General Melvin Zais served a long and outstanding career that involved many significant and memorable assignments, like leading the army liaison team responsible for the involvement of Federal troops in April 1968 during the Baltimore Riots, Commanding General, 101st Airborne Division during Vietnam, 1968–69, led the 101st Airborne Division in the Battle of Hamburger Hill against the People's Army of Vietnam and became the Commanding General, XXIV Corps, Vietnam, 1969–70. He went on to command the Third Army from 1972-73 and for his last assignment, after earning his forth star, he was appointed Commander, Allied Land Forces South-Eastern Europe.
According to Kelly Boian, with Army Command and General Staff College Fort Leavenworth KS School of Advanced Military Studies in a report titled, 'Major General Melvin Zais and Hamburger Hill', General Melvin Zais, "orchestrated the battle between the 29th Regiment of the Peoples Army of Vietnam and the 101st Airborne Division around Dong Ap Bia Hamburger Hill, Vietnam. General Zais focused operations on and around Hamburger Hill to prevent the build up of men, weapons, and supplies in the A Shau Valley, which would have allowed for Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army forces to conduct another Tet Offensive. As General Zais developed the situation in Thua Thien Province, similarities can be drawn to an offensive he assisted in coordinating within southern France Col de Braus in World War II. This familiarity in size of terrain, enemy presence, and friendly tactical actions assisted Zais in his understanding of the situation at Dong Ap Bia. By conducting continuous assaults up the 937 meters of Dong Ap Bia to destroy the 29th Regiment of the Peoples Army of Vietnam, he prevented the perceived threat of another Tet Offensive."
Prior to the above highlights General Zais was in Panama as a Lt with the original 501st during WWII, along with Lt Vandervoort. Lt Vandervoort went on to command the 2nd Battalion of the 505th Parachute Regiment and jumped into Normandy where his Battalion took Saint Mere Eglese. His role at Normandy was later played on the big screen by John Wayne in the film, "The Longest Day". While with the 501st Lt Zais commanded C Company. Several of the officers in his company went on to serve as future company commanders for the 551st PIB...such as Marshall Dalton, Jim Evans, Bill Smith, and Tims Quinn. Lamar Tavoian also started with the 501st and was likely under Zais as well.
While researching and writing the story for the 551st, The Left Corner Of My Heart, Dan Morgan had the foresight to visit General Zais at Walter Reed Army hospital in Bethesda, MD. It was 19 November 1980. The General was terminally ill with cancer and passed away shortly after Morgan's visit on 5 May 1981. Below is what General Zais shared about the beginnings, and endings, of the heroic independent parachute battalions, of which he was part of. He himself fought with the heroic 517th RCT during combat in Europe...from Sicily, Southern France, Maritime Alps and the Bulge. The General's comments to Morgan that day:
“I am General, four-star, Melvin Zais, retired. I was a member of the original 501st Parachute Battalion which was formed at Fort Benning, Georgia, and I proceeded with the advance company to Panama in June 1941. I was the platoon leader of the 2nd Platoon from Company C.
Many people wonder why the 501st, the original Battalion, was picked to go down there. One would presume they would be used as cadre for the ever-expanding Airborne force. History has a way of repeating itself. We are now worrying about the influence of Cuba and Communist influence in Central and South America. We were sent to Panama under secret orders because the US, still not in the War, was very concerned about German infiltration into that area. We had seen the effect of German fifth-columns in Norway. We were concerned, in keeping with the Monroe Doctrine, that there be no German Nazi-supported coup in any of the Latin-American countries – and if there should be one, then we wanted to be able to come to the assistance of such nation, on its call. Of course, timeliness is highly important in a situation like that, and many of the capitals of those countries were relatively inaccessible – especially in those days when there were no ready-forces of helicopters. The Marines could not have got to Guatemala City in much of a hurry. So we were sent to Panama to fill that classified need – classified because of the necessity not to advertise our presence.
