Daniel Powers of Oklahoma City remembers his father, Eddy Powers. He was a sergeant in the 99th Infantry during the Second World War. In a state Capitol meeting room, Dan talked about Eddy this week.
Eddy saw “humor and humanity” even in the midst of war. He was, you might say, a happy warrior.
Not always happy: Dan tells stories about his father’s “problem” with officers. He was busted from sergeant to buck private seven times, but his brilliance in battle and in command of his platoon took him back up the line every time. The only captain he ever liked busted him on many of those times.
A short form of the story from June 1944 to December 1945, with the speaker’s voice alternating between Dan and his father Eddy, goes like this.
Sgt. Powers and his unit landed at Utah Beach in Normandy, on June 6, 1944. They would eventually fight in France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Yugoslavia and Germany.
On the beach, they landed about 100 yards from the intended target. If they had landed at the “right” place, they would all have died due to enemy positioning. They got ashore with no problem, a rare story that awful day. By nightfall they were six miles inland.
Eddy told his son the French people were wonderful. They “had a terrible time while the Nazis were in charge.” Eddy had learned some French in school, and got to use it.
As they moved along, in Dan’s narrative, “Along the way he acquired a bottle of Hennessy. They weren’t allowed to swipe anything [and he didn’t] from anyone they encountered. However, they were allowed to keep some of the stuff that others had stolen. So he carried the bottle around, planning every day to drink it on V-E [victory in Europe] Day.”
In battle once, “when the Germans had a heavy barrage, he passed out for awhile. As he awoke, he had this wet feeling on his back and thought ‘Oh my God, this time I’m hit.’ But it turned out to be the Hennessy bottle, which had broken. He always said the Hennessy saved his life.”
Eddy “respected the soldiers in the Wehrmacht.” He insisted those regular German soldiers “were honorable.” They respected the Red Cross, and allowed passage through the lines. They were respectful of the innocents, “the women and children.” Apparently more than once they allowed women and children to get out of buildings before fighting continued. “They respected white flags. They were just soldiers doing their jobs.”
However, the dreaded Nazi S.S. “was a different matter. They were evil.” When the 99th Division in which he served encountered the S.S., and especially at the war’s end when they liberated Dachau, Eddy came to understand what it was all about.
It was in March or April that they got to the concentration camp. Dan says, “That’s when he learned how awful the S.S. and the Gestapo really were.” What he saw there haunted him until the day he died. He said the war was awful and he hated it. But that the things he saw in the concentration camp helped him understand “the evil we were fighting against. It had to be destroyed.”
Eddy Powers told his son that if you used your head in war, you did not always have to fight. Long before the war’s end, in Eddy’s narrative, “One time we saw down in a draw (a valley) a group of eight German tanks and 750 soldiers. Our unit had a nozzle only, from a destroyed U.S. tank, and a couple of hundred soldiers. They lifted it and stuck it through a line of trees toward the Germans.”
Dan said that Eddy’s captain “went down to talk to the Germans under a white flag. When they were talking [Eddy] could see the German colonel laughing. But then he stopped laughing.” The American leader told his foe the Americans had three times their numbers, and a large contingent of tanks. He pointed up to the one nozzle sticking through the trees as he spoke.
As Dan tells it, “The Germans surrendered, stacked up their arms and walked in or drove in on their tanks and surrendered to the small American force with only six tanks. [Eddy] said there was nothing worse than 750 German soldiers who realized they’d had the rug pulled out from under them. … They were pissed.”
But Eddy Powers had an idea. He went in among the Germans, who were growing restive, with a carton of cigarettes: “The Germans loved American cigarettes. These were Lucky’s [Lucky Strikes]. So they went in and passed out all the cigarettes.” His father used to tell him, “There’s nothing calmer than a German soldier smoking an American cigarette.”
Dan, speaking in Eddy’s voice, talks about all the men in the regular Army who died in the Battle of the Bulge, a German counterattack in late 1944: “As a result, a lot of cooks, orderlies, and black soldiers wound up in the middle of the fighting.”
Eddy’s story about one of the new warriors went like this: “There was one incident where we had a coordinated time for attack against a German position. All of the sudden, five minutes early, the right flank opens up with everything they had, so we all wind up having to fight early. I called up on the radio and found out the guy in charge was sitting there with a gun being held to his head.”
Eddy said, “I talked to the guy holding the gun. It was a black guy. He told me he was in the Army to fight, not to wait. It worked out fine and we won the engagement.
