“Don’t ask me how I made it.” Past the beaches of Normandy, 1944

Published 7:12 pm Wednesday, May 16, 2007

June 7, 1944 was D-Day plus one. The 325th Airborne Infantry, 82nd Division, glided across the English Channel and landed eight to nine miles past the beach in Normandy at the Merderet Causeway, which was a crucial piece of territory for the success of the Normandy invasion. The village was called Ste Mere Eglise.

From the air, the landscape looked like prairie, but it was actually swampy. Tall grasses had masked the bog covered in chest-deep water on both sides of the causeway.

Sgt. James B. Livaudias, now of Carriere, landed his glider with precision along with the other 1,000 or so in his 325th Airborne Regiment battalion.

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“That was 60 years ago, though,” he said. “Some things I don’t remember that well.”

“The Forcing of the Merderet Causeway at La Fiere, France, An Action by the Third Battalion, 325th Glider Infantry” is a military study of the campaign written during WWII (www.army.mil/cmh) describing the battle. The report gives a vivid description of what Livaudias and the other brave soldiers faced that fateful day.

Capt. R. D. Rae and his badly-punished group of men from the 504th Regiment had been having some extra hours of anxiety. They were trying to hold a key position close to the Merderet. Rae was told early the morning of June 7 the 325th Airborne Regiment would probably draw the assignment to attempt to force the Causeway by storm. The question was if the 325th would arrive in time.

Rae’s troops “sweated it out, knowing that if the 325th didn’t arrive by 1000 hours, military time, they would have to jump-off (their position).” Rae heard the barrage open up at 1030 hours and their situation began to look hopeful. Gen. James M. Gavin, 82nd commander, told Rae that if the 325th began to waver, he was to mount the assault and take over. They must take the Causeway.

Meanwhile the 325th kept moving toward the Causeway through the swampy landscape.

“Every five feet there was a dead solider,” Livaudias said, seated comfortably in his livingroom chair. “Don’t ask me how I made it, because I don’t know. The gun fire was so fierce there was a dead soldier every five feet. I was lucky, real lucky.” He remembers thinking, “This is going to be just awful. His regiment stayed there 33 days in bloody combat. At the end of those days, there was hardly anyone left. Of the 1,000 or so troops in his outfit, only 255 made it out alive.

According to the Merderet report, “The 325th kept on moving toward the bridge, hearing but not feeling the blast of fire that ‘beat like hail’ against the American side of the river.” The Company had been promised a cover of smoke since they would be charging down the enemy’s teeth. But, only a few smoke shells fell and the bank was clear. “The men felt pretty let down about it,” the report states.

Tom Bailey of the 143rd AAA Battalion tells this story, “The 82nd lost the majority of there medics (someone said all of them) and were relying on ours for help. I recall one of our medics telling of a situation where a 82nd Lt. was hit three times. Our medic dragged him into a basement to apply first aid. He informed him he would have to walk; there was no one to carry him. The Loey said he couldn’t make it, the injury was too severe. About that time a Mark 5 stuck its barrel down the steps and fired. When the smoke cleared the tank was gone, a hole was blown in the back wall and the Lt. was gone. When the medic looked back through the hole, he saw the Lt. running across the field, (he made it!)”

James B. Livaudias was drafted in 1942 and sent to Camp Claiborne in Louisiana. He was set in the 82nd Division, fondly known as the Sgt. York Division because Alvin York whose story was told in the movie Sgt. York starring Gary Cooper. The 82nd Division was called the “All American”, hence the AA shoulder patch, because members of it came from all 48 states when it was first organized during WWI.

In February of 1942, the division was re-designated to active service, and organized at Camp Claiborne, Louisiana. Then in August, the 82nd became the first U.S. Army airborne division. This included Parachute Infantry and the Glider Regiment.

James B. Livaudias was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Glider Regiment. Today this regiment deploys anywhere in the world within 18 hours of notification.

In 1942, it was located in Rapides Parish in central Louisiana under the 8th Service Command which was the jumping off place for part of Operation Overlord (the invasion of Normandy), Operation Detroit. This was called the “most ambitious airborne operation of the war.”

Livaudias and the rest of his division spent 40 days on three different British ships sailing across the Atlantic Ocean, the first two broke down and the troops were transferred from ship to ship before they landed in Liverpool, England. They were transported to Leicester, England for training.

After the Merderet Causeway was taken, the 325th went back to Leicester, England for more training and replacements. They were then sent to Holland to guard a crucial bridge, which they saved. They stayed there about 60 days then went to France in September. After a big talk on Thanksgiving day, the Battle of the Bulge broke out. That conflict lasted from November to March. Livaudias saw about 300 days of actual combat. He earned 10 medals including two bronze stars and one silver star, the Presidential Unit Citation and the Belgian Fourragere.

“The war was over,” Livaudias said. “I thought I was going home. But there was this point system and I had 83 points. Those that had 85, went home.” He was sent to Berlin and from there he went home in 1945.