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Storming Utah Beach: Lower Swatara man survived D-Day as Army private, earned Purple Heart

By Dan Miller

danmiller@pressandjournal.com

717-944-4628
Posted 6/7/19

About 16 million Americans served in the military during World War II.

On June 6, 1944 — 75 years ago — fewer than 160,000 of them, along with troops from Canada and Great Britain, …

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Storming Utah Beach: Lower Swatara man survived D-Day as Army private, earned Purple Heart

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About 16 million Americans served in the military during World War II.

On June 6, 1944 — 75 years ago — fewer than 160,000 of them, along with troops from Canada and Great Britain, assaulted the beaches of France for the start of D-Day, the massive Allied invasion to liberate western Europe from Nazi Germany.

Mark Paradise of Lower Swatara Township was one of them.

A month shy of turning 19, Pfc. Paradise, a rifleman with the 4th Infantry Division, found himself on an LST — a tank landing ship — headed for Utah Beach.

“You had to get off and you waded up on the land and I’m thinking, ‘Man, a lot of them drowned because they couldn’t get in far enough,’ and I’m thinking, ‘I hope they get in far enough that I can wade in, because I can’t swim,’” Paradise said during an interview on June 6 in the living room of his mobile home off Longview Drive in which he has lived since 1980.

The ship got in close enough for Paradise not to have to worry about drowning. He just had to worry about the bullets streaming toward him and the others from the machine guns in the heavily fortified German pillboxes.

“They are getting wounded, shot, and I am waiting to get hit. But I never did,” Paradise said.

Paradise and the others knew from their training in England before the invasion that the Germans would be waiting for them, to shoot and kill them before they could get a foothold on the beach.

They had trained in amphibious assaults throughout the Moors of South England.

They knew they were getting ready for an invasion, even though no one told them exactly when, until they were on the ships on the way to France.

What they didn’t know from the training was how truly entrenched the Germans were in those pillboxes. They had been fortifying them for years, and it showed.

“They had that so secured,” Paradise recalled. “You didn’t even know they were there. The grass was growing up around them. They looked like natural habitat.”

The bullets were flying at them, but the GIs couldn’t tell exactly where they were coming from until they were all but on top of the pillboxes.

“You are shooting guys (because) if you don’t, they are gonna shoot you. So you do the best you can. I did my best job” to stay alive and fight as he had been trained to do.

A lucky ladder

Paradise and the others made their way to a steep bank they had to climb to get off the beach, so they would no longer be sitting ducks.

They couldn’t see how to get over the bank. Then, somebody found a ladder, presumably made by the Germans.

It was just barely enough to get them over. Eventually, the GIs found a way up around the Germans in the pillboxes. Throwing in tear gas and anything else at their disposal, Paradise and the others were able to clear out the Germans.

Paradise is familiar with the movie “Saving Private Ryan,” which graphically depicts the horror the soldiers went through that day.

That’s just a movie, of course.

“I think it’s even worse than that,” Paradise said, when asked about the movie, which came out in 1998.

He saw one of his officers, a lieutenant, shot between the eyes.

“I survived it,” Paradise today says of that day on the beach. “How, I don’t know. I guess it was just one of those things. I guess it isn’t my turn.”

Wounded by machine gun

Paradise would keep on, relatively unscathed physically at least, for nine days until June 15, when he was shot in both legs by a machine gun in the hedgerows of Normandy.

They put him on a ship that had been converted to a hospital ship. He remembers being on there with guys who were screaming and crying in pain from their injuries. “It was a mess.”

He was sent back to a hospital in England for treatment and recovery. He’d get a Purple Heart but not a ticket home.

By October 1944, Paradise was back in the fight, this time in Aachen, Germany.

It was cold, wet and raining all the time. Paradise remembers being in a truck that was in a wreck. They couldn’t get out of the truck because it would have tipped over.

Somehow, they found a way, and they got out.

Paradise remembers unique logs that the Germans had cut out in the woods, all stacked in different piles. The soldiers used them to prop up their own shelter halves, to provide some kind of protection from the bombing.

Things got easier for Paradise for a period, when a sergeant from Louisiana taught Paradise how to be a cook.

“I had my own crew, about four or five guys, and I had my own truck. I ran the kitchen,” said Paradise. “I had a nice setup.”

German prisoner

Paradise would live on to fight in campaigns through the Rhineland, Ardennes-Alsace, and central Europe, before the Nazis would surrender, bringing an end to the war in Europe on May 8, 1945, less than a year after Paradise and the others had stormed the beaches on D-Day.

Sometime during those months, he’s not exactly certain when, Paradise took a German soldier prisoner.

He made him walk on the road, as Paradise walked along in a ditch to avoid being shot.

To Paradise, it seemed as though the German was glad to give up.

“They had to be in there fighting, is what I assumed. I didn’t have any problem with him. You don’t want to shoot him — what the hell, he gave up. I didn’t think that would be right, so I brought him into our camp and they put him in a prison camp.”

An aircraft carrier brought Paradise back to New Jersey. Even that wasn’t a sure thing, as at one point a 40-foot piece of flight deck broke off and was just hanging there. One sailor got hurt “real bad.”

From New Jersey, Paradise was sent to Fort Indiantown Gap, where he was mustered out of the Army in January 1946.

Paradise didn’t yet have a wife or kids. He had been drafted into the Army just out of high school. After leaving the service, he would marry Mary in 1947. The couple raised two sons, Ron and Jeff. Mary died in 2008. They were married 61 years.

