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Boonsboro veteran recalls his WWII test of survival

May 26, 2008|By DAN DEARTH

BOONSBORO - Burman Smith said he didn't see the inside of a building from the time his unit got enmeshed in the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944 until fighting in that sector ended a few months later.

In addition to fighting the Germans, Smith and other soldiers of the 17th Airborne Division had to survive one of the coldest winters on record.

Smith, 90, said he still has pain from nerve and circulation damage that he suffered in his feet after contracting frostbite during the battle.

"It was so cold," said Smith, as he pored over old photographs in his Boonsboro home. "It very seldom got above 20 to 25 degrees during the daytime. We slept and ate in the snow."

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Smith said doctors told him he probably would have lost his feet had he not followed a daily routine as the battle raged on. He had three pairs of socks, and would take off a wet pair, ring them out and then put them inside his shirt to dry. Smith said he replaced the wet socks with the dry, dirty ones he wore a day or two before.

The 17th was thrust into the Battle of the Bulge to fight alongside the 101st Airborne Division near Bastogne, Belgium. After the fighting, the 17th received a brief respite but was tapped again in March for Operation Varsity, an Allied airborne assault across the Rhine River at Wesel, Germany, which later became Hagerstown's sister city.

The campaign was carried out in conjunction with the British 6th Airborne Division and involved roughly 20,000 paratroopers and glidermen.

From his glider, Smith said he watched horror unfold in the sky as his aircraft drifted closer to its destination.

"I saw a bomber going down and saw the crew bail out," Smith said. "I don't know what happened to them. The sky was almost black with anti-aircraft fire."

Smith said his glider landed in the backyard of a home. The pilot was able to skip the aircraft over a fence to avoid crashing, he said.

On March 24, 1945 - the day Smith landed - military records show 430 men from the 17th Airborne Division died and there were several hundred casualties.

Smith's mortar company, however, came out unscathed, he said. The 17th's mission during the Rhine crossing was to secure bridges so Allied troops could make a final thrust into Germany.

"The Germans were all around us," Smith said. "We were mixed in with them. We took the bridges and kept them away from it ... For the first 12 hours, we met heavy resistance."

Throughout his military service during World War II, Smith said he really didn't worry about whether he would survive.

"I don't know why," he said. "No one seemed scared. I imagine they were, but they thought about something else."

At the end of the war, Smith said he had the choice of going to the Pacific to fight the Japanese or stay in Berlin as part of the American occupation force.

He chose Berlin.

"I volunteered for the army of occupation because I had all I wanted of the fighting," he said.

As fate would have it, the Japanese surrendered before the 17th was deployed to the Pacific.

The unit returned to the United States in September 1945, but because he stayed in Germany, Smith didn't come home until three months later, he said.

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