D-Day was coming up and it was the 60th Anniversary. The 173d Airborne Brigade out of Vicenza, Italy was running the jump, which these days is a US military tradition. I was the battalion Air NCO at this time - had already done my last tour on a team - so I picked up the phone and gave The Herd a call. "You got space for us on the Normandy jump?" I could never get a straight answer from them, could not get them to commit to giving us hard slots. "Just show up," is what they said.
Just show up - that's one Hell of an Airborne Op Order.
Turns out that was the theme for the entire operation. Our group launched in private vehicles and of course a bunch of Harleys. Before we left I handed everybody a copy of their Hazardous Duty Orders and their jump logs in plastic document holders, and told them, "Make sure you've got your dog tags and your helmet." I spent five years in the 82d Airplane Gang before going down the street to Speckled Feces, and I anticipated all kinds of Regular Army Reindeer Games.
We spent the night camped in a hotel parking lot just south of Caen. It took the British two months to take Caen, their objective for the first day. They took it on the chin - the Germans were fighting tooth and nail with everything they had, practically pinning down the entire British Army while the Americans maneuvered on their flank.
I studied the terrain; this was the commanding high ground to the south, between Caen and Bourguebus, that became the ultimate British objective, more important that the city itself.
The next morning at a café on the other side of Caen we met with a group of British World War II veterans in their distinctive blue blazers and adorned with decorations, and their berets. We were in uniform, of course - BDUs and berets. We paid our respects to the Old Guard and moved on to our objective: Ste Mère Église.
On June 6th 1944 Ste Mère Église became the first town liberated in Occupied France. Nowadays Ste Mère - as she's known to American paratroopers - is a shrine to the entire Battle of Normandy and specifically to the Airborne forces who fought here.
When the aircraft carrying the 82d Airborne Division hit a cloud bank immediately prior to the planned drop zone, they veered off course. As a result the paratroopers landed directly on top of the town and the battle raged all around the town square and the iconic church.
We parked our vehicles on the outskirts of town - the streets were so jam packed with people and every description of vintage World War II fighting vehicle there was no way to drive in. Everything from US jeeps to German BMW motorcycles with sidecars, Kubelvagens, Sherman tanks, DUKWs, halftracks, you name it. I saw a quad-50 mounted on a 1/4 ton Dodge truck, all oiled up and lubed and shiney, looked like you could fire it.
A strange feeling overwhelmed me as I walked those streets - I have studied this battle in particular for so long, looked at so many photographs and relics in the Airborne museums at Fort Bragg and downtown Fayetteville - everything about the place felt so strangely familiar.
It became an almost out-of-body experience. Even though the people in streets were shoulder-to-shoulder and there was a festival air about the place, to me it seemed the streets were as empty as the morning of June 6th, 1944. I could see the place for what it was then.
The streets of that little French town were literally packed with tourists, re-enactors in World War II uniforms, D-Day veterans in their World War II uniforms, soldiers from all over the world - the crowd was a sea of berets - the French Foreign Legion was there pulling security in combat fatigues & green berets, toting submachineguns - and throughout there was this incredible VIBE
A sound stage was erected in the plaza in front of the church with a large screen showing clips from The Longest Day interspersed with footage of the events taking place at the memorials on Utah and Omaha beaches, and the British and Canadian beaches Gold, Juno and Sword, with the theme music from The Longest Day.
It was all about the veterans, of course. I had several memorable conversations, one stands out: "I landed over there, in that courtyard. There were Germans all over the place, and the sky was being lit up with anti-aircraft fire, rifle fire, machinegun fire, everything. I killed a German right over there, on that street corner. Here, let me show you something."
The old veteran walked me over to a ivy covered building, which was a pub with tables and chairs out front. He reached up and yanked some ivy off the wall to reveal German writing in distinctive Gothic lettering. "This was their headquarters. My company commander took about four of us in there and we cleaned out the joint. Then we went to the top of the street there," He pointed to the high point, across the street from the Hotel de Ville (French for City Hall), "and we set up a machinegun position, to get ready for the counterattack."
It was all so real. It was like listening to something as if it just happened yesterday. I was totally blown away.
We walked around in uniform the whole time we were there. It was like our uniforms were passports to this amazing hospitality that was happening everywhere. It was like being in V-E Day or something. The three days I was there I didn't have to pay for a beer the whole time.
At one point I was hanging off a bar waiting to be served and noticed seven American generals to my left.
Seven. General. Officers.
I hollered at the French barmaid, "Alor! quelques bières pour les généraux américains!" The next thing you know these generals are all hanging around me, slapping me on the back, saying things like "Hey, how are you? WHO are you? Stuttgart, huh? How are things over in Ol' 'Bigger-Than' these days?"
I could go on all day with the Ste Mère Église stories. Then there were the beaches, which were amazing in and of themselves - the foreboding cliffs of Omaha beach - and of course Point du Hoc. The place is just like it is in the pictures we've all seen in the books and in museums and now on the Internet.
Then there was the jump itself.
We went to an airfield outside of Cherbourg and met with the 173d. We all had our paperwork in our hands, ready to prove we are Airborne qualified and on jump status. They didn't even look at it. They just said, "Special Forces? You guys are over there. You've got your own bird. Chalk 21."
Rare StormBringer siting at a French airfield near Cherbourg, June 2004. Note the "Elvis-collar" look ...
They handed me a Xeroxed map of the drop zone and everybody in my chalk looked at me. Well the story of D-Day - especially for paratroopers - is lead, follow or get the Hell out of the way. There I was with a map in my hand and a set of master parachutist wings on my chest so it was obviously my turn to be in charge.
I looked at the map of Ste Mère Église and surroundings - I could have drawn them from memory - and said, "This is the drop zone - the 505th's original drop zone for D-Day - this river here is obviously the Merderet, don't fall in there - here at the trail edge of the drop zone we have elevated train tracks and powerlines so be aware of that. We're flying northeast to southwest, the town is due east of the DZ, so when your chute opens, turn and track towards the town and you'll stay away from the powerlines."
That out of the way, we did pre-jump training, then it was back to Ste Mère to the best rock concert I have ever attended.
The next day when we showed up at the airfield, our chalk had grown. Now we had a compliment of international soldiers; some Canadians, Germans and even a Turk. To make it even more interesting, the Germans and the Turk didn't really understand English, and they sure as hell didn't understand French. I whipped out the map and used hand and arm signals and one of our German speakers helped me get the point across.
That was weird, briefing German Fallschirmjaeger for a jump into Normandy. I guess the war really is over . . . that one at least.
Then it was time to get on the bird and do the jump. I was jumpmaster so I did a good old-fashioned 82d Airborne-style door check where you hang your entire body outside of the plane and enjoy the ride. That got some attention inside the bird. Then the DZ was coming up and it was time to get serious, give the jump commands and get my people out of the bird.
Then after we landed and turned in our chutes there was a big audience on the drop zone. A lot of the vets were there and of course it's all about the veterans. I was interviewed by a journalist who knew my brother and recognized my name tape.
The march back to Ste Mère was reminiscent of those World War II scenes where the townsfolk cheer and the women are all smiles. As I walked past a pair of French women one said to the other, "Qui allez-vous libérer ce soir, l'Amérique?" So I turned to them and fired right back, "Je vais libérer chacun de vous!" and that got me an "Oooh La! La!"
It was crazy. It was amazing.
Honor and respect to the Greatest Generation who fought the Big One, so that we can live in Freedom and enjoy the Good Life.
I'll be updating the D-Day posts all day - have to search through every storage device I've got floating around this place to find the rest of the pics from this journey . . .