WESTVILLE – As children, my brother, sisters and I had only a vague idea of what my father did in the Army Air Forces in World War II.
He seldom told war stories – only when we begged – and never in much detail.
We knew he was a co-pilot who had flown paratroopers on D-Day, the famed invasion of Normandy.
We knew he had once been shot down over Holland and had pulled a crew member out of a burning plane.
As an adolescent and into adulthood, I was more focused on voicing opposition to war, especially the Vietnam War. He and I would argue at the dinner table.
In 1994, on the 50th anniversary of D-Day, I did not interview my father nor arrange for another News-Gazette reporter to interview him when we talked to 200 area veterans for a special section on World War II.
It was not until recently that I became interested in his experiences, after he and Mom told me a Dutch man had written him to ask about his role in liberating the Dutch from the Nazis.
I discovered then that my father, Don Merlie, co-pilot of a C-47 transport plane, had helped fly paratroopers into Nazi-occupied Holland as part of Operation Market-Garden, the largest airborne operation in military history.
In "A Bridge Too Far," the basis for the movie of the same title, Cornelius Ryan described the operation as "monumental."
It employed nearly 5,000 Allied airplanes – fighters, bombers and transports – and 2,500 gliders taking off from 24 airfields.
They were to drop paratroopers, vehicles and supplies behind German lines in Holland. Later, ground forces would join the airborne troops at three drop zones near the German border.
The major goal of Market-Garden, devised by British Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery and reluctantly agreed to by U.S. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, was to take the Arnhem bridge and then industrial Germany to topple the Third Reich and end the war before Christmas.
Leading an element
As part of what Ryan called an "unprecedented daylight assault" starting Sept. 17, 1944, the Allied airborne forces took off – my father from Langar airfield at Nottinghamshire in England.
The pilot of his C-47 was Capt. Earl Peters of Pittwood – like my father, from a small town in central Illinois.
Leading an element of the 301st Squadron, 441st Group, his plane was to drop over Nijmegen south of Arnhem 18 paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division.
They were less than 2 miles from the drop zone when a German shell hit their plane, knocking the propeller off the right engine.
"All I heard was a thump," Dad said last week. "I didn't see it. I remember the guy next to our wing saying, 'Oh, Merlie got it.' After the propeller came off you could still fly on one engine."
Three or four seconds later, another shell hit between my father's seat and that of radio operator Staff Sgt. Howard Jung from Long Island.
"That blew a hole under his feet," Dad said. "As soon as we knew we were on fire, I knew it was bad news. Then we weren't very far from the drop zone – I'd say 200 yards.
"We knew if the plane exploded the paratroopers would die, so I pushed the button and the red light went on in back telling them to jump. After they got out, Peters set down on top of a hill."
Escaping the burning C-47, Dad forgot his treasured leather pilot's jacket; he had removed it after takeoff and left it on his seat. (My siblings and I chipped in several years ago to buy him a similar jacket.)
While hurrying out of the burning plane, Dad noticed Jung crawling on the floor toward the cargo door. His foot had been nearly blasted off.
"I took him by the collar and dragged him to the door," Dad said. "The other guys were by the wing. I called out to them, and they came back and helped unload him off the plane."
They carried him to a fence row, where my dad quickly opened a first-aid kit and tried to give Jung a shot of morphine. In his excitement, he forgot to break the seal and bungled the shot.
He and his crew navigator, 2nd Lt. Bill Toland of Mendenhall, Miss., then began looking for a medic. Two U.S. paratroopers approached, called "Halt!" and asked for the password.
Dad didn't know it.
"We told them we were looking for a medic. The paratroopers said, 'Go right over the hill and you'll see an aid station.'"
There they found a physician and a stretcher and saw injured soldiers lying around. After carrying Jung there, my father and his crew mates joined Allied paratroopers marching toward Groesbeek, just south of Nijmegen.
Stuck in Groesbeek
There, Allied troops had established a base and captured fleeing Germans. One of the first buildings Dad entered was an abbey that had been used as a Nazi headquarters and then abandoned.
"We went in to see what we could find," he said of himself and Toland. "I saw a holster on a bed and grabbed it, but there was no gun in it. I thought I was going to find a Luger. I found an unopened bottle of cognac and put it in my pocket."
He later shared that German booty with Peters and some paratroops officers.
The first night in Groesbeek, Toland and Dad, who was wearing only his dress uniform, slept outside under a tarp that had been wrapped around supplies dropped by a plane.
Another night they stayed in the abbey, where German prisoners of war were being kept in the basement.
At one point an Army lieutenant handed Dad a Tommy gun and asked him to guard the P.O.W.s for a while. The Germans gave him no trouble. By that time, they were tired of the war, he said.
During the next few days, he saw Allied paratroopers escorting more German prisoners into Groesbeek.
"One paratrooper indicated to me that another paratrooper wouldn't bring them in – he would shoot them instead."
