Today we remember them as the Greatest Generation: the millions of Americans who survived the Great Depression, served in World War II, and made America the most powerful nation on the earth. They came from all different races, classes, and areas of the country, but they were united in their belief of service and sacrifice to country. Red Falvey was one of those men we are all indebted to. I found Red and his story through my radio show, Morning in America.
All Red Falvey wanted for his twenty-first birthday was the right to jump out of planes, to see the ground rushing up, feel terror for a few short seconds, then pull the cord and watch the parachute billow above and the world swing below him — but now he was standing in front of the recruiter, and the stern-faced man with the notepad asked if there was anything wrong with his body.
“I can’t touch my left shoulder.”
The recruiter’s face crinkled up, “Aw, you’ll never get in. To get into airborne, you have to be 110 percent and there’s no way that they’re going to let you in.”
Red Falvey walked out of the recruiting station, discouraged but not defeated. It was Aug. 2, 1942, and the boy from Yonkers, N.Y., — who broke his arm climbing a tree — was a patriot. On Dec. 7, 1941, when the crackle of the radio interrupted his life and President Roosevelt called him to battle, he knew what he had to do.
It was on that day of infamy when he was calling on the girl that he would someday marry and be with for 54 years — Leona Swarthouse — that bigger news came rolling over the airwaves. Falvey couldn’t point out Pearl Harbor on a map, but one thought kept turning in his mind: Those silly little fools, do they have any idea what they’ve done? Don’t they know we’ll wipe them up in a week?
Growing up, Falvey spent much of his free time at the airfields, watching the barnstorming tours of planes with his brothers. He knew he wanted to be up in the air. Regardless of what any army recruiter told him, Falvey wanted to be airborne.
Despite his injured arm, Falvey proved the recruiters wrong and successfully enlisted in the 506th Infantry Regiment (known today as the popular Band of Brothers).
The 506th Regiment was an experiment, a test to see whether men could be better trained by being wholly devoted to the sky, rather than starting with 13 weeks with feet on the ground.
“We had to save time; the brass were trying to hurry things along and get us ready for combat,” said Falvey. “There was nothing easy about that training, and so many of those boys couldn’t handle the intensity. They washed out.”
It’s a fitting term of the service — “washing out” — because before the boys of the 506th could ever break over the beaches of Normandy, they had to beat against the trials of Fort Benning, Ga. — and more than a few were not equal to the task.
“If you hesitate, even for a second, they will wash you out.” Falvey repeated the mantra daily, this gospel of the boot camp drilled into his skull, silencing any fear with the knowledge of his duty.
And so Falvey found himself standing at the edge of a roaring plane, second on the line to jump, listening to Charles Rhinehart in front of him — a fellow who always seemed to need a few extra seconds to screw up the nerve to step into the sky — beg Falvey to push him out of the plane.
Falvey pushed and Rhinehart thanked him, but before the two would go up in the sky again, Falvey pulled the shrinking man aside.
“That’s it; if you’re going to do this again, you’ve got to find someone else. I can’t take care of you up there.”
But Rhinehart conquered his fear, jumping his way through the entire tour of Normandy and surviving the war.
“No one wanted to be washed out,” said Falvey. “But there were 2,000 men who made the regiment, and we had another 5 thousand who washed out.”
Anyone knew these men had ample opportunity to fall behind. Daybreak runs — Falvey didn’t finish first, but never finished last — were screaming races up mountains and jumps that tested all God-given sense of fear.
And then there was the march across Georgia for jump training.
“No one quite knew how bad it was. We had heard about a Japanese squad that set a record for marching. So we decided to beat it. It was 118 miles in three days, in the summer, in a full field pack. It was miserable and even the blisters had blisters.”
Red Falvey never claims to be special, but he didn’t wash out.
“Our regiment was America,” said Falvey. “It was fellows who had college educations; it was fellows who had come off the farm.”
And there is the little-understood truth about history. There are the images that stand out in textbooks: Washington crossing a frozen Delaware, John Paul Jones returning a call for surrender with “I have not yet begun to fight,” and Alvin York single-handedly capturing 132 Germans in World War I. But alongside those faces leading the charge, there are the oft-overlooked men who follow, the men who forge ahead against the cold, and the men who continue when all others stop.
“We just felt we were special. That’s what they pushed into us. We were so very proud of our boots and our jumpsuits. . . . You know they blew us up and we ate it up. They told us how good we were, how good we had to be.”
While men doing extraordinary things laid the cornerstone of America, men who simply refused to give up built this country’s foundations.
Red Falvey never gave up.
