Capt. Walther S. Van Poyck 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment - 82nd Airborne Division
Walther Steward Van Poyck was born in 1914 in Wilkes-Barre Pennsylvania. He was the youngest child of a family of eight; father, mother, three brothers and two sisters. During the great depression he worked his way through College. In 1933 he went to Susquehanna University, where he graduated with honors and a business degree in 1937.
After university Walther gets hooked on jazz music and learned to play the clarinet. He decides to form a band and travels to Europe with his musical band playing jazz music in several countries. Walther enlisted for the U.S. Army on 12 September 1941 at Camp Blanding, Florida just months before the attack on Pearl Harbor. He volunteers for the newly created Airborne divisons and ends up with the 82nd Airborne Division, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment. He trained with the division at Camp Blanding, Camp Wheeler, Fort Bragg and ends up in Fort Benning where he was commissioned to 2nd Lieutenant. On April 17 the division was moved to Camp Edwards for embarkation to the European Theater of War (ETO).
Walther, together with the division left the U.S. on April 29 on route to Morroco to prepare for the invasion of Europe. The division takes part in the invasion of Italy and Walther's unit, Company E of the 504 Parachute Infantry Regiment, is one of the units spearheading the attack. The division was moved by truck to Tunisia to prepare for their first combat mission.
On July 11 1943 the 504 PIR entered the ETO by supporting the invasion of Sicily, Italy. On their way to Sicily in their C-47's, the 504 PIR was tragically hit by friendly ani-aircraft fire of naval ships. The Troop Carrier unit that flew the 504 PIR to Sicily sadly used the wrong approach route, flying over a route that German bombers often used. Naval ships saw serial after serial coming in and eventually opened fire on the group of airplanes. The 504 PIR lost 229 casualties to that friendly fire incident. Even though this incident occured, the invasion of Sicily was a succes and the 504 PIR fought hard on the island of Sicily gaining valuable combat experience. The 504th returned to North-Africa, heads held high, to rest and recuperate.
Then Operation Avalanche started, the invasion of mainland Italy, on September 9 1943. The landings took place at Salerno. The landings were succesful but the allied troops met heavy enemy opposition and didn't have enough depth in the lines. Two battalions, the 1st and 2nd battalion, of the 504 PIR was asked to jump into the bridgehead to reinforce the lines. The units jumped right on top of the beaches and Walther's battalion dug in close to Albanella. The regiment fought against a determined enemy and Walther led his company to many battles, gaining combat experience but losing a lot of his subordinates. The 504 PIR was the first unit to enter Naples after long and intense fighting and was valued by allied commanders as a very experienced and tough unit. Walther gained a lot of leadership skills, growing into a fierce combat leader. Colonel Tucker saw Walther van Poyck as one of his best company commanders. Reserved as a person but fierce as a combat leader, leading his men from the frontlines. After more fighting in mainland Italy, the regiment returned to Naples in January of 1944. The 82nd Airborne Division was finally transferred from Italy to England to prepare for the invasion of France. The 504 PIR, having suffered many casualties during the Italian campaign, was held back from the 'D-day' mission. Regaining strenght, improving skills, training the regiment day by day, the unit awaited it's next mission.
After a long time of training in England the 504 Parachute Infantry Regiment was called upon again. As part of the 82nd Airborne Division they were taking part in Operation Market Garden. The task of the 504 PIR was to capture the bridge over the river Maas at Grave and bridges over the Maas-Waal canal at Heumen, Malden, Hatert and Honinghutje. 1st battalion was assigned to get (at least one of) the bridges in the east of the dropzone over the Maas-Waal canal, bridge number 7, 8, 9 and 10. 2nd battalion received the task of capturing bridge 11 in the west of the dropzone, the bridge over the Maas at Grave. 3rd battalion was assigned to capture the road in between the Grave bridge and the bridge in Hatert, hereby closing the gap in the north between 1st and 2nd battalion.
