Everyone has a dream or fantasy. Mine, for many years, was to jump into Normandy as an 82nd Airborne Division paratrooper. I had thought this since reading, as a small boy, a Life magazine article on D-Day. Sometimes dreams become reality, and I realized mine on the 40th anniversary of the mission, as the commander of troops for the 82nd Airborne on their first return to Normandy since June 6, 1944.
Having received approval from Maj. Gen. Jim Lindsay for the 82nd to return to Normandy for the anniversary, I began a year of preparing the handpicked soldiers from throughout the division. We established a reading program, as well as historical reviews. Each regimental unit and support element had to study the events and actions of their predecessors. My most personally rewarding task was to interview some key players of the division who were there in 1944. On several occasions they talked to my assembled soldiers, who would retrace their paths. These talks and history lessons transformed this task into a personal quest and homage to those men who had gone before.
Gen. James Gavin, though frail and somewhat hesitant in speech, clearly showed the fire and strength that made him the most revered of combat leaders. He addressed our group directly, said what a wonderful honor it would be to return, and that we were going to be successful on any battlefield because we were Airborne, and there weren’t any better soldiers in the world. When Gavin finished, we knew we would go wherever he directed.
Later, a veteran from the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, Bill Sullivan, told us that his most significant moment came in England when Gavin stood on a jeep hood to address the 505th and said, “I will not send you to Normandy. I will lead you there.”
I interviewed Gen. Matthew Ridgway at his home near Pittsburgh. He was in his 90s then and still active, engaged and enthused with life. He recounted training in England, and his confidence in the soldiers and their ability to overcome the worst of circumstances. He addressed North Africa, Sicily, Salerno and Normandy. At his kitchen table, he shed 40 years and spoke with immense pride in those he commanded. For all of his titles, ranks and positions, Ridgeway’s time as commander of the 82nd was atop his personal honors list. Looking into his dark eyes, combined with his direct delivery, there was no doubt in my mind that you would do what he told you to do and that it was the right and only answer.
Col. Ben Vandervoort spoke to us on several occasions; he lived relatively nearby in Hilton Head, S.C. He was humble, direct and matter-of-fact. You wouldn’t immediately realize he was a war god. He had great character and humanity, as well as a clear vision of what had to be done and how. Any soldier who served with Vandervoort knew that he was very special and made those around him better. He didn’t advertise that. He didn’t need to.
By late May 1984, our group got on the C-130s and headed to the United Kingdom to begin this voyage of remembrance. Each of the 350 soldiers had his own epiphany and realized the legacy he was tracing. More than one told me, referring to the D-Day veterans we encountered: “We will not fail you.”
Our force, commanded by Gen. Ed Trobaugh, assembled at RAF Lyneham, much as the originals did on their day of days. Other than a difference in aircraft – C-130s for C-47s – the scene would have been very familiar to the originals.
Many veterans of the invasion had followed us there and were at the airfield to see us off.
The aircraft were lined on the ramp, doors open, with each stick of fully loaded soldiers sitting under the shade of the wings, their equipment and parachutes in various stages of dress and undress. Ones and twos were lined behind the aircraft on the edge of the grass relieving themselves, an event all veterans said was an accurate reflection of their activities on D-Day eve. Jeeps were running back and forth with crews and messages. Myself, I could close my eyes and imagine what it must have been like. We were suddenly there.
Slowly, with full gear and under a historically incorrect sunny sky, we loaded through the rear ramps and found our places on the red nylon outboards and inboard seats.
I was in the third position on the stick, and the commanding general was at the eighth, where we guessed he would land mid-drop zone. As the airborne commander, I wore a headset connecting me with the pilot and crew. This event was drawing a huge crowd at Ste. Mère-Église.
I talked to my drop zone safety officer, Capt. Dave McNeil, from the drop zone. He indicated that the largest and most significant issue was people on the drop zone, and that the police were only beginning to deal with it.
I was called forward by the pilot just before takeoff. He was an older colonel who shook my hand and introduced himself. He said he had a special request. If it was OK with us, he would like to fly the course with the doors open as they did on the original run. Trobaugh said OK. I gave the pilot a thumbs-up. I had no idea why it would be important.
