Victory, in war, boils down to one factor – the soldier: on the ground; face to face; mano-a-mano; in battle against his enemy.
Whether it be bare handed, with spear, sword, knife or gun, ultimately the war is decided by warriors who pit flesh and bone, their lives, against each other. Until the last enemy-soldier is captured or killed, total victory is not achieved..
Sedona, Arizona’s Buffalo Don Thompson, now 87, is such a warrior, whose heroics in World War II led to the capture of a German general and earned him three Purple Hearts, two Bronze Stars and two Presidential Citations.
He was a member of the Army’s 551st Parachute Battalion, which was decimated in WWII with more than 97 percent casualties after the infamous Battle of the Bulge in Belgium, a key battle that set the stage for victory by the Allies in Central France.
His was the first U.S. parachute battalion to see war and on Aug. 15, 1944 they were dropped 32 miles behind a 40,000 soldier-strong enemy line in Belgium to engage the Nazis and gather intelligence. The drop itself proved disastrous for the American paratroopers as the gliders carrying their food and equipment collided in the sky.
It was there in the town of Draguignan that Buffalo Don, then a staff sergeant and platoon leader, and three other soldiers, including Sedona’s Joe Chicchinelli, captured German General Ludwig Bieringer.
“We saw the castle in the mountains and moved on up,” Buffalo Don said. “It had a huge Nazi flag on it. We cut the communication wires coming from the building. We all had specific jobs.”
At the castle doors the soldiers had to make a decision.
“We didn’t know how many Germans were in the building,” he said. “I made the decision and said to my men ‘Let’s take the bastards!’ We went in through the front door, which was unlocked, into a huge lobby. We were amazed there were no guards when we went in.”
There were three doors in front of them. Again, they had to make a decision. Which door should they go through first?
“In front of us was a door to our left, a door in the center and a door to our right,” he said. “I saw the rug in front of the door on the right had dirt marks on it. I told my men to fix their bayonets. I was carrying a Thompson sub-machine gun.”
The soldiers burst into the room and found 11-startled Nazis crouched over charts and maps scattered on tables. The enemy froze.
“We went in fast and got the drop on them,” Buffalo Don said. “We ordered the Nazis to lie on the floor on their bellies with their hands behind their heads except for the general. He had a pistol in his belt and when Chick put his bayonet against him he wet his pants. I knew right then and there we were in charge.”
The general tried to bribe the American soldiers for his life.
“He gave us a million Mark note and we buried it right away,” he said. “If the German’s captured you and found any items taken from them they would slice your belly open.”
Searching the castle they found the entire payroll, in German money, for 29,000 enemy troops, which they cast to the townspeople from a flatbed fruit truck they commandeered.
“We threw the money to the people but we were ambushed by Germans,” he said. “Two of our men were killed. Chick (Cicchinelli) and I jumped off the truck and took out their killers.”
The German general was transported to St. Tropaz where he was interrogated, providing valuable intelligence for the Allies. In addition, he surrendered 750 of his soldiers to the Americans.
For Buffalo Don and Chick the war continued. They saw battle every day and had to live off the land by their wits because most of the time they were fighting behind enemy lines.
“We were always out-gunned and didn’t have any vehicles,” he said. “If a chicken crossed the road it didn’t get a second chance. In a second it was gutted, plucked and cooked in our helmets.”
Hardened by their experience, soldiers had to become cold-blooded killers to survive.
“We were in constant battle all the time,” he said. “I prayed constantly. When you see your buddies dying you become a different person. We were closer than blood. We slept outside in the rain and snow, freezing. Even a bird landing in a tree at night was the enemy.”
Buffalo Don survived the fixed-bayonet charge of Rochelinval, where American soldiers plumged head first into entrenched-enemy machine gun nests, stabbing their way to victory in hand-to-hand combat.
“It was close-quarters combat,” he said. “We took no prisoners. We hated them. We despised them but I prayed for the enemy each time I pulled the trigger. Wars are won, one-on-one.”
Then came the Battle of the Bulge, one of the bloodiest WWII battles in Europe, where Buffalo Don sustained an injury he could not walk away from.
“I was shot in the leg as I tried to throw a grenade into an enemy tank,” he said. ‘I was lying in the snow bleeding when Chick pulled me away. My leg was practically hanging off as he dragged me from the battle on my back. That’s when he said to me ‘Sarge, keep on shooting but don’t shoot me.’ I can never forget that.”
Today Don lives in Sedona and owns Buffalo Don’s Corral in Uptown. He remains vibrant and a day does not go by where he’s not seen engaging customers wearing his trademark, red-cowboy hat and jacket.
For him, the war is behind him. Thanks to prayer, he is not plagued by flashbacks or guilt over the horrors he saw and experienced.
He passed no judgment on the present war in Iraq, condemning war in general instead.
“I despise war. It is sinful…unless there is a good reason.”
Right before the U.S. invasion and bombing of Baghdad, Buffalo Don put in a call to then Commander of U.S. Forces General Eric K. Shinseki. He was not able to reach the general directly and had to leave a message.
“I gave him a suggestion,” he said. “I asked him not proceed with a full-scale bombing and attack to lessen civilian casualties.. Instead, for him to use Special Forces, drop them behind enemy lines in small groups and take out Saddam. That night the bombing began. I got back a message the next day. It said…’Too late.'”