Author’s note: This year is the 75th anniversary of the Normandy Invasion in France and Operation Market Garden in Holland. It also marks the 75th anniversary of a local family’s involvement in these events, Fred Lee Tom and his wife Lucile, the grandparents of Fred Tom, who along with his wife Christine are the owners of Lamborn’s Studios in Athens. Though the four-part series that began Sept. 19 focuses primarily on one specific family member, Bernard Tom, son of Fred Lee and Lucile and the uncle of Fred, and his involvement in the above two World War II actions, I hope it also will introduce readers to his parents, who are so deservedly a part of this story. – WW
On Sept. 17, 1944, Bernie again found himself over the English Channel. Operation Market Garden in Holland would be his second combat jump with the 101st Airborne Division. The daylight jump was made without the drama of Normandy. Assembling on the landing zone, Fox Company, along with the remainder of the battalion, left for a canal located near the Dutch town of Eindhoven. An assault of the town was made the next morning, and Eindhoven was liberated from German occupation when Bernie and the men of the 2nd Platoon knocked out the last vestige of German resistance, two 88 mm guns.
From their homes, businesses, and places of hiding, the townspeople rushed into the streets engulfing the “angels from heaven” as the paratroopers were referred to by the residents. In thanks and gratitude, the soldiers had thrust upon them from every direction water, milk, bread, apples, pears, milk, beer, wine, and other foods and libations. The soldiers were physically led into city homes to partake in quickly prepared meals, receive thanks, have pictures taken, and to share time with the families.
In the midst of all this, Bernie was captured in a photograph that would appear in Dutch books, newspapers, publications and accounts of the liberation distributed all over Holland. Bernie became the poster boy of the American paratroopers, and according to World War II historian Jennifer Holik of the World War II Research and Writing Center, even today, “Everyone who knows about the paratroopers in Holland knows about the photo. Bernie is kind of a Rock Star here.”
THE STRINGENCIES OF WAR cut short the celebration. For unexplained reasons, Bernie and three others tasked with guarding a bridge did not receive movement order and were separated from their units for a few days. A Dutch farmer hid the men and helped them to reunite with their units. Years later, a paper signed by Bernie and given to a boy in appreciation for translation assistance was discovered, and in 2004 a pre-combat photograph of Bernie surfaced in the possession of a local farmer. The autographed paper and photograph helped historians determine Bernie’s whereabouts during his separation from his unit.
The success of the Eindhoven’s liberation was soon relegated to the past as Fox Company and the battalion, transported by trucks, lumbered north to Uden. A stop was made in Veghel. German artillery opened up on the convoy and, with tanks and armored vehicles, the attack became a major engagement. It is unknown to this writer whether Bernie had rejoined his unit by this time. If he had, he was involved in one of Fox Company’s most costly engagements, more costly than Carentan, Normandy. Bernie’s 2nd Platoon had six killed and 17 wounded.
Three weeks after Eindhoven, Bernie and four other members of Fox Company were situated near a dike outside of Zetten, south of the Lower Rhine River, an area they had taken from the Germans. As with the night before, five members of Fox Company were on the dike defending against counter-assaults by the Germans to retake the dike and area behind it. A .50-caliber machine gun was manned by two members of Fox Company. Bernie and the other three soldiers manned a .30-caliber machine gun to the right of them and to the left of a windmill.
At 8 p.m. on Oct. 8, the German assault resumed with the same fury and intensity as the night before. The two machine-gun nests manned by Fox Company responded. Before long, artillery and mortar shelling from both sides entered the fray.
The next morning, two Fox Company paratroopers accompanied a jeep with a hitched trailer. Arriving at the base of the dike, the two climbed to the top. They placed the five Fox Company members on stretchers for transportation to grave registration. It was evident that Bernie Tom, only 20 years of age, and his two comrades had been killed instantaneously.
The final part of this four-part series will be published in The Athens NEWS on Oct. 17.