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Paratrooper veterans jump for D-Day anniversary in France

NORMANDY, France—We had been airborne aboard the World War II vintage C-47 dubbed “Pegasus” less than 10 minutes when our veteran jumpmaster shouted, “Get Ready!” We stood up, hooking up our static lines. Six minutes, three, one, and “Go!”

That was how close in flying time from our airfield at the coastal tip of Cherbourg, France, was to Utah Beach where the 4th Infantry Division waded ashore in the face of Nazi bullets and booming artillery on D-Day, June 6, 1944.

Seventy-eight years later, we were gazing down at the wide sands of Utah Beach from our troop carrier transport. We were flying in an airplane built before Operation Overlord, one of the final chapters of the Second World War in Europe.

Our author, along with other Legacy Jump members, in the C-47 Skytrain taking them to the D-Day landing zones. (Courtesy photograph)

Lurching forward in the pitching aircraft, we handed our static line off to our jumpmaster, a retired Green Beret lieutenant colonel. We each looked him in the eye and stepped out the door, at 100 mph, about 1,500 feet above the World War II drop zone where Pathfinders of the 101st Airborne Division jumped into France in the pre-dawn hours of D-Day.

They were the first paratroopers to land in France, and we were the most recent. I had come to Normandy to make jumps at D-Day drop zones, one for the 101st Airborne and the other for the 82nd Airborne Division. At that moment, I was seconds away from standing in the door and jumping.

Vaulting into the wind stream feels, I imagine, like getting shot out of a cannon, and my green, round military parachute snapped open with a jolt I could feel from my shoulders to my Corcoran jump boots. Under a good canopy, you could see Utah Beach on descent, but it was time to turn the canopy, and head toward a road that was the biggest terrain feature near the drop zone. I could see the verdant green farm land of Normandy beneath my boots.

Thump! I rolled in a wet bed of mown hay. Time to collapse the billowing canopy and not get dragged in a cold breeze. Ahead, lay a long walk for this baby boom Cold War veteran, rucking out 50 pounds of gear. The evening was wet like D-Day, but so much easier, in the absence of Nazi troops trying to kill you coming down in darkness and anti-aircraft cannon fire.

We walked into the village of Saint Germain-de-Varreville to toast our jump, and our heritage of authentic Airborne heroes of D-Day and beyond.

At chapels in Normandy, American paratroopers are etched into stained-glass windows like angels, and the blood from their wounded and dying of nearly 80 years ago are permanently stained into the pews.

William Faulkner observed that in the South, “the past isn’t dead.” He continued, “it isn’t even past.” It’s like that in the region that survived the Nazi Occupation that began in 1940 and lasted four very hard years. The Third Reich’s reign of terror began to end with the descent of 13,000 American paratroopers, joined by more than 6,000 British and Allied parachutists in the pre-dawn hours of Operation Overlord.

On the 78th Anniversary of D-Day, members of my non-profit group, the Liberty Jump Team, filed through the ancient church that 101st Airborne Division medics Robert Wright and Ken Moore transformed into an aid station while fierce fighting raged around them. We gazed, transfixed at the bloodstained pew, preserved like a holy relic from the medieval church at Angoville Au Plain.

“They treated wounded Germans the same as they treated wounded Americans,” remarked my buddy Bob Jimenez, a veteran of the 82nd Airborne Division from the 1980s. “It was awesome what they did.”

We were making a paratrooper pilgrimage across Normandy, dropping in by parachute on Drop Zone after Drop Zone that figured in the Liberation of France in 1944.  Marines have their icons, the flag raising at Iwo Jima, and siege of Khe Sanh. For airborne veterans, Normandy is our sacred ground. And we welcome others who embrace it.

Town after town we jumped at, we were greeted by the mayor, and French welcoming committees. On the 78th anniversary of D-Day, a week-long celebration, we gathered for photographs, and embraces from crowds, meeting great-grand and grandparents, shaking hands with children and parents. We were not in a tour group.

“We are not re-enactors,” my friend, retired Army Col. Stuart Watkins said. “We don’t re-enact. We jump. There’s a big difference.”

For veterans of military parachute missions, the World War II nostalgia-clad uniformed re-enactors that sweep Normandy during D-Day remembrance festivities are decorative, not operational. Our acts of remembrance, parachutes descending, remind people on the ground of the valor of thousands of troops whose task was to drive out and defeat Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich.

Our team is made up of Green Berets, retired and active, Rangers, veterans of airborne units. Some of our parachutists, like the Allies of World War II, hail from Britain, Canada and the Netherlands.

Watkins, a retired paratrooper and Ranger who awarded the Silver Star in Vietnam, was correct. Jumping is not re-enacting. It demands real-world mission planning and restored military aircraft like the venerable C-47 Skytrain transport, the kind depicted in the “Band of Brothers” epic miniseries.

