Sergeant Bob Bearden was a squad leader of a mortar squad, H Company, 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment, which was attached to the 82nd Airborne Division in World War II and made its first combat jump in Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944.
The 507th had a somewhat different experience than the other Allied airborne units in the Normandy invasion. The 507th flew from airbases further north in England than any of the other parachute regiments participating in D-Day. As a result, they arrived over Normandy two hours later than other airborne units, a fact which abolished the element of surprise on which airborne units depend, and gave the well-entrenched Germans ample time to prepare for their arrival. Massive anti-aircraft fire and dense cloud banks encountered over the Normandy coast caused the 507th to have the worst drop of any of the airborne units participating in Normandy. Most sticks completely missed their drop zones and ended up stranded as individuals or in small groups in totally unknown territory. In addition, their drop zone and surrounding low-lying marshes had been flooded by the Germans, who manipulated locks to make the Merderet River overflow its banks, causing many of the heavily overloaded 507 troopers to drown before they got out of their chutes.
Bob Bearden was luckier than most of his fellow 507 troopers, in that he was able to assemble two of the other members of his mortar squad, and find his H Company Commander, Captain Taylor, shortly after his drop. “Taylor’s group,” however, consisting of about 40 to 50 paratroopers from various units, has never been written about, although they made up one of four important fragmented groups of troopers in the 507 area who had been misdropped, and struggled to rejoin each other, while disrupting the enemy and attempting to overcome severely challenging obstacles in an unknown terrain.
The first action of the group was to take the small town of Fresville, which they held for several hours at the same time the 505 PIR was liberating Ste. Mere Eglise. When the Germans returned in force in Fresville with tanks on the afternoon of D-Day, Taylor and his men had to abandon the town, and sought to recross the flooded Merderet River in the attempt to join their regimental commander, Col. Millett, who had assembled approximately 200 men, but was entirely surrounded by heavily armed Germans.
The story of their struggles and ultimate success in reaching “Millett’s Group” has never been told. Bob Bearden was the first to break into Millett’s area, in a stupendously brave action which left 20 Germans dead in his wake, and paved the way for the rest of Taylor’s group to join their regimental commander. The story of Millett’s surrender is an important piece of the Normandy puzzle, but again, it has never been told in print or on film.
Bearden was a privileged participant in the activities on D+2 in Millett’s group, and the actions they took when ordered by General Gavin to join yet another 507th fragmentary group in “Timme’s orchard” on the other side of La Fière Causeway. The column of nearly 400 men left Millet’s area on D+3, but fatigue, snipers, the blackness of night, and enemy attack caused the column to fragment.
Colonel Millet, at the head of the column, never made it to Timme’s orchard. He was captured by the Germans with several of his men, but his story has never been published. Bob Bearden was one of the men captured with Millett, who was probably the highest-ranking U.S. paratrooper the Germans captured in Normandy. Millett’s men were out of ammunition and overwhelmingly outnumbered. Bearden was lying just a few feet from his Commander, hidden in a hedgerow, when the order to surrender was given.
Bob Bearden, like the rest of the men with whom he was captured, became a Prisoner of War. He first spent time in a make-shift camp in Alençon, France (Lower Normandy), before being moved into Poland via Stalag XIIA (Limburg, Germany, where POWs were processed and received Red Cross recognition), Stalag IVB (Muhlburg, Germany, a British-run POW camp), and finally Stalag IIIC (Kustrin, Germany (Poland), a camp for American NCOs just on the other side of the Oder River). Bearden remained in IIIC until the Russians “liberated” the camp on their drive to Berlin in late December 1945.
Bob Bearden’s story is both representative and very unique. The 507th, unlike the 505th and the 504th, and most other regiments which participated in D-Day, never had a chance to fight as a regiment. Although they contributed valiantly to the success of the Normandy campaign, and most especially to the epic battle at La Fière Bridge (which S.L.A. Marshall called “probably the bloodiest small arms battle” in World War II), members of the regiment fought piecemeal, or in small mixed groups composed of several different units, often and led by commanders they had never trained with, and did not, in fact, know. Although just over 2,000 507th troopers dropped on D-Day, only 700 left France when the regiment returned to England a month later, at the end of the Normandy campaign.
Until recently, the 507 was known as the “forgotten regiment.” Much interest in the regiment, however, is not afoot: scholarly works, a regimental history, a documentary, and a number of individual memoirs and other works have recently been released, or are now in the making, as are major permanent museum exhibits dedicated to the regiment’s history and accomplishments. The story of the 507, including the many valiant actions by its individual members, as they fought to rejoin the regiment or battled with other groups, nevertheless remains one of the true “scoops” and untold stories left in the area of World War II airborne history.