Rolland Joseph Gustave Despres is the man that started this project, and to tell his story I must also tell the the story of the 83rd infantry division. On Memorial Day weekend 2000 my family had reunited for my sisterís long anticipated wedding. All of my relatives were visiting my family in Virginia Beach. On Sunday my Uncle Rainey Grenier and his wife Barbara were over our house for a barbecue. The weather was lousy, it had rained all weekend long. So we had dinner inside the house. After dinner my uncle, my father, and myself were sitting around the breakfast bar. The conversation drifted to the military due to my active duty service. I donít remember exactly how it all started but the discussion focused on Rolland and our other two uncles, Leo and Freddie Dionne, who I didnít even know. The conversation focused on what they all did during World War II. Neither men knew what division Uncle Rolland was in. All either one knew was that Rolland landed at Normandy, Freddie was in the Army, and Leo the Navy. Rolland was my Great Uncle and my fatherís favorite uncle. So, before I knew it I volunteered to find out what these men did during the war. However, what started out as research on one man, quickly blossomed into a family wide genealogy research project.
Rolland Despres was my fatherís favorite uncle, he was his mothers brother and they were very close, so my father used to tell me stories when I was a young boy of the heroic Uncle who was a Sergeant in the Army, and how he had landed at Normandy during World War II. How he fought in France as a machine gunner, getting captured twice, escaping both times, and later how he succumbed to frostbite as he fell asleep in a ditch. So I listened eagerly to the stories and imagined the feats of my great uncle in my mind. Little would I realize that a quarter of a century later, I would be on a quest to find out what had happened to that man in France, Luxembourg, Germany, and Belgium in 1944-45.
83rd Infantry - The ThunderboltsThe 83rd landed at Omaha Beach on D-Day +15 and from there, they fought all across Europe. They fought in the hedgerows of Normandy and the cities of Brittany. They guarded General Patton's exposed right flank in the Loire Valley as he raced across France and later they liberated Luxembourg. They fought in the bloody Huertgen Forest, an little known battle that chewed up men as fast as the Army could put them in there to fight. From that Rhineland battle they were moved south as the Germans counterattacked in the Ardennes, The 83rd faced the very point of the bulge, stopping the massive German offensive and pushing the Germans back along with the 3rd Armored division to cut the ST. Vith - Houffalize road, the Germans main supply route. They fought again in the Rhineland, and were the first division to reach the Rhine River. After crossing it they raced across Germany towards Berlin, covering 280 miles in 13 days and earned the nickname "Rag-Tag Circus" from the press due to the odd assortment of vehicles they used. Finally, when the Division was within 60 miles of Berlin when they were ordered by Eisenhower to stop. The amount of ground covered by the 83rd Division from Normandy in June 1944 to Central Germany in April 1945 was over 1,400 miles. The 83rd Divisionís three infantry regiments, the 329th, the 330th, and the 331st were always in the thick of battle. They spent 244 days in combat and suffered 23,980 casualties, 15,248 of which were combat casualties. Overall, the division had 170.2 percent replacements. Of the 68 divisions deployed by the U.S. Army in the European Theater, the 83rd Division was ninth in the number of combat deaths, and had the most Rifle Company casualties in the entire ETO.
Rolland fought with the 83rd from the first offensive of July 4th until the very end of the Battle of the Bulge on January 22, 1945 when he was taken off of the line for a Non Battle Injury of Trench Foot. Rolland was always at the front of the battle, he fought with great courage and distinction earning the Bronze Star and a promotion to Sergeant. This is his story as well as the story of the 83rd Infantry Division the "Thunderbolts"