Ralph Ticcioni's first steps on French soil were soft and fragrant.
Ticcioni arrived in France like thousands of other Americans — via parachute on D-Day. He sat in the back of a transport plane, weighed down with around 80 pounds of gear, his face darkened with charcoal, and waited for the light on the wall to turn yellow.
When it did, he stood up with the rest of his 82nd Airborne unit and clipped his static line hook to a wire overhead. He checked the man in front of him while the soldier behind Ticcioni checked to ensure his static line hook was secure.
Then the light turned green.
Before June 6, 1944, Ticcioni had made three practice jumps in England. D-Day was his first taste of combat.
"Of all places, I landed on top of a barn. The barns in this area of Normandy were thatch so it was a soft landing. My parachute was caught on a weather vane," recalled Ticcioni, 93, of New Berlin. "I hung there for a while and got my thoughts together, got out my knife and cut myself down. I slid down into some horse manure."
Ticcioni fought his way across Europe, helping to liberate a continent devastated by war. Then he returned home to Milwaukee and got a job at a dairy, working his way up to plant manager and retiring after 40 years. After his first wife died, he remarried. His second wife died six years ago. He has a stepson and stepdaughter.
He never returned to France.
Return to Normandy
But Ticcioni has been invited to return in June to take part in the D-Day anniversary commemoration in the French village of Sainte-Mère-Église, the first community in Normandy liberated on D-Day.
He's thrilled to get the chance to return and hopes to see the large church in Sainte-Mère-Église featuring stained glass windows of paratroopers and a mannequin hanging from the roof that re-creates the paratrooper who landed on the roof and dangled from his harness. He also wants to visit a museum in the village that's dedicated to the American Airborne troops.
"They say they're still very appreciative for what the Allies did. I don't feel I should be treated royally," said Ticcioni, who lost close buddies in the war. "I believed then and I believe now the real heroes are buried over there."
So in a way, the modest veteran who lives in a neatly tended apartment with family pictures on his wall at a New Berlin senior living center will represent the American soldiers who didn't come home. He went to the post office recently to apply for a passport, something he didn't need when he parachuted into France in 1944.
In January, Karyn Roelke from Stars and Stripes Honor Flight visited Ticcioni to drop off a thank-you letter from schoolchildren in Normandy. For several years children in Normandy have participated in a peace project in which they decorate envelopes to send thank you notes to veterans. The letters were sent to veterans organizations in the United States and several found their way to Roelke at Stars and Stripes Honor Flight.
Roelke sent pictures of the southeastern Wisconsin veterans holding their thank you notes to Michelle Coupey from Friends of American Veterans — in French it's Amis des Vétérans Américains — in Sainte-Mère-Église. When Coupey learned Ticcioni served in the 82nd Airborne, was in good health and had never returned to France, the Friends of American Veterans group offered to pay the travel expenses of Ticcioni and a companion.
"The French are so grateful to the Allied soldiers who liberated them," said Coupey, an American who married a Frenchman and lives with her family near Sainte-Mère-Église.
Ticcioni will be an honored guest at banquets, memorial services and ceremonies during the weeklong celebration and watch a parachute jump of hundreds of military paratroopers from the U.S. and European countries as well as World War II re-enactors. He'll stay with a family in the village and attend all or as many events as he wants to, said Coupey, and if he wants to try to find the spot where he landed in his parachute, efforts will be made to do that.
In the years after the end of World War II, hundreds of American veterans returned to Normandy for D-Day observances. Those numbers have dwindled sharply. Though there was a large turnout in 2014 for the 70th anniversary, few attended last year, Coupey said.
"When veterans come back they're like rock stars. They're bigger than rock stars. Everyone wants to shake their hand, take their picture with them," Coupey said.
Accompanying Ticcioni will be his physician, Edward Smith, a first Gulf War veteran who helped him fill out an application for a Stars and Stripes Honor Flight in 2012 and was his guardian on the flight.
"He doesn't dwell on the risks that he took and all the courage that it took to jump out of that plane hatch. He also feels strongly the loss of his buddies who are still over there," Smith said. "The people buried in the cemeteries can't speak and the people in Normandy can't thank them face to face. When he goes over there he'll be representing all those boys who couldn't come back."
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