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Dropping into Normandy: First-Hand Accounts of the D-Day Airborne Invasion

WWII

Dropping into Normandy: First-Hand Accounts of the D-Day Airborne Invasion

These are the personal stories of the American D-Day airborne jump, and the paratroopers that managed to pull victory from the jaws of defeat.

These are the personal stories of the American D-Day airborne jump, and the paratroopers that managed to pull victory from the jaws of defeat.

By Kevin M. Hymel

What was it like to parachute into Normandy in the opening minutes of June 6, 1944—D-Day? Almost 1,000 C-47 transport planes delivered more than 13,000 paratroopers of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions from the skies above northern France. Each plane carried up to 16 paratroopers, each weighed down with 125 to 150 pounds of gear.

When a plane neared its drop zone the pilot turned on a red light near the open back door. At the order “stand up, hook up, equipment check,” the paratroopers stood up, hooked their static lines to the anchor cable running down the length of the cabin, and checked the gear of the man in front of them. They then waited for the red light to turn green.

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The following is a compilation of the experiences of more than 80 paratroopers who survived parachuting into Normandy, from the jump to the drop to the landing.

The Jump

When the light flashed green the jumpmaster shouted “Go!” and the men pushed out the open door. Most men made it out without incident.

David Kenyon Webster, 101st Airborne Division: “I shuffled up, glancing down and stopped, dumbfounded. All I could see was water, miles and miles of water. But this was D-Day and nobody went back to England, and a lot of infantry riding in open barges seasick to the low-tide beaches were depending on us to draw the Germans off the causeways and gun batteries, and so … I grabbed both sides of the door and threw myself out.”

Elmo Bell, 82nd Airborne Division: “I turned to Zeitner to tell him that we were gaining altitude, and when I called his name, he went out the door. Well, realizing that my calling his name had triggered his jump, I jumped, too—and, of course, the rest of the stick followed me out.”

An American paratrooper floats to earth during a practice jump in 1942. Before dawn on June 6, 1944, paratroopers would be much more heavily equipped.

An American paratrooper floats to earth during a practice jump in 1942. Before dawn on June 6, 1944, paratroopers would be much more heavily equipped.

Burt Collier, 101st: “When the light came on I already had my head and part of me out of the plane, and then I was knocked out the door and gone.”

Others experienced a quick change from the noisy plane to the relatively quiet night.

Robert Webb, 101st: “When I cleared the door, the plane was bucking like a crazy horse, and the tracers were so thick it looked like a wall of flame.”

William Walton, TIME war correspondent: “I plunged out of the plane door happy to be leaving a ship that was heading toward flak and more Germans.”

Kenneth Moore, 101st: “The plane started bucking and jumping, and as [a fellow paratrooper] fell down the green light came on. They were all jumping, and he was scrambling trying to get out the door, so I grabbed him and pitched him out the door.”

Ken Russell, 82nd: “As we left the plane we had flak, machine-gun fire and everything else all the way down, because we were sitting targets.”

Tom Pocella, 82nd: “With the roar of the engines in my ears, I was out the door and into the silence of the night. I realized I had made the jump into darkness.”

Turk Seelye, 82nd: “After I left the door, the plane nosed downward, and I watched the tail pass a few feet over my head.”

Men of the 82nd adjust gear before boarding their transports on June 5, 1944.

Men of the 82nd adjust gear before boarding their transports on June 5, 1944.

Donald Burgett, 101st: “Doubled up and grasping my reserve chute, I could feel the rush of air, hear the crackling of the canopy as it unfurled, followed by the sizzling suspension lines, then the connector links whistling past the back of my helmet.”

Other paratroopers had trouble getting out the door. Some had to deal with other paratroopers’ illnesses.

Leslie Kick, 82nd: “Then we’re going out, slipping on puke but keeping our balance by holding tight to the static line snap.”

Ed Boccafogli, 82nd: “I fell out. I slipped on vomit. Some guys were throwing up from nerves, and as we pivoted out my feet went out from under me, and I went upside down.”

German fire made it difficult for some men to get out of their planes.

Virgil Danforth, 101st: “As we stood in the door, ready to jump, our plane took a close one, which threw men down in the door in such a way that my head was outside and my shoulder was inside and I was wedged in this position so I couldn’t get up. With the help of the man behind me, I finally managed to dive head first out of the door.”

Harry Mole, 101st: “I stepped into the door and was about to go out when the plane lurched and threw me past the opening, back toward the tail. I got to my feet quickly and grabbed the door’s edge with all my might.”

Dan Furlong, 82nd: “There were static lines and parachutes all over the place. I thought the plane was going to crash, and I was screaming for the guys to get out, and they finally got the message and went. I was the last out. I fell in [a] hole in the floor with one leg before I got to the door, then I just dove out head first.”

Ray Grossman, 82nd: “The green light went on and we threw out the first door load. The pilot tipped the plane to the right and put me and the first man in the stick on the floor.  When we got straightened out and jumped, the first door load couldn’t be found until noon the next day.”

