A trip to France in the fall of 2022 inspired me to retrace my father’s route with the 82nd Airborne as chief warrant officer for the 319th regiment. Felix Greene grew up in Columbia, was the 1934 valedictorian of Columbia High School, and graduated from the University of South Carolina and USC School of Law. He was practicing law in Newberry when World War II broke out. I don’t remember Daddy really talking about it, at least not with me, until the 30th anniversary in 1974 when I was a teenager, and so tracking down the details of his war experience in Normandy took a bit of work and research.
The Glider Artillery’s role was to land the bigger artillery weapons that were not able to be carried by the paratroopers and to provide them with artillery support. By the time of the Normandy invasion, the 82nd and my dad had already been in the thick of it from 1943 in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy. The daily reports — signed by my dad — show exactly what the 319th regiment was doing from the time they made the very dangerous glider landing on D-Day. In typical fashion of my father, in every report he signed, the morale was always reported as “good.” Day after day of getting shot at and shooting at other people, but morale was always “good.”
The first stop on my tour was the landing zone of the glider divisions of the 82nd. The fields were divided by the famous hedgerows, combinations of trees and shrubs, often with a ditch on either side. Positioned on the western coast of Europe, Normandy is naturally very windy, and the original purpose of the hedgerows was to serve as windbreaks, as well as to fence in the dairy and beef cows. The Allies had aerial reconnaissance photos that showed the hedgerows, but from the air their height was not apparent, and they caused significant problems both on D-Day and in breaking out from the beaches in the following days.
Another problem for the glider landings were “Rommel’s asparagus,” named after German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel. These pointed stakes, placed in open fields, were meant to tear into the wood and canvas gliders, creating an even more hazardous landing zone. Furthermore, lock gates under bridges, which allowed the French to control the tides at various times of the year for agriculture, allowed the Germans to flood the fields in the area to stymie further any airborne landings.
I next visited St. Mere-Eglise, the village where the 82nd landed that also claims the distinction of being the first French town to be freed on D-Day. A museum contains a British Horsa glider, the model my father landed in, made completely out of plywood and thought to be more “secure.” These gliders contained no engine but were towed across the channel by C-47s, some of which had already made one drop of paratroopers. This meant they were towed over Utah beach, where the aerial bombardment was still going on to knock out some of the German Atlantic line defensive positions that had troops pinned down on the beach.
Surviving the crossing was their first challenge; surviving the landing was their next. The planners of the mission, including Gen. Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower and Gen. Omar Bradley, expected a 70 percent casualty rate of killed, wounded, or seriously impaired soldiers in the gliders as well as a 50 percent casualty rate for the paratroopers. Thankfully, those rates did not materialize, although looking in the glider and at some of the footage from the landings, I wondered how any of them survived.
We headed south to the small town of Chef-du-Pont, where the 319th provided artillery support to the 508th paratroopers who were to take and hold the bridge to secure the way for the troops when they could begin moving out from the beaches. The area reminded me a lot of our South Carolina Lowcountry, with a meandering stream of water and low, marshy areas. It was incredible to be standing where I knew my father had been, and as a friend of mine put it, “Can you imagine what he’d have said if at that point during the battle someone told him many years in the future he’d have a daughter that came back here to see it all?”
My dad survived the war and arrived back in the United States in the fall of 1945. He was on a train going to Fort Gordon to muster out of the Army when the train stopped in Columbia at the then-new passenger station on Gervais Street, now the site of Blue Marlin. Daddy knew the station master from having delivered the man’s newspapers as a boy. Daddy told the station master he wanted to go call his mother, to whom he had not spoken in three and a half years, but that if that train left without him, he’d be in big trouble. His parents had helped found Shandon Baptist Church when it was at its original location on Woodrow Street, and he knew his mother would be at church on Sunday night teaching Baptist Training Union. Daddy found a pay phone, called the church, and someone got his mother on the phone. Thankfully, he also made it back on the train and returned to Columbia as a civilian three weeks later. In one of those great ironies of life, the man that signed the papers to muster him out of the Army turns out to be the uncle of my long-time best friend.
