For the young men who’d volunteered for the new parachute infantry regiment’s training in Georgia in 1941, it was a perilous welcome to military service. “We learned how to land,” William T.C. Brooks would recall years later, “by being pushed off the back of an Army truck barreling down a hard dirt road at 35 mph. If we didn’t break anything, we were cleared for the next stage of training.”
The boy who grew up in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, 65 miles northeast of Harrisburg, had come to Notre Dame to play football for Frank Leahy. War seemed imminent, however, so Brooks signed up for the Army Reserve unit headquartered back home at Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania. Like hundreds of other Notre Dame students, the sophomore left school in fall 1941 when called to active duty.
Brooks, who rose to 1st sergeant, saw his first action with the 82nd Airborne Division in North Africa. In 1943, he landed on Sicily, where more than 300 paratroopers were killed due to strong winds and bad weather. The island was eventually cleared of German occupation, and Brooks would then join the forces thrown vertically into Operation Overlord, the amphibious Allied assault of Europe. Brooks’ 101st Airborne “Pathfinder” unit was to secure Saint Mere Eglise. Before D-Day had ended, he received a battlefield commission as 2nd lieutenant (followed shortly by a promotion to 1st lieutenant).
After 33 days of fighting, Brooks’ unit was brought back to England for a brief respite before being dropped into the August 1944 campaign to liberate France. Following this and the disastrous “Market Garden” operation, in which more than 6,000 paratroopers of the 82nd and 101st were killed or wounded, Brooks’ division took up position around the sleepy crossroads village of Bastogne, Belgium.
There, on December 16, 1944, the Germans unleashed a massive surprise attack through the Ardennes Forest, driving a 50-mile-wide wedge into the Allied Armies. Six days later, 22 German divisions led by Field Marshall Gerd von Rundstadt sent a surrender demand to the surrounded Allied troops. But the Allied troops held on, fighting till the weather broke and a limited air resupply was possible. On December 27, General Patton’s 3rd Army broke through the German offensive and the Allies began their final drive into Germany.
Brooks, however, had been caught in a machine-gun crossfire on Christmas Day. He was left for dead on the battlefield, with bleeding wounds to his chest, left leg, right arm and hand. Freezing temperatures, however, coagulated his blood, and when he shot an SS officer who was about to kill him, Brooks was discovered and brought to a field hospital. “Nurses have always had a special place in my heart,” he explained once, recalling the time the German Luftwaffe strafed the hospital and a nurse saved his life by throwing herself on top of him. “I’m still here,” he said. “She died of wounds.”
Brooks, one of the 40 million soldiers of all nations who were killed, wounded or captured in the European war after Hitler invaded Poland in September 1939, was in a hospital in Georgia when the Germans surrendered on May 8, 1945. “A lot of the guys went into the chapel to say prayers,” he said, recalling the announcement over the public address system. “I considered my wounds minor compared to some of the people I was there with. There were double- amputees and basket cases who had no idea what was going on.” Brooks’ military career was not over, though. Years later he would jump into the battle as a paratrooper in Korea, where he was once again wounded.
The much-decorated veteran (with seven Purple Hearts, a Silver and a Bronze Star) would not return to Notre Dame’s postwar housing at Vetville. He finished his undergraduate education at Bucknell, near his family home, but his attachment to Notre Dame endured. As a retired infantry colonel, he became a campus regular, presiding over tailgaters and attending many ROTC ceremonies, where he would regale the students with stories, pass out military paraphernalia, history books and videotapes, give out modest prizes as well as a pair of paratrooper boots each year to the graduating senior nominated by his or her peers for this honor. A bullet-riddled American flag he brought back from the battle of Bastogne now hangs in the ROTC building.
Perhaps his favorite story, though, was the football game in which he made a rare appearance, sent in as an untried and fearless defensive lineman by Leahy, who was frustrated by his team’s inability to get to the opposing quarterback. Brooks broke through and sacked the quarterback with such a devastating tackle that the referees stopped the game as trainers attempted to revive the dazed quarterback. The blow drew a 15-yard penalty, and Brooks was ejected from the game. As he left the field, Brooks was berated by the coach. Later, Leahy went over to his young lineman, patted him on the shoulder, winked and said, “Attaway, lad.”
In 1994, the 101st Airborne Division’s “Screaming Eagles” veterans held a 50th reunion in Bastogne for those who had withstood the massive German attack in December 1944. “I didn’t know if I’d see anyone I knew there,” Brooks would say later. “But we all knew each other, and there were a lot of wet eyes.” The 101st vets walked the town’s main street; at the banquet that night Belgium’s King Albert came around to each table. “Please don’t stand up,” he said to the veterans as, table by table, they began to rise at his approach. “Fifty years ago you stood up for my country. Now it is my honor to stand up for you.”
Five years late, in November 1999, Bill Brooks received his final honor. “Requiescat in pace,” said Father Mike Cooney, touching the casket as the congregations sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “Notre Dame, Our Mother.” Moments later the pallbearers approached the casket and a kilted piper skirled the mournful notes of “Amazing Grace”. Outside, a detail of uniformed ROTC cadets from Notre Dame stood at attention. They had come to Troy, Michigan, to honor their friend Bill Brooks. Later, when the order was given, their eight rifles snapped skyward and three volleys echoed in the air. Another cadet raised a trumpet to his lips and played the haunting farewell notes of “Taps.”