This is part of the first chapter that makes up the military profile of my deceased husband. Having only one liners to work with, searching the internet linked me with seven comrades that served with him. Three of them opened the world of rigging (packing) parachutes and validated the once unknown. A complete package of his experiences and the environment wherein he served was a Christmas gift for his four children and three stepchildren. – Della Pederson

The Soldier Among Us

On a sunny day in the middle of summer 1948, the former soldier appeared at our door in Spokane, Wa. Earl Cornwall surprised us with the belated wedding gift in his hands. Unwrapped, it was a beautiful burgundy painted glass pedestal candy dish with clear thumbprints around the square bowl. Over the years it became more prized. Eighteen years later – after his wife died and my husband at the time, Earl Blumhagen wanted a divorce, we developed a relationship and that made “our wedding bowl” a treasured possession in our new home. He had tracked us down. After a short visit, the two fellows made an escape from our two babies and they had a brief post war buddy talk.

After ECornwall departed, EBlumhagen confided that Cornwall had served his country very honorably, was a true soldier enduring really tough times and had served with the best: his regiment of 2.056 had been chosen by General Eisenhower from among the 1.5 million American soldiers to be his Honor Guard after the surrender as he proceeded with occupation and reconstruction of Germany. (Over 10,000 paratroopers were enrolled in the 508th regiment to maintain its quota of 2,056.) He truly had built a distinguished record as he survived the drop into enemy territory on D-Day, had salvaged several pieces of memorabilia from his direct contact with German soldiers, was lost for eight days and had escaped without a scar. He had an amazing story to tell.

Upon graduation from High School in June 1942, Earl Cornwall was off to join the army, volunteering each step along the way. He enlisted on July 23, 1942 at Ft. Lewis in Tacoma, Washington. First he went to Camp Roberts, California where he completed the Basic Training in heavy weapons on October 31. A new airborne division of service was just organizing and because it was necessary to have completed the basic training before volunteering, the Paratroopers adventure was presented to the new rookies before leaving boot camp. He volunteered for something new. He was in the first class organized that became a part of the 82nd Airborne. Soon the 505th and 507th regiments, combined with the 508th, were organized to be the vertical wing of the 82nd Airborne. This happened on November 4, 1943, about a week after he started the training program just established for the young Paratroopers.

Seven weeks of strenuous physical fitness training admitted him into the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR) and qualified him to wear his prized paratrooper boots and flying trooper wings. “IT WAS TOUGH!” said his buddy Carl Porter. “They deliberately tried to wash us out every day.” And indeed more failed than succeeded. Another month of Rigging and Maintenance school qualified him as a Parachute Rigger on January 23, 1943. From this point on, he joined a detached company of riggers who repaired and packed chutes for the 82nd Airborne amounting to about 7000 men in the 505, 507 and 508PIR and at times the 504 which served as a reserve unit. His immediate commanding officer was Lt. Charles Thompson and they remained together until August 1945. (A two hour telephone conversation with him in April 2006 was an introduction to the military life that Earl was a part of for three years.) After a special assignment to move a new group from basic training at Camp Blanding, the 508th regiment reached its manpower quotas as they settled into Camp Mackall – a new camp designed for the paratroopers. Here training exercises continued until December 19, 1943.

The regiment (line soldiers) conducted advanced and specialized training as well as spending weeks on the Tennessee Maneuvers. Meanwhile the Riggers were posted in Georgia as they packed the chutes to keep them in the air. They packed two chutes for every man – one was worn on the back, the second was slightly smaller and served as an emergency attached to the chest. For each training jump for the three and sometimes four regiments, the sixty riggers packed almost 14,000 parachutes. On December 28, 1943 they boarded a fleet ship and headed for England to take part in preparations for Operation Overlord. They stopped temporarily for two months in Ireland before making Robin Hood country their home. Line soldiers were at Nottingham while Camp Ashwell at Oakum was home for the riggers where they used a hangar for their drying and packing of the parachutes.
There they stayed until the Supreme Commander of Allied Troops, General “Ike” Eisenhower began pulling all the military units together along the southern coast of England. Residents living within 10 miles of the southern coast evacuated to accommodate three million allied military and support persons. Some soldiers salvaged empty shipping crates to build “foxholes” for protection from the rains until it was time to board the C47s for their first combat jump.

The Invasion of France was planned for low tide on June 4 but because of a storm at sea and terribly rough waters, it was postponed two days. When a narrow opening was seen by the meteorologist, the Supreme Commander gave the clearance to go and immediately visited the paratroopers from the two divisions – the 82nd and the 101st. He thanked them for their courage and commitment because “I may not have another chance.” The enemy was well prepared and hidden in the hedgerows and the stakes of a night jump were a high risk and extremely hazardous. Into the dark of night on the eve of June 5, about 13,000 uniformed paratroopers of the 82nd and 101st, loaded with enough gear to almost equal their weight, climbed aboard the waiting C-47’s, twelve to twenty per plane. To get aboard with their heavy packs, one lifted from inside the plane while another gave a boost up the ladder.

The weight on the backs of the paratroopers averaged 70-90 pounds over their body weight. The author of ‘The Devil’s Tales” wrote that he – and some others – carried 170 pounds. Each trooper packed his needs for a 24 hour emergency believing the gliders and soldiers from the beach areas would reach them within hours with vital additional rations, ammunition and weapons. A lesser chute was secured to his chest in addition to ammunition, guns, buckets, bayonets, knives, shovels, etc. Every pocket was stuffed.

The 24 hour Emergency pack was their sole supplies for not 24 hours but more like 72 hours. Those who were dropped off target (as was Cornwall) had to survive on their rations for several days in addition.
The English Channel was filled with thousands of carriers for three million allied forces plus tanks, trucks, airplanes and such equipment necessary for the assault. The troopers were fully aware that if the ground forces failed to bring them reinforcements, the troopers would stand alone in enemy territory as sacrificial lambs. Failure was not an option.