World War II-era 'Devil in Baggy Pants' visits paratroopers
October 3, 2013
FORT BRAGG, N.C. -- When George Mahon looks back at the 91 years that have comprised his life, he has many things to be proud of. There are his five sons and a daughter, and his long-time career as a roofer.
One facet of his past shines more brightly in his memory than all the rest, however.
On June 10, 1942, Mahon enlisted in the Army. Soon after he raised his right hand Mahon earned a free trip to Europe to fight in World War II alongside paratroopers with the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment -- now the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division. His memories serving as a "Devil in Baggy Pants" are crystal clear, and are a great source of pride for the veteran.
Mahon shared his Army story and World War II tales, Sept. 16-20, with paratroopers from the Devil brigade here. He said the 82nd Airborne Division was -- and remains -- the best division in the Army.
Like many young adults in the 1940s, Mahon said he enlisted in the Army out of a sense of patriotism instilled by his family. His original military occupational specialty was armor, but his leadership quickly steered him into becoming a communications sergeant. But Mahon said he wasn't fulfilled working with radios.
"When you're nineteen years old you want to get in the fight, you want to be in the infantry, period," Mahon said. "But it isn't like the movies the way it turns out."
The veteran said he got his chance to become an infantryman when recruiters from Fort Benning, Ga., visited his unit. Mahon was told if he volunteered to earn his paratrooper badge and passed the airborne school physical, his unit couldn't hold him. He signed up right away.
"They came out with trucks and carried us to an assembly area called the frying pan," Mahon said of his first day at airborne school. "They took us all out, told us to strip down to our underwear shorts and we hadn't gone ten steps before they had us double-timing. They double-timed us three miles.
"When we got those three miles they said we're taking a ten minute break and they turned us around and double-timed us back," Mahon continued.
The veteran said coming from a "soft" job where he had his own military jeep with a driver to the physical demands of airborne school was tough, but he wasn't going to flunk out. Mahon said once he graduated the course, his entire class was slated to be transferred to Europe because the Army had lost 23 planeloads of paratroopers from the 504th and 505th Parachute Infantry Regiments in the Allied invasion of Sicily.
The veteran said he had to volunteer to go with his class, though, because the Army was only taking a small percentage of non-commissioned officers. Volunteering, in turn, meant Mahon had to give up his sergeant stripes.
The freshly-minted enlisted man said he was sent to Casablanca in North Africa, traveled by boat to Naples, Italy, and finally by boat to Anzio, Italy. In Anzio, Mahon was assigned to Company E, 504th PIR, and was sent to the front lines with a Browning automatic rifle. After serious fighting and success at Anzio, Mahon said his unit tackled a new objective.
"The next combat we saw was in Holland, which was a good jump," Mahon said. "My company … jumped south of the Grave Bridge."
The paratrooper said he didn't face the combat jump with fear, but with a practical, military mind.
"The first thing going through our minds was they let us know we were going to be jumping at 450 feet," Mahon said. "So everybody was taking their reserves off and leaving them on the plane.
"Jumping low like that, it was different," the veteran continued. "We caught a little flak but mostly the Air Corps kept us clean. You jump, the prop blast [hit and your parachute] opened, you oscillated frontwards [and] backwards [and on] your next forward pass you were on the ground."
Mahon said he saw a lot more combat before he came home, and remembers fighting for 18 hours straight one time while sleet and snow poured down on him. The paratrooper almost redeployed unscathed, until he met up with a concussion grenade while out on a contact patrol.
Mahon recovered from his injuries, returned to his unit and ultimately redeployed to leave Army service.
The paratrooper says the thing he misses most about his time serving as a "Devil in Baggy Pants" is the camaraderie.
"My platoon, that was my family," Mahon said. "That platoon was tight and you could trust your life to any man there."
Mahon added that today's paratroopers -- like the ones he visited -- are no different. He said if they consider their platoon their family it will make them a better outfit.
Sgt. 1st Class Jonathan P. Brooks, who escorted Mahon for the week, said the visit made him realize that paratroopers stay the same regardless of what era or generation they come from. He added that it is important for young paratroopers to pay attention to lessons learned in the past.
"When he was standing in front of the formation addressing the younger paratroopers I personally believe that George was looking at himself 70 years ago," Brooks said. "He reinforced to them why they do what they do [and] why we train as hard as we do; [we do so] because both of the generations that were present that day have witnessed an attack on U.S. soil."
Brooks said Mahon is the truest example of what being a member of the "Greatest Generation" was all about.
"They were the ones that dug us out of the Great Depression, that didn't believe in hand-outs or want any sympathy," Brooks said. "They stood up for what was right."