Our journey across Normandy, arriving on multiple Drop Zones marked for landings on D-Day, began a few days before the 78th anniversary of the largest seaborne assault in history, and begun by what was the largest airborne operation ever with the paratroopers and glider forces of the 101st Airborne, the 82nd Airborne, and the British 6th Airborne divisions.

Unlike the D-Day troops, we staged not from England, but the airport at Cherbourg, a city on the strategic objective lists of Operation Overlord.

After safety checks, drills, and hours of waiting on weather, a few days into June 2022, we boarded our aircraft, “Pegasus,” and within minutes we were shooting over and past Utah Beach. Then, it was time.

“Stand in the door! Go!” retired Lt. Col. Dennis Harrison, our jumpmaster, called out as we tucked our elbows in and vaulted into the blue above the green checkerboard landscape. No one hesitated.

Dennis Anderson comes in for a landing at the 101st Airborne Drop Zone. (Courtesy photograph)

“No one comes to Normandy to refuse the door,” Harrison observed, with a grin. And we laughed. No one in our number would refuse the door. Not even me, and there were times I was scared enough.

Humor helps. A Velcro patch on the helmet of the jumper in front of me declared, “Stop Screaming! I’m Scared Too!” That  Russ Battiato, a 101st Airborne veteran from the 1970s, what a joker.

I was last in “the stick” line-up of parachutists exiting the plane. And I was relieved and happy my canopy was descending at a good rate.

Our designated Drop Zone was “Alpha,” near the town of Saint Germain-de-Varreville where the “Screaming Eagles” team of specially trained Pathfinders dropped in hours ahead of the main force to prepare drop zones for the arriving paratroopers with lights and radio beacons.

Before D-Day, the Nazis flooded swaths of the Norman landscape to drown paratroopers and mire troops coming off the beaches, and they fortified local bridges to keep the Allies bottled up. Weather, then as now, was not reliable. I smelled rain before I hit the ground, which came up fast, and squish!

“Are you OK?!” The voice was Rick Hersey, a Canadian. “Watch out for the ditch! It’s just the other side of the rise!”

Rick climbed from the ditch as I started bundling my chute, heart going like a trip hammer. Rain drops started pelting. With canopy stuffed into a canvas bag on my back, it was a matter of floundering across the wet field. How did D-Day paratroopers manage it in the dark, with or without weapons many of which scattered in the drop? They managed. Many were killed or wounded but they fought like hell.

As Eisenhower put it 20 years later, “The paratroopers created chaos, because none of the Germans knew where they were, and they were everywhere.”

The paratroopers, whose stories are recounted in films and books like “Band of Brothers,” “Saving Private Ryan,” and “The Longest Day” were scattered across Normandy because of thick fog and dense anti-aircraft fire that sent some of the C-47s plummeting to Earth in fiery explosions. Most got through.

Young men who trained to jump and fight together formed up in twos, threes, finally companies and battalions and wreaked havoc behind Nazi lines, securing hard fought ground for troops coming from the beaches.

In the rainy dusk 78 years later, an elderly French couple in a camper van offered me a ride, and I eagerly accepted. They easily could have been children at Liberation. The French people we met in 2022 were uniformly warm, and welcoming.

In the ancient, gabled town of Saint Germain de Varreville, we toasted with beer and cider provided by the community’s “celebration committee,” and Pathfinder Club. The mayor, and Army Reserve Brig. Gen. Dean Thompson, a paratrooper from U.S. Special Operations Command, formed us up. Together, they presented certificates in French stating that we jumped at “Drop Zone One, in the steps of the Pathfinders,” those storied paratroopers of World War II.

“The weather is similar to what it was on June 6, 1944,” Thompson said. “You’re to be congratulated for maintaining the traditions of the airborne.”

The jump, and the celebration that followed, flowed in part, from the organization skills of Jil and Dom Launay, founders of Liberty Jump Team, a non-profit that preserves the 82-year heritage of the Airborne. The first U.S. paratroopers formed up at Fort Benning, Ga., in 1940, little more than a year before America’s entry into World War II.

Liberty’s membership embraces paratroopers, veterans and active, and first responders and law enforcement, men, and women. Team members are Post 9/11 veterans, Cold War, Desert Storm and Vietnam War vets who stay in shape and train hard, with focus, to “keep their knees in the breeze.” A few hardy civilians, veteran family members and history enthusiasts are welcome, if they complete rigorous training.

“This isn’t paratrooper fantasy camp,” the group’s senior Jumpmaster, Vietnam veteran Butch Garner, states. “We teach the military method of exiting from an aircraft, and landing safely, because it works.”

In our “Week of D-Day 78th Anniversary Remembrance,” team members would perform military parachute operations for audiences with thousands gathered at a variety of the drop zones where the 101st and 82nd Airborne divisions dropped in the pre-dawn hours of D-Day. They held up through days of fighting before meeting up with troops from the beaches, Americans, British, Canadian and French.

