VETERAN OF THE WEEK: Veteran Hugh Wallis served as a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne

Friends,

Please meet U.S. World War II veteran and hero Mr. Hugh Wallis of Fort Wayne. Mr. Wallis recalls the surprisingly final words his squad said to each other while boarding the plane to head to a secret mission over Holland during September 1944.

“We told each other good-bye and we hoped we’d see each other again someday,” he said.

Wallis was born in 1924 in Cadiz, Ky. A year after graduating from Trigg County High School in 1942, he was drafted into the U.S. Army. His parents, Sydney and Leana, tried to get him deferred by saying he was needed to work on their farm. Wallis objected. “I didn’t want to stay on the farm all of my life,” he said. “I wanted to go to the Army.”

Wallis completed basic training at Fort Polk La. (then it was named Camp Polk). In September 1943 Wallis read a notice asking men to volunteer to join a special unit. “I didn’t know for sure what a paratrooper was, but the job paid an extra $50 each month to jump out of airplanes a certain number of times each month,” he said. Having grown up with limited resources, Wallis volunteered.

Since he was not yet 21 years old, Wallis had to have written permission from his parents to join the paratroopers. His parents had not been in favor of him being in the Army, so he abbreviated words in his written explanation of what the forms said. “Dad could not read, so I thought he might not understand everything and sign them anyway,” he said. Wallis’ parents did sign the forms, and he was in.

Wallis and two other volunteers were sent to Fort Benning in Georgia for paratrooper training. While the area was not as swampy as Louisiana’s terrain, there were other concerns for the soldiers.

“We had trouble sleeping,” he said. “Our lack of rest may have been due to living in tents and taking cold showers in the winter outside under a pipe positioned between two tree limbs.”

Another problem was the jump practices. “We packed our chutes the night before each drill and could not re-check them in the morning, so we didn’t sleep much, wondering if we had done it right.” Wallis and the others began jumping from a 250-foot tower. Wallis had no fear of heights, but admitted to an adrenalin rush. “I was always a little scared,” he said.

The first time his group jumped from a plane, Wallis’ chute unfurled safely, but he was alarmed to hear the paratrooper after him screaming. “I found out after landing he was just happy to be jumping,” he said.

After five successful jumps, Wallis qualified as a paratrooper in December 1943. His group was then restricted for overseas duty.

A few weeks later, they left the U.S. on a Merchant Marine ship that carried supplies to other ships. “We started out in a big convoy, but after several days, we broke off and went on our own,” he said. Wallis’ group landed at Casablanca in Africa in January 1944. They rode a 40-by-8-foot cattle car to Oran where they caught a C47 plane shuttle to Palermo, Italy. They encountered storms but eventually made it to Anzio.

The battle there had begun mid-January 1944, so they were D-day plus sixweeks. The soldiers were quiet as they spotted Germans on the mountains around them. As German planes flew over, Allied troops shot them down. “We saw flashes in the sky from artillery,” said Wallis. After dark, his group was picked up by other Allied troops. Together, they made up the 3rd platoon, Company H, 504th regiment of the 82nd Airborne.

They carried ammunition and hand grenades as they walked across a field. “We were told there were mines on each side and that we were 50 yards from the front lines,” said Wallis. “We didn’t know we were that close!”

Wallis’ group hid in the attic of an old farmhouse. When a single German soldier entered the house, probably searching for Allied soldiers, Wallis’ group stayed quiet. “He never found us, and we didn’t shoot him because we didn’t want the others he was with to come and shoot us.”

Later, when they left the house and trekked across a former marsh called the Mussolini Canal, they were spotted and fired on. A shell exploded near Wallis and he sustained an injury in his upper right thigh.

X-rays in a MASH tent revealed shrapnel from the shell had hit his bone and he was operated on. Before Wallis lost consciousness with a shot of sodium pentothal, he recalled how shells came through the MASH tent. “We didn’t evacuate because we had nowhere to go,” he said. He later received distressing news: a nurse who had helped him was killed during the attack.

Wallis was evacuated to a hospital in Naples until March 1944 when he dismissed himself to accompany the 504th as they sailed to England.

The 82nd continued training at the village of Leicester, then they were held in reserve for another invasion that would take place on the beaches of France called Normandy.

After “winning” at a coin toss, Wallis was not part of the jump at Normandy. A later scheduled jump in Paris was canceled as the city had been freed. “We thought Patton was saving our lives,” he said. “He got to places before we did, so we were not needed.”

On Sept. 17, 1944, Wallis was part of a historic jump-Operation Market Garden in Holland. “British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery convinced Eisenhower to drop the first Allied Airborne Army there,” he said.

The group, comprised of the 82nd and 101st Airborne, and French and Polish brigades, prepared for their jump by studying a sand table.

The 82nd’s objective was to take a bridge at Grave. Wallis recalled the atmosphere in the C47 plane during the flight. “There were 17 of us aboard, including the pilot, co-pilot, and crew chief,” he said.

Flying during the day increased the risk of being seen. Further risk occurred as the pilot flew low to stay under the German radar. “That is referred to as ‘hedge-hopping’,” said Wallis.

They flew in a formation of three planes. When the plane to his left was shot down, Wallis counted the chutes. “They all made it out except the pilot who died in the fire,” he said.

His squad’s jump was successful, and the Dutch underground was waiting.

“Those peasant farmers painted swastikas on the houses of people who were friendly with the Germans to let us know who to avoid,” he said.

The Allies had the bridge at Grave secured in 17 minutes with no opposition.

Wallis carried an M1 rifle, bazooka and a .45 pistol, but was thankful to not have to fire.

Within the next few days they marched aggressively through Holland. At the Waal River Wallis and the others attempted to cross on collapsible, canvas row boats overloaded with troops.

A shot from the enemy created a hole in his boat. Wallis nearly drowned when the boat sank (others in his boat were killed). Frantically, he attempted to release the 50-pound pack on his back.

Finally he was pulled aboard a boat and due to injuries sustained during the attack, he was evacuated to a British hospital. Wallis and others were among the first to fight at the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes Forest in southern Belgium and Luxembourg, which began Dec. 16, 1944, and extended through February 1945. Unfortunately, severely cold weather was as much of a challenge as enemy troops.

Blizzards and freezing rain often reduced visibility to almost zero. Frost covered much of the soldiers’ equipment. Many soldiers froze to death and thousands of American G.I.s were treated for cases of frostbite and trench foot.

He was among the first to return to the U.S. in early August 1945. After the war, he returned to Kentucky where he enrolled in electrician school. In 1947 he moved to Fort Wayne to work at ITT/Farnsworth in Fort Wayne. Wallis also ran his own TV repair business and worked for Stucky Brothers. He retired in 1986.

He and his wife, Susan, have three children. His first wife, Lola, died in 1984. 

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