2nd Lieutenant Charles A. Higgins, Jr. (1922–1945)

2nd Lieutenant Charles A. Higgins (Courtesy of the Delaware Public Archives)
ResidencesCivilian Occupation
Pennsylvania, DelawareCollege student
BranchService Number
U.S. ArmyEnlisted 12133749 / Officer O-1648625
European3264th Signal Service Company
AwardsEntered the Service From
Silver Star?, Purple HeartWestover Hills, Delaware

Early Life & Family

Charles Alfred Higgins, Jr. was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on July 16, 1922. He was the first and only surviving child of Charles Alfred Higgins (1888–1979) and Marion Dunham Higgins (née Marion Glenn Dunham, 1889–1971). His father, an English chemist, had immigrated to the United States in 1915 and eventually became president of the Hercules Powder Company in 1939.

Higgins moved to Delaware with his family shortly after his birth. As of January 1, 1923, they were living at 1612 (North) Broome Street in Wilmington. The Higgins family was recorded on the census on May 1, 1930, living on Du Pont Road in Westover Hills (an affluent suburb to the northwest of Wilmington), along with two servants: a live-in cook and a nurse. As of March 3, 1931, their address was recorded as 906 Du Pont Road (today known as 906 North Dupont Road). College notwithstanding, Higgins lived there until he entered the service. The Higgins family and three live-in servants were recorded on the next census on April 16, 1940.

Higgins attended Tower Hill School before entering the Lawrenceville School, a prep school in New Jersey. He began attending Yale University in the fall of 1940. His entry in the Obituary Record of Graduates of Yale University Deceased During the Year 1944–1945 stated that he was “member Davenport College, Yale Political Union, Delta Kappa Epsilon, and Westminster Church (Presbyterian), Wilmington.” He dropped out of college on September 28, 1942, to volunteer for U.S. Army Signal Corps.

Military Career

Higgins enlisted in the U.S. Army in Camden, New Jersey, on November 10, 1942. According to his father’s statement to the State of Delaware Public Archives commission, Private Higgins attended basic training at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, where he was assigned to the 1st Signal Training Regiment. He was promoted to technician 5th grade or corporal in December 1942. Higgins also attended Officer Candidate School (O.C.S.) at Fort Monmouth.

The elder Charles A. Higgins wrote that after his son was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant on September 13, 1943, he was assigned to the Signal Corps Photographic Center at Long Island City, New York, from October 1943 through January 1944, when he transferred to Laurinburg–Maxton Army Air Base, North Carolina. His father added that Lieutenant Higgins transferred to Fort Benning, Georgia, in April 1944 and to Camp Crowder, Missouri, in June 1944, where he remained until July. The statement indicated that Lieutenant Higgins shipped out from the New York Port of Embarkation aboard the S.S. Nieuw Amsterdam in November 1944, arrived in England the following month, and moved to the continent in January 1945.

Lieutenant Higgins’s Yale obituary provided a similar, but more detailed summary of his military career, though the dates vary slightly from the elder Charles Higgins’s statement:

attended Signal Corps Photography School November, 1943–March 1944; assigned to 195th Signal Photography Company, Fort Benning, as instructor, transferred to 167th Signal Photography Company, Camp Crowder, June–July, 1944, and to 16th Headquarters Special Troops, Second Army, Camp Chaffee, July, 1944; at Fort Monmouth August–December, 1944, when sent to England; went to France in February, 1945, and attached to 3264th Signal Service Photo Company.

By March 1945, Higgins was a member of Photo Detachment No. 59, 3264th Signal Service Company. That month, Higgins was assigned to photograph Operation Varsity, the airborne crossing of the Rhine at Wesel. The Rhine was both a formidable barrier and a potent symbol for the German nation. Operation Varsity incorporated the lessons of a significantly more complex airborne mission, Operation Market Garden, which took place six months earlier. During Market Garden, which began on September 17, 1944, paratroops attempted to seize numerous bridges in the Netherlands. Airborne troops secured almost all their objectives, but captured only one end of the last and most critical bridge: the road bridge over the Rhine at Arnhem. Operation Market Garden failed when the paratroopers at Arnhem were overwhelmed before Allied ground troops could break through to them.