“Have you been to the cemetery at Omaha Beach?” 82nd Airborne vet Jimenez asked. “Doesn’t it make you wonder? All the young men whose lives ended there, men who could have raised families of their own. Someone might have had the cure for cancer. Doesn’t it make you wonder?”

We did wonder, while we waited for fog to clear from our staging airfield for our second scheduled jump. We waited on June 5, 2022, like they did for D-Day, originally set for June 5, 1944. Meanwhile, our spouses waited in the cold and rain in a field called La Fiere about 40 miles southwest. They waited with thousands who gathered to watch C-47s drop veterans, and C-130 Hercules from active 82nd Airborne.

“Aves vous badge?” (Courtesy photograph)

The eve of D-Day 78th the crowd gathered where 82nd Airborne fought an epic three-day battle of lightly armed paratroopers against Nazi tanks. The paratroopers held the bridge, and blocked the tanks from overwhelming arriving Allied infantry with bazookas and small arms.  The order was, “We hold here. No better place to die.”

On our day in 2022 our Green Beret jumpmaster described our drop zone. “There’s a small river that divides the drop zone,” Lt. Col. Harrison said in his pre-jump briefing. “I want you to avoid that river.”

The fog lifted in Cherbourg, and the clouds parted over La Fiere and the smallish Merderet River. We boarded our semi-ancient Pegasus.

“We are on our way,” my friend Col. Watkins said, and with a roar we were airborne. It seemed like no time at all passed, and Harrison shouted, “Get ready!”

“Stand in the door!” Harrison called. “Go!”

Knees in the breeze, face in the wind, I saw blue sky as my chute popped open. I looked down and saw the small river. The view triggers a wave of exhilaration. A giant Dayglo “A” panel marked the drop zone. It looked like my boots were headed straight for it, and my canopy set me down gently, then plop! Turns out I did not hit any in the Air Force ground camera crew. The wind gusted and I was dragged until I pulled a quick release, deflating my chute.

“Welcome to Normandy,” our team founder, Jil Launay, said.

Lacey Carroll, a Drop Zone Safety Officer and teammate greeted me. “Winds are tricky today,” she said.

I watched one jumpmaster, Col. Jon Ring, run off the drop zone with his 50-pound chute on his shoulders. The rest of us walked. Our spouses, Julia Claire, Katie Watkins, and Patt Macias Jimenez, logged us in safe and accounted on their clip board lists. We walked in to be greeted by applause from hundreds of parents and their children.

“We came to honor your jump,” Normandy resident Jerome Dupouvoir, a team friend, said, bringing his wife, and three growing children kitted out as paratroopers in maroon berets.

Children walked up hopefully, saying, “Avez vous badge?” French, for “Have you a badge?”

Luckily, I had stuffed my pockets, and handed out patches from my old unit like Cracker Jack prizes, along with candy bars. The children’s smiles made me tear up. Kids, and some of the wonderful women of Normandy, stepped up to pose us with them for “selfies.” It occurred to me that our homage to our airborne brothers held meaning for these people, even nearly 80 years later.

From left (front): Bob MacDonald, Dennis Anderson, Dennis Harrison, Richard Ulrich and Mike Algeo. From left (back): Kyle Rogers and Paul Crooks. (Courtesy photograph)

After we jumped, many gathered at the “Iron Mike” statue at La Fiere Manor, dedicated to the American paratrooper. Joining French dignitaries were Gen. Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and Maj. Gen. Christopher C. LaNeve, commanding general, 82nd Airborne Division. Like a paratrooper, LaNeve sprinted to the lectern to share the “All American” division’s story, while the 82nd Airborne band played the Star Spangled Banner, and a French military band played “La Marseilles,” the anthem of France.

“We stand here in remembrance of this historic battle and to honor those who took their last breath on this hallowed ground,” LaNeve said. “Paratroopers of our past, present, and future continue to stand in the breach between darkness and light.”

“Seventy-eight years ago, paratroopers in a defining moment for their division, their country, for the Alliance, stood shoulder to shoulder with the people of France against oppression in Europe, and your paratroopers are ready to do it again if asked,” LaNeve said, noting that the 82nd Airborne paratroopers were ready at Fort Bragg, and ready in Poland just west of the war raging at NATO’s border with Ukraine.

The general’s words underscored why our team of came to Normandy, 78 years later, to honor those who gave so much, and lived, fought, and died with the creed, “Airborne! All The Way!”

Editor’s Note: The author is an Antelope Valley journalist of 30 years reporting locally who served as a paratrooper in the Cold War and embedded combat correspondent in Iraq. He trained with his non-profit, Liberty Jump Team, to parachute onto Normandy drop zones for the 78th anniversary of D-Day.

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