March 21, 1920 (Spokane, WA)
William Richard (Dick) Laidlaw was born March 21, 1920, in Spokane, WA.
His family later moved to Dallas, Texas, where he attended Highland Park High School. It was there that he served in the citywide Jr. R.O.T.C. program and developed a lifelong love for bagpipes.
Although the town of Highland Park was named for its location on “high land” overlooking Dallas, the high school early on connected itself with the Scottish highlands. Its athletic teams were the “Fighting Scots”; its yearbook, “The Highlander”; and its school newspaper, the “Bagpipes.” This was fitting for Richard Laidlaw, who was of Scottish descent, his grandfather having been born in Scotland.
He later moved to Berkeley, CA, where he graduated from Stanford University in 1941 with a degree in history and began postgraduate study at the University of California at Berkeley. On January 5, 1942, he was inducted into the United States Army at the Presidio of Monterey, California, and attained the rank of Corporal with the Field Artillery. He was then sent to Fort Sill, OK, in May 1942 for a 13-week Field Artillery Officers Candidate School, from which he graduated and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the United States Army on August 4, having studied gunnery, communications, and tactics, among other subjects.
His first assignment was in August 1942 as Executive Officer of the newly-organized 241st Field Artillery Battalion, a 105mm howitzer unit located at Camp White, Oregon. Thereafter, he served as Commanding Officer of that battalion’s Battery “B” before being promoted to First Lieutenant on December 29, 1942. In that capacity he became Commanding Officer of Battery “A”, a position he held until June 1943, when he volunteered for parachute training at Fort Benning, GA. At Fort Benning, he completed the required training and parachute jumps during the four-week program, earning his wings July 29, 1943. He then trained briefly with two artillery units, the 462nd Parachute Field Artillery at Camp Mackall, NC, and the 407th Parachute Field Artillery Group at Camp Marshall, NC, before volunteering for overseas service as a replacement officer for the 456th Parachute Field Artillery Battalion of the 82nd Airborne Division. The 456th PFA was then in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations after taking part in the airborne invasion of Sicily.
Laidlaw left the United States by transport ship for the European-African-Middle Eastern Theater (EAME) on September 5, 1943, arriving at a Replacement Center near Casablanca, Morocco, on September 26. From there he traveled to the Fifth Army Airborne Training Center (Camp Kunkle) at Les Angades Aerodrome near Oujda, Morocco. The Center that later moved its operations to Trapani and then to Rome, employed a training program modeled on that of the parachute school at Ft. Benning. It played a key role in training American airborne units, Office of Strategic Services (OSS) operatives, pathfinders and French airborne troops for airborne operations in the Mediterranean Theatre of Operations (MTO). At Oujda, Laidlaw participated in the airborne training program for approximately three months, awaiting his replacement assignment as Assistant Intelligence Officer (S-2) of the 456th Parachute Field Artillery Battalion. During that time, the 456th, which had not participated in the campaign in Salerno, Italy, was shuttling between Sicily and North Africa for training exercises.
During the fall of 1943 and spring of 1944, the airborne forces in the Mediterranean area were badly in need of replacement troops because of combat losses, the departure of the 82nd Airborne Division, including two batteries of the 456th PFAB, for England, and the planned invasion of Southern France in August 1944. When the Training Center moved to Trapani, Sicily, in January 1944, Laidlaw was assigned to Company “D” until February 22, when he was sent to join the 463rd Parachute Field Artillery Battalion at Anzio. That battalion had been activated only two days before from the 456th PFAB’s Headquarters and “A” and “B” Batteries. Laidlaw reached his new unit and remained with it for the rest of the war in Europe.
On arriving at Anzio, he was appointed battalion intelligence officer (Assistant S-2) of the 463rd, which was attached to and supporting the First Special Service Force (Devil’s Brigade) at a location one-quarter of a mile southeast of Borgo Bainsizza, Italy. He replaced an officer who had been killed three weeks earlier by enemy artillery. As reported on the 463rd website by Martin F. Graham, who interviewed Laidlaw by telephone, “Laidlaw joined the 463rd while at Anzio. He was a 1st. Lt. in the Hdqts Battery as Asst. S2. He did surveys of possible positions. An officer of a neighboring division chewed him out for surveying in front of his position for fear of drawing enemy fire. Laidlaw did the same thing in front of a Japanese-American division and no one got on his case. In fact they invited him to join them.”
