In 1917 F. S. Pettyjohn II was born in a sod house on the White River, just north of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. His mother was a devout Irish Catholic, who died in 1929 after giving birth to her ninth child. He fought with his father, ran off and lived on his own, doing men’s work, like teamstering and bucking hay.
In 1941 he was a sergeant in the Army, and when the 82nd Airborne Division was formed he volunteered. In World War II the Airborne’s mission was to jump behind enemy lines, and wreak havoc. They were all on their own, until the regular infantry could fight its way through enemy lines to relieve them. He fought all the way from North Africa to Berlin, at the tip of the spear.
In September of 1944 he was badly wounded at the“Battle of Arnhem, the Deadliest Airborne Operation of World War II”. The story is in the book. I’ve seen the scars on his back. He’d been hit multiple times by automatic weapons fire. He returned to the States to recuperate, and rejoined the 505 Parachute Infantry Combat Team in December for the Battle of the Bulge, and the liberation of Berlin.
The first time I met him was at the airport in Anchorage, Alaska in 1969, when I was 23. I was having a hard time of it, and he and his wife Helen Mary took me under their wing. That summer of 1969, in Anchorage, Alaska, was a turning point in my life. I knew what I wanted now. I wanted to live in Alaska.
I never served in the military, so I missed the Vietnam War. I’d smashed up my ankle when I was at Cal, and I was 4-F. I didn’t dodge the draft. When I was freshman at Cal in 1962 I joined the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps. When I was a junior I was going to take the Marine option and graduate as a 2nd Lieutenant in the USMC, in 1966.
That didn’t happen, and I felt a little guilty for not serving. I told him about it, and he said not to worry about it. “Vietnam was not a good war”, he said. That made me feel a little less guilty.
I spent a lot of time with him that summer. He was, among other things, a godfather and patron to the local Hell’s Angels. He was hiring them to go out in the bush and stake mining claims. Then he’d sell the claims to people who wanted some sort of legal basis for putting up a cabin in the Alaska wilderness. He was making pretty good money at it. I saw him make the sales. He always let everyone know he’d been a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne.
He told me a lot of stories about the war. Before a jump. like D Day, they were meticulous about their equipment. Every strap tightened just right. At Normandy he had 20 pounds of explosives strapped to each leg, to be used in blowing up bridges. In the war he weighed 220 pounds, with a 53 inch chest.
Everything was screwed up when they landed, the entire unit scattered across the countryside. He hooked up with three other troopers, and they spent the next few days wreaking havoc.
The war was the great experience of his life. Nothing could ever compare to it. We can only imagine what it all was like.
75 years after he jumped, my second grandson is due. Cruz Oakley Pettyjohn, will be born on June 6, 2019. Maybe he’ll be like Fritz Pettyjohn of the 82nd Airborne, who was my father.