Crossing the Waal River
As I Remember It

By Francis X. Keefe
82nd Airborne 504 PIR Co I

I vividly remember the hazy, warm, sunny September day in 1944 when we crossed the Waal River to capture the Nijmegen bridge. We were a few hundred yards approaching the dike road on the south side of the river. In the distance, we could see General Gavin with two or three other soldiers speaking to the line of troopers in front of us. As he was making his way back, he must have been saying the same thing to us as he passed by. "Not to worry. We have plenty of artillery and tank fire power to support us."

When we got to the embankment, we just sat behind the road which high enough to give us natural cover. The other side of the road went down to the river's edge.There was very little conversation; everyone just looked at one another. It was the same as when we were told about the river crossing in the wooded area the day before. I was confident about myself, as I had been through attacks before but I was concerned about the others. It was quiet throughout the company as we waited for the boats to arrive. Everyone wondered what they would look like. I knew we would have "C" Company engineers with us. They were like part of the regiment. I had a buddy in the company who I tented with in Oujda in North Africa. (always brushing his teeth).

I didn't realize that the tank fire support would come right down the road where we were. The road was wide and there were quite a few tanks. They turned and faced the north, then backed up as far as they could to leave room for the trucks to come down with the boats. First Lt. Busby started telling different squad leaders who was to go into which boats. I spoke up to Lt. Busby saying that I wanted to go into the same boat as Muri since we were always together in this kind of situation. We got into a heated argument. I would go into the boat I was assigned. Right after that the trucks arrived with the boats. The engineers pulled the boats from the trucks and then we grabbed hold of the boats and took them down to the water's edge where two engineers assigned to the boat showed us how to assemble it. After our boat was assembled and put into the water, we started to climb in. The boat collapsed. Some of us were knee deep in water. It took no time for us to get back into the boat and take off. I was in the left front part of the boat so I had a good view of what was in front of me. There were four boats that had a good start and were out in the river. Meanwhile, our tanks and artillery opened smoke shell fire onto the opposite bank. We were rowing hard to get out into the river, a wide area. I watched the boats in front of me and the smoke shells being blown away by the wind as soon as they hit the north shore.

We must have caught the Germans by surprise because they didn't fire at the boats in front of us until they were in the middle of the river. Then I saw one boat go into a spin. That's when 20MM or 40MM guns opened up from the north side of the bridge. It was like a continuous streak of lightning which we knew from Italy. One of the other boats in front of us got hit and went into a spin. It was like a race; we rowed hard trying to catch up with the other boats and get across as soon as possible. I never looked back at any time to see what was happening but, despite all the noise, I could still hear the chants of the troopers in the back boats on the right hand side of us saying, "Heave. Ho." One of the boats in the left front of us slowed down. The guns fired. We rode right underneath the lightning which I figured I could have touched with my hand if I stood up. That's how continuous it was. If the elevation of the gun had been any lower, it would have cut us right in half.

For some reason we had good coordination with our rowing. We were catching up to the other boat. When we were about 40 yards from the shore, I could see a steady stream of machine gun bullets popping out of the water and coming at us. It was only a matter of seconds when they were about 20 feet in front of the boat on my side. I stopped rowing because there just was no place to go. Then the firing stopped. (What I think happened is that the German's machine gun belt ran out and by the time they put in another, we were almost on the shore.)

Now we were right next to the other boat which landed a few seconds before we did. That was the first boat to get to the other side. Muri was in that boat but there were no smiles. The other troopers around me looked completely exhausted and fatigued with strange expressions on their faces. Perhaps I looked the same way. We had approximately three feet of cover where we landed. I immediately climbed up to observe what was in front of us. All I could see was the dike road a distance in front of us and a wooded area to the left of the dike road. The road seemed to curve down toward the bridge. The ground between the river and the dike road was on a slope.

