Retired URI education professor recalls the night before D-Day & beyond
KINGSTON, R.I. -- March 23, 2006 -- He remembers looking out the plane’s window and seeing the white, sandy coastline of Normandy, France. Within minutes, Lt. Walter Christoff “Chris” Heisler could see machine gun fire arching its way through the sky. The date was June 5, 1944, the night before D-Day, the massive land, air, and naval allied effort to liberate Europe from Nazi occupation during World War II.
The plane’s green light blinked on. Heisler ordered his men, members of the 507 Parachute Infantry, 82nd Division to stand up, hook up, and check equipment. They jumped into the night sky.
This month, the 89-year-old Army veteran who is a retired University of Rhode Island education professor will return to Normandy, something he has done for the past six years. This time, he and his wife Gloria will be traveling with four other D-Day veterans, members of their families and a camera crew. The men will be the focus of an hour-long program, D-Day + 62 Years: Rhode Island Veterans Return to Normandy, which will air on NBC10 in June. URI 1989 Alumnus Tim Gray is the project manager. A documentary DVD will be given to all schools and universities in the state.
Heisler never saw any of his men after he parachuted. Only after his first return to Normandy did he learn that his plane had gone down, one of his men had died in the plane and four others died because their chutes failed to open because the plane was too close to the ground. The surviving paratroopers were scattered over 250-square miles.
On his own, Heisler was relieved that he lost his wooden cricket during his descent. The device was given to the paratroopers so that they could identify themselves to each other. “The Germans,” he says,” would have been happy to have one.”
He avoided capture for three days, fighting Germans with bullets and hand grenades. He came face-to-face with a German solider who stumbled into his hiding place. Heisler shot and killed the intruder.
“I haven’t talked about it before. It’s hard to live with that every day,” he says, his voice trailing off.
Captured and interrogated, he was sent to a OFLAG 64 prison camp in Schubin, Poland. Although the camp was primitive and the food was scarce—he lost 40 pounds—the conditions weren’t horrid. “I felt secure that I was under the command of American officers even though they took their orders from the Germans,” he says.
He had books to read and attended classes taught by some professors who had also been captured. He remembers one course was on tree pruning. The Red Cross was allowed into the camp. “They kept an eye on us,” he says. “I will be forever thankful for the rules of the Geneva Convention that, by and large, controlled the treatment of prisoners of war and was essentially followed by the German Army,” he says.
He witnessed German mistreatment of Russian soldiers, however.
“Americans should NOT torture POWs under any circumstances” he says, noting the recent controversy of U.S. treatment of prisoners.
In 1945, with the Russian Army advancing, the Germans closed the camp, forcing the 1,200 prisoners to march 600 kilometers (or 372 miles) in occasional near zero temperatures with two-foot snow drifts and sleep in unheated barns or unoccupied buildings. It was possible to “escape” from the march so Heisler served as a negotiator, running to nearby farms, begging for food in exchange for cigarettes.
On a second trip to one household, he was invited into the kitchen where four German guards were seated at the kitchen table. The lady of the house explained his mission while he tried to elaborate in household German. Heisler had learned German from his grandmother who had come to America as a deaf 11-year-old. “My garbled German must have sounded very strange and funny to the soldiers, because they continued questioning me and then going into hilarious peels of laughter when I replied.”
When he started to leave, one of the soldiers barked: “Nien, nien, you can’t go.” Heisler remembered the four cigarettes in his shirt pocket, spread them on the table, turned and walked out.
Of the 1,200 prisoners, Heisler is one of about 400 who completed the march and boarded a train to a camp in Parchim, Germany. (Not all of the remaining 800 soldiers died, many with frostbitten feet or other illnesses were taken to local hospitals. Others escaped and were taken in by Russian soldiers. Others were sent to other German camps. ) Once aboard the train, the Germans refused to paint a red cross on the roof of the boxcars, so the prisoners lived in constant fear that American airmen would spot the train and blow it up.
“Patton liberated me twice,” he says. “The general’s son-in-law was a fellow prisoner so Patton sent a 60-man taskforce to liberate us. We numbered 1,000 men by that time since prisoners were taken during the Battle of the Bulge.
“Since the taskforce wasn’t equipped to take all of us, they asked for volunteers. I volunteered and was given a gun. We only lasted one night and then we were told to disperse. I was on my own for three days before I was recaptured. Three days of freedom.”
Once the war ended, Heisler put his memories of the war aside. Thanks to the GI bill, he earned a master’s degree and then a doctorate in school administration in his native Michigan.
He joined URI in 1962 and trained teachers. “It’s the greatest job in the world,” says the man who also taught a popular non-credit class on how to make a clambake. He never missed one day of work.
Today, he has arthritis in his knees, back, hands, and legs, but he fights the pain to care for his four gardens that he planted around his Matunuck home and nearby. One garden is dedicated to his fallen comrades.
He is touched by the people of Normandy who turn out in droves to welcome visits of American soldiers. He remains moved by the thousands of white crosses in the memorial cemetery near Omaha Beach. “It’s made me realize that the sacrifices to win World War II will never be forgotten,” says the elderly soldier.