Clarence McKelvey, 82nd: “The pilot jerked the plane again. Corporal Bates flew out the door—I flew out the door—head first, ass over teacups.”

Jack Schlegel, 82nd: “I recall that I was the … last to leave the plane … the plane was going down. I moved as fast as I could to get out and, after bailing out, saw the plane go up in a ball of flame.”

Others tried to survive when their plane tilted 180 degrees onto its side.

Louis E. Traux, 101st: “My left shoulder crashed into a window.… I was surprised the window didn’t break.” Once the plane was righted, “I was appalled at the view which greeted me—I was the only one standing. Four men lay in a tangled heap on the floor. One man dived out the door first. I stepped over the top of two men. The closest man to the door crawled out head first. I grabbed the ammo belt of the man I thought was next and gave him a heave out nose first. The next man made it crawling on his own power.”

Richard Gleason, 101st: “As I stood near the door, a shell exploded under the left wing, and the old ’47 did a handstand on the right wing tip, and I was thrown back across the cabin. There was a mad scramble to get out the door, but I was able to get there first, so I didn’t get tangled in any static lines.”

Harold Canyon, 82nd: “Just as I approached the door, the top of the airplane opened up.  It had been hit by some type of explosive shell. As I turned into the doorway, the plane started a right wing dip going into its death spiral. It took everything I had to get over the threshold. It seemed to me the threshold was just a little more than chest high as I rolled over and got out. I was the last man out of the plane.”

One man, Thomas Rogers of the 82nd, made it out of his plane but did not fall far. His reserve pack flew open inside the plane. According to a witness, “He scooped it up and held it bundled against his waist. Over the drop zone, six men piled out but, as Rogers shuffled down the aisle, the bundled chute trickled free and caught on a piece of the seat. He jumped anyway, but the 450-pound tensile strength suspension lines refused to give an inch and he found himself suspended 600 feet over hostile territory.” Six following paratroopers dove on top of him, trying to break him loose. “Rogers seemed resigned to exist as a pendulum.” A final paratrooper landed on him and broke him loose as “Rogers’ static line snapped taut and ripped off his pack cover. His main chute line blossomed and, shortly after, a bruised and battered paratrooper was on the prowl for the Wehrmacht.”

The Drop

Having cleared the plane, the paratroopers’ parachutes popped opened while the enemy took aim. Some men’s chutes opened so low to the ground that they did not even notice the drop.

Clarence McKelvey: “We didn’t know how high we were, but I felt three things in succession—my helmet popped off my head, I felt my chute open, and I looked down and there was ground.”

David Rogers, 101st: “When my parachute opened, I was directly above the steeple of the church in Saint Marie du Mont. The moon was full, and there were scattered clouds which made everything on the ground easy to see. When I looked down, I saw Saint Marie du Mont. It looked just like the picture I had studied so intensely at Uppottery.”

Ralph Robins, 101st: “I passed through a cloud, which I thought was ground fog, expecting to land at any moment. However, after passing through the cloud, I could see the moonlight reflecting on a large body of water. There was land nearby but no wind.”

John Taylor, 101st: “I got out good, my chute opened, and I checked it.… I looked down and saw a haze. I assumed this haze was on the ground and braced myself to land. When I passed through the haze, to my surprise I was still a good 600 feet up. At that point I could see what looked like spots on the ground and a mirror—a large area of water.”

Brigadier General James Gavin, 82nd: “After about a three-second delay, we went out, small-arms fire was coming up from the ground when the chute opened—just general shooting all over the area. Off to the right of the line of flight there was considerable apparent gunfire and flak. I figured that it probably was in the vicinity of Etienville, where there was supposed to be located the only known heavy AA installations in the area.”

Some of the men’s planes were flying too fast for a safe jump. The result was a harrowing opening shock when their parachutes deployed.

Ed Tipper, 101st: “The opening shock was so great, it ripped my musette bag off.”

Dick Winters, 101st: “Tore my leg bag off, along with virtually every bit of equipment I was carrying.”

Their faces displaying a variety of emotions, these paratroopers from the 101st Airborne prepare to take off in a C-47 “Skytrain” on D-Day.

Their faces displaying a variety of emotions, these paratroopers from the 101st Airborne prepare to take off in a C-47 “Skytrain” on D-Day.

Tom Pocella: “As the chute popped open, my head snapped forward and my feet came up. My helmet was pushed over my face.”

Marion Grodowski, 101st: “I had a violent opening shock. A .45 pistol that I had holstered on my hip, as well as my canteen, tore away. I looked up and saw a blown panel in my parachute.”

Elmer Brandenberger, 101st: “The opening shock tore the rifle from my grasp. I can still remember the thought flashing through my mind that it would hit some damned Kraut and bash in his head.”

