Many might hold the common assumption that in the battle of man versus tank, heavy armor is sure to win. However, students of the history of war know full well that aggressive infantry can wreak havoc on armor, and one would be hard-pressed to find an infantryman as aggressive or tough as Private John R. Towle of the US 82nd Airborne.
Near Oosterhout, Holland during Operation Market Garden, Private Towle would take on not one, but two tanks along with a half-track and a good number of German infantry. And while he wasn’t exactly fighting alone, he rushed forward through intense enemy fire to position his rocket launcher so that infantry could score a few more wins in the historic battle of man versus tank.
He would fall in combat that day, but not before he carried on the gallant legacy of the mighty 82nd Airborne.
A Big Impact in a Short War
For the young 19-year-old Towle, it would be a short war as he enlisted in 1943 before subsequently falling in combat a little over a year later. However, that was the case for many young men who reached fighting age in the last years of the war and unfortunately, these last years would see the heaviest casualties as an increasingly desperate enemy fought for every inch.
A son of Cleveland Ohio, Private Towle’s enlistment in 1943 would take him to Company C, 504th Parachute Regiment 82nd Airborne Division.
The 504th would see action from North Africa to Italy. In Italy, the unit would pick up the nickname “The Devils in Baggy Pants” after the following journal entry was taken from a German officer killed at Anzio: “American parachutists…devils in baggy pants…are less than 100 meters from my outpost line. I can’t sleep at night; they pop up from nowhere, and we never know when or how they will strike next. Seems like the black-hearted devils are everywhere…”
That same fighting spirit would carry with the 504th all the way to Germany. After the Italian campaigns, including an extended stay at Anzio, the 504th was transferred to England in early 1944 in preparation for the invasion at D-Day. However, the 504th would not take part in the massive invasion and would instead be held back waiting for replacements and subsequent missions to jump over Europe.
Instead of D-Day, fate would have the 504th participating in the largest paratrooper drop in history as they descended over the fields of the Netherlands during Operation Market Garden.
Operation Market Garden
In September of 1944, the Allies conducted Operation Market Garden, which was an attempt to gain a foothold across the Rhine river in hopes of then moving into Germany and ending the war as early as possible. However, the Germans were still capable of putting up quite a fight, and the success of this mission would require paratroopers securing key bridges in advance of rapidly advancing ground forces.
A few days after the jump, Private Towle would find himself holding a defensive position near the recently established Nijmegen bridgehead.
On September 20th, the 3rd Battalion of the 504th gallantly crossed the Waal River in canvas boats in broad daylight. A small bridgehead was established, and both the Road and Rail bridges were finally captured, thereby allowing XXXCorps to cross the last water barrier before Arnhem. For the Germans, taking back the bridges across the Waal was of the utmost importance thus it launched sharp counterattacks on the 504th perimeter.
Defending the north-west side of the bridgehead, on September 21st, Private Towle was serving as a rocket launcher gunner when he observed a German force comprising of 100 plus infantry, two tanks and a half-track massing for a counterattack with the potential to threaten the entire American position.
Recognizing the danger and without orders, Private Towle left the cover of his foxhole and raced 200 yards towards the enemy in order to secure a firing position for his rocket launcher. Finding a dike roadbed with very little cover, he took on the two tanks to his immediate front and scored direct hits on both.
While the enemy armor was not penetrated by the rocket attack, they were both damaged and forced to withdraw minimizing their ability to support the attack. Still under heavy small-arms fire, Private Towle noticed 9 Germans head into a nearby house to serve as a firing position. Without hesitation, Towle loaded up another rocket and gifted one to the enemy in that house killing all 9 German occupants.
After resupplying his ammunition, he continued to aggressively take on the counterattack head on. He rushed over 100 yards forward in order to fire upon the half-track and just before pulling the trigger with the vehicle in his sights, a mortar shell landed nearby mortally wounding this heroic 19-year-old Private from Cleveland, Ohio.
A Medal of Honor
Although he didn’t get to take out that final half-track, his actions inspired the rest of the men in that position as he personally broke up the German counterattack. For his actions that day, Private John R. Towle was awarded the Medal of Honor for conspicuous gallantry and action above and beyond the call of duty.
XXXCorps never made it to Arnhem and Operation Market Garden was considered an Allied operational failure. The Allies suffered heavy casualties during this campaign with estimates ranging from 15,000 to 17,000.
However, were it not for men such as Private Towle who carried on the legacy of the mighty 82nd Airborne the cost could have been much higher. For when the bullets start flying in battle, war always becomes a battle for the man next to you and in that manner, Towle and the men of the 504th performed above expectation.
The people of the Netherlands saw much during this long struggle and in September of 1944, anyone who looked up into the sky would have witnessed the largest airborne assault in history and one Private Towle descending towards his future in the hallowed halls of military heroism.