Norm Waldman joined the army in 1943 at the age of 18. He volunteered for the airborne because it promised extra pay. The men of his 82nd Airborne Division were a swaggering lot, and Norm fit in well. He jumped from a C-47 behind enemy lines in the early morning hours of June 6, 1944, D-Day. It was a low altitude jump, only 700 feet, giving Norm just enough time to see the men landing before him wounded in fiery explosions. The field below them was mined. Norm tugged his parachute’s cables toward a hedgerow. “I figured there was no way the Germans would mine a hedgerow,” Norm explains. He was right. Norm landed in prickly mass of brambles, but otherwise, he was safe.
Norm realized that his entire battalion had landed twenty miles off target. His airplane’s pilot had dropped his human payload too early. His battalion was surrounded. Its mission had been to capture a bridge that linked German reinforcements to the beaches at Normandy. “I never saw that bridge,” Norm recalls.
For three days, Norm’s machine gun squad fought off the Germans. A German potato masher grenade killed one man in his squad and blinded another. On June 9, the noose tightened to within a few dozen yards. Enemy soldiers pointed their rifles, and Norm and the rest of the men of his battalion surrendered.
An odyssey of railroad journeys and long marches to various prison camps began. He studied the German-English vocabulary book he’d been issued before jumping. He picked up the language quickly, and a German guard took note. “Would you like to work on a crew building housing?” the guard asked. “You’ll earn POW wages.” Norm agreed and was sent to Dresden to build housing for German refugees who’d been “de-housed” by the Allied bombing campaign.
Norm was in a bomb shelter just outside Dresden on February 13-15, 1945, when the RAF and the USAAF firebombed the city. The resulting firestorm suffocated those within the ring of flames that utterly destroyed the city. Norm emerged from his bomb shelter to an apocalyptic landscape. The blackened city harbored tens of thousands of corpses. Norm and the other prisoners, which included future author Kurt Vonnegut, were put to work finding and stacking the bodies.
Food was scarce. “We were given 30 minutes a day to scavenge. We pulled grass and weeds to boil and eat. We kept the windows of our barracks open to catch stray sparrows. When we caught one, we ate it raw, bones and all. The protein kept us alive,” says Norm.
In March, hundreds of prisoners, Norm included, began marching southeast into Czechoslovakia. They marched for weeks, stopping to sleep in barns and commandeering any food they could find. One day, their German guards fell away. They dropped their rifles and fled. The Soviet Red Army–specifically, a Ukrainian tank battalion–appeared on the road ahead. They were now liberated. The Ukrainians had food. Norm was given a uniform and assigned to a machine gun squad. He fought with the Ukrainians until just before VE Day–May 8, 1945. He actually escaped from the Ukrainians at night across a river to the American lines . . . but that’s another story still waiting to be told. He was awaiting shipment back home to train for the invasion of Japan when he heard about the Japanese surrender. He’d survived the war. But the memories and some scars remain.