Ray Aebischer, 101st: “The jolt from the opening shock was more intense than usual. At the same second the chute opened, my leg pack broke loose from the straps around my leg. All of my equipment, except one trench knife and a canteen of water attached to my cartridge belt, went plummeting to the ground, never to be seen again.”

Benjamin Vandervoort, 82nd: “It tore off my musette bag and snapped blinding flashes in front of my eyes. We were too high and drifted away from our drop zone.”

Donald Burgett: “Instinctively the muscles of my body tensed for the opening shock, which nearly unjointed me when the canopy blasted opened. From the time I left the door till the chute opened, less than three seconds had elapsed.”

Turk Seelye, 82nd: “As the prop blast forced air into my chute, I got the strongest opening shock ever. The chute opened with such a violent jolt that a Beretta pistol I took from an Italian naval officer in Sicily was torn loose, along with my new safety razor.”

David Kenyon Webster: “Suddenly a giant snapped a whip with me on the end, my chute popped open, and I found myself swinging wildly in the wind. Twisted in the fall, my risers were unwinding and spinning me around. They pinned my head down with my chin on the top of my rifle case and prevented me from looking up and checking my canopy. I figured that everything was all right because at least I was floating free in the great silence that always followed the opening shock. For several seconds, I seemed to be suspended in the sky, with no downward motion, and then all at once the whole body of water whirled and rushed up at me.”

Guerdon Walthall, 101st: “When my chute popped open, I thought it was torn in half. I felt a wrench at my leg. When I looked down, my leg pack was gone…. All I could see were tracers racing from every corner of every hedgerow and the boom of mortars and 88s on the field below.”

Leslie P. Cruise, 82nd: “The chute tightened in my crotch as the planes droned overhead, and I knew my chute had opened though I could hardly look up to see it. I had suddenly slowed as the chute fully opened and I floated in space.… The staccato sound of machine-gun fire broke my trance. It was to the left. No, it was to my right as I kept turning in my chute. I couldn’t tell where it was coming from.”

Some men narrowly missed being hit by their own planes and comrades.

Roy King, 82nd: “I was fascinated by the sight of the tracers flying around everywhere when I saw a huge explosion blossom directly below me.… A plane between me and the ground. No, it was not in trouble, I was! I was above the stream of airplanes that had just dropped their troopers and equipment. My immediate concern was that I could be chopped to pieces by the propellers of the oncoming planes. I was trying furiously to turn and face the oncoming planes in order to be able to see how to safely maneuver through them. I dropped safely through them in spite of my near-hysterical struggles.”

William Dunfee, 82nd: “Looking around, I spotted Jim Beavers next to me and our equipment bundle off to one side. Then, looking down, I saw C-47s flying below us. That scared the hell out of me, and I started cussing them. I didn’t want to be turned into hamburger by our own air force.… While descending, I regained my composure, since it appeared we were going to make it down in one piece.”

Charles Miller, 82nd: “It looked like a great big Fourth of July celebration. The whole sky was lit up like a big show.”

Roy Zerbe, 101st: “The sky was filled with fire, and it looked like the Fourth of July. I would guess we were low, at about 500 feet. I could see fires off in the distance.”

Guy Remington, 101st: “The black Normandy pastures tilted and turned far beneath me. The first German flare came arching up, and instantly machine guns and forty-millimeter guns began firing from the corners of the fields, stripping the night with yellow, green, blue, and red tracers. I pitched down through a wild Fourth of July. Fire licked through the sky and blazed around the transports heaving high overhead. I saw some of them go plunging down in flames. One of them came down with a trooper, whose parachute had become caught in the tailpiece, streaming out behind. I heard a loud gush of air: a man went hurtling past, only a few yards away, his parachute collapsed and burning. Other parachutes, with men whose legs had been shot off slumped in the harness, floated gently toward the earth.”

Edward C. Krause, 82nd: “While descending, four ships passed under me and I really sweated that out.”

Others remembered the intense German fire rising up to greet them.

Clancy Lyall, 101st: “The Germans opened up on us with artillery and small-arms fire while we were still in the sky. The flak was so thick you could walk down on it.”

Jim “Pee-Wee” Martin, 101st: “I stepped out to meet a ladder of flak and tracers. Thank God, I missed all the rungs on the way down.”

Frank Brumbaugh, 82nd: “I couldn’t see much of the ground—it was more or less of a blur—but I watched all these tracers and shell bursts and everything in the air around me. A stream of tracers, obviously from a machine gun, looked like it was coming directly at me. Intellectually, I knew I could not be seen from the ground under my camouflage chute, but the stream of tracers still came directly at me. It was obviously a futile, but normal, gesture, I guess. I spread my legs widely and grabbed with both hands at my groin as if to protect myself. Those machine gun bullets traced up the inside of my leg, missed my groin but split my pants, dropping both my cartons of Pall Mall cigarettes onto the soil of France.”

All that remained of a C-47 that crashed and burned in Normandy. A number of paratroopers recalled barely escaping their transports when they were hit by enemy flak or seeing other transports going down with all aboard.

