CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
World War II
Theodore Kerwood grew up during the Great Depression, but that did not stop him from experiencing an active childhood. When he was 13, he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps. At age 15, his uncle signed him up for the Pennsylvania National Guard. He went to several camps with the National Guard before his promotion to sergeant in 1939.
Kerwood was trained to build bridges and perform engineer work. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, he was inducted into the regular army. Kerwood recalled that, while directing a convoy in Virginia, the townspeople thought that they were heading out to war, and thus brought food and wine.
In 1942, Kerwood was sent to train in Louisiana, which he regarded as “kind of boring.” Based at Camp Livingston, he noted that his unit did not get along with those stationed at nearby Camp Claiborne, resulting in many fights. To escape this situation, Kerwood volunteered to join the 82nd Airborne.
Sent to Fort Benning, Kerwood ventured through four stages of training. The first stage consisted of running and calisthenics, the second stage packing parachutes, the third parachuting from a 40-foot tower, and the fourth five actual parachute jumps. He noted that the men “were very proud of the outfit they belonged to.”
Leaving from New York, Kerwood first landed in North Africa at Casablanca, before he was sent to a small town in the Moroccan desert. Conditions were relatively poor; it was extremely hot, and gnats infested the food. For entertainment, he remembered borrowing some horses from the locals and riding to the coast to swim in the Mediterranean Sea. A British air unit in the area was short of tail gunners, so Kerwood volunteered to join. However, he only went on one flight before his commander ordered him to return to his regular duties. Kerwood would later find that serving in the 82nd, however, would not be boring; he would be sent to many places and serve in many missions with different units. “Wherever they thought we were needed, they attached us to a unit.”
Kerwood was soon ordered to participate in his first combat parachute jump as part of the Allied invasion of Sicily. He always felt scared while boarding the transport aircraft, but not while leaving. “Once you are out of the plane, your mind is occupied. Once you hit the ground your mind is still occupied, and once you are in combat your mind is occupied, so you don’t have time to be afraid until after it’s over.”
Kerwood’s unit was dropped from a much higher altitude than expected, and strong winds scattered the paratroopers “10 miles wide and 25 miles long.” He landed near an enemy pillbox and tossed a grenade in (though the pillbox may have been unoccupied – he did not check), and then formed up with about 30 other paratroopers who had landed near him. Soon, his group met up with another group led by General Gavin, making contact with the small noise making “crickets”. (Kerwood remarked that he never had a problem with the crickets, though one might accidentally mistake a German cycling the bolt of a rifle for the same sound.) However, there was a misunderstanding, and one of the soldiers next to him was ready to fire with a BAR on the General! On the order of his commander, Captain Johnson, Kerwood grabbed the soldier’s weapon and pointed it into the air, saving the General’s life.
The next morning, Kerwood’s unit came under mortar fire. When a Tiger tank appeared, he grabbed a bazooka and fired a rocket into the underside of the vehicle, immobilizing it. Moving up the west coast of Sicily, his unit continued to come under artillery and machine gun fire. Coming to a crossroads, a shot suddenly rang out, injuring one of the men nearby. However, a battle did not commence; instead, the Italian soldiers, not wishing to fight, began coming out of the woods with white flags to surrender.
Kerwood also remembered how some of the Italians had pink wooden bullets, which were dipped in chemicals and thus were intended to poison or infect targets rather than kill them. He was hit by a wooden bullet, but he was not seriously injured. Arriving in the north of Sicily, Kerwood rested in a town where the locals brought out a variety of food and supplies. “If there was anything you wanted, it was there.”
“I wasn’t an easy person to get along with,” Kerwood confessed. “If I said something, I meant it.” In addition to being a tough commander, he had been hardened by the horrors of war he had witnessed. After the Sicilian campaign, Kerwood never got “friendly close” with anybody in the service.
Going into combat, Kerwood typically carried a Thompson submachine gun, with a couple magazine clips each in his pocket and his belt. He also carried a .45 caliber pistol and wore a brass-buckle knife on his boot.
Kerwood returned to North Africa before he prepared for his next mission. In a secret operation, he and one other man jumped into Nazi-occupied Greece and escorted a partisan to an American submarine. The mission took place over the course of just two nights, and fortunately Kerwood never encountered the enemy.