The engines revved up to takeoff and, with a sudden release, we were rolling down the runway. Though the noise and blurred images through the open doors were momentarily disconcerting, they brought a strange peacefulness and isolation to each of us. It was clear this was not an ordinary trip. If anything, we were in a time machine. I looked back on the troops, and each was looking out the doors, immersed in his own thoughts, distilled by all that had led up to this moment.
Before the jump, we briefed our plan and that of the original drop and had a number of Airborne veterans – U.S. and British – talk to us on the ramp. Among them was Vandervoort, my predecessor battalion commander on D-Day, and Lt. Gen. Napier Crookenden, who jumped with the British 5th Parachute Brigade that night. They displayed no bravado or ego, which might have been expected in the light of history. Instead, they joked and made matter-of-fact comments about the great weights they carried and the difficulty they had getting into the aircraft, the problems with relieving themselves once loaded, and confusion about who and what went on which aircraft.
One veteran described an incident where a Gammon grenade went off, destroying an adjacent 82nd aircraft and killing part of the stick on the ground just before takeoff. He said one of the shaken survivors emerged with remnants of people and explosives on his uniform, struggled toward the closest aircraft and was pushed in the door by the ground crew. “He wasn’t going to stay, and we weren’t going to leave him.”
Vandervoort said the 24-hour delay – June 4-5, 1944 – wasn’t wasted on much sleep. Lots of poker, craps, conversation, letter writing, rechecking gear and trying to get to the mess hall and back, eating in the pouring rain. Most of the sleep achieved was under the wings of C-47s in the early evening of June 5. They would pay for that later.
The original invasion aircraft, like our C-130s, took off in almost broad daylight at around 2300 British Double Daylight Saving Time and blended into huge circles until all were airborne, flying in a V of Vs south and east. We followed in their wake.
The veterans stood by the runway and waved at us as we passed. What a flood of memories they must have had, for the first time seeing the true size and magnitude of it all.
During the actual invasion, most jump aircraft had their doors removed prior to takeoff. This permitted the jump masters (the senior officer or NCO on board) to have an unimpeded view of the sea and land below. For Pvt. Bob Murphy, that was virtual daylight because the pathfinders departed at roughly 2200 British Double Daylight Saving Time. For the others, the full moon and receding twilight provided sufficient visual reference to the horizon and the channel below.
Vandervoort, commander of the 2-505, looked out from his position by the open door as the plane reached altitude and leveled off.
As I recall from my interviews, he put it this way: “I looked out, and as far as I could see in front of me, in back of me and off to each side, the sky was filled with aircraft. The V of Vs went to the horizons at all points of the compass .... All I could see was an immense trail of white wakes of the ships pointing toward France, the moon glinting off the barrage balloons tethered to them. I felt I could have walked to France and never gotten my feet wet. I knew then we were going to win this war.”
Gavin: “I saw the immensity of the power we had concentrated for this moment, the focus of all our resources and preparation, and thought to myself there wasn’t a force on earth that could stop us.”
Gen. Maxwell Taylor: “I looked out and was startled at the vastness of the air and sea force all moving steadily to France. It’s one thing to see it presented in a briefing and on paper but quite another to actually see it arrayed. I turned to my aide and told him to look at it and remember the sight; he would never see its like again. I then went to the middle of the aircraft and slept on the floor for a brief time.”
Murphy: “I looked out and said to my buddies, ‘The Germans are in for a hell of a night.’”
As our aircraft ran down the runway with each soldier in his personal world, I closed my eyes and replayed those comments in my mind.
Brilliant English green pastures passed below, then the chalky beach and the blue-black channel with high patches of white Monet-like clouds stretching to the horizon. A golden rising sun burned off the dew from the farm fields. D-Day, for us, was no longer in black and white.
The 250-knot wind coursed easily by the fuselage, enveloping each of us in a sensory canopy of personal reflections. Like me, each was in his own world, taking a trip in which we were well-versed but had never replicated.
