13 Mar Edwin Funk and the 502nd on D-Day
It was after one of our Veteran Day commemorations that the man stopped by our offices in Bedford. He had a couple of items he wanted to donate, related to the service of a distant relative. He’d inherited the collection, but thought it belonged at the Memorial. The centerpiece was a portrait of Private Edwin Funk of Grayson County, VA—one of over 2500 Americans to die on June 6, 1944.
Funk was a paratrooper in the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne. This was the unit famously visited by General Eisenhower in the hours before the invasion. The well-known photograph (upon which the Memorial’s sculpture of Ike is based) shows the General addressing Co. E of the 502nd, whereas Funk was in Co. C. Still, it’s entirely possible that Funk saw his commander, at least from a distance, perhaps face-to-face.
Edwin Funk would die a few short hours later. The exact circumstances of his death were not recorded and will likely never be known, but we can be certain he did his part to accomplish the goal Eisenhower assigned them: “nothing less than full victory.” Funk is buried in Summerfield United Methodist Cemetery Cemetery in Fries, VA.
If we know little of Funk’s final hours in particular, we at least know a good deal about his unit. These excerpts from the official regimental history reveal the story of the 502nd PIR, which, in addition to Funk, lost over 60 men that day.
On 5 June 1944 the 502nd Parachute Infantry left the departure airdromes for the invasion of France. The landing was to be made on the Cotentin Peninsula south of Cherbourg in the vicinity of Saint Martin de Varreville. The first Battalion in 36 planes and the remainder of the regiment in 81 planes left Membury and Greenham Common Airfield respectively. All was airborne by 2330 and the serials began marshaling at their rendezvous for the trip To France. These were by far the most important minutes in the lives of all the men but in no way did they betray the fears that any of them might have had regarding the dangers that would beset them in the next few hours. They were cheerful and at ease– discussing the visit of General Eisenhower who had come down to see them off– talking about Bill Lee–reading General Montgomery’s letter. There was no fearful tenseness that might be expected. Each man had a job and he knew what the job was. Everyone was eager to get in and pitch.
We crossed the channel and turned left on our approach leg about 0030. The coast of France loomed up through the light fog that had come to make things a little disagreeable for us.
At 0048 the red light came on and jumpmasters electrified into action. “Stand in the door”– crowd forward– reach forward—listen—tense– excited now. Red light! “Let’s go Bill Lee!”
[NOTE: General William Lee, often called the Father of the US Airborne, had commanded the 101st Airborne since it’s activation in 1942. The beloved commander almost certainly would have been one of the first to hit the ground in France on D-Day. However, a heart attack forced him to return stateside in 1943. In his tribute, the 502nd took his name as their rally cry.]
With the cry of “Bill Lee” the 502nd Parachute Infantry hit the silk and ascended like Hitler’s doom on occupied France.
The jump was widely scattered covering an area of 7.25 x 8 miles. The first serial jumped at 0053 and the subsequent serials a short time after. All the planes met considerable flak and machine gun fire and the descending troopers were fired on by small arms and automatic weapons. Many chutists landed within or near strong points and enemy gun positions; some were in the inundated area; on housetops; in trees; many never got their chutes off they were found later, hanging in the webbing, never having fired a shot.
The bulk of the regiment, however, found opposition varied with the locality. In some places the enemy had a definite plan of defense, but by and large the resistance was not coordinated. The enemy generally stayed in their positions and fired indiscriminately at every noise and shadow. Machine gun emplacements at important road intersections were quickly liquidated but in the initial action did cause some casualties.
Commanders of all grades began gathering all available personnel in the vicinity and proceeded to the objectives. The gun position at Saint Martin de Varreville was taken by 0400. Part of the force was then sent to causeways #3 and #4 and by 0600 these were under our control. During the ensuing few hours isolated groups of the regiment fought in numerable skirmishes and battles. A large portion of the Second Battalion engage the enemy at Turqueville, France, and fought there for four hours until enemy reinforcements forced them to withdraw.
By 1200 elements of the fourth division began passing through the third Battalion area (causeways). these included portions of the 8th and 22nd infantries. They were organized and didn’t look too tired. They reported unofficially that the beaches and causeways were all clear and that landing hadn’t been too hard a job. All of them sincerely appreciated our being there and the assistance that we had given their landings.
[NOTE: These preliminary and optimistic accounts of the beach landings described only the comparatively light struggle to get ashore at Utah Beach. These men could not yet know the bloodbath that was still being fought at Omaha Beach.]
The balance of six June, 1944, was spent in consolidating our positions and attempting to get in contact with adjacent units in groups of our own man still on reported. There was little chance to rest, but we had to be on alert against an enemy counterattack.
The Fourth Division relieved this regiment of area responsibility at 0800 on 7 June…
Edwin Funk died a hero, defending his nation and striving, as Ike’s Order of the Day enjoined him, to “bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.” Funk and his brothers-in-arms deserve to be remembered, and as long as the National D-Day Memorial exists, he will be.