At the same time we were sent down there, an air-landed battalion (then called “Airborne”) was formed – the 550th, commanded by a Colonel Mulaski. They were activated in Panama and the plan was that if a friendly government called on us, the parachutists would go in first and seize an airfield and then the 550th would air-land in C-47 aircraft. Then the two-battalion force would be able to respond to the call for help. In preparation for such eventuality, two of us who were then lieutenants (Lt Vandervoort and I) were sent on a sensitive mission, posing as tourists, to the capitals of some of the Central American nations. We visited El Salvador, Managua, Tegucigalpa, San Jose and Guatemala City, where we cased the airfields and noted potential parachute drop zones, the routes from these DZ’s to the airfields and the cities, the locations of local casernes, the presidential palace, electric power plants, water supplies – all the things that could become significant in an emergency. Then Vandervoort (and I might add here that this same Vandervoort was the one who parachuted into Normandy as commander of the 2nd Battalion of the 505th Parachute Regiment – he captured Saint Mere Eglese, and it was his role that John Wayne played in “The Longest Day” and I wrote up our after-action report and turned it in. Had we later on proceeded to any of those places, Van and I would have been the scouts for the operatrion.
So I was down there in Panama, and in addition to my other duties prior to the arrival of the rest of the Battalion, I was Company Parachute Maintenance Officer. We packed our chutes at France Field because Fort Kobbe was a new post then, just built. The streets were still mud when we settled there but the quarters and buildings were permanent. We moved into the barracks in early July. The rest of the 501st arrived in September, under the command of LtCol William L. Miley. he was our original Battalion commander. We were there on 7 December, Pearl Harbor Day. At that time we were alerted and sent to a little field called Chorerra, to the north of Fort Kobbe. Other platoons went to Rio Hato, Chamay, and so forth. We were preparing for a potential Japanese attack. Then, when it became evident the Japanese were not going to attack Panama, we began sending increments of officers and men back to the States as cadre. Even so, we continued on the alert, drew ammunition every morning, and lived under a sense of great urgency.
I was later made Battalion Parachute Maintenance Officer and soon after that I was promoted to captain and took command of Company C. I had the Company from September 1942 until I left for the States a bit later. Marshall Dalton was a lieutenant in my Company – and Jim Evans, Captain Bill Smith – Tims A. Quinn – they were all lieutenants in my Company then. That was when I broke my ankle playing basketball, and I was in the hospital at Amador for a time. While there, I got a message from Quarry Heights saying that I needed to call the Battalion. When I called I was told that Colonel Miley had been promoted to Assistant Division Commander of the 82nd Airborne Division and he wanted me for his aide – and would I come? So I made my preparations to return to the States.
When I departed, William (Bill) Park Hickman took command of Company C. And when I reported in to Colonel Miley he said, “You don’t want to be an aide – I don’t want you for an aide – I just wanted to get you out of Panama”. So I went to see my wife, who was pregnant – that was in Knoxville, Tennessee – and then I reported to the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg.
While I was there, a battalion of the 503rd Parachute Regiment was sent to England under the command of LtCol Edson Raff. That was the 2nd Battalion. Now, that Battalion became the 509th Battalion, the one which flew from England and jumped into North Africa and was the first battalion to make a combat jump in the US Army. Now, that left the 503rd Regiment short one battalion – and the 503rd was alerted to go to Australia to fight in the Pacific. So they came through Panama and picked them up – but they left Company C in Panama and it later became part of the 551st.
When Woody Joerg and his group left the Frying Pan at Benning and came down to Panama there was some concern because the people down there had thought they were going to cadre the Battalion. I’m told there was some degree of friction but I was never too aware of it. I was at Camp Mackall when the 551st came back to the States. I was commanding the 3rd Battalion of the 517th Parachute Regiment then because when General Miley left the 82nd Airborne Division he was given command of the 17th Airborne Division and he took me with him. I commanded the 3rd Battalion, as a young major, from cadre to combat. A lot of the men from old Company C in Panama found out I was at Mackall and came to see me. It finally turned out that my former officers, Dalton, Evans, Smith and Quinn, each came to command a company in the 551st – so I have a proprietary feeling about the 551st.
Meanwhile, the 17th Airborne Division went on maneuvers in Tennessee and during the maneuvers the 517th Regiment was pulled out, brought back to Mackall and made ready for early shipment overseas as a separate combat team. We picked up the 460th Field Artillery Battalion and the 596th Engineers Company. The 513th Parachute Regiment took our place in the 17th Airborne. We proceeded to Italy, fought as ground troops from Drusetto almost to Piambino and then moved close to Rome to prepare for the drop into South France.
