In His Jump Boots: Family shares father's story on 69th anniversary of D-Day
June 6, 2013
- "I think other than his Family, his proudest [accomplishment] that he served with the 101st." -- Kristi Skurzewski, retired Sgt. Maj. Wilbur C. Clouser's daughter
- "The one that I remember most about Dad that he did tell was the story where he was a bazooka man, and he was trying to kill a Panzer tank, and the Panzer tank had shot the iron steeple off of a church and it landed on him. They left Dad for dead for several days. They finally found him. Then they had to ship him out, and he went in a cast … He kept asking when he could go back, because he couldn't leave them behind." -- Randy Clouser, retired Sgt. Maj. Wilbur C. Clouser's son
- "We were instilled from birth to love our country. To respect the Soldier; to support the Soldier. His patriotism was incredible and awe-inspiring, but the love of 'God, Family and Country' -- that was literally his motto." -- Kristi Skurzewski
CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. -- "Dad always told me, 'The harder you work, the luckier you get.' That was the phrase I've used on my kids a thousand times -- only through hard work does everything else happen," said Randy Clouser, while sitting in an easy chair at his father's former home in Clarksville, Monday.
Randy's father, retired Sgt. Maj. Wilbur C. Clouser, passed away in 2012 at 90 years old. With more than 24 years of Army service, the Soldier better known as Bill parachuted with the 101st Airborne Division in Operation Overlord and Operation Market Garden. His legacy of patriotism now rests with his four children and nine grandchildren.
Of the approximately 1.2 million living World War II Veterans still remaining, more than 600 die each day according to Veteran's Administration statistics. It is now left increasingly to their Family members, as well as the letters, articles, photographs and medals the Veterans left behind, to tell the Greatest Generation's meaningful story.
Bill's story, as told by son, Randy, 59, and daughter, Kristi Skurzewski, 47, is one of bravery and duty to country. The Soldier enlisted in World War II in September 1943 in his early 20s and soon volunteered to become a paratrooper assigned to Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. During a well-decorated military career with 387 total jumps, two of those in combat, he earn a Distinguished Service medal, Purple Heart with two oak clusters and a Bronze Star among other honors and recognitions. While he served with other divisions and spent time stationed in Germany with tours in Iran and Korea, the 101st remained closest to his heart.
"I think other than his Family, his proudest [accomplishment] that he served with the 101st," Kristi said. "When [the 506th] reactivated at Fort Campbell it was one of his crowning glory moments, because he was there, and I'm glad that he was here for that. Because he felt like it was back where it belonged."
Bill remained at Fort Campbell even after leaving the military, serving as the Deputy Finance Officer for many years.
He participated in the Normandy invasion -- June 6, 1944 -- exactly 69 years ago today. During Operation Overlord, more commonly known as D-Day, Pfc. Clouser was shot in the hip and finger -- on the same day, no less -- but he kept moving.
"They landed 17 miles from their objective," Kristi explained of the drop zones surrounding Utah Beach. "And it took him until D-Day plus three to get back with his actual company. I know it was him and one of his buddies. They were with a guy from the 502nd, and somebody else from the 82nd Airborne, you know, they were all scattered."
During this period, Bill eventually ended up with a group led by Maj. Gen. Maxwell Taylor, 101st Airborne commander, before he linked up with the rest of his company.
Like many Veterans, Bill did not truly relate the vastness of his experiences until many years later. Kristi believes the popularity of movies such as "Band of Brothers" -- based on the exploits of Easy Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th PIR -- and "Saving Private Ryan," helped to encourage him to open up as the public began to crave the personal stories of surviving WWII vets.
"He didn't talk about it a lot until, it was probably the 50th anniversary of D-Day, then all of the sudden, he started opening up a little bit about it," she said. "I know he made a statement in one of the articles that, you know, he still had nightmares to this day. Not constant, but ... I can only imagine."
The gruff sergeant major had reason to be close-lipped about his experiences. Bill was in Bastogne, Belgium, for what came to be known as the Battle of the Bulge, which began in mid-December 1944.
The mission turned hard quickly for 506th PIR troops, who endured overwhelming cold and little equipment on hand to fight the Nazi offensive. More than 45,000 German soldiers surrounded them. It was during this period that the Nazis called for Allied surrender and acting 101st Commander Brig. Gen. Anthony McAuliffe responded with a simple, infamous reply: "Nuts!"
"He couldn't talk for years about Bastogne -- because you know, they were frozen to death, they had no supplies and you know he said the hardest thing on him was when he had to use his dead best friend for warmth," Randy recalled. "He had to pull the dead body over him to keep him for warmth. That was the hardest memory for Dad, was the fact that they had nothing. They were fighting with just sheer terror and survival at that point."
