Since Thomas Kent drove a gravel truck before World War II, the Army gave him a similar job when he enlisted three months after Pearl Harbor. It had some advantages.
While at Camp Claiborne near Alexandria, Kent was assigned to drive for Lt. Mike Berkut, an intelligence officer for the 82nd Airborne Division’s 325th Glider Infantry Regiment. One day, Kent got assigned kitchen duty.
When a different soldier showed up to drive Berkut, the officer “called the motor pool and asked where his other driver was,” said Kent, 94. “‘He’s doing KP today.’ Mike said, ‘Go get him.’ That was the end of my KP for the rest of the time I was in the service.”
Avoiding potato peelers wasn’t the only benefit. Most soldiers spent much of the war carrying everything they needed on their backs. There was no room for what didn’t help them attack the enemy, survive or stay comfortable. As a driver, it was easier for Kent to carry something extra.
In his case, that meant a camera. Although he wasn’t able to keep it with him for the entire time, Kent’s Kodak Six-20 Brownie Junior box camera allowed him to record a soldier’s-eye view of history’s largest war.
Like many soldiers, Kent took pictures of his buddies during training at Camp Claiborne, Fort Bragg, N.C., and Camp Edwards, Mass., before being forced to relinquish the camera when sent overseas. But, his family eventually shipped it to him.
“Before we left the States, (the instruction was) ‘Everybody send your camera home. You can’t take it with you,’” he said. “I guess they didn’t want us to take pictures of the porpoises or whatever. I went all the way through North Africa, Sicily, Italy, Ireland and into England before I got my camera back.”
Still, that gave Kent plenty of opportunities to record his experiences while based in Leicester, England, at the June 6, 1944, D-Day invasion, Operation Market Garden in Holland and the drive into Germany.
Although he was part of the 82nd Airborne, Kent did not jump out of airplanes. At D-Day and Market Garden, he was one of the troops who went in by gliders. Kent’s glider carried him, the pilot and the jeep Kent was supposed to drive. Berkut went in a separate glider with a trailer. In the early morning hours of D-Day, they landed near the French town of St. Mere Eglise.
Kent got airsick on the flight, but his glider landed without incident. Berkut’s glider crashed into a tree in a hedgerow, breaking the legs of the pilot and co-pilot.
“We had landed in the area where the paratroopers had landed first (and were eager for reinforcements),” Kent said. “They were hurting for us when we got there. ... In training, the glider troopers were nothing but dirt compared to the paratroopers, but when we got there they were glad to see us.”
Kent spent 33 days in the Normandy fighting before returning to England. His next action was in September; the 82nd Airborne was part of the Market Garden attempt to capture numerous bridges in Holland and create a path across the Rhine River that would allow a quick strike into Germany.
Once again, Kent rode in the co-pilot’s seat. After the war, Kent met a glider pilot who asked if either pilot during the war gave Kent instructions about landing the glider in case the pilot was killed or disabled.
“I said no he didn’t,” Kent said. “He said he was supposed to.”
In Holland, the airplane that towed the glider was struck by ground fire and lost altitude, so the glider had to be released early. It landed in front of a bomb crater and was briefly airborne again before touching down again on the other side of the crater.
“So, I tell people I landed twice in one flight,” Kent said.
Once on the ground, Kent was part of the Allied forces that took the town of Nijmegen and the bridge over the Waal River there. But the Allies failed to capture all the bridges and move all the forces forward quickly enough to overcome a German counterattack, and they were driven back.
Kent was sent to France and parted company with Berkut, who finished the war as a colonel, during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944.
Kent drove trucks as American forces pushed into Germany. He was in the wrecked city of Cologne when President Franklin Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945, and moved as far east as Ludwigslust, across the Elbe River, before the war ended.
“I was just riding around up there one day and started down the road and started meeting some German soldiers — as far as you could see a line of German soldiers with no weapons,” he said. “They had surrendered, 145,000 German soldiers came through our line. They didn’t want to be caught by the Russians.”
There had been close calls along the way. One night in Normandy, unable to dig a suitable foxhole in the rocky soil, Kent dug a shallow trench, then rolled the jeep above it for protection. When he woke up the next morning, he discovered the jeep full of dirt and rock from an nearby artillery blast. Later in the war, artillery fire forced him to seek cover with other soldiers in a roadside trench. A shell that exploded above them killed the soldier on one side of him and wounded one on the opposite side, but left Kent unscathed.
“Soldiers gave me a hard time about having a vehicle,” Kent said. “I told them, ‘You can get in the ditch a lot faster than I can.’”
After the war, Kent returned to Louisiana and worked for Breeden Tractor Co., retiring 29 years ago. He lives in Baton Rouge with his wife, Derlyne.
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