All that remained of a C-47 that crashed and burned in Normandy. A number of paratroopers recalled barely escaping their transports when they were hit by enemy flak or seeing other transports going down with all aboard.

Earl McClung, 101st: “It was horrific. It looked like everything was coming right between your eyes. There were Germans all around. Machine-gun rounds, small arms, tracers.”

John Walsh, 82nd: “I thought the Jerry gunner was going to shoot my feet off—tracers just missing. I slipped away, but he kept right at it.”

Thomas Rhodes, 101st: “I was hit as I went out the door over Sainte-Mère-Église but was able to count seven chutes following me before I hit the ground.”

Robert Flory, 101st: “I remember the sky was criss-crossed with tracer bullets and flak. The noise was terrible. I looked down and immediately went into a state of shock. I was over water. My first thought was that the SOB pilot had dropped us over the English Channel. I looked to my right and saw a herd of dairy cows grazing.”

Edward Isbell, 82nd: “The bullets were cracking all around me. I could see the flash of their rifles as we were coming down and knew that I was going to land in their laps. I went limp, dropping my arms as if I had been hit.”

Vince Occhipinti, 101st: “I could tell there were a lot of things going on below me. There was a tremendous noise, and I could see tracer bullets coming up after me. In fact, I knew that all German soldiers on the ground had seen me jump and had targeted all their guns in my direction. On every fifth to seventh machine-gun bullet, anyone can see the tracer, meaning you can see where it is going and improve your aim. I couldn’t see the other bullets in between. Here came another tracer and another and another. I could see them coming at me from all directions. What was the most horrifying was that in between each of those tracers was five or six other bullets.”

Some of the men worried that their parachutes would not survive the onslaught.

Zane Schlemmer, 82nd: “The sky was “alive with pink, orange, and red tracer bullets, which would arc up gracefully, then snap by with little tugs as they went through the parachute canopy.”

Harold Canyon: “When I felt the opening shock of the chute, more by habit than anything else, I looked up to check the chute and I remember seeing clusters of tracers going through it.”

George Koskimaki, 101st: “I became aware of the colorful tracers reaching towards me like desperate fingers clawing upward. I heard men yelling to each other in foreign languages—and it didn’t sound like French. Small-arms fire was snapping about me and the canopy. I looked up, noting that the chute was still filled with air though there were more openings than had been placed there by the manufacturer.”

Curtis Johnson, 82nd: “During the jump, I saw tracers flying everywhere, and some of them started swinging his [a fellow paratrooper’s] way. There was nothing I could do, and my chute was full of holes and five or six lines were cut before I hit the ground.”

James Eads, 82nd: “A tracer had gone through my chute canopy like a cigarette hole in a silk handkerchief, smoldering and fiery red. The hole was getting bigger by the instant. I grabbed my front risers and brought them to my waist. I was in a hell of a hurry to get down before the chute became a torch. The bullets, in which tracers intermingled, were still snapping all around me. It seemed as if they would curve to one side just as they were going to hit me. I became so fascinated by this that I forgot to release my risers, and I was plummeting to earth extremely fast.”

Eddie Livingston, 82nd: “I could hear slugs popping into the tight canopy. And they were crackling by my ears viciously. I could see them tugging at my jump suit, two loose-fitting garments, pants and jacket, with oversized pockets. All the way down, I watched the tracers coming up, pinpointing their location for future usefulness.”

Some men witnessed the deaths of their fellow paratroopers.

Guerdon Walthall: “I saw a tracer go through the fellow below me, and I really started sweating out getting hit before I reached the ground.”

Ed Mauser, 101st (watching another plane): “I thought the plane was going to make a landing; it hit the hedgerow and exploded.”

Tom Alley, 101st: “I saw the fire near the square at Sainte-Mère-Église. I don’t know if it was a house or a barn. I slipped my chute to the right, as hard as I could do so safely to avoid landing in the fire. The machine-gun tracers were so thick it was like you could walk down them to the ground.”

Ken Russell: “I saw something I never want to see in my life. I looked to my right, I saw a guy, and instantaneously, there was just an empty parachute coming down. A shell of some kind must have hit one of his Gammon grenades. He was blown away.… I was trying to hide behind my reserve chute because you could hear the shells hitting. We were all sitting ducks coming down. One guy landed in the fire [at Sainte-Mère-Église]. I heard him scream one time before he hit the fire. I saw him land in the fire. It was the heat from the fire that was drawing all these parachutes towards the fire.”

Heavily armed paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division await the signal to stand up and hook up. Their faces are blacked to camouflage them during the night assault.

Heavily armed paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division await the signal to stand up and hook up. Their faces are blacked to camouflage them during the night assault.

One man almost strangled himself on the way down.

Burt Collier, 101st: “I was trying to hang onto my musette bag because I found a broken strap on it on the flight over and had been wondering the whole time whether I could reach under my pack with one hand and hang onto it.… I accidentally pulled one of the cords for that side of my Mae West [an inflatable flotation device that went around the neck and chest], which was under my harness. When it inflated, I couldn’t breathe until I hit the ground and found my switchblade and stabbed it.”

