|By ChrisDFW on Monday, August 20, 2001 - 02:30 am:|
Joe Lewniewski, 101st Airborne, Company E
Interviewed by Jeff Pinski in May 2000
He was just a citizen soldier, a patriotic "everyman" like so many millions of others who came of age during the Great Depression and found themselves in the middle of the greatest armed conflict of all time.
But Erie's Joe Lesniewski wasn't thrilled with his lot in the U.S. Army Air Force or his assignments during World War II, at least during the early years of his enlistment. First, he found himself working with sheet metal and putting together fuel tanks for military vehicles. Next, he was sitting around waiting, waiting, forever waiting, for the slow-churning Army bureaucracy to grind out his Cadet School paperwork. Instead, the Army ground it up. And even the promise of becoming a flier wasn't appealing if it meant incessant waiting.
He wanted action.
"There wasn't enough action were I was. I was just bored," he acknowledged.
Action he wanted. Action he got.
When he transferred to the 101st Airborne Division early in 1944, even Joe couldn't have predicted that his outfit Easy Company of the 506th Regiment would become one of the most storied and heroic fighting units ever assembled. Military historian and author Stephen E. Ambrose immortalized the company in his bestseller, "Band of Brothers".
"At the time, the 101st Airborne already had a reputation for toughness," Lesniewski said during an interview at his Harborcreek home. "I was just a cocky kid without much fear. You know what it's like at that age, you don't think anything can happen to you. You're not afraid of too much."
But during the next two years, Joe learned the meaning of fear: From a night parachute jump into Nazi-occupied territory, to coming eye-to-eye with a German soldier who hurled a potato-masher grenade at him, to watching in horror as an artillery shell burrowed itself into the ground beneath him.
Of the 147 original paratroopers in Easy Company, Joe is among 18 still alive.
When we talked, Joe was preparing to leave for New Orleans to take part in the dedication of the new $25 million D-Day Museum, the realization of Ambrose's longtime dream to create a living history of what some describe as the single most decisive event of the 20th century. The museum was built in New Orleans because that's where Tom Higgins designed and manufactured 20,000 of his unique landing craft (LCVPs) or "Higgins Boats."
Lesniewski is mentioned three times in Ambrose's "Band of Brothers."
But Lesniewski and the others in Easy Company weren't aboard those Higgins Boats for the D-Day landing. Instead, they parachuted into the German-held territory of France's Normandy peninsula in the early morning of June 6, hours before the others on the Higgins Boats landed at Utah, Omaha, Juno, Sword and Gold Beaches as part of what would become known as "Operation Overlord."
He had joined up with his new unit in Liverpool only a few months earlier.
Long way from Erie
For Joseph Lesniewski, a fearless young man, it was a long way from Erie to the massive D-Day landing.
He was born in Erie, Aug. 29, 1920, the son of Joseph and Rose Ciechacka Lesniewski. His parents had known each other in Poland, then journeyed to the United States aboard the same ship in 1901. They were married in their new country.
Joe's dad worked at the Griswold Manufacturing Company, raising a family that included five children. Joe went to St. Stanislaus School, then graduated from the old Tech High School at West 10th and Sassafras streets. With few jobs available in the private sector, Joe opted to join the Civilian Conservation Corps, as did many young men during the Depression.
He was assigned to work at Camp No. 13 in Sheffield, Warren County, and he stayed there until 1941 when he landed a job at General Electric Company. Because of the trade he learned at Tech, he was put to work on machinery at the Erie GE plant.
"I could have gotten a deferment from the Army because I was involved in machinery work at a company involved in wartime production," he said. "But I wanted to serve."
He enlisted in the Army Oct. 17, 1942 and volunteered for the Army Air Force. After training in California, he was sent to sheet metal school in Illinois, and wound up in Detroit, working on fuel tanks for military vehicles.
This was not exactly how Joe planned to spend his wartime service, so in 1943 he applied for Cadet School to become a pilot.
"I passed the test and was approved for Cadet School," he said. "I wanted to go to school to fly planes." But there was that paperwork snafu and Lesniewski cooled his heals waiting for it to be resolved.
"The waiting got to be too much. I finally asked to be sent somewhere, anywhere."
That's how he found himself at an airfield in Savannah, Ga. But the waiting continued.
"I was just sitting around. Nothing was happening. And I still was not happy."
In August 1943, Joe made a decision he never regretted. He joined the airborne.
The Army doesn't consider jumping out of airplanes to be one of its safest jobs. That's why members of the airborne were given an extra $50 a month in hazardous duty pay.
"I was just looking for more action, it was really as simple as that," he said.
Lesniewski was sent to Fort Benning, Ga. for airborne infantry training.
"It was pretty rigorous. Everything was double-time. But I got through it and qualified on my jumps."
The next stop was Camp McCall, N.C. and the 541st Parachute Infantry Regiment for more training. In early January 1944, the 541st was sent to Camp Shanks, N.Y. to prepare for departure for England and Ireland.
