Veterans Day: War duty includes guns and parachutes
Dick Bernhard recalls WWII service followed by stellar career as an engineer
After parachuting into France on D-Day and into Holland, fighting in the Battle of the Bulge and being captured by Nazis, one would think the rest of Dick Bernhard's life would be anti-climactic.
On the contrary. After World War II, Dick went on to enjoy a prestigious and award-filled career, becoming a registered professional engineer and working for Babcock & Wilcox for 42 years.
The Summerfield resident has written his autobiography and started by stating in the preface, "(This) was very difficult to write because when writing an autobiography, all that one does is say, 'I,' 'I,' 'I.' I don't like that!"
The story starts in Arlington, Va., where Dick's family was living when he was born Jan. 10, 1926, in Washington, D.C. When he was about 3, the family moved to Riderwood, Md.
"My mother and father were divorced when I was about 5 years old," wrote Dick, who had two siblings, a brother, Bob, and a sister, Bernice.
His mother remarried and had another child, Dick's half-sister Dottie. Dick became an Eagle Scout and was inducted into the Order of the Arrow, which is a Boy Scout honorary society.
His first car was a 1928 Durant that he purchased for $10 (when gasoline cost $1 for six gallons). Dick graduated from Catonsville High School in 1942, with honors, at the ripe old age of 16. He wanted to go to the Naval Academy but could not obtain sponsorship.
"I immediately enrolled at the University of Maryland in aeronautical engineering," Dick wrote. "I was going to revolutionize the aircraft industry on the design of aircraft."
But Dick's mother decided to move the family to Philadelphia, so he quit college and went to work at a feed-and-seed mill. He later got a much-better job at Petrol Corporation as a go-fer.
"Finally, at the tender age of 17, I enrolled at Penn State College (now Pennsylvania State University)," Dick wrote.
Dick stayed for two semesters, noting, "The war was coming on fast, and many of the men in college had already been drafted Joe Paterno was at that time an assistant coach and was not that notorious!"
Knowing he would be drafted, Dick volunteered for the U.S. Army paratroops early in 1944. "I wanted to do something different," he said. "There is a lot of extra training involved."
Dick wrote in his memoir, "This began a very tumultuous period for me... I am very lucky that I am alive today! Very, very lucky! War is hell! All it does is kill people!"
Dick completed Army basic training at Fort McClellan, Ala., and went on to parachute jump school training at Fort Benning, Ga., followed by a brief training period in demolition work.
He completed five jumps at Fort Benning and was then shipped overseas in a military transport to Nottingham, England, where he joined C Company of the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division.
"Gen. 'Slim Jim' Gavin was the division commander and my idol," Dick wrote. " My first sergeant of C Company was 1st Sgt. Leonard C. Funk, who saved my life in Arnheim, Belgium.
"Our unit jumped on D-Day, June 6, 1944, into St. Mergelise, France. It was terrible, total mass confusion, and I am very lucky to have made it through D-Day."
Dick explained that the confusion led to his unit not being dropped in the right place, and they spent about two weeks moving through unfamiliar terrain and hiding from the Nazis until they rejoined their company.
The Normandy invasion was code-named "Operation Warlord," and afterwards, the 82nd Airborne Division established a base camp just outside Rheims, France. "It was here that we prepared for our invasion of Holland," Dick wrote. "I made my second combat jump in Holland. Our target was the Niemegen Bridge.
"When I jumped, my main chute failed. It was a new parachute, made of camouflage nylon. (We were just switching over to camouflage nylon from white silk parachutes.) I pulled my cord on my reserve chute, and it opened to save me.
"However, my reserve chute was of the white silk type, and I was a sitting duck. No, a flying duck for machine-gun fire from the ground. Miraculously, I made it through the Holland campaign, and we went back to our base camp at Sissone, France, to prepare for the Battle of the Bulge."
Battle of the Bulge
Dick's company was trucked into the Bulge in the middle of winter in 1945.
(Editor's note: The Battle of the Bulge, which lasted from Dec. 16, 1944, to Jan. 25, 1945, resulted from a major German offensive launched along the war's western front in the mountainous regions of Belgium, France and Luxembourg. Germany was soundly defeated, leaving its army short of men and equipment. The Allies committed about 610,000 men and suffered about 89,000 casualties, including 19,000 killed, making the battle the largest and bloodiest of WWII.)
"It was terrible, mass confusion," Dick wrote. "We did not know where we were, or where the Germans were, most of the time. I acquired a bad case of the flu and pneumonia, and was very, very sick. Most of the men were either sick, or tired, or wounded, and it was hell! I received a shrapnel wound in the top of my left eye just at the end of the Battle of the Bulge, for which I received the Purple Heart."
The wound was not serious enough to send Dick to the hospital, but he was transferred to the company headquarters to recuperate.
