Have a positive attitude
Despite seeing the worst of war in Northern Africa, Italy, and Europe and despite later losing his wife and daughter, Bernard Cheney always believed that maintaining a positive attitude was the most important thing in life.
Bernard was born on May 4, 1923 in Lubec, Maine, the easternmost point in the United States, where he grew with four brothers and one sister. The small town values of hard work and a cheerful, positive attitude that he learned as a child would define his life.
After graduating from Lubec High School, Bernard trained with the 7th Armored Division in the Mojave Desert, learning how to deploy barrage balloons. Barrage balloons floated 5,000 to 10,000 feet in that air and had explosives attached to them. When a plane flew under the balloons, snapping the wires tethered to them, the explosives would destroy the enemy plane. Photos of the D-Day invasion of Normandy show barrage balloons tethered to many of the ships.
Bernard later volunteered for the paratroopers because "I wanted to get overseas and enjoy the war, like everybody else my age." Paratroopers also received an extra fifty dollars a month than the average infantry man, which Bernard mailed home to help his mother. Bernard's four other brothers had also enlisted in the military and their mother wrote to each boy often and saved every letter they sent home, which he did not discover until she had passed and he found three thirty-gallon trash bags full of letters in her attic.
Boot camp for paratroopers was particularly grueling. At Fort Benning in Georgia, where Easy Company from Stephen Ambrose's book and the HBO miniseries, Band of Brothers, trained, Bernard's day started at 2 a.m. with pushups in the mud. If he got a speck of mud on his uniform, he had to do another set. During early morning marches, if he got out of step, he would have to dig a six-by-six hole with a spoon and then fill the hole back up after he was done. The trainees also had to run ten miles each morning. All of this was done before eating breakfast.
To graduate from parachute school, Bernard had to make five qualifying jumps. Anyone breaking an ankle or arm on any of the jumps before the fifth one, was kicked out of Jump School and sent to an infantry division. Even though he signed up for the paratroopers knowing that he would have to jump out of an airplane, Bernard hated jumping.
"I always said I never jumped," he said. "It was the most difficult thing I ever did in my life, even the mock towers, jumping out of those 45-foot-high towers. It wasn't in my body to do it."
"So, somewhere, I blanked my mind and did it," he said. "I didn't go out the door like a lot of guys and holler 'Geronimo,' you know, and all that stuff. No way. I was probably gritting my teeth and praying, and you finally put yourself in a mode that you don't know what you're doing anyway. And then when you hit the ground, why, you look up. Boy, I guess I must have jumped. I'm here and I've got a chute on, but you don't remember zero. I never did."
After completing Jump School, Bernard sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to Oran in what was then the French colony of Algeria. Once in Africa, Bernard Cheney continued training while the Allies pushed the Germans and Italians out of Tunisia. This was the first time he experienced a new culture and experienced living in a land far different from Lubec, Maine, including how locals would "carry the bathroom with them."
"All they do is they have a robe around them and just sit and squat" on the side of the road, he said. "[I]t was kind of handy in a way."
The Allies had driven the Axis powers out of Northern Africa and were preparing for the invasion of Sicily—code named Operation Husky. Bernard and his fellow paratroopers moved to Tunisia, where they prepared for the invasion of Sicily, the first large night landing of Allied airborne troops during the war.
Friendly fire made the invasion even more dangerous for the Airborne troops. Many Allied ships opened fire on the transports carrying the Airborne troops, mistaking them for Axis forces. Bernard recalled the confusion and panic of being fired on by his own forces, and how many paratroopers were lost before they had a chance to reach Sicily.
He landed near Gela, Italy, where the invasion took place. While fighting in Sicily, Bernard and his fellow paratroopers were "constantly seeking contraband under floors and under beds." The Sicilians "had more weapons and more ammunition and more food than the army ever had."
Theft was a constant problem. "Anything [the Sicilians] could pick up disappeared," Bernard said. "You go to sleep at night, why you might wake up and your clothes would be gone if you took your clothes off."
After Sicily, Bernard prepared to invade Italy. He and the 82nd Airborne fought at Salerno and Bernard was one of the first Allied soldiers to enter Naples. In Naples, Bernard saw how war could devastate a large city. "There were no buildings" because the Allied bombing had destroyed them, "and kids used to pop out of a hole or tunnel down under some rocks."
He had seen hungry people before, in Africa and Sicily, and would see true starvation when he helped liberate concentration camps, but he was stunned at the desperate hunger he found in Naples, and what it made people do. "People – older people that were taking food from children," he said. "You give a child something in Naples...before they can go 300 yards, why, some older person takes it away from them."
