|Thanks to organizer Paul Shea, I was able to meet retired Army Col. Steven Cavanaugh at a Minneapolis reunion of the 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment (511th PIR) at the Thunderbird Motel on September 19, 2002. Col. Cavanaugh shared his memories of my great uncle, Orin D. Haugen, regimental commander of the 511th who was killed by a mortar shell fragment during World War II.|
It's November, the month we honor veterans, and the possibility of war is
on our minds. Could we handle it? Could we prevail? Are we tough
enough? Well, nobody is tougher than an Airborne parachute soldier, and
one of the toughest ever still has relatives scattered throughout west
Orin D. Haugen, commander of the 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment, was born in 1907 in Wyndmere, North Dakota, and was eventually nicknamed "Hard Rock Haugen" by the troops who served under him in World War II. At a recent reunion of the 511th in Minneapolis, retired Colonel Steven Cavanaugh, who served under Haugen as a young officer, shared some stories of just how tough... was tough enough.
Things were rocky for Cavanaugh from the start. "I'd been commissioned out
of UCLA in artillery. All my contemporaries got orders to active duty
while I stood around for a month and got assigned to the Ordinance
Department. They basically handle ammunition and supplies, which felt like
a real downgrade."
Not a man to nurse his regrets, Cavanaugh immediately applied for the best bet to get him out of ordinance work - parachute training. "Parachute training is the kind of thing that the dumb guys at army orientation volunteer for," he admits. He finished jump school in October of 1942 and was assigned to the 505 pending activation of the 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Orin Haugen.
"The first time I met Col. Haugen was not a pleasant experience," Cavanaugh admits. "We assembled at the 'frying pan' area of Fort Benning, where the regiment's cadre of staff and commanders were first gathered together. I think I was only the 5th officer in the regiment. I reported in and Haugen snarled, 'What the hell are you doing here? You're an ordinance officer!'
"He wanted nothing to do with Ordinance, but neither did I! So he had to tolerate me." Haugen's tolerance consisted of giving Cavanaugh the worst duty available, police and prison officer. "I spent that month in the 'frying pan' going down to the prison to pick up prisoners and bringing them back to clean up the area."
Once the officers were assembled, the regiment moved to Camp Toccoa, Georgia to receive its first enlisted troops. "It was raining and sleeting outside and we didn't have anywhere to stay, so they put us in a school auditorium on cots," Cavanaugh remembers. "We wore our 'pinks and greens,' dress blouses with gray trousers and shiny jump boots. Our first day there, ol' Haugen took us up Mount Curahee, two miles up a muddy, serpentine road. 'You guys are gonna run that every day,' he told us."
Cavanaugh finally managed to break the ice with his new commanding officer a month later, when all the officers ran up the mountain in a timed race. "I came in 3rd out of 30 or 40 officers. He didn't say anything, he was never one to tell you you'd done a good job, but he noticed. He was a great runner, he loved to run. One of my first impressions of the colonel was him soaking his feet in a pan of alum solution to toughen them."
Running was the regiment's trademark activity. "We were pretty cocky," Cavanaugh admits. "Parachute troops always are. General Swing, the division commander, felt he should do something to take the wind out of the regiment's sails." First the general tried to make the 511th wear leggins, the tall boots other soldiers wore, instead of their jump boots. "Our guys cut them off and that drove Swing wild," Cavanaugh chuckles. So the general started the 'Swing runs,' assembling hundreds of division officers two or three times a week for a work-out. "He always put the 511th officers at the end, because that's the toughest place to run," Cavanaugh remembers. "When it was over and the rest of the officers were huffing and puffing, we'd take off and sprint back to our regimental area, Col. Haugen leading the way."
Besides running, Haugen loved horse-back riding and polo. His wife Marion's horse, Whiskey, has a prominent burial site at Fort Snelling. But Marion never followed her husband to his duty sites. "He was determined to have the best regiment in the army," Cavanaugh explains. "No dereliction of duty, no fooling around. Very few men brought their wives with them." When the regiment moved to Camp Machall (or Mackall) to begin intensive training, Cavanaugh brought his bride, Blanche, stashing her in the nearby town of Aberdeen. "We had to be at camp at four in the morning and weren't supposed to go home at night except on weekends. We worked until dark or even all night, but whenever possible, some of us would duck out." But Blanche remembers a gracious side to her husband's commander. "I've been kissed by him," she smiles. "He kissed every bride, and he presented me with a platter with the 511th insignia on it, which I've kept to this day."
