Originally created 08/16/98

Drop Zone offers real story of WWII online



Steven Spielberg's new movie is the story of a U.S. airborne soldier in World War II and the ranger troops who try to rescue him.

Patrick K. O'Donnell has more than 100 stories about airborne and ranger troops in World War II. They're ready to read -- free, with pictures included -- on the World Wide Web. And they're all true.

O'Donnell, of Fairfax Station, Va., is the organizer of the Drop Zone, an oral history project and labor of love. At 28, he's more than a generation removed from the war, but his Web site has become a link to the old soldiers who are fading away.

"We have the real Private Ryans on line," O'Donnell says.

We came out shouting, forcing our way through the logjam of dead and dying soldiers and some soldiers refusing to continue the attack. We continued running until we reached the west bank. After we knocked out the German positions on the other side, I split my force, sending half down a dirt road to the south where the 325 (Glider Infantry Regiment) was having trouble. I took the one half of my men and attacked west.

That's how Robert D. Rae described for O'Donnell -- and the Drop Zone -- how he rallied an attack across the La Fiere causeway near Ste. Mere-Eglise two days after D-Day. Rae received the Distinguished Service Cross, second in prestige only to the Medal of Honor, for his heroism.

Now 84, living in Mountain Brook, Ala., Rae says he hasn't talked much about his experience in Normandy. "I guess there are not a whole lot of people in town who know what I did," he says.

Rae says his daughter didn't know about his heroism until she and her husband struck up a conversation with another airborne veteran who was a World War II buff and found Rae's name in a history book.

"You just don't go around talking about these things," Rae says.

O'Donnell says Rae isn't the only veteran who feels that way. "I'm sometimes the first person they've ever told the story to," he says. "They haven't even told their families. ... It's painful, and they didn't necessarily think that their family would understand."

They do talk to O'Donnell, though. To find veterans with stories to tell, he relies mostly on word of mouth. The Drop Zone includes a so-called "virtual reunion" for veterans, an e-mail-based discussion group. O'Donnell, a business consultant with Price Waterhouse Coopers LLP, also attends real reunions of World War II units.

He seeks out the less-known aspects of the war among ranger and airborne troops: paratroopers who fought in the Pacific, soldiers who went to war in gliders that crash-landed behind enemy lines, soldiers like Melvin Lester who were denied the chance to go to war because of the color of their skin.

I was on the train going to Cincinnati to visit my wife. ... I went on into the dining room, and the (host) seated me at the first table on the right side of the train. And then he called the porter and whispered to the porter, and the porter came over and pulled the black curtain across the seat, separating me from the white people in the dining car.

I blew my top! I pushed it back. ... When (the porter) came over, I said, "If you came over to pull that curtain (again), I would advise you not to do it, because if you pull that curtain, I'm going to whup your (expletive)! I'm risking my life jumping out of airplanes for this country, and I would just as soon die here than to die out there or anywhere else." ... They didn't pull that curtain.

Lester, now 76 and living in Cleveland, was a member of the all-black 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, known as the Triple Nickels. They fought World War II in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. "We gave up our rifles for hoes and axes to put out forest fires," many of them started by Japanese bombs attached to balloons, he says.

O'Donnell says Lester's experience is as important to the Drop Zone as descriptions of more famous battles. "We're trying to build a ... patchwork quilt of oral histories and personal accounts ... and if you look at it when it's done, you'll get a picture of the airborne experience and ranger experience," he says.

Why airborne and ranger troops? "They really believed that they were the best," O'Donnell says, and he maintains that belief helped them in battle and in life after the war.

Also, these soldiers were involved in some of the most dramatic operations in World War II, often fighting under strength. And they were a novelty -- O'Donnell says the armies made up strategies for using the troops as the war went along.

Woody and I had to assemble each piece of the torpedo, get up from behind the seawall and push the Bangalore torpedo across the road on top of the bluff and put it under the concertina wire. Once we had the torpedo in place, we took the fuse wire out, pulled the fuse and jumped back over the wall. The result if it worked was a hole in the concertina wire. ... I made sure the fuse lighter went off since we were told in our training that if it didn't go off we were to sacrifice our bodies and lay on the concertina wire as the men stepped on us. So I made damn sure that the torpedo detonated.

That's how Ellis "Bill" Reed, 73, of Sun City, Ariz., describes how he and other rangers helped clear the way on the bluffs of Normandy to get soldiers off bloody Omaha Beach on D-Day.

Reed says not all the stories worth repeating are tales of heroism. At one point on Normandy, "I was so flak-happy. ... I shot at a cow. I don't think I killed him."

And Reed warns that not every story may be entirely true. "When we get older, we tell bigger stories," he says.

O'Donnell is on guard for that. As a "volunteer historian," he researches the background for his interviews and makes sure dates and other facts are correct.

He interviewed veterans for four years with no clear goal in mind -- nothing more than a deep interest in history and a vague idea for a book. Then, one day, he was talking about it with a friend who works on Web sites. The friend suggested O'Donnell think about putting the material on the Web, he recalls.

The site is growing by a few stories a week. O'Donnell says it gets about 30,000 visitors each month, and that number is growing. He has done more than 400 interviews himself, and other volunteers across the country have collected hundreds more; the best go online.

He has helpers, too. The Web site's volunteer designer and technical expert, Peter Bostrom, 41, of Herndon, Va., is a former Army ranger. Other volunteers are young professionals with an interest in history who squeeze in time for the Drop Zone after work and on weekends. And O'Donnell says his wife, Robyn, is "pretty understanding" about his passion for history: When they went on a European vacation, they spent about half their time tramping around battlefields.

O'Donnell says the Drop Zone strips away the romanticized view some people have of war. "It's not war stories" like in old Hollywood movies, he says. "It's an accurate depiction of what happened. ... You could almost say that John Wayne is dead on my Web site. A lot of it is tragic."

Much of the snow was beginning to melt, and underneath were countless American bodies in all sorts of contorted positions. In some instances only an arm, or a head, or a portion of the lower body could be seen.

Arthur "Dutch" Schultz, 75, of Helendale, Calif., says his story of marching and fighting through Germany's Hurtgen Forest in early 1945 went onto the Drop Zone after his daughter spotted the Web site and contacted O'Donnell.

Schultz, editor of his World War II company's newsletter, also talks regularly to students in a friend's sixth-grade class. "The reason I have for telling them my story is to make sure we never have to go through a war like that again," he says.

  • The Drop Zone is located on the Web at www.thedropzone.org