After Naples, entering Rome on June 4, 1944 (two days before the Allies landed on the cost of Normandy) was like coming home for Bernard, who had studied the city in elementary school. "When I went to grammar school...we had a teacher that used to teach ancient history," he said. "She had a room and we had this monster sand table, and everybody, every class, when they got in there, they built the city of Rome, and we built the canals and the bridges and cathedrals and the memorial, the coliseum, and all this stuff.... And when I went into Rome and went down the Appian Way, it's just as if I had gone some place I lived all my life. I knew where the bridges were, where the cathedral was, and what was in St. Peter's and where to stand there under the bronze plaque."
Bernard, from the small Maine town of Lubec, quickly became the paratroopers' tour guide to Rome. Fighting had finished and they were able to enjoy the magnificent city, but did have to be careful because Fascist sympathizers to the ousted regime of Mussolini would shoot wooden bullets, which, if they did not kill the victim, would splinter, creating horrible, painful wounds.
On August 15, 1944, the Allies invaded Southern France in what was called Operation Dragoon. Bernard participated in the invasion as part of the 1st Airborne Task Force. After liberating Draguignan and Le Muy in Provence, France, Bernard was responsible for setting up a POW camp, which is now a museum honoring the Allied soldiers who liberated Le Muy. Every August, the town celebrates its liberation and invites Bernard.
After fighting in Southern France and joining the other Allied Armies in Northern Europe, Bernard found himself fighting in one of America's most famous battles, The Battle of the Bulge. When Hitler launched his desperate attack through the Ardennes forest, Bernard and the 82nd Airborne were called in to replace the inexperienced American troops guarding that sector, who had been quickly overrun by the Germans. The Nazi's pinned their hopes of winning World War II on this offensive and had launched it during one of the coldest winters in Europe in the Twentieth Century.
In December 1944 and January of 1945, "there was anywhere from two to four feet of snow on the ground," Bernard said. "It was snowing and fog, mist, so you couldn't see four feet ahead or back, and about 28 degrees and people freezing and sleeping on the ground." At night, Bernard and his fellow paratroopers tried to keep by "lying on top of each other or chang[ing] positions. Some guy on the bottom, eight or ten guys lay on top of each other, and every half hour or so you would change positions trying to keep warm."
Besides the freezing cold, the Americans were also surrounded by Germans, some of whom had stolen American uniforms and spoke English, causing tremendous confusion in the American lines. "The Germans overran our repo depots, replacements places, and they took our uniforms, and they spoke better English than we did, especially me coming from Down East," he said. "The lines are everywhere. We had the enemies surrounded from within. It didn't make any difference which way you went. You were running into the enemy. You could hear them talking German. They sounded like they were right there [but] they may be in the woods 400 yards away. There was a lot of fighting and a lot of booming and banging...but a lot of it was shear survival, trying to stay alive, because there were men freezing to death."
Bernard was part of the 551st Parachute Infantry Regiment, or PIR, which lost over half of its men during the Battle of the Bulge. "We just were annihilated during the Battle of the Bulge," he said. With so many soldiers killed, including their commanding officer, the 551st's records were also lost. The 551st became known as The Lost Battalion because there were very few survivors and little information on the regiment. The survivors were absorbed into the 82nd Airborne and the regiment was mostly forgotten until the 1990's when some survivors tried to document that it had existed. In 2001, the 551st received the Presidential Unit Citation for its accomplishments during WWII.
Bernard was injured during the Battle of the Bulge, but cannot recall how. "I don't remember what happened when I went in the hospital and I don't remember how I got to the hospital," he said. "All I remember is waking up in the hospital and having a pillow under my head and sheets on a bed... and thought I must be in heaven."
After recuperating, Bernard joined the 504th PIR, which merged into the 1st Allied Airborne Task Force. By this time, the Allies had pushed the Germans back into Germany. Bernard Cheney soon witnessed the horrors of Nazi hatred against the Jews, gypsies, Slavs, and other "undesirables" when he and his new regiment liberated Wobbelin Concentration Camp in Ludwigslust, in north-central Germany. As Allied forces neared concentration camps, the Nazi's shipped thousands of concentration camp victims to a few camps, like Wobbelin, to hide what the Nazi's had done and to prevent the victims from being saved.
"I was with the sergeant when we blew the padlock off the place and went in and found" the concentration camp survivors, he said. The soldiers found thirty or forty box cars full of people. "They all were dead, mostly dead, but not all of them."
"[W]e went in and walked in all these buildings, like these old chicken houses, and then as we got there, why we saw some hands sticking out under the sills," he said. "And we went in and found the conditions that were there. They were sleeping three or four, five. Bunks made out of barbed wire and everybody—you know, they were relieving themselves one on top of the other. It was just horrible. And then we found these box cars full of people, opened them up and they had been there three or four days in the hot sun. They were skeletons to start with, you know, when they were shipped, and no water or nothing. Most of them were dead."
The American soldiers gave the starving prisoners food, but many died of indigestion because they were not used to eating food. Seeing what the Nazi's had done, Bernard finally understood what he and the other soldiers had been fighting for, and he was ready to fight all over again. "[W]hen you see it, see it, why then you are ready to fight, and of course that was the end of the war," he said.
Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, was so disgusted by this use of slave labor that he ordered that the local German civilians to go into the camp to see what the Nazis had done in their own backyards. "We went to this little town, and we made every man, woman and child, we made everybody evacuate, and made them march out to this concentration camp, and we made them dig the grave and bury these people that were dead, but we made everybody go out there and walk through everybody," he said.
After helping to liberate the concentration camp at Ludwigslust, Bernard also helped capture more than 150,000 surrendering German soldiers. "They surrendered to us," he said. "There were about twenty of us. And they (the Germans) were four abreast with all [of] their guns and all the cannons and all the grenades and everything, as far [as] you could see four abreast coming down the road, and we just had them throw their stuff and [we took] the cars away from the officers."
With the war over, Bernard and the 82nd Airborne were assigned to occupation duty of Berlin. When entering the city, he saw "a destroyed mess of blown-up buildings [and] people wandering around through the rubble."
And the American soldiers faced a new threat of violence from its ally, the Soviet Union. "I always felt that my six months in Berlin, I was more subjected to either living or dying than I ever was during the war, because you went out at night and you were always fighting with the Russians," he said.
Bernard and the 504th PIR were stationed right next to the Russians, who were allowed to hold on to their weapons while the Americans had to turn in theirs. The Americans did not like the Russian because how they treated the German people by raping the women and breaking into German homes, "so we resented the Russians and they resented us." Bernard and his fellow paratroopers "used to go over there (the Russian sector) and raid their supply houses and steal food," he said. "W used to take boats and go across in the middle of the night and have a little invasion party, gun fire and get back. It was cops and robbers, you know, but for real."
Bernard also found it difficult to switch from constant fighting to peace-time mode. "When we were in Berlin as occupation troops...we were combat men that had gone into an occupied city, and war was very much on our minds, where we had been and where we had ended up," he said. "And so [the American Military] set up a set of rules. Theoretically, we were soldiers here and then we were supposed to be Boy Scouts over here, all within a timeframe of a few days. I mean, here you've got a bunch [of] combat men that fought, fought, and then you have another bunch of people come in and say 'okay, now you've got to let the Russians do anything they want.' You can't... stand back and let someone [the Russians] do it [commit crimes] just because they want to retaliate against the Germans."
With the war over, Bernard decided to return to civilian life. "I couldn't be a peacetime soldier," he said. "I didn't like the regiment."
In December 1945, he returned to Maine and became a state trooper for the State of Maine for ten years. Bernard was the last motorcycle rider for the state troopers and was even Vice-President Nixon's chauffeur when he came to Maine. He then worked as an insurance adjuster for the General Adjustment Bureau.
On June 29, 1947, Bernard married Virginia Schoppee from Machias. Virginia was a teacher and principal at the University of Maine at Machias Campus School and later taught in the education department for the University of Maine at Machias. She also served as UMM's vice president of academic affairs. Bernard and Virginia had one daughter, Beverly Cheney Edwards. Virginia passed away in 2009 and Beverly passed away the following year after fighting a long illness.
Bernard recently returned to Europe with his three grandchildren and some fellow veterans of the 82nd Airborne for filming of the movie, Maggie's Story, about the 82nd Airborne's experiences fighting in Europe during World War II. James "Maggie" Magellas served with Bernard in the 504th regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division and also wrote All the Way to Berlin. While in southern France, Bernard showed his grandchildren "pill boxes where I had been shot at and took them up in the mountains on trails that I had gone patrol." He even took them to house where he stayed in 1945 that still had the same crooked shutter.
Despite having seen the horrors of Nazi concentration camps, having survived the Battle of the Bulge, and having lost his wife and daughter, Bernard prides himself on always remaining positive.
"I never had a dull day in my life," he said. "That is what I tell people." He prefers to focus on good events, rather than bad. "You remember the things you can laugh about," he said. "I realized that the way I was brought up and the way that I saw life and learned about it as I grew older, why I find that you have to have a positive attitude, and, those things, they happened, they happened, but life—that is what makes life exciting, you know. Have a little adventure here and a little adventure there."
Bernard "enjoy[s] every day. I can't wait to get up in the morning and can't wait to get in the bed. He credits his good health and long life to his positive attitude. "I am an 88-year-old non-medicated man," he said. "I don't take any medication. I haven't taken my first aspirin. I eat well, sleep well, have a cocktail at night. Never smoked in my life. You know, I think it's positive—having a positive attitude I think is what keeps people healthy."
And while he may be part of the Greatest Generation, he believes the best for America is yet to come. "I see you young people and you know, people say, oh, isn't this a hell of a world to bring kids in," he said. "I feel just the opposite. Just think of all the exciting things that is going to happen to them through their lifetime, especially if they live a long time anyway. You know, you think, boy, I hope they have as much interesting things happen as I did."
Sadly, Bernard Cheney passed away on April 19, 2012.
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