Having Served Time in Hell

“Step forward now, you Soldier, you’ve borne your burden well. Walk peacefully on Heaven’s streets, you’ve done your time in Hell.”—Anonymous

All along the sidewalks, in the homes not often visited, by you in the line at the grocery store or bank or gas station, stands a man, a woman who have borne a burden for this Nation. Each of them no less a hero than the rest, but some. . . some have been through a Hell unlike any other that could be fathomable in today’s standard of living.

Some, not many more, but some has seen the face of the enemy. Has spoken to, has triumphed over, and has cried over the friendships lost. I would challenge you, to sit and think of a person you know to be a hero. What did they do? What are they like? Where are they from? And, how do they talk? Pause now for a moment and capture who that is in your mind.

Continue on.

Edward Kroenke is typical in the sense of how untypical he actually is. Born on a small farm near Dolliver, Iowa in 1924. He would hunt, fish, ride horses, and help local farmers during cattle drives much like many of the other boys his age would do. Back then, in 1924, poverty in rural areas was just how things were. For Ed’s family, a family of nine, with mother Anna and father Albert, who were farmers, times were often tough. Hunting for their food and fending for themselves was a lot different than it is now.

“Everyone was pretty poor during those days”, Ed says. “A lot of farmers lost their farms”.

After losing the family farm, Ed went on to tell me that his father worked at the horse plant. To give you an idea of how different times are, I asked him if it was a manufacturing plant for items like glue and other horse products.

Ed corrected me saying, “Hell we used to eat ‘em”.

As Ed got older, he finished his schooling after eight years of education and began working at the age of 13 or 14 as a hired hand for farmers. And, after just 5 years of working, Ed was drafted in March of 1943 as an 18-year old kid into the US Army. Ed said he was excited at the time to being drafted, but he later admitted “I didn’t know what I was getting into”.

Only a short while later, Ed was sent out to Camp Roberts in California for his Infantry training that lasted 13 weeks. After his initial basic training and Infantry training, he was sent out to Airborne school located in Fort Bragg across the country in North Carolina. Train was the primary use of transportation at the time.

“Everything we done was on train”, Ed explained.

During one of the stops Ed smiled and said one of the most memorable stops was in Los Angeles where he and some of the other troops go the opportunity to meet Bing Crosby, a popular musician/actor at the time. With a small matchbook in hand, Ed mustered the guts to go up to Bing and ask for a signature. Unfortunately, Ed had misplaced it some many years ago.   

Right after Infantry training, Kroenke volunteered for the Paratroopers and the Glider Corps. Ed told me that it was a lot safer to be parachuted in than storming any beach head. That may be true, but Ed would come to find that aerial deployments had some significant dangers also.

Many people know what an Airborne Paratrooper is, but little recall what a “glider” is and even fewer knew that these “planes” were actually used in recent history. Now, in the grand scheme of things, being a Paratrooper required harder training than what a regular infantry Soldier was required to endure.

“We did a lot of running there”, Kroenke recalls about his time in Airborne School. He says that running, push ups and pull ups were a daily occurrence. No doubt to develop the overall bodily strength for when the Airborne Soldier would begin the quick, but generally controlled decent to the ground below the large cargo airplane that they had just hurled themselves out of. But, gliders. . . gliders are a much less controlled and perilous type of war machine.

The WACO CG-4 or what is called a military glider plane was more or less an experimental piece of equipment that proved to be extremely detrimental to the lives of those on board the aircraft. The term “aircraft” is lightly attributed to this piece of equipment in the way that it is a craft, much like a wooden boat is considered a “craft”, and that it is an aerial piece of equipment; but, that’s about it. 

“You could just about stick your finger through it”, Kroenke said when describing the make-up of the WACO.

The glider is made of sheets of plywood and a canvas cover. Fashioned in the same way that a regular airplane is except it goes without some crucial devices such as a motor or propeller. It did come equipped with a couple of tires, metal tubing and windows to see out of.

“They would hook us up behind a C-47 and tow us behind that”, Kroenke continued. While in tow, the crew aboard these planes would be in constant fear of being shot at by the anti-aircraft guns from below that regularly took aim at the C-47s.

The tow rope, that was one-inch thick and made of nylon, was connected to the nose of the “tow target” and then to the rear fuselage of the C-47 some 300-feet ahead. The duty of the glider was to be released from the C-47 and “glide” down to the target area below. Kroenke rode in one of these into combat during D-Day. Oh. . . no parachutes in the craft either.

The anti-aircraft guns weren’t the only worries that the Glider Crews had to be wary of. Gliding down in an uncontrolled craft made it easy for the Germans to place roadblocks in the landing areas of these planes.

“The Germans began digging holes and putting trees in them so that the gliders would crash into them”, Kroenke explained. To say the least, gliders were rarely used and even more rarely successful.

In September of 1943, Kroenke, attached with his original unit of the legendary 101st Airborne made their way by ship across the Atlantic Ocean to Liverpool, England. Shortly after his arrival in England, Kroenke and others were transferred to another legendary unit called the 82nd Airborne or the “All Americans”. While waiting in Luster, England for his time to go to the European theatre, Kroenke and his unit would perform daily exercises in calisthenics and more running.

The Strathnaver. The ship that was used to take Kroenke to Europe.