For the next mission, the 82nd Airborne was to jump near the Allied beachhead on mainland Italy near Salerno. After landing, Kerwood became engaged in hand-to-hand fighting with a German soldier and sustained a bayonet wound. Morphine and sulfur drugs were applied to his injury, and he did not have to go to the hospital. Kerwood changed his name on documentation to “Ted Kerwood” after the incident to prevent command from sending him to a different outfit, a common consequence of being wounded. Following the initial landing, his unit advanced with the rest of the army towards Naples.
Kerwood explained that the enemy referred to his unit as the “Devils in Baggy Pants.” He also noted that the Germans “said that the United States took all the gangsters and formed the 82nd Airborne Division. The Germans were afraid of us, they really were.” For his part, Kerwood said that he was “scared to death” going into combat. However, during artillery fire, he remarked, “I didn’t think I knew what was going on.” Kerwood would simply lay in cover without thought or emotion until the barrage was over.
Naples was soon secured from the German army, but it remained “a very hostile town for a while.” Pro-German citizens, in acts of resistance against the Allies, detonated time bombs across the city. One Sunday morning, while Kerwood’s unit was based at an Italian barracks, he had a feeling that his men should be moved outside, and thus ordered them to do so, despite their complaints. A few minutes later, the barracks suddenly exploded, killing many men. Enemy saboteurs had placed a bomb on the barracks, killing many men; Kerwood’s instincts, however, had ensured the safety of his outfit.
“Some of the Italians were friendly, and others were hostile,” Kerwood said. To deter attacks by civilians, the soldiers had to travel in groups. He recalled how several men had been killed by an Italian girl who had stabbed them in the back.
After the conclusion of his service in the Italian campaign, Kerwood was sent back to North Africa, and then to Ireland. After a few months, he arrived in Burbage, England, where he was stationed in a firehouse. Due to casualties sustained in Italy, a new company was formed. Kerwood selected all the quiet men for his unit, stating that in his opinion they “were the best men in combat.” His unit soon began training for the Normandy landings. Before the actual operation, he performed one training jump. Kerwood also recalled how Eisenhower gave a speech to the 82nd Airborne, telling them that he did not expect too many men to return from the mission.
On D-Day, Kerwood’s unit jumped at about 1:00 AM outside of Saint-Mère-Église, with orders to destroy a bridge near the city. However, his unit was dropped off target, and the paratroopers were scattered across the hedgerows in the countryside. He himself landed in a tree and sprained his ankle. The Germans were not aware of their presence at first, but the next morning Kerwood’s unit came under attack. His troops began firing at some enemy soldiers across a field, which he remarked was “just like shooting a fencepost.”
Soon the fighting moved to close quarters in the hedgerows, and twice Kerwood had close encounters with enemy soldiers. During one of these incidents, he was struck by a German rifle butt, shattering some of his teeth. “After you have a close encounter with somebody, you don’t think of anything – but what you’re doing. Your mind is occupied. But afterwards I was shaken a little bit.” Kerwood remained fighting for 22 days with his untreated injuries before he was brought back to England to recover in the hospital.
During Operation Market Garden, the 82nd landed in the Netherlands at Nijmegen and secured the bridge there. Kerwood remembered how the sky was “full of airplanes” when he took off from England. Upon arriving over the target area, German anti-aircraft batteries began firing, but were neutralized promptly by the escorting fighters. However, a piece of flak did penetrate the fuselage of the C-47 he was on. While descending on his jump, small-arms fire pierced his parachute, but Kerwood was able to land safely. At first, his troops were able to secure the bridge, but not the ground on the far side of the river. German attempts to plant bombs underneath the bridge were thwarted, and eventually a group of paratroopers in canvas boats was able to cross the river and secure the opposite bank.
Much like in Italy, some of the French locals that Kerwood had encountered were friendly, while others, who had been on good terms with the occupiers and had received favorable treatment, were now hostile. He remembered that the Dutch, however, were very friendly, and would inform his troops about where the Germans were hiding. Kerwood also noted, however, that many of the Germans were nice too. “They were very well-dressed,” he said, explaining that they also generally seemed better off economically than the other European countries at the time.
After Operation Market Garden, Kerwood went to Rheims on leave for a short period of time. He used some of his leave to journey to Paris, which allowed him to take a “mental break” from the war. In addition, Kerwood kept in contact with his family and sent money home to them.