Landing

Those who survived the drop landed in Normandy. They landed in fields, hedgerows, trees, and on structures. Some were unlucky enough to land in water. Beside the rivers and streams throughout Normandy, the Germans had flooded areas where they suspected the Allies might deploy airborne troops.

Lou Merlano, 101st: “I must have jumped at about 300 feet because after 11/2 oscillations I hit the ground with a thud. I was in Normandy in a field marked ‘Minen.’ At the time I did not know it was a dummy minefield and moved through it very cautiously.”

Tom Alley: “I landed in a pasture or an orchard—an open field, really. It was illuminated by the burning building just a few hundred yards to my north. I stayed low, pulled out my trench knife and the bag holding my rifle. I put the rifle together as it was in three pieces for the jump. As I did so, I watched the occasional plane pass over with men jumping out.”

John Taylor: “I just slipped the chute as much as I could away from the big body of water. I thought my time had come. I landed on a narrow piece of land barely 25 feet from it. I hit the ground hard. The box of machine-gun ammo I had swung under down my right leg smacked me on the leg when I landed.”

Donald Burgett: “I pulled the risers apart to check the canopy and saw tracer bullets passing through it; at the same moment I hit the ground and came in backward so hard that I was momentarily stunned.”

Zane Schlemmer: “I hit a hedgerow, coming up with very sore bruised ribs from the impact of all my equipment that I had strapped to my body.”

Robert James, 101st: “I reached up and grabbed my back risers and slipped my chute as hard as possible to get down quick. I don’t think I ever let up on slipping my chute, because I hit the ground like a sack of cement and saw plenty of stars. It did not even hurt me; I was too damned scared.”

Ed Pepping: “When I landed, I had nothing except a knife. As a medic, I never carried a rifle anyway, but the speed of the jump and the opening shock had ripped off my medical equipment, but the frustrating part was that I had nothing to work with. You can imagine, a lot of the wounds seen were catastrophic.”

Richard Gleason: “The ground was coming up fast, and as usual I somehow turned around and was coming in backward. It kind of scattered my equipment in the direction I was going, but landing backward kept me from getting hurt. I unbuckled my harness, picked up my gear, hooked everything in place, and headed for a hedgerow about 30 yards away.”

Clayton Storeby, 101st: “I landed in a bomb crater about 10 feet deep, with only my trench knife attached to my leg and some explosive caps taped to my armpit.”

Elmer Brandenberger: “I landed in the middle of an open field and, as I lay on my back looking up to ascertain the direction of flight, I could see chutes blossoming out overhead and machine-gun tracers dancing among them like fireflies.”

Chris Kanaras, 82nd: “I hit the ground so hard I was numb for a couple of seconds. I rolled over on my stomach and could see a big fire and explosion on the field. It must have been our bundles.”

Clarence McKelvey: “I hit the ground.… I was lying on my back, trying to get all these straps unhooked. Finally, it dawned on me—I’ve got a trench knife on my right leg. So I got that and I was sawing on the straps to get out, and I heard this voice saying, ‘Who are you?’”

Jim “Pee-Wee” Martin: “The loneliest feeling in the world was when I hit the ground with no other soul near me. I lay on my back, painfully unbuckling my harness.”

William E. Ekman, 82nd: “I do not remember the landing because I was pretty dazed. I was in the midst of cattle when I landed.”

Vince Occhipinti: “Suddenly the ground was there, and––bam––I hit.… I lay there on the ground and started to work on the fasteners that connected the harness at my groin.… I found, however, that I could not get the harness loose because I couldn’t reach under the chute to get it disentangled. I struggled with both for quite some time. I reached to get my dagger underneath my equipment but could not reach it.… I heard a noise not too far from my left. Suddenly, a large shape loomed nearby. It said, ‘Moo.’ A cow just stood there, looking at me.”

Harold Young, 101st: “It was obvious that I was going to land in a field about 100 by 250 yards in length, and my eyes almost popped out as I saw 40 to 50 shapes which I immediately assumed were men and therefore German soldiers. The shapes turned out to be about 20 cows which were completely oblivious of the plane, the parachutes, the ack-ack, and machine guns––and entirely indifferent to me as I landed. They continued to chew their cuds.”

Major General Maxwell Taylor, Commander, 101st Airborne: “I floated down in my parachute toward the top of a tall tree. Not eager to become hung up in it and an easy target for a German rifleman, I made every effort to avoid the branches and succeeded landing inside a small field enclosed by an impenetrable hedgerow.”

Edward Jeziorski, 82nd: “I slammed into the ground and was immediately pinned down by machine-gun fire. There was no way to raise up. Every time I tried to turn, the machine gun would open up.”

Charles Sammon, 82nd: “I landed flat on my back in a small orchard, completely exhausted and so bound up in equipment I could hardly move.”

