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Tribute to a Paratrooper

Tony Zanzinger (1924-2017)
"I was out the other night and I heard our National Anthem being played and then I saw our flag flying. It was a sight I'll never forget. Looking at the flag I could not see the stars in the field of blue; instead I saw a picture of home and all of your faces. It sure does put a feeling in your heart. That's why I'm here, mom, so that I can help to keep all of you safe back home." - Tony Zanzinger in a letter to his mother

At a WWII event in 2015 I had the honor to meet Tony Zanzinger who served with the 501st PIR, 101st Airborne during WWII. After talking to him and hearing his incredible stories, I went home even more in awe of the Greatest Generation. I can truly credit much of my interest and admiration for the Airborne paratroopers to Tony. Tony's unit paralleled the 506th (Band of Brothers) as they fought in Normandy, Holland, Bastogne, and captured Hitler’s Eagle Nest in Berchtesgaden. I don't know how many people I told, "I met a paratrooper who played chopsticks on Hitler's piano!" He was truly a treasure of history, wisdom, and good ol' American grit. One of my favorite memories from the WWII event was watching Tony beside a 101st Airborne reenactor. I remember him saying, "It's like looking at myself." 

Operation Gratitude Collection Drive

Long time no post! Honestly, how does time go by so quickly? Anyway, here I am with a post about the Operation Gratitude collection drive I helped organize at the Eldred World War II Museum last weekend. Operation Gratitude is a 501c3 nonprofit organization that sends care packages and letters of appreciation to U.S. troops, first responders, veterans, military families, and wounded heroes. Their mission is to thank every American who serves. I'm going to share a bit about the collection drive and encourage you to host one in your community. You don't have to wait for a special holiday like Veterans Day to host an event. You can say thank you anytime of the year! 

Operation Gratitude has wishlist items listed on their website which is a good place to start. They also have certain care kits you can assemble such as The Patrol Care Kit, The Elements Care Kit, and Hygiene Care KitI chose the Elements Care Kit to keep the list of items needed more manageable for people donating, but everyone was very generous and donated enough items for various care kits!

American Veterans Conference

On Saturday I spent the day in the company of America's most decorated and distinguished veterans and active duty personnel from World War II to the present day! The American Veterans Center hosts a three day conference in Washington, DC at the United States Navy Memorial every year with panels and discussions. My mom and I attended the Saturday sessions and the entire day was just jam-packed full of amazing stories. If you have the chance to attend next year, I highly recommend it!

The first session highlighted two WWII veterans, Lt. Colonel Alexander Jefferson and Robert Izumi. These two men had incredible stories! 


Peleliu | 0200

It’s in the middle of the night when it really gets to you—missing home I mean. When you’re sitting in a foxhole and staring up at the pitch black sky something happens. I know it’s the same moon and stars that look down on my family in Virginia, but it sure as hell doesn’t seem like it. How can the same cosmos that shine on peaceful fields and that old run-down farmhouse shine on men riddled with bullets as their blood stains the ground beneath them? Boys. Not even men. How? I don’t know. So I try not to think about it.

“You know, the Japs could be watching us right now. In those leaves over there …”

Of all the guys I could get stuck with, it had to be Jackson. He’s only eighteen years old and jumpy as heck. I glance back at him and can only see the outline of his helmet in the shadows. “Shut up.”

He sighs nervously and I catch the sound of ammo rattling as he repositions himself. All is quiet again. I strain my eyes to see into the darkness. Nothing.

“I heard stories about them you know …” Jackson again. I get a good grip on my machine gun and keep my eyes fixed ahead. We’re in Peleliu. Anything can happen. “I heard stories of what they’ll do if they catch us.” He turns to me, hoping for some reassurance I guess.

I don’t give him any. “Yeah well, the stories are true.”

That shuts him up for a few more minutes, but not long enough for my liking. “I always wanted to be a Marine ever since I was a kid.”

You’re still a kid, I want to say. I’m still a kid. But I don’t. “Oh, so this is your dream come true.” I don’t mean to sound so sarcastic. But I’m tired. I’m tired of this war and seeing one friend after another blown to pieces.

“No.” He’s quiet for a long moment. “Didn’t think it would be like this.”

“Yeah Jackson, none of us did.”

“But we’re doing the right thing.” He sounds almost hopeful.

I grit my teeth, annoyed and bitter. “Great, you’re one of those idealists.”

“I’m a Marine,” Jackson says, his southern drawl hanging on a war-torn breeze. “I swore to defend the United States against all enemies. That’s what I’m here to do.”

“You’re here to kill.”

“And protect my country.”

