Freedom was worth the fight
History | A 91-year-old D-Day veteran says he would do it all over again
by Mary Reichard
Posted 6/06/15, 08:30 am
MOUNT VERNON, Mo.—Ralph Manley, 91, lives in a home with about 200 other veterans, about half of whom fought in World War II. Seventy-one years ago today, Manley jumped out of a plane and parachuted into Normandy, France, as part of the Allies’ D-Day invasion that turned the tide of the war.
“War is hell, ma’am,” Manley told me. “It’s awful.” But he would do it all over again, he said, to protect the cause of freedom.
Born in 1923 in the rolling and rocky Ozarks region of the Show Me State, Manley grew up on a dairy farm. World War II arrived just as he came of age.
His brother Roland volunteered for the paratroopers, and sister Dorothy joined the Women’s Army Corps.
Manley himself joined the U.S. Army halfway through his senior year of high school. He was training at Fort McCall in North Carolina when he got the news about his brother. He was just 19, shot down by friendly fire when his plane was mistaken for a German one.
“We were both paratroopers, but he was in the 82nd Airborne Division, and I was 101st Airborne Division,” Manley said. “He was killed when they jumped into Sicily. It was his first combat jump.”
Manley had the option at that point to discharge. As loosely depicted in the film Saving Private Ryan, families that had lost other sons were offered the chance to safeguard their remaining sons. But he stayed in. Active duty began in January 1943, training as a parachute and demolition specialist with the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment.
“When you jump, your objective is to take over things and blow them up,” Manley said.
He shipped out of Boston, heading to England, taking 12 days to get there due to German submarine threats in the Atlantic. During training, bombs fell on London every night.
In the spring of 1944, Manley had the opportunity to shake the hand of Allied commander Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. That meant a lot to the young man from Missouri who was about to face a great task. He would be among those who would invade Nazi-held France on June 6. His mission was to drop behind enemy lines in Normandy just after midnight, a few hours ahead of the beach invasion. His plane took hits from the Germans.
“Some men on the plane were hit with anti-aircraft fire and killed there,” Manley recalled, “and you’re in the plane with those, as well as the 20-some people in each plane [saying], ‘Let me out of here. I want on the ground where at least I have some cover or can get behind a building or something.’”
Manley forced himself to focus on his mission. He was the third man out the door, 23 minutes after midnight.
The plane crashed shortly thereafter, killing 13 on board. Only five paratroopers made it out of the plane alive.
Manley weighed 180 pounds in those days, but he had an additional 200-plus pounds of explosives and gear strapped to him to help keep any more Germans from going to the beaches than were already there. He blew up pillboxes, roadways, gun emplacements, and bridges.
“We were about 20 miles inland, and the Germans—once they saw you, they go to where you were, and of course that was combat right there,” Manley said. “And you were well-equipped and well-trained, and you had to advance the weapons. … You just weren’t really yourself. You were a killer. It’s that simple. You were trained to kill. You didn’t know whether that was a soldier or a cow.
The Normandy invasion turned the tide of the European war toward the Allies. Eight weeks in Normandy, and Manley survived. About 425,000 Allied and German troops did not.
Manley got another assignment three months later in September 1944. Operation Market Garden was an attempt to cross from the Netherlands into Germany. The plan was to drop paratroopers into Holland who would take control of bridges and roads so the British could attack Germany. The plan failed when armor didn’t arrive on time—two weeks late. The 1974 book and subsequent movie A Bridge Too Far tell the story of that operation.
“We are going to go take over this bridge, and by the time we got there the Germans did not want us to have it,” Manley said. “And so it was a bridge too far.”
Shortly thereafter, Manley was sent to Bastogne, Belgium, to protect the city from the Nazis. Despite a 10-day siege, the 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions held the town, though hampered by lack of supplies and winter clothing. That battle was part of what became known as the Battle of the Bulge, depicted 20 years later in a film of the same name.
“That was in wintertime,” Manley recalled. “That was in December … snow and ice on the ground. Zero degrees on some nights. And so you thought the weather was the enemy.”
Manley earned five Purple Hearts and two Bronze Stars. His body has carried shrapnel for all these decades.
“I’m not just sure what to say or how to say it,” Manley said. “But it makes one thankful. … I’m a very thankful person for the troops, the troops that were killed, their families, and the opportunity in America to get an education and to get the chance to have a home of your own and so on. All other nations don’t have that opportunity. America is full of opportunities. And it makes you appreciate each day and never forget it.”
Manley returned home from the war and served his hometown on the city council and as mayor pro tem. He prospered as a real estate developer in Missouri’s third-largest city, Springfield.
He became known for enthusiastic speeches and leaving an Eisenhower silver dollar in your hand as his calling card. The coin depicts an eagle landing on the moon. Those “Manley” coins are coveted treasures around town, from a hometown hero.
Listen to Mary Reichard’s interview with D-Day veteran Ralph Manley on The World and Everything in It.
Mary is co-host, legal affairs correspondent, and dialogue editor for WORLD Radio. She is also co-host of the Legal Docket podcast. Mary is a graduate of World Journalism Institute and St. Louis University School of Law. She resides with her husband near Springfield, Mo.