however, thoughts of home were on the minds of every soldier, including Rich. After accumulating the required point totals for discharge, he sailed for the United States. In November 1945, Rich arrived home in Wayland.
Perhaps, the most unique and welcome feature found in Rich’s recollections is his frank admission and discussion in the book’s prologue and afterword of his decades-long struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Rich’s description of the recurring bouts of depression and bitterness over battle-related events will resonate with today’s men and women who served in Afghanistan and Iraq. Fortunately, Rich admits that writing and publishing his memoirs was cathartic in easing his illness.
The book’s other author, Kevin Brooks, the son of one of Rich’s best friends and Second World War comrade, has done an admirable job in coauthoring the volume. In addition to Glider Infantryman, Brooks established a Facebook page dedicated to Rich and the troopers who served in Company G of the 327th.
Glider Infantryman is Number 136 in the Williams-Ford Texas A&M University Military History Series. A university press–produced volume is held to a more rigorous standard of scholarship than other similar memoirs. Glider Infantryman is no exception. Unlike many contemporary reminiscences, Rich and Brooks relied heavily on primary sources, such as operational and unit records held by the National Archives, to provide an overall context and flesh out Rich’s personal perspective. This additional research makes the book not only autobiographical, but part unit history as well.
Rich’s and Brooks’ Glider Infantryman is divided into thirteen chapters arranged in chronological order. The narrative is illustrated with a number of photographs from Rich’s personal collection, as well as images from other Company G veterans and their families. The volume contains seventeen welldrawn maps and eight cartoons that harken the reader back to Bill Mauldin’s beloved “Willie and Joe” characters. Notes, a bibliography, and a useful index are included.
Rich’s and Brooks’ candid account of an American in combat should find a home on the bookshelf of any student, scholar, or devotee of the U.S. Army, U.S. airborne operations, and the European theater during the Second World War.
Glenn V. Longacre is an Army veteran and certified archivist with the National Archives and Records Administration–Great Lakes Region, Chicago. He has a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s degree in public history from West Virginia University. He is coeditor of To Battle for God and the Right: The Civil War Letterbooks of Emerson Opdycke (University of Illinois Press, 2003). Currently, he is editing the recollections of George H. Holliday, 6th West Virginia Veteran Volunteer Cavalry, who served on the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains during the Indian Wars.
About Book and Authors
A member of the famed Screaming Eagles of the 101st Airborne Division, Donald J. Rich went ashore on D-Day at Utah Beach, was wounded in the bloody conflict at Carentan, landed in a flimsy plywood-and-canvas glider on the battlefields of Holland, and survived the grim siege with the "Battling Bastards of Bastogne" during the Battle of the Bulge. Glider Infantryman is his eyewitness account of how he, along with thousands of other young men from farms, small towns, and cities across the United States, came together to answer the call of their nation. It is also a heartfelt tribute to the many thousands who gave their lives in this struggle.
Coauthored by Kevin Brooks, the son of Rich's best friend and World War II comrade, Glider Infantryman covers a span of nearly three years; his return home, five months after the war's end, as a toughened bazooka gunner and veteran of five campaigns. Rich's first-person narrative includes vivid coverage of the action, featuring an especially rare account of arriving on a combat landing zone by glider. Detailed, day-to-day depiction of some of the heaviest fighting in Holland follows, including the action at Opheusden, the center of the infamous "Island." Later highlights include the Battle of the Bulge, where Rich recounts his experiences in some of the hottest defensive fighting of the European Theater, including the epic tank battles at Marvie, Champs, and Foy.
DONALD J. RICH served in 1943 and 1944 with 1st Squad, 2nd Platoon, G Company, 327th Glider Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. He lives in Wayland, Iowa. KEVIN BROOKS, a former resident of Wayland, is a freelance writer based in Mahomet, Illinois.