76 years ago, this WWII paratrooper threw himself on a grenade to save his buddies
“It was a story of valor untouched by any other episode I know of."
To get to the boyhood home of Private First Class Joe E. Mann, you have to know where you’re going.
The rolling fields of wheat on the farm outside Reardan, reachable by dirt road, were where Mann learned to tinker with cars and fly kites with his eight siblings. The landscape is a reminder of how heroism can sprout from modest beginnings, said Byrne Bennett, Mann’s nephew.
“It’s kind of nice that this is a humble farm,” he said. “It shows that somebody can come from a place like this, and do something great.”
Visitors to that farm will now have a physical reminder of the sacrifice of Mann, whose exploits 76 years ago Saturday in war-torn Holland are told in a Congressional Medal of Honor citation. A group of about 50 friends, family and well-wishers gathered in the front yard Friday afternoon to dedicate a historical marker to Mann, made possible by the work of the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
Bennett, who’s working on a book about his uncle that goes beyond the official account told by the military and taught to Dutch schoolchildren, offered visitors a glimpse of Mann before he became a war hero, diving onto a grenade to save six of his fellow soldiers attempting to beat back a German onslaught during Operation Market Garden.
“His dad was not very happy with some of Joe’s shenanigans,” Bennett said. “Like when he built a fire in the potato cellar, sending smoke billowing into the house, or when he threw a homemade explosive device into the iron smelting pot, blowing it to smithereens.”
Mann sustained a football injury that would later disqualify him from becoming a pilot in the Army Air Corps, like his brothers. He broke his collarbone and, true to form, stubbornly refused to leave the field, Bennett said. The metal plate left in to heal the bone kept him from passing a physical to fly.
Mann graduated from Reardan High School in 1941, and asked his father for permission to enlist in the Army. Instead of becoming a pilot, he trained to become a paratrooper, and was initially assigned to the 506th infantry regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, Bennett’s research found. That group of soldiers became immortalized in a book and later HBO miniseries, “Band of Brothers.”
But Mann drew a disliking from one of the commanding officers, and he was issued a transfer shortly before D-Day to the 502nd regiment. A pair of hernias sustained during a final training mission sidelined Mann before the invasion of Normandy, but he was cleared to return to action in the middle of September, as the 502nd was assigned to capture bridges necessary to enable an invasion of Nazi Germany from the north.
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Bennett said despite Mann’s lack of combat experience, he was selected as lead scout for a squad of dozens of men as they approached a bridge over the Wilhelmina canal near Best, Holland. Heavy German fire killed or injured most of them, and in an attack on a German gun encampment Mann received multiple wounds to his arms.
The next morning, Sept. 19, during a counterattack, the Germans lobbed potato-masher grenades into a foxhole of injured men. Mann freed his arms and attempted to throw several out of the hole before they detonated. When the explosives piled up, Mann threw himself on the grenades to protect the injured men.
“Looking into his lieutenant’s eyes, he said, ‘My back is gone,’ and died,” Bennett told the crowd.
Many of the details came to Bennett from a speech intended to be given by U.S. Army Gen. Samuel Lyman Atwood Marshall at the dedication of the community center in Hillyard that bore Mann’s name, until it was demolished in 2017. Due to bad weather, the general never arrived to give the speech.
Marshall, a military historian, interviewed the men with Mann in that foxhole “in a Dutch cattle barn,” according to the speech. The men had surrendered to the Germans after Mann’s death, but were quickly rescued as the fast-moving British and American soldiers liberated the area just hours after Mann’s death.
“It was a story of valor untouched by any other episode I know of,” Marshall’s speech read.
That story is told in Holland to this day, said Rae Anna Victor, a local historian, author and member of the Jonas Babcock Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, who organized the marker and ceremony Friday.
“Joe really is regarded as a true hero in Holland,” Victor said.
There are efforts underway to ensure that same regard is shown in Mann’s hometown. A plaque at the base of the American flag at Reardan’s City Hall recognizes Mann’s accomplishment, and his name is one of two Medal of Honor recipients from the area for whom the Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center in Spokane is named.
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A nonprofit group called Reardan Heroes hopes to raise funds to build a 4½-acre memorial park honoring Mann and the town’s other veterans near Audubon Lake.
The marker dedicated on the farm that remains in Mann’s family is a step in the right direction for Bennett, who along with several other descendants accepted flags flown above the U.S. Capitol and nearby Fairchild Air Force Base in his uncle’s honor. As the sun peeked out from the smoke and shone on Mann’s boyhood home, the same day that Americans were urged to pause and reflect on those service members imprisoned or missing in action, Bennett said he hoped the piece would cause all to reflect on the sacrifices of those who fight for the country.
“I just hope people take the time to read it, and learn about him,” Bennett said. “And think about the things that he stood for. What he fought for.”
©2020 The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Wash.) – Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.