Walther's company, Company E, or Captain Richardson's Company F would receive the prize. The so-called 'suicide mission' jumping a seperate company just north-west of the bridge at Grave so the battalion was able to attack the bridge from two sides, in a 'coup-de-main'. Colonel Tucker had thought of a genius plan to decide which company would get the mission. He called for Van Poyck and Richardson, explained the mission and the task and pulled a coin from his pocket. Van Poyck flipped the coin and Richardson called. Richardson won the coin toss but gave the mission away to Walther. Walther was glad he received the mission, being the proud combat leader he was. Walther's men cheered that they received the mission and they left for the planes to embark for their mission in the Netherlands.
Walther van Poyck had a bad feeling about the mission. Even though he saw the advantage of a daytime jump and he felt secure of his platoon leaders and his men, he had a bad premonition, saying to himself that he was not going to make it this time.
On 17 September Walther and his company left for Grave, jumping on the dropzone north-west of the bridge at 13.17 hours. The lean fighting machine, Walther van Poyck, sent Lt. Thompson towards the bridge to take the south end and Walther led his men to the south-east of Grave to form a roadblock and stop any German trying to enter Grave. His unit was under ferocious German machine gun and rifle fire, but Walther was able to get to the Bosschebaan, just south-east of Grave and took command of several building at a crossroads. Walther set up his headquarters in a cafe on the Bosschebaan (which was the Grave-'s Hertogenbosch highway) called 'De Elft'. Some German troops bumped into the lines of Walther's company, but were pushed back by the immense firepower of the Americans. Close to the evening the troops strengthened the lines at the crossroads when suddenly they heard a noise. Two German motorcycles swung round the bend driving straight towards the American lines. The first motorcycle hit a mine killing the crew instantly, the other motorcycle crew was shot of their bike by machine gun fire. It didn't feel right for Walther, but he kept the lines and waited. Moments later they heard the rumble of a tank. Outside his headquarters Walther heard someone scream; "It's a British tank". Walther left his HQ to meet the British tank commander and shake his hand. The paratoopers left their foxholes and eyebald the tank for a moment when suddenly the crew of the tank closed the hatches and fired a shot with the main gun. It was a German Tiger tank that was sent to Grave earlier that day to meet up with the German garrison in Grave. One of the houses at the crossroad was hit by a high explosive grenade fired by the tank. There was another explosion on the road, right at the spot where many paratroopers assembled to meet up with the 'British' tank, causing many casualties. A paratrooper of the unit, Private Lyman Brainard, fired a couple of shots with his bazooka causing direct hits, but inflicted no damage. The Tiger tank pulled back, saving the American paratroopers a lot of pain. Had the tank commander been more aggresive this incident might have ended much different for the lightly equipped paratroopers.
The Grave bridge was seized by Lt. Thompson and his men and later the bridge defenses were strenghtened on the east side by men of Company F. Walther van Poyck's company was very succesful on the first day of Operation Market Garden, seizing the largest span bridge in Europe. Two days later, on 19 September at around 8.15 hours in the morning, Walther van Poyck heard the rumble of a tank column. The incident of the 17th still in the back of his mind, he reacted cautious, but the link up was made. These tanks were the tanks of British XXX-Corps.
For his leadership on 17 September at Grave during Operation Market Garden, Walther earned the Silver star medal, the 3rd highest award for bravery in the U.S. Army.
Photo: Walther van Poyck in combat gear holding his favorite weapon, the Thompson submachine gun.
Bridge number 11, the bridge at Grave. The bridge that had to be seized by Company E and Company F of the 504 Parachute Infantry Regiment on September 17.
For a couple of days combat for Walther's company was limited to combat patrols on the left flank of the division's area of operations, between Hatert and Grave. Walther's company and the rest of 2nd battalion was asked to support the Waalcrossing from the south side of the Waal on 20 September.
