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Recalling D-Day and the friend who shared it

After jumping into Normandy in 1944, two Charlotte men remained close

E.B. Wallace and Tom Alley grew up two blocks apart in Charlotte, but they didn’t know each other as boys. Their friendship was forged in battle, starting on June 6, 1944, when the two – Army paratroopers in the same company – jumped into Normandy, France.

Until Alley died in 2012, they unfailingly called each other on anniversaries of the epic D-Day invasion that pierced Hitler’s Atlantic Wall and opened a new front to free France and Europe from the Nazis.

Now 93, Wallace is left to think about his old friend. On this anniversary of D-Day – which took place 69 years ago today – he’ll recall their battles across Europe to Germany, where the two helped capture the Führer’s mountain resort, the Berghof, near Berchtesgaden.

“Tom was a perfect friend in combat and after we returned,” Wallace, who lives in Waxhaw, said Wednesday. “He trusted me, and I trusted him. He was the only brother I ever had.

“Now I have no one to talk to about D-Day, but I’ll sure be thinking about Tom and all the buddies we lost.”

Wallace was 22 in 1942 when he and Lewis Moser, his best friend before Alley, drove to the main Charlotte post office and enlisted as Army paratroopers for the extra monthly $50.

After jump training, he was sent to Aldbourne, England, in September 1943, and reported as a replacement to the 101st Airborne Division, nicknamed “Screamin’ Eagles,” Fox Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment.

One day, Alley was relaxing on his bunk when Wallace walked in. He didn’t pay much attention until the replacement said he was from Charlotte.

They figured out they’d grown up close by in the Plaza Midwood neighborhood, but had never met. Wallace knew Alley’s three uncles. They became fast friends.

Soon they were practicing night jumps over England. On a Sunday in late May 1944, a bad jump landed Wallace on his rump and in a hospital bed. It was a week before the 101st was set to jump behind enemy lines in the early hours of D-Day.

Wallace didn’t wake up for two days, the next Tuesday. He had a visitor.

“What time you getting out of here?” he recalls his captain, Tom Mulvey, asking. “We are getting ready to leave for the invasion.”

“Don’t know; Doc wants to keep me here,” a woozy Wallace replied. “But if you get my clothes and open that window, I’ll go now.”

Out the window he jumped, and Mulvey picked him up.

Packed and ready

On June 4, Wallace, Alley and their comrades were locked into a staging area, and spent hours getting gear together and checking equipment and weapons. They studied maps and aerial photos.

They were supposed to take off early June 5, but rain and wind that kicked up the English Channel postponed the invasion until the next day.

About 10 p.m., Fox Company began to reassemble. Little was said; faces were grim. Soon the paratroopers began boarding C-47 planes.

They took packs with clothes, mess kits, machine-gun ammunition, boots and a rifle. On their backs they strapped parachutes, and on their faces they smeared chocolate.

“We didn’t want to stand out,” Wallace said.

Scattered across Normandy

Flying over the English Channel, Wallace looked out the open jump door and couldn’t believe what he saw. To the horizon, he saw vast convoys and ships and boats of every type and size.

“I didn’t know there were that many boats in the world,” he said.

By the time June 6 arrived, Fox Company had already jumped into Normandy. They had been ordered to drop behind the Germans’ big guns and capture the town of Pouppeville, then secure the causeway that led to the beaches until the invading troops arrived.

But the planes had flown into thick clouds, making the trip difficult for inexperienced pilots. The German hail of anti-aircraft gunfire caused the tight pack of planes to scatter.

Alley landed a block from the town square in Sainte-Mère-Église – 9 miles from his intended target.

Wallace landed in a ditch just outside the town, his chute snagging on a power line. He could smell where tracers had burned his nylon chute. He used a knife to cut free.

The paratroopers had been issued a Buster Brown clicking toy to announce in the darkness that they were Americans.

Wallace heard someone approaching, and clicked. The other paratrooper clicked and they got together with Alley and others from Fox Company, merging with outfits from the 82nd Airborne.

“It was one godly mess for a while,” Wallace said.

Soon they confronted Germans, riding in a horse-drawn, two-wheel wagon.

The Germans were easily captured. One of the Germans hit an American officer.

Alley shot him.

Rarely talked about the war

Ultimately, they would play a critical role in the capture of Carentan, 5 miles inland, and its four major causeways.

The capture was important for the Allies to break through Normandy and into France.

They would fight in Holland and in Belgium in the Battle of the Bulge, then broke through to German.

When Wallace and Alley returned to Charlotte, they remained the closest of friends – but rarely talked about the war.

Until they started going to 101st reunions in the mid-1980s.

“It took them a while to realize just what an important part of history they had played,” said Lynn Wallace, Wallace’s daughter. “They were a bunch of young men doing their duty and at first had no idea the impact they’d had on the world.”

When Alley died in January 2012, Wallace was undergoing physical therapy after a spill. Still he got his family to get him to the funeral in a wheelchair.

After the service, he was wheeled to Alley’s casket. Wallace touched it, then struggled to pull himself out of the chair.

There he stood, as erect as he could, and saluted his old friend.

Perlmutt: 704-358-5061
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