Meanwhile, the 551st had been alerted and sent to Sicily. Then they too were alerted for the jump. Ours was a polyglot force, all under the command of General Frederick. Called “The First Airborne Task Force”, it included the 517th Parachute Regiment Combat Team (with an anti-tank and a chemical mortar company from the Nisei 442nd), the 509th Battalion, the 463rd Parachute Field Artillery Battalion, the 1st Special Service Force (which did not jump with us), The British 16th Brigade (which did jump), and the 551st Battalion and the 550th Glider Battalion.
After the jump, and after the passage of Limes, the First Airborne Task Force was given the job of protecting the right flank of the advancing 7th Army, which had landed on the shores of southern France. The 517thg Parachute Regiment Combat Team proceeded to move east and then moved to the Maritime Alps. We fought into the key of the German “Maginot Line” (the French Maginot Line turned around by the Germans). The 551st was then well to the north of us, as was also the 509th Battalion. They were in the higher country. The 517th was pulled out of the line when we reached the Italian border. That was November 1944. We then shipped separately north to Suissons for attachment to various elements of the XVIII Airborne Corps, such as the 82nd and 101st Airborne Division. XVIII Airborne Corps was then at Rheims. By then the 551st, 509th and the 550th Glider Battalion had all been moved up into that general area.
At some time during the Battle of the Bulge, the separate battalions were inactivated and their personnel were made organic to the 82nd Airborne Division. That’s why they don’t receive credit, and there is no continuity in the history of those separated units. That’s why they seem to just disappear. The 517th Regiment did not do that. We remained a separate combat team attached to the 82nd Airborne Division in the Bulge, and then attached to the 3rd Armored and the 7th Armored Divisions, and then to the 30th Infantry Division – and the 106th Infantry Division and so forth. We were just used indiscriminately. We suffered very, very heavy casualties.
But the glory of the separate units is the great warmth and affection and closeness they develop – and the great memories we carry with us.”
Much gratitude to Jean Mi Soldi and his son Adrien for bringing Mr. Jack Funk to our attention. Jack Demsey Funk is believed to be the first 551st PIB paratrooper to be KIA in France just after their jump into Southern France on 15 August, 1944. Jack did the jump a little different, as he arranged to make it with his guitar. He was then KIA the next day, on 16 August, '44. In his research Mr. Soldi learned that Pvt Funk had been moved from the Rhone American Cemetery in Draguignan by request of his family in 1968 to his final resting place at Copper Hill Cemetery, just outside of Roanoke, Va. Today we can report that Pvt Jack Funk is resting with his knees still in the breeze high up on a mountain top, a little more than a stones throw away from the beautiful and picturesque Blue Ridge Parkway. With a 551st Association Board member living not too far away Mr. Funk was visited by the 551st Parachute Infantry Association today...GOYA and SALUTE!!
From The Left Corner of My Heart... Sgt Emory Albritton, Company B Mortar Squad (interview):
“...I think the only man we had lost in Company B by then was Pvt Jack Funk from Tennessee (actually Virginia). He had to be the first man of the 551st killed in combat, and I think he was shot as he went over a rock wall. He was the one who jumped with his guitar at la Motte."
A link to Operation Dragoon/The Battle of Provence Museum article by Jean Mi Soldi and his son Adrien.
My grandfather, PVT Meade was also there...about the time this happened. It's also when Lt. Schroeder was injured...the medical report, attached photo, mentions another man being KIA on the advance to hill 215 at Draguignan, which would have been PVT Jack Funk...all part of Jean and Adrien's research.
Hi mate, will anything be happening this August?
With uncertainties regarding travel restrictions due to the pandemic we are hoping to do a raid-in-force in the Ardennes at the '22 Remembrance Walk for another Rendezvous in Rochelinval. There are too many variables right now for August to make plans in France; however, there will likely be several things happening. Frederic Sanchez, our France Association member, could probably shed more light if anything is already in the works...
Association Historian Chris Lewis took out the National Infantry Association’s 1944-era Willys MB Jeep [notice the bumper markings] at the National Infantry Museum on Saturday & educated the 227 Infantry trainees from D Co 2-19 Infantry on the history of the “Jeep” in WWII - GOYA! AIRBORNE!! ... See More from 551See Less from 551
Photos taken 30 years ago by our Association Historian Chris Lewis, while assigned to B Co 3-505th PIR, 82d Airborne Division during Operation Desert Storm - AATW! ... See More from 551See Less from 551