Like Market Garden, Operation Varsity would be a daylight mission, accepting the possibility of higher casualties from ground fire in exchange for greater precision in delivering the paratroopers to their drop zones and gliders to their landing zones. Unlike Market Garden, however, the Varsity plan called for delivering all airborne forces—and ideally, having ground forces link up with them—on the first day.

The element of surprise had greatly benefited Allied airborne operations launched up to that point. That would not be the case with Operation Varsity, however. After the German defenders were expelled from the west bank of the Rhine, they anticipated that an airborne operation would soon follow. Though they could not be certain exactly when or where Allied paratroopers would land, the Germans moved significant antiaircraft resources to the Wesel area.

17th Airborne Division paratroopers disembark from trucks to board their C-46s on the morning of March 24, 1945. The man standing on Jeep at left may be a Signal Corps photographer. (Official U.S. Army Signal Corps photo 111-SC-253923, National Archives)
Paratroopers board a C-46 before Operation Varsity (Official U.S. Army Signal Corps photo 111-SC-253924, National Archives)

On the morning of March 24, 1945, at a field near Achiet-le-Grand, France, Lieutenant Higgins boarded a Curtiss C-46D Commando (serial number 44-77581) of the 47th Troop Carrier Squadron, 313th Troop Carrier Group. The aircraft, piloted by 1st Lieutenant Bert Leroy Blendinger (1920–1945) and 2nd Lieutenant Robert Maurice Weiser (1922–1945) had a crew of four and carried 25 paratroopers of the 513th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 17th Airborne Division, bound for Drop Zone “X” north of Wesel.

The flight engineer, Technical Sergeant Edward James Gardner, Jr. (1917–1965), later recalled that Lieutenant Higgins was unwilling to wear either the body armor or parachute he had been issued for the mission:

Before we had gotten close to enemy territory I had told him to put on his ’chute and [flak] suit, but he kept insisting he wouldn’t be able to take pictures if he had them on. I had even taken them back to his immediate vicinity and tried to argue with him to put them on but it didn’t do any good.

The C-46 could carry more passengers and cargo than the workhorse of previous airborne operations, the Douglas C-47 Skytrain. Paratroopers could also jump from a door on each side of the aircraft on a C-46, whereas the C-47 only had one. The main disadvantage of the C-46 was that it was more vulnerable to enemy fire because it lacked self-sealing fuel tanks.

Map of the route Higgins’s plane took to Drop Zone “X” (“Missing Air Crew Report No. 13420,” National Archives)
Roster of the stick of 513th Parachute Infantry paratroopers led by 1st Lieutenant Ray F. Laney. These men jumped safely from Higgins’s plane before it was hit (“Missing Air Crew Report No. 13420,” National Archives)

Higgins’s C-46 successfully dropped its stick of paratroopers and cargo over the drop zone near Wesel. Gardner wrote:

My ship was the last ship of our group and when we went in our flaps were lowered to cut down our speed and while they were down the ground fire must have hit the flap control because when the last paratrooper jumped I noticed the flaps didn’t go up. We were lagging behind so it seemed to me all enemy fire was directed at us. I threw the photographer on top of his flack [sic] suit and parachute and I fell on the floor alongside him and we both stayed there until the firing at us had ceased. When he and I stood up and looked toward the cock-pit it was filled with smoke.

Gardner wrote that the copilot and radio operator exited the cockpit while the pilot tried to set the autopilot to keep the plane steady. The order from the pilot to bail out was relayed through the noisy plane from person to person. Gardner continued:

We were between 500 and 600 feet when the order came through. I then turned to the photographer and told him to put his chute on and get out. […] I turned toward the door after telling him to put his on and out I went. The last I saw of him he was just reaching for his ’chute.

