World War II veteran receives combat stars at Waco ceremony
Candateshia Pafford, III Corps and Fort Hood Public AffairsWACO - “Airborne, all the way,” was the theme at the presentation of a Parachutist Badge with two combat stars and a Pathfinder Badge for World War II veteran and former paratrooper Albert Essig at the St. Catherine Center here, June 6.
Thursday, June 14, 2012
On the 68th anniversary of D-Day, III Corps and Fort Hood Command Sgt. Maj. Arthur L. Coleman Jr. presented Essig with his long-overdue Parachutist Badge with two Bronze Service Stars.
“Mr. Essig demonstrated the courage, commitment and selfless service that were necessary to win World War II, and to this day, that is expected of all who wear the uniform,” Coleman said.
The 82nd Airborne Division Association, Alamo Chapter, presented Essig with his Pathfinder Badge. Besides the military awards presented to Essig at the ceremony, the cities of Hewitt and Waco proclaimed June 6 as Albert R. Essig Day.
Essig, a former prisoner-of-war, was assigned to the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division and fought in four historic battles during World War II in Sicily, Salerno, Normandy and the Netherlands.
Essig, who lied about his age, joined the U.S. Army in 1942 at the age of 16.
Essig said he had told his brother and mother of his intentions to join the Army. Neither believed him because he was too young.
The effects of the Depression were still on-going, Essig said, noting his Family had no money, no food and his mother needed help. When Essig told his mother he was going to enlist in the Army, she thought he was bluffing.
“I wasn’t bluffing,” Essig said.
He said he waited for a rainy day, because the raindrops obscured his birth date on his birth certificate and the recruiters believed him when he claimed to be 18.
“Essig made his first combat jump at 16,” said Jon Ker, retired U.S. Army Special Forces colonel and friend of Essig.
Ker said Essig frequently talked about his experiences during World War II.
In one of the biggest airborne operations, Essig recalled D-Day in Normandy as, “thrilling and hectic.”
Essig’s unit was inserted behind enemy lines without a lot of difficulty, Ker said, because no one was shooting at their aircraft, unlike some Hollywood portrayals of the airborne mission. However, once on the ground, Ker said Essig called it “total chaos.”
During Operation Market Garden in the Netherlands, Essig’s unit was in charge of securing the Nijmegen Bridge to allow British troops to march to Antwerp, Belgium, Ker said. Essig was one of the Soldiers who had to cross the River Waal under intense enemy fire during that operation. Once across the river, and after a short fire fight, Essig’s unit managed to capture the bridge.
Essig said he feels blessed to be a survivor of that operation.
Shortly after that operation, Essig and other Soldiers from his unit were captured by the Germans. They were held as prisoners-of-war for seven months.
“I was hungry most of the time,” he said. “We were given one slice of bread and one potato a day.”
Essig’s Family was first told that he was missing-in-action, then later killed-in-action. He said his Family was relieved to find out that he was at least alive, when news came that he was actually a POW.
When news came of allied forces getting closer to the POW camp where Essig was being held, the German guards put on civilian clothes and pretended to be farmers. They left the camp to avoid being captured themselves.
“We weren’t liberated, but we walked out alive,” Essig said.
“We need to remember the price of liberty is purchased with the blood of our young boys,” Ker said. “That’s why nearly 70 years later we need to recognize a genuine American hero like Al Essig.”
Though in his 80s now, Ker said Essig was just a kid when he took a stand to fight for freedom.
“That’s worth recognition,” Ker said.
The Army didn’t publish orders for combat stars until 1983. For Essig to receive his combat stars now, he called it a great honor, although he does not see himself as a hero.
“I was a Soldier, doing what I needed to do: follow orders,” Essig said.
The 504th was a “bunch of rowdies,” Essig said. He said paratroopers of today are more disciplined, better trained and equipped and much more polite than his unit was back in 1943. Still, he said, all paratroopers are brothers.
The common denominator all paratroopers share is everybody must go out the door, Coleman said.
“You fight for all your brothers,” Essig said. “Facing the door and jumping proves you have the character to be depended upon when needed.”