Leslie Cruise, 82nd: “Rushing past a 20-foot-high hedgerow, I landed with a thud as I tumbled backwards, hitting the ground and striking my head on the Normandy turf. I had jammed my helmet over my eyes, which blinded me momentarily.”

Dick Winters: “I hit the ground with a thump. This was the only jump I ever made that I ended up with black-and-blue bruises on my shoulders and legs for a week afterward. As I lay in a field on the edge of Sainte-Mère-Église, I could hear the church bell tolling in the night, summoning local citizens to fight a fire that had broken out on the edge of town.… Armed with only the knife I had stuck in my boot, I struck out in the general direction where I thought my leg bag had landed.”

A stick of paratroopers hit the silk over Europe. During the Normandy jump, many sticks became separated and men had trouble finding their units in the dark.

A stick of paratroopers hit the silk over Europe. During the Normandy jump, many sticks became separated and men had trouble finding their units in the dark.

Marion Grodowski: “I could see the reflection of water below me and began to slip my chute hard to avoid it. With the blown panel and violent movement of my parachute, I had a very hard landing. The impact on dry land was so hard that I thought I had broken a leg.”

James Elmo Jones, 82nd: “Landing was very hard. But I had learned many jumps before to try not to tumble with so much equipment because it was an impossibility and, almost without exception, a leg or arm would be broken. So, I simply pulled up my feet, tried to land as much as I could on the equipment, and my parachute settled over my head. And the first thing I thought, without even trying to get out of my parachute was, ‘Damn, I just cracked the Atlantic Wall.’”

Gus Liapes, 101st: “I came down in a heap in a field; enemy soldiers came charging across the field with fixed bayonets. I cut and hacked at my harness in a frantic effort to get out of the way. They were almost on top of me when I got my Tommy gun and fired into them.”

James Montgomery, 101st: “I could see the tracers, which seemed to come directly at me and then curve away. I reached for my front risers and slipped like I never slipped before. Fortunately, I had enough sense to stop my slip before I hit, but about 20 feet from the ground I realized that I was so tense my legs were absolutely rigid. I relaxed, but even so, I hit the ground quite hard. After getting free of the harness, I crawled off the field to the shadows of the hedgerow.”

Guy Remington: “I was caught in a machine-gun crossfire as I approached the ground. It seemed impossible that they would miss me. One of the guns, hidden in a building, was firing at my parachute, which was already badly torn; the other aimed at my body. I reached up, caught the left risers of my parachute, and pulled on them. I went into a fast slip, but the tracers followed me down. I held the slip until I was about 25 feet from the ground and then let go of the risers. I landed up against a hedge in a little garden at the rear of a German barracks. There were four tracer holes through one of my pants legs, two through the other, and another bullet had ripped off both my breast pockets, but I hadn’t a scratch.”

Four members of the 82nd enter the French village of Sainte-Mère-Église after their harrowing drop.

Four members of the 82nd enter the French village of Sainte-Mère-Église after their harrowing drop.

Ralph Robbins: “I was literally jerked towards the land by a surface wind so strong it must have taken me at a 45-degree angle from vertical. If it had not been for that wind, I don’t think [Ralph] Provenzano would have landed in shallow water, and I was the first to fall on dry land.”

Henry Beck: “I landed in a field alongside a roadway. Five other members of my plane landed in the field as well. I remember with the moonlight I could see a road sign mounted nearby, listing the distance to Sainte-Mère-Église.”

Harry Walsh, 101st: “I came down over a burning plane that had crashed previously. The heat made my chute go up and away from the flames and tangled in the hedgerow. I fell alongside the hedgerow.”

Trees were both a blessing and a curse. They cushioned some men’s falls, but also left them exposed to the enemy.

Ed Tipper: “I went down almost immediately. I went right through a tree and landed unhurt. I had my rifle in three pieces in my pack and was holding my bazooka—I don’t know how I was able to hold onto it, but I did. I had my weapons but very little ammo.”

James Eads: “Just as I checked the burning hole in my chute and saw it was now about 18 inches in diameter, I hit the ground, plowing through the limbs of a tree. I bashed into the ground. I took most of the shock with my hind end. My chute then draped lazily over the tree. As I started to sit up to get out of my chute, I promptly slid flat again. After two or three more attempts and a sniff of the air, I finally discovered that I was lying in cow manure.”

Nick Cortese, 101st: “I landed in the biggest tree in Normandy. What a tangled mess! My leg pack containing  an SCR-300 radio was in one part of the tree while I was further down in the branches. About 50 yards away a haystack burned fiercely, and some distance from that was an enemy machine-gun nest. The gunner was firing away from me at other planes and paratroopers and apparently didn’t see me. After what seemed like hours, I cut myself loose from my harness and climbed down my jump rope.”