"We sailed for Belfast, Northern Ireland, aboard a troop carrier, a converted Cunard Line cruise ship," he said.
Surprisingly, Lesniewski and the troops enjoyed beautiful weather during the winter crossing.
"However, at times we could see several miles away when German subs were attacking our ships. We could see the smoke and hear the explosions.
Joe's ship docked at Helen's Bay.
"The first person I saw at Helen's Bay was Al Fedor. I couldn't believe it." Al Fedor, now living in Florida, had been Joe's next door neighbor in Erie.
In Northern Ireland, the troops lived in Quonset huts.
"While we were waiting there, word went out that guys who spoke fluent Polish were needed. They wanted them to make a jump into Warsaw. I spoke pretty good Polish at the time, so I volunteered. They sent me to London, England, where I met Gen. Anders. We talked in Polish for a few minutes and he immediately recommended me for the special training for the Warsaw jump."
Joe was sent to work with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS).
"We were in training for just one week. That's when we learned the Russians were advancing too fast on Poland and had overrun the area. We were sent back to Northern Ireland to wait."
But because he had volunteered for the dangerous assignment of jumping into a Nazi-occupied city, he now had his choice of assignments.
"We were told we could stay with our current outfits or they would put us anywhere we wanted. I asked for the 101st Airborne. I had heard a lot about the 101st and that's where I wanted to be."
"They put me on a boat for Liverpool and in March (1944) I was with E Company of the 506th Regiment."
He remained in Liverpool until late May.
"About two weeks before D-Day, we were taken to a staging area. Ike (Gen. Dwight Eisenhower) came and talked to us. He said he expected us to do a hell of a lot. I don't think he was disappointed," Lesniewski said. "I don't think he was disappointed at all."
By June 4, rumors were running wild.
"We were hearing some pretty good rumors that we were waiting for the weather conditions to change so we could launch the invasion. There was a lot of wind and rain and rough seas. They were worried more about the people in the boats than us. But early the morning of June 5, we were put on alert. We were told to get ready to move out on a split second's notice."
Lesniewski said some of the men began painting their faces and cutting their hair into "Mohawks." After all the training and waiting and the false alarms, the 101st was finally going to war.
At 5 p.m., the order was given to begin loading the planes. At 8 p.m., Joe's plane took off.
"But there were so many planes, some 3,000 in all, it took a long while to get everyone into formation."
As the French coastline came into view, the planes seemed to be skimming the surface of the English channel.
"We came in low, really low, maybe 20 feet off the surface, then climbed to 450 feet just before we jumped."
He looked at his watch just before he jumped. It was 1 a.m., June 6, 1944.
"The sky wasn't dark at all, certainly not as dark as we had expected. It looked like it does around here about 10 o'clock on a summer's night."
Jumping from 450 feet doesn't give one much time for meditation or private thoughts while in flight.
"You jump, your chute opens, you hit the ground. In seconds, almost immediately."
Joe landed safely. He was amazed to find himself two yards from Eddie Joint, another Erie soldier.
"Talk about a small world!"
Lesniewski and Joint had landed near Ste. Mere Eglise, in the southeastern section of the Normandy peninsula, inland from the Utah Beach landing area. The village was in the drop zone for the 82nd Airborne Division.
"We walked around and looked for our troops, but we couldn't find our guys or the Germans. We had wound up far way from the drop zone."
Later, after encountering a column of German tanks and trucks from a road embankment, Lesniewski and Joint split up.
"We finally joined up with our guys on the fourth day."
Easy Company would experience fierce fighting and suffer terrible losses as the Allies broke through the Normandy hedgerows and into central France.
Twice, the men of Easy Company were called upon to "jump" into Holland, but the Allied armies had broken out of Normandy by the end of July and were advancing faster than the planners could set up a drop.
It was during the company's next trip to Holland a jump on Sept. 17, 1944, during the Arnhem campaign along "Hell's Highway" that he experienced his first real taste of fear and face-to-face fighting with the Germans.
Here's how Stephen Ambrose set the stage in Band of Brothers:
"Easy Company, like all units in the American airborne divisions, had been training as a light infantry assault outfit, with the emphasis on quick movement, daring maneuvers, and small arms fire. It had been utilized in that way in Normandy and during the first 10 days in Holland. From the beginning of October until almost the end of November 1944, however, it would be involved in static, trench warfare, more reminiscent of World War I than World War II."
The area being fought over was a small "island" of land between the Lower Rhine and the Waal River.
At 3:30 the morning of Oct. 5, Ambrose wrote, Lt. Richard Winters "sent Sgt. Art Youman out on a patrol with orders to occupy an outpost in a building near a windmill on the south bank of the dike. With Youman were Pvts. James Alley, Joe Lesniewski, Joe Liebgott and Rod Strohl
"When the patrol reached the road, Youman told Lesniewski to go to the top of the dike to look things over. When he reached the top, hugging the ground as he had been taught, Lesniewski saw an unexpected sight, the outline of a German machine-gun set up at the point where the road coming from the ferry crossed the dike. Behind it, in the dark, he could just make out a German preparing to throw a potato-masher grenade at Youman's patrol, down at the south base of the dike."