Finally, June 6th of 1944 came. The Invasion of Normandy was underway and Kroenke took part in his first combat trip in a glider. Another tactic of the Germans was to flood the open ground. This is an obstacle that Kroenke met on one of the most historical moments of WWII.

“We came into waist deep water”, he said.

As the water rushed the cabin of the plywood glider, the 13-man squad exited the now watercraft and made their way to dryer land, but remaining in the same wet uniforms for more than 30 days at a time in the area of Ste Mere Eglise, France.

The unit’s mission was to capture the city of Ste Mere Eglise, but fortunately enough, the city had already been secured by a unit that had made their way into the area ahead of the 82nd Glider platoon.

Ed’s demeanor, as he told the story, was much like the one that he said to have held during the train up and the actual day of the glider deployment.

“It didn’t bother me too much. I didn’t put too much thought into it, but I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into”, he said when asked about his nerves on the night and days before the D-Day Invasion.

Following the landing into Ste Mere Eglise, Kroenke and the remaining Soldiers made their way back to England before another mission into and by air. The Invasion of Holland proved to be an extremely difficult time in Ed’s memory.

The Invasion of Holland was on the 17th of September in 1944. Ed was 20-years old now and headed into some of the most intense fighting that he would experience. Kroenke says that during the night that he had arrived in his area of operations, there was a large dredge ditch where he got a taste of the incredible fighting that would take place after.

“It was just getting dark. Somebody fired on me and hit my rifle dead center and sparks just flew”, Kroenke explains. “I had just barely gotten down. Boy, they had me dead to rights. I would have had a dozen rounds in me”. Ed’s luck seemed to follow him during the entire war.

The following day, they went after them. Crossing the dredge ditch they spent from daybreak until dusk most days fighting the enemy. Ed said that it wasn’t uncommon that they would all be fighting all night long without the opportunity to rest, to eat, or even to be able to change their uniforms. The land was all open excluding a few houses spotted across the country side. With the assistance of heavy artillery, Kroenke’s unit continued to advance through the German lines and the fighting only intensified.

“We were supposed to take a really heavy area. You could only see about 30 feet in front of you because of the trees”, Kroenke says about one of the most harrowing nights in the Invasion. “I saw a kid right beside me get hit by a grenade in the leg. I tried to put a tourniquet on his leg, but there was nothing left. It looked like hamburger and bone. I didn’t know what to say to him. That time really got to me”.

Ed sat quietly reflecting on the atrocity that he had seen. His stare made if feel like the grenade had just rolled onto the floor and forced me to look at the ground. Coming back from his flashback, he continued on.

He explained that through all of the heavy fighting and the conditions that were present, the weapons being used would often get dirty. If you could imagine the debris from the dirt that had been blasted high into the air only to come raining back down over them like a gravel shower.

Ed’s weapon malfunctioned causing him to quickly clean and clear the carbine rifle. The fighting was still going on and it was still very intense. Germans were now in close proximity to him and to have a jammed or malfunctioning rifle meant sitting amongst the enemy defenseless.

Finally clearing the weapon, but not firing any shots yet to ensure the weapon being functional, Ed said he had looked up and saw two Germans within close proximity to him yelling at him in broken English, “Finished for you! Finished for you!”. Ed believed this to be them telling him to surrender.

Ed’s face changed again and a stern look peeled over his weathered face. “Bullshit!”, Ed thought to himself. “I’m not going to give up. I had my mind made up; I wasn’t going to give up”.

Abandoning all sense of self-preservation, Ed stood up and quickly advanced to their positions. Standing above the two Germans in their foxhole, he took both of the German Soldiers prisoner after snatching their rifles from their shoulders and brought them back behind friendly lines.

“I knew I had ‘em. Their whole bodies were just shaking all over. I didn’t even know if my weapon was working properly. I was a little goofy during that time”, he said.

By the end of his time in the European theater, Ed had spent three consecutive years overseas. That was three years that he never came back stateside to see his family, friends, or others. Ed estimated that he “swapped lead”—was involved in combat—for a total of 8-9 months with the enemy. Having been involved in three major, historical engagements with one of the most legendary combat units in the United States Army. Ed is nothing short of being a national piece of history whose story, hopefully, will be remembered for generations.

After returning home, back to Iowa, from The War, Ed married his wife, Rosella, when they were 26 years old and have been married now for 68 years. They had three kids who live in Denver, Graettinger, and Sioux Falls.

The type of warfighter that Ed is, doesn’t exist anymore. The technology, the tactics, and the procedures rarely are presented to our current heroes anymore. What Ed did for the United States was an extraordinary example of will and courage. Fear dwelled within his heart at every turn during his campaign.

Speaking about the friends that he had lost and the misery that lay around every corner during the Second World War, Ed told me, “You had to be hardened”. Not just hardened, but also willing to give it all away for a commitment to your nation and its ethos. Ed, on several occasions, was ready and willing to lay it all on the line and to give it all away.

A men like him are rare now days; maybe even forgotten. In fact, there are 5,006 living WW2 veterans in Iowa according to the National WW2 Museum at the time this article was written. Eventually, like the veterans of the First World War, these stories of heroism and sacrifice will be gone. So when standing in line at the store or when walking down the sidewalk, take a moment to shake a hand of a national treasure. Unfortunately, the opportunities will not long be available.

But, for now and from all of us who will not be able to fathom the horror that you so dutifully waged for us; we thank you for your service, Sir, and the time you spent in Hell.

Airborne!

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