Roy Zerbe: “I managed to land in an apple tree and was suspended only a few inches off the ground. As I tried to free myself, I heard what sounded like an army approaching from behind me in the orchard. My carbine was in a hip pouch, and I struggled to get to it. I looked back towards [the] noise and much to my relief saw it was a group of cows, curiously approaching.”

Dewitt Lowery, 101st: “I didn’t hit the ground. I hit a tree and hung there. It was a big old tree … and I could see two machine guns in each corner of a field shooting at me. Those bullets just whizzed past me through those leaves and branches. It sounded like they were firing at a barn…. My buddies took care of the machine guns. I must have been near a farmhouse or something because after that a big old Rottweiler came up and had me bayed up in that tree. Some lady came out in her nightgown and took the dog away. I cut my ammo off my leg and let it drop, let my machine gun drop, then got myself out of the harness, and that’s the way I came down.”

Bud Edwards, 101st: “I was a short distance off the ground but in a tangled mess of straps and suspension lines. I struggled for about 30 minutes and could not get out of my harness or the tree. Three troopers from the 82nd arrived and asked if I needed some help. I told them I did, and they cut me out of my harness and helped me down.”

William Walton: “I landed in a pear tree, a rather good shock absorber. But the real trouble was .. my chute harness slipped up around my neck in a strangle hold, covering the knife in my breast pocket. I was helpless, a perfect target for snipers, and I could hear some of them not far away. In a hoarse, frightened voice, I kept whispering the password, hoping someone would hear and help. From nearby I heard voices. I hung still a moment, breathless. Friends. Then I heard them more clearly. Never has a Middle West accent sounded better. I called louder. Quietly, Sergeant Auge, a fellow I knew, crept out of the hedge, tugged at the branches and, with his pigsticker, cut my suspension cords. I dropped like an overripe pear.”

Some landed on man-made structures.

Dan Furlong: “When my chute popped open, my feet hit the trees…. A big branch broke off as I went through the tree and I landed flat on my back in a cement cow trough. It was full of water.”

Ray Aebischer: “Landed with a thud on some concrete in a church yard. I remember removing my parachute, grabbing my trench knife, and slowly moving toward the church door.”

Earl McClung: “I landed on the roof of a little shed behind the church…. As I came down, there were two Germans running down a walkway toward me, shooting at my parachute. It was no contest. I always jumped with my rifle in my hands, ready to go.”

A paratrooper climbs a tree to help cut a lucky buddy out of his parachute. Other paratroopers were not so lucky and were killed or captured by the enemy while hanging helpless.

A paratrooper climbs a tree to help cut a lucky buddy out of his parachute. Other paratroopers were not so lucky and were killed or captured by the enemy while hanging helpless.

Thomas Rhodes: “I did land in the town square (Sainte-Mère-Église). I had been hit in the mouth and was bleeding rather profusely. A few minutes after landing, two French civilians helped me to my feet and prevented a German soldier from shooting me on the spot.”

Ken Russell: “When I hit the roof [of the Sainte-Mère-Église church] a couple of my suspension lines, or maybe more, went around the church steeple, and I slid off the roof. I was hanging on the edge of the roof on the right side of the church.… I cut my risers, threw the knife away, and fell to the ground.”

John Steele, 82nd: “I was trying to dodge the burning building and didn’t see the steeple. I actually hit the roof of the church and then my chute caught on the steeple. There was fighting going on all around the church.”

Mickey Sheridan, 101st: “I had a good landing—right on the roof of a farmhouse. I slid quickly over the side and dropped to the ground without injury.”

Bill Kopp, 82nd: “I passed through telephone wires along a roadway, and my canopy hung up in the wires; I ended up in a half-standing, half-sitting position. I remember the panic when I heard hobnailed boots running down the road toward me. I couldn’t get loose from the harness until, sobbing with fear and frustration, I cut the risers with my trench knife and crawled into the ditch beside the road.”

Some men were not lucky enough to touch down on land.

Roy Lindquist, 82nd: “It was a good opening and a soft landing in about two-and-a-half feet of water.”

Stefan Kramer, 82nd: “I counted ‘one thousand, two thousand,’ and had not more than said two thousand, and I was in water so deep it was over my head! With all of my gear there was no way I could keep my head above water. As soon as I got back to the surface of the water, I pulled the release cord on my Mae West. It instantly filled up.”

Pat Lindsay, 101st: “I tried to aim for a small finger of land on which stood a large silo. I tried to manipulate my chute toward the projection of land, but the wind was not cooperating. I hit the water—went completely under into the soft gummy bottom, fought my way to the top, and flapped my arms to stay afloat with all my equipment trying to pull me under. The billowing chute, acting as a sail, carried me toward land. I had hit the water approximately 150 yards from shore, and the ‘sail-chute’ carried me within 75 feet of the shoreline.”

Leslie Kirk, 82nd: “In the moonlight it looked like a nice smooth meadow to land in, but instead it was a splash. I couldn’t get my leg straps unbuckled, so I cut them with my trench knife. The wind was blowing my chute and I took a lot of water before I got myself cut loose.”