A Dutch welcome
As depicted in the movie "A Bridge Too Far," Dutch civilians welcomed the Allied troops who liberated them. One Groesbeek family invited my dad and Toland for lunch in their home.
"They had very little but they shared with us," he said.
One evening, while still in Groesbeek, an American soldier – my father suspected he was A.W.O.L. – motioned from a doorway of another home, telling Toland and Dad they could stay there that night.
Trying to fall asleep later in the basement of the home, they heard German shrapnel hitting the tile roof of the church next door. My father recalls an old woman taking refuge in the basement, reciting the rosary.
In a foxhole
The next day an Army lieutenant asked Toland and Dad to man foxholes that night near the German border. They reluctantly agreed.
"We felt around and found a foxhole and stayed in it overnight," he remembered. "The lieutenant had said, 'If we need you, we'll call you.' They never did.
"At daybreak we said, 'Let's go back to Groesbeek. We don't have to be here. We're not soldiers.' So we took off and went back on foot to Groesbeek."
Eventually the two hitched a ride to Brussels in a British military truck. From Brussels they returned by air to an Allied base in England.
"We were dirty. We hadn't shaved. We hadn't washed. I think it was five or six days before we got back," he said.
My father had always wondered whether the paratroopers in his C-47 had survived Market-Garden. He learned about their fate a few months ago after receiving a call from a historian in New York researching the operation. He gave Dad the telephone number of one of the paratroopers who had jumped from his plane that September day, 65 years ago.
Dad called him.
"I told him I often wondered whether his group got back OK. He said, 'Oh, yes, we did. We were in good shape. But we were scared. We never thought we'd make it. We often wondered what happened to the crew after our plane was hit.'
"He wanted to thank us for getting them out of the plane before anything happened."
All five of my dad's C-47 crew members also made it safely back to England, and later home.
Not a hero
My father always claims his World War II years were the best of his life. He is proud of his service but does not consider himself a war hero – a term he believes has been used loosely in recent decades.
He downplays his role in the Invasion of Normandy, which took place at night. He helped fly paratroopers to the area and returned safely to his airfield in England. It took him three or four hours.
During the war he also co-piloted C-47s on supply missions to Allied forces near the front lines, always in Europe. The best-known of those missions took place at Christmas 1944; he was in the first squadron to drop supplies into Bastogne, Belgium, during the Battle of the Bulge. There, American troops were socked in by bad weather and surrounded by German troops.
"I can still see the Americans waving at us," he said.
Don Merlie grew up as the only son of Italian immigrants (his ancestral name was changed at Ellis Island from Merli to Merlie) in Westville, a village 40 miles east of Champaign-Urbana. As a youth he dreamed of becoming a pilot.
After graduating in 1939 from Westville High School – he was a lackadaisical student – he worked for a year as a delivery man for an Italian grocery in Westville. He knew he would eventually enlist in the Army Air Forces.
He did a year later, at Chanute Air Base in Rantoul. There he took technical training in airplane mechanics, all along hoping to become a pilot. He was teaching carburetion, his specialty, when he took and passed the pilot's exam.
After the war he left the military with the rank of lieutenant – one of his regrets in life is not having become a career officer – and returned to Westville.
Like many veterans, he took advantage of the G.I. Bill, in his case to attend the University of Illinois and its law school. After graduating in 1951, he practiced law until last summer, when he finally retired.
Through most of his adult life he continued to fly. For years he and a couple of other Danville-area pilots co-owned a Cessna 182, kept at a hangar at the Vermilion County Airport. They sold it more than a dozen years ago.
My dad sometimes used the Cessna for quail-hunting trips, carrying his English pointers in back. Now 87 years old, he continues to hunt, but mostly with people my age, not his, and with his bird dogs.
Despite his good health, he has never wanted to return to Europe, even to Holland, where he was shot down and welcomed as a liberator.
"I'm not a looker," he said.
Though he and others consider Operation Market-Garden a fiasco overall, the Dutch in southern Holland continue to memorialize the historic operation and the Allied forces who took part in it.
Hans den Brok, the amateur Dutch historian working on a self-published book about Market-Garden, was the one who contacted my father several months ago.
His parents were children when they were liberated in Market-Garden.
A member of the Remember September 1944 Foundation, 37-year-old den Brok helped organize two exhibitions in Holland in September for the 65th anniversary of Market-Garden. The Dutch also maintain a Web site about the operation.
Via e-mail, den Brok – who knows exactly where my father's plane crashed – said though Market-Garden is considered a military failure (Allied losses were heavy at Arnhem, site of "the bridge too far") it liberated the southern part of Holland, where he lives.
"The rest of the country suffered that winter, and many died of hunger," he wrote. "In the last weeks of the war, British and American bombers dropped food supplies.
"So Market-Garden was the start of the liberation. Being an ambitious operation and with heroic fighting, it speaks to the mind of everybody."