Veteran: D-Day was like ‘hell’

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 4, 2000

Paul Foster doesn’t think he’s a hero. He agrees that his generation, the one that traveled as teenagers to foreign countries to fight for freedom, is &uot;the greatest generation.&uot; But to Foster, who saw combat in seven major battles of World War II, he was just doing his duty.

&uot;I don’t feel like I ought to be classified as a hero,&uot;&160;Foster said Sunday at his Palestine Road home. &uot;I’d like to be classified as a patriot. I served my time for my country. I&160;don’t think it was (anything special.) It was my duty. I was in good health. Our country was on the brink of destruction, and it was my duty.&uot;

Today, Foster, 77, and his son Glen will travel to New Orleans for the grand opening of the D-Day Museum, just in time for Tuesday’s 56th anniversary of the battle on the beach in France — often considered the turning point in the European theater.

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‘I’m a patriot’

Foster grew up in the small community of Little Bahala in Lincoln County.

He was 18 years old when he joined the Army, almost a year to the day after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. &uot;I was young, crazy,&uot; he said, smiling. &uot;I’m a patriot. I always have been.&uot;

Foster hoped to sign up on Dec. 7, 1942 — one year after Pearl Harbor — but he had to wait until Dec. 11.

He was assigned to a glider division in the 82nd Airborne of the U.S. Army and went through training.

Foster didn’t know what he would face when he landed in Casablanca, North Africa, five months later.

The gliders carried up to 17 men, or five men and a jeep. They were towed by planes until they were cut loose, where they quietly glided to the ground into enemy territory.

Foster found himself suited to the flying, although not everyone in his unit was so lucky.

&uot;One boy had to get out his helmet whenever we’d get in the plane,&uot; he said.

Foster eventually saw combat in seven of the major battles in the European theater, including Sicily, Naples, the Rhine River, Ardennes and Normandy.

One battle often led right into another, Foster said.


Foster remembers the first D-Day, when Allied troops came onshore in Normandy, France, in hundreds of New Orleans-built Higgins boats under a hail of German machine gunfire.

The scene is depicted in the 1998 movie &uot;Saving Private Ryan&uot;; its director, Steven Spielberg, and star, Tom Hanks, are strong supporters of the D-Day Museum.

Foster arrived in Normandy earlier than the boats, gliding in around 2 a.m. 30 miles inland, behind enemy lines.

&uot;We were to break down the communication lines and reinforcement lines,&uot; Foster said.

Normandy was made up of hedge row fighting, Foster said, pointing to a picture in a well-worn book about the war’s airborne battles.

The Germans knew, or guessed, that the invasion was coming, Foster explained. They trimmed the limbs off rows of trees and sharpened the ends of light poles in the middle of the rows. From the air, the rows of trees then looked like hedges — something Allied soldiers gliding or parachuting in would mistake for short hedges they could hop over.

&uot;That’s where we had a lot of casualties,&uot; Foster said.

It is still hard for Foster to talk about that day. When asked what it was like, he shuddered.

&uot;Hell,&uot; he said simply, tears in his eyes.

&uot;If you saw (‘Saving Private Ryan’) you saw part of it,&uot; he said. &uot;It was miles of it.&uot;

Other battles

Flipping through the worn Airborne book, Foster points to a photo of soldiers creeping through countryside, the bodies of their dead enemies in the grass.

&uot;That’s me,&uot; he said, his finger on a gray figure in the back of one photo.

There were other battles besides D-Day, including the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium, where Foster woke one morning under a blanket of ice in his foxhole. He was so cold he was afraid he might lose his feet.

&uot;I picked up a thermometer somewhere along the line,&uot; he said. &uot;It was 20 degrees below zero. It had been snowing and freezing for days.&uot;

Foster earned a Purple Heart when he was wounded in Holland, when German panzer tanks invaded his unit’s position.

&uot;I came to in a field hospital,&uot; he said. &uot;I don’t remember anything.&uot;

For Foster, faith helped him survive the war.

&uot;If I told you I never did get scared I’d be lying,&uot; he said. &uot;I&160;was scared to death most of the time. But only one time I&160;thought I was going to die.&uot;

He pointed to a Bible, embossed with his name, on the kitchen table.