When the Germans launched the Ardennes Offensive, Kerwood was sent to assist the defense during the Battle of the Bulge. The weather was cold and snowy, the effects of which were compounded by the fact that the troops arrived in their summer jumpsuits. One night, while venturing behind the German lines on a reconnaissance mission, he stopped to rest with two other men in a foxhole. While sound asleep, Kerwood suddenly woke up and ordered his men to get out of the foxhole. Almost immediately after, an artillery shell landed in the hole. Just several minutes later, he told his men that his grandmother had died; a week later he received a letter confirming this. Regarding both strange occurrences, “I think it was intuition,” Kerwood said. “Or somebody was looking over my shoulder.”
After two or three nights, Kerwood was relocated to the Belgian town of Vielsalm. The 28th Pennsylvania National Guard Division retreated through his lines, but they had failed to destroy a bridge which was about to fall into enemy hands. Kerwood, having experience with explosives as part of the 307th Engineer Battalion, volunteered to lead a platoon to venture to the bridge and finish the job. However, the platoon’s firing resulted in more attention than he wanted, as their tracer bullets began to set houses on fire. Thus, Kerwood decided to continue alone.
At night, Kerwood took several blocks of TNT and, under heavy enemy fire from enemy infantry as well as a medium tank on the opposite riverbank, blew up the bridge. He waited until the next night before returning, waiting to reach his lines at dawn so that the Americans would be able to see that he was friendly. For his actions, Kerwood was awarded the Silver Star by General Gavin.
Kerwood referred to General Gavin as a “remarkable man”, stating that he was “very friendly to his troops,” but also strict. He met Gavin four times and was congratulated by him twice. Kerwood also had high praise for Captain Johnson, his company commander. While boarding the plane in Sicily, Johnson told him, “Sergeant, if I hesitate in the door, I want you to push me out.” To which Kerwood replied, “How about if I hesitate?” He also met General Patton once. The General asked Kerwood to take his men towards some woods, but he replied that he would have to ask his company commander. Patton then asked him if he was willing to die for his country, to which he replied “no.” An angry Patton asked why this was; Kerwood said that he would fight for his nation, but he wasn’t going to die.
Following a stay in England, Kerwood then returned to Holland, where German resistance remained. One day, he remembered seeing a German jet fly low over the forest. “It scared everybody, because we didn’t know what it was. We thought it was a buzz bomb.” Kerwood also recalled that the strange noises and associated psychological impact of weapons such as the V-2 rocket and the Nebelwerfer, or “Screaming Mimi” as he referred to it, were profound.
Kerwood was granted a 45-day furlough in the US, after which he returned to Germany. In September of 1945, following the Japanese surrender, he again returned to the US, where he was discharged at Indiantown Gap about a week later. “When I came back to the United States to live,” Kerwood lamented, “I was disappointed… Life was boring when I got back.” He got a job repairing pumps and did not take advantage of the GI Bill.
Kerwood was one of the only two or three hundred members of the 82nd Airborne who survived all four combat jumps during World War II. He owed his survival to intuition, luck, and, though he did not pray overseas (yet was a Catholic), perhaps to a higher power, too. For his service, Kerwood was awarded, in addition to his Silver Star, an Arrowhead medal, a Purple Heart, and medals from the French and Dutch governments.
When asked did the war change him, Kerwood felt so. “I’d imagine it did change me. It changes everybody, I think.” He tried to forget what happened in the war, and has not reached out to his former colleagues. “When I came out of the service [sic], I just forgot everything about it. I did not talk about it. I did not mention it. And I didn’t like to listen to anyone else talk about it.” Kerwood eventually joined the VFW; on his 80th birthday, his family threw him a “surprise party” regarding his service years, after which he finally began talking. Occasionally, he visited schools to talk about his service.
Kerwood said that he would not have served again if he had the opportunity to relive his past. However, he did make it clear that he was “not sorry” for serving, as he considered his time in the military to have been some of the best years of his life. “I enjoyed myself… My mind was occupied.” Kerwood felt that every student should serve in the military, as it was a way of learning something that he felt college could not teach — common sense.
Theodore Kerwood passed at the age of 86 with his family at his bedside at home on March 21, 2007.