“One fellow had to be taught how to put a tie on; he’d never worn one in his life. It was a cross section, all across society, just a piece of America. This is the way it was across the entire company and it was marvelous,” Falvey said.
This cross-section of America was trained for war and heading out of the Hudson River, when the men turned and saw the Statue of Liberty, emerging out of the early morning fog.
“There’s our girl,” said Falvey. “This is what it’s all about, and we’re going to protect her.”
And so the boys went to England. They saw the bombed countryside, and the families living by thousands down in the depths of the subway, and they met a people who refused to give up, refused to surrender, and refused to complain.“My heart went out to them; it was such a mess in England, but they never complained. I never heard them cry or moan.”
The 506th came to England for a reason, though, and when night fell on June 5, the boys were ready to jump into the fray.
Falvey took a Thompson and a few grenades and strapped in with the 13,000 other soldiers preparing for the jump. People kept quiet in the early hours of June 6. The plane took off, Falvey sitting behind Captain Hester on the line, and the vast armada of planes rolled through the sky over the channel.
The time in the air was short. It only took eleven minutes to fly across the Cherbourg Peninsula, but hell can come quickly.
As the men huddled in the back of the plane, waiting for a signal to jump, the night turned bright and anti-aircraft fire began shaking the sky. One plane was hit, exploding into a ball of fire. “They trained so hard, and so long, and they never had a chance,” Falvey said. Another jolted, started dropping to the ground. The boy from Yonkers kept praying — “Oh, dear Lord, those boys never had a chance” — that he’d get to jump.
The green light came on — Falvey jumped.
Hugging the back of Captain Hester during the short ride down, Falvey hit the ground just outside Saint-Martin-de-Varreville. His company was six miles from where they should have been on the Cherbourg Peninsula, scattered across the unfamiliar countryside, and the earth was still wrapped in darkness.
“The original plan was that we’d assemble on this big field,” said Falvey. “Each team with their light would be on a different part of the field and get to the second causeway. None of that ever happened. We were scattered out all over hell.”
Hell had come to France.
“Good heavens, it was the sixth of June and there wasn’t a single leaf left on a tree,” said Falvey. “The British and Americans had destroyed the area; all that was left was bomb craters.”
Falvey and the other men knew where the roads should have been, but things had been obliterated. They slowly worked their way along a dirt road, flanked by hedgerows, and then they came upon the German.
He was lying there in the road, dead, with his motorbike beside him.
Major Horton barked out, “Falvey, stick ’em. See if he’s dead.”
“Major, you know he’s dead.”
A twisted bit of bravado was what passed for humor in a war zone. Whether it was the first dead German, one of the men drinking wine with a French family for hours in the predawn, or a German grenade that Falvey toted as a trophy — the men kept their sanity by laughing in the fields of death.
It wasn’t till the next day that Falvey came into combat.
“When it started, I was leaning over a hedgerow, just firing, trying to spread fire. I couldn’t see much, but I kept firing. . . . There were other times that I had a bead on a German, and I don’t think he got up. At Normandy, I don’t remember killing anyone.”
It was a different type of warfare in World War II, and while there were those men who stormed machine-gun nests and lobbed grenades into strongholds, there were also those who followed orders, kept calm, and just kept marching on.
Even when faced with the horrors of death.
“I remember when I encountered my first dead American,” said Falvey. “He was in this grotesque position, and I, oh gosh . . . it was awful. I just bent down. I tried to straighten him out, and it scared me; because of the rigor mortis, nothing moved or straightened out. It was horrible, and terrible.”
But Falvey didn’t shrink back, serving from the beaches of Normandy to the peaks of Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest. He eventually was brought home, after his time in service, to help spearhead a victory-bond drive. After the Armistice, Falvey went to work for the railroad. He married Leona Swarthouse in 1948. The two were married until her death in 2002 and had three children, Richard, Sandra Lee, and Kurt.
Falvey never claimed to be something great on his own strength. But by joining more than 11 million other U.S. citizens serving in the U.S. forces during World War II, Falvey attained a higher standard of nobility: A class of people who sought to serve their country, rather than themselves — a quiet knighthood that did not need medals or praise to know they had fulfilled their duty. Soldiers, like Falvey, who did not relish the horrors of war, but who still said, “We knew we had a job to do and that nothing was going to happen with that war until they put us in.”
The recruiter tried to keep Falvey out of airborne. He couldn’t fire his gun with his right hand. He never finished first during the training or earned any great medals during combat. But Falvey answered the call of his country, went to war, and didn’t turn away. He came back to the United States and served his family and loved his wife.
Red Falvey was a man who served at war, but knew how to live at peace. He couldn’t touch his left shoulder, but he never washed out. He served.