&uot;That book tells you if you trust in the Lord he’ll take care of you.&uot; he said.

After the war

Foster served in the Army for two years and nine months — all but five months of it in Europe. When he was ready to return to the United States, he had the option to continue his service.

&uot;I said if you’ll give me something to sign I’ll get out,&uot;&160;Foster said. &uot;I left home a civilian and came back a civilian.&uot;

Just a week after he came home from the war, Foster was back in Lincoln County, attending school at Copiah-Lincoln in Wesson.

He’s got just one problem with his homecoming.

&uot;I’ve got a bone to pick about this,&uot; he said, pointing to black and white photos of the ticker tape parade that greeted soldiers when they returned from the war — a year after he came home.

&uot;Here they were in a parade, and I’m over at Co-Lin trying to pass English,&uot; he said with a laugh.

He’d never worn a football uniform, but Foster found himself playing at Co-Lin. Eventually he taught school and coached football for three years, then went on to several jobs, from selling insurance to selling encyclopedias. He was ordained a minister and pastored a church for a few years.

He spent 23 years in the payroll department at International Paper’s Natchez mill. &uot;I started in the bottom job and finished in the top job,&uot; he said.

Foster also delivered papers for The Natchez Democrat for 28 years.

Daughter Linda remembers that the whole family helped out on that job.

&uot;Six o’clock in the morning we’d hear, ‘I overslept! Help me roll the newspapers,’&uot; Linda said with a laugh. &uot;We all pitched in on the newspapers.&uot;

&uot;I’ve done a little bit of everything, and fished a little bit,&uot; Foster said.

&uot;Make that fished a lot,&uot; Linda said. &uot;Every Saturday for as many years as I can remember — until he could fish four days a week.&uot;


Hanging on the wall in the same room with Foster’s bass fishing trophies and a certificate of appreciation for volunteer work at his church are his framed medals and photos of him in military uniform.

Foster flipped through tattered photo album pages — tattered, said Linda, because she spent so much time looking through them when she was a child.

&uot;I used to ask questions all the time,&uot; Linda said. &uot;I remember he didn’t answer all of them.&uot;

&uot;There were times I talked about it and times I wouldn’t,&uot; Foster said.

He paused at one photo among the album pages, one of several of young men in uniform.

&uot;That’s my best buddy,&uot; he said. &uot;He was killed by a sniper.&uot;

Linda said her father has grown more comfortable talking about the war, answering some of the questions he couldn’t answer when she was a child.

A few years ago he spoke about the war to his grandson’s history class at Trinity Episcopal School. &uot;He was so honored that (his grandson) asked him to speak,&uot; Linda said.

‘The greatest generation’

Foster has high hopes for his grandchildren’s generation.

&uot;I think we’ve had a turnaround,&uot; he said. &uot;I think Ronald Reagan planted that seed. There’s a revolution coming in our young people. It’s hard for me — I’m an old die-hard conservative — to watch the younger generation. But we’ve got a turnaround coming.&uot;

He watches war movies such as &uot;Saving Private Ryan&uot; — it wasn’t hard for him, although it was hard for Linda to watch what her father endured.

He is proud of the attention World War II soldiers and their sacrifices have gotten with books such as Tom Brokaw’s &uot;The Greatest Generation&uot; and with the D-Day Museum opening this week.

&uot;I don’t think the world has seen a greater generation,&uot; Foster said. &uot;This country had nothing as far as wartime. What we went through is fascinating. We went from single engine planes to the atomic bomb in four years. And I was part of it. I was just a young boy.&uot;

Still, he credits his patriotism — not heroism — with his actions during World War II.

&uot;You trained for it. It had to be done. That’s all you can say,&uot; Foster said. &uot;I was 18 years old, and I joined. Eighteen-year-olds in my generation were much more patriotic than they are today. I was ready to go kill those Germans, and we did. We won.

&uot;I didn’t volunteer to go over there to be a hero. I felt it was my duty as a patriotic citizen to go over there and protect our country.

&uot;No big deal.&uot;