Days of Days – D-Day 1944, and Dad’s Day 2021

It’s worth remembering with Father’s Day coming up, that for a lot of us born during the Baby Boom, World War II was the war that our fathers and grandfathers fought and won ­— and they defeated Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan in winning it.

Father’s Day on June 20 falls just a couple of weeks after June 6, the commemoration of D-Day, 1944, the “Day of Days,” when the United States and its Allies launched the largest seaborne invasion in history, joined by thousands of airborne troops, all the vast effort to defeat Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich and end Nazi tyranny.

In the Antelope Valley, there was a time when a reporter could pick up a phone and interview a veteran of D-Day on the spot. Those days are mostly gone now, but not completely. For example, Navy man Art Ray, veteran of D-Day lobbing shells over the beaches from the cruiser USS Quincy, is still among us.

“The Quincy was a good ship,” he recalled recently in a telephone interview. “We cruised up and down the coast of France for two weeks after D-Day,” sending shells ashore to take out Nazi artillery batteries and troop formations.

Sgt. Daniel McBride, 97, D-Day veteran of the 101st Airborne Division. (Photograph by Julia Akoury)

Ray’s ship, the Quincy, went on to carry President Franklin D. Roosevelt on his journey to the Big Three Conference at Yalta, with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin. And Art was aboard the Quincy in Tokyo Bay when Gen. Douglas MacArthur and the Allies witnessed Japan’s unconditional surrender.

I spent my Army time in the Cold War dreaming of earning my jump wings, then jumping with other Airborne troopers in Europe, always aware of our heritage and the legacy of D-Day. Anyone with time in service and belief in our country reveres our D-Day predecessors celebrated in books and film like “Band of Brothers” and “Saving Private Ryan.” 

During the past 20-some years as an Antelope Valley journalist, I met and made friends with D-Day veterans who survived to long life. Most are gone now, but not all. They all earned our gratitude, along with their comrades who fought in the Pacific to defeat Japan’s empire that launched the attack on the U.S. naval fleet at Pearl Harbor. 

On June 5, 1944, Pvt. Henry Ochsner — of California City — was barely old enough to drink a legal beer. His youth a strategic necessity, he joined his 101st Airborne buddies to climb aboard the aerial armada of C-47 transports that would carry 13,000 paratroopers and glider troops to Normandy. As he was climbing aboard with 100 pounds of extra gear, so was Pvt. John Humphrey of Rosamond, an 82nd Airborne trooper who would spend a week missing behind enemy lines after the D-Day drop. He would be awarded the Bronze Star for valor. 

On the second day of the Normandy invasion, Lt. Kurt Ullman, who grew up on a farm in Lancaster, was flying his C-47 “Skytrain” to resupply 82nd Airborne paratroopers. With his aircraft shot up and engine on fire, Ullman ditched in the waves and was scooped out of the frigid English Channel waters by Sea-Air-Rescue. 

My father, Army Cpl. Carl R. Anderson didn’t make it to Normandy, but he arrived in England the day after D-Day, just in time to start processing Signal Corps invasion film, and classified photos of the V-1 and V-2 Nazi rockets and missiles that were raining on London, killing thousands of civilians. 

Lew Shoemaker of Lancaster waded ashore with the 1st Infantry Division, the famed “Big Red One.” With artillery screaming overhead and blowing Americans to bits, he said, “You may not believe it but you can actually breathe dirt for a while” if your face is pressed that hard to land. 

Lew survived to be a teacher and football coach at Quartz Hill High School, and never bothered to see “Saving Private Ryan,” saying, “I was there. Why see a movie about it?” 

All these good men are gone now. Memorial Day is how we remember them but I also know they enjoyed Father’s Day with family, because I know their sons and daughters from my generation who enjoyed the freedoms they fought to preserve. So that puts a few of our Military Appreciation Month days together — Father’s Day, and Memorial Day, and the memory of what America achieved in saving the world from the evils of Nazism and fascism. 

Soon after D-Day, Adolph Martinez of Quartz Hill arrived with the 17th Airborne. In a fight to the death, he was taken POW in the Battle of the Bulge, and escaped — twice. He became an educator and school principal and raised a great family, many who reside in the Antelope Valley. 

In March of this year, I met 97-year-old Daniel McBride, another 101st Airborne D-Day vet. He is yet another dad and grandfather honored this Father’s Day. I met him in Texas during Operation Lone Star, with a group of paratrooper vets who gathered to train for our own commemorative jump at Normandy, in expectation that the Covid-19 clouds will have cleared by next year.

And that is my D-Day tribute to the war our fathers won: a planned trip to Normandy to jump on D-Day next year. It’s my Father’s Day gift to myself, and I may even be joined by my son, Garrett, a combat Marine veteran who made the jump with us on the Liberty Jump Team.

McBride, whose jumping days are over, is kind of an elder statesman. At Memorial Day this year, he was honored, and featured in a documentary produced by Emmy winner Tracie Hunter, young enough to be his granddaughter, but accomplished enough to make her own parachute training jumps and make a documentary about McBride and other Screaming Eagles, “A Rendezvous With Destiny.” It opened in Ohio at the National Veterans Museum.

He was awarded three Purple Hearts for combat wounds, and a Bronze Star for valor. He’s nearly 100, but his memories of the long ago World War II are clear. McBride lifted off for D-Day with his buddies in the same model year of C-47 transport we younger vets would use to jump for our “refresher” wings.  

