PORT JERVIS— After being the target of much German gunfire during Operation Market Garden in the Netherlands and surviving the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium, Walter E. Hughes never expected to turn 90 on Oct. 29.
“If I would have thought I would last this long, I would have taken better care of myself,” he joked at this home in Port Jervis on Oct. 27.
Born in Brooklyn, he joined the Merchant Marines at 16 and and enlisted in the army at 18 because he loved tugboats “and the army had more tugboats than the Navy did,” he said.
In 1944 he became a paratrooper in the 504th Parachute Infantry, 82nd Airborne Division, and after just seven training jumps, was sent off to fight in Europe where he did his first and only combat jump during Operation Market Garden. The operation was meant to capture key bridges in the Netherlands, but it accrued massive casualties. He said he was “very lucky” to have survived.
“German bullets used to make a sound going through the air like ping, ping ping—and you know they were close,” he recalled.
He was injured twice but survived the war and later joined the Coast Guard.
Now retired and living in Port Jervis, he has written two books, one of which is published.
Walking through his house, the walls are decorated with medals, honorary plaques, paratrooper and tugboat memorabilia, and photos.
One of the photos on display shows him running with a gun towards what looks like a trench and barbed wire during the Battle of the Bulge, one of the largest battles of WWII. The picture was taken by a war correspondent for the Stars and Stripes newspaper, and was later made into a Belgian stamp. He claims he is the only person living to be on a Belgian stamp.
At a surprise birthday on Oct.25 at the Erie Trackside Manor in Port Jervis, he was overwhelmed by the number of people who came from all around the country to be there. Many of the guests were ex-paratroopers, VFW members and other veterans, among them ex-paratrooper Congressman Chris Gibson (R-NY 19th District). He presented Hughes with a document from the House of Representatives recognizing his service and a coin as a token of thanks.
“I never expected this,” Hughes said looking around the room.”My nieces and nephews gave me a party last Saturday in this small room here and I thought that was it.”
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