My father passed away in 1980, before they were recognized as “The Greatest Generation” by Tom Brokaw, before Band of Brothers or Saving Private Ryan. About two summers before he died, the movie A Bridge Too Far came out about Operation Market Garden, another famous though less successful battle in which the 82nd played a major role. My dad talked a little bit about that battle, mostly how much they all hated British Gen. Bernard “Monty” Montgomery. How I wish he’d have taken out all those documents that were stored in his study and spread them on his desk to explain to me what they’d done and why it was important. But like a lot of the men who went and fought, he never talked that much about it. They went and did what they were called on to do — to literally save democracy and return freedom to millions of people — but they came home and went back to their jobs, lives, and families.
After the war, my father returned to practicing law with the Pope Law firm in Newberry, South Carolina. He was a member of an organization called the Forty and Eight Club, an offshoot of the American Legion for those who served in the European Theatre. The “Forty and Eight” name comes from the railroad cars used in France during World War I, which could hold 40 men or eight horses. A lady in Newberry always cooked the dinners for the meetings, and at the fall meeting she served this oyster dressing. This was around the same time my parents met and married. My mother, being the dutiful newlywed, helped to prepare some of the menu items for the Forty and Eight Club dinners.
This recipe became part of our family holiday tradition. My parents moved from Newberry to Beaufort in 1956 but continued using this recipe instead of the saltine cracker version of oyster dressing that is more prevalent in the Lowcountry. Every Thanksgiving and Christmas, when my mother pulled out this recipe, she’d recount, “I had to peel a lot of apples and oranges to make ambrosia to get this recipe.” Apparently, the lady who possessed the recipe did not share it readily, and not sharing recipes was one of my mother’s major pet peeves.
One other funny story about my mother and this recipe — when I was in junior high school, we had a minister who was known for his short sermons; they were always no longer than eight to 10 minutes. One year when Christmas was on Sunday and there was no Sunday School, Mother thought she’d be smart and put the casserole in to bake for Christmas dinner while we were in church. My dad, brother, and I went ahead to secure a pew. Mother put the casserole in at the last minute and joined us — 10 minutes to church, an hour service, and 10 minutes home should have been perfect timing. When we got to church, Dr. Spears, our regular minister was ill, and a retired missionary was filling in that day. He was a dear friend of my parents, but he was also known for his extremely long sermons. I’d never seen my mother squirm so much, and when we finally stood up to sing the last hymn, she took off out the door to rescue the dressing.
I still have my mother’s original recipe, which calls for a “ten-cent loaf of bread” … the going price for a Sunbeam sandwich loaf in the 1950s. It’s now called the “king loaf.” I have adapted the recipe a little from the original, adding a little spice and more modern techniques, such as using a mixer instead of the potato masher.
Newberry Oyster Dressing
1 loaf white sandwich bread
1 pint small fresh local oysters, undrained
2 cups whole milk
1½ cups chicken stock
5 large eggs, beaten
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon poultry seasoning
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
A few dashes of Tabasco
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Grease a 9-inch by 13-inch glass casserole dish with butter or cooking spray. Set aside.
Working with about 4 pieces of bread at a time, trim the crusts from the bread and cut it into cubes — an electric knife can be used to speed up this process. Place the cubes in the bowl of a stand mixer. Combine the oysters (including the liquid) and 1 cup of the milk in a small saucepan over medium-to-low heat and cook until the edges of the oysters curl. Watch the mixture carefully and reduce the heat if large bubbles start to form; if the milk comes to a full boil, it will curdle. Remove from the heat and set aside.
Combine the stock and the remaining 1 cup milk in a separate saucepan over medium-to-low heat, and cook until the mixture is warm but not boiling. Pour the stock and milk mixture over the bread and beat until smooth. If you don’t have a stand mixer, this can also be done by hand with a potato masher. Add the eggs, butter, salt, poultry seasoning, black pepper, and Tabasco. Beat until well blended.
Stir the cooked oysters and milk into the mixture with a spatula. Transfer the mixture to the prepared casserole dish. Bake until it is set and the top is golden brown, about 1 hour and 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and serve immediately.