Each of our veterans has his or her own unique story to tell about their experiences in the U.S. armed forces. We are pleased to share a few of them with you.
(DeKalb, IL)Robert (Bob) Amerlan grew up on the Southside of Chicago and along with his brother attended Harrison Technical High School. After graduation, Bob was immediately hired by Western Electric as a switchboard installer gaining skills that would serve him well in the Army.
Bob volunteered for the Army much to his mother’s dismay. Bob says, “My dad was proud to fight for his country in the Great War (WWI) and I was raised that I should do the same”. His older brother joined the Navy and a younger brother the Army Air Corps.
Bob entered active service on May 10, 1943. He volunteered for the paratroopers in part because “it paid more money” and “it made me feel like I was somebody”. Somebody indeed! He was selected for the 17th Airborne Division and the elite 517th Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR) known as the “Battling Buzzards”, part of the Parachute Infantry Regiment Combat Team (PRCT). Paratrooper selection consisted of first a simulated parachute “jump” from a very tall tower which Bob remembers being several hundred feet tall. If a recruit looked down or balked, he was disqualified and sent to the regular infantry. A paratrooper also had to be in peak condition. After basic training at Camp Toccoa, North Carolina, the 517th PIR and his unit, the 2nd Battalion, reported to Ft. Benning, Georgia for jump training.
Besides more grueling physical conditioning, training involved actual jumps from troop carrier transports. He completed 14 training and combat jumps in all. Bob earned his parachutist badge and was assigned to 517th Headquarters Company. He also picked up the nickname, “Ammo”, apparently derived from his last name.
In March 1944, the parachute elements of the 17th Airborne Division received orders to prepare for overseas assignment. Bob was shipped out in May, arriving in Naples, Italy two weeks later. When he learned that the Germans were still battling north of Rome, he thought he would jump into the fight, but no. The paratroopers came ashore north of Rome from LSTs and fought up the Boot of Italy for about a month. He later learned that the 517th PRCT was destined to provide airborne troops for the invasion of Southern France, successfully keeping German forces from joining the fight in Normandy after the Overlord invasion of June 6. For his exemplary efforts during the Rome-Arno campaign he received the Bronze Star.
The invasion was code-named “Operation Dragoon” and its D-day set for the early morning of August 15, 1944. Bob boarded one of 180 C-47 aircraft headed for France. Radio beacons and pathfinders provided guidance to the pilots to the drop zones (DZ). He remembers his “stick” of paratroopers missing the DZ by 10 to 15 miles. They were supposed to land on a plateau but landed in mountainous terrain instead. Bob hit the side of a mountain after a descent of just a couple of hundred feet, not as planned. In the pitch black, he found his way down the mountain intending to link up with other paratroopers. Many were injured, but Bob avoided serious injury or hospitalization.
When daylight came on the 15th, he met up with a chaplain and a trooper named Miller. Later that day the three came upon a chateau serving as a Red Cross aid station. The first one out to door to meet them was a French Red Cross nurse. She embraced the chaplain and showered him with hugs and kisses. From the chateau, they joined a demolition team tasked to stop a German convoy. This small cadre found the convoy, stopped it and took the surviving German soldiers prisoner. In the fire fight Miller was hit. Bob discovered a huge hole in his back. “I covered the hole with my hand and gave him my morphine to ease the pain. He was able to breathe again.” Eventually Miller was transported to a small French hospital. He recovered after a year and when Bob saw him at war’s end Bob told him he had missed the whole war. “I was glad to see him”.
After three days on the mountain Bob finally got back to his outfit. The 517th continued fighting up the Rhone River valley north towards Germany. He was involved in blowing up bridges and railroads as well as engaging German soldiers. In four months’ time, he was in Germany. Of his unit, General Eisenhower said: “There was no development of that period which added more decisively to our advantages or aided us more in accomplishing the final and complete defeat of German forces than did this attack coming up the Rhone Valley from the Riviera.”
On December 16, 1944, the German counterattack called the Battle of the Bulge began. Bob remembers, “It was cold, very cold. We would try to dig a foxhole, that ground was so frozen. We had wool blankets sleeping bags. We looked like mummies. We had good coats and dry socks. I heard later that some guys didn’t have good supplies.” His most vivid memory of the battle occurred in the Hürtgen Forest during February 1945.