The firing and lightning continued all around me. I turned around and saw that some of the troopers were lying down - exhausted or perhaps wounded. I said to them, "If we stay here, we'll all die. Let's move out!" I made a move and a kid from Brooklyn (I didn't know his name as he had just come into the outfit two weeks prior) moved with me. There was a hesitation behind me so I turned around and yelled, "Move out or you'll die!" I took off and everyone, including myself, let out this unmerciful cry. I know my personality had changed. God help anyone in front of us; they would pay. After about forty yards, we ran into a six foot high trench that I didn't see from the beach. It ran parallel with the beach and the river. I looked sideways and saw that Lt. Blankenship was in the trench with us.

The trench curved so we couldn't see past twenty-five yards. I told Blankenship that I was going to check out around the curve but it curved more. I told him that I hadn't seen anyone. "Let's take a rest", I said but he said, "No, let's keep going". We stepped on our rifles to get out of the ditch. It looked like everyone had their second wind by this time. Sgt. Porter and a few others were already at the slope of the dike road which was pretty steep. When I got there, I figured the best thing to do was to go over to the other side, make a flanking attack towards the bridge and clean out anything on that side of the dike. I had seen this done successfully at Mussolini's canal at Anzio. I took a gammon grenade which is an anti-tank grenade. It's made of a putty substance which I believe is composition "C". (The night before we left England, I put some British slugs in the putty to make it an anti-personnel grenade.) I threw one of these on the other side of the road. It sounded like a bomb going off! Two of the other troopers did the same thing. Immediately we went over the other side of the road.

There was a house about fifty yards from the dike road and to the right front of us. I hadn't seen it because of the embankment on the other side. A machine gun fired out of the upper window of the house as our troopers came up from the river. I saw six Germans come along a hedge and run inside the back door. Sgt. Porter then let out a yell; he got shot in the leg. A couple seconds later, the man next to Porter was also hit in the leg. Both were only four feet away from me. Lt. Blankenship, Muri, the kid from Brooklyn and someone else was to the right front of them. I was about a few feet in front of Porter when a German seemed to rise right out of the ground about seven feet in front of me. I was stunned that he was so close. Porter must have seen him because he killed him with a burst from his Thompson sub. It was then that I put a rifle grenade in front of my rifle and put in the blank cartridge. Blankenship moved closer to Porter and the other trooper to see if he could assist them. This put him pretty close to me on the right hand side. I got hit in the left wrist just as I had my rifle in position to fire at the window. My rifle dropped right down next to Blankenship; he was lucky that the grenade didn't go off. I said to him, "Lt., they shot off my hand." A bullet hit the bracelet I was wearing and did a lot of damage. It was one of the few that Emmett had made when we were at the airport in Naples. Some of us wore them; they were of a light substance.

The kid from Brooklyn came over to help me. I told him that there was a first-aid kit in my back pocket. He went into the wrong pocket and pulled out my wallet. "What will I do with this?" he said. I told him to throw the wallet away and get the first-aid packet. He did. I held my hand and arm across my stomach as my hand hung off if I moved my left arm. Just then I got hit in the upper right arm. Then something hit me in the mouth and broke off my front tooth. Muri came over and helped the kid bandage my hand and arm. As Muri gave me a shot of morphine, somebody asked, "What do we do now?" "Keep firing at the building", I said. Blankenship, who knew we were in a bad position, went over to the other side of the road. Meanwhile, the kid from Brooklyn who never seemed bothered by anything, asked me for my 45 and I told him to take it. I couldn't have cared less. I remember that Red Allen grabbed me around the waist and practically carried me over. When I looked down the road, it appeared that G & H companies were firing at the building a lot. My flanking attack didn't go too well.

