World War II Oral History Interview
Date: 23 September, 2003
Veteran: Alex DiSanto
Hq. and Hq. Company, 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division, 505th Parachute Infantry, 17th Airborne Division.
Interviewer: Michelle Carrara
Summarizer: Irving Bauman
Alexander L. DiSanto was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in March 1922 and was living there at the outbreak of World War II. He was working as a machinist’s apprentice in the RCA machine shop in Camden New Jersey, until he was drafted in November 1942.
Assigned to the infantry, DiSanto received basic training at Camp Wheeler in Macon, Georgia. He decided to volunteer for airborne service and so was transferred to Fort Benning, Georgia for thirteen weeks of grueling training as a paratrooper. Along with extreme physical training, DiSanto learned how to fold, pack and secure his own parachute at Benning. It was well he did, because the training period included five parachute jumps from a C-47 transport aircraft. He was initially alarmed at the rush of air from the plane’s propellers and, during one jump, had doubts his chute would open, but he successfully completed the training.
While at Benning, many soldiers traveled across the state line to Phenix City, Alabama for recreation, which often ended in barroom fistfights between men of different units. Some outfits actually encouraged their men to go into town and engage in bar fights, telling them that one paratrooper was the equal of ten other soldiers. DiSanto was taught judo and hand-to-hand fighting to reinforce that concept.
Aware of his civilian work at RCA, the army assigned DiSanto to be a radio operator, and he received training in Morse code, achieving the rate of twelve words a minute. After achieving radio proficiency, he was sent to Alliance Airfield, Nebraska to join the 507th Parachute Infantry. As a radio operator, Di Santo carried an SCR 300 radio (his official MOS was “Radio Operator, Low Speed, 776) and worked with several companies in the regiment. He participated in several practice jumps before receiving a seven day leave home prior to assignment overseas.
(507th Infantry Pathfinders ready to jump into Normandy )
DiSanto left the United States with the 507th aboard a British ship headed for Scotland on December 5, 1943, recalling that the ship was “quite dirty” and that there was little to eat besides bread and hard-boiled eggs. He was seasick for fourteen days and landed in Scotland on December 20. After spending time in Glasgow, Scotland and Northern Ireland for further training, he ended up in Nottingham, England, where the 507th was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division. He recalled how the American army was strictly racially segregated, with black and white soldiers housed in separate areas, but that English girls, not raised in the racial atmosphere of the United States, dated both white and black American servicemen.
DiSanto and the 82nd dropped into Normandy the night before D-Day, near the Merderet River. He recalled that his company of around 100 men was scattered, with some landing in water and drowning, others sinking in sand, and still others pinned down by German fire. The situation was chaotic, with explosions, tracer bullets and flares lighting up the sky all around; the regimental commander, Colonel George V. Millet, was captured by the Germans. Di Sarno’s plane was hit by enemy ground fire, and he had to bail out closer to the beachhead than planned, just over enemy machine gun positions. He recalled that his company commander was shot through the mouth, and his platoon sergeant was also wounded.
DiSanto landed next to a hedgerow and then met up with another American, who was escorting thirty German prisoners. They wandered around with the prisoners until they located a holding area, and then DiSanto tried to locate his unit, which was scattered all over the landscape. Eventually the regiment reassembled and performed its mission of holding the Germans back from the beachheads at Normandy. After 33 days of combat, the 82nd was withdrawn to England for reorganization and reequipping, and the 507th was reassigned to the 17th Airborne Division.
The 17th was sent as reinforcements to the Third Army during the Ardennes campaign, also known as the “Battle of the Bulge.” DiSanto remembered seeing German tanks advance into his unit’s infantry positions as the American soldiers tossed grenades in their treads and at their turrets, after which the enemy armor retreated. He recalled that the snow and cold were severe, but that he was equipped with shoe packs and adequate winter clothing.
In early February, 1945, the 17th Airborne Division was assigned to the last major parachute drop of the war, Operation Varsity, the airborne assault across the Rhine River. The division was dropped at the southern edge of the Diersfordter Forest, three miles northwest of Wesel, just north of the Ruhr Valley, Germany’s industrial heartland. At the time of the drop, DiSanto was serving as the radio operator for the 507th’s commander, who carried a briefcase and a .45 automatic pistol.
Following the close of the war in Europe, DiSanto was reassigned to the 505th Parachute Infantry back in the 82nd Airborne Division, and was stationed in Berlin on occupation duty as a member of that unit. He recalled meeting a woman in Berlin who begged him to help another woman who was being gang-raped by 40 Russian soldiers. He was alone unarmed and helpless, as the 40 Russians were heavily armed, so he could, unfortunately, do nothing.
DiSanto returned to the United States aboard a small, German-built ship, aboard which the soldiers slept in three-tiered bunks and were constantly bounced around in stormy seas. He was seasick every day of the trip, until he arrived in Massachusetts on December 4, 1945. He was discharged on December 19 and took a train home to Pennsylvania, surprising his parents on his arrival.
(507th parachute infantry insignia )
In recollecting his service, DiSanto stated that the M-1 rifle and M-1 carbine with folding stock performed well in action, as did the 2.5 Rocket Launcher (Bazooka). Rations, including K and C, were the main menu in the field, and bacon and eggs, cheese, pork, crackers and lemonade were available as well.
Remarkably, considering his experiences, DiSanto suffered no serious wounds. On one occasion, he remembered, he and two comrades were using a tree for cover when a shell hit it, killing one man and wounding the other, while he emerged unscathed, save for punctured eardrums. On another occasion he cut his hand while opening a C-Ration can.
DiSanto is a member of the 82nd Airborne veterans’ organization of southern New Jersey and attended one reunion at Fort Benning. His decorations include the Good Conduct Medal, Distinguished Unit Badge, American Theater Campaign Medal, European-African-Middle-Eastern Campaign Medal with four Battle Stars and one Arrowhead, and the World War II Victory Medal. His advice to future generations was that they should take any opportunity to serve their country.