Saving Private Webster: A Review of Parachute Infantry by David Kenyon Webster (Part 1 of 4)

Daniel Kenyon Webster’s memoir, Parachute Infantry: An American Paratrooper’s Memoir of D-Day and the Fall of the Third Reich, was rescued from obscurity by his service in E Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division which was made famous through the HBO series Band of Brothers. “Web” as he was called in the series, and presumably in the service (although he signed all his letters to his family as ‘Kenyon’) is a rarity: a highly educated and very observant young man serving in the ranks. Webster jumped at D-Day and survived the campaign through Normandy and dropped into Holland for ‘Operation Market Garden.’ He was fortunate to be wounded shortly before the 101st Airborne was sent to hold Bastonge and suffered terrific casualties. He returned to the regiment and saw out the rest of the war with E Company.

Webster was an English literature major at Harvard who dropped out and enlisted in the paratroopers. His motivations for doing so are complex. A man of his educational and social background could easily have become an officer in any of the services and probably arranged to stay well back from the front line. But this was not Webster’s desire. In a letter to his parents, he says everyone in America wants to beat the Germans but no one wants their son to die. However, someone’s sons had to die and he did feel he could exempt himself from this.

The Army and Webster were not a good fit. He hated the army and as far as I can see the army didn’t like him very much – not because he was a ‘goldbrick’ or anything but because he had an ‘attitude.’ And his attitude is something I, and imagine you, can sympathize with: he was far too intelligent to swallow all the bullshit. It wasn’t hard for others, particularly officers – especially inept officers – to pick this up and ride him. Band of Brothers glosses over the immense gulf between enlisted men and officers in WW II. Obviously that gulf still exists and must exist to maintain discipline in the armed forces. But in WW II it was carried to an extreme. The enlisted men were treated as ignorant fools and were subject to constant harassment and petty regulations they called “chickenshit.”

In his talk to the men before D-Day, Colonel Sink, who commanded the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment (and was in his mid-30s in real life not in his 50s as portrayed in the series) he didn’t patronize them but gave the kind of realistic talk one would hope a grown up man would give to highly trained soldiers. He ended with this: “I do not care what else you do, but for God’s sake, don’t let the general catch you in a wool knit cap…”

In the US Army in WW Two, men were issued wool knit caps to put on their heads to lesson the friction of their helmet. Although the helmet did have a liner, that often got discarded because the men used their helmets to cook in and other personal requirements when they were under sustained fire and could not move. Therefore, any rational person would wear a wool knit cap so that one’s helmet didn’t scrape one’s head and to have a layer of wool between one’s steel helmet and one’s head in freezing weather. How hard is this to understand? Yet General Taylor didn’t think it looked very military for men off the line to take their helmets off and just wear their wool caps. That was the kind of stuff he worried about. Consequently, the men even slept in their helmets so no one could see their wool caps. No wonder Webster hated the army. (And General Taylor.)

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Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website: http://charlesmccain.com/

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