Later, during operations in Bastogne on Christmas Day, Bill became trapped under rubble when a church wall collapsed.
"The one that I remember most about Dad that he did tell was the story where he was a bazooka man, and he was trying to kill a Panzer tank, and the Panzer tank had shot the iron steeple off of a church and it landed on him," Randy said. "They left Dad for dead for several days. They finally found him. Then they had to ship him out, and he went in a cast … He kept asking when he could go back, because he couldn't leave them behind."
Return to combat he did. His children said Bill was one of the first American Soldiers to go inside Adolf Hitler's headquarters at Berchtesgaden and also helped liberate a Nazi concentration camp before the end of the war.
Bill's Family remembers him not only for his service, but for everything he taught them about life. He participated in memorial ceremonies every chance he could and believed in volunteerism and aiding Soldiers and military Families whenever possible.
"We were instilled from birth to love our country. To respect the Soldier; to support the Soldier," Kristi said. "His patriotism was incredible and awe-inspiring, but the love of 'God, Family and Country' -- that was literally his motto."
"He was very much the underdog guy," Randy added. "He was always the first one to give of his time, give money. Help the needy. That's how he viewed Europe, the theatre over there. We were helping those people get free of evil people and evil times."
D-Day History & Legacy
D-Day was a plan that took several years to execute properly, explained Don F. Pratt Museum Installation Historian John O'Brien. Deception operations were key in directing German forces in the opposite direction of the Normandy beaches.
"Hitler believed in the first couple critical hours that this was all just a big diversion and he withheld a lot of reserves from being able to come in here," O'Brien said.
With the 101st formed less than two years prior to D-Day on Aug. 16, 1942, the operation served as the first combat opportunity and major test of the Division. The Screaming Eagle paratrooper units -- the 501st PIR, 502nd PIR, 506th PIR and the 327th Infantry Glider Regiment -- all had a clear mission that day -- to clear the way for the 4th Infantry Division to land at Utah Beach.
"So Hitler had had four years to prepare for this, and he had really prepared it well with interlocking fields of fire, obstacles, machine gun positions, all kinds of things," O'Brien said. "One of the things that the cocky airborne guys said afterwards was, 'Yeah, he built a fortress, but he forgot to put a roof on it.'"
101st and 82nd Airborne paratroopers landed shortly after midnight, June 6.
"Now the mission of the 101st, the main thing that they had to do was protect the arrival of the 4th Infantry Division and allow them to get ashore," O'Brien explained. "Executing that, they were scattered all over the place that night."
The Germans could not pinpoint one spot to counterattack, allowing the 4th Infantry Division to come ashore at Causeway No. 4 that morning, and allowing 20,000 troops to filter into France in the next few days. This success owed much to the actions of the Screaming Eagles at Normandy.
"On D-Day, the 4th Infantry Division only suffered 127 casualties coming ashore, and 60 of those were in one boat," O'Brien said. "So basically, they only had about 70 combat casualties. Because of what the 101st did, the Germans were unable to concentrate against Utah Beach."
It was a much different scene than at Omaha Beach, where the 1st Infantry Division and part of the 29th Infantry Division suffered 25,000 casualties on the first day of fighting alone.
In a three-week period after D-Day, the 101st engaged in combat before returning to England to regroup. The Division sustained about 3,000 casualties. In this period, the Division united to capture Carentan. It was during this battle that Lt. Col. Robert Cole earned the first Medal of Honor for the 101st.
"That battle there goes on five to seven days," O'Brien said. "Then when the bridgehead's completely secured, and they start talking about the breakout, the 101st was kind of pulled out of combat because they had a very special and unique capability and they didn't want to use them as just Infantrymen, especially when all the other forces were just pouring ashore."
And while the parachutists of WWII may not seem to relate much to today's highly advanced fight, their story still applies to current Screaming Eagles. In fact, one small aspect of D-Day still speaks volumes to incoming Soldiers with a simple chirp.
"One of the things that we use when we talk to the new Soldiers is we tell them about the cricket," O'Brien said. "The Soldiers jumping at night had to find a way to find each other in the night, so they used this little toy cricket as a challenge and password -- every Soldier had one.
"We use this to talk about personal initiative, and we tell every new Soldier you need to come look at the cricket, and ask yourself if you were there with the 101st on the night of 6 June, would you have used your cricket or would you have rolled up in a little ball and said, 'Sarge will find me in the morning. He doesn't want me to be running around. He wants me to be where he can find me.' What made the difference was personal initiative. … If you're not the Soldier that's willing to do what's right when you're not observed; when you can't understand the mission and follow orders and execute violently -- then you don't belong here."