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Tuesday, 18 December 2018 16:33

Christmas For the Angels: A Story of the 11th Airborne in World War II

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74 years ago a chilly December rain fell in the mountains of Leyte, an island in the South Pacific that most of us would be hard-pressed to find on a map, but for the paratroopers of America's 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment, Leyte had become a place of hellish reality. 

The year was 1944 and the world was full of a war that threatened the "peace on earth, goodwill towards men" of all mankind. The most basic freedoms of every man, woman and child, even the right to life, was on the line and the 511th had been formed to fight against the forces of oppression and darkness. 

Most of the paratroopers were young, between 18-21. One "man" in my grandfather's D Company, was seventeen-year-old Pfc. Billy Pettit who lied about his age in order to enlist and serve his country. Nicknamed "Billy the Kid" by his comrades, Billy's face and eyes now held the same grim look of his brothers in arms who had shared in the horrors of fighting the Japanese in close quarters day after day for weeks on end.

Sitting on a hill overlooking Ormoc Bay on Leyte's west coast, D Company's CO Captain Stephen E. Cavanaugh (pictured right) surveyed his men, primarily those in 1st Platoon under 1st Lieutenant Andrew Carrico III.

The 32 men of 1st Platoon were tired. They had started hiking from Dulag into Leyte's interior on November 23 and fought their way straight up the mountains' 4,400-feet heights and then down the other side towards Ormoc Bay. Along the way they endured torrential rains every day, constant Bonzai attacks from the enemy at night and vicious battles in the jungles nearly every step of the way. Nicknamed "The Angels", the 511th's paratroopers were being asked to do what other regular Army units had attempted to do: eliminate the Japanese supply line that ran through the mountain ridges.

They were now on Day 38 of their successful-yet-costly mountain and jungle campaign. Many men in D Company were now suffering from malaria or dengue fever (or both) and the fevers and digestive problems only added their misery. Their once trim and fit bodies were covered in jungle ulcers and most had lost over twenty pounds or more due to their inability to resupply in the mountains. Just over two weeks earlier, after having nothing to eat for seven days, D Company had eaten a dog with a few camotes they had managed to dig up in a nearby field.

Nearby, Lieutenant Carrico (pictured right) was tending to 1st Platoon. The day before, Carrico, with Cavanaugh traveling behind, had led 1st Platoon in a final assault on a hill near where they now sat in a mango grove. Lieutenant Carrico's 31 men had charged up the hill and eliminated more than 300 of the enemy who had been stubbornly holding the entire 11th Airborne back from reaching Ormoc Bay. The Americans were sick, angry at losing so many friends to the enemy, and more than ready to end their time on this God-forsaken island.

As D Company's Pfc. William L. Dubes noted, "It was a nightmare."

A few of the Angels who made the charge were so sick and weak that they had to be helped down the hilltop on the other side. Several Bronze Stars resulted from the operation, including one soldier who many believed should have received the Medal of Honor for charging the enemy's main line, firing his machine gun from the hip as he ran.

With a sigh, Captain Cavanaugh turned his head to study the steady stream of 2nd Battalion's paratroopers that were marching towards Ormoc Bay, some barefooted as their paratrooper boots had rotted away in the constant rain and mud. While some other units in the 11th Airborne's column looked relatively fresh due to their "far from the front" natures, the paratroopers of the 511th looked haggard due to their nearly 40 days of combat and 2nd Battalion's column stretched out over a half a mile. 

While Cavanaugh was proud of his company and all the others within the regiment, he sighed at the heart-wrenching scene of 250 troopers carrying stretcher after stretcher of their dead and wounded down the hillsides towards Ormoc. 40% of the 511th's strength was gone, either dead or wounded by the enemy or the jungle's dangers. When D Company had entered the mountains on November 23, Cavanaugh had 117 men under his command. 21 of them were now being carried out on those stretchers, either dead or too wounded to walk out themselves. 

Soon it came time for D Company to get on their feet and begin their own march down the slippery mud trail. Cavanaugh had Lt. Carrico and his other platoon leaders get the men onto their tired feet. Cavanaugh and Carrico, who called each other Rusty and AC, shared a look. It was time for a rest and while the regiment had completed every assigned task they'd been given, the cost had been high and although they were too young and exhausted to know it, the nightmares would last for years to come. 

