CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
World War II
World War II Oral History Interview
US Army, 82nd Airborne Division, Ex- POW
Date: September 23, 2003
Interviewer: Carol Fowler
Summarizer: Allison Camardo
Editor: Professor Melissa Ziobro, Monmouth University
Veterans History Project
Matthew Parks was born in Camden, New Jersey in 1925 and lived there for fifty-five years, except for his period of service in the military. In April of 1943 he enlisted in the army while still in high school; but, his entry was delayed until after graduation. In August of 1943, Parks went to Fort Dix, New Jersey to take army placement tests. He was told that he qualified for an army college curriculum linked with basic training; he was sent to Fort Benning, Georgia to participate in the program. A few months later, however, the course was cancelled, and Parks was transferred to Camp Howze in Gainesville, Texas, to complete basic training. He was then sent to Camp Myles Standish, Massachusetts, from where he was shipped overseas to Liverpool, England in November, 1943.
Once in England, Parks was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division’s 325th Glider Infantry Regiment as a machine gunner. The 325th was intensively drilling for the forthcoming D-Day invasion, and Parks qualified as an expert with both rifle and machine gun while at Scraptoft. He remembered that he and his fellow soldiers were transported to various training venues by truck, and that, as they drove by, the people in the local villages waved to them.
On June 5, 1944, the men of the 82nd were brought to an airfield near Leister to board planes to fly them to Normandy. Parks described the apprehension he felt being an 18-year-old boarding a flimsy looking, unarmed and motor-less glider, nicknamed a “flying coffin.” He carried his twenty-eight pound .30 caliber machine gun onto the glider, and his crew included an assistant gunner and four men to carry ammunition. Parks sat on an ammo crate and looked around at the other eleven men in his plane, some of them veterans of combat in Sicily. The engines of the C-47 tow plane soon kicked over, the nylon towline pulled taut, and Parks and his comrades were suddenly airborne, heading for a French village south of St. Mere Eglise.
The only equipment carried on a glider was what was needed for immediate combat, and the soldiers tightly gripped their personal equipment the entire time they were in the plane. The gliders were intended to land behind enemy lines, at which time the doors would open and the men would exit quickly, often right into a firefight; they would seek immediate cover along hedgerows and other terrain. At this point in his interview, Parks shared a story about the testing of gliders before they were sent to Europe. He recalled that the mayor of St. Louis went up in a glider with eight other politicians to prove that the planes were safe. A wing fell off the glider while they were in the air, and everyone inside died in the subsequent crash. According to Parks, no improvements were made to the gliders even after that incident.
Parks’ battalion of the 325th was assigned twelve American-made gliders, and twenty-four British gliders constructed from plywood. He recalled that forty percent of the men in his unit became casualties in glider landings. The gliders did not have any specific way to land, and they would often crash into poles or hedgerows, sometimes detonating mines and/or experiencing heavy fire from hidden German positions. Parks was lucky. After landing in Normandy, his unit only faced sporadic small arms fire from confused Germans retreating down the road towards a nearby village. The Americans opened fire in that general direction and killed several of the fleeing enemy.
The soldiers of the 325th had been told that they were only supposed to spend three to five days in Normandy; but, they ended up in combat for thirty-three days. With only enough rations for the shorter period, they had to forage off the countryside for food, water, and other supplies. If an airborne unit had a soldier killed, wounded or captured, a replacement for that man would not arrive until the unit returned to its home base, which, for the 325th, was in England.
While in Normandy, Parks was involved in a series of fierce firefights where both sides suffered considerable casualties. At Le Ham, which he described his “baptism by fire,” Park’s assistant gunner was killed, and his friend Samuel Payne was assigned to the position. After Le Ham, the 325th advanced to the La Fiere causeway, where the regiment was ordered to stop a German counterattack. Following a serious firefight, the Americans withdrew to a more secure defensive position.
Parks interrupted his chronological account to provide a detailed explanation of how his machine gun functioned. He explained that every fifth round in the ammunition belt that fed the gun was a “tracer,” which trailed flame to allow the gunner to see where his fire was hitting at a distance; although, he said the tracers were not always accurate. Parks also recalled white phosphorus mortar and artillery marking rounds fired by both sides, which would not only explode but also burn anything or anyone they landed on or near. He recalled that the “Screaming Mimi,” a rocket fired by the Germans, was particularly nerve-wracking. Parks also noted that there were a lot of “friendly fire” incidents, and that firefights were often very confusing.