Life after war

The Tower City native got a job at Olmsted Air Force Base, doing clerical and warehouse work until the base closed in the late 1960s.

Paradise then returned to Fort Indiantown Gap, where he got a job supplying parts to mechanics who repaired tanks and other Army vehicles until 1982, when Paradise retired — sort of.

He worked part-time in an auto parts store in Mount Holly Springs, just outside Carlisle, owned by his friend Wayne Boyd. Paradise would also manage an apartment complex in Colonial Park for 13 years, before he decided to retire for good around 2004.

While working at the auto parts store, Paradise made friends with a man named Paul Ginter.

Ginter always wondered why everyone always joked that the 5-foot-6 tall Paradise should always get stuck lugging the heavy equipment.

Ginter would come to find out that the Army, despite Paradise being short, always seemed to assign him the job of lugging a machine gun that weighed nearly 100 pounds.

Ginter had been in World War II also, with the Army in Okinawa in the Pacific. But even among veterans such as him, the guys like Paradise who had been on the beaches on D-Day commanded respect.

Ginter’s son Karl recalled his dad’s admiration for Paradise. Karl Ginter would join the Army and eventually return to the midstate as a colonel, attending the U.S. Army War College.

While there, Karl Ginter discovered that while Paradise had received the Purple Heart, he never received a number of other awards to which he was entitled, including the Bronze Star and the Combat Infantryman Badge.

Ginter made it his goal to correct that oversight. In April 2012, in a ceremony in the Army Heritage and Education Center near Carlisle, the War College commandant presented the long-overdue awards Ginter had obtained for Paradise to the nearly 87-year-old veteran, accompanied by sons Ron and Jeff.

Today, Paradise keeps the medals in a glass case on a shelf of a coffee table in his living room. Perched atop the case is a black baseball cap World War II veterans hat that a friend of Paradise gave him.

The Purple Heart remains the medal of which Paradise is most proud. He also has the Purple Heart on his license plate.

Active at 94

A month shy of turning 94, Paradise still drives, although not much. Ron, retired from UPS and living on the West Shore, does most of the grocery shopping and helps his dad with housekeeping and other chores.

Jeff lives in Elizabethville and has a good job working for a company in the Millersburg area. He hopes to retire in a few years, Paradise says of Jeff.

There are other folks who look in on Paradise. A friend whom Paradise said he met while managing the apartments picks him up once a week to go out to eat.

The friend who bought him the hat bought breakfast for Paradise the other day. Somebody brought Paradise’s breakfast at the Capitol Diner on the anniversary of D-Day, Paradise said. He doesn’t know who it was.

Looking back 75 years

Paradise knows he’s among fewer and fewer men who are still alive who assaulted the beaches that day.

Over and over, he talked of just having a job to do, and that he tried to do that job the best he could.

“I thought, ‘Well if I get hurt or killed or whatever, that’s the way it is.’ I’m there to do a job.”

He knows from the news coverage of a number of the American GIs, now like him in their 90s, who made the trip back to the Normandy beaches as part of the 75th anniversary commemorations.

Paradise has never gone back.

“There’s times I think I would have in a way liked to,” he said, “But it would have brought back a lot of bad memories, I think. I’m not sure if that is good or not. You know how that is. I went a lot of years and gradually … I don’t know how the others are, but I never really talked about it.”

Today, Paradise said he doesn’t know of anyone else in this area who is still living, and who came back from that beach.

Wayne, the guy who had the auto parts store, served in World War II in aviation, but Paradise talks of him as if he is gone now.

He had another friend who had served who used to be in touch with Paradise, but he hasn’t heard from him for years, so Paradise assumes he isn’t living anymore.

The nation is losing 348 World War II veterans every day, according to the National World War II Museum. Before long he, and they, will all be gone, Paradise said. It’ll be just like World War I — everyone who lived through it, all gone.

A different society

Paradise said he often thinks of June 6, 1944. He thinks of all the young soldiers who lost their lives.

“You get off this ship and you are in this small boat they bring you in on. They are getting killed all around you. You have no control over it.”

“You do the best you can.”

He seldom talks about it, because he feels most people are too young to understand or even comprehend.

Earlier Thursday during the anniversary he talked to a girl he crossed paths with about it, but “I don’t think it meant nothing to her.”

But Paradise knows he has much to be thankful for. He made it out, married and raised a family, and found work that was fulfilling.

Today, he has to go for kidney dialysis treatments three times a week. But otherwise, Paradise said he feels good and has nothing to complain about.

He likes where he lives. The mobile home court is quiet and well-kept. He hopes to stay there a long time.

Despite what he went through on that day, Paradise considers himself fortunate that he has lived in the time he has.

“It was a good experience, coming out of school and going to that training. It really makes a good man out of you, truthfully,” he said. “I think maybe some of our people today should have a little bit of military. It might help them. There are so many of these young people getting killed today. It’s a shame.”

People don’t talk to each other today the way they used to, Paradise said. They sit at the dinner table, staring at their phones and devices, while their food gets cold.

Paradise has a flip cellphone for when he’s out driving. He only uses it to make phone calls.

But as far as handling a rifle, back in the day — few could do it better.

“I could take that M1 apart with my eyes closed. Oh yeah, I was good at it. You had to keep it clean if you wanted to keep it working. That was your life. I was good at it.”