I’m envious of him. I really am. I wish I had his optimistic nature. When you’ve seen your buddies killed, something just breaks inside you and suddenly you forget what you’re fighting for. At least I have.

“Someone has to do it, Williams," he says to me. "Someone has to protect and defend our families, our country, our way of life. So we’re doing the right thing. I'm proud to be here.”

He is right, but I don't have that patriotic zeal like I used to. It was so easy to feel when we were marching in sharp uniforms and basking in cheers.

It’s not so easy to feel on Peleliu island ...

Snippet of a Story

Long time no post! Just to prove I haven't dropped off the face of the blogging world, I dug out this excerpt from a story that's still a work-in-progress. (Virtual high five to anyone who can identify the young man in this picture!)

I hadn’t planned to get caught.

I was told this mountain pass wasn’t regularly patrolled. All I had to do was find a safe path to the Romanian border and on to Palestine. So many are counting on me to save them. So many are counting on me to get them to Eretz Israel.

And I failed.

The border guard takes his time unfolding the map, dragging out my misery. He gives it a long shake and surveys it through narrowed eyes. “Treasonous Zionist activities will not be left unpunished.” His voice is low as he rips my map into shreds. I watch as a gale snatches them into its lively embrace. My path to freedom dances through the wind toward the mountain pass. The bitter irony bites into my skin.

Run. Run toward the scraps of freedom flying through the air. Escape.

I cast a cautious glance at the guard who is enjoying the mess he has created in the sky, and that’s when I make the decision to run. I tear through the two horses, brushing against their warm skin. I don’t stop even though I hear the beating of their hooves as they gain on me in mere seconds. The sight of pine trees bending in the breeze are blocked now by the blur of horses as they cut me off from freedom.

The border guard jumps down, grabs my wrists and locks them into cold iron fetters. He’s shouting furiously in Russian as he lodges his pistol into my back.

Is this the last time I’ll taste the crisp air, see the sunlight spread its long fingers across the fields? The taste of freedom dissipates, blown away to honeymoon with the shreds of paper floating toward Zion.

My Grandpa's Best Accomplishment

70 years ago today, two kids from Quebec stood before God and each other and said "I do." They stayed by each other's side no matter what life threw at them. We their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren are forever thankful for their example of love and loyalty.

They had a beautiful relationship, evident by my grandpa's words."To win my beautiful bride—that's my best accomplishment. There couldn't be anything better than that, could there?" 

We miss you, Grandma. 


"I Have Never Forgotten Their Names."

Today, on the 73rd anniversary of D-Day, I'm thinking of my friend, Elmer DeLucia who was twenty years old when he stormed Omaha Beach. I've had the honor and privilege to talk with him on multiple occasions, and I'll forever cherish our visits. It's not everyday a D-Day veteran holds your hand and sings, You'll Never Walk Alone! There's so much I could write about him. He fought in five major battles during WWII, Normandy, Northern France, Ardennes (Battle of the Bulge), Rhineland and Central Europe. He was honored with the Presidential Citation for D-Day, three Purple Hearts, two Silver Stars, five Bronze Stars, five Major Battle Medals, a Chevalier in the Legion of Honor in France, and a Good Conduct Medal. But today I'm going to focus on his D-Day experiences.

Night of Nights

Night of Nights
by Emily Ann Putzke

June 5th, 1944.

The day's clear and bright and the invasion’s a go, dammit. I don’t know what I thought … the invasion can’t be postponed again. Everyone’s too nerved up anyway. Let’s just get the whole thing over with and come home, that’s what everyone’s thinking. Day two of smearing my face with charcoal. Some of the fellas found some paint and streaked their faces like the Sioux. It’s like something from the Wild West. Already signed my GI life insurance at HQ. Some of the fellas joke around, you know. “Don’t want my folks back home to miss out on $10,000.” Signing that really got to us. Our days of training are kaput. The real work’s about to begin and we have a tough row of buttons to shine. Some of our folks will be getting that $10,000 before too long. That’s why we joke, I guess. If we think about it too long … well, anyway. Yesterday, as we were waiting around, some of the fellas shaved their heads and got Mohawks. (Don’t worry, Ma. I still have my hair. I didn’t feel like dishing out 15 cents.) I heard that Col. Sink came around and found the whole thing real amusing. “I forgot to tell you, some weeks ago we were officially notified that the Germans are telling French civilians that the Allied invasion forces would be led by American paratroopers, all of them convicted felons and psychopaths, easily recognized by the fact that they shave their heads or nearly so.”

Ha Ha.