Technical Sergeant Charles H. Wendorf (probably 1921–1993), aboard another plane in the formation, wrote of Higgins’s C-46: “Two chutes dropped from the plane and the plane went into a bank and crashed just beyond the DZ.  The ship exploded when it hit the ground.”

The C-46 went down at around 1020 hours. Gardner wrote: “Since we were at such a low altitude when I jumped I didn’t have a chance to look around to see if anyone else had jumped.” He added that “the paratroopers told me they saw 2 of us come out, but one ’chute was a streamer” (i.e., the canopy did not inflate, possibly because it was damaged by fire). That unfortunate man was most likely the radio operator, Sergeant Emmett Leroy Wolfe (1923–1945).

The other three men, including Lieutenant Higgins, were killed in the crash. The photos that Higgins sacrificed his life to take were apparently lost, though another team from the 3264th Signal Service Company arrived safely via glider and took dramatic photographs of Operation Varsity.

A C-46 hit by enemy fire during Operation Varsity on March 24, 1945 (Official U.S. Army Signal Corps photo 111-SC-203659-S, National Archives)

In his book, Four Hours of Fury, James M. Fenelon wrote:

It took approximately nine minutes to drop the Thirteeners along with their sixty-four tons of mines, demolitions, medical supplies, ammunition, and radios. The cost to get them over the Rhine was staggering. In what a troop carrier historian would later call a disaster, fourteen of the seventy-two C-46s were shot down, five crash-landed in friendly territory, and another thirty-eight were damaged. One crew, lucky to make it back, gave up counting the number of holes in their aircraft when they hit 200. The aircrews suffered accordingly, with more than thirty killed and twenty-two wounded.

The original caption identifies these men as paratroopers of the 513th Parachute Infantry Regiment during Operation Varsity. The man at left has a curious mixture of British and American uniform and equipment. (Official U.S. Army Signal Corps photo 111-SC-203238, National Archives)

Operation Varsity succeeded, though at great cost. At Wesel and other crossing sites, the Allies surged across the Rhine. Nazi Germany capitulated six weeks later, ending the war in Europe.

The Wilmington Morning News reported that Lieutenant Higgins’s father was notified on April 10, 1945, that his son was missing in action. Journal-Every Evening confirmed Higgins’s death on April 26, 1945.

Lieutenant Higgins was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and according to his interment record, the Silver Star. Higgins was buried at a temporary U.S. military cemetery at Margraten, Netherlands. Following the war, he was reburied at the permanent cemetery there, now known as the Netherlands American Cemetery (Plot N, Row 7, Grave 17). 2nd Lieutenant Weiser and Sergeant Wolfe’s bodies also rest there.

Statement by Technical Sergeant Edward James Gardner, Jr., the sole survivor of C-46D 44-77581 (“Missing Air Crew Report No. 13420,” National Archives)
Questionnaire about Lieutenant Higgins filled out by Technical Sergeant Edward J. Gardner, Jr. (“Missing Air Crew Report No. 13420,” National Archives)

Crew of C-46D 44-77581 on March 24, 1945

The following list was adopted from Missing Air Crew Report No. 13420 with grade, name, service number, position, and status (killed in action or returned to duty). The paratroopers, who jumped before the plane was hit, are omitted.

1st Lieutenant Bert Leroy Blendinger, O-677232 (pilot) – K.I.A.

2nd Lieutenant Robert Maurice Weiser, O-765558 (copilot) – K.I.A.

Technical Sergeant Edward James Gardner, Jr., 15085067 (aerial engineer) – R.T.D.

Sergeant Emmett Leroy Wolfe, 33603438 (radio operator) – K.I.A.

2nd Lieutenant Charles A. Higgins, Jr., O-1648625 (photographer) – K.I.A.


Parents’ Citizenship

Higgins’s parents married in Wilmington on June 4, 1921. Although she was born in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, under the Expatriation Act of 1907, Marion Higgins lost her American citizenship by marrying a man who was not an American citizen. The law was repealed in 1922 and she applied for naturalization in 1923. Charles A. Higgins, Sr. became a citizen in 1931.