Robert Flory: “I landed in water up to my chest. I was in a salt marsh. It seemed like an eternity before I could get out of my harness and wade to dry land.”

Paul Vacho, 101st Airborne: “I took one or two swings and landed in the water.… The water was chest deep where I landed. Had to cut the webbing of my harness because it was too tight. This I did with my face in the water because the Germans were firing just over the water at a height of about two feet.”

The Germans flooded miles of Normandy countryside, drowning many paratroopers, like this soldier from the 82nd Airborne Division.

The Germans flooded miles of Normandy countryside, drowning many paratroopers, like this soldier from the 82nd Airborne Division.

Harold Shoutis, 82nd: “I tried to slip my chute, but the wind was too strong and I landed in the center of the river. The wind caught my chute, which probably saved me from drowning, and I went across the river like a motorboat. I was dragged about 30 feet on the shore before I could collapse my chute.”

Tom Porcella: “I hit the water in a standing position, and when my feet touched the bottom I was leaning forward. I managed to straighten myself up and realized that the water was over my head and I had to jump up for air.”

Louis Cione, 101st: “Above the water I grabbed for my knife and the chute caught the wind at about the same time. After gliding through the water, I finally cut the chute loose.”

David Kenyon Webster: “I saw the water 20 feet below. I’ve had it, I thought. Goddamn Air Corps. I reached up, grabbed all four risers, and yanked down hard to fill the canopy with air and slow my descent. Just before I hit, I closed my eyes and took a deep breath of air. My feet splashed in the water. I held my breath, expecting to sink over my head and wondering how I was going to escape from my harness underwater—and hit bottom three feet down. My chute billowed away from me in the light wind and collapsed on the surface. I went to work to free myself from my gear. Immensely relieved at the safe landing, I undid the reserve and discarded it, yanked loose the bellyband, unsnapped the leg straps and chest buckle, detached my rifle case, and let the harness sink into the swamp. I was on my own at last.”

Others suffered injuries from their hard landings.

Ed Pepping: “I came down backwards and landed in the middle of a field. I didn’t have enough time to pull up on my risers and alleviate the shock of landing. The back of my helmet hit the back of my head. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had cracked three vertebrae and received a concussion.”

Mark Alexander, 82nd: “I landed on a stump in a clearing near a farmhouse. The stock of my carbine hit the stump first, slammed up into my chin, and cut a half-inch gash in my jaw.”

C.B. McCoid, 82nd: “Stunned initially, I soon was able to check my injuries. I found I had a crushed right kneecap where a wound already existed from the antiaircraft round that hit our plane.”

Joseph O’Jibway, 82nd: “We hit so hard, the landing was sideways—I was almost knocked out, and my left leg was badly injured.”

Donald Ellis, 82nd: “I slipped trying to miss this cow, and I slid off her back, and fractured one leg.”

Benjamin Vandervoort: “As I came down, I selected a small field with a clump of brush in the center and slipped my chute toward the shadows of the brush to be able to conceal myself while getting out of my harness. I landed about a 45-degree slope—hit hard and felt my ankle snap and knew at once it was broken.”

George Jacobus, 82nd: “As the ground began to come into focus, so did a German machine-gun nest on my right. There appeared to be a small building to my left. With all my strength, I pulled on the risers to go left away from the machine-gun nest. I did, and slammed into the building like a ton of bricks, on the ground, on my back. Something had hit my left eye. I knew in an instant I had broken my left leg. It was eerie, as I lay amidst the tangled shroud lines and wriggled out of my chute.”

Lou Sacchetti, 101st: “I was hit over the right eye while in the air. Blood was pouring down my face, and it was difficult to see and unhook my chute.”

Dead American paratroopers are gathered in a field by a Graves Registration unit prior to burial.

Dead American paratroopers are gathered in a field by a Graves Registration unit prior to burial.

Zane Schlemmer: “I hit a hedgerow, coming up with very sore bruised ribs from the impact of all my equipment that I had strapped to my body.”

Witnessing Tragedy

Once on the ground, some of the men watched the death of their comrades.

Robert Flory: “I saw one plane take a direct hit and explode in mid-air.”

Leslie Cruise: “Occasionally one large flash appeared and I saw a plane silhouetting earthward. ‘Oh, my God,’ I thought. ‘There goes a whole planeload of guys.’”

Donald Burgett: “Another plane came in low and diagonally over the field. The big ship was silhouetted against the lighter sky with long tongues of exhaust flame flashing along either side of the body. Streams of tracers from several machine guns flashed upward to converge on it. Then I saw vague, shadowy figures of troops plunging downward. Their chutes were pulling out the pack trays and just starting to unfurl when they hit the ground. Seventeen men hit before their chutes had time to open. They made a sound like large ripe pumpkins being thrown down to burst against the ground.”

The paratroopers who survived their harrowing experiences now gathered themselves and set off to find and engage the enemy. The amphibious forces would be arriving in less than six hours.

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