The 517th PIR was in Bergstein. As part of his duties in the HQ Company, Bob set up switchboards with six phones each for command and control. As Bob tells it, “I was upfront in Bergstein running lines up to our outpost, which was a two-story stone building. There were lines going to the rear to another outpost. This is where we could see the Germans.” The Germans were just 3/8 mile away who could be clearly seen with binoculars. Seven other troopers were already in the building when Bob and four troopers arrived with the communications equipment. Bob continued, “There was a big hole in the wall of the building that is where we could watch the Germans. We were supposed to order artillery fire when we saw activity.” A huge minefield kept the rest of the 517th from moving forward and to Bob’s position. His commander decided to wait for armor to arrive and solve the minefield dilemma. “So, they left us there by ourselves. And they moved back about a mile. We called it no man’s land.”
Soon the Germans discovered their location and began shelling the building. Bob remembers, “They hit the building. Seven of our guys were in one part of the building, the building collapsed on them. They did not survive. On our side of the building, everything was gone except the lower level”. Bob continued to call in artillery fire on the German position. Soon the shelling began again. “I looked out of the window to see the Germans. I ducked down from the window but my left hand was still up on the sill. I was hit by shrapnel. It took off the skin on the top part of my hand and hit my finger knucklebone. I thought my fingers were gone at first. I just wrapped it with a cloth.” The shelling continued nonstop with Bob and the survivors huddled in the basement. Everyone was wounded. Because the communication wires were damaged, he crawled back to the aid station to get help which eventually came. His position was under siege for days.
For his heroic action during this engagement he was awarded the Bronze Star with V device for valor. In part the citation reads as follows: “In a position made extremely hazardous by enemy artillery and small arms fire, Private First Class Amerlan operated a switchboard for two days without relief. . . . Despite the presence of enemy snipers, Private First Class Amerlan made the necessary repairs [to damaged communications] and kept the system on a full-time working schedule. On another occasion, when enemy fire cut one line, he personally braved artillery fire to go to an aid station and guide medical men to the battalion command post where many men were wounded. Private First Class Amerlan’s courageous devotion to duty and tireless energy kept the vital communications system available for the large part it played in the success of his unit’s operations.”
Bob also was awarded the Purple Heart for wounds received during this same engagement. While recovering at a hospital two weeks later, his unit commander told him the 517th PIR was preparing for another jump but he, Bob, would have to stay in the hospital. Bob, characteristically, replied he would not be left behind and that he could manage his weapon and jump one-handed. He rejoined his unit. The jump never happened. Bob remembers, “General Patton overran our objective so they set us up for another jump. Somebody overran our objectives again.” Germany surrendered as the 517th PIR was standing by in Northern France for another jump.
The 517th PIR commander called a meeting with all his original men who were with him from the very beginning which of course included Bob. He informed them he was getting on a boat and going to Japan. He gave us an out, says Bob. “He told us, all you guys that have been with us have seen enough combat. You all can go to be occupational troops in Berlin, you can go there if you like. The rest can come with me.” To no one’s surprise most volunteered including Bob. The Japanese surrendered on August 15, 1945 when Bob’s ship and the 517th PIR was somewhere off the west coast of Africa. When asked the response of the guys, Bob retorts, “We took the ship apart.” All tolled his unit accumulated 150 combat days during five campaigns on battlefields in Italy, France, Belgium and Germany. Its casualty rate was 81.9 percent and it suffered 1,576 casualties and 247 killed in action.
Bob was discharged in October 1945. He returned to Western Electric and immediately was given a promotion to supervisor and technical instructor. Besides teaching, he continued to supervise and managing the installation of switch installations throughout Chicago. On a 30-day furlough in Chicago before his discharge, he met Arlene. She and a friend both worked as switchboard operators and loved the paratrooper’s uniforms. They married on August 31, 1946. Bob and Arlene celebrated 70 years of marriage last August. Bob, now a widower, has 3 children, 7 grandchildren and 5 great-grandchildren. The Amerlan military service tradition has been carried on by his younger brother (Army Vietnam era), son James (Army communications, Europe), nephew (Army, Viet Nam) and nephew (Army, Iraq) in addition to eight in-laws some of whom serve up to the present day.
Bob/Ammo we thank you for your service and sacrifice. Enjoy every minute of the upcoming Honor Flight to Washington, D.C.