"He didn't socialize much," Cavanaugh says when asked if the colonel had friends. "He selected some old timers he was familiar with to be company commanders, people he respected. He may have had close friends but I never knew of any."
Haugen's nickname, 'Hard Rock Haugen' ("Not to his face," Cavanaugh admits), stemmed from his reputation as a tough taskmaster. "He set high standards," Cavanaugh says. "At the end of each phase of training, he'd get up on a podium and give his famous cross-roads speech. 'You men are at a cross-roads,' he would say. He was always setting the example and insisting that we had to do better."
At Camp Machall, Haugen gave Cavanaugh leadership of a platoon in A company, which thrilled the young officer. But those high standards were always a concern. "He told junior officers, 'When you leaders fail to accomplish your mission, you are responsible for all the men you lose.' That scared the platoon leaders to death. If a man failed to jump, it was our fault, and some platoon leaders were relieved [fired] after their men froze in the door of the plane."
Basically, Cavanaugh insists, Haugen didn't want his men killed. "He wanted us to take care of ourselves." Once, after Cavanaugh became a liaison officer between Haugen and the regiment's division, he participated in a night jump in the rain. "As liaison, I had to hunt down the division personnel, get a message, and bring it back to Col. Haugen's tent. I came back soaked to the skin, feeling like the heroic character in Message to Garcia, and all Haugen said was, 'Dammit, didn't you have a raincoat?'"
Toughness and standards paid off when the regiment was deployed overseas to fight the Japanese in the Philippines. "We were given a mission to launch an operation to cross a mountain in unmapped, uncharted territory," Cavanaugh recounts. "It started out as a reconnaissance mission; we were trying to link up with the 7th Division on the other side." The Americans had hired some Filipinos who were familiar with the area to lead them and they led the troops into an ambush.
"The Colonel was with C Company, the lead company. We didn't proceed in a big column or anything; we were progressing in a series of leap-frog movements. On the second or third day, C Company was ambushed and Colonel Haugen and his staff were isolated and cut off." To the regiment's amazement, Colonel Haugen eventually fought his way through the mountainous jungle terrain to rejoin his regiment. One soldier wrote of the incident, "Only a man with Haugen's instincts and resources could have accomplished that feat. His superior training and physical conditioning unquestionably saved their lives."
For his men, the toughest thing about Orin Haugen may have been his death. On February 11, 1945, he was hit by a fragment from a 20mm anti-aircraft shell that the Japanese were firing at troops. "It caused a sucking wound in his chest," Cavanaugh explains. While accounts of the specific cause of death vary, Cavanaugh supports the theory that Haugen died when his wound exploded from a change in cabin pressure as he was being flown to a hospital. "He bled to death, but it shouldn't have been a fatal wound."
According to William Haugen Light, Orin's son, "My dad died of his wounds on February 22, 1945." He'd been taken to "the historic church in Parañaque with the bamboo organ where he was initially operated on by the regimental dentist." The surgeons were reportedly busy with other patients.
Col. Haugen was then evacuated to Mindoro Island, Light reports, where he was visited by his old friend, Colonel George Jones, later a brigadier general, then CO of the 503rd Parachute Regimental Combat Team "just before the 503rd was to jump onto Corregidor Island to wrest it from the Japanese." As he was being flown from Mindoro to New Guineas for additional surgery, "He had asked a nurse aboard the plane for, and been given, a cigarette. When she returned to his litter he had hemorrhaged and bled to death."
The loss was devastating for his men. "I learned so much from him," Cavanaugh insists, to which Blanche adds, "His men respected him so much." "It can't be," wrote one of them upon hearing of Haugen's death. "Not our Rock."
Steve Cavanaugh then and now with wife Blanche.
John Ringler (far right, leader of the famous Los Banos raid which liberated prisoners from a Japanese POW camp) and other members of the 511th remember Haugen as a serious chain smoker who lit every cigarette from the one before and even smoked in the shower.