As Lesniewski tells it, "I put my helmet on my rifle and held it up (to draw any German fire)."
Suddenly, a flare was shot off, illuminating the scene, and Joe was eye-to-eye with the German soldier.
"He was looking me right in the eye, holding that potato masher," Lesniewski said.
"Normally, I wasn't too scared. But, for the moment, I was really scared. The German was aiming the potato-masher at my face. He let it go and I ducked. It bounced off my helmet and went down the hill. I yelled, 'Live grenade!' It peppered everyone. I had eight grenades on me and began throwing them one at a time at the Germans. I heard screaming and hollering, so I figured I must have clipped somebody. Then I just got the hell out of there."
Back to Stephen Ambrose's account:
"The German threw the grenade as Lesniewski called out a warning. Other Germans pitched grenades of their own over the dike. Lesniewski got hit in the neck by shrapnel. Alley got blown to the ground by a blast of shrapnel that left 32 wounds in his left side, face, neck and arm. Strohl and Leibgott took some minor wounds. Strohl's radio was blown away.
"They had run into a full company of SS troops."
For his part, Lesniewski didn't know he had been hit until he got back to camp with the patrol.
"I guess I was bleeding pretty bad, but didn't know it. They put me in the hospital for four, five days."
If not for the recon patrol making contact with the SS company, Lesniewski figures, his entire unit could have been wiped out.
On to Bastogne
Easy Company would move on to play a key role in the heavy fighting at Bastogne, Belgium, when the Germans tried to break through in the Battle of the Bulge, Hitler's last offensive.
The company had been in France that December, many GIs waiting for winter clothes to arrive.
"It was winter and we are at the Base Camp watching a show with Marlene Dietrich, Lana Turner and Mickey Rooney. About 20 or 30 minutes into the show, the lights dimmed and everyone was ordered to get into battle dress. Most of us were still waiting for clothing. I had winter pants, a summer shirt, a summer jacket, no boots, a topcoat and cap. I used burlap sacks wrapped around my feet for boots."
Lesniewski said the troops were loaded onto trucks bound for Bastogne.
"It was cold, misty and wet. We were in the woods outside of Bastogne and ordered to dig foxholes. They told us to dig fast and dig deep. The foxholes were big enough for two, maybe three, guys. We put logs over the top of them forming slits we could see out of. That was our living quarters for seven days."
During the constant fighting and shooting, Lesniewski said, "The Germans just kept coming all the time. There was about three feet of snow and the Germans were wearing white. It was so hard to see them until they got close to us, maybe 20 feet way. We had one division. They had six. They had us outnumbered and surrounded."
But the 101st held on to Bastogne until reinforcements arrived, thwarting the German effort to break through the Allied lines.
"But after Bastogne, the fighting got even heavier. It was very rough."
At one point during a heavy shelling from the Germans, Lesniewski took cover in a depression in the ground.
"A shell came in and hit the ground two feet in front of me and went into the ground." It burrowed under the spot where Lesniewski had taken cover.
"I was frozen in place. I couldn't move. I was too terrified to even move. I finally yelled, 'OK, you SOB, explode! Kill me! Do something!"
But the shell was a dud.
"I had a hanky in my pocket and took it out. I attached it to a stick and put it in the ground to mark the spot. Hell, it was still a live shell."
As the war was grinding down to its final days, Lesniewski developed a severe leg infection that put him in the hospital for 88 days. As a result, Lesniewski was not there when Easy Company captured Hitler's Eagle's Nest.
"It was a disappointment," he said. "But the infection put me out of commission."
'A great honor'
Joe finished the war with a chest full of medals, among them a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart with a cluster, a Presidential Unit Citation with a cluster, and medals and ribbons from the Belgium and French governments.
In the fall of 1945, Joe rejoined E Company at Camp Lucky Strike at Antwerp. There, he boarded a Liberty ship with the others and headed for home. But even then, there was more action. As the ship headed across the Atlantic, it encountered the tail end of a late-season hurricane.
"The ship was damaged pretty badly. We had to be towed into Boston Harbor, listing at about 20 degrees."
Lesniewski was sent to the Army depot at Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania, and on Nov. 22, 1945, while hitchhiking back to Erie, he was offered a ride by a driver who later robbed him of $200.
After that, life was much calmer for Joe Lesniewski.
He returned to his job at the General Electric plant and in 1953 became a letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service, where he worked for 30 years until retiring.
"It's a great honor to have served with E Company, and a great privilege to be able to attend something like this anniversary observance that will dedicate the D-Day Museum," he said. "It's so gratifying there will be a place like this so others will know what happened in Normandy on that day and the days that followed. There's not that many of us left anymore, so it's important that the D-Day story be preserved and remembered."
For a guy who just wanted more action and got it in spades Joe Lesniewski is symbolic of so many others who were thrust into the unfathomable terror of modern warfare, yet went quietly, willingly, because they believed it was the right thing to do.
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