Just after Operation Market Garden, the 504 PIR is still in the operations area, acting as frontline infantry, guarding the area from German repossession. On 3 October, Walther is resting in a farmhouse with the remainder of his company in Erlecom, a small town close to Beek-Ubbergen just east of Nijmegen. The company's 81 mm mortar squad, led by 1Lt. Ed Klein, was 'hunting' for the German mortar position. Men in the gunpit fired shot after shot and received German counter fire, but all shots were misses. The Americans wanted to retaliate the German mortar rounds and at some point, Ed Klein was quite sure he knew where the Germans were and fired several shots towards the enemy's position. There was no return fire and Ed went to the farmhouse to tell his company commander he had hit the enemy's mortar position. When he opened the door he heard a loud blast and a saw a bright yellow flash inside the farmhouse. The German mortar position was still up and firing at the Americans. The first mortar round was a direct hit on the farmhouse and entered through the roof, hitting Walther almost directly on his leg. The mortar blast is so intense that Walther loses consciousness. When he wakes up, shaken, nervous and on the verge of shock, he sees his right leg lying beside him, still attached to his body by a tendon. He spots that he has lost a part of his left foot too. He injects himself with a shot of morphine and starts barking commands to the medics that have entered the barn after the blast. He shouts to get the wounded men out first and pick him up last. The medics eventually pick him up and give him another shot of morphine. They bring him back to an aid station where Walther gets another shot of morphine and eventually ends up with the wounded men who are about to die. Still with fighting spirit in his body, Walther sits up and shouts "Dammit, I'm not going to die!". After treatment in the aid station, the hospital in Nijmegen, Walther is taken to Belgium, England and eventually ends up in Walter Reed Hospital outside Washington D.C. He earns a Silver star for his actions during Operation Market Garden and is promoted to Major. At Walter Reed, Walther is operated upon several times and he spends two years recovering from his wounds. His right leg is amputated above the knee and there isn't much left of his left foot.
During his stay in Walther Reed, a nice looking nurse called Phyllis Herland takes care of him. Walther and Phyllis fall in love and in 1947 end up in Miami, Florida, where Walther starts working for Eastern Airlines again. Together they get three children, Jeff, William Jr. and Lisa. In the winter of 1956, when Phyllis is pregnant of their fourth child, she is taking care of the family next door. She decides to stay the night to take better care of the family, but the next morning, Walther finds his wife and the neigbors dead or dying in the house due to Carbon monoxide poisoning. He tries to save his wife, but later that day she dies, with an unborn baby still inside her belly.
Walther suffured from his combat experiences and suffered even more when he lost his wife to early in life to carbon monoxide poisoning. Walther van Poyck had a hard time raising his kids. He married his second wife, Lee Van Poyck in 1960 and worked at Eastern Airlines until 1970. Walther died on 16 December 1972.
Captain Walther Steward Van Poyck Company E, 504 Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division Place and date: Grave, the Netherlands, 17 September 1944
The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress July 9, 1918, takes pleasure in presenting the Silver Star to Captain (Infantry) Walter S. Van Poyck (ASN: 0-1283345), United States Army, for gallantry in action while serving with Company E, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82d Airborne Division, in action against the enemy on 17 September 1944, near Grave, Holland. Captain Van Poyck jumped with his company two miles south of the remainder of the battalion. Immediately upon landing, his company engaged a battalion of enemy parachutists, then took up a position astride the Grave highway and effectively met and beat off the German counterattack, blocking their retreat to the south. Captain Van Poyck moved about the position voluntarily exposing himself to draw machine gun and small arms fire causing the enemy to disclose their positions and with his supporting fire forced them to withdraw to the east. His gallant actions inspired his men to drive numerically superior forces from strong defensive positions and insured the successful taking of the vital Grave bridge.
General Orders: Headquarters, 82d Airborne Division, General Orders No. 122 (October 5, 1945)