Forming up by squads and platoons, Cavanaugh moved his men down the trail towards the beach. A depressing fog enshrouded the hills around them, one that Cavanaugh and Carrico felt matched the mood of the men who marched forward with one aching foot in front of  the other. The young paratroopers were quiet, lost in thoughts of loved ones back home and shadows of former lives that felt so foreign now.  

Said T/4 Rod Serling, the future creator of the Twilight television show, said, "(It) was not the weather, it was the mood, I remember--the kind of mood that is the province of combat and is never fully understood by those who have not lived with the anguish of war."

Suddenly, someone at the head of their column stopped and turned to whisper to the man behind him. Instantly the paratroopers shook off the mental cobwebs and went to full alert as whispers meant that the enemy had been spotted. And this close to the end, no one was taking any chances. 

And then the message roared down the line like wildfire as paratroopers passed the words along: "It's Christmas."

The quiet of the jungle was soon broken as one Angel began to sing there in the clouds:

"O come, all ye faithful
Joyful and triumphant
O come ye, o come ye to Bethlehem..."

Other broken voices soon joined in and a warmth began to fill the hearts of the men who had felt frozen by war.

"Come and behold Him
Born the King of Angels!"

Sing choirs of Angels, indeed.

The magic of Christmas had found its way into the souls of D Company and 2nd Battalion on that rainy, cold, muddy Christmas day in 1944. Gone were the fears, the pains and the difficulties of war. Instead, the battle-hardened paratroopers felt their hearts made light and the spirit that filled their beings after so many dark nights of combat can only be described as Heavenly.

T/4 Rod Serling noted, "...suddenly I wasn't aware of the cold rain or the mud. I gave no thought to the sickening ache deep inside the gut that had been with me for so many days. Someone had transformed the world... We sang as we led the wounded by the hand and carried the litters and looked back on the rows of homemade crosses we left behind... It had come indeed--the Holy Day. The day of all days. It was Christmas."

Pondering that Christmas morning so many years ago, my grandfather, my hero, 1st Lieutenant Andrew Carrico III simply and with deep emotion said, "I remember."

Most of the 511th's Angels have now passed from this life, but their legacy of courage and the freedoms they fought for still remain. This Christmas season I pray we can all honor their sacrifice and service by increasing "goodwill towards men" and by spreading peace. May we open our hearts in love to those around us, may our words by kind and uplifting, may we forgive quickly and serve without selfishness. May we be Angels in our nature and our daily living. May we be the hands that lift, the cause of hope, the bright lights that shine when the world feels dark.

Merry Christmas, my dear friends.




Jeremy C. Holm

Author & American athlete Jeremy C. Holm has spent over half his life in the fast-paced winter sport of bobsled, including as the Head Coach for the US Adaptive Bobsled Team. He has a degree in Journalism and is pursuing a degree in Military History at the American Military University. In addition to motivational speaking and corporate appearances around the world, Jeremy is the author of three books and spends his time camping, hiking, writing and trying to make history, one day at a time.

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To read more of Jeremy's work, you can order one of his highly-acclaimed books by visiting the Online Store to purchase signed copies or unsigned ones by purchasing a copy wherever books are sold. 


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Jeremy C Holm author bobsled

When Angels Fall, the 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment
Utilizing firsthand experiences and interviews with members of the 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment, including his grandfather 1st Lieutenant Andrew Carrico of Company D, Jeremy tells the full story of this historic regiment. From Camp Toccoa to Tokyo, and the training grounds of Camp Mackall and New Guinea to the nightmarish combat of the Leyte and Luzon campaigns, WHEN ANGELS FALL is a masterful narrative by a former journalist and historian who here tells the full story of a group of America’s heroes, the elite paratroopers of the 511th PIR in World War II. Buy Now

Fire on Ice Jeremy C Holm
Racing down an icy track at 80 miles per hour leads you to think of many things. For Jeremy C. Holm, it made him think of God. In Fire and Ice, Holm shares his experiences as a bobsled pilot and coach, presenting a message of faith and personal courage that will inspire you to come closer to Jesus Christ and reach for that ultimate prize of eternal life. Buy Now

The Champions Way Jeremy C Holm
How do we achieve gold medal moments in life? How do we find peace and confidence and what truly makes us happy? Discover the answers in Jeremy's new ebook, "The Champion's Way", available now at Amazon.com. Buy Now