I’m weighed down in gear and armed to the teeth. Hear that Jerries! We’re given American flag patches to sew onto the right sleeve of our jump jackets. We look like a million bucks. In my musette bag I got a blanket, cigs, mess kit, rain poncho, toothbrush, two candy bars, and razor. I stuffed my pockets with K-rations (aw hell), and I’m wearing my belt with ten clips of Garand ammo (80 rounds), entrenching shovel (also referred to by a more sophisticated name, army banjos), gas mask, canteen, bayonet, and first aid kit. Hand grenades hang from my suspenders, and under my shoulder is a holster carrying a .45 semi-automatic pistol. Trench knife is tucked in my boot. In my zippered pocket next to my collar is my switchblade. Compass is strapped to my ankle and on the other is a British Hawkins mine. Got my steel helmet with leather chin strap securely on. Parachute on my back, reserve chute on front. Around my neck is a Mae West life jacket, but with all the gear I’m wearing, I’d be S.O.L. if I landed in water. Some of the fellas were issued a new thing the British thought up, called a leg bag. They stuff everything they can into them—broken-down tommy guns, loads of ammo, mines, radios, medical equipment, you name it. Seems swell if it works, but I’m not volunteering for the extra weight.

At 2030 hours, we line up in groups of eighteen and march to the hangers. No one cheers, sings, talks, jokes. Nothing. The only sound is our boots shuffling against the ground as we pass the British ack-ack boys. They look at us with something like respect and pity as they solemnly nod our way. I thought I saw tears in their eyes, but I can’t be sure. Everything is quiet and somber, as if we’re marching to our graves. Perhaps we are. When we get to the hangers, we’re given two packs of paper, the order of the day from General Eisenhower and message from Col. Sink. One of the fellas reads it aloud:

Soldiers of the regiment: June 5, 1944 - D-DAY

Today, and as you read this, you are en route to that great adventure for which you have trained for over two years.

Tonight is the night of nights.

Tomorrow throughout the whole of our homeland and the Allied world the bells will ring out the tidings that you have arrived, and the invasion for liberation has begun.

The hopes and prayers of your dear ones accompany you, the confidence of your high commanders goes with you. The fears of the Germans are about to become a reality.

Let us strike hard. When the going is tough, let us go harder. Imbued with faith in the rightness of our cause, and the power of our might, let us annihilate the enemy where found.

May God be with each of you fine soldiers. By your actions let us justify His faith in us.

Colonel Robert Sink Regimental Commander, 506th P.I.R, 101st Airborne Division

Tonight is the night. There’s no going back now. We’re all quiet, lost in our own thoughts.

After we’ve been transported to the waiting planes and get harnessed up, we wait under the wings of the C-47s for H-Hour to arrive. I’m ready to give Hitler hell … just as soon as I can stand up. We’re all leaning back on our gear, dragged down the extra weight. Someone comes around with motion sickness pills. Guess they don’t want us hurling over the English Channel. I get up every few minutes to relieve myself. My throat is real dry, and my hands are sweaty. Now we start talking again, just to ease our nerves. But no one has anything reassuring to say. It all goes back to that life insurance as everyone talks about the “$10,000 jump” ahead of us. I find the rosary in my pocket and finger the beads. I close my eyes and start to feel better.

2200 hours, we’re loading the planes. They all start up at once, a deafening sound that rips through my body and rattles my head. Can’t hear myself think. I sit on the left side of the plane between Smith and Hodges. No one feels much like talking. The plane begins to move, rumbling and roaring as it takes off. I’m shoved back against the wall, feeling dizzy and sick in the gut. I can see the faces of the fellas around me in the murky light. Some are drifting to sleep on account of the pills. My heart’s racing. I didn’t think much about it before but, the trouble begins after the jump and how’ll I react under fire? Don’t know. Can only pray I’ll be a good soldier. The door’s off, and all I can hear is the wind as the plane cuts through the dark sky. All of a sudden, the Lieutenant shouts, “Look at this, boys.” I’m near the front, and I look down into the Channel as looming shadows of the invasion fleet storm toward Normandy. Battleships, gunships, destroyers. Makes me feel proud to be a part of something bigger than myself. The krauts have woken up a beast.

0100 hours. It’s June 6th and we just got the order to stand up and hook up. The plane’s going too low and fast to jump. We can see the outline of the coast up ahead, and hear the pounding of anti-aircraft fire. The dark sky’s smeared with hellish colors and sounds and I feel panic squeezing my chest. Ping, ping, ping. Flak grazes the outside of the plane. It’s spiraling into the sky and is so thick I could walk on it. I want to get out of here, and damn quick. Someone voices my thoughts. “Let’s get the hell outta here!”

