Hometown Heroes: Planes, parachutes and love letters
My Edmonds News continues its series, Hometown Heroes, to recognize the courageous contributions made by members of VFW Post 8870.
Fred Diedrich was born in Idaho but grew up in Coos Bay, Oregon, formerly known as Marshfield. He graduated from high school in 1942. At the time, World War II was raging on many fronts and recruiters from the U.S. Army were seeking candidates to serve in all branches of the military services. Inspired by the recruiter’s message and with a desire to serve his country in a time of war, Fred and his buddy, Dan Ellis, enlisted in the Army and volunteered to serve in the Airborne. They were inducted into the Army at Fort Lewis, Washington and sent to Camp Taccoa, Georgia, to join the 101st Airborne Division. Their training took them to Ft. Benning, Georgia and then on to Camp Mackall in North Carolina for advanced training. Fred made many jumps before being shipped overseas. Two of those jumps were observed by President Roosevelt and General Eisenhower.
After participating in extensive training, Fred’s unit sailed from New York City on 28 December 1943. Fred, who was 20 at the time, landed at Bangor, Ireland on 8 January 1944. After participating in Regimental maneuvers at Cromore Estate in Ireland, troops were sent to various encampments in England. Fred was sent to Wollaton Park in Nottinghamshire, England, and he was assigned to the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment (Red Devil’s), which was a part of the 82nd Airborne Division.
The residents of Nottingham and nearby Beeston welcomed the GI’s into their homes and served as gracious hosts to the “Yanks” who had joined the British efforts to liberate Europe from Nazi occupation. While the troops were making final preparations for the imminent invasion of Europe, the men of the 508th experienced the warm hospitality of the English people.
D-Day arrived, and at 2:00 AM on 6 June 1944, Fred and the other members of his regiment boarded C-47’s for the short hop across the English Channel. Operation Overlord was underway, and the Red Devils, as well as hundreds of other paratroopers, parachuted into Normandy several hours ahead of the storming of the beaches. The Red Devils’ immediate objective was to capture the town of Sainte-Mere Eglise and then to secure crossings at the Merderet River laFiere and Chef-du-Pont and to establish a defensive line. The 508th was to combine forces with the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment. Like most paratroop units that participated in Operation Overlord, they were dropped at wrong locations and experienced great difficulty in linking up with each other as planned. As it turned out, Fred found himself attached to the 505th PIR and later with the 507th PIR. Despite the huge obstacles that had to be overcome, portions of the 508th managed to regroup and remained in contact with the Germans until being relieved in early July. The 508th then became the Division’s reserve force and returned to Wollaton Park. It was upon his return to England that Fred learned that his friend, Dan Ellis, had been captured in Normandy and was being held as a prisoner of war by the Germans.
In late July, Fred met a young English girl named Nancy Stanley. Nancy lived with her parents in Beeston, and she had a brother who was serving in the British Royal Air Force. Nancy and her family had experienced the war’s fury first hand during the numerous German bombing raids that took place in the Midlands in from 1940 and into early 1942. During one of those raids, a bomb exploded near their home, raining down debris all over the area and causing substantial damage to the Stanley home.
When Fred met Nancy in July, he was not the first American who had been invited into the Stanly home for dinner. In fact, the Sunday before D-Day, three other members of the 508th had enjoyed a home cooked meal at the Stanley’s. Al Hillman, Steve Birow and Jim Green had been guests of Mr. and Mrs. Stanley, and, tragically, all three were killed during the Normandy Invasion operations.
Fred and Nancy dated, and they took a liking to each other. He asked Nancy to write to him when he returned to action in Europe, which she promised to do. In September, Fred and his unit were sent back into combat. They had been training to participate in Operation Market Garden, which was an ambitious Allied effort to shorten the war by seizing control of strategically located bridges leading to Germany. On 17 September 1944, Fred’s Regiment jumped into Holland with orders to seize control of the Nijmegen Bridge and prevent its destruction by retreating German troops.
After securing the bridge at Nijmegen and remaining in the area for six weeks, the Red Devils moved south to the Ardennes and combat operations in the Battle of the Bulge. Fred participated in the defense of St. Vith, a city that was at the intersection of a key transportation route. They successfully defended the city and delayed the German advance until mid-December when the unit was ordered to fall back. By mid-January, Fred had been shipped to Paris and then on to Marseilles. Less than five months later, the war in Europe was over, and Fred was serving in an Honor Guard unit in Berlin.
When serving in this capacity, Fred wore his dress paratrooper uniform with his trousers tucked into his boots and with the added adornment of a white lanyard on the shoulder and white bootlaces in his jump boots.
During the time that Fred was involved in combat operations in Europe, as promised, Nancy had faithfully written letters to him. Since they had very little time together in England, theirs was a romance by mail. In one of his letters, Fred proposed marriage, and her immediate response was a resounding “yes”. Since Fred had been scheduled for a furlough, the wedding was planned to October 22nd. The centuries old St. George’s Parish Church was reserved, the wedding dress was made, and wedding plans had been completed. However, the needs of the Army prevailed, Fred’s furlough was cancelled, and he received orders to return to the United States. Nancy knew that “doing nothing” was not an option so she wrote a letter to the Commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, Major General James Gavin. Shortly thereafter, Fred was summoned to General Gavin’s Headquarters in Berlin. The General held up a letter and asked Fred, “Corporal Diedrich, do you know Nancy Stanley?” Fred replied, “Yes Sir.” The Commander then asked, “Do you want to marry her?” to which Fred replied in the affirmative. General Gavin indicated that he couldn’t grant Fred a special furlough, but he could send Fred on a special errand to England. Fred soon found himself on the General’s plane with several others, on their way to England. Hitching a ride in a mail truck, Fred arrived at Nancy’s home, and the wedding took place as scheduled. After a brief honeymoon in the beautiful hills of Derbyshire, Fred returned to Berlin. Soon, he was on a troop ship headed home.
Seven months later, on 2 May 1945, the newlyweds were reunited. Nancy sailed to America on the Queen Mary with over 2000 other war brides and more than 900 babies. After a cross country train ride that deposited the English war brides and their babies in towns and cities all across America, Nancy, and two other brides, finally arrived on the west coast to join their husbands.
Fred and Nancy have been married for 67 years. They have two sons; Dr. Richard Diedrich who resides in Bayfield, Colorado, and Paul Dietrich of Seattle. They have four grandchildren and four great grandchildren.
– By Fred M. Apgar
Fred Apgar is a combat Vietnam veteran and the Commander of Post 8870.