"When the Battle of the Bulge was over, we again went back to Sissone, France, to reorganize and lick our wounds," Dick wrote. "The casualties were horrendous! This was a real break for me because Lt. Col. Louis B. Mendez and Lt. Robert L. Sickler both championed me, and I received a battlefield commission to a second lieutenant (only because everyone else had been killed) "
On Jan. 29, 1945, Dick was on patrol in Holzheim, Belgium, with 1st Sgt. Leonard Funk in charge. The weather was terrible, with heavy snow falling and visibility practically zero.
The U.S. War Department's official record in awarding 1st Sgt. Funk the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions that day includes the following:
"After advancing 15 miles in a driving snowstorm, the American force prepared to attack through waist-deep drifts. The company executive officer became a casualty, and Sgt. Funk immediately assumed his duties, forming headquarters soldiers into a combat unit for an assault in the face of direct artillery shelling and harassing fire from the right flank.
"Under his skillful and courageous leadership, this miscellaneous group and the 3rd Platoon attacked 15 houses, cleared them and took 30 prisoners without suffering a casualty. The fierce drive of Company C quickly overran Holzheim, netting some 80 prisoners who were placed under a four-man guard, all that could be spared, while the rest of the under-strength unit went about mopping up isolated points of resistance."
Dick was one of the four men guarding the prisoners when "an enemy patrol, by means of a ruse, succeeded in capturing the guards and freeing the prisoners, who had begun preparations to attack Company C from the rear when Sgt. Funk walked around the building and into their midst," the record continues.
"He was ordered to surrender by a German officer who pushed a machine pistol into his stomach. Although overwhelmingly outnumbered and facing almost certain death, Sgt. Funk, pretending to comply with the order, began slowly to un-sling his submachine gun from his shoulder, then with lightening motion brought the muzzle into line and riddled the German officer. He turned upon the other Germans, firing and shouting to the Americans to seize the enemy's weapons.
"In the ensuing fight, 21 Germans were killed, many wounded, and the remainder recaptured. Sgt. Funk's bold action and heroic disregard for his own safety were directly responsible for the recapture of a vastly superior enemy force, which, if allowed to remain free, could have taken the widespread units of Company C by surprise and endangered the entire attack plan."
Dick wrote of the incident, "It was terrible! I had been saved by my first sergeant, and I would not be here today if it were not for that action on Jan. 29, 1945! This event was probably the most momentous in my whole life."
Disaster in the air
Following the Battle of the Bulge, C Company was transferred back to its base camp at Sissone, where Dick worked at the headquarters set up in an old schoolhouse.
"We made trips into Rheims, France, and tried to drink up all of the champagne there," Dick wrote. "(After all, Rheims was the champagne capital of the world.) During this stay at Sissone, we made a series of low-altitude jumps (250 to 300 feet) in battalion strength for a campaign to 'spot-drop' onto German concentration camps (Buchenwald and Ausenwitz) and liberate the prisoners there. The first day of these practice jumps was disastrous!
"On the first jump, the pilots of the 8th Air Force planes were confused, and the C-47s they were flying in the lead slowed down too much. The C-47s toward the back of the formation suddenly had to slow way down. They lost air speed, almost went into stalls, lost altitude fast, and as a result, the paratroopers that had jumped out of the lead airplanes ended up in the propellers of the airplanes to the rear of the formation.
"We lost 21 paratroopers that day. I was standing on the ground watching the whole event. I was scheduled to jump the next day, and I almost refused to jump. Fortunately, the Air Force re-briefed the pilots, and the two succeeding jumps went OK."
End of the war
C Company was trucked to Chartres Air Field outside Paris for two weeks, and three times paratroopers were loaded onto C-47s that taxied to the end of the runway, ready to take off for concentration camps.
"We were one-half guns and ammunition, and one-half K-rations and other food stuffs for liberating the prisoners," Dick wrote. "It most certainly would have been a suicide mission. Fortunately, once again I was saved. The Russians moved in ahead of the Americans, and the jump was never made. Thank God!
"Later, I saw Buchenwald (concentration camp). It was appalling! There is no way to describe it. How could Hitler have forced such inhumanity on so many without all the Allies knowing it and without doing something earlier?"
C Company was in Sissone on May, 9, 1945, when the Allies formally accepted the unconditional surrender of the Nazi forces, marking the end of Hitler's Third Reich. On April 30, Hitler had committed suicide during the Battle of Berlin, so Germany's surrender was authorized by his successor.
"V-E Day!" Dick wrote. "However, the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment had done such a gallant job all through Europe that Gen. Eisenhower selected us to be his honor guard when he transferred SHAEF to Frankfurt, Germany."
(The Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force was the headquarters of the commander of Allied forces in northwest Europe from late 1943 until the end of WWII.)
