He never really wanted to jump out of planes, but he wasn’t really given much of a choice.
Arthur Wilson was 18 when he followed his brothers into World War II. He was sent to England to fly gliders, small planes with no engines that would be dropped by a larger plane and descend into enemy territory.
But Wilson hated the gliders. They made him sick. So he asked to go to jump school to learn to drop into the battle instead of glide. On his first day of training, his sergeant made him run with him. They ran and ran – probably 15 miles, Wilson said – while the sergeant tried to prove that Wilson didn’t have what it takes to be a paratrooper.
“What he didn’t know was that I was raised in the mountains of Tennessee and Kentucky and our only transportation was your feet – I’d been running all my life,” Wilson said. “They spent the next two weeks trying to make you quit. That was the sergeants’ job, really, because if you couldn’t take all the abuse, they didn’t want you.”
Finally they said, “Today we’re going to pack our ‘chutes. And they told you how to pack your parachute: fold it this way and fold it that way and fold it this way and how to put the strings in it and so forth,” Wilson said. “And you get to thinking about it. If you don’t do it right, it won’t open. And you’d lay there all night thinking, ‘Did I get that string right? Did I fold it right?’”
After five successful practice jumps, Wilson became a paratrooper.
His first jump mission: Hold the German troops away from the beach at Normandy.
“It was a mess, a real mess,” he said. “The pilots weren’t trained that well. And you shouldn’t jump at night, that’s stupid because you’ve got to hit the ground. Then we got over the English Channel and ran into a fog. You couldn’t see anything.
“We jumped so low that a lot of them, the ‘chute never had time to open. About 400 in my division broke their ankles because we landed so hard. If you didn’t know what the heck you were doing, you were a goner.”
As bad as his time in the air was, his time on the ground was worse.
“D-Day was terrible – absolutely terrible. Everything they did was wrong – everything,” Wilson said.
“They told us we’d go and stay three days, and then we’d come back to England. Everything went so bad that instead of staying three days, we stayed 30 days. Over half of the troops that jumped with me didn’t make it back.”
One of the hardest parts of being in war, Wilson said, was the lack of communication.
“This is something that a lot of people don’t understand: If you’re in combat, you don’t see anything except in your little space. Nobody comes and tells you where you are, where you’re going, how the war’s going or anything.”
After the Normandy campaign, the Army sent Wilson to Belgium, where he fought in the Battle of the Bulge at Bastogne.
Wilson learned shells rarely land in the same area twice, he said. One night, he was in the latrine when the area came under fire.
“One shell hit and I took off and I thought, ‘Now I’ve got it made.’ I got all the way to the end and damned if one of them shells didn’t hit right in front of those stalls and it folded them up within two stalls of me. It’s one of the few times I remember I thought, ‘My parents will never know what happened to me.’
Although Bastogne was essentially surrounded by German troops, Wilson’s unit was able to hold the town.
“Those of us who had been there didn’t have but one thing in mind: Stay alive. Do whatever you can to stay alive. I never heard anybody in combat say, ‘I’m fighting for my country.’ That was the grand thing to do, but I wasn’t fighting for my country I just did what I could to stay alive.”
The 101st division pressed on into Germany, where Wilson helped clear away the horror of a concentration camp and he was among the first group of American soldiers to enter Berlin.
After the war, Wilson studied accounting at the University of Kentucky and eventually took a job at the Ford plant in Charlotte and moved to Huntersville.
Wilson’s wife, JoAnn, said it was only a few years ago that her husband began talking about his experience.
“It changes your life forever,” he said. “Nobody can convey the feelings that you have – it’s impossible.”