At the end of last year, Dan McBride received an unusual piece of mail: a thank-you note from the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, also known as Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.
McBride is a World War II veteran originally from Ohio but who has long called Silver City his home.
※As we celebrate our first holiday season together in the United States, we’d like to share our deep gratitude for the service and sacrifice you’ve given to your country and community,” the pair wrote in their December letter to McBride. ※Forever the world will tell the story of the 101st Airborne Division. From Normandy to Bastogne, your legacy is deeply etched in history. You’ve mentioned before that you enlisted in an airborne division because you were afraid of heights — and that was something you wanted to overcome. That tells us so much about your spirit and character. We celebrate your bravery and your achievements.”
The letter, on official stationary, was signed ※All the best,” from Harry and Meghan, and concluded: ※Thank you for your hard work and deep commitment to ensuring our children, and the children of generations to come, can continue to live free and with hope.”
Stories about WWII paratroopers are the stuff of legend, and McBride is living testimony to the bravery and daring of the young men who leapt from airplanes over Normandy, the Netherlands and Germany to fight the Nazis. At 97, McBride walks with a cane due to several combat injuries, but his mind is as sharp as a tack. The company he served with, under the 101st Airborne Division’s 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment, is the subject of countless history books, and McBride said he has been interviewed more times than he can remember for books, television programs and films, as well as by the Library of Congress — it’s no wonder the royal couple had heard about McBride’s exploits in the European Theater.
※I wanted to tell the story of these young men who grew up in the Depression years and how they fought in World War II, so I traveled to Silver City and spent five days doing in-depth interviews, talking about his entire life,” recalled Jos Groen, a lieutenant colonel in the Dutch Army who self-published the book ※Three of the Last WWII Screaming Eagles” in 2019 to record the stories of three aging paratroopers. Proceeds from the book go toward funding scholarships in the United States.
※He tells it from the heart, and he knows so many names,” Groen said. ※He remembers all those details, the people he served with; it’s incredible at his age. And the range of stories! He tells the fighting stories, the humorous stories — but also the emotional stories about what he went through himself.”
McBride said that, on June 5, 1944, as he was suiting up for what turned out to be the D-Day invasion of Normandy, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower walked down the line of men and asked him, ※Are you scared?”
※I don’t know,” McBride recalls answering. Shortly after that exchange, a photographer snapped one of the most famous wartime images of Eisenhower, which shows the general, fist in front of him, surrounded by paratroopers from the 101st Airborne Division.
According to McBride’s recounting in Groen’s book, ※They started talking about fishing in Michigan when Eisenhower remarked, ‘Man, those fish taste mighty fine,’” and made a fist.
※Some photographers took a picture, and, after the war, I read that journalists wrote Eisenhower said something about the upcoming battle — like, ‘Go get ’em’ — but in fact he was talking about fishing,” McBride said.
After being injured on June 12, 1944, and spending several months in England recuperating, McBride was back on the front lines. That winter he spent Christmas and New Year’s Eve fighting the Germans during the Siege of Bastogne. By the end of the day on Jan. 3, 1945, he was one of only 13 men in his company still alive.
Also by then, McBride told Groen, he had grown accustomed to feeling terror.
※There was an enormous attack, and the only thing he could do was keep the trigger on with his machine gun, spraying the Germans,” Groen said. ※He said he didn’t recall reloading. When the attack was finally over, he said he tried to light a cigarette, but he was putting it in his ear, he couldn’t light it, he was crying. He said, ‘I was really crying, shaking like a baby.’”
McBride said the barrel of his machine gun had gotten so “red hot” during the battle that it was still firing rounds — even after he stopped pulling the trigger.
※The battlefield before my foxhole was a sorry sight to see, which was something I never forgot,” McBride recounted to Groen. ※There were dead panzer grenadiers in their black uniforms littered all around in the snow. It looked like someone had spread black pepper on a piece of white bread.”
McBride, now the last surviving member of his company, said last year’s royal missive came out of the blue.
Several weeks ago, he sat for an interview among his friends and fellow veterans inside American Legion Post 18 on College Avenue in Silver City, where he goes every Wednesday morning to enjoy a few hours of ※coffee, doughnuts and bullshit — in that order.”
※Evidently, Harry read the book and wrote to me; I was surprised as hell,” he said. He recalls the time he spent in England during the war with something less than fondness, however.
※I’m not a fan of England,” McBride said, in his characteristically blunt manner, going on to joke that ※at least Harry had the brains to leave and move to California.”
※I spent a long time in England and had to fight with the bastards up in Holland,” McBride said. ※When we went overseas on September 3, 1943, there were 119 men in F Company. At the end of the war, there were nine. I buried the last one two years ago.
※I am the only survivor,” McBride added. ※It was a wild outfit.”
Although he never expected to hear from the British royal family, McBride said he routinely ※gets letters from every damn place and person,” including teachers and historians, and even one ※from someone in St. Petersburg, Russia,” a while back. ※I’ve had letters from more Germans than anyone else, thanking me,” he said.
And did jumping out of airplanes over enemy lines cure his fear of heights in the end?
※There was what you’d call a ‘high pucker factor,’” McBride laughed. ※I dealt with it standing in the door of a C-47. There’s anti-aircraft artillery coming at you, screaming bullets, and you think, ‘I’m going to have to step out into it.’”
Although he was seriously wounded several times during the war, and saw death and suffering on a large scale, McBride said he has never experienced post-traumatic stress disorder, and is generally skeptical about PTSD as a condition.
※I’ve got a lot of memories, and some I don’t want to remember,” McBride acknowledged. ※Like the German prison camp near Rosenberg. The Germans had already fled and there were mostly POWs, but also political prisoners there. They were walking skeletons surrounded by piles of bodies.”
※I slept with my .45 under my pillow for the first few nights, but the only thing to do is to come home and forget about it.”
Geoffrey Plant may be reached at [email protected]
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