In the European Theater of Operations, Laidlaw continued to play his bagpipes. Maj. Seaton, his immediate superior during the Italian Campaign, recalls how Laidlaw would march around and play the bagpipes on the beachhead at Anzio. “It seemed as though a couple of times we would hear a few German shells go over about the same time. I am sure that it must not have been because of the pipes, but one day someone did ask me about it. I thought it was more a point of humor. Actually I liked it and I liked the pipes,” he said.
Seaton describes Laidlaw as “one officer you never had to worry about. He always knew his job and how to do it. In all aspects he was an outstanding officer and was respected by all.”
Following the loss of the two intelligence officers, who were killed on February 5, Captain Stuart Seaton, Commander of “A” Battery, was appointed Battalion S-2 and served as Adjutant along with his other command assignments. Laidlaw assumed the daily S-2 duties at Anzio and throughout the drive to Rome, from March 9 until June 14, 1944. Following those campaigns, he was promoted to Captain and appointed assistant operations officer (S-3) and was responsible for planning deployments and directing battery fire missions.
According to Marty Graham, “During push into Rome, Laidlaw was with Sgt. Hodge. They stopped their jeep on the outskirts of Rome and saw a German Volkswagen zip out from under a bridge, headed in the opposite direction. They had run into a long line of American tank destroyers near Colle Ferro that were stopped along the road. They passed the lead tank destroyers who were cheering Laidlaw's jeep on. About a half mile from Colle Ferro, they had a flat tire. Good thing that happened since the town had not yet been taken. The tank destroyer crews thought it a good idea to cheer a pair of paratroopers into a trap. (Laidlaw tape)”
The 463rd and the First Special Service Force were among the first U.S. troops to enter Rome and secure the Tiber bridges. Rome fell on June 4, 1944. Two days later, after 135 straight days of combat, the battalion went into the Fifth Army reserve for re-equipping and re-training. Eleven days later it moved into the Eternal City at Lido de Roma, a neighborhood district of Rome on the along the coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea, where training continued as they prepared for the invasion of Southern France.
The 463rd PFAB and 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment comprised a combat team of the First Airborne Task Force assigned as the spearhead unit for the airborne attack into Southern France. The 463rd, along with infantry units of the 509th, was to parachute into the vicinity of Le Muy, France, about 23 miles northwest of St. Tropez on August 15th, 1944. Divided into two combat units and departing from Follonica and Grosetta airports north of Rome in separate flights to better insure operating capability in case of losses, the contingent from Follonica, with Laidlaw as its operations officer, jumped at about 4:25 a.m. near Le Muy as planned.
As Marty Graham describes Laidlaw’s comments about the landing, “Asst. S3 in Hq. Battery, landed within 5 miles of Le Muy. Very dark. He took his chute off, found his cricket and tried to remember the password. Very careful at the beginning but within half hour was shouting trying to round up his men. Within an hour after daylight, found nearly everyone, putting batteries into place.”
The Grosseta group, however, was dropped some 25 miles away near St. Tropez where, acting as both artillery and infantry, it had to overcome serious enemy opposition. The two units of the 463rd rejoined near Le Muy after two days and took up defensive positions until attacking on August 20 with the 509th south and east along the Riviera coast to three kilometers east of Antibes on the 28th .
On August 30, 1944, the battalion was suddenly moved north to the Maritime Alps and attached to the 550th Airborne Infantry to protect the Seventh Army’s right flank and cut off an important German escape route from France into Italy. The enemy was well dug in and the mountainous terrain made it very hard for the operations staff to effectively position their gun batteries. Moreover, according to battalion records, “At one point, the battalion front was over twelve miles wide. The early onset of winter in October posed a particular challenge. Battery ‘A’ was in position at an elevation of 10,000 feet when a blizzard buried it in snow. The troops had to build sleds to pull their equipment to lower levels. In late October, the battalion returned to the coast near the French-Italian border to support the First Special Service Force, and on the November 18, the battalion was relieved and moved to a bivouac area west of Nice.
Early in December 1944, the 463rd traveled by truck to Toulon, France, and on to Mourmelon, France, by train, arriving there December 12, 1944. The battalion was billeted with the 101st Airborne Division at Ft. Mourmelon. On December 16, Germany launched a 55-division-strong surprise attack through the Ardennes Forest against the Allied lines with the aim of crossing the Meuse River and recapturing Antwerp. But first, they had to take Bastogne, with its crucial road network. The 463rd PFA was quickly attached to the 101st as artillery support for the 327th Glider Infantry Regiment for the race to Bastogne on the rain-and-snow-chilled night of December 18 in an almost 75-mile-long convoy. The next day they moved into position near the village of Hemroulle, Belgium.
