DAYTON, Ohio — Veteran paratrooper Jim “Pee Wee” Martin, who jumped into Normandy on D-Day, returned to coastal France to mark the 70th anniversary of the invasion that changed the course of World War II.
Martin, who spoke in an interview ahead of the anniversary, remembers looking out in the night sky before making the historic jump.
“When we made our initial jump into France, there were a few cirrus clouds up above, just enough so you still saw shadows down below,” he said recently at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force here.
“It was just unbelievable to see as many ships as there were down there,” he said.
Martin said he hoped to leap from the skies again during the anniversary today.
“I truly would want to do that one, because there’s no other 93-year-old guy in the unit who can do it but me,” he said. Martin was a private with the elite 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division.
He said he and his unit were known as the “Toccoa Men,” because they attended basic training at Camp Toccoa, Georgia. They were trained alongside Easy Company of the 506th, later depicted in the “Band of Brothers” series. Martin said he was aware then that they were part of something big.
“We knew that the success was going to hinge on us. We were absolutely certain of that. Eisenhower was too, that’s why he made the decision to send us in, even though all the others didn’t want to,” Martin said.
Martin said he “never had a doubt about the success of the mission,” but had concern about what the human cost would be.
“I knew it was going to be bad,” he said.
He and his unit were among the first wave of paratroopers to jump into Normandy. They later jumped into Holland in “Operation Market Garden,” were among the defenders of Bastogne, during the Battle of the Bulge, and captured Adolph Hitler’s mountain retreat in Bavaria at the end of the war.
“Going into Normandy, it wasn’t so much scary,” he said. “Now going into Holland, we were different, we had already been there, and we showed more fear, but don’t let anybody tell you that he wasn’t scared going in to any combat, whether it was us or others.”
Men died all around him; the unit endured a lot during the war, Martin said.
It was terrible when his unit landed in Normandy, he said, because German paratrooper and SS troops were right where they landed. “It was a slaughterhouse on that drop zone.”
The plane ride over Normandy was typical, Martin recalled, but the pilots didn’t slow down and make a slight left turn, to protect the Soldiers and the equipment.
“As a consequence, we lost most of our equipment,” he said. Soldiers were also killed making the jump as well.
The unit’s objective was one of the most important ones of the whole operation, Martin said, to capture a pedestrian bridge and a vehicle bridge, both of which were put in a few months prior to let reinforcements down to the beach when forces landed on shore.
“It was paramount we get the bridges, which we did,” he said. But he said the unit lost all of its communication equipment in the jump.
“Division thought we had been wiped out, so they ordered the bridges bombed, and here we are right there at the bridges,” he said.
The danger was present every day as Soldiers were killed around him; he thought each day might be his last. Once you accept you might die, “you’re better off,” and can focus on the mission at hand, Martin said.
“You got to understand that you can’t let the fear control you; you have to do your job regardless of the fear, and we all did it. That’s what we had to do and we did,” he said.
Martin would “absolutely” do it all over again.
He enlisted in 1942, at the age of 21. He knew the situation was deteriorating in Europe, and that France and Britain were no match for Germany. Besides, men were being drafted and had to leave their wives and children at home.
“Here I am a young person with no Family to worry about and these guys are going away and leaving their Families. That did change me,” he said. “I went down, I had a deferment, I didn’t have to go, but I went down and signed up for submarine service.”
Not wanting to wait the months that it would be before the Navy finished the ship it was building that he would be on, he then signed up and shipped off with the Army.
When the Navy came knocking on his mother’s door saying he was a deserter, she showed the men the letters he had written home from the Army, and they reportedly said “’Well, that’s OK, he’s in, he’s in.’”
Times were certainly different then, he said.
Serving one’s country, he said, is part of the duty of living in a free nation.
“I don’t consider it a sacrifice. A lot of people said it was a sacrifice. It’s not a sacrifice. It’s a duty that you’re obligated to do,” he said. “If you live in a free country, whether you agree with what they do, if you’re called, you should go and do your very best.”
Martin is proud of the men and women who serve the nation today.
What advice does he have for the fighting generation: “Go in there and do the best you can. Be thankful that you have a country that will back you with materiel.”