“But I went up there to their position and talked with the black guy. He was the largest black man I have ever seen. He repeated what he had said. I had a decision to make. I put my arm around him – the guy was huge. I told him, ‘I don’t know where you are from, but where I am from we work as a team. In the future we will work together and you will obey my orders, or I’ll put a bullet in your head.’ He just looked at me and said, ‘No problem, Sarge.’ And, we did work together fine and never had another problem.”
It was at the Bulge, on December 16, that Eddy nearly died. He awoke that fateful morning in a sea of freshly fallen snow. As he described it, the bullets passing overhead made a sound that was like a crack over his head. It if went by the ear, on the other hand, the bullet made a whistling sound.
He told his son, “I never heard the bullet that hit me.” After he was hit, Eddy fell on the snow. A big guy in the unit yelled out, “Stay there, Sarge. I’m gonna come get you.” It seemed like two hours, Eddy recalled. Finally the guy did come: “He was 6’ 8” and something like 280 pounds. He picked me up and carried me like a sack of potatoes. He saved my life.”
Eddy’s back was broken. He was in a body cast. They sent him to England to recover. There was perhaps some justification for his attitude about officers, in Dan’s view.
One day when Eddy was in the hospital, a colonel came through the facility. Dan says, “They made the guys, even injured ones, stand up. They stood him up and, sure enough, he fell forward, just as the colonel came by. They busted him.” So Eddy Powers said he was probably the only U.S soldier busted in rank while in a full body cast.
Eventually Eddy recovered, to rejoin his comrades in February 1945.
That sole captain he liked welcomed him back, saying simply he was “glad you’re here.” As a token of esteem, right away – after restoring three stripes in rank, to make him a sergeant again — he ordered Eddy to take some guys out on the line.
Dan Powers says that when he was a kid, he and his dad used to watch the television show “Combat!” Dan says, “No more than five minutes would pass without Dad laughing and shaking his head, saying, ‘that couldn’t happen’ or ‘that’s not the way it’s done.’ ”
His father used to joke that carbines were invented “so that lieutenants couldn’t kill each other.” In one episode, when his Dad saw the lieutenant in “Combat!” kill a German about 100 yards off with a clean shot from his carbine, “he just laughed.
Also one time on the show they had the U.S. soldiers take out a tank with one clean bazooka shot: “Not impossible but unlikely and one thing for sure: Dad said soldiers always ran to a different spot after firing a bazooka, because it left a perfect trail for the German tankers to find them if they stayed put. It was not realistic when the TV show showed them fire, then sit there and wait to see the effect.”
The war in Europe had an effect on the Powers family cuisine long years after the war, Dan said. The family never, ever, ate Spam. Dan never even saw Spam until long after he had grown up and left home.
As the war neared an end in May 1945, in Eddy’s voice, “the German soldiers flocked to us to surrender. They told us that they wanted to avoid surrendering to the Russians.” On the glorious day Germany surrendered, “There wasn’t a potato for a five-mile radius in any direction. We used them all to create potato vodka.”
The months after the war included interesting incidents. Dan said, “The nicest one of all was when they were sent to the south of France on an assignment. After they finished what they’d been asked to do, on the way back they found a monastery literally in the middle of nowhere.
“The monks had managed to get through the entire war without ever being harassed by the Germans or then by the Americans. They were very nice men. They were great cooks. And, they brewed delicious beer.”
Eddy and his group ended up staying for a week, Dan relates, “just because it was so much fun after what had happened in the war. Well, because they were days late returning to camp, they had been found AWOL. So, Dad was busted yet again, back to private.”
Finally, in December 1945, Eddy headed back to the United States. He got home to New York just in time for the holiday. Dan says, “It was the best Christmas of his entire life.”
Years later, when his son asked the warrior if he would do it again, Eddy always said no: “If I could have avoided it I would have.” Yet, he also said, “I would not have missed it for the world.”
Dan’s father always passionately insisted that he was not a hero: “He said he was not brave. He just did his job.” At another occasion, Eddy affirmed, “All the soldiers were brave.” For himself and his comrades, “we just did our jobs. It was the [medical] corpsmen who were the real heroes.”
The same Army that busted him in rank repeatedly felt differently about Sgt. Powers’ heroism. Among his decorations: a Bronze Star for Valor, and a Purple Heart that resulted from those wounds that almost killed him in the Battle of the Bulge.
Wednesday (November 9), Malia Bennett — who works at the state Capitol in Oklahoma City and who arranged for Dan Powers’ speech — reflected after the Eddy Powers story ended.
She said, “The way we keep memories alive is that we tell stories.”
Dan spoke softly, with conviction: “It was nice having him, my Dad, as a role model. They hated war. They were ordinary guys. They saved the world.”