Capt. Burriss, Sgt. Odum and about 12 troopers from I company were there. Odum took out his canteen and gave me a drink of water. It was as if the war had stopped. Everyone was staring at me as I sat there. Someone said, "Give him a shot of morphine." Muri said, "I gave him one on the other side." "Give him another, it won't hurt him". Someone wanted to look at my wound but I wouldn't let him. Capt. Burriss then told Sgt. Barker to take two men, go down, cross the river and bring back more ammunition. He detailed two other men to help Porter and the other troopers down to the river. I sat there staring at the other troopers, especially Muri. I was concerned about him as we were together two months in Anzio. Neither one of us got a scratch physically. They use to say he was too small and I was too skinny. I guess tears came to my eyes when I realized that I couldn't be of anymore help and would never be back. It was then that Capt. Burriss said, "I'll give you somebody to help you get back." I said, "No, you need everyone you have here. I'll get back by myself." Then he said, "Get yourself taken care of and we'll see you when you get back." I said, "You won't see me again." He replied, "Well, I will never forget you." That was nice of him to say. To the rest of the troopers he said, "Let's go!" and they took off along the side of the dike road toward the bridge. I watched them go and then started down towards the river.

I could see in the distance on the right by the water's edge, a congregation of men coming up from the river. Six bodies were strung out about half of the way there. As I got closer, I could see Doughity, the medic, attending to one of the men who was lying there. The dirt was popping up; someone was taking pot shots all around him. As I got closer, they started popping around me. I believe the shots were coming from the wooded area on the other side of the dike road. Doughity yelled to me to get down and then ran over to me. He said, "You better stay down or you'll get killed." I asked him about the condition of the troopers lying there. "Not good", he said. He asked if there was anything he could do for me. "No," I said. He told me that he had to get back to the other wounded and to "stay low."

As I got closer to the group, I saw some German prisoners, the Protestant chaplain (Delbert Kuehl) with some wounded and Sgt. Barker just getting into a boat to start back across the river with some of the wounded. It made me feel good that the German prisoners didn't get priority. I asked the chaplain why the wounded men lying up above couldn't get some help and he told me they would be all right. He was concerned about the German prisoners. I had to get away from there. I walked back to where we had landed and looked up. There were no dead or wounded lying where we had attacked. We were lucky. Someone with a head wound was coming toward me. I recognized him as Blacky. I don't know if he was from H or G company. We went over to where the chaplain and prisoners were and Blacky got into a discussion with the chaplain about the prisoners. He came back to me and wanted to know if I had a gun. He said, "Let's see if we can find one."

I walked about forty yards along the shore towards the bridge that ran into a little inlet which was twenty feet in from the water, fifteen feet wide and about four or five feet deep. There I saw Lt. Busby's body. His legs were still lying in the water. I thought about the argument we had earlier and felt bad. I wished I could have pulled him out of the water but it was impossible with my wounds. I called Blacky over but he couldn't get down there by himself. I decided to go back and ask the chaplain for some help. The chaplain told me not to worry about it; Busby would be all right. He spoke to me in a nice way. I must say he was very courageous for making the crossing under such conditions when I knew he didn't have to. I looked at the prisoners once again and I knew I had to get away from them. Another boat came over; the prisoners and some other troopers got into the boat and started across. I waited for the next boat, got in and started across the river.

When I got to the other side of the embankment, I got out of the boat and ran into another buddy of mine, Lefty Rego, from 2nd battalion (Hdg. ?) We were together in the 513 PIR and tented together in Kairouan, North Africa. He went bananas when he saw me. He grabbed his gun and it looked like he wanted to run across on the water. A couple of other guys grabbed hold of him. I told him I was just fine. As I walked up past the power house, different troopers wanted to know if they could give me a hand. I said, "No, I'm fine." I guess I wanted to be proud of my last walk. A jeep of medics came along. They drove me to the aid station. It was a big room. I started to relax when I saw Capt. Kitchen.


  The Germans left this ring behind in a house they abandoned. They had removed everything else in it. 1944


Taken at the Liberation Museum at Groesbeek, Netherlands during the 50th anniversary celebration of the Waal Crossing.


Visiting Lt. Harry F. Busby
at the American Cemetery
in Margraten, Netherlands



Visiting Lt. Harry F. Busby
visiting the museum in Groesbeek, Netherlands 2004


Thanks to Kathleen Buttke, Niece of Pvt. Walter J. Muszynski
(KIA during Waal crossing)


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