Laidlaw, in a 2006 article published in the North Carolina Guilford Record North called Bastogne his “most unforgettable experience” of World War II:
The Bulge came as a big surprise. We were in bivouac, attached to the 101st Airborne Division, far from the front line, and we did not expect any action. After the Germans attacked in force, the big brass finally decided this was a big attack, so they loaded the 101st into trucks and we headed for Bastogne, a major road junction city where about seven roads intersected. The generals knew they had to deny that town to the Germans. The terrain in Luxembourg is forested and hilly with many streams, so the German tank attacks had to stick to the roads. If we could deny the Germans the road-based Bastogne, their attack had to bog down.
The truck ride was rough it was cold, snow was falling, and because the trip took so long, some of the truck drivers fell asleep. After we got to Bastogne, we deployed into defensive positions around the town. We were under siege for a week or so, but we never thought they were going to be able to push us out of Bastogne. We were there to stay. Right around Christmas Day, the skies cleared, and as I recall, a day or so later, we finally got air cover from our planes,
We were darned glad to see them because we were about out of ammo and some of our units had been overrun by the Germans. But with fresh ammo and some food and medical supplies for our wounded, we were able to hold out. Then Gen. Patton pushed north and finally got to us and from then on, we pushed the enemy back. And the Germans never did take Bastogne.
The Bastogne campaign ended in mid-January and was followed by a convoy and a four-week campaign in Alsace to defend against a second German counterattack, before concluding with a train/truck convoy to Tent City at Mourmelon, France, for rest and additional training.
After about a month of available showers, good chow, passes, PX supplies, new equipment, and serious training exercises, the 463rd, along with the 101st Airborne Division, departed from Mourmelon on April 3, 1945, enroute to Neuss, Germany and in support of the 327th Glider Infantry Regiment. The battalion completed its combat mission in World War II at 8:18 p.m. on April 16, with “B” Battery firing four rounds at enemy “trucks and personnel.”
The war with Germany ended officially on May 7 with the surrender of all enemy forces. After the German surrender, the 463rd was assigned as a police and/or occupation force in Germany and Austria, although training continued as the 101st was retained in Europe for possible movement to the Pacific and the war with Japan. Troops with high service points (length of service, campaigns, decoration, or families) began the process of returning to the USA as they were replaced by lower-point personnel from other airborne units.
In early July, the battalion moved from Bad Reichenhall, Germany to Saalfelden, Austria. Three weeks later, it traveled on to Joigny, France, by rail and truck convoy. Major Stuart Seaton commanded the rail contingent of 220 men and baggage, while the motor convoy of 55 trucks and 195 men was commanded by Capt. Laidlaw. On September 2, 1945, Japan surrendered, bringing the Pacific campaign to a close. With the war over, the 101st was no longer held in Europe for possible movement to the Pacific, and troop movements back to the USA increased.
The September 1945 narrative reports that numerous officers and men of the unit, including Laidlaw, volunteered for educational opportunities offered by the Army as they awaited return to the USA.
During the month four (4) persons from the battalion were sent to Army University Centers for Liberal Arts Courses. Capt. William Laidlaw and 1st Lt. Stephen Myers went to Glasgow, Scotland while 1st Sgt John Gates and S/Sgt Montaigne Van Norden went to Manchester, England.
In Scotland, Laidlaw attended St. Andrews University where he continued his bagpipe studies until mid-January 1946, when he departed Europe by cargo ship for the USA, arriving there on January 27. Following a three-month terminal leave, he received an honorable discharge from the service on May 4, 1946.
After leaving the military, Laidlaw entered the Foreign Service, where he served in Ecuador as Vice Consul, and in Mexico as Second Secretary to the American Embassy before being sent by the State Department to study economics at the University of California at Berkeley. He was next assigned to Oslo Norway, where he served as Second Secretary to the American Embassy.
He left the Foreign Service in 1953, returning to the University of California at Berkeley to complete his master’s degree, after which he taught civics and government to high school seniors and economics to students at Ventura College. In addition to teaching, he was also active in the community. He was President of the Ventura County Central Labor Council, coached the AAU swim program, served as President of the Oxnard Democratic Club and as chairman of the educational committee in charge of scholarships for the union and, together with his wife, prepared food for the homeless. He retired from teaching in 1978 to devote his time to gardening projects, swimming, bag piping, and travel. In 1989, he moved to Greensboro, North Carolina, where he resided until his death at the age of 93 years on June 1, 2013.