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New Scotland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, May 21, 2009
Grand Marshall of parade has vivid memories of WWII combat
By Saranac Hale Spencer
VOORHEESVILLE Harry Sembrat entered the last major Allied airborne operation of World War II from a treetop.
Trained as a paratrooper to jump from 600 to 800 feet, he had to do so from 400 feet after the Germans heard the plans over the radio and knew the Allied troops were coming, he said. On the way down, he and another soldier, Michael O’Connor, tangled before landing in a tree.
Sembrat helped his comrade down and then used his reserve parachute to get himself soil bound.
Twenty minutes later the pair lined up with two other soldiers.
“A shot rang by me,” he said. “We all hit the ground.” Sembrat looked around and saw his fellow soldiers doing the same in the German countryside, then, he looked back. O’Connor “got it right between the eyes,” Sembrat said. “It was a sniper.”
The area was rife with German artillery, but American and British troops advanced and cleared it of Nazi forces, taking several towns and bridges over the Rhine River.
World War II saw the creation of airborne forces, which were still quite new in March of 1945, when Operation Varsity took place. General Dwight D. Eisenhower considered it the most successful airborne operation of the war.
Sembrat had requested to be transferred to a paratrooper division in an effort to find his brother he was the youngest of three to serve in the war. Drafted at the age of 20, Sembrat was first taken to Long Island to be trained in the 352nd Searchlight Battery before being shipped by train to California. There, he was granted a transfer to the 17th Airborne Division, 513th Parachute Infantry Division. He never did catch up with his brother, who was in the 509th PIR.
“It took us nine days to get over there, zig-zagged all the way,” he said of the trip to Europe on the USS Wakefield. Sembrat arrived in England in 1944 and had just sat down to Christmas dinner when his division was told that it was time to pack up and go.
First stopping in the village of Verdun, the division lost its first soldier, he said. They were then trucked in to the Battle of the Bulge, which, he said, was “quite different from training.”
After having three successful campaigns, Sembrat said, he came home in 1946. “They shipped me home on a little victory ship,” he said. It “bounced around like a cork.”
Returning to Syracuse, Sembrat worked for the railroad and managed a softball team, which led him to his wife, Nadia. “She was on the bench of the home team,” he said of one game. They will be happily married for 59 years in July.
She, too, is a World War II veteran, having served stateside as an Army nurse. “She outranked me,” Sembrat said, explaining that she was a first lieutenant while he was a private first class.
While Sembrat is honored as the Grand Marshall of Voorheesville’s Memorial Day Parade, his wife will be riding with the garden club. He chuckled, saying that she could very well handle the machine gun at the back of the Army vehicle in which he’ll ride.