Duke had one of the most dangerous jobs in the army: he was a paratrooper. He enlisted aged 16 and became a paratrooper in 1942. He carried out four combat jumps – in Sicily, Italy, Normandy and Holland. ‘Your plane might get hit before you get there. You might be killed as soon as you hit the ground,’ Duke said. ‘You had seen that many of your friends wounded or killed…You just lived from day to day. And you didn’t think about it very much.’ ‘When we jumped in Sicily which was our first combat, we had 146 men in the company. A little over two years later in Germany, when the war ended we had 13. The rest had either been killed or wounded so bad that they couldn’t come back to the unit.’
Duke was a paratrooper who completed four ‘combat jumps’ into action. He parachuted from a C-47 on 6 June 1944 – his third combat jump. He fought in the Korean War as well as the Second World War, and retired as a Major. ‘To me the real heroes were the ones we left behind,’ he said. ‘What they’ve missed all those years I’ve been living. They had hopes, plans and everything else. What might those people have been?’
Henry 'Duke' Boswell joined the National Guard -illegally - aged sixteen and continued the deception when they were called to front line duty six months later. Two years later when he was training at Fort Jackson South Carolina he witnessed a demonstration by parachute troops. Upon learning that they were paid an extra fifty dollars per month - which would effectively double his corporal's pay - he volunteered and, after a period of training, was assigned to the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division commanded by Colonel James Gavin.
Boswell describes the very precise procedure require for a jump, usually from the C47 Dakota which carried 18 men, the very thorough equipment checks and being hooked up to a cable. The jumpmaster would call out each number in turn when the pilot indicated that they were over the dropping zone. Always a tricky business as Boswell points out; the weather always an unknown factor and parachutes would drift away from the drop zone, by definition the men were scattered on arrival on the ground and all too frequently the drop was off target in the first place. This was very apparent when the 505th jumped into Sicily on 9th July 1943 and the men came down over a 50 mile area instead of the planned 10 mile strip. Naval guns then mistook the second wave of aircraft bringing in more airborne troops for enemy aircraft and shot many down 'They shot down 28 planes and I think some 300 men were lost from that mistake'.
The next big operation D-Day began for the 505th before midnight on 5th June; the 82nd and 101st Airborne travelled in over 400 planes which covered 300 miles and took over two hours to form up. The 505th was destined for the town of Ste Mere Eglise, some 5 miles from the Normandy coast and planned as a diversion for the men due to land on Utah beach. (The scenario was later very accurately depicted in the film 'The Longest Day'). Boswell recalls that they were guided in by the barn on fire in the town centre which was being tackled by the locals and German soldiers. 'One of our companies unfortunately landed right on top of that group of people . The ones that landed on the ground the Germans shot before they could get out of their harness....one man landed in the fire and burned. The Germans would not let the French pull him out of the fire...after that we weren't interested in taking prisoners'. The 505th 'raised the flag' at 4.30 am 6th June, the same one they had raised in Naples and that is now displayed in the City Hall of Ste Mere Eglise. The invading troops from Utah beach joined them and the 505th fought for a total 33 days until they were relieved having lost some 50% of their number.
After being pulled back to England to reform and re-equip the next mission for the 505th was the attack on Arnhem, General Montgomery's plan to take the bridges over the Rhine. It began 17th September 1944 and whilst the 505th did take their two assigned bridges the operation itself was a disaster due to faulty intelligence, poor communication and bad weather. Withdrawn to France for further training and reinforcements the 505th were next in action in the Ardennes, the so-named Battle of the Bulge, when the Germans made one final thrust against Allied forces on 16th December 1944 with an estimated 400,000 troops and 1,000 tanks. With bad weather preventing Allied air cover they initially made huge advances, capturing thousands of men and inflicting heavy casualties. Because the bad weather made flying impossible the 505th had to spend eighteen hours trucking up to the front line and then went straight into action. 'We were in the woods, the temperature was below zero at times......snow knee deep.....You dig a foxhole, you had to put two men in it so one could keep the other awake.....we were in the open like that for 30 days'. The men were still in jump boots and summer uniforms. Boswell goes on to describe the casualties , mostly frostbite and trench foot incurred by the freezing conditions and lack of the right equipment. They were also desperately short of food and ammunition. The famous 'break out' began on 22nd December when the weather miraculously cleared, Allied planes could attack and Patton's 3rd Army came to the relief of Bastogne. Eisenhower declared the battle over on January 7th; it had been a particularly nasty affair with no holds barred on either side.
The 505th fought on into Germany; Boswell remembers hundreds of casualties on stretchers being killed as they lay 'one of the worst sights I saw'. The Germans were fighting every step of the way and the 505th was still lacking winter clothing 'we lost an awful lot of people to the weather'. In May the end was near, an entire German army - some 250,00 men- surrendered to the 82nd ' we cut the fences and put them in a field, told then to stack their weapons'. The 505th kept going until they crossed the Elbe where they met some resistance but 'not the proud Germans we'ed met in Sicily' . They met up with the Russians - who happily shared their vodka - the day the war in Europe ended and the commanding general of the 82nd Division put on a jump display for their benefit.
'Duke' Boswell went back to the USA soon after but, unhappy with civilian life, he re-enlisted into the 82nd a year later. Previously a sergeant he now went to OCS and was commissioned in 1948. In 1950 he was sent to Korea when the fighting broke out but had only been there two weeks when he was badly wounded by a shell, both legs and one hand broken plus other injuries. He was to spend eight months in hospital but refused a discharge and was posted to Fort Benning to teach at the Infantry School. Four years in an administrative job in Hawaii followed, finishing with five years at Fort Carson.
Following his final separation from the Army after 20 years service, Boswell went to college to get his Master's and then taught sixth grade in Colorado Springs for another 20 years. Upon final retirement he began yet another career speaking to different groups and making frequent trips to France. He talked to the schoolchildren in Ste Mere Eglise, receiving a rapturous welcome from the locals and in 2012 the Legion D'Honneur from the President of France. A truly adventurous life.
6 June 1944
IX Troop Carrier Command Field Order No 1 was originally issued on 31 May 1944, before being amended on 4 June 1944. It determined the role that 9th Air Force Troop Carrier Command would play in the assault phase of Operation Neptune- the Normandy...