Higgins’s parents had at least one other child who was stillborn in Philadelphia on January 7, 1926.


Thanks to the Delaware Public Archives for the use of their photo.


“C. A. Higgins, Jr. Missing in Action; 2 Dead, 2 Hurt.” Wilmington Morning News, April 11, 1945. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/114755402/charles-higgins-mia-1/, https://www.newspapers.com/clip/114755752/charles-higgins-mia-2/

“Charles A. Higgins, 90, Hercules ex-chief, dies.” The Morning News, March 13, 1979. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/114753887/charles-a-higgins-sr-obit/

“City Sergeant Dies in Sinking Of Prison Ship.” Journal-Every Evening, April 26, 1945. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/89105785/eisenman-killed-pg-1/https://www.newspapers.com/clip/89105923/eisenman-killed-pg-2/

Delaware Marriages. Bureau of Vital Statistics, Hall of Records, Dover, Delaware. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/1673/images/31297_212296-00685

Emmett L. Wolfe Individual Deceased Personnel File. Courtesy of U.S. Army Human Resources Command.

Fenelon, James M. Four Hours of Fury: The Untold Story of World War II’s Largest Airborne Invasion and the Final Push into Nazi Germany. Scribner, 2019.

Fifteenth Census of the United States, 1930. Record Group 29, Records of the Bureau of the Census. National Archives at Washington, D.C. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/6224/images/4531891_00654

Headstone Inscription and Interment Records for U.S. Military Cemeteries on Foreign Soil, 1942–1949. Record Group 117, Records of the American Battle Monuments Commission, 1918–c. 1995. National Archives at Washington, D.C. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/9170/images/42861_1521003239_0889-00077

Higgins, Charles A. Charles Alfred Higgins (Jr.) Individual Military Service Record, February 28, 1946. Record Group 1325-003-053, Record of Delawareans Who Died in World War II.  Delaware Public Archives, Dover, Delaware. https://cdm16397.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p15323coll6/id/19122/rec/24

“Mrs. Higgins Dies; Headed Jr. League.” Evening Journal, September 27, 1971. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/114754101/marion-dunham-higgins-obit/

Naturalization Petitions of the U.S. District and Circuit Courts For the District of Delaware, 1795–1930. Record Group 21, Records of District Courts of the United States. National Archives at Washington, D.C. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/1193/images/M1644_16-0140

Obituary Record of Graduates of Yale University Deceased During the Year 1944–1945. Bulletin of Yale University, January 1946. http://digital.library.yale.edu/digital/collection/1004_8/id/17451/rec/2 

Pennsylvania Death Certificates, 1906-1968. Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/5164/images/42342_2421406259_0604-01138

Petitions for Naturalizations, 1802–9/30/1991. Record Group 21, Records of District Courts of the United States. National Archives at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/61336/images/47292_302022005448_2044-01004

“The Rhine Crossing.” Record Group 498, Records of Headquarters, European Theater of Operations, United States Army (World War II). National Archives at College Park, Maryland. https://www.fold3.com/image/291737856

Sixteenth Census of the United States, 1940. Record Group 29, Records of the Bureau of the Census. National Archives at Washington, D.C. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/2442/images/m-t0627-00545-00935

Swartz, Maynard T. “Missing Air Crew Report No. 13420.” March 26, 1945. Record Group 92, Records of the Office of the Quartermaster General, 1774–1985. The National Archives at College Park, Maryland. https://catalog.archives.gov/id/91141929?objectPage=2

World War II Army Enlistment Records. Record Group 64, Records of the National Archives and Records Administration. National Archives at College Park, Maryland. https://aad.archives.gov/aad/record-detail.jsp?dt=893&mtch=1&cat=all&tf=F&q=12133749&bc=&rpp=10&pg=1&rid=573117

WWII Draft Registration Cards for Delaware, 10/16/1940–3/31/1947. Record Group 147, Records of the Selective Service System. National Archives at St. Louis, Missouri. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/2238/images/44003_11_00003-00433

Article last updated on March 24, 2023

Last updated on March 24, 2023

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