In late September 1944, British General Bernard Montgomery launched Operation Market Garden, an airborne offensive into the Netherlands to capture the bridges over the Meuse and Rhine rivers. Although Dutch civilians helped the British with local intelligence on German positions, and the operation initially seemed successful, subsequent mistakes and a stubborn German defense led to failure. American airborne troops were called on to bail out the beleaguered British with men and supplies. Most of the gliders Parks’ unit flew in on were destroyed, coordination with the British was poor, and he recalled that he and his comrades were happy when the operation ended.
After the fiasco in the Netherlands, the 325th was sent to Sissonne, France for “rest and recuperation,” and to receive replacements for the unit’s casualties. On December 16, 1944, the men of the 325th were alerted to prepare for the developing Battle of the Bulge. On December 18, the regiment left in trucks for Belgium, with two days of rations and no winter clothing. They were then ordered to advance on foot to defend a critical crossroad. After walking for eight hours in extreme cold through icy water up to their ankles, Parks and his comrades were exhausted by the time they deployed to stop the Germans.
On December 23, German Tiger tanks from the 2nd S.S. Panzer Division, accompanied by infantry, advanced through the woods at the 325th’s position. Casualties were evacuated as the battle heated up. As the Americans’ ammunition ran out, and the enemy began to surround the position, Sam Payne, Parks’ best friend and assistant gunner, ran off into the woods. He later told Parks that he was too afraid to stay and fight, while Parks said he was too afraid to run.
Parks and eight other survivors surrendered. He recalled Germans walking around the woods shooting any soldiers who were still alive and trying to fight. One man Parks knew played dead and survived – and he met him again fifty years later! The Germans took their prisoners to the basement of a castle, where they were interrogated. The interrogator who questioned Parks spoke perfect English, as well as had information on the 325th regiment. Before being captured, Parks and other soldiers had been warned that there were English speaking Germans wearing American uniforms, and pretending to be American soldiers, infiltrating behind the lines.
Parks was officially reported missing in action in January of 1945, one month after being captured. In March, his family received a letter stating that he was a prisoner of war. While he was a prisoner, Parks remembered that he got better treatment from German soldiers than German civilians, who would throw bricks and other rubble at POWs.
Parks said that while he was a prisoner, he did everything he could to stay alive. During his first night in German captivity, he was confined in a large barn with two hundred other men. They were awakened the next morning, and for days afterward, by a kick or a hit by a rifle butt before dawn. Transferred to Stalag 12A in eastern Germany, the prisoners spent their days cutting down trees for firewood, but they got very little food. Prisoners received ersatz coffee or tea in the morning and afternoon, and once a day they received soup with potato peels in it. Sundays were special, with an issue of bread and cheese, which was supposed to last the entire week. An occasional meat ration was rumored to be dog meat. Parks’ weight dropped from 178 pounds to 112 pounds over four and a half months.
In early May, 1945, with the Russian army closing in on their POW camp, and the end of the war in sight, Parks and his fellow captives were exchanged for German POWs, into the hands of the Americans. Parks remembered that he felt hatred toward the German POWs he saw, because they complained about the treatment they received at the hands of the Americans, while he believed he had endured far worse treatment in German custody.
On his trip home to America, Parks was isolated and installed in a high-ranking officer’s cabin when it was discovered that he had the mumps. He was discharged from the army and returned to civilian life on November 19, 1945. After his discharge, Parks attended the University of Pennsylvania on the GI Bill, and he became the first person in his family to graduate from college. He went on to graduate from Temple University Law School, become an attorney, and then a New Jersey state compensation judge in. Parks later gave lectures on his experiences with Holocaust survivors around the country, who were interested in comparing their treatment at the hands of the Germans with that of the POWs.
Parks, who was retired at the time of his interview, concluded by stating that he is very proud to have served his country during World War II at such a young age. He was awarded the Bronze Star, European Campaign Medal with silver star, World War II Victory medal, American Campaign Medal and the Good Conduct Medal.