The red light switches on. We have three minutes until we jump and still the plane is weaving through the air too low and too fast. But we sound off, the fella at the end of stick starting. Ten okay. Nine okay. Eight okay. Seven okay. Six okay …The light suddenly switches to green seconds later. All I hear is the roar of wind and someone shouting, “Go! Go! Go!”

We all surge forward, one after the other, disappearing into the war-torn night.



Cpl. Jason Dunham - The Marine Who Jumped on a Grenade to Save Others

“The heroes are the kids who gave 100 percent; they gave their lives. The heroes are the mothers who gave up a son, who carried him for nine months, and raised him to do right, and he does right, and at eighteen, he goes to fight for his country, and he dies doing right. That's a hero.”—Edward Heffron

Cpl. Jason Dunham

In observance of Memorial Day, Jesseca Wheaton is hosting a three day blog event to honor those who died in military service, especially men and women from our respective cites/states. I chose to write about Cpl. Jason Dunham, a 22 year old Marine who jumped on a grenade to save his comrades. 

Jason Dunham was born on November 10th, 1981 (the 206th anniversary of the Marine Corps) in Scio, New York, a small town about 80 miles southeast of Buffalo. Jason's siblings looked up to him as a role model. He gave them lessons on confidence and character and was always fun to be around. One thing all his teachers remembered was his smile. His mother, Debra Dunham, learned of one of his acts of kindness after Jason died. He went out of his way to comfort a childhood friend when the other children teased her on the bus.

From War Opponents to Friends

I recently wrote an article for the local newspaper about two veterans, Joseph Leo and Dieter Birkholz, who served on opposite sides during WWII. Here's the article. Enjoy!

Joseph Leo (left) and Dieter Birkholz share memories of their service World War II recently at the Eldred (Pa.) World War II Museum.

Dieter Birkholz and Joseph Leo were young men fighting on opposite sides during World War II. Birkholz was a German Luftwaffe anti-aircraft crewman, while Leo flew 15 missions as a U.S. Army Air Corps B-17 waist-gunner over Nazi-occupied Europe. Now friends for over 35 years, they recently sat side-by-side at the Eldred (Pa.)WWII Museum to share their stories.

Birkholz was born in Szczecin, Germany and was only 6 years old when Adolf Hitler came to power in January 1933. He remembers having a good childhood with his young widowed mother and younger brother. At 10 years old he joined the Jungvolk and, at 14, the Hitler Youth.

The Musician

An excerpt from an unfinished/abandoned story:

I made a mistake about him.

The musician doesn’t want to live. In fact, he wants to die. But I wasn’t wrong in knowing I’d be free if I stayed close to him.

“Do you have someplace to go?” I ask him as the line of workers disappear.

He nods, then looks at me out of the corner of his eye. “Do you?”

I shake my head, but he says nothing. Machine gun fire rips through the air. My heart thuds against my ribs, my adrenaline soars. Mattress feathers cascade through the open apartment windows like a fresh snow. Someone screams.

“They’re still emptying this section,” I say, eyes darting for a place to hide.

I half expect him to run toward the gunfire, to give himself up, but there’s still some survival instinct left in him. He runs like mad toward an alleyway. I’m on his heels.

“Go away!” he hisses over his shoulder.

“I don’t want to die today,” I call, running harder.

He skids to a stop as we near a pile of furniture thrown from the evacuated apartments. He dives in, covering himself with tattered clothing and blankets. I slide in behind him, a baby pram hides me from view. The wheels are cracked, the casing rusted. A quilted baby blanket lays over the side, a blanket that once warmed an infant.

Where is that child now?

“I wish you’d leave me alone,” his dark eyes bore into mine as he rakes a hand through his sweaty hair.

I don’t like him. I gave him too much credit in my imaginings. I ignore his comment and stare past him instead. An SS officer marches past, his gun wedged in a woman’s back. Her long black hair lays in tangles over her shoulders. More people pass by, caught just when they thought they were free from the roundups. The train whistle screeches. The SS push their victims faster and harder.

Our breathing is loud in my ears. Suppose they can hear our desperate gulps for air? I cover my mouth until they pass. The musician is running his hands over his face.

“They’d want you to live. Your family, I mean,”  I whisper.

He lifts his head, throwing a vicious glare at me. He looks as if he’s about to say something, then changes his mind and simply shakes his head.

The musician and I are different, I can clearly see that. He doesn’t have anyone or anything to live for.

I do.

He pushes himself out of the blankets and stands up, wiping his face with the back of his hand before dashing down the alley, as if the devil was on his heels.

I swallow, watching him.

I realize the deadly truth in that single thought.