We reached flight altitude. I was called on the headphones and asked a second time to go to the cockpit. Bewildered, I struggled there with all my gear. The pilot got out of his chair, extended his hand, looked me in the eye and said, “This is my last flight. I am retiring after this mission as flight lead and from the Air Force Reserve. Forty years ago tonight, I was flying a C-47 as flight lead for elements of the 82nd Airborne. Thank you for making this happen. This is one of the greatest moments of my life.”
I was speechless but returned his handshake, saluted and said, “Thank you.” I returned to my stick with a much clearer understanding of his original request.
The red light came on just before the channel coast. The other jumpmasters and I stood up, hooked up and looked at the sticks. My right foot was hooked in the open frame, and the wind blew briskly by my uniform and equipment. Each soldier in line – inboard and outboard stick, general through private – looked up, anxious and alert, awaiting instructions as they had done 40 years earlier.
The verdant checkerboard fields of Normandy swept by in a blur, and we went through the timeless rituals of jump commands. Stand up. Hook up. Check static lines. Check equipment. Sound off for equipment check. Stand by. The men all knew that not only were they jumping for the sake of history, they were jumping into it.
At the 2-minute warning, I placed both feet flush on the fuselage frame, reached out with my left hand, grasped the wind deflector and leaned out into the rush to confirm the drop zone. I was momentarily transfixed by the warm, humid air and wind-blurred vision. Then the landmarks became crystal clear in my mind. Vandervoort had said he flew his route on the map and aerial photos in his mind 100 times so he could pick out key features and ensure his bearings. This was prescient, because he had the pilot turn off the red light once when he saw the pilot had misread the landmarks. Had he followed the sequence, Vandervoort’s stick would have landed miles from their intended drop zone.
In the brilliant morning sun, I had it much easier than Vandervoort, and without ground fire. Clearly distinguishable below were the key 101st Airborne objective towns with their distinctive church towers, Ste. Côme-du-Mont, Ste. Marie-du-Mont, Utah Beach and the critical causeways.
To the north, Omaha Beach and the receding coast toward the British beaches could be seen. Then, suddenly, the patchwork quilt of Norman fields and small villages and bisecting roads appeared. Dead ahead: Ste. Mère-Église, with its dramatic church square. Just in front of it was a small curling stream of yellow smoke marking the drop zone. Clear spot! Thumbs up. Stand in the door!
The loadmaster stood to my rear with his fingers in front of my face, counting the last five seconds. Green light. Go!
We were jumping into a time warp. The first two jumpers were away, and I inserted myself in the column. I watched my chute deploy, straightened out the lines and looked down.
The drop zone was a sea of humanity. Women, children, men, police, soldiers running across the narrow fields. I couldn’t see an open spot to steer to and tried to move closest to the smoke. The drop zone was a series of small hedgerow fields designated La Londe that had been theoretically isolated hours earlier by the police. Within a couple of hours of the jump, however, thousands of French citizens converged on the area in a shared, intense desire to see this dramatic return and to touch the successors of those who came before and delivered them from tyranny. Troops who actually participated in the Normandy invasion are treated as gods on earth here, never to be forgotten, by the people they liberated. As surrogates, this first return, en masse, was a moment to be treasured.
In the air, I had this vision I always carried, of the Ste. Mère-Église church with its stained-glass window depicting the Airborne soldier suspended, knees raised, as the town burned. I assumed that pose for a moment of homage and then went about my business of looking for a safe spot to land.
Fearing to hurt someone and with no clear spot of ground to see, I tried to twist away from the closest mass but simply slammed into the ground, my parachute collapsing over several families. Still on my back, I was grabbed by several small boys, a man and a woman. The man shook my hand, and the woman, with tears in her eyes, quietly applauded. The boys grabbed my chute and helped me roll it up. I couldn’t see any other soldier. They were all surrounded, too. We accepted the heartfelt thanks of those whose parents and
grandparents could not perform the same act of gratitude 40 years before.
The 82nd Airborne had returned to France, but in truth, it never left, nor will it. The cemetery at Omaha Beach attests to that, as do those Airborne soldiers who now return annually to Normandy to jump in honor of the originals.
Retired Army Col. Keith Nightingale is a writer, historian and guide on walking tours of the battlefields of the Normandy invasion for active-duty military personnel, including those serving now in the 82nd Airborne Division.