In the hours before D-Day, McBride and his “Screaming Eagle” buddies received a special visitor, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, overall commander of the Allied invasion, Operation Overlord, who would go on to be 35th President of the United States.  

“He asked me if I was afraid, and I said ‘No,’ because I wasn’t,” McBride recalled at a dinner for the Liberty Jump Team hosted by Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3066 in Corsicana, Texas.  

Parachute landing at sunset, Operation Lone Star. (Photograph by Julia Akoury)

Around midnight June 5-6, 1944, McBride and the Airborne troops flew into fog, scattering the planes across the sky above the French coast, with Nazi anti-aircraft artillery tearing into aircraft, crashing some in fiery blazes, but most making it through.  

“I was third in the door, and the pilot was already swerving,” McBride recalled. “Maybe 300 feet altitude. … I looked up, and I saw France coming at me. I looked down, and I saw canopy.”  

He was hanging upside down, one of his boots tangled in harness straps called risers. “I don’t know if I was knocked out 10 seconds, or 10 minutes.” He regained consciousness and sometime before sunrise, he connected with a buddy and a lieutenant. 

“We spotted a 1936 Ford painted with camouflage,” he recalled. “We thought it might be the French Resistance we heard so much about.” Next, they spotted the driver’s German helmet, and his buddy made a killing shot.  

“The rear door of the car came open with this square-head armed with a handgun getting out, and I opened up (with a submachine gun). It fired four rounds, and stopped, but they must have all hit him.”  

McBride took the German’s pistol, a 9mm Luger. They commandeered the vehicle, and later found the town of Ste. Mere Eglise — the first town liberated in Normandy.  

“That’s all we did on D-Day,” he concluded in a masterpiece of understatement.  

To honor these men, the Liberty Jump Team, a non-profit association comprised mostly of paratrooper veterans, makes its own commemorative jump most years on D-Day. Last year’s jump was canceled because of the pandemic, but the team is already preparing for next year. 

Liberty Jump Team also has provided all-expenses paid trips to Normandy for dozens of surviving D-Day veterans like McBride, and Jim “Pee Wee” Martin, who just turned 100. 

In March of this year, March 26 to be exact, a half dozen of us “retreads” trained as if we were back in harness at jump school on active duty. At a small airfield in Texas, we boarded a World War II vintage aircraft dubbed “Southern Cross,” a C-47 troop transport like one of the 2,000 planes that dropped thousands of American paratroopers over Normandy on the “Day of Days.” The lovingly restored plane took off with a roar, and we Airborne veterans were airborne again. 

“On your feet!” our Jump Master, a Green Beret named Kris shouted, then shouted, “Hook Static Lines!” 
Our static lines hooked up to the long steel cable that spans the cabin’s interior like a clothesline.  

“Check Equipment!” Kris the Jump Master shouts.  

“OK!” six jumpers shout back in chorus. We each tap the leg of the jumper in front of us.  

“One minute!” 

The C-47’s vibration, twin-engine roar and cold rush of wind can only be experienced first-hand, hands clenched to the door, knees in the breeze. Near sunset on a cool evening in a week punctuated by thunderstorm and tornado warnings, we were on final jump run. Jump Master Kris shouted final jump commands above the din.  

“Stand in the door!” and, “Go!”  

First jumper stepped out into the sky, and the rest of us followed in one-second intervals. The prop blast and breeze is blowing my cheeks sideways, my boots are set, hands on the door. 

Airborne Troops before D-Day. (Army photograph)

Next, I’m in rushing air, and I look up to check a green nylon canopy that blossoms like a giant mandala. The lines are slightly twisted, so I bicycle with my legs the way I was trained in 1973, and the thing straightens out nicely.  

At a little above 1,000 feet, sudden silence and a cool breeze hits me in the face. A panoramic view of Earth rotates beneath my jump boots. Exhilaration flows through the pores … even if you are 68 years old, like me. Back, under canopy, in the heady performance of confident youth. With eyes on horizon, I guesstimate last seconds, put feet and knees together, and drop to Earth in a heap, hitting terra firma like a lineman sacking the quarterback.  

My jump buddy, Klint Jackson, his gear bundled, trudges my direction and calls out, “You good?”  

“All OK,” I answer. At sunset, we plod toward the hangar at dusk, feeling our age a bit.   

The next day, a blue sky Saturday, we line up like many of us did in service a long time ago.

Our Liberty Jump Team wings are pinned to our chest by Sgt. Daniel McBride, veteran of D-Day, Holland, the Defense of Bastogne, and capture of Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest.  

Sgt. McBride saluted, shook hands, and said, “Congratulations. Proud to know you.”  

With our silver wings, both old and new, we were qualified to return to Normandy and jump in honor of the fast-vanishing veterans of D-Day, under peaceful skies, with our friends. 

Next year, 2022, the 78th anniversary of D-Day, I plan to be in Normandy, accompanied by my Marine combat veteran son, Garrett, who plans to train for the jump. Nothing in life is certain, but that would close out Father’s Day, and D-Day plus 78 nicely. 

Editor’s note: Dennis Anderson trained as an Army paratrooper in Cold War Europe during the 1970s and made more than 100 free falls with the 8th Infantry Division’s Coleman Barracks Parachute Team. He deployed to Iraq as an embedded reporter and currently works on veterans issues as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker at High Desert Medical Group.

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