The Lansdale Historical Society treated guests to an incredible presentation last Tuesday night, which retraced the heroic steps of a local paratrooper whose deployment took him from Nazi-occupied France on D-Day, all the way through the capture of Hitler's "Eagle's Nest" in Berchtesgaden.
Following a standing ovation, Abington resident Tony Zanzinger, 88, took to the podium and spoke of a distinguished military career with the 101st Airborne, which all but paralleled the famed exploits of the Band of Brothers from Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment.
Assigned to the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment - the first airborne unit in U.S. military history - Zanzinger made his first combat jump on D-Day, descending into Normandy from a C47 Skytrain. Upon landing, Zanzinger found himself alone, nearly nine miles from his planned drop zone. After linking up with other mis-dropped paratroopers from the 101st Airborne and the 82nd Airborne, they quickly formed a makeshift squad and fought their way through the completion of their objectives.
Two days after their initial combat action in Normandy, the 501st was tasked with taking down a German machine gun nest. In the midst of their assault, Zanzinger began to take sniper fire, so he dove into a trench. Moments later, he heard a fellow soldier screaming for a medic. With no medic in sight, Zanzinger went to provide aide to the soldier, only to discover that it was his childhood friend, Henry McParland.
McParland had sustained shrapnel wounds to his legs, stomach and arms, so Zanzinger, along with another fellow soldier, wrapped McParland in a parachute and carried him to safety.
"The one-in-a-million chance of being saved by a friend he hadn't seen for some time, occurred under heavy sniper fire in the thick of the fighting," said Theodore Maisch, in an article from The Chester Times, Aug. 10, 1944. [Read the full Chester Times article here]
McParland would later make a full recovery from his wounds, and he went on father five children, before he died in 2006.
Zanzinger's combat action in Normandy continued in the following weeks, including fighting side-by-side with the "Band of Brothers" in the taking of the French city of Carentan. Afterwards, the 501st was sent back to England.
The next round of combat for the 501st took place in Holland, where Zanzinger and his unit parachuted 25 miles behind enemy lines as a part of Operation Market Garden. Though the original battle plan considered it a 72-hour operation, the soldiers instead found themselves in Holland for 72 days.
"The worst part was not being able to shower for 72 days," said Zanzinger. "We stunk so bad, [the Germans] didn't want to come near us."
Three weeks after Operation Market Garden, Zanzinger's unit was redeployed to reinforce the lines against a German offensive in Batogne, where they stood their ground against the German's and the winter elements for more than six weeks. Thanks to the efforts of the 501st and 506th Parachute Infantry Regiments in Bastogne, the 101st Airborne was awarded the first presidential unit citation that was ever awarded to an entire division.
Rounding out his contributions to the European campaign, Zanzinger's unit wrapped up by taking control of Hitler's "Eagle's Nest" in Berchtesgaden.
By the time his service with the army was complete, Zanzinger achieved the rank of Staff Sergeant, and he also received several awards and commendations for his efforts. He later had a son, who is now 53, and undoubtedly proud of his lineage.