Friday, May 18, 2012

PFC Kight Comes Home from World War II

One of the poignant mysteries of World War II for a family in White Salmon, Washington has now finally come home to rest in West Klickitat Cemetery tomorrow.  The remains of Private First Class Gerald ‘Mike’ Kight were discovered by a farmer in the far eastern area of the Netherlands near the German border, and identified by the efforts of the Royal Netherlands Army Recovery and Identification Unit, the US Defense Department Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command and the US Army Past Conflict Repatriation Branch.

PFC Kight was assigned to Headquarters Company, 3rd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry, 82nd Airborne Division during the controversial Operation Market Garden, generally recognized by the terms A Bridge Too Far after the famous book by Cornelius Ryan.  The paratrooper unit was dropped near the town of Grave, southwest of Nijmegen during the early afternoon of 17 September 1944 as part of the complex and consequential airborne operation, the largest in history.

In general, the plan was to see the US 101st Airborne Division drop just north of Eindhoven, just inside the Dutch border and 13 miles behind German lines; the US 82nd Airborne Division drop around Nijmegen 40 miles to the northeast, and finally the British 1st Airborne Division just west of Arnhem, another 11 miles further northeast (and ‘a bridge too far’).  Seizure of a variety of bridges would allow the Allied XXX Corps to attack along what is now Routes A50 and A325 (but at the time a narrow road flanked by deep ditches, resulting in “a front two tanks wide”) to link up the various Allied pockets and permit a strike into Germany, as it was felt that, at the time, the Germans on the Western Front were in no position logistically to resist an operation of this magnitude, particularly in that area, and could result in the war being over by the end of 1944.  The plan was further influenced by the fact that after the airborne operations on D-Day, the large paratroop contingent (consisting of the US 17th, 82nd, and 101st Airborne Divisions, the British 1st and 6th Airborne Divisions, and the Polish 1st Airborne Brigade) were underutilized as a result of all paratroop assault plans being overtaken by events in the rapid Allied assault across France, and this was a way to introduce them into the front where their numbers were needed.

The 504th was successful in seizing its primary objective of the bridge at Grave over the Maas canal, though the other two bridges assigned as objectives were blown by the Germans before they could be captured.  Nevertheless, the regiment was able to drive east in an effort to seize the high ground around Groesbeck, southeast of Nijmegen, in expectation of a German counterattack to recapture that key piece of terrain.  One of the major mistakes of Market Garden was a failure of intelligence to anticipate the presence of the German II SS Panzer Corps in the area and the ability of the brilliant and driven Field Marshall Otto Model to craft together an effective response among the German units there, recovering from the pounding at the Battles of Normandy and Falaise.  Model had anticipated an assault into the area but was uncertain what form or size it would entail.

For Kight’s purpose, his battalion was dug in on the night of 20/21 September when elements of the 10th SS Panzer Division, supported by units of the II Parachute Corps, attacked in force.  The position was overrun and all American soldiers with the exception of one survivor were killed or captured.  That survivor testified to the fact that Kight was fighting from a foxhole and that he was “severely wounded”.  The remains of some 39 US soldiers in that engagement were never found, probably due to an intense artillery bombardment.  Kight’s remains, including scraps of uniform, wallet and dogtags, were considered positive enough for identification.  The fragmentary remains of another found nearby are still unknown. 

One of Kight’s few relatives from 1944 is his niece, Frances Hembree, now 70.  She was barely two years old when her photo was taken with her uncle home on leave.  Sadly, she comments, "I'm not a buff of any kind about the wars.  But I guess now I'm rather proud of my relatives who did go and fight for us.  Particularly Mike."

This brings to mind Carl Sandburg’s “Grass”, his moving lament of those who can not or will not remember those who made the final sacrifice in our wars:
Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work –
                  I am the grass; I cover all.
And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work. 
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
                 What place is this?
                 Where are we now? 

                      I am the grass.
                      Let me work.

Remember PFC Kight and all the thousands of others like him.  All of them are worth remembering.

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