I'm currently reading In the Footsteps of the Band of Brothers by Larry Alexander and I'm really enjoying it! Here's one of my favorite parts so far:

There was also Floyd Talbert who, Guth recalled, underwent intense ribbing due to being deathly afraid of anything that crawled. "We were always putting something in his footlocker or in his bed," Forrest remembered with a chuckle. "We even put things in his ammo belt. He'd go wild."

It's amusing to think about a young, strong, brave paratrooper being deathly afraid of bugs! (Not that I blame him...)

Veteran Interview | Eric Lundberg, U.S. Navy

I recently interviewed my favorite Navy veteran, Eric Lundberg! He was stationed on the USS Franklin D. Roosevelt and USS Erben during the Korean War. You can listen to the interview below:


Jacob | 5th Ranger Battalion, Easy Company

This is the ninth interview in my WWII reenactor interview series:

Zachary | 325th Glider Infantry Regiment
Josh | 502nd PIR and 5th Rangers

1. Why did you choose your impression?
I chose my impression because I have been a WWII history buff since probably kindergarten. I went to D-Day Conneaut in 2015. One of the head staff helped me get the information I needed to get into this hobby. Major James Martin of the 101st Airborne 506th is the Airborne commander for the event and has been reenacting for 30 years or more. I went on field with him on the Foucarville and La Fiere bridge battle. I thought it was pretty cool but the next day, I watched the main D-Day battle and I was very impressed by the entire thing, especially the authenticity. 

2. Can you tell us about your reenacting gear?
My gear is Corcoran boots, M1937 or you can use the M1941 wool shirt, M1937 wool pants with a belt, M1923 cartridge belt for my Garand and you can also use it for clips of M1 carbine. It holds 10. I chose the Garand over the carbine since it is one of my favorite weapons of that time period. Really cool design, too. The blanks are not too expensive and one of my officers can make them for me at a great price. 

WWII Films

Today I'm sharing a list of WWII films I've recently watched and some I'm eager to see! But before I dive into that, I just want to remind ya'll that the blog survey is still up. I'll be closing it next week and then I'll do a fun little blog post with the results. So if you haven't taken the survey, please do!

Ok. Here we go.


"Look them in the eye. They'll remember you."

Valkyrie is based on the true story of Claus von Stauffenberg who was a German army officer and one of leading members of the failed July 20th plot to assassinate Hitler. Obviously I knew they didn't succeed, but I still was hugging a pillow and dying from the suspense. UGH. ALL THE FEELS. I really liked this one. 

A Paratrooper's Faith

I just have to share a beautiful piece of history with you all! I'm borrowing this 1944 booklet called A Paratrooper's Faith. It's dedicated to twenty year old Sgt. George Bowler Tullidge of the 507th PIR, 82nd Airborne who gave his life during the Invasion of France. A few months before the invasion, his mother sent him a booklet filled with poems, inspirational excerpts, and Bible verses to comfort and encourage him while overseas. He called it the little book while his mother called it A Paratrooper's Faith.

I've read through it a couple times (and will continue to until I have to give it back!) and it's chocked full of inspiring quotes and verses. One of my favorites is from Emerson.

"Whatever you do, you need courage. Whatever course you decide upon, there is always some one to tell you you are wrong. There are always difficulties arising which tempt you to believe that your critics are right. To map out a course of action and follow it to the end, requires some of the same courage which a soldier needs. Peace has its victories, but it takes brave men to win them."—Emerson.
The very dashing George Bowler Tullidge
After her son's death, Mrs. Tullidge voluntarily duplicated the booklet and mailed them to over 300,000 soldiers! The booklet is still being duplicated and inspiring people today. If you'd like to pass one along to someone in service, you can request a free copy from George's sister HERE.

In the beginning of the booklet is a letter from George to his younger brother. Here's an excerpt:

I just know and pray that you will turn out to be the kind of boy that Mother and Dad are teaching you to be. Just please take a word of advice from somebody who has had a small look around anyway. Maybe I am not so old, but this two years in the army has shown and taught me lots of things about life that I never dreamed of before...Often times when I feel depressed and blue it does me an awful lot of good to read my Bible and a little book that Mother sent me. A good belief in Christianity (very broad term) gives a fellow something to grasp when the going gets tough, and it does at times. A lot of boys have a hard time because they do not have it there to take hold of. Of course, it is there for all to have if they want, but due to wrong living and poor home life, they haven't been made to realize that it is there. 

 Maybe this sounds like so much bull; but I just want to impress upon you that if you grow up to be the young man that Mother and Dad want and teach you to be, things will be much nicer and brighter for you. At times the wrong thing will seem much better and more fun, but just remember the consequences. 

Your best Pal,