Bert Collier was at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked. Later, he nearly suffocated while parachuting into the pitch black skies over Normandy. Then he jumped into Holland from such a low altitude he could see surprised enemy soldiers sunbathing. He endured bitter cold and starvation during a siege at Bastogne, Belgium. Each time, the bloody encounters would claim most of those around him. “I was too young to die,” he said. On night of June 5, 1944, pilot Neblett, 25, guided his C-47 over the English Channel with dozens of men aboard. Flying in the darkness “in and out of the junk” — cloud cover — at about 600 feet, only small shrouded lights on the tops of the wings kept him from colliding with other planes. As he approached the drop zone in blackness above Normandy around 1 a.m., the Germans, who seemed to know “where and when and how many” planes were coming, poured on the anti-aircraft fire. “We just held our heading to the best of our ability,” Neblett said. “Our drop in our group was right on target.” One of those aboard was Lt. Bert Collier, who was leading the 2nd Platoon of D Company, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment part of the 101st Airborne Division. Bert noticed straps on a bag holding his grenades and other gear had loosened. Struggling to cinch it just before exiting the left side of the plane, he accidentally pulled a cord that inflated his “Mae West” life vest, squeezing his chest under his tightened parachute harness. “From the moment my chute inflated until after I reached the ground, I couldn’t breathe,” he said. Meanwhile, in the plane, Neblett felt an impact, and the plane veered. “The whole thing happened pretty quick,” he said. Neblett regained control quickly, which was fortunate at such a low altitude. Although he lost contact with the rest of his formation, he nursed the plane back to base. He later discovered a supply bundle dropped from another plane had severed 8 feet of his wingtip, including an aileron. Back on the ground in Normandy, Bert recalled, “I was in a hell of a mess.” Gasping for air, Bert had landed in boot-deep mud and water. The wind was blowing. “My chute was dragging me through this water and these reeds,” he said. “You could see tracer bullets going everywhere.”
By Dec. 19, the Germans had surrounded the Allies defending Bastogne, among them the 101st. German surrender demands drew Gen. Anthony McAuliffe’s famous reply, “Nuts!” and the Allies rebuffed repeated attacks by superior German forces. Resupply planes were thwarted by overcast skies, and the Allies were running out of ammunition and food. They didn’t even have adequate clothing. Half the casualties among Collier’s men were from exposure.“It got down to 18 below,” Bert said. “Snow everywhere, freezing fog.” Allied forces led by Gen. George Patton finally broke through Dec. 26, but the 101st continued fighting there until Jan. 17, when Bert was evacuated because of an abscessed kidney. Through it all, the 101st held its ground, recalls Bobby Hunter, who joined Collier’s platoon as a radio man after the invasion. “They broke through a time or two,” he said, “but we kicked them right back out.” D Company kept getting “smaller and smaller all the time,” he said, while his platoon took 45 men and two officers into Bastogne. “Twelve of us walked out,” Hunter said. Like the others who survived, Bert still wonders why he was among them. “I didn’t carry a rabbit’s foot,” he said. “Something, or somebody, was looking out for me.”
Shown (from left) is 1st Lt. Bert Collier, Pvt. Francis J. McKeown, on ladder (18 years old from New York killed along with Pvt. Wayne McClung, and Pvt. John C. Marnye) Pvt. Bobby Hunter, Pvt. Hurbert L. Sexton, Pvt. Earl Compton and Sgt. Stanley P. Koss and an unknown headquarters tech sergeant. The Normandy Flag. Collection by D. van den Heuvel.