"We were trucked there," Dick wrote. "The MPs literally kicked German families out of their beautiful, elite apartments and condos, and we moved in full force with everything furnished in elegant style. I had my own personal apartment room together with another officer, and our apartment had our own personal maid (who) kept our uniforms spit and polished.
"What a change from the dirt and filth of the Bulge to the elegant accommodations in Frankfurt. Even though I had racked up considerable points - 98, I believe - which qualified me to go home and be discharged, I had to spend an additional year after the war was over in Frankfurt. We had to continue making jumps every three months to stay qualified, and I almost refused my last two jumps. I made 13 jumps total."
While Dick admits that there were a lot of good times in Frankfurt, he became more bitter about the war and not being able to go home.
"It seems that when I was battlefield-commissioned, there was a clause that neither I nor my superiors at first knew existed," Dick wrote. "It required me to stay in the Army for an additional three-year period. When I found this out, I said, 'No way!'
"In retrospect, I was a mental case. I was scared to make any more jumps. I was edgy and irritable. All I wanted to do was go home, be discharged and go back to Penn State to finish my education."
Col. Mendez and Lt. Sickler came to his assistance, pulling some strings and getting the Army to offer Dick the opportunity to become an enlisted man with the highest rankings of master sergeant and regimental sergeant major of the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment.
"With this offering, there would be no three-year enlistment requirement, and I could immediately go home," Dick wrote. "I immediately accepted, and within a few weeks, I was on a ship headed for the United States I slept the entire voyage. I was honorably discharged from the Army at Fort Dix, N.J., on June 6, 1946 An uncanny career in the Army paratroopers and extremely lucky to be alive!"
In addition to the Purple Heart, Dick was awarded the Bronze Star and nine other medals and citations.
Life as a civilian
Back home, Dick made use of the GI Bill, getting a new mortgage for his mother's house and enrolling at Penn State. His counselor advised Dick that he wouldn't get a job with a degree in aeronautical engineering, so Dick switched to mechanical engineering with an industrial engineering minor and graduated cum laude.
Dick then enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School for a short time while job-hunting, which led to a job with Babcock & Wilcox, a worldwide designer and manufacturer of large steam boilers, nuclear reactors and large power plant equipment.
Dick worked and lived in many different places, including Europe, Japan and Taiwan, plus several states.
Dick traveled so much that he was one of United Airlines' first passengers to fly one million miles.
In 1973 Babcock & Wilcox sent Dick to management school at Carnegie Melon University in Pittsburg, Penn.; he completed its program for executives and was valedictorian of his graduating class.
Dick notes that he is an "an all-Pennsylvania school person."
One of Dick's proudest achievements, besides being a registered and licensed professional engineer in the states of Ohio, Michigan and Oregon, was being selected by Babcock & Wilcox to be one of its representatives at the 1970 "Atoms for Peace" conference in Geneva. He also received numerous awards, including the George Makely Award given for quality, integrity, professionalism and unexcelled service to customers.
While living in Cleveland, Dick and a friend, Rusty, who was an anesthesiologist, decided to share a real nurse's uniform on Halloween weekend, with Dick wearing it to a party Saturday night.
"We went out and bought a false face and a red wig, but everything else was genuine, straight from the hospital," Dick wrote.
At the party, no one recognized him, and he sashayed around the dance floor, causing quite a stir when he pulled up the skirt above the silk stockings to expose his hairy legs.
"About halfway through the party, I glanced up and saw this beautiful person coming down the steps with a great big frown on her face," Dick wrote. "I said, 'Aha, aha!' I grabbed her, danced with her and went through my routine of pulling up my skirt, etc. She totally despised it and me. No one knew who this crazy, wild person was. Did he crash the party?
"(To this day, I do not know why some of my close friends did not recognize me.) I excused myself and said I was going to change and would be back shortly. She was glad to get rid of me. Having taken my costume off, I returned wearing slacks and a cashmere sweater, looking totally different. That person was Maryon."
Dick introduced himself to her, and although he confessed that he was the wild nurse, she didn't believe him. They went out after the party for some coffee with a group, and Dick said he would call her after a business trip.
He called; they started dating and were married July 24, 1954.
After many moves and changes in Dick's career responsibilities, the company offered him a job as regional manager for fossil and nuclear power in Portland, Ore. Dick accepted, and the couple built a house in Lake Oswego, moving in June 24, 1975, with daughter Meredith and son Scott.
The couple celebrated their golden anniversary in 2004, and Maryon died in 2006.
Dick, who has three grandchildren, moved from Lake Oswego to Summerfield in July of 2007 and later met and became engaged to his neighbor down the street, Alice Furey. Together they have had a lot of fun traveling, golfing and partying, and they are members of Calvin Presbyterian Church.
Always a lover of cars since that first 1928 Durant, Dick